Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Camping and campania, or, travel disaster VII

The overnight train from Venice to Rome was a bit of a nightmare. We had to wait on the scummy train station platform until 3am for our train, the junkies of Italy eyeing off our bags hungrily (probably). Luckily we met a whole gang of other southern hemispherites, all from South America, with whom we passed the time and huddled for safety. Us antipodeans gotta look out for each other, y'know? We've been travelling so long now that whenever we meet other travellers we spend the whole time giving them tips on where to go and how to get there and where to stay and which companies to use. They always seem to appreciate it, though.

When we finally boarded the train, we found that the seating was in a series of compartments, and that it wasn't assigned. Obviously everyone who was already on the train was sprawled out taking up entire cabins, so we traipsed up and down the carriages looking for a space, like Joseph and Mary, except instead of Til being knocked up by God, we just had our massive bags to contend with. We knocked on the door of one cabin that had three spare seats and they just made a face at us. Assholes. You would turn away the parents of the Messiah!? Won't anyone give us a stable!?

We arrived in Rome at like eight or nine the next morning, and I was very excited about the  prospect of a Maccas breakfast because I'm never up and out early enough for a Maccas breakfast. But alas, they don't have Maccas breakfast in Italy. I was very disappointed and terrified.

By this time, the strains of travel and an unrelenting cycle of use were taking their toll on the limited wardrobe (50% flannelette shirts, as I'm sure you've noticed from my photos) I'd brought with me. The strap on one of my thongs (I bet that sounds really different if you're not Australian) kept popping out every five seconds, two of my flannos were torn, one to the extent that it was unwearable, and another had popped several buttons. So I must've cut a comical figure, trudging along the side of the road looking for the bus stop described in our directions, my flanno torn to shreds and one thong dangling uselessly from a foot blackened with the filth of Rome.

Opposite ends of the sartorial spectrum: destroyed Marc Jacobs thongs and a Lowes flanno. Farewell my friends.

It took us hours to get to the campsite. The bus just WOULDN'T come. And our directions said something about being near a Maccas (no relation to the previous one), so we were looking for that, and this ridiculous sign didn't help:

What does this sign mean, I ask you!? Turn left, then left again? That's what we thought, but no. It just means 'the other way', like, 'No, you fool! Where else could you possibly be going but into my realm of Mchappiness? Come back, turn around, be enfolded in the loving embrace of my golden archeeeees!'

I can honestly say that at no point in my life had I envisioned myself ever going camping in the middle of Rome, but our recent personal financial crisis drove us to search out alternative accommodation arrangements. I'm glad we did, though, ’cause it was awesome! For 14 euro per person per night,  you got to stay in an enclosed little complex in the heart of Rome with its own supermarket, club, restaurant, pool, beach volleyball court, and schmick toilet facilities! We had our own 'tent', which was a little house-shaped cube on a platform with a canvas roof and walls, but real bunk beds inside.

When we finally did arrive, we ate, drank, and made sleepy. I woke up that night after a couple of hours and went out in search of internet, ending up sitting in the pub watching a documentary about Alice Cooper. Til, on the other hand, slept right through until morning!

The next day we slept in and decided to write the day off and just chill. I bought new thongs (which would themselves break in a matter of days), and that was about the most we accomplished. We thought we had it all worked out, though. Rest that day, do Rome the next day, then the Vatican the next, and a daytrip to Pompeii the day after that. Turns out the day we allocated for the Vatican was Sunday, and when we got there everything was closed, and that the day before when we went to Rome we should've gone to Pompeii, because that's the only day the promotional reduced trainfare was available ... Poor planning.

 But that first day, that glorious day of rest, we massacred watermelons and devoured their innards.

Our sightseeing around Rome in iteslf was pretty efficient and successful, though. We headed first for the Trevi fountain, then the Pantheon,  then the Colosseum and Palatine Hill.

 It was comforting, as we exited the train station, to see this sticker on the escalators, a reminder that we're not the first Australians to visit the big city. We're following in the footsteps of the hallowed Goondiwindi Rugby Club, who also had a sticker at our campsite!

Trevi Fountain.

 The imposing Ministry of Culture, on the way to the Pantheon.


A European smartcar so tiny it can park horizontally in a parallel parking area.

Maps showing the gradual expansion of the Roman Empire on the way to Palatine Hill.

We wisely consulted our Europe on a Shoestring book before our Roman exploration, which revealed that you could usually skip the killer queues at the Colosseum by going to the entrance at Palatine Hill. SO LUCKY because the line was enormous at the Colosseum!

 A sandstorm atop Palatine Hill.

 On our first circuit of the Colosseum, I noticed these two girls getting a photo with this book, and I thought they must've just found it or something. Then we came back around again and it was just sitting there, and I realised they must've been leaving it there. It's one of those BookCrossing books that people leave places and the books travel all over the world and you can track their progress online. I'd just finished Anil's Ghost, so it was perfect timing! I'm taking it back to Australia and releasing it under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I think. Or on the steps of the Opera House.

After the Colosseum, we sat for a while on the steps outside. A guy dropped his soccer ball, and before you knew it, a spontaneous soccer game had erupted, pulling in more and more strangers to kick it around the circle. So European.

 Is this a thing? I didn't know this was a thing ... Groups travelling together all wearing the same colour? I guess it might help to find one another, but it's also very lame.

Something I haven't talked about much on this blog is the fundamental role that ice tea has played in our travels. We're practically never without a bottle of it in our hands. It's just SO DAMN REFRESHING!
And this is for the plankers back home. Missed out on the craze, but this is my late contribution.

For dinner that night we got pre-made pasta from the onsite supermarket, where you could heat it up as well. The checkout dude was really cool. He was this behemoth black guy, even taller than me and SO BUILT. It was hard to understand what he was saying, but we had a little chat as we bought dinner about how he loved working there because he got to see people happy on holidays all the time. Nice guy.

The next day was our failed Vatican venture. Which wasn't really a failure because we got to see the Pope give a speech, through sheer luck! No Sistine Chapel or anything, but lots of papal goodness. Oh right, I mean 'goodness' :P


The awed masses.
Someone was telling us that there's something about the angle of this window relative to the square that means you couldn't shoot him fatally from the square.

The next day was Pompeii, and the travel disaster mentioned in the title. Two days earlier I’d gone to the supermarket for something and as I was leaving the black guy from that night with the pasta asked me if I’d lost something, to which I answered I hadn’t. ‘Oh, okay, never mind then,’ he said confusedly.

The day before Pompeii both Til and I went back into the shop and as we left he asked us again. This time I was like, ‘You asked me that yesterday, too. What was it?’

He said something about photos, but I couldn’t make out the rest. We hadn’t lost any photos, so we thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until the Pompeii morning that Til realised she couldn’t find her laptop. A minute later it hit us that going into the shop to buy pasta that night had been the last time she’d had it, and that THAT must’ve been why he kept asking us if we'd lost anything. He’d remembered us from our little chat, and he must’ve looked at some photos on the computer to see whose it was.

I went straight to the shop while Til went to reception. The black guy only worked in the evenings, so he wasn't there and I asked the lady on the counter instead. She said she hadn’t seen anything, and usually it would go to reception, but Til reported back that they didn’t have it either. We decided we had to leave or we’d miss our train to Naples, and we’d just have to make sure that we got back before the shop closed at eleven – obviously we needed to talk to the black guy because no one else knew anything.

We managed to get to Naples with relative ease, but once we got there the trouble began in earnest. We asked information how to get to Pompeii and they told us to buy tickets downstairs. Off we went downstairs, and the guy we bought the tickets from told us the train went from platform three. Off we went to platform three, and the train guy we asked if the next train goes to Pompeii told us we’d have to go to platform one for that. Off we went to platform one, but someone there told us that wasn't it either!

Okay. We have to find someone who knows what the fuck they’re talking about, we think. We go to an information desk, and they tell us platform three. Aha, we think, finally. It must be the above-ground platform three that everyone keeps talking about, not the underground one we just went to. Off we go to a far-flung end of the station where everything is super dirty and there is barely anyone around. I asked someone there if the train for Pompeii goes from there, but he either spoke to me in Italian or in such a thick accent that it may as well have been. We concluded that this run-down, abandoned end of the station could not be where the trains to Naples went from, and went back downstairs to investigate further.

And what did we find (after a long search)? A whole different section of the goddamn station! So this whole time when people were telling us to go to platform three, they didn’t mean the underground one OR the above ground one – no, of course not – they meant the THIRD MAGIC SUPER SECRET HIDDEN platform three. I mean really, they couldn’t have said WHICH platform three they meant!?

So finally we were on the train and everything was fine. Well momentarily, anyway. There was no announcement to say which station we were at every time the train stopped, and we couldn’t tell from the station signs out the window because they were literally covered in graffiti. So essentially half the time we had no idea where we were.

We noticed eventually that a sign showed that the line we were on split in two at one point, but it was okay because one went to Pompeii station and another went to some other Pompeii station, and we didn’t know which of the two we needed anyway, so we may as well let fate decide.

Bad idea in the midst of a travel disaster. We needed the one that we didn’t go to, the one that took you right to the front door of the archaeological site. 

When we got to the wrong Pompeii station, we found a map that showed that it wasn’t actually that difficult to get to the archaeological site, and I worked out which way we had to go. But then there was a sign that said ‘Pompeii archaeological site’, and it pointed perpendicularly to the way I’d been taking us. Okay, I said. Let’s just follow the signs. But I didn’t know there was only going to be ONE. We followed the direction it pointed us in, which led to an intersection. One of the arms of the intersection, the arm going in the direction the sign pointed in, was a little back street, and it wasn’t promising. Misguidedly putting our faith in the Italian signage system, however, we continued down it. We didn’t find any guidance.

Frustrated, I decided we should go the direction I’d been taking us in the first place, which led us to a SIGN that said it was that way. WTF!?

I mean for Christ’s sake! It’s POMPEII. What other reason does anyone go to POMPEII than to visit the archaeological site!? There should be signs all through the city on every street corner showing you the direction! It’s very Italian, I think, not to do so. They just don’t seem to care about helping direct people who aren’t from the area. Not like in London where every tube stop tells you where to alight to see what. It seems strange for a country that must make so much money out of tourism.

With the bus trip to the train station, the train to the central train station, the train to Naples, the shenanigans that went on there, the train to Pompeii, and the walk to the archaeological site, it’d actually taken us six hours to get to there. And then, even though the sign above her said there was a discount for EU students, the woman at reception informed us that there were no student discounts (we’re not EU students, but we had UEA student cards, so how could she have known? Bitch ...)

It was getting late and we had to get back in time for eleven, which made us rush around like crazy, already pissed off from being in the middle of a travel disaster, and not really enjoying it. This was crap. We agonised and worried about it for ages before deciding not to try and get back for eleven, even though it could be our last chance to talk to the black guy about the laptop.

At least then we were able to enjoy it a bit more and soak up the sights. It was incredible to see. You realise why it’s such a big deal once you go there – it’s a city literally frozen in time and that’s so rare. Usually excavations are in places of continuous occupation, or in places that were abandoned, not an entire city locked in stasis for thousands of years by a volcanic eruption. It was cool to see things I remembered from Ancient History, too. My favourite part was the rich district with all the mansions because, as you’ll know if you’ve read ‘Grand designs of my own’, the design of my dream house was heavily influenced by the Roman-style villa.

 I remember a photo almost exactly the same as this in our study notes. They're massive stepping stones because the streets were always full of horse crap and had to get flooded, and the spaces are for cart wheels to go through.

This is an impluvium - I want one in my house. The hole in the roof allows light in, and the depression in the floor below it collects rainwater.

The amazing courtyard of Domus di Octavius Quartio.

There was a real plum tree in the middle of one of the courtyards with the best-tasting plums in the world! Free!

And of course there were the plaster casts, which was the last thing we saw. We were ready to go (our feet were going to fall off) but we hadn’t seen them yet, and we didn’t have a map, and it was Italy so of course there were no signs, and there was no one to ask, and in the shop we found they didn’t have any guides in English. We needed ice tea.

Luckily when I was buying it this German woman who I’d taken an instant liking to the moment I’d seen her wandering the streets earlier, came in. She’d been strolling around with such a happy expression on her face, like she was really enjoying it, and this created the impression she was approachable. I asked her if she knew where the casts were, and she gave us a great set of directions and said she’d been at the site since nine o’clock in the morning! Dedication!

 If I recall my ancient history correctly, when Mt Vesuvius erupted, the pyroclastic surge covered Pompeii in such a quick period of time that people were buried alive in ash. When their remains rotted, a hollow was left in the ash, which excavators filled with plaster as they uncovered them. Some of them are really chilling.

 This woman was pregnant.

 This dog was chained up in the street and probably died of asphyxiation.

Despite our short reprieve, the travel disaster wasn’t done with us for the day yet. There was still the return journey. I have to say though that I feel a bit petty complaining about ‘travel’ disasters when we were in Pompeii. Or do I? No, I don’t. Our disaster was just as valid as the eruption of Vesuvius. Of course it was! Haha.

We got back to Naples JUST in time to miss the train that would get us back to Rome in time to talk to the black guy before the shop closed. It left just as it came into sight, then sat about ten metres away from the platform for ten minutes before continuing on, just to taunt us.

Now, back in Norwich I’d gotten into the habit of making myself a gigantic iced mocha everyday around lunch time, and while I wasn’t addicted or anything, I was really missing them by this point. I’m very particular about my iced coffees, because I love them so much, but they’re such relatively new additions to the café menu that you never know what you’re gonna get when you order one, so I generally avoid them because the disappointment of a crap one is worse than not having one at all. But on the way up to our missed train, I’d seen some pre-made iced coffee in a machine that looked just like what I was after. As I hurried past, I’d thought ‘if we miss this train, at least I can have some of that.’

But no. Of course not. The machine was out of order. The travel disaster was thwarting our every move. We were beginning to expect it now. No matter what we did, it would go wrong. We started document the day’s failures.

The faulty iced coffee machine.

 This AD! It's only about fifteen seconds long but it plays on a non-stop loop in EVERY major train station in Rome and it wasn't helping my mood that day.

Here you can see the dude we bought the tickets from, who gave us the original shoddy directions.

After some comfort Maccas, we got on the next train. We had a compartment to ourselves for a while, then we were joined by a nice South African couple. Eventually a ticket inspector came around who spoke very little English. He took a look at our tickets and said we needed to pay more money. The tickets we’d gotten were, apparently, for ‘regular’ trains, not this one, which of course was brazenly irregular. We didn’t have any cash on us, and he couldn’t take credit cards, so he told us we’d have to get off at the next stop, which would be in the middle of Italy, God knows where between Naples and Rome, at ten o’clock at night. When it came to the next stop, we were going to get off when the husband of the couple said not to worry about it, that he’d pay for us when the inspector came back. What a champion!  It was so nice of him. SOMETHING went right on that godforsaken day. And the inspector didn’t even come back, so no one had to pay.
To counteract our luck there, though, the universe spat at us again. The Metro was closed when we got to Rome, so we had to find our way to a crowded replacement bus service that took longer than the train would’ve. It wasn’t so bad in itself, but at the end of this day, it was. Finally we had a twenty-minute wait for the bus, because we JUST missed it again.

Til looking forlorn.

When we got back we trudged up the stairs that cross the campsite’s driveway, worn and sulky from the day’s defeats. In an event that is beginning to appear symptomatic of the ending of a travel disaster (when I happened to run into my Regency Women Writers lecturer at the deadline for the assignment in travel disaster number three; when I walked upstairs at the exact moment the bus driver with Til’s passport happened to be going past in travel disaster number five), there was the black guy, leaving in his car.

‘We DID lose something!’ we cheered when we caught his eye.

‘Oh FUCK yeah, I knew it was you!’ he said. ‘Hang on, I’ll meet you at the shop.’

He reopened the shop and retrieved the laptop for us, and asked what took us so long to realise. We told him we’d been out all day everyday, not using the laptop, so we hadn’t noticed. I told him I’d asked about it earlier in the day but the lady said she hadn’t seen anything, and he said she was a stupid bitch because he’d left a note that it was under the desk.


It’s like the travel disasters are our payment for this awesome experience. To balance out our good luck, bad luck accumulates until in one day it unleashes itself and overwhelms our good luck so that worse and worse things keep happening, until it starts to subside, when slowly our luck begins returning until it levels back out with a terrific stroke of luck like coincidentally finding whoever we need to find at exactly the right moment. Also, if the entire day hadn’t happened the way it did, we wouldn’t have crossed paths with the black guy at that exact moment, and we might not have gotten the laptop back at all.

The next day when we woke up there were two things. One, it was PISSING down raining, which means I DEFINITELY didn’t want to get out of bed, more so than any day so far and certainly not for ten o’clock checkout. 

 Me not wanting to get up.

The second thing was that Til had been bitten by something and her eyelid was swollen so she looked like a freakshow.

Despite these two afflictions, we managed to get to the airport for our flight to Athens later that afternoon. Rome had been fun, and the place we’d been staying was awesome, but I have to say I didn’t love Italy. This part of the trip had been the one I was most looking forward to the entire time – Spain, Italy and Greece. Spain and Greece exceeded expectations (a band six, if you will), but Italy came in with just a borderline band four. Of course it was fun, but it was the most touristy country we’d been to so far (obviously a product of having only gone to Venice, Rome and Naples/Pompeii) and there were waaaay too many American dickheads and Aussie dumbshits for our taste.


  1. Great adventure! I'd be keen to hear more about the BookCrossing book you found! See here for more.

  2. I was quite surprised with how I managed to pitch the tent in the dark in all honesty. Best Panini Press