Rasheeda Bhagat

Charmed by Greece, Italy

Updated on: Jun 20, 2011
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Rome can never quench a traveller's thirst for exciting experiences. And Greece captivates with its historic cities and earthy charm.

“Relax Mom, you're on a holiday,” protests my son Mehdi.

“She can never relax; she is a journalist,” says Franco Oliva, a dear Italian friend in Rome. We are seated at a little roadside café in the eternal city, devouring cappuccino and croissants for breakfast — Italians remain unmatched in making cappuccino, or for that matter, pizzas, ravioli or risotto. A former journalist himself, Franco, who also worked in the communications department of the Italian Senate and a director in the International Olive Oil Council, knows about a journalist's thirst for information.

But I'm not on any great journalistic quest; a few youngsters in high spirits pass by and my friend comments on how the young in Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, are drinking more alcohol. “To enjoy a drink or two is one thing, but these youngsters get together, buy a lot of cheap wine and drink to get drunk. It never used to be like that.”

But why is that, I probe, unconsciously pulling out my little notebook, at which point my son protests.

Europe's economic woes

The reason for this trend, my friend muses, is the continuing economic uncertainties in Europe, parts of which are, once again, on a roller-coaster ride. Youngsters are worried about the uncertainties of future. Long-term or secure jobs are rare. “Earlier, people stayed in jobs for 5-10 years, but no longer. More contractual jobs are on offer these days and nobody can be sure how long they will last,” he says, adding Spain is worse than Italy on this score.

And, of course, Greece. Only a few days earlier, our Eastern Mediterranean cruise gave us a day's halt at the Piraeus port in the historic city of Athens. After a tour of the Acropolis, our bus headed towards Plaka, perhaps the most charming part of old Athens with its narrow streets bursting with shops offering all kinds of interesting wares.

Plaka is the virtual delight for women interested in any kind of jewellery. Of course, the Italians are the masters of design and nobody makes high-end jewellery like they do. But Greek jewellery is great too… and still vivid in my mind is the disastrous splurge I almost indulged in in the summer of 2007 at a classy little jewellery shop in Santorini, one of the most picturesque islands of Greece.

The store owner, nothing less than a Greek god, caught me eyeing an exquisite pair of diamond and sapphire earrings. The price tag was 800 Euros! Willing my credit card to stay in my handbag, I turned to leave the shop, when the charming man smiled and waved me to a chair, saying: “Let you and me first have a glass of wine and then we can discuss the price.” With discretion scoring over both charm and wine, I fled the place! Of course today, the same pair would cost almost double…

This time too my modest budget allowed only a few pairs of exquisite silver earrings; with silver prices soaring, these are no longer available at around 10 Euros a pair as in 2007.

But, jewellery apart, before reaching Plaka, our tour guide had warned us that as the Greeks were protesting everyday against their Government's austerity measures, we may be terribly delayed.

Of course, the collective prayers of the women in our bus helped us reach the treasure trove called Plaka, but last week, with the violence getting worse, passengers on the subsequent cruise might have been forced to skip Athens with its Acropolis and Plaka.

Rome beckons

Rome charmed me all over again. This great historic city can never quench a traveller's thirst for exciting experiences. Some people might think a third visit to the Vatican and St Peter's cathedral by a non-Christian a little too much. But seeing the Vatican Museum and its various chambers, particularly the Sistine Chapel through Franco's eyes, was a mind-blowing experience.

The works of such great masters as Raphael and Michelangelo took on newer, more magnificent dimensions when their intricacies were explained by this Italian with an eye for detail.

Especially because the commentary came embellished with interesting anecdotes from Franco's kitty. As he explained how in his masterpiece ‘The Last Judgement' that adorns the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had depicted himself being literally pulled up by his skin to heaven, he whispered how the guards were belting out unending “Shhhhhs” to calm the excited chatter within the Sistine Chapel “only to impress the beautiful girls who come to Rome every summer in less and less clothing; trust me, I know this!” But, of course, at the Vatican, as also St Mark's Cathedral in Venice, skimpy clothing is not allowed.

The best story was about how he began his career as a tour guide, more by accident than design, as a 19-year-old when a friend asked him to give a tour of the Vatican to two elderly Canadian women staying at the costliest hotel in Rome.

As the limousine rolled into the Vatican, he tried to memorise from the book on his lap, only to find that one of the women had visited Rome and the Vatican numerous times. But the young Italian, dressed in a dapper suit, charmed his guests sufficiently to land a tip “that was bigger than my father's entire monthly salary”, along with “advice that I should improve my knowledge of Rome”.

On our last evening in Rome, after a sumptuous dinner at the house of Pino Oliva, Franco's brother, as our cab headed back to our B&B joint, Franco sprung another spectacular surprise.

It was a few minutes to midnight and, on his instructions, the cab swung into the Vatican and we were treated to the magnificent sight of a spectacularly lit St Peter's Cathedral. The rush and bustle of the day had gone but there were some tourists standing in front of the huge dome, taking in the magic beauty of the place.

One could not have bid adieu to Rome in a better way, praying that the magic legend of the coin thrown the right way in Bernini's Trevi Fountain would guarantee a subsequent visit was indeed true. According to The Lonely Planet everyday, tourists toss about 3,000 euros in coins into the fountain. Franco adds that earlier, many youngsters pulled out the coins using magnets; now better vigil is maintained and the money is donated to the Red Cross.

Well it has worked twice before, so why not a third time?

(Response may be sent to blfeedback@thehindu.co.in and rasheeda@thehindu.co.in )

Published on December 14, 2011

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