The trivia of travel travails

My taxi driver was having none of it. On a bright, brisk Sunday in Rome, he wove through traffic and bowled down skinny cobblestone alleyways clotted with gelato-lapping pedestrians. Amusement was at a premium. “Everyone walking! Tourists! Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice cream!” he fumed. (Earlier in the day, I had some gelato. Suddenly, I felt like a putz.)

His car horn bleated. Gaggles of walkers reluctantly parted like the Red Sea. My driver grumbled to himself. Someone said “Sorry” as she jumped aside. “Sorry!” the cabbie repeated mockingly.

What a sourpuss, I thought, yet I understood his frustration. And soon enough, I became the grouser. As he took detour after crazy detour, I could recognize none of the scenery, and finally I blurted, “Do you know where you’re going?” 

The meter skyrocketed and my exasperation flared. I quietly seethed and loudly sighed. The driver apologized. It’s Sunday, he explained. Swaths of road are closed, traffic is atrocious, people are eating ice cream mindlessly in the street. A normally 10 euro ride quickly ballooned to more than double that. “Ridiculous,” I sniffed. “Sorry,” he said, this time without mockery.

So goes travel, with its minor irritations, unpredictable hassles, junk that seems like a big deal in the moment but is so often just life doing its thorny thing. The drama becomes but a fleeting speck in mere minutes. The intoxicating mists of travel return.

Seriously, I had just finished marveling at three massive and magnificent Caravaggio canvases in a 15th century church, strolled the Spanish Steps and Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, gawked at the Roman Forum, and, yes, licked dreamy gelato in the Italian capital under sparkling spring skies. Espresso was sipped.

Where does complaint possibly fit into this scenario?

It doesn’t. And the day’s splendor continued undimmed, including a celestial dinner of grilled tuna, carbonara, Italian meats. Because it’s hard to douse the naked joys of the journey, to discount the novelty of uninhibited voyaging.

Make a plan but don’t be too rigid. Then hit the streets and let life unfurl in its own mad fashion. You’ll find frustration, no doubt. But also, I promise, the divine. 

Colosseum, April 4

Naples, knockout

Farting thunder and crackling lightning preceded the cloudburst that tried its damnedest to drench our small tour group at Pompeii, the ancient city of dramatically preserved ruins just outside of Naples yesterday. Umbrellas aloft, my brother and I winced at each other and agreed we didn’t want lightning to blast us into human beef jerky like the displayed bodies caught in squalls of volcanic gas and ash from a spewing Mt. Vesuvius way back when (79 A.D., to be exact). 

Weather-wise, Rome was better, but Naples, Italy’s third largest city, set south and known as the country’s black sheep and mischievous scamp, might be more atmospheric, vaguely sketchy and intimately enthralling. It’s got kick and fizz.

Sure, Naples has offered lashing schizophrenic weather — enveloping sunshine, then muffling fog, then a glimmer of sun, then a 10-degree temperature drop and downpours — but it has character to burn: crazy winding backstreets streaked with old churches, lavish, looping graffiti, bristling bars, sensational food, boisterous people. And do mind that Vespa tearing down the cobblestone street bustling with fleet-footed pedestrians. 

Speaking of food I might kill for — last night’s grilled octopus and the pasta carbonara in Rome surely count — we waited about 40 minutes for a seat at the famed Sorbillo pizzeria, known for the best pies in the world and certainly in Italy. Get the basic Margherita — mozzarella, basil, zesty homemade tomato sauce and thin, chewy crust (huge and about $5). It will recalibrate your pizza expectations for life. 

But I’m not here to peddle pizza. I’m here to report that we tracked down the three (stunning) Caravaggio paintings in Naples; found a go-to watering hole, Libreria Berisio, which is a cozy working bookstore by day, heaving with volumes, and at night dims the lights and serves a boggling array of cocktails, with funky seating, including stacks of hardbacks for stools (books and booze!); and took a private four-hour city and food tour with the spectacular Gennaro. Just the three of us.   

Gennaro, who speaks with a lilting, comically tangy Italian accent and shoots off sparks of wound-up energy, whisked us along in a gust of breathtaking erudition, knowledge, information and raw charm. Food, history, literature, opera, architecture, art, politics both local and global, film, geography — he seems to know it all, an effusive polymath who makes you feel intellectually undernourished. 

But we weren’t undernourished, because Gennaro fed us a feast, including pastry, fried seafood, buffalo mozzarella, deep-fried pizza (!!), beer, Limoncello (a local lemon liqueur), pasta with meat sauce, and more. 

He’s also something of a one-man chamber of commerce for Naples, fervently defending the city, exalting its virtues with fist-shaking passion, and angrily blaming city leaders for underrating and underselling their jewel in the rough. Five years ago, he says, Naples still carried a bad rap — piles of garbage, crime, mafioso, and other underbelly lesions — but it’s enjoying a surge of respectability and much-needed tourism. He wants the world to see his native city as he does: a top draw, a world-class player, a tourist mecca. He wants it to be loved, adored, appreciated.  

Me, I already see it that way. I’m sold.