Italy finito, beautifully

As I write this, 35,000 feet in the sky on a jet back to the States from nine fine days in Italy, I’m swollen with that cruddy reverse homesickness in which you miss the place you visited instead of your actual home. Rome and Naples were wonderful and I wasn’t ready to leave and I wanna go back. I’ve got the home-bound blues.

Still, my last rueful day in Rome was brilliant, quite literally — balmy mid-60s, cloudless, cerulean skies, sunglass weather. The kind of conditions that make people dress way too skimpily for the actual temperature. I was perfect in jeans, a light jacket and t-shirt. The guy in the short-shorts and tank top, not so much. 

Especially if he wanted to get into the Pantheon, the almost 2,000-year-old Roman temple turned Catholic church, where modest dress is a must. Leaders, popes and artists, including Raphael, are buried in the cylindrical building, which is famous for its oculus (or big hole) at the tip of its dome, shooting down a thick beam of sunlight like a celestial Bat-Signal.

Our lovely tour guide in Naples told us he gets chills whenever he enters the shrine. I did not get chills, but I was aptly awed by the ambient beauty and unimaginable feats of engineering. So often in Italy, if you regard your surroundings for just a moment, astonishment floods in and you wonder what hit you. It’s called the sublime.

I didn’t care if I found it or not, but fate planted an unmistakable sign in front of me — a literal street sign — so I ambled over to the vacantly majestic Trevi Fountain, where mugging selfie dolts and preening sun-worshippers congregate on days like this, as if Nicola Salvi’s pompous 1735 fountain is a swimming pool or the beach and not just a glorious repository for Bernini-style sculpture. I do respect this extravagant splash machine, but it’s a brief pitstop, not a gawk spot, despite its iconic role in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” a personal favorite. 

A local beer, a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich, and a cappuccino later, I headed to the Vatican for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum, a riot of artistic riches. Our tour guide barely made it on time, and my mood was starting to curdle. But she materialized at last, a petite Italian who used a plush Woodstock doll dangling from a stick in lieu of the boring old tourist-group flag for us to follow amid the crushing, claustrophobic crowds (many of them terrible teenagers, lolling, laughing and leering). 

She gave each of us little radios with ear buds so we could hear her literate narration of highlights in the museum. But the contraptions were on the fritz, all buzz, fizz and crackle — sonic flatulence that drowned out her spiels about each grand piece of art, from writhing statues of men and lions and Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” to the visual commotion of Michelangelo’s peerless Sistine Chapel ceiling. The works spoke for themselves.

As we finished, I asked the guide for the nearest taxi line, and she warned me to be careful with them, that they quote outlandish prices and don’t use the meter. And so it was. I approached a driver and told him my address and he promptly said it would cost 40 euros because of, you know, that zany Tuesday traffic. I scoffed and said, “You’re crazy,” and he responded, “You’re crazy.” Genius.

I hailed a passing cab, got in, and paid 14 euros back to my hotel, where I wound down, went out and ate pasta, sipped wine, and, reflecting on the past nine days, sighed: perfetto. Which in English translates simply as: damn

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.

Roamin’ Rome

Monday, shaking off a sleepless redeye flight and some wretched jet lag — both cruel and not recommended — I strolled around my hotel neighborhood in Rome, which sits in the shadow of the Colosseum, that 2,000-year-old stadium of sport and slaughter. (I’d tell you about the tour of it I was signed up for, but I was turned away because I wasn’t carrying my Covid vaccination card — since I was expressly told I wouldn’t need it — and that’s a lesson learned. I think I handled it well. I stormed off in a hissy.)

I hit a wine shop and picked out an eight euro bottle of red, then walked some more and stumbled upon two crumbling basilicas of God and grandeur. Naturally they’re festooned with stunning artwork, from grim statuary to crackling frescoes that make the shrines vibrant museums in their own right. Cool and dark, they emanate that dank churchy smell that’s as singular as old books. I wish I could bottle that funky perfume. 

My brother came a day later, Tuesday, and we’ve been strategizing for weeks about what to eat in Rome and Naples. The cities are lousy with pasta and we’ve vowed not to settle for only that and the ubiquitous pizza. Our sights, and bellies, are set on fresh seafood, veggies (eggplant parmigiana, thank you), charcuterie, risotto, roasts and more from the Italian smorgasbord. I plan on gaining 75 pounds. Tonight is the cutting-edge Osteria Fernanda — creatively plated, self-consciously contemporary Italian food — and I expect nothing less than the orgasmic …  

Several hours and a nine-course tasting menu later, we are sated. And euphoric. It’s the kind of feast where your eyes roll back and superlatives involuntarily pour out at each course, like the “eel with marinated Campari vegetable, acid rice sauce, soia and umeboshi” or the “venison cannelloni with black cardamom and forest wine.” It sounds fussy — I can barely pronounce some of the ingredients — and it is. But sometimes you have to go for it. We did and the rewards were golden.

I’m leaving a lot out — the churches, the museums, the astonishing new Ai Weiwei sculpture, suspiciously inexpensive sushi and a fall-apart sandwich seemingly made half of mayonnaise — but I have a question to ask: Where are all the bars in Rome? 

Try as we might — our efforts are bold and valiant — we cannot locate a single bar bar for a simple nightcap. Wine bars are plenty and some touristy eateries offer trendy cocktails, but where do you get a neat Scotch in this burgh? It’s a conundrum we plan to unravel. It’s getting serious. 

We finally asked a taxi driver about this and he said, “Rome is a museum. It’s not Milan.” And we laughed knowingly. When we got to our hotel we went to the itty-bitty “bar” there and each ordered a neat Scotch. We still have sleuthing in our plans. We go to Naples on Thursday, then back to Rome, which has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Ready for takeoff

The airport security line today was groaningly long, but it moved with ease and speed and I hardly complained about the grabby strip search. Soon enough, I was on my way to Gate C123, where I’ll be boarding a Boeing something or other to Rome, an eight-hour redeye that will land tomorrow just past the crack of dawn. 

My brother, who meets me in Rome on Tuesday, drove me to the airport. I was very appreciative until he tried to fist bump me as I got out, a gesture that isn’t really in my physical vocabulary. I indulged him, with a blush — what am I going to do, reject the fist? Then I exclaimed, Ciao! Grazie!, getting into the spirit of the trip and all. He drove off, perhaps flushed with shame.

Checking in at the United kiosk, no one asked to see my Covid vaccination card, but whatever. That’s one less micro hassle. United on its website cautioned to get to the airport early due to a possible surge in spring break travelers, the worst kind. But it didn’t seem overly crowded, and only once did I hear “bro” uttered. 

I wound up overcompensating by getting to the damn airport way too early, as I almost always do. I still, now, have a little more than two hours to kill at the gate. I’ve had an $11 beer and a $13 turkey sandwich wrapped in cellophane — airport haute cuisine. Now what?

I can get some reading done. I brought along novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’ cult classic “The Virgin Suicides,” which I read long ago and have meant to reread. So here I am, and the book holds up better the second time. 

If you’ve read it, or seen Sofia Coppola’s gauzy movie, you know it’s a suburban American gothic hinged on the suicides of five teenage sisters over one year. That sounds grim, but the story, suffused with Eugenides’ glinting lyricism and arch humor, moves with a lush, dreamy drift that’s slightly removed from reality, yet remains wise and true and fine.

I’m already about halfway through the novel, which means I’ll probably have to buy another book for the return trip. Ah, the pleasurable perils of world travel …

Countdown to Italy

So, in a week I leave for Italy, and if you think I’m over the moon with excitement you’re sorely mistaken. Not that I’m devoid of excitement, some numb, lobotomized ingrate, but I’m surely not as excited as you would be if you were about to swan off to Europe. Jus’ saying.

Someone asked me the other day if I was pumped about the trip — nine robustly planned days in Rome and Naples — and I said I was experiencing a mixture of excitement and dread. (The person, who happened to be my dentist, replied with a perplexed: “Oh.”) 

As I’ve said before, this seasoned traveler doesn’t really feel the thrill of the journey until he’s at his destination and actually taking the plunge, live, present tense. Before that, I’m somewhat flustered with details, logistics and my own innate pessimism, so I don’t have a lot of room for unfiltered excitement quite yet.

Take Covid requirements. For my Portugal trip in January, I had to submit a negative test taken 48 hours before my flight, but I somehow took the test a few hours too early, so it wasn’t valid in the time window. Panic

Luckily, United hooked me up with a valid 24-hour test in the nick of time and it all worked out. But it was touch and go, and for a while I thought I’d be scrapping Portugal. Aneurysm averted. 

The situation’s improved for the Italy trip. As of this month, fully vaccinated Americans no longer have to take a Covid test to enter Italy; a CDC vaccination card is sufficient. That’s a pre-trip stress-reducer. (Though you still need a negative test to return to the U.S., a hassle to book, not to mention the burn of pipe cleaners up the nostrils.) Italy does, however, require incoming travelers to submit a Passenger Locator Form, which takes all of five minutes to complete.

Which means I’m set to go. Or mostly. Despite me being a hardened solo traveler, my brother is joining me for part of the trip, which is excellent, on paper at least. I’m not a shopper. He is. With my blessings, he’s determined to hit a ritzy Italian sneaker shop where what look like glorified New Balance run about $400-plus a pair (hand-made, etc., yawn). 

That’s not muting my pre-trip excitement. I might even get a pair of my own, if I tipple enough vino and succumb to the hard sell. I blame my neutered giddiness, my chronic low expectations, on the vague existential malaise and grinding angst that I’m always in the grip of. It’s nothing exotic or very interesting, but real nonetheless. 

Yet doesn’t that fog burn off once I make foreign terra firma? Yes, invariably it does. And though I’ve been to Rome before — I’m a Naples virgin — it’s been so long that it should hold a pleasant shock of the new. And I’m in the mood for a shock.

As I dwell on it right now, the more optimistic about the trip I get. I should do this more often. Weird, one week till take off, and I think, at long last, I’m kind of charged. A whole week? Let’s go now.

Shock me.

Traveling totally alone. Plus one.

With an air of mock bluster, a studied wink, arms comically akimbo, I often sniff that I walk the earth alone. I mean that this avid globe-trotter travels the world solo, sans companionship, just me and the open road, sky and sea, cultivating fun, adventure and experience without the burden of a fellow traveler who so often becomes one big people-y crimp in my one-man style. 

That style is all about space, quietude, being beholden to no one, operating at my own pace and serving my own proclivities. In a word: freedom. It’s traveling with baggage — a carry-on and a small backpack — without baggage. I’ve of course traveled many times with others, from lovers to family to folks I’ve met on the road. Solo is better, and that’s how I’ve been doing it for years, blissfully à la carte.

I don’t get lonely, that’s what everyone wants to know. I have a busy mind, a busy schedule, I make acquaintances, I get lost in the environment, devouring the culture, the cuisine and travel’s crazy curveballs. I wander backstreets and byways just hoping to get sucked into the local labyrinth, to stumble upon the next astonishment. 

With my usual meticulous care, I just booked a nine-day trip to Rome and Naples for late March. Solo, of course. Flight set, tours and meals reserved, a full itinerary. I have plans, firm and unflustered.

And they have just been crashed.

My older brother, hands down one of my best friends, approached me the other day, meekly, and suggested, asked, wondered if he might just maybe, perhaps, possibly join me for a few days on my Italy excursion. 

Normally on hearing those words, my heart would have sunk to the ground, burned through the Earth’s crust and dropped into Hell itself and turned into molten ash. 

But this is my brother, a proven fellow traveler on several journeys. And so I did not flinch. At least not enough that he could see. I have amazing control of my facial muscles.

Really, he’s a fine travel companion. Besides our family trips growing up, he visited me numerous times in Austin, Texas, where we would pal around at a major film festival for several days. 

When he had business in London once while I was traveling there, I welcomed him to join me for a few days and, except for one rather farcical Underground mishap, we got along with impressive synchronicity. We also took a week-long road trip through the American South — Monticello to Montgomery — with scant friction and abundant laughs. 

So it’s not like he’s some monstrous style-cramping interloper upending my delicate plans in Italy. In fact, I predict he’ll be an asset, great company. For one, he’s a whiz, far smarter than I am, with a cooler temperament, possessing a surgically logical mind.

For all my strategizing, he’ll probably be the one assuming the role of tour guide. He was in Rome a few years ago and he knows, for instance, the lay of the land and where to see the greatest Berninis and Caravaggios. I’d likely figure all that out on my own, but not without the furious crumpling of maps and some spicy language that would turn nettled Roman heads.

And yet I’m not wholly abandoning my need for space. Separate hotel rooms are the rule, costs be damned, and I’m taking at least one tour on my own. Whether I “accidentally” lose my travel mate has yet to be seen. One goal is that I’ll never have to huff the rueful words: “This, brother, is why I travel alone.”

This intractable introvert would be lying if I said I didn’t prefer to voyage solo, untethered, with no one to report to or share every moment with. The claustrophobia of enforced camaraderie is something to be wary of.

Yet there’s much to be said for having a co-pilot in uncharted terrain (neither of us has been to Naples). It creates a handy support system and allows experiences to acquire more weight when shared. (He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother, as The Hollies sang. Although I have no intention of trying to lift my brother.)

I just re-read those last lines and wonder if I’m being too optimistic and ingratiating, slathering a shine on things to conceal shuddering apprehensions.

I don’t think so. Travel is too exciting, exhilarating and gratifying to be so easily sullied, especially when one’s unexpected companion will be as pleasant and profitable as my brother. Am I my brother’s keeper? I am not. Vice versa? Maybe.

So this party crasher might be my safety net, an insurance policy. But better yet, he’s a sidekick for the joys of worldly jaunts, and for, we hope, shared ecstasy.

Off to Italy. Shark not included.

Next stop … Naples?

The headline reads “Why Tourists Skip Naples: Debunking Common Misconceptions,” and the story that follows presents a catalog of corrections to perceived biases against the southern Italian city, which suffers, to begin with, a reputation for crime and grime and Mafioso shenanigans. It’s known as the “messy brother” or “crazy uncle” of other Italian cities, two descriptions I totally relate to.

So while many tourists skip Naples, I will not. Even if some travelers expect it to be a “mafia-infested crap hole,” writes one travel blogger with zesty candor, I will embrace its raw, rough edges, tuck into its world-famous pizza, drop by the frozen-in-time tragedy of Pompeii and stroll the lush Amalfi Coast. If I feel like it, I might just hop over to the resort island of Capri. I’m capri-cious like that.

This is all in spitball stages. I haven’t bought a ticket, I haven’t nailed a date. I am digesting the possibilities. And as I do, I discover persuasive tidbits. Like that Rome is a measly one-hour train ride from Naples, instantly making any plans a two-city trip. Now I’m thinking four days in megacity Rome, three or four in Naples. (From the Colosseum to the Vatican, Rome, where I’ve been twice, needs no introduction.)

What’s in Naples? The city sits in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, which legendarily vomited ash and lava over Pompeii, a macabre pilgrimage for those of us who want to see ancient charred bodies in various poses of molten distress. There’s the almost holy National Archaeological Museum; the tomb of the poet Virgil; and Underground Naples, a subterranean slice of preserved ancient Greek and Roman life. Food is of course paramount, as the birthplace of pizza, probably my favorite food. (I’m a lucky guy: pasta is a close second.)   

Still, this history-drenched city, once known as the “Paris of the south,” remains Italy’s unruly black sheep. That’s partly due to the Camorra, the regional Campania mafia, which tends to ignore tourists and get its hands dirty in local entanglements. In other words, it’s not a concern. Street-level crime — pickpockets and such — exists, but hardly more than in any big city. 

Authenticity is the byword. Naples’ “historical center is one of the most authentic and unique places in Italy, in spite of being quite rough around the edges — maybe because of it,” says one traveler. The city is “unfiltered and uncensored — wholly authentic,” writes another.  

I like that; that’s my style. Anything too polished is, to me, antiseptic, a bore. I can do grunge, I can do seedy. I can even do dangerous (ask me about Beirut).

So my next trip might be two Italian cities, Rome and Naples, one gleaming, one with a little slobber on its chin. A writer quotes her Italian nonna saying, “Rome is the heart of Italy, but Naples is the soul of Italy.” Which has me nodding: perfetto.

Naples, with a looming Mt. Vesuvius

How to stop this mad, rushing wanderlust?

I just got back from Paris. I’m ready for the next adventure.

And so, greedily, I’m off to Portugal in January. The trip hasn’t even happened. Already I’m itching for the next one, wherever that might be. 

Where next? is the question pressing me — assaulting me — always. Travel is more than a bug; it’s a lifeblood. It’s what makes things worth it. Thus, with unquenchable wanderlust and heedless folly, I hopscotch the globe. Stop me before I go completely and abjectly broke.

The slightest trigger can catapult me ten time zones away. Last night I’m watching “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” on CNN. I’ve been to Italy — Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Milan, Cinque Terre — but Tucci, his burnished dome gleaming in the Mediterranean sun, is touring Sicily in this episode. He investigates the grungy-charming capital Palermo and eats celestial cuisine and gabs with cartoonish locals. His commentary is both wry and effusive.

Immediately I’m on the laptop researching travel to Sicily, while in the background the impossibly fit Tucci strolls alleyways, noshes pasta and relishes the job of a lifetime. Bastard.  

Sicily sags. I’m not big on heat, for starters, and nothing in my reportage quite grabs me, except that Sicily is where the Cyclops is from. I love monocles.

Fixed on Italy, I look to Rome. I’ve been there twice, but have I really been there? I was so young and all. Everyone’s always going on how great Rome is, but I’m not evangelical about it. I like it enough to ponder another visit, but then, like that, I recall the conversation I had earlier in the evening with a friend in which he extolled the virtues of Vienna. 

(He was over, incidentally, to watch the Icelandic folk-horror film “Lamb,” an absurdist fable about, that’s right, a half-child, half-lamb who is huggably creepy if inadvertently risible. Any Halloween tie-ins are strictly coincidental.)

So Vienna … My friend mentions Vienna’s excellence and I agree with him as I was there years ago, though I don’t remember it being mind-blowing, except for the absolutely idyllic day we spent on rented bicycles, one of the neatest things I’ve done in my travels.

Dropping Rome, I start researching Vienna, and it becomes quickly clear that the draw is not powerful enough. It’s a three-day destination at best, so I’d have to piggyback it with another nearish locale and … I’ll pass for now. 

Well before I tumbled down this European rabbit hole, and before I settled on Portugal, I was considering domestic and Canadian destinations for my next journey, including Nashville, Asheville, N.C., Toronto and Quebec City. I even, for a blink, mulled Santa Fe (which I chalk up to momentary insanity). 

The research is rigorous. I’ve been to Nashville, but it has since morphed into the bachelorette party capital of the world, a colossal drawback. Asheville is, like, a couple historical sites, cafes and craft breweries and lovely mountains. And so on. 

As I write this, I’ve looked harder at Sicily and it’s earned points in barnacled history and fantastic food. We’ll see. 

Travel’s importance in my life can’t be overestimated. I recently tallied that I’ve been to 29 countries over the years. Not bad. But that’s hardly the point. As travel guru Rick Steves says so beautifully:

“Is it a contest? Anybody who brags about how many countries they’ve been to — that’s no basis for the value of the travel they’ve done. You could have been to 100 countries and learned nothing, or you can go to Mexico and be a citizen of the planet. I find that there’s no correlation between people who count their countries and people who open their heart and their soul to the cultures they’re in.”

Amen. Now where in the hell am I going next?

Even travel letdowns are worth it

I’m a jaded traveler, asking much, with high expectations and a low threshold for disappointment. 

So naturally I’ve at times been disillusioned during my many journeys around the world. It happens. And it’s not a terrible thing. After all, how letdown can you be by, say, Madrid, a great city that pales a bit compared to its more lustrous and colorful cousins, Sevilla and Barcelona? Not much.

In a previous post I told how I recently unpacked piles of my travel journals from cold storage after several years. Written in blue ink in black notebooks — usually on barstools after long days wending wide-eyed through cobblestone streets and spindly alleyways — the pages are filled with the magic of travel, the mirth of discovery, the shock of the new, amazing people and far-out food (like the whole cobra I ate in Vietnam). 

The journals are also laced with descriptions of those isolated times when I was dissatisfied, underwhelmed or — what! — plain bored. I’ve re-read these bits with a kind of dismayed surprise: Really? That’s how I felt about Rome? Rome? 

Well, yeah, on that particular day. Travel experiences are colored by everything from jet lag to daily frustrations (taxi rip-offs, getting lost, language hassles). They are mutable. What deflates one day might electrify the next. 

My journals reminded me of this in bold strokes. These are some examples of thwarted expectations and little letdowns on travel’s twisty, rugged road: 

In 2000 I went to Israel a hardened agnostic bordering on a true atheist. Astounded by religion and the mindset of its believers, I wanted to go to the desert nation that’s home to the big three, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and see what makes them tick. Scenes from my journal:

“Today in Bethlehem I arrived at the perhaps blasphemous idea that the region is a historical Disneyland, a realm of fairy tales. ‘Here’s where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.’ ‘This is where Mary slept.’ We might as well be told, ‘This is where Snow White ate the fateful apple,’ or ‘Behold the tomb of Cinderella’s stepsisters.’ It’s psychotic that pilgrims succumb to the fanciful whims of Constantine’s mother, who randomly appointed holy designations to places here. Paraphrasing something I actually heard on a tour: ‘Here’s King David’s tomb and the site of the Last Supper, but, uh, not really, because they’re lost somewhere far below the city.’ And people eat this stuff up.”

Later I noted:

“Believers hoisting giant wooden crosses follow ‘Christ’s final footsteps’ on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. It’s maniacal, and not half as fascinating as you’d think. That’s how religion is for me now. Just silly, impossible to be contemplated in the higher regions of the mind. It absolutely fails to astonish. So this trip, which is wonderful thus far — peaceful, pleasant, edifying — is innocent of any celestial wallop, of a blinding halo glow and spiritual intervention. I am unmoved. I am unchanged.”

Then there’s Prague, which I visited with inflated enthusiasm in 2002. I should have known better, especially since so many blinkered Americans just love the tourist-clogged Czech capital and callow expats infest the place. I got there and sighed, writing:

“Not entirely impressed by the city. Like an Eastern Amsterdam: beautifully antiquated, charmingly European, painted with time and soot, tired but proud. And yet rather vacant. It’s all show, with a familiar, generic Euro tang. My true feelings are stifled from sleepless flights. My impressions are, for now, Cubist — fragmented, jumbled, unreliable. But, so far, a fine, sturdy European city of great charm and Old World wealth. A Disneyland-like anachronism, bursting with pastel façades and fairy-book antiquity, tourist throngs and souvenir kitsch.” 

Two days later I wrote: 

“I like Prague, and yet needing to write that means I’m working at liking it as much as I’m supposed to.”

On my second trip to Italy, in 2003, I revisited Florence and Rome, with a day trip to Pisa to see that teetering tower. My scribbled impressions:

“Pisa is a university town with a tower. Not sure why Italy doesn’t touch or connect with me the way Paris does. It’s less refined, more brusque. Its virile, violent history isn’t as deep and textured. It’s less intellectual, less progressive and less interesting. It’s about gelato and church.”

And about Rome specifically:

“Rome is OK. Trevi Fountain, Vatican, St. Peter’s — all numbingly familiar and inert, just there, edifices radiating gray. The city is sort of like Madrid or Berlin — popped expectations.”

What’s notable about the Italy trip is that when my girlfriend finally arrived to meet me there, everything shimmered to life with a giddy radiance. The Trevi Fountain at night was a splashy thrill, the Sistine Chapel an almost spiritual swoon. I loved my girl, and I loved Italy. 

I’ve learned that the fluctuating charms of travel cannot be underestimated. They should be greedily embraced. Up, down, it’s all about the ride, the swirling ecstatic journey.