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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Football and sore feet

Our arrival in Europe was fortuitously yet unintentionally timed with the UEFA Euro 2012 championship.  It’s held every four years, two years opposite of the World Cup.  As we planned our trip, we knew the championship was coming up but didn’t know for sure if we would be in Europe by the time it started in early June.  As our schedule unfolded once we emerged from Asia in late April, we realized that, yes, we would be in Europe in time for the UEFA 2012 and even toyed with the idea of taking a trip to the Ukraine or Poland in hopes of seeing our favorite team, Germany, play live. 

Some research into that quickly ended those plans.  Germany was scheduled to play in Lviv and Kiev, and getting to those Ukranian cities wasn’t going to be easy or cheap.  Plus lodging and tickets were pricey as well.  It would have been an unforgettable experience to see the Germans play their first game on June 9th, which happens to be my birthday.  But the expense of taking a trip like this and then adding on a side journey like that was something we just couldn’t afford.  So we settled for watching the German victory in Croatia live on TV and the Germans gave me a nice birthday present with a victory over Portugal. 
The excitement surrounding the football followed us on the overnight ferry that took us from Croatia to Ancona Italy as we watched Croatia beat Ireland on TV in one of the lounges of the ferry.  It was an interesting mix of people, some with a obvious interest in the football, while others were more occupied in some of the gambling games in another section of the lounge.  There was also a guy playing an electric organ who was ignored at first, but as the evening wore on, the dance floor in front of his spot became more and more crowded with people.  They wound up doing some sort of Italian/Croatian version of a group dance, a type of Electric Slide.  It was extremely tempting to totally embarrass our kids and join in, but we managed to control ourselves and keep focused on the football.

Our chosen destination in Italy was influenced by the fact that a friend of ours from Cincinnati had relatives living along the Adriatic Coast.  We thought it sounded like a good idea to see some of the coast and also spend time with a local.  Our friends cousin, Ida (pronounced ee-da) lived in a town called Giulianova and offered to meet us for dinner.

The ferry arrived in Ancona around 8am, and the train station was about a 20-minute walk.  We were all a bit tired by the time we got to the train station, but we had about three hours to kill before our train left for Tortoreto.  So we grabbed a table at a small cafe at the station and enjoyed some tasty pastries and sandwiches and watched the passengers come and go.  It was an interesting mix of travelers, from business people to college age kids with their massive backpacks.  

I couldn't find any accommodation in Giulianova that met our parameters and price range, so we settled on a place in the nearby town of Tortoreto.  One factor was that  it boasts a very nice white sandy beach and we hadn't had any beach time for months.  Online, I found a two-bedroom apartment at a place that looked to be right on the beach.  The website said that it was 1.5 km from the train station, so I figured that worst case, we could walk that in about a half an hour, but I expected to get a taxi either at the station or right in town.  A map online gave me a good idea of the location and I was confident that finding our home for the next four nights wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

To say that I was wrong would be like saying Facebook is a safe haven for expressing your political opinions.  The train ride from Ancona gave us about three hours to rest our weary legs, fatigued from walking from the ferry to the train station about six hours earlier.  The Tortoreto stop on the rail line doesn’t have a train station, just a platform with a cement ramp leading into the village.  We are quite accustomed to trudging along with our luggage through a variety of conditions and it was no big deal for us to start walking in the bright sun of mid-afternoon, keeping an eye out for a taxi. 

After walking for about 15 minutes with no signs whatsoever of a taxi or the Residencia Playa Sirena, I stopped at a restaurant and asked for directions.  The woman working there didn’t speak much if any English, so she summoned someone from the kitchen.  He pointed back in the direction we had just come from and indicated it was about four blocks down on the left.  Meaning we would have walked right by it.  I was skeptical but decided to follow the locals advice and we turned around and trudged on. 

A walk of more than four blocks had me going into another restaurant and asking workers there for help.  One man assured me it was something like 500 meters back toward the train station.  That turned out not to be the case either, so we parked ourselves for a moment to catch our breath and try to figure out what to do next.

Our backpacks and suitcases were getting heavier by the minute as we had been walking for well over a half an hour.  I tried the phone number for the hotel on the reservation email I received but all I got was a recording in Italian that I couldn’t understand.  The address was 448 Via De Something or Other and I didn’t know if that was a side street or on the road that fronted the beach.  Plus the address numbers jumped from the 300s down to 60 then into the 400s. The last time we felt like this was on the rare occasion where we ventured to the west side of Cincinnati.

Like any youngest child raised by a tiny over-protective mother who was determined to never have any ill happen to her baby boy, I rarely talk to strangers.  But as our search neared an hour, and with absolutely no idea where to go next, and all the taxis sucked into some sort of vortex, I ignored my mother’s advice and shouted a “ciao!” to a man on the second floor balcony of what looked to be an apartment building.  He said he didn’t speak much English but made hand gestures that someone in the apartment did and he would be right down with them. 

About 5 minutes later, the man who looked to be in his 60s, appeared with a big smile on his face and what looked like his 10 year old granddaughter with him.  I showed him the name of the place we were looking for, and he looked it up on his smart phone and then jumped on a bike while his young companion pedaled along with him on her bicycle.  Using a mapping app, he led us down the street a few blocks, PAST the first place I stopped for directions.  We got to a spot where the map app showed it to be, but there was no Residencia Playa Sirena to be found. 

A picture of the place on their website showed it to be five or six stories tall, so I didn’t think finding it would be such an ordeal. Fortunately our Italian friend stubbornly refused to give up and headed south along the bike path, instructing us to wait right where we were.  About five minutes later, he came back toward us, pedaling furiously and triumphantly-he had found it!  Soggily, we picked up our backpacks and suitcases and walked about another five minutes and were happy to see what at that point looked like the Four Seasons to us.

The hotel was nice enough, although not as close to the beach as I expected and hoped.  We chose Tortoreto for the chance to meet our friend's cousin and for the chance to experience some of the Italian Adriatic Coast.  As it turned out, it was a lot like the Florida Atlantic Coast.  Nice wide, white sandy beaches.  Fewer high rises than you see in Southeast Florida and fewer people with New York accents.  We spent one afternoon lounging on the beach, enjoying the sun and sand and salty air.

One thing, or rather four things that made the rather remote location of our hotel more acceptable were bicycles.  For what added up to about a Euro a day a piece, we could pedal our bikes along a very nice bike path that ran between the north-south road and the beach.  The path was perfectly flat and curved gently along the coast, twisting its way between palm trees and restaurants and gelaterias. 

It became painfully apparent on our first night there, after our Bataan Death March from the train station to our apartment, that there is no such thing as late afternoon dining in Tortoreto.  We were well aware of the European and especially Italian habit of dining after eight, but figured with it being such a beachy and touristy area, there would be at least one place or two offering up some version of their menu at about 4:30pm.  Wrong Yankee!  

Since we were all pretty hungry and didn't want to wait another three and a half hours or so to eat, we pedaled over to a supermarket and loaded up on some tasty-looking local pasta and sauce and enjoyed a yummy home cooked pasta meal at the apartment.  

After our day at the beach the following day, we made arrangements to meet up with Ida for dinner.  We picked a spot in Giulianova, which turned out somewhat unexpectedly to be about a twenty-minute bike ride from our apartment.  Ida's brother Marcello joined us along with her daughter Roberta, who was twelve, the same age as Ben and Marley.

Those of us from the other side of the Atlantic were perfectly happy with the pizza and pasta we got at the restaurant that Roberta picked out.  But Ida was perfectly unhappy.  She wanted us to experience some true local food and the next night we met up in the old village of Tortoreto, high on the hill overlooking the beach and the ocean.  
The old village is a perfect example of the many hill towns, or hillages that you see dotting the Italian landscape.  A quick but twisty taxi ride took us up into the village which was as charming as any we had seen during our travels which had reached the six month point.

Ida chose the restaurant at which we met because it specialized in a local delicacy:  arrosticini.  Arrosticini is bite-sized pieces of lamb grilled on a skewer, then served up hit in a clay pot.  Ida impressed on us the importance of eating them as soon as they were brought to the table while they were still warm from the grill.  So when the first pot arrived, we devoured them like contestants on Survivor who win a food reward challenge.
The first batch of skewers were disposed of in olympic-qualifying time, so it was time for a second round.  Those didn't last long either, and the final count showed Ben ate the most, and said it was one of his favorite meals of the trip.  
Marley and Roberta enjoyed making friends by talking about their handheld devices.  We truly enjoyed their company and getting to hear about what their lives, so far away from ours, are like.
Our experience in Tortoreto with Ida, Roberta and Marcello reinforced the idea that the best times we've had traveling haven't involved places, but rather people.  You don't make friendships and truly get the local flavor by visiting museums or iconic spots featured in the top travel destinations of 2012 on TripAdvisor.  It's the sort of strategy that we hoped to employ for the rest of our time in Italy, especially as we headed toward Rome.

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