Letter #3. Italy

Hello my dear all!

I've just spent a month traveling around Italy. It was the friendliest, warmest, most interesting, and most beautiful of all countries I've seen so far. And it didn't take me long to realize what a wonderful place it was.

It all started with a mistake. When I tried to enter Italy through a tunnel under Sent Bernard pass, I got a lift from a driver whose car had Polish license plates. I should have waited for a local one! We were stopped by Italian border guards inside the tunnel, and they sent me back. Fortunately, there were no Swiss guards in the tunnel, or I'd have to spend the rest of my life between the two checkpoints. I had to take a narrow trail over the pass. The trail climbed to the ruins of an old monastery (probably the one where the famous dog breed was created), and then disappeared in deep snow on the southern slope. I was lucky to have good moonlight. Long after midnight I hiked through the fir forest belt and back to the highway. I'd already passed the first Italian village when a car came from above. It stopped, and I saw that the driver was the same border guard who'd stopped me a few hours earlier. I decided to jump over the railings and roll down the slope, and wondered if he will shoot or not. But he looked out of the car and said:

"Where you going, friend? My working hours are over! Get in, I'll take you to my town!"

He took me to Aosta, let me stay overnight at his house, and then drove me out of the city to a place where I easily got a lift to Gran Paradiso, a wonderful National park near the French border. This year there's very little snow in the Alps, so I could walk around through spruce forests and Alpine meadows, watching chamois and ibex.

Hitchhiking in Italy is as easy as it gets. All you have to do to get from one city to another is get to altstacione, a highway toll gate. If you get there late at night and there're no cars, you can sleep in an empty ticket booth. I traveled to Rome through Milan, Genova, Pisa, Firenza (Florence), and Perugia, and with each city it kept getting more and more beautiful. These places look like they were built to enjoy the architectural perfection, not to live in. Compared to Italy, all other European countries looked dull and uniform.

Perugia was so strikingly beautiful that I just couldn't force myself to leave. I missed the last train to Rome, and it was too late for hitchhiking. Here I made a really great discovery, and it forever changed the way I travel. I discovered that the trains scheduled to depart early in the morning often spend the night at the station. If you don't turn on the light, you can sleep in such a train. Hundreds of people who try to sleep at train stations all over Europe have to spend the coldest hours out in the streets, while the stations are closed for cleaning. But somehow no one of them ever discovered this great place to find piece and quiet, and to avoid police checks. It was the greatest breakthrough in travel technology since the invention of a sleeping bag.

Rome is a large and crazy city. It takes about hundred kilometers of hiking to see all the most interesting places and the most beautiful streets, but it is such a wonderful world that you never get tired. As you pass through numerous churches and museums, sometimes one of the hundreds of sculptures catches your eye, as if it was a living person pretending to be a statue. And all such sculptures happen to be Michelangelo's works.

I spent the nights at Albano, a crater lake not far from Rome, reached by the Appian Way (the road once lined with crucified Spartacus' rebels). Just as in Roman times, the lake is surrounded by beautiful villas. One night I was sleeping under a rock, and suddenly a limo stopped by. A local guy looked out and asked:

"What are you doing here?"

"Trouble", I thought, and answered: "Sleeping".

"Take this, please", he gave me a large bag and left.

Inside was a huge cake. It took me almost two days to finish it. (If this gentleman ever reads this: thank you! - V.D.)

Roads of Italy are almost as spectacular as its cities. Some are an endless succession of bridges and tunnels. AGIP gas stations are the best for hitchhiking. It's the only place I know where roadside prostitutes are sometimes beautiful, and the only country in Europe where large trucks pick up hitchhikers. From Naples south, I spent most nights in yachts at marinas, and fed on oranges from orchards. I thought the locals owed me that for what their ancestors have done to mine during the two Judean wars.

There is little to see in Naples: old Christian catacombs and Campo Flegre (an active caldera - it was really stupid to build a city in such a place). I took a bus to the summit of Vesuvius and hiked back down. The crater looks exactly like Avacha crater on Kamchatka had looked prior to the 1992 eruption, but, unlike on Kamchatka, there's a ticket office at the crater rim. The slopes are covered with lava flows and nice pine forests, full of kinglets and other wintering songbirds. I also visited Pompei, Herculaneum (a smaller but better preserved victim of the same eruption), and Capri Island. The island has marine caves like those of Karadag in Crimea, but smaller, less colorful, and overcrowded.

A truck driver agreed to hide me in his trunk when he boarded a ferry to Sicily, and then drove me to Milazzo. From this small town I took a boat to Isole Iolie, a group of tiny volcanic islands with charming fishing villages and almost no tourists (at least in February). The last island is the most picturesque and interesting. Generations of Soviet volcanologists have dreamed about seeing it and other Italian volcanoes with their own eyes. There was even a cafe called Stromboli in Klyuchi village at Northern Kamchatka. I climbed the volcano through blooming meadows and dense forest, and spent an exciting night at the summit, watching lava fountains and trying to get a peek at the lava lake through dense smoke inside the crater (later I found out that the lake wasn't there - it had disappeared in the 1980-s - V.D.)

I got stuck on Stromboli because of a storm. I made friends with local fishermen, and often got clams, octopuses, and lobsters from them to eat. At midday the sea got so warm at black volcanic beaches that I could swim in it. Then I returned to Sicily and hitchhiked around it, trying to see as many Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Norman monuments as possible along the way. Somewhere between Agrigento and Vittoria I established contacts with local Mafia. Here's how it happened. I got a ride from a guy who could speak a very good English. It is a bit unusual for Southern Italy.

"You have very good English", I said.
"I have to", he answered, "I have many foreigners in my hotel in summer."
"So the business is good?"
"Oh yes, it's a good business. I would never be able to buy it, but our local Mafia helped me get a loan."
"You don't mind telling a person you've just met that you have Mafia connections?"
He laughed. "Mafia here is not a bunch of bad guys with machine guns. If you are an honest man, and everybody respects you, you must be in Mafia."
"So it is something like a club, or a village Communist Party cell in my country?"
"Well, it's mostly about helping each other. For example, I have no place to take my family for a weekend. But one man in our Mafia is a ferry captain, and he takes us to Malta for free every month."
At that point I jumped in my seat, and eventually talked him into helping me to get on this ferry. He took me to the harbor, and introduced me to the captain as "our friend from Russia". Unlike the driver, the captain really did look like a Mafiosi. I slept in the engine room during a one-night crossing, then got out of Valletta city port through a hole in a fence, but had only a few hours to look around before the ferry went back - barely enough to see the famous Neolithic ruins.

Unfortunately, Etna was dormant, but the view from the summit was breathtaking. From there I crossed back to Calabria, and hitchhiked north through Apulia, Abruzzo National Park, Rimini, San Marino, and Ravenna, the only city where some architecture from the last days of Western Roman Empire could be seen. Then I got to Bologna, just in time for carnival, and to Venice, where it was carnival time, too.

I don't like carnivals, parades, and other public processions, probably because I grew up in a country where such events were always state-organized and made everybody sick. But this one was really something. Venice is the most unique and beautiful city I've ever seen (Now, many years and countries later, I still think so - V.D.). There are no cars in the city, and during the carnival the only sources of light are rows of candles on windowsills. Everybody wears a costume or at least a mask, so the place looks as medieval as it gets. If you ever manage to get out of Russia, this is the first place to see. You can always find a boat to spend a night in, and days are full of small discoveries. This is the house where Marco Polo lived when he returned from the East. This is the window Casanova used to escape from jail. This is the room where Leonardo da Vinci invented a helicopter. And so on, ad infinitum.

I realized that after Venice any other city would be boring, so I decided to go back to the mountains. I hitchhiked to Verona, then to Bolzano in Italian Tirol, and finally to a ski hotel in the Dolomites. It was the middle of the week, so the hotel was half-empty. The owner allowed me to stay for free in the lobby, but I had to entertain everybody until midnight, telling horror stories about my trip and the life back in Russia.

Next morning I explored the mountains above the hotel, then hiked to the Austrian border. Two Italian officers stopped me.
"Where is your visa to Italy?"
"I am a poor student, I have no visa, I am returning from the carnival in Venice..."
"Oh, Venice!" they smiled, "Okay, take this road, and you'll be in Austria in thirty minutes. Do you have visa to Austria?"
"Then take this trail through the forest, you'll be in Austria in two hours."

Hitchhiking in Austria was very slow, and the weather was bad. Until that day, the winter was unusually warm, but now it suddenly started for real, despite the fact that February was already over. It took me most of the day to get to a very high pass over Tirol Tauern. In fierce snowstorm I walked down until a guy in a Mercedes picked me up. I put my backpack in the trunk, and we drove down. Normally I never argue with drivers, but this one was a neo-Nazi. I said something he didn't like, he stopped the car and told me to get out. As he went to throw my backpack out of the trunk, the car started rolling downhill. I seized the steering will and managed to avoid falling off the road, while the guy was running behind, shouting "Halt!" and cursing me. Then I managed to get behind the wheel and start the engine. It was the first driving lesson in my life, but I somehow made it all the way to the last junction before Salzburg. Here I drove the car off the road, and walked to the city.

I am writing this letter in a roadside cafe. I am fine, and even gained some weight thanks to Italian oranges. I'll write the next one as soon as I get to Hungary.

Salzburg, Austria

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