I am WAY behind on my posts for this trip. I will catch up in the next two weeks, but before I do, I need to blow off some steam while the emotions are still hot!
Before I launch into full rant mode, I’d like to make a few disclaimers. First of all, for the most part, we are having a wonderful time on this tour-de-force through Italy, meeting some incredible people who I now consider good friends. Secondly, I’ve been challenged by poor web-hosting service and other Internet aggravations that I couldn’t have anticipated, which has sort of put me in a bad mood these last 4-5 days.
Still, I’ve got to let my frustrations out, and also I want to be honest with all of you who follow my blog, and let you know that it has not been all wine and opera music.
A few months ago, Beppe Severgnini wrote an article in the New York Times entitled, “Why No One Goes to Naples.” In the article, he criticizes his country for doing a bad job with promoting tourism. I had commented on this article in one of my pre-blog tour posts, but now I have a little more first-hand experience to add to my opinion.
Well, it turns out that Beppe was right. Some days it seems to me that Italy is doing everything it can to discourage tourists. And while the problem is more evident in the south, it’s certainly not limited to the mezzogiorno.
But let’s be clear: when I say that the tourism infrastructure is terrible, I’m referring to the efforts of the local, regional, and national governments, and the tourist boards they represent. Not all, of course, but certainly the majority.
On the contrary, I’ve met many, MANY, hard-working, entrepreneurial Italians who could not be more welcoming to tourists, both foreign and domestic (I know this since we have one of each in my family). The sad thing is that the tourist boards that should be helping these honest businessmen and businesswomen are actually holding them back. It’s difficult enough to start your own agriturismo, restaurant, or tour company without the government doing their best to turn away your clients.
Here’s the perfect example. We arrived in Agrigento on a Sunday evening and found most things closed. Fine, that’s “normal,” even for a tourist town in high season. Our hotel was not in the town center, so we couldn’t locate a Bancomat (ATM), either. No worries. In the morning, on our way to see the Valley of the Temples, we asked the front desk clerk if we could use our credit card to buy tickets to the archaeological area.
She seemed almost insulted by the question, and responded, “Of course!”
Experience told me to stop at an ATM anyway, to play it safe, but the closest machine was downtown, 5-6 kilometers of winding roads in the opposite direction.
So we arrive at the entrance to the Valley of the Temples at about 10:00 a.m., and waited in line for a while only to find out that they do not take credit cards. Or debit cards. Only cash. Really? In 2014?
The employee appeared to be put off by my tone, and she suggested that we try the other entrance. “Just around the corner,” she said, “they take debit cards.”
Well, we walked “just around the corner” for 30 minutes—along a busy street, with our baby in the stroller, doing our best to avoid pot holes and random debris. No entrance in sight. We did, however, come upon the museum associated to the archaeological site. They apologized, but said, “No, we don’t take credit cards or Bancomat here, either. (Despite a sign saying otherwise; see actual photo.) And the machine at the other entrance hasn’t been working. But let me call them for you.”
Meanwhile my wife was explaining the whole story, and registering a reasonable complaint. This is when one of the employees took her firmly by the arm and escorted her to the restroom.
“But I don’t need a restroom,” my wife said. The employee would not be swayed, almost dragging her, apparently concerned that this reasonable complaint might escalate into a hysterical overreaction.
So we waited while they called the other office. Finally someone said that, “YES! The Bancomat machine at the other entrance is actually working today!”
“Great news! But where is this other entrance? We’ve been walking for 30 minutes but haven’t seen it.”
“Oh, well, it’s another 2 ½ kilometers. Uphill. But there’s a bus that passes every 10 minutes, and they can take you there.”
We went back outside and waited for the bus that never came. Eventually we asked the guy in the nearby souvenir kiosk about it. He said, “Yes, usually every 10 minutes the bus comes. But today is a holiday, so it’s only once an hour. And you just missed it.”
Back up to the museum we go. The employee must have seen the steam coming out of my ears at this point. She kindly offered to take us to the Bancomat in her own car and then drop us off at the entrance. Whether this was simply an act of kindness or an effort to avoid an international incident, I cannot say.
At the Bancomat, I withdrew 250 Euros, the maximum amount. The machine gave me five 20’s and three 50’s, whereas usually they just give you five 50’s. This is an important detail, as you’ll soon see.
At 12:00 noon, we finally arrive at the entrance to the Valley. At the ticket booth, I noticed a sign that said, indeed, they did not accept credit cards, but DID accept Bancomat. However, under this sign was a note handwritten in large letters, “Solo Italiane!” In other words, they did accept debit cards, but only ones issued by Italian banks. Really? In 2014?
“OK, let it go,” I told myself, opening my wallet and absently placing a 50 on the counter.
Then the ticket booth guy looked up at me with a sour look, “Sorry sir, I can’t accept this. I don’t have any change.”
In my mind, I was inventing ways to deliver a slow, painful death to this person, who just happened to be the last in long line of government workers determined to make my stay in their city as aggravating as possible. Then my fantasy was interrupted by someone chortling loudly and uncontrollably. Only after about 10 seconds did I realize that this psychotic laugh was emanating from my own mouth. Yes, I had completely lost it and I can only be grateful that my daughter is too young to remember the spectacle that she witnessed. My wife, instead, was relieved to see me laughing, since she was fully ready to set the whole place on fire. (Did I mention that she is Sicilian?)
Fortunately we had a 20 Euro note, so more than two hours after trying to get in, we were at last admitted. I can’t help thinking that a less stubborn person would have given up, having traveled 5,000 miles to visit Italy, only to be turned away at the entrance. How sad.
I partially blame myself for this. I KNOW that you have to anticipate every possible problem for yourself, and you can’t count on any help from the people who are employed to help you.
OK, that’s enough. Let me now highlight the positive. The Valley of the Temples is truly an amazing site/sight. The best Greek ruins anywhere, including Athens. The weather was lovely and we took some incredible photos. And as always is the case in Italy, the day ended with a fantastic meal. So all was not lost. But it was certainly a lot more effort than it needed to be.
This post is “out of sequence,” and I still have things to say about my tours in Rome last month, not to mention our stops in Palermo, Erice, and Trapani. And I want to write more about Agrigento, but I’ll wait until my temper has cooled off.
Lessons learned? Number One: always be ready for the unexpected while travelling in Italy. Yes, this sounds like a contradiction, but any Italian will be able to explain it to you. Number Two: hire a guide or some other expert to deal with these problems for you. This is especially true for first or second time visitors to Italy. Don’t waste time and aggravation with these things. Spend a little extra money and you won’t have any such stories as this to tell. Your only memories will be of unforgettable beauty, great food, and nice people. All of which Italy has PLENTY of!