I experienced the vacation of a lifetime last month, some 45 years since I first dreamed of taking it. I’ve wanted to visit Italy, and especially Venice, since I wrote a report on the boot-shaped country in the fourth grade. It was everything, and more, than I imagined.
First, let me pass along a few personal finance/identity theft tips, so I can justify sharing travel adventures in the business section.
Before I left town: I suspended delivery of my Oklahoman and mail, and didn’t announce my tour dates on Facebook, so my vacant home wouldn’t be an easy target for would-be thieves. I turned up my thermostat to save on air-conditioning bills. And in the absence of a trust or will drawn up by an attorney, I hand-wrote the latter and left it on my kitchen counter, having learned from estate lawyers that a handwritten document holds up far better than filling in blanks on a downloaded template. Finally, we alerted our respective credit card companies that we’d be traveling in Italy, so they wouldn’t freeze our accounts should they see suspicious European purchases.
As to credit cards and cash: Months before our trip, my friend and I both got a highly encrypted Chase Sapphire credit card, which has no foreign transaction fees and no fee and hundreds of dollars in cash-back perks your introductory year. During the trip, we carried either my credit card and its duplicate that my friend could legally use, or his card and its duplicate I could use and left the other cards in the hotel safe with our passports, so we wouldn’t implicate two accounts if our cards were stolen or lost (He carried his wallet in his front pocket and I wore my shoulder purse across the front of me). Most restaurants and stores accepted credit cards, but before we went, we exchanged a few hundred dollars for euros at my bank, so that we’d have spending money for taxis or cappuccinos when we touched down in Rome.
My friend also carried his credit bureau debit card because the institution reimburses him for any fees charged at nonbank ATMs. Over our 10-day trip, he withdrew euros at ATMs several times without a hitch. Still, we had to stay mindful of prices. A pair of sandals marked 90 euros equates to roughly $135.
We took home few souvenirs, but a treasure trove of memories. In Rome, we marveled at ruins from the Roman Empire dating back to 500 B.C., including where Julius Caesar was killed, and the Coliseum where real gladiators, not Russell Crowe, fought to their bloody deaths. For me, the biggest takeaway from the Coliseum is that residents took refuge there during the World War II bombings, because the enemies agreed not to bomb the historic structure.
Of course, the Vatican museum (we caught Pope Francis’ Sunday blessing), St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel all were highlights. But it was almost laughable in the latter, where reverent silence is expected, and hired security guards are constantly bellowing “SHHH” and “QUIET!”
After three nights in Rome, we took a coach bus to Florence, stopping on the way for a wine tasting at a winery in the Tuscan hillside and at Pisa, with its leaning bell tower, and huge and majestic “duomo” main cathedral and baptistery, which are never seen in most depictions.
Our three nights in Florence were a welcome break after fighting throngs of cars and pedestrians in Rome. Florence is a quaint, easily-navigated city, and it’s just awesome that it was a magnet for geniuses like the astronomer Galileo and sculptor/painter Michelangelo. After viewing the magnificent original 7-foot marble David by Michelangelo, we saw his and Galileo’s crypts in Santa Croce.
My hands-down favorite day was an excursion from Florence to the charming Tuscan towns of Siena, whose square or piazza twice each summer is transformed into a horse race track for local festivals, and San Gimignano, or “San Gim,” where we enjoyed delicious pork and salami sandwiches and shared a half carafe of the regional Chianti.
Our first of three nights in Venice, it poured, but the rainy weather forecasts didn’t pan out the next two glorious days. We had an absolute blast getting lost in the islands’ tiny alleyways. If you extended your arms, you could touch either wall. It felt a bit like being a lab rat in a maze, but a happy lab rat.
Of course, we took a gondola ride as well as a water taxi tour of the Grand Canal. Gondoliers have to apprentice two years before they’re official, and the Venetian glass blowers, some 25 years! Venice’s government subsidizes them and the area’s lace makers, so as not to lose the dying arts.
Though Italy is home to Armani suits and Alfa Romeo cars, some 5 percent or fewer nationals are rich enough to enjoy them. Most of the people living in southern Italy aren’t educated; 25 percent are unemployed.
I dropped enough tourism dollars to more than do my part in helping the local economy. Still, my friend had some 60 euros left in his pocket, before we departed the Venice airport for home. I was too hasty in pushing him to exchange them at the airport, versus at my home bank where there would have been no fees. With the lower dollar value and commission, he wound up with $77.
New friends from Canada told us they tuck away any leftover euros as an investment for future European trips. But with daughters who have potential college degrees and weddings in their futures, we weren’t sure when — or if — there would be another like adventure. This much is sure: I won’t wait another 45 years.