Todayville Travel: Spring in Italy- Rome and Puglia
First in the two-part series ‘Spring in Italy’
“Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.” “Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”
On a lonely country road near Ostuni, in the Province of Puglia – the heel of Italy’s boot – I stopped to photograph a field of poppies in an olive grove. After a few happy snaps I jumped back in the car and motored on. Fifteen minutes later I reached for my daypack and realized in horror that I had left the pack (complete with camera lenses and phone) on the rock wall that fronted the poppy field. We sped back. The bag was gone. Impossible. We hadn’t been gone half an hour and there were no other cars on the road.
While I lay morosely in the ditch, tearing hair and gnashing teeth, my wife Florence calmly analyzed the situation: “Why don’t we call your Iphone?” We expectantly dialed from her cell. No answer. I moped back to the roadside. Florence then suggested, “Let’s have a picnic. Maybe whoever picked up your pack will come back.”
“Right,” I responded caustically, “to collect the 100,000 lira reward.”
We broke bread, cut cheese and sliced salami. I tried vainly to enjoy a cold Peroni on this otherwise beautiful day. It seemed impossible that, in the short time we had been away, someone could have spotted my satchel in a rock crevice on this remote country lane. “There must be another explanation,” I muttered, “maybe a conspiracy.”
An hour later we were disconsolately packing up when a faded 1960’s era Fiat Panda pulled up and stopped tentatively beside us. An elderly man with glasses thick as an olive-oil bottle gazed out from behind the wheel. He eyed us with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. A young boy with equally opaque glasses – obviously a blood relative – peered shyly from the passenger seat. Together they began a lengthy, incomprehensible Puglian discourse – and only when satisfied that we understood the situation, did they proudly retrieve my bag from the back seat.
“Mille, mille grazie,” I said, confused but genuinely grateful. I wanted a picture but the old signor waived us off and the aged Fiat puttered slowly away. “Yup,” Florence remarked, “a conspiracy.”
For years my patient wife has been suggesting, “We should spend a month in Italy.” And for ages I nodded – and deferred. But last spring when the annual request edged toward an ultimatum, in the interests of marital harmony, I acquiesced.
“And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.”
As seasoned travellers we often tour by the seat of our pants, plans random, frequently pulling into a strange town late afternoon searching for accommodation. This has worked well in some places but, in a country where you no speaka da lingua, advance booking is wiser – and infinitely less stressful.
So when the plane touched down at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport in early April, our four weeks of lodging – three nights here, four nights there – were all booked. Even our ride into Rome was arranged. A driver awaited us, patiently displaying a “Mr. and Mrs. Feehan” sign. And twenty minutes later we were checking into a quaint B&B steps away from the Vatican.
We didn’t organize this trip on our own – nor did we use a tour company or travel agent. We employed a much better resource: Sandy, an acquaintance who loves Italy, has been there many times and knows exactly where to direct a couple of adventurous travellers in the land of the Azzurri.
Our friend fashioned the entire itinerary: four days exploring Rome, ten days in the south, a few days biking near San Marino and a final 10 days in the rolling hills of Tuscany. Her planning was so meticulous (right down to AirB&Bs in the heart of each town plus offering detailed day-trip ideas) that I feel we owe her a substantial commission – or maybe just a nice spaghetti dinner.
So for those looking for some free advice and a fool-proof schedule for your upcoming trip to Italy, Sandy’s phone number is…
Rome is a remarkable, fascinating place. This ancient capital of the empire is overflowing with architecture, museums, statuary, Roman ruins and wonderful old neighbourhoods. And despite the sprawling megalopolis that is modern Rome, its iconic sites (the Coliseum, Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon and St. Peter’s) can all be visited in a day’s stroll.
But Rome is overwhelmed with tourists. On average 40,000 people a day cue up to shuffle obediently through the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. April is allegedly shoulder season – and we had booked a “private tour” – but we still had to share Michelangelo’s artistic brilliance with a giant throng of gawking souls, heads uniformly craned toward the majestic ceiling.
Like many big cities Rome is a little seedy. Pope Francis has allowed the homeless to camp within meters of St Peter’s Square. Unfortunately this generous gesture does not add to the curb appeal of the Basilica. We felt a little uncomfortable at night, dodging snoring vagrants, cardboard houses, used needles and other discarded paraphernalia.
I’m not a big city guy so after four days with the hawkers and beggars and tourists snapping pictures with their “selfish sticks” I was happy to pick up our rental car and head for sleepy Puglia, in Italy’s delightful south.
Although it has millennia of history, Italy is actually a new country – only a few years older than Canada. Giuseppe Garibaldi rode in on his horse and unified all the disparate kingdoms in 1861. But even today northern Italians tend to look down their noses at their southern brethren. And reciprocally a hint of proud defiance defines the Puglian character.
Our first stop in the south was Matera, a UNESCO world heritage site renowned for its cliffside cave dwellings or sassi. These grottos have been continuously occupied since Neolithic times and the humble Materans are enormously proud of the “negative architecture” of these underground abodes.
One warm afternoon while we strolled a grassy cliffside path, a well-dressed middle-aged man stepped out from the shadows, cigarette dangling from his lips. He introduced himself as Fabrizio and invited us to visit his family sasso and the kitchen where traditional (tipica) food was served.
“Quanto?” I asked suspiciously, concerned about the cost. “For the cave, free,” he said, “and if you wish something to eat, you decide what to pay.” It was nearly 1 p.m. and we were somewhat peckish, so we warily accepted his invitation.
“I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.”
Thus began the most interesting and enjoyable afternoon of our Italian visit. After showing us the intricately hand-carved rooms where the ancients slept and stabled their animals – as well as the cisterns where water and wine were stored – Fabrizio led us up a narrow passage to his open-air kitchen overlooking Matera.
Then he started the service. First, the antipasti: crusty bread with four olive oil dips, each infused with a local herb, then bruschetta made from shredded garlic and ripe dried tomatoes, then an amazing assortment of meats, cheeses and vegetables.
I was nearly full when out came two different soups, a hearty beef broth and a lentil stew. Next was a crisp pizza. I quietly undid my belt beneath the table.
Fabrizio chatted constantly while he worked – a knowing smile on his face – educating us on local foods, customs and lifestyle. There was also an unending supply of wine, “vino rosso della casa,” vinted from primitivo grapes, which have been cultivated in this region for thousands of years.
“Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?”
There were so many courses I can’t recall them all – fish and more cheese were in there somewhere – but I know we finished with dolce (sweets) and a jolt of espresso.
Fabrizio’s motto is “less is more” but I’ve rarely eaten more in one sitting. Three hours after stumbling in on this amazing gastronomic and cultural experience, we stumbled out into the late afternoon sun. As we left Fabrizio called out, “Won’t you have some pasta Bolognese?” I think if we had kept eating he’d still be bringing out dishes.
And what was il conto you ask? He humbly, delightedly accepted 40 euro – about $60.
A couple of weeks later on the flight home, over the drone of jet engines, I asked Florence, “Why did we wait so long to visit Italy?” She raised her eyes toward the heavens, shook her head and said, “It must have been a conspiracy.” Then she smiled and nodded off.
Next time: Riccione and the Tuscan Hills
Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer.
Todayville is proud to showcase Gerry’s stories developed over more than a decade of travel.
Here’s another great adventure from Gerry
How air passenger complaints ballooned to 42,000-plus
Passengers arrive at Pearson Airport in Mississauga, Ont. on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. The number of air passenger complaints to Canada’s transport regulator has more than tripled over the past year, soaring past 42,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
By Christopher Reynolds in Montreal
The number of air passenger complaints to Canada’s transport regulator has more than tripled over the past year, soaring past 42,000 as of this month.
The ballooning backlog means each case now needs more than a year and a half to handle, spurring advocates and politicians to question the efficacy of the process, even as hiring and funding ramp up.
The complaint tally shot up after travel chaos erupted over the summer and again during the winter holidays as flight demand surged and poor weather conditions disrupted flight schedules.
Complaints totalled about 13,400 as of March 31, 2022, before skyrocketing to unprecedented highs in the ensuing 12 months, according to Canadian Transportation Agency reports. They hit 36,000 in late January, and rose by another 17 per cent since then.
The growing number of grievances comes despite an $11-million funding top-up for the regulator in the federal budget last April, and $76 million more announced last week, with the aim of boosting staff numbers and expediting complaints processing.
The chair of the Canadian Transportation Agency says processing complaints remains its main focus and enforcement comes second. But critics say the backlog owes to major gaps in the air passenger rights charter and inaction on the part of the regulator.
NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach is poised to table a private member’s bill Monday afternoon that seeks to close loopholes, increase fines and make compensation automatic for travellers whose flights are delayed or cancelled.
The Air Passenger Protection Regulations, which took effect in 2019, allow airlines to reject compensation claims by citing safety-related reasons. The proposed legislation would end that exception.
Meanwhile, a dearth of fines speaks to the agency’s disregard for enforcement, advocates claim. The total issued against airlines and airports reached $645,630 over the past 12 months, up from $253,975 in 2021-22 and $54,500 in 2020-21. However, the most recent figure amounts to a fraction of annual airline sales — less than 0.04 per cent of Air Canada’s $16.56-billion revenue last year, for example.
Bachrach is calling for higher penalties and more rigorous enforcement.
“The fines in the legislation as it currently stands are insufficient to act as a deterrent. As long as the cost of following the rules is higher than the cost of breaking them, we’re going to see airlines operate outside the rules as a course of normal business,” he said in a phone interview from Prince Rupert, B.C.
Agency chair France Pégeot told the transport committee in January that clearer, stronger rules would lead to better enforcement.
But she qualified that the agency’s role as a quasi-judicial tribunal handling complaints is priority No. 1, while its mandate to penalize violations comes second.
“The first thing we do is that we really focus, first of all, on complaints, because this is what puts money in the pockets of consumers,” Pégeot told the committee on Jan. 12.
The agency had only six enforcement officers at the time, she noted.
It has also never fined an airline for violations around passenger compensation, she said.
Both Bachrach and John Lawford, who heads the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, say the passenger rights overhaul promised by the federal government for this spring also needs to make compensation automatic in the event of significant delays or short-notice cancellations.
“You need a very dedicated regulator with a clear set of rules that enforces a lot, and a regime that’s easy for consumers to navigate — almost automatic,” Lawford said in a phone interview.
Last week, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra pledged $75.9 million over three years to chip away at the backlog by hiring 200 more employees. He also vowed to end the loophole that allows airlines to dismiss compensation requests on safety grounds such as unscheduled maintenance or even crew shortages.
Tom Oommen, the agency’s director general of analysis and outreach, told The Canadian Press in August it was trying to hire more facilitators who can help resolve customer complaints, but that worker retention remained a problem.
“The CTA has already been reviewing its current complaint resolution process to identify and make process improvements to ensure it makes the best use of the resources provided to it by the government,” the agency said in an email last week.
“For example, we have already been able to streamline the intake of complaints and reduce incomplete and inaccurate applications from 50 per cent of all applications received to 10 per cent, which results in less administrative back and forth, and shorter wait times for complainants.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
Transport minister pledges to close passenger compensation loophole used by airlines
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says the federal government will close a loophole that allows airlines to deny customers compensation for cancelled flights. Travellers wait on hold as they try and speak with their respective airlines at Toronto Pearson International Airport, as a major winter storm disrupts flights in and out of the airport, in Toronto, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
By Christopher Reynolds in Montreal
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Tuesday the federal government will close a loophole that allows airlines to deny customers compensation for cancelled flights.
The reform will come as part of an overhaul of passenger rights to be tabled in Parliament this spring, he said at a press conference.
Asked whether he would end the exemption that lets carriers reject compensation claims by citing safety issues, Alghabra answered in the affirmative.
“The short answer is yes. We are working on strengthening and clarifying the rules to ensure that we make a distinction,” he said.
“Obviously we don’t want planes to fly when it’s unsafe to do so. But there are certain things that are within the control of the airlines, and we need to have clearer rules that puts the responsibility on the airlines when it’s their responsibility.”
Alghabra’s pledge came during a press conference at Toronto’s Pearson airport this morning, where he promised $76 million to reduce the backlog of complaints at the Canadian Transportation Agency.
The money will allow the transport regulator to hire 200 more employees who can chip away at the 42,000 complaints currently filed there, he said.
The announcement comes after the government granted an additional $11 million to the agency in last year’s budget — shortly before travel chaos erupted over the summer as flight demand surged, prompting another wave of complaints.
The compensation loophole in Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations does not exist under European rules.
The latter require compensation on top of refunds if an airline cancels a flight for any reason that falls under its control, which covers most situations except for strikes, extreme weather or war. In Canada, a last-minute cancellation or significantly delayed flight triggered by an event within the airline’s control also triggers a refund — except in the case of safety-related concerns.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2023.
— With files from Maan Alhmidi in Toronto.
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