A Pinoy’s Italian Adventure
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo
Inq7.net 2006-11-06
NOTHING better demonstrates the Filipino economic tragedy than to travel to Italy. Once a tourist bargain center, Italy is now one of the more expensive destinations in the world. From the cost of high fashion to petrol and all the way to fine dining, Italy can setback a Filipino’s wallet faster than Gloria Macapagal Arroyo can erode the political and economic stability of the country.

From 1990, when my wife Meyang and I first visited Italy, we find ourselves these days going down-market from five-star to three-star hotels. In 1990, I remember paying around US Dollars 140 a night at the Hotel D’ Inghilterra which was located near the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti. Now, the same hotel will cost almost double. In 1990, we paid under P24 for one US Dollar while today we pay around P50 for the US Dollar. The price difference is more than enough to raise the blood pressure of one whose bloodline traces all the way to the Scottish Highlands and Ilocos Norte.

In 2000, when I attended and spoke at the 2000 NetOne International Media Congress that was held at Castelgandolfo, near Rome, we stayed in a four-star hotel, The Victoria, which was located near Via Venetto and Villa Borghessi and paid about US Dollars 180 a night. Today a night at The Victoria would cost over US Dollars 240.

Thus, it is to the ingenuity and persistence of my younger sister Dorothy that we were able to lineup a string of Italian three-star hotels where we stayed during our recent (October 6 to 31) trip to Italy that was a combined pleasure and business trip for me. These three-star hotels are good value for money—they provide clean facilities, are well-managed by an efficient and helpful staff and are all priced under US Dollars 120 a night during peak season, inclusive of breakfast.

These three-star hotels which I feel are worth recommending are the Via Maria Pia in Rome (near the Vatican) which is run by heavenly nuns, some of them Filipinas, the Hotel Jane in Via Orcagna in Firenze, which is just a 15-minute walk to the city center, the Hotel Porta Nuova in Assisi and the Hotel Il Nido in Sorrento.

For those who can afford it and can adjust to Italian road directions and driving habits, I would recommend renting a car (or van for a family) rather than go with a tour bus. For a group of four or more, affordability is not an issue when comparing a vehicle rent from the per head costs of a bus tour.

Having your own vehicle allows you the freedom to visit more places and only those places that really interest you. It also allows you to stay longer in some places and altogether skip a place that you do not feel like visiting—something that you cannot do when you are with a tour bus. And a car can enter many places where tour busses cannot go simply because ancient streets were not made wide enough for busses.

But following Italian directional signs can be a “religious” experience altogether, as my brother-in-law Tito Claro found out when he drove for us. You can end up invoking Divine intervention in trying to find your way around. You may be following a directional sign that disappears for miles on end which then keeps you guessing if you’re still on the right road. Or you can encounter a sign that suddenly changes to another name that only a local can know and follow.

When we were returning to Rome from Sorrento, we followed the directional sign that said “Via Aurelia” which is where the Hotel Via Maria Pia is located. Suddenly, we came upon a junction that connected to two opposite roads—one to Via Aurelia and the other to Aurelio Citta Vaticano. So, we followed the road that led to Via Aurelia only to find out that we were headed away from Rome instead of into Rome. Now how were we to know that Aurelio Citta Vaticano and not Via Aurelia was the right road to Via Maria Pia which is located at Via Aurelia?!

Driving conditions in Italy can vary depending on where you are, as we discovered. Coming from Tuscany where people are well-dressed, well-mannered and drive their vehicles properly, we soon encountered what an Australian friend on mine once described as “creative driving” when he described reckless drivers in the Philippines. This “creative driving” turns out to be one of the unique features of road use in Southern Italy around the area of Mafia-dominated Napoli and scenic Sorrento.

The moment we entered the Napoli area enroute to Sorrento, we felt the “imminent danger” from the way other vehicles were zooming past us, honking their horns at us especially when we had to slow down to read the road signs and from the way motorcycles were threatening to engage us on a head on collision. At least in the Philippines, motorcycle drivers respect the bigger vehicles on the road and would be foolish to propose a head on collision.

You’ll know that you’re in a “danger zone” in Neapolitan roads by the many vehicles that you will see sporting dents of varying proportions. A vehicle that does not sport a single bash or collision blemish is more the exception rather than the rule on Neapolitan roads.

But once you arrive in Sorrento, the traffic aggravation is forgotten as the road unveils one of the most scenic views that your eyes can feast on. This scenic drive goes all the way to Amalfi and Positano, two of the most visited coastal towns in Italy. Many Europeans are thrilled to do the Amalfi-Positano drive which to a Filipino who is used to going up to Baguio is nothing more than a zigzag road.

Italian regions take pride in their respective wines and food preparations. I was pleasantly surprised at the cuisine that a small place in Umbria like Assisi offered. In Sorrento, they seem to make maximum use of their lemon harvest as I detected a lemon flavor in just about everything I ate there.

Compared to other countries in Europe, Italian food is just about the most agreeable to me. British food to me is the least exciting while I found myself deeply disappointed with the food in Spain. I found our Spanish food to be better than the Spanish food in Spain. Bulletin Publisher Nap Rama had a logical explanation for it—Spanish food here has been kept by the rich families while Spain underwent a period of turmoil and poverty which account for compromises in Spanish recipes today.

Thus, while in Sorrento, I had to try this much talked about Ristorante ‘O Canonico which is highly-recommended by Sorrento natives and even reportedly patronized by Luciano Pavarotti. I figured that Pavarotti being a heavyweight then he must have overly-developed and sensitive taste buds like I do.

Located at Sorrento’s Piazza Tasso, ‘O Canonico boasts of having been in existence since 1898. It looks expensive and is priced that way. A normal tab for a dining party of five, without wine, would cost around US Dollars 150 in a major Italian restaurant. In ‘O Canonico, the same meal would cost almost double.

As with other highly-rated restaurants, I asked the head waiter what were the best dishes that they had to offer and what were the freshest catch of the day (Sorrento being a coastal city). Their risotto with lobster was average though not exactly matched with the reputation of the place and its price. But the sole that I had for my second course was an utter disappointment. You did not have to be a fish eater to realize that it was hardly fresh at all. Now if that is ‘O Canonico’s idea of a fresh catch of the day, then the restaurant boasts of nothing more than pricey pretensions.

I would never mind paying over US Dollars 120 for a cut of Kobe Beef prepared Ishiyaki style in Tokyo’s Seryna Restaurant—to me one of the best restaurants in the world—or spending US Dollars 500 in New York’s Churrascaria Plataforma with about five friends or kinfolk to feast on roasted meats that the restaurant claims “even vegetarians love.” But anything higher than the cost of London fish and chips is pricey pretension for that sole that ‘O Canonico served me. My sister Carol was also disappointed with what she ordered while our other sister Dorothy did not even get what she ordered.

Italy—Rome especially—will always be a favorite European destination for many Filipinos. There is the religious significance of Rome as the cradle of our Catholicism, the site of the Vatican where the recognized Vicar of Christ on earth lives and holds office. Our Catholic consciousness accounts for the box office success here of movies like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, Gladiator and all other sword and sandal films that depict the days of the early Christians.

There is the pleasant Italian climate, sunny but cool for the months May to June and from September to October. There is also the fondness for Italian food. You will find many Italian dishes like the various Italian pastas served in Filipino feasts and everyday meals.

Then too, Filipinos feel very comfortable with Italians who, among Europeans, are the closest to the Filipino character and the Pinoy’s zest for la dolce vita.

You may email William M. Esposo at: macesposo@yahoo.com

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