I’m out on the road in Italy again, updating Rick Steves guidebooks. Guidebook research is fun, and many people would say that it is their dream job. I did too, that’s why I’m here.
With all professions, no matter how glamorous from the outside, work is called work for a reason. Guidebook research requires stamina and focus, as well as a decent handle on grammar. Some days go 16 hours without a break because there is always something to do: miles of walking, hours of talking, email, phone calls, sniffing out a good value from a rip-off. It is physically and mentally exhausting.
There are snags and misfortunes. Achey feet. Grumpy hotel owners. Missed buses. People who prey on my kindness or friendship for a good word in the book. Sights, hotels or restaurants that I’ve loved in the past that just don’t make the cut anymore. At the end of the day, I am just so tired.
On the other hand, the enjoyable moments are absurdly enjoyable. Personal tours of wine cellars. Great food. Joyrides through the countryside. Visiting sights that I probably wouldn’t go to otherwise. Some hotel and restaurant owners that I’ve know for more than a decade who welcome my return like the prodigal child, others that are instant friends. I’ve got an extended family here, people that Rick has forged wonderful connections with.
So, yes, I understand the perception that this is a glamorous job. I have a pretty office, that’s for sure. But most of my days are consumed by logistics, tedious tasks, miles of walking, and unraveling absurd Italian bureaucracy. Maybe the best way to explain it is to bring you along for a full day of research madness.
Today is a pretty typical day. I’ve started my day in Volterra and am on the way to Pisa. I have to do that whole chapter today, so it’s going to be busy. Come along, I always enjoy company.
Waking up in my cozy little room at Hotel Volterra In, I check my phone for messages. I’d been up late last night working on the books. Where is the coffee? I’d checked the bus schedule to my next destination. I normally prefer to start around 9, but the only buses were 7:50 or 10:05. 7:50 was not gonna happen. That extra time in the morning allows me to do a little more input on my files and to think about how to organize my day.
I pack up my things and do a thorough sweep of my room. My bag seems a little lighter this morning…hm. That means I’ve either been super efficient in packing or I’ve lost something. Need to invent GPS tags for all possessions that sound an alarm if you leave a hotel without something.
Down to breakfast for a quick coffee and yogurt. I don’t really eat breakfast normally, but I have to go during research to check out the quality. My hotel got top marks from me for having to-go cups for cappuccino, something you never find in Italy.
Off to the bus. I stop at the Tabacchiao for tickets, but of course they are out. 5 minutes until the bus arrives and she advises me to go to the tourist info office in the main square to buy one. She doesn’t mention that tickets are available on the bus, but luckily I know that.
On the bus, the beautiful Tuscan countryside passes by and my stomach churns with the windy roads. Not a fan of the bus. The lady next to me laments how bad the transportation connections to Volterra are. I enjoy talking with elderly Italian ladies, they are usually so chatty. I agree that the bus schedule is problematic and promptly spill my cappuccino-to-go all over my white cardigan. Note to self: white is not my color.
In the less glamorous city of Pontedera, home to the Piaggio factory, I dash across the piazza and switch quickly to a train. The bus is too slow and is a little sketchy between Pontedera and Pisa. I prefer the train. I learned last summer that I could save time on tight connections by buying my train tickets on my phone. Saves hassle too.
Arrival in Pisa
Ok, so, my hurry was unnecessary. The office is completely closed. Tourists wander around the square aimlessly. The portiere tells me that it closed in January for good. Maybe there is one near the tower.
Since I’m in the area, I’ll try and hit a couple of hotels near the train station. It’s getting hot and I have all of my luggage. I travel light, but still, walking for miles with it isn’t my idea of a good time.
I check the first hotel, I remember it from years ago. The woman was concerned back then that we wrote that her bedspreads were faded, so she bought new ones. This time, the hotel is more faded and the air is stale. Our description is even more low key. It’s a convienient location even if it’s in a yucky part of town. I’ll keep it but add the word “stale”.
Next hotel down the street is quite nice. I drop my bags and take a spin around. Smells clean. A little expensive and weirdly upscale for this part of town, not sure I get their business plan. But it’s fine. I think I’ve stayed here before, maybe 10 years ago. This one is great for an early morning flight out of Pisa’s nearby airport.
Back on the streets, time to do the walking tour in the guidebook. I could go to the hotel first and drop my bags, but it’s more efficient to do the walk on the way to the hotel. Now you know why I’ve become a packing light advocate.
I really like this walk, written by Gene Openshaw. He is a delightful writer, and I remember editing this when he first wrote it. Pisa is not an obvious city to love, but his walk takes you to some fun corners. My first stop is a street art mural by Keith Haring. I enjoy these little pieces that make a city special.
I continue to follow the walking tour, noting the carousel has moved and therefore isn’t a good point of reference for directing readers. Carrying on, I amble across the river to my hotel, checking details along the way. My hotel is an old favorite, Royal Victoria, right on the Arno.
The hotel is grand and faded, with cracked plaster and suspicious wiring. Many hotels used to be like this in Italy, but the olden days are disappearing and this kind of funky time warp has become precious.
My room is a cavern with a view out over the Arno. I don’t have time to linger, but that couch has my name on it. I need to have my Room with a View pause. Five minutes turns into an hour and I need to get back on it. I am so very tired but have only today to finish the whole city.
Back out on the streets, I pick up the walking tour where I left off. I follow the directions part way and realize I am too hungry to continue. I don’t typically eat lunch at home, but I also don’t typically walk 6-10 miles per day. If I’m eating, I’d better pick something from the book.
Take out pizza? Ok, found one. We’ve described it as a by-the-slice place but I see nothing like that. The lady at the counter explains that she’ll make me a little custom pizza to take away. Chatting with the owners while I wait, they argue and tease each other, then offer me a taste of cecina, a garbanzo bean flatbread. Can’t turn that down. The “little” pizza comes out of the oven as a whole giant pizza. I take it to go and immediately feel stupid. I should have just sat at a table but I’ll look like an idiot if I go back. I don’t know where I can go eat this thing. A giant, scalding got pizza in hand, I wander for a few blocks in the medieval lanes of Pisa, and finally there is a bench. I scarf down almost all of the pizza, eating way too fast, feeling a little sick after.
Ok, back on the beat. Description of the pizza place is amended. I follow the walking tour and suddenly am lost. I’m in the right place on the map, but not where the written directions say I should be. Time to backtrack. Yep, the dotted line on the map is not correct. Our books are so accurate, but things do slip through the cracks occasionally. I love catching errors like that. Makes me feel like I’ve done my good deed of the day.
The walking tour ends at the Campo dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles and it is a miracle that I can pass through without being trampled. Every tourist comes to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and every one is trying to take that same clever picture of themselves holding up the tower. It’s so dumb and embarrassing. But it’s kind of hilarious. And everyone is doing it. Too. Much. Peer. Pressure. You kind of have to. Ok, I won’t do that same pic but instead will do something more clever! I’m sure nobody’s ever though of MY idea.
Enough of that. Back to work. Oh! My goodness, look at that. There IS a Tourist Information office after all! It’s so much nicer than the old one, and located right on the square. The staff are all about 17 years old and they’ve covered their new office with handwritten signs about their services, written with colorful markers with little hearts dotting each “I”. Um, ok. Although enthusiastic, they are very young. I’m not feeling confident about their ability to give me solid information.
Next door, I try the church ticket office, which sells the tickets for the Tower. The stern woman at the desk is more my age and wearing a serious uniform. I ask her a million questions, pausing every now and then to let her sell tickets. She’s very serious and I am irritating her. I’m not going anywhere though, because I think she’s a person that KNOWS things. I admire how she speaks every single language that is thrown at her. I compliment her for it and the ice cracks a little. She begins to understand that the giant American giornalista is not going to give up. So she tells me every little tip I wanted to know. How to skip lines, what to do if you’re late for your reservation, all of the good stuff I want for the book. I decide to buy a ticket to climb the Leaning Tower, and she’s now my friend. She gives me the museum director’s name and number. She wants to know how I got my job. She’d love to travel like me but her job is so secure and in Italy you just don’t have many choices for solid work…. I hand her my personal card and tell her to keep in touch. I also tell her not to give up on these dreams, anything is possible even if Italian culture can make that hard to see.
These small interactions with locals are a reward of my work. Italian culture is harder to crack than you might think, despite the perception of Italian warmth and exuberance. Making a real connection isn’t easy, but when it happens, it feels like both parties walk away a little richer.
I’ve got some time to kill before my climb reservation, so I pop over and tick off a couple of other hotels. One I have stayed at more than a decade ago. It was creepy and run down then and doesn’t seem to have changed, but the location is killer. The shabby rooms have perfect views of the tower.
The other hotel is nicer but the guy at the desk pretends to not understand me. I repeat to him in clear Italian why I am there and he keeps saying “I don’t know” in English. Huh. Love it when that happens. Can’t decide if it’s because I’m a girl or an American or that this guy simply doesn’t want to say a thing because it could cause him trouble. All of the above, perhaps. I snoop around the hotel anyway and gather whatever intel I can.
Another hotel has a friendlier welcome, the owner lets me pet his cat and proudly shows me his cactus, the largest in Tuscany. The people that really get what I’m doing are usually thrilled to see me, but you’d be surprised how many don’t.
Back out in the piazza, the serious ticket lady told me I could skip the reservation process to go in the Duomo. I love the Pisa Duomo, it’s much more interesting than the tower. This time, though, I’m disappointed because the marvelous mosaics are covered by scaffolding. Boo. An organist makes up for it by playing atmospheric music, filling the church with melody. Book in hand, I carefully follow the tour as best I can despite the restoration work.
Following the serious ticket lady’s advice, I arrive early and check my bag. I wait in line. I try and FaceTime my kids at home to watch me climb, but it’s spring break and they are sleeping. Oh well. After going through some fairly gropey security, I enter the tower. The book says that the custodian does a talk at this point, but I don’t even see a custodian. That’s the thing, we really do need to update these books annually and actually try everything because Italy is a moving target. Change is the only constant.
Up, up, up we go, the slanted spiral staircase with deeply worn treads makes everyone feel like a pack of drunken sailors. The people descending harass and joke with people going up. Only another 10 flights! Ha ha. It’s a funny atmosphere.
From the top, the view is nice. It’s a lovely day. Pisa isn’t a very romantic city to look at, I hear people around me commenting on it. They all seem to wonder why they did this and what the big deal was. The woman next to me says, “Well, I did it. Wouldn’t do it again, but I guess I’m glad I did. Bucket List, you know”. As an architect, I must concur. I’ve always found it weird that so many people clamber to see a construction failure. But, as Rick points out in the guidebook, the cult of the tower is only from the 1900s, the Camposanto (cemetery) was the thing in the 1800s. Tastes change.
From the tower, the last tasks are to tick off another hotel and check transportation connections. This last hotel is close to the tower but feels like a world away, with a classy, chandeliered lobby and a manor house appeal. Huh, that sounds like a classic Rick Steves hotel description. Well, I was trained by the man himself, so that stuff just sort of happens.
Back to the hotel for a wee break before dinner. Need to see more restaurants but in reality I’d like to put on my PJs and eat a burger in bed. No rest for the wicked. And back out the door we go.
Pisa is lively with students at night, I feel like an old lady. When I walk into the restaurants to check them, the staff looks at me like I’m raiding a house party looking for my child. I do the sweep, some places are randomly closed, with zero indication of why. Hate that. There is one restaurant on the other side of the river that I just cannot get to. It’s so far and I am so tired. I have to phone this one in.
I’m not in the mood for a sit down place, but I need dinner. I’m a kebab fan, so glad that this has become fashionable here in Italy. I see a kebab place on Google maps nearby with good ratings. Turns out it’s a “Zero Kilometer” vegan/slow food kebab house. I’m desperate for veggies, so I give it a try. It is absurdly cheap and delicious. Turkey kebab stuffed with sautéed veggies and a giant beer for 5 Euro. Winner! This goes in the book!
Back to the hotel, I settle into my comfy clothes and pull out the laptop. I’m still trying to catch up on some stuff from a few days ago. Data entry is the stinky part. It takes time and needs to be done perfectly. I have to check every website, every phone number. Argh. My eyes are glazing over. Must focus!
After a couple of hours of slogging through the data entry. I decide it’s time to stop for the night. After brushing teeth, I sit on the windowsill and appreciate the lovely view. Of course, a researcher never stops thinking about work, so what I’m really doing is strategizing for tomorrow as I look at a nice view. But if you are going to work hard like this, you may as well have an office like mine. So sleepy….
Buona notte, hope you enjoyed the ride. At it again tomorrow!