‘Hey! Fungoli!’: How the Missus and I Railed Our Way Through Italy

Several years after our misbegotten maiden voyage to Europe, the Missus and I embarked on a Grand Tour of Italy: Milano to Venezia to Firenze to Roma.

First stop: Milan, about which I remember exactly nothing.

The Missus:

For me, Milan was indeed memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Why go at all one might ask? In the 1980s, the industrial city was most often recommended for being much less touristy than vacation mainstays like Florence, Venice and Rome. But that was like saying, visit Trenton, New Jersey to avoid all those Manhattan crowds! OK, Trenton doesn’t have a magnificent Duomo and “The Last Supper,” but you get the idea.

However, Milan was the fashion capital of Italy at that time, so as a trend forecaster I planned a two-day stopover for exploring the chic boutiques and elegant hotspots. After checking into the aptly named Hotel Diana Majestic – favorite of models, photographers, and buyers – I donned my cutting edge, black Karl Lagerfeld (pre-Chanel) coat – thank you Filene’s Basement – for window shopping the high-end Corso Venezia.

The first la-de-da shop we walked into was filled with racks of my personal favorite designs – minimalist silhouettes in exquisite materials. As I touched the sleeve of a beautiful jacket, a sales woman quickly came over and slapped my hand away. I stared at her, stunned. I gathered from her barking Italian that one had to ask for help and perusing was not allowed. Before angrily turning her back on me, she pointed to a loud American couple sitting on a couch. They both wore unattractive clashing bright colors in shiny fabrics with sneakers, yet were being waited on hand and foot. Had I entered fashion Bizarro world?

No. I soon realized the only color the sales woman noticed was the gold of the husband’s American Express card as he approved his wife buying anything and everything presented to her, which I couldn’t imagine her ever actually wearing. We walked out of the store, me dejected, John finding humor in the situation. He was right of course, so we decided to take in the city’s art offerings to cheer up. That didn’t go much better. (See John’s story about our visit to “The Last Supper” in his AdWeek column below.) Needless to say, we never went back.

Second stop: Venice, which was totally memorable. But first we had to get there, an enterprise that generated more than a little drama.

We had decided to travel from city to city on the vaunted Italian railway system. So we made our way to the Milano Centrale railway station to catch the train to Venezia.

Problem #1: Mussolini was no longer there to make the trains run on time. (Spoiler alert: He never actually did.)

Problem #2: The Missus had smartly purchased our train tickets in advance, but they were all in German, which did not sit well with our Italian ticket collector. He started machine-gunning whole paragraphs at us – in Italian, of course – while the Missus went back at him hammer and tongue – in English, of course.

The two of them went around the maypole for more than several minutes, until the Missus successfully browbeat him into punching our tickets.

The Missus:

Why were the tickets in German? I have no idea. Pre-internet days, I booked all our Italian train trips through a travel agent. They were stamped official, pre-paid and even had seat assignments. In my battle with the conductor – who I think was just trying to hijack me for personal pocket money – my vehement refusal to pay any surcharge clearly surprised him, as I’m guessing most Americans cave pretty quickly. Clearly frustrated, he finally proclaimed – in English – “You’ve paid for the seats but not the train! You owe me money.” I told him fine, put the seats out on the train track as we’re not moving. Exasperated, he punched our tickets and stormed off. Arrivederci!

Eventually we arrived in Venice and say, it was swell. To get to our hotel, we caught a vaporetto, which is way more fun than a taxi from Charles de Gaulle to the Marais in Paris or a Blue Line train from Logan to downtown Boston.

Our hotel, thanks to the Missus, was the spectacular Bauer-Grünwald, which FamousHotels.org describes this way: “The Bauer (Grünwald has been dropped from the name) is one of the last great Venice establishments still in private hands, with a strict, utilitarian facade and subdued interiors providing a refreshing antidote to all the gilded and baroque excesses of the city.”

When we stayed there, our room was all warm, rich, polished wood you could see your reflection in. It was a knockout.

As was Venice itself.

The Missus:

I was as surprised as John that we were able to afford such a sumptuous hotel, but that’s what traveling off-season will do for you. The March weather might have been chilly, but the sight of the mesmerizing green lagoon was beyond warm and inviting. When we reached our hotel’s vaporetto stop, we were greeted by rows and rows of rectangular plank wood tables. At check-in, I asked if there had been a festival the day before. “No Signora,” the manager said with a smile. “The flood waters were so high yesterday that one had to walk on the tables just to get down the street.” What a difference a day makes . . . 

We delightedly soaked up every gilded and baroque excess of the city, starting with Piazza San Marco, which is where every tourist begins in Venice.

We also toured the Doge’s Palace: “A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, the Doge’s Palace is an impressive structure composed of layers of building elements and ornamentation, from its 14th and 15th century original foundations to the significant Renaissance and opulent Mannerist adjunctions.”

Whatever. It was indeed totally impressive.

We also took in Santa Maria della Salute . . .

and the Bridge of Sighs . . .

and etc.

But mostly we just wandered through that beautiful city, except for the part where Venice street urchins relentlessly surrounded us asking for money which we resolutely refused to fork over.

The Missus:

Normally I’m a sucker for cute kids begging, but I had recently watched a Diane Sawyer report warning Americans that children in Venice were being used for serious street crimes. Wailing, “Mama sick. Mama sick. Please come,” a child would take the hand of a sympathetic tourist who was led to a back alley where adult robbers were waiting. Thanks to 60 Minutes, we avoided any trouble.

In the evenings, we also had to run the gauntlet of restaurant barkers who stood outside their establishments hawking that night’s blue plate special.

The Missus:

This being off-season, we were the only people dining in our selected trattoria – hence the waiters standing outside begging for business. The food and service was wonderful, but there was one wrinkle. The restaurant had a terrible singer playing the piano, and as we were the only patrons, he kept crooning our way in badly accented English. It kept getting funnier and funnier. At one point, he said he was dedicating the next song to the owner’s wife, with the memorable opening lyrics: “Try me. Don’t be afraid, you can try me! Maybe it’s late, but just try me!” Sitting at a nearby table, the imposing boss either wasn’t listening or didn’t care. Either way we were happy to pay our bill and be on our way.

In the end, it was all special.

At one point we stumbled on the canal-side filming of the TV series Una donna a Venezia, which kept us from having a drink at the fabled Harry’s Bar in the Cipriani Hotel.

Just as well, since it left us a few extra lira to take to our next destination, Firenze.

The Missus:

Who knew Florence is called Firenze in Italian? Well, Italians of course. Since I was counting the train stops from Venice (Venezia was a no-brainer), I knew just when to get off. I later found out that Americans often miss the stop because the station sign doesn’t say Florence. We tourists can be pretty dense sometimes.

• • • • • • •

Presumably because the conductor on the train from Milan punched our tickets, the one on the train from Venice did the same. Upon our arrival in Florence, given that we had only a couple of days there, we went straight for the Greatest Hits Tour.

First stop: the Duomo, described this way by Visit Florence.

Florence’s cathedral stands tall over the city with its magnificent Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, with the baptistery right across. The cathedral named in honor of Santa Maria del Fiore is a vast Gothic structure built on the site of the 7th century church of Santa Reparata, the remains of which can be seen in the crypt.

The inside of the Duomo is equally spectacular.

After we drank in the Duomo, it was off to Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi, the crown jewel of Florentine museums.

The Gallery entirely occupies the first and second floors of the large building constructed between 1560 and 1580 and designed by Giorgio Vasari. It is famous worldwide for its outstanding collections of ancient sculptures and paintings (from the Middle Ages to the Modern period). The collections of paintings from the 14th-century and Renaissance period include some absolute masterpieces: Giotto, Simone Martini, Piero della Francesca, Beato Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Mantegna, Correggio, Leonardo, Raffaello, Michelangelo and Caravaggio, in addition to many precious works by European painters (mainly German, Dutch and Flemish).

Among the collections . . .

It was altogether impossible to take in everything during one visit, so we saw what we saw and moved on (but went back for a longer look a few years later).

Our next stop was The Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David.

After that eye-popping experience, all we had left was the sublime Palazzo Pitti. Once again from Visit Florence:

This enormous palace is one of Florence’s largest architectural monuments. The original palazzo was built for the Pitti family in 1457, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and built by his pupil Luca Fancelli . . .

Today, the Pitti Palace houses some of the most important museums in Florence: on the first floor is the Palatine Gallery, containing a broad collection 16th and 17th century paintings (including works by Raphael), and the Royal Apartments, containing furnishings from a remodeling done in the 19th century.

Representative samples:

The whole place was staggeringly beautiful, as was the adjacent Boboli Gardens, well represented by Neptune’s Fountain.

It was all so . . . captivating.

On several occasions, though, we did actually stop and eat something in Florence, which proved rather costly on the whole. In 1986 the Italian lira was The Biggest Loser of monetary units, as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel noted at the time.

After nearly a quarter century of hemming and hawing, the government finally has decided to put the bloated Italian currency, the lira, on a crash diet.

It’s about time in a country where a single-scoop ice cream cone costs 1,000 currency units, a cab costs 2,800 for simply turning on the meter, an average dinner for two eats up 50,000 currency units and you have to be a millionaire many times over to rent an apartment — 2 million lire a month is not uncommon.

You bet I was doing a lot of long division in my head during that trip.

Exhibit Umpteen: On our first night in Florence, we cruised around the many restaurants near the Duomo and chose one that looked inviting. Once inside, it felt a little pricey, but there we were.

Scanning the menu, I found the least expensive secondi – or main dish – which was, as best I recall, Polpo Bolognese. Hey, Bolognese Whatever, I thought – that’s gotta be okay, right?


Because polpo was – and is – octopus.

Rest assured, I went to bed hungry that night.

Soon enough, though, it was on to Roma, where we had a much more satisfying – and downright theatrical – dining experience.

• • • • • • •

Once we arrived at the Eternal City, we checked into the coincidentally named Hotel Boston near the Spanish Steps. It was a lovely room with large French windows, but, given our limited time in Rome, we quickly headed out to catch that city’s Greatest Hits.

First stop: The Colosseum, described this way by the encyclopedic Civitatis Rome.

The Colosseum is the main symbol of Rome. It is an imposing construction that, with almost 2,000 years of history, will bring you back in time to discover the way of life in the Roman Empire.

The construction of the Colosseum began in the year 72 under the empire of Vespasian and was finished in the year 80 during the rule of the emperor Titus. After completion, the Colosseum became the greatest Roman amphitheatre, measuring 188 meters in length, 156 meters in width and 57 meters in height.

After that, it was on to the Roman Forum, which is a total wreck.

The Missus:

As the name suggests, the Colosseum truly is colossal. Despite the fact that it is now located in the middle of a huge, noisy traffic circle, inside it is downright eerie. You can walk where the Christians were imprisoned before being thrown to the lions and can’t help but picture the horrific violence amongst huge cheering crowds. It’s quite sobering.

Levity came soon after as we explored the Roman Forum with countless other tourists, all of us trying to figure out which bit of ruin had been what. As we all turned our guidebook photos sideways and upside down to no avail, one could make out in various languages, “You think that was the temple of the Vestal Virgins, or is it Castor and Pollux?” Too bad Gladiator wouldn’t come out for another 20 years.

And then there was Rome’s main event: Vatican City. Our first stop, of course, was St. Peter’s Basilica, which I’ve always thought of as God’s parish church.

Once inside, I knew it was.

We also checked out the Sistine Chapel, whose vaunted ceiling was at the time in restauro, as this Britannica piece detailed: “In the 1980s and ’90s, the Sistine Chapel underwent a long and elaborate restoration scheme sponsored by a Japanese television corporation and carried out by top Italian and international experts. The cleaning removed centuries of grime, dust, and candle smoke from the frescoes and revealed unexpectedly brilliant colours . . .”

We saw about one-third of the restoration on our visit there, and it was totally eye-popping. Representative before-and-after.

Just wow.

We also toured the Vatican Museums, which, according to Wikipedia, “display works from the immense collection amassed by the Catholic Church and the papacy throughout the centuries, including several of the most renowned Roman sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. The museums contain roughly 70,000 works, of which 20,000 are on display.”

The Missus: Are you serious? They could sell one-tenth of this and lift the Third World into second place.
Me: We should live so long.

Luckily, we did live long enough to wander into a Sardinian restaurant that night, to be met by a totally pleasant-looking young waiter who watched us puzzle over our menus, walked up, took them away, and said “Trust me, trust me.”

So we did.

Within minutes we had a bottle of chianti and an antipasti dish sitting in front of us. From that point on, Trust Me Trust Me just kept bringing rich, savory dishes to our table and we just kept eating them. (We were much younger then and ate far more wantonly than we do now.)
After three pasta dishes (primi) followed by a meat course (secondi) and vegetables (contorni) followed by insalata followed by formaggi e fruitta followed by dolce (in our case tiramisu) followed by caffe, it was time for digestivo.
Trust Me Trust Me came to the table with a bottle of grappa and poured each of us a glass.
Grappa is winemaking’s potluck: Skins, pulp, seeds, and stems left over from the winemaking process get distilled into a liquid that tastes how I imagine a glassful of kerosene would.
Except here’s the thing about grappa: Right around your third glass, it starts to taste better and better.
Trust Me Trust Me came by our table at increasingly frequent intervals to shake the grappa bottle, a clear sign I wasn’t holding up my end of the deal. So I kept drinking it. I felt I owed him that much after he’d orchestrated such a fabulous meal.
When the grappa was – gulpily – gone, it was time to play Guess the Check, a game the Missus and I created early in our trip.
Restaurant bills in Italy (contos del ristorante) notoriously feature more add-ons than a burrito buffet. Did you sit? Did you stand? How many napkins did you use? Did your sandwich contain spinach, whether you asked for it or not? And etc.
We figured the tab from Trust Me Trust Me was going to be astronomical. When we got the conto, it was the equivalent of $54. We left a 50% tip.
All that remained was for the Missus to roll me back to the hotel and pour me into bed.
Great night.
Not so great morning, though, as you might imagine.
It wasn’t just the jackhammers in my head that woke me up. There was a tour bus loudly idling right beneath our delightful French windows, which augmented the aural assault on my battered brain.
I rushed – naked – to the nearest window, flung it open, and yelled at the world in general, Hey! Fungoli!
I had no idea what that meant; chalk it up to the lingering grappa grip from the night before. Subsequently, I’ve come to realize what I really should have yelled was, Hey! Fongool! (“generally interpreted to mean f**k you”).
My bad. But I think the world in general got the drift.
The Missus:
John being a very mild-mannered kind of guy, I was pretty shocked when he started screaming out the window. Come to find out he inadvertently was yelling something about mushrooms rather than cursing. However, I think the shock value did the trick as quiet soon prevailed and John slept like a log until checkout.
Later that day, the Missus and I said ciao bella to Italy.

• • • • • • •

Upon our return to Boston, I wrote this column for Adweek.

Favorite passage:

One place we wished they’d had signage was Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church that houses da Vinci’s Last Supper. After we’d forked over our hard-earned 4,000 lira each, we discovered inside that the famous fresco was in restauro, as the Italians say.


With scaffolding in front of the middle third of the wall, we could see about two guys on either end.

“I wonder which one is Judas,” I whispered to the Missus.

“The guy who sold us the tickets,” she replied smartly. “They don’t call it delle Grazie for nothing.”

That is why you always want to travel with the Missus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: