The biggest piece of advice I can give any traveler is this: choose your location wisely. When it comes to picking destinations I’m an opportunist. If I can catch a deal, I go. Living in a city without a true international airport (and also not being fabulously wealthy) makes this a necessity- it’s kind of like a modified version of that cat meme: if I fits, I sits. Only warp that into something about planes, budgets, and far-flung destinations.
So destination aside, my advice on location wheedles down to hotels and my rules are as follows:
- If I’m not driving, it needs to be well connected.
- It needs to be in a quiet, safe neighborhood.
- There should be decent attractions nearby: cafes, restaurants, galleries.
- It should be as good if not better than the place I left behind.
I’ll leave the price point alone because each city has its own demands and constraints that contribute to hotel pricing and frankly, given that everyone’s budgets and considerations of “good if not better” vary, I just don’t see the point. I’m sure somebody out there is shaking their head that I pretty much solely travel by backpack but am not backpacking. And to that I say: If I wanted to worry (like my godmother does) about rinsing out my underpants and socks and plot out how to store my crap in communal spaces, surely I’d go live that life. But man, call me uppity but I sure do like a room to myself sans fifteen drunken Germans playing football with their luggage in the hall. I like a concierge and an included hot breakfast. I like down duvets and fluffy pillows. And I damn well like collecting little bottles of free soaps. And for that you need a hotel.
Venice, it turns out, has a plethora of hotels and even hostels and most of them are extraordinarily expensive. I nearly spit out my drink while searching. It was the most money I’ve ever spent on a hotel, even splitting the cost (I see you scoffing, Conde Nast and your $1000+/night hotel recs). But the beauty of Hotel Arcadia Venezia is that it’s 1) beautiful, 2) in the wonderful non-touristy neighborhood of Cannaregio, and 3) it’s a ten minute walk from the train station and a two minute walk to water transport. It’s magical.
Our tour wasn’t officially starting until 4pm in Milan which left us time to get breakfast and make a slow trek down Rio Terà S. Leonardo to mill about the fish market, cross Ponte delle Guglie bridge for some photos and gawking, and then follow the throng of travelers down cobblestone roads to Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia.
The train station itself is nothing to write home about but I suppose very few are. At the very least, it’s practically impossible to get lost even though my mother insisted we were. “How do you know where we’re going?” she kept shouting at me from behind.
“The sign is in English. It says ‘Departures’ right there,” I called to her, jabbing a finger at a large LED sign.
I heard a moderately satisfied, “Oh” as she caught up. We got on the high speed train to Milan- about a 2 hour straight shot across the country to Milan’s central station on ItaliaRail for $25 each. We fumbled past little groups of people through car after car until we settled in across from a Danish mother and daughter. The teenage girl was studying French while her mother alternated between glancing out the window and reading a Danish fashion magazine.
They were replaced in Verona by a couple with a toddler. He busied himself by throwing his father’s bracelet on the ground. “I will not fetch it for you again if you keep doing that,” he scolded, handing it back. His son smiled broadly and waved it in the air, smacking it a few times against the plastic table. He threw it on the ground. My mother laughed and waggled her fingers at him. He grinned.
The landscape opened up into far-reaching fields dotted with plaster and terra-cotta roofed houses. Occasionally a mule would plod through a row of wheat with rising, dusty mountains in the distance. The man’s phone began ringing and briefly he argued with a man in soft tones before handing the phone to his wife.
“Hallo?” she shouted at the phone. “No, you listen to me,” she began. “I waited and you did not call. We came to Verona for work and you did not call. Do not call me again- you waste our time. I do not want to speak to you again. We leave Nigeria to come for jobs, leave Rome for Verona because of you and you do not call. You say, ‘Come to Verona; I have work for you’ and there is no work.” She shifted into another dialect before slamming the phone on the table and conversing rapidly with her husband. As he bounced the baby, he tried to comfort her. He stroked her hand as she rested her chin in her palm, staring out the window.
“It will be alright,” he said.
We disembarked at Milan’s central station and began looking for our train to the airport. We were to be picked up at 4pm and taken to the hotel in Saronno (where Di Saronno is made) for dinner. “Why do they come here?” my mom asked, trudging along next to me through massive crowds of busy travelers.
“Why does anyone leave home? Violence. Economics. Both. The promise of something better.”
“But you can’t just show up and get a job. There are visas and rules.”
“No, you can’t.”
“So they come here with no guarantees?”
The train departs and people file into their seats. I sit with our tickets out. An impeccably dressed Middle Eastern man does the same. A man sits next to him. His long legs fold up, revealing well-polished leather shoes and eccentric socks. He brushes at the faintly shimmering grey wool of his pressed suit. His skin is deep like coffee and he returns my mother’s smile while unfolding his paper. Two younger men walk up to him- he shakes his head at their request but they continue to press him. His voice raises slightly and is firm. He points them down the corridor towards the ticket collector. The man next to him glances over with a raised eyebrow. The young men shuffle off and stare at their phones, trading music videos with each other. A few moments later our tickets are collected and she stops the two boys. One surrenders his ticket but the other is empty handed. He tries to argue to stay on ’til the airport. “Just a few more stops.”
“Next exit, sir” she responds and waits next to him. The Middle Eastern man mutters something in Italian to his companion and he shakes his head and mumbles back. At the platform, she shoos him off.
I look at my map. “We’re going past Saronno on the way to the airport…to wait for the bus driver for two hours…to take us back to Saronno. This is the train stop. This is our hotel.” Ten blocks away.
“Well, that’s just stupid.”
We get off in Saronno and skirt the edge of town. Sorrono is a small, industrial city with a charming city center a few blocks from the hotel.
We join our tour group in the hotel conference room and I note that apart from two girls from Singapore around the age of 19 and a 30 something from Australia, everyone is squarely 60+. We play an awkward game of Guess My Name by running around exchanging placards. “Well, you’re not Brian!” I hear a dozen times with a grandparent’s chuckle. Over dinner, we sit with a couple from Texas (the most Texas women I’ve ever met), two ladies from Malaysia (who may have only known how to say “We’re from Malaysia!” such was the frequency we were all told), a slightly morbid woman (“These vegetables remind me of a dish my daughter used to like. She’s dead.”) and a retired military couple (the husband was a cross between Christopher Kimball and a game show host; his wife, a slightly faded, wide-eyed Stepford wife) who liked to toss around mildly racist statements about “those” people.
“I’m not sure about this,” my mom said as we tucked in for bed.
I wasn’t either but I was going to Lake Como in the morning and that’s all that damn well mattered.