Rome: The filthiest capital in Europe — and it might be second as well

A common sight: The dumpsters in front of my apartment building.


Sandro Ferri, my old friend at my corner edicola, walked out of his small newsstand to show me something on the ground near his window. It was a small circle of what looked like new concrete. It was once a home — for mice. They used to come up through the hole and head to what was on the other side of his newsstand.

I didn’t have to look. I knew. It’s five dumpsters, all bursting at the iron seams from garbage spilling out of their openings, like pus from open sores. Surrounding the dumpsters were piles upon piles of plastic garbage bags, left there too long for Sandro and me to remember when they weren’t.

This is where the mice came to feed, that is, until he covered the hole last month. Sandro has had this newsstand since 1997. I asked him if it was like this then.

“It’s much worse,” he said. “I’ve never seen Rome like this.”

Neither have I. I first came to Rome in 1978. The air was filthy but the streets were clean. I came again in 1998, during Rome’s economic upturn, and they cleaned up the air. The city was as pristine as what you see in the tourist brochures. I lived here from 2001-03 and fell in love with the city, its beauty, its light. I vowed I’d return forever — and today find myself up to my heart in garbage bags.

Rome is plagued by a lack of space for a public landfill. Observer photo


You may have to go back to the 5th century AD, right after the fall of the Roman Empire when everyone from the Goths to the Vandals sacked the city, to see Rome this filthy. A massive garbage problem that has escalated for six years has turned Rome into the filthiest capital in Europe. I know. I’ve been to every one but Nicosia, Cyprus; Vallata, Malta; Chisinau, Moldova; Bucharest; Sofia; Minsk; Kiev and Warsaw. No other city is within a dumpster fire of Rome as the dirtiest. Rome might be second, too.

I’ve seen worse in the world. Cairo, Jakarta and Port-au-Prince come to mind. However, no other city has built such an international reputation on its respect for beauty. From art to fashion to architecture, Rome has symbolized style, class and elegance since the Renaissance. I tell my friends and visitors that Rome still is the most beautiful city in the world.

Just don’t look down.

If you do, you’ll see sights that will turn your intestines. Bags of garbage spilling out from overflowing dumpsters and onto sidewalks. Seagulls picking open plastic to get to discarded table scraps. Entire stretches of road heading to the beach lined with garbage bags. Hookers sitting on chairs in front of a mountain of trash don’t dress it up a bit.

The garbage is even attracting wild boars into the city. Millennium Report photo


I’ve read reports of scavenger birds fighting wild boars for rat carcasses.

And the smell … you don’t even have to look while walking down a sidewalk to know you’re by a dumpster. During one stretch this steaming summer, they didn’t pick up the garbage on our street for 15 days. I asked Sandro what’s it like to work next to this and he held his nose.

We live in Monteverde, a “chic” neighborhood of tree-lined streets, classy apartment buildings from the ‘30s and tony bars and restaurants. Yet on most days my street, Via Monte Verde, looks like an alley in rural India.

“Rome is the window on the country,” said Carlo Pascucci, a Monteverde native who runs my neighborhood beer bar, Stappo. “Here is something that jumps in your eyes because we are the fucking Eternal City. The garbage is all around. Rome is the Eternal City. We can’t have eternal rubbish around.”

How bad is it? According to The Associated Press, Rome produces 1.7 cubic tons of rubbish every year. About 1.2 million of it gets exported at a cost of 180 million euros. The other 5 million apparently don’t get collected. Why? Rome’s garbage problems began in 2013 when its Malagrotta landfill, once the largest in Europe and Rome’s only garbage dump for 30 years, closed due to “lack of maintenance.”

Think about that for a second. What kind of lack of maintenance would a garbage dump require to be labeled a “lack of maintenance”? Of the three current landfills, two have been closed for maintenance and another burned to cinders under suspicious circumstances.

What is left is a blighted city and a fuming populace. In October a protest in front of city hall called Rome “an open sewer.” An organization called Roma Fa Schifo (Rome Sucks) did a song parody on the problem.

Rome chief physician Antonio Magi put Rome on “hygiene alert” and could upgrade it to “health warning.” He said diseases are surfacing from — get this — feces of rats, insects and birds eating the trash. Some citizens are spreading rat poison over the excess garbage on the streets, causing more noxious fumes from the rotting rat corpses in Rome’s summer heat.

Bella Roma!

Who’s to blame? Like Rome’s garbage, blame is spread everywhere:

Even tourist sites are having problems. The Points Guy photo


* AMA ROMA. AMA Roma means “Love Rome.” That’s the most disingenuous name this side of Fox News. The heart for “AMA” on its trucks should be a discarded pizza crust. According to Mayor Virginia Raggi, AMA was 600 million euros in debt as of three years ago. Romans have little sympathy. They pay an average garbage tax of 597 euros per habitat a year, nearly twice Venice which has the second highest at 353. Some offices in Rome pay 4,500 euros.

Private companies have dominated the history of Rome’s garbage collection. Prosecutors have tried connecting it with organized crime and gone after the owner of Malagrotta, Manlio Cerroni, a lawyer who goes by “Il Supremo.” The biggest problem is Rome flat out has no place to put its garbage. The Malagrotta closure put intense pressure on the three other landfills. The fire then knocked out the Salario dump which treated one quarter of Rome’s garbage.

Add maintenance problems on trucks and you have a city of 2.8 million people with no place to throw a wine bottle. Ofttimes, the trucks will pick up the garbage from the overflowing dumpsters but leave on the sidewalk the garbage bags that didn’t fit. Visitors who see piles of garbage next to empty dumpsters must think Romans are as filthy as their city. (More on that later.)

AMA boss Lorenzo Bacagnani has plans. He wants to build 13 new facilities, including three recycling plants, which will process 880,000 tons of waste a year. He says Rome will become “a model for Europe in waste management.” If you know anyone in Rome who wants a landfill in their neighborhood, have them contact Lorenzo. No one has stepped up. I tried talking to AMA. They directed me to the city government.

Rome mayor Virginia Raggi. Il Tempo photo


*CITY GOVERNMENT. The paddle girl in this whole controversy is one 41-year-old Virginia Raggi. Three years ago she became Rome’s first woman mayor on the platform of being an outsider from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. She’s a young, attractive lawyer, not a grizzled, insider politician. She promised to shake things up, including the broken-down organizations of AMA and ATAC, Rome’s pre-Renaissance public transportation service.

She’s beautiful but has had little to no impact. She asked other towns in Lazio and other regions in Italy to open their landfills to Rome. On Facebook, she wrote, “Romans don’t need a new dump or new incinerators. Romans don’t deserve this non solution which would end up sweeping the dust under the carpet once again.”

She has a plan to expand door to door collections from a few neighborhoods to the whole city. Her goal is 70 percent of the waste collected separately by the time her term ends in 2021. The percentage stood at 44 percent last year.

In the meantime, she is battling Nicola Zingaretti, the president of Rome’s Lazio region, in a headline-grabbing blame game. Zingaretti said Raggi should be “ashamed” after she “reduced the most beautiful city in the world into a disaster zone.” She claimed the disaster was manufactured to cause political damage. He claimed this summer he’d solve the problem in seven days, a prediction she — and everyone else — all but laughed at.

Thirsty anyone?


It’s been about a month since his boast and yesterday I had to shoehorn a plastic milk bottle into the crammed dumpster on my street.

The infighting and head banging aren’t going over well in a city where the inhabitants are turning on its government. I’ve lived here for seven years over two stints and Romans always amazed me at their ability to stay cheerful through crises. I’ve never seen them so angry.

Christian Raimo, a writer and neighborhood administrator who has supported some protests, wrote, “City managers have demonstrated they’re completely unfit to design an effective strategy able to address Rome’s waste problem.”

I contacted the city and they didn’t return my emails requesting comment.

Retake Roma’s Monteverde Vecchio founder Paolo Monteverde with fellow volunteers Alessio Carlevaris and Manica Tatiana.


* CITIZENS. About three weeks ago I was walking to my gym behind two well-dressed, middle-aged Italian men. One blatantly dropped a large plastic wrapper on the sidewalk — right in front of a dumpster far from full. Furious, I pointed at the wrapper and said, “Questo e’ SPAZZATURA! Metterlo nella SPAZZATURA! (That’s GARBAGE! Put it in the GARBAGE!)” What did he do? He shrugged, a shrug that said, “I don’t care and I don’t care what you think.” So I told him, “SEI UNO STRONZO! (YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!) VAFFANCULO! (GO FUCK YOURSELF!)” He turned the corner. I don’t even know if he heard me. Everyone else on the street did. They stared.

The U.S. has many problems but litter isn’t one of them. The rest of Europe is spotless. Last fall I was in Liechtenstein and saw a woman light a cigarette and walk half a block to place the match in a wastebasket.

Mediterannean populations have a reputation for being void of environmental enlightenment. However, I’ve been all through Greece and in many parts of Spain and haven’t seen the blatant disregard for litter as I have in Rome. Much of it isn’t Romans’ fault. If they find no room in dumpsters, they must put their garbage on the sidewalk. I’ve done it. When people on the outskirts see entire rest stops filled with garbage bags, it’s natural to add to the pile.

But it’s clear some Romans don’t care as much about their streets as they do their art, food and fashion.

“We have some kind of ignorance,” said Carlo, sitting in his small air-conditioned bar with such lovely Italian craft beers. “We lost what we were before. There were so many kilometers of city but every neighborhood had its rules. We used to respect. We lived in a way that was taught by our ancestors. But now we’re living what the television and media tell us how to live.”

He told me one day last week he was on his motorbike at a traffic light. Some guy in a car next to him rolled down his window and threw out an empty cigarette package. Pascucci picked it up, took it to him and said, “YOU LOST THIS!”

“He went white,” Pascucci said. “Sometimes these things make me crazy. I said to him, ‘It’s not the right way in this city.’ I put it on his windshield.”

One of the many protests in Rome this year. Guardian photo


The organization Retake Roma began 10 years ago to help educate Romans about the environment, work with AMA on collections and call police when they see violations. The founder of the Monteverde Vecchio branch, who calls himself Paolo Monteverde for the neighborhood where he grew up and now lives and works, agrees not all of the problems fall on the city.

“We wanted to do something concrete to bring back the decorum of Rome and sensitize the people of Rome of taking civic responsibility,” he said as fellow volunteers swept up leaves and dirt on the sidewalk. “Even though it’s not your private property, it’s everybody’s and so is the civic responsibility, to wake up this civic sense, to bring the beauty back in Rome.”

Organizations like Retake Roma and Roma Fa Schifo give hope to my beloved adopted city. We need a massive parcel of land more than anything else but in the meantime public awareness might make a bigger dent than me cussing out a local on a sidewalk.

Asked about Retake Roma’s mission, he later wrote in an email, “On the one hand making adults and students aware of waste reduction, to differentiate while encouraging the reuse and recycling of materials, etc. On the other hand, explaining the penalties for those who dirty or throw rubbish or leave bulk (furniture) in the street, also collaborating with AMA for some events (they lend us materials and withdraw the sacks of waste that are produced during a Retake event.)

“If we see bulk in the street we report it. If we see who abandons them we report to the police the plate of the vehicle. If we see bags of rubbish outside the bins we put them in. We also promptly inform AMA and/or the municipality of cases of bins overflowing or overturned or burnt or missing or badly positioned.”

The problem has cast a mask of gloom on the normally upbeat Romans. My corner coffee bar, Romagnani Caffe, is my Cheers. Everyone knows each other. All the barristas know what I order. Yet AS Roma’s soccer fortunes are often replaced with conversations of rubbish, like the time they saw an estimated 250 bags of garbage around the previously mentioned dumpsters across the street.

I asked Carlo how sad he is.

“So much. So much,” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I hate this city what it has become. Because it was never like this. This was a different metropolis from all the others all over the world. We used to have a big city with a lot of people that had a community sense, a living-together sense.”

It’s still there. Unfortunately, we are all living together in filth and the sense that this community is falling apart. Add holes in the streets, buses that burst into flames and tortoise-like public services and you have a city on the verge of collapse. Rome is nearly 3,000 years old, was once the center of the most powerful civilization in man’s history and now it can’t pick up a discarded Barilla box.

Maybe it’s time to plug some more holes.

15 tips on how to beat the heat in sweltering Rome in July and August

A tourist walks under the sun in front of the Colosseum. Temperatures are in the high 90s this week. AFP photo.


How hot is it in Rome this week? It’s so hot …

… the oracle in Julius Caesar’s hand on the statue near the Forum has been mysteriously replaced with a bottle of Gatorade.

… rats have left their piles of garbage on the streets and checked in at the Marriott.

… the Saudi Arabian Embassy just moved in a beer keg.

OK, I shouldn’t complain. My old United States is melting like gelato. Record temperatures are killing people and electrical grids. Baseball fans in Chicago’s Wrigley Field gave a standing ovation to a slight breeze. The state of Texas has melted into Mexico like dollops of pancake batter on a skillet.

Here in Rome, it’s summer as usual. Temperatures this week range from 93-97 with humidity at a relatively mild 35-50 percent. Screw relativity. Rome is still broiling. July is THE worst month to visit this city, as I wrote four years ago. It’s hot. It’s crowded. Public transportation is cut back to the age of chariots. The biggest impression with which you’ll leave Rome is how in the hell did the Roman Empire survive 900 years with these summers?

August isn’t quite so bad. Half of Rome leaves on vacation, leaving it less crowded but also with many establishments closed. August weather is about the same. If any of you are foolish enough to visit Rome in these two months, you can still enjoy it without drowning in your own pool of sweat.

Do not, however, jump into a fountain. Eight tourists were recently fined 450 euros each for jumping into the Trevi Fountain. Forget the “La Dolce Vita” reenactment. It’s no longer interesting, and it’s no longer free.

This is my seventh summer in Rome. I’ve learned a few things along the way, such as hibernating on my balcony and just eat fruit. I know you visitors can’t do that (You wouldn’t quite fit) so here are 15 tips, A Guide to Roasting Rome (with links to past blogs with more details).

Me at one of the 2,500 nasonis around Rome. Photo by Marina Pascucci


1. Tap water. It’s not illegal to buy bottled water in Rome, but it should be. For 2,000 years Rome has been known for its fantastic tap water. Some of its ancient aqueducts are still in use today, bringing fresh, cold water from the distant mountains to your hotel room. Along with Scandinavia, it’s the best tap water I’ve ever tasted. Instead of spending money on bottled water, go to any bar and order “acqua rubinetto con ghiaccio (tap water with ice).” It’s free and they’ll often bring you a whole pitcher of water with ice on the side. Or you can kneel next to one of the 2,500 cisterns or “nasoni,” the drinking fountains that look like a large nose. Stick your finger over the narrow nose-like opening, and out shoots a stream of fresh, cold water through a hole on top. And it’s cold even in July.

Sperlonga


2. The Beach. Few people know that Rome is on the sea. Its Ostia neighborhood is hard on the Tyrrhenian Sea and is one of many beaches accessible from the city. Ostia’s beach isn’t beautiful. It won’t make you forget Greece. However, it has perfect sand with nary a rock, its water is relatively clean and it’s the perfect temperature. A local train from the Roma Ostia Lido station in the Ostiense neighborhood goes straight to Ostia where you have a short walk to the beach. There are also cheap trains and buses to more beautiful beaches farther south at Sabaudia, Sperlonga and Gaeta.

Me at the Sheraton Roma.


3. Pools. Tired of touring? If you’ve seen one more marble statue you’ll turn into one? Find a pool. Rome’s hotels aren’t like Las Vegas’ but most are accessible to the public. A couple times a summer I go to the Sheraton Roma in l’EUR about a 10-minute walk from the EUR Fermi Metro stop. It has a beautiful pool 9 feet deep with padded lounge chairs and a pool bar where they’ll serve you free ice water all day. It’s 20 euros entry and well worth it. But bring snacks. The pool-side menu is expensive. Public pools include Acquaniene in the Parioli neighborhood (15 euros) and Piscina delle Rose (16) also in l’EUR. Here’s a detailed list: https://lolamamma.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/best-swimming-pools-in-rome/.

The world’s most popular food is even more popular now. Photo by Marina Pascucci


4. Fruit gelato. Everyone eats gelato in Rome, regardless of month. It’s mankind’s favorite food, right? But in summer, go heavy on the fruit flavors. They’re natural. They’re fresh. They’re cool. True Roman gelaterias only use fruit in season. Thus, this month order fragola (strawberry), melone (cantaloupe), pesca (peach), pera (pear), amarena (black cherry), fico (fig). No don’t order fig. Fig sucks. Click here for my five favorite gelaterias in Rome.
5. Museums and churches. It doesn’t matter if your idea of art is a tattoo. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a devil worshipper. The one thing you’ll get out of going to Rome’s museums and churches is the cool air. Use the steaming afternoons for your culture ventures. Museums must be air-conditioned to preserve the art and churches somehow are naturally cool, remarkable considering how huge they are. Hey, maybe there is a God.
6. Wear shorts. When I lived here from 2001-03, few men wore shorts. Now it’s chic. However, they must be the right shorts. This is Rome, Italy, not Rome, Georgia. Don’t wear cutoffs. Don’t wear gym shorts. Don’t wear a swimsuit. Wear knee-length shorts with stylish shoes, preferably light shoes such as loafers. You can take advantage of the annual July sale to buy what you need when you arrive.
7. Tour in the morning. Romans get up real early. When in Rome … set your alarm. Or sleep with the drapes open and let the sun wake you up at just before 6 a.m. That’s when I wake. I go across the street to my corner bar, order a cappuccino and cornetto and read the paper in pleasant 75 degrees while the sun comes up. This is the time to hit Rome’s main sights. Go to Piazza Navona before 7 a.m. and you’ll have it nearly all to yourself. I’m a film extra and shot a scene in CBS’ “Blood & Treasure” before dawn at Trevi Fountain. The gurgling torrent of water is even more beautiful when seen without the fountain ringed with cell-snapping tourists.

Lake Nemi. Photo by Marina Pascucci


8. Castelli Romani. This is a series of 14 small towns tucked into the Alban Hills high above Rome southeast of town. Each one has its own attraction: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling, suckling pig so luscious inside fresh bread; Genzano for fresh bread sold all over Rome; Nemi for strawberries; Castel Gandolfo for the pope’s castle retreat above a gorgeous lake. Temperatures drop significantly in these towns and are easy to reach via the COTRAL bus line outside the Anagnina Metro stop or direct train from Termini station.
9. Outdoor clubs at night. I don’t like music but I hear Rome has some good outdoor bars on summer nights. Check out this website for listings and bands: https://www.wantedinrome.com/whatson/top-10-outdoor-venues-in-rome-this-summer.html

Mithraeum in Basilicata di San Clemente. Tertullian.org photo


10. Rome underground. This is courtesy of Elyssa Bernard of Romewise: You don’t have to bake at the Forum to see ancient ruins. Rome also has terrific sites underground. Check out the Mithraeum under the Basilicata of San Clemente near the Colosseum. Mithraism was a cult based on Roman mythology in which the god Mithras killed a wild bull and its blood caused plants to grow. Mithraic temples, almost always underground, hosted initiation rites for the Mithraeum followers. Then walk about 500 meters to the Roman houses at Celio where, legend has it, two Roman soldiers lived in the subterranean dwelling until they were beheaded. The houses have 20 highly decorated rooms. Then walk into nearby Parco del Colle Oppio and visit Domus Aurea which Nero built after the fire of 64 AD. Reservations (39-06-3996-7700, http://www.coopculture.it) are highly recommended.
11. Pausa. This is the Italian siesta. From about 1-4:30 p.m., many businesses close. Although Italy’s economic recession has lessened this tradition, many Romans still use this period to take care of personal business, rest, have lunch or visit with friends. When the afternoon heat reaches its peak, go to your air-conditioned room and take a nap. Wake up as the sun starts to set.
11. Lunch inside. One reason I love Rome is I can eat outside about nine months a year. However, in July limit it to breakfast and dinner. Don’t even think about lunch. Even in the shade it’s miserable. The misters many restaurants in Las Vegas and Phoenix and other steaming spots haven’t made their way to Rome. Rome’s restaurants are all air-conditioned and lovely inside. Save the outdoor ambience for the evening.

Marina and me at Terrazza Barromini.


12. Rooftop bars. Speaking of evenings, after the sun sets at about 8:30, head to one of Rome’s many rooftop bars for a cocktail or glass of wine. This is the Rome you’ve read and dreamed about. My two favorites: One, Terazza Barromini atop Palazzo Pamphilj behind the Chiesa di Sant’Agnese in Agone on Piazza Navona. You sit on overstuffed couches while an elegant wait staff whisk drinks to you as you stare out at the rooftops of the churches in Centro Storico. Reservations (39-06-6821-5459) are required. Two, Atlante Star Hotel in Prati near the Vatican has a beautiful terrace with spectacular views of St. Peter’s and Castel Sant’Angelo, the castle Hadrian built and later used as a popes retreat.
13. Ice Club. This is kind of schlocky and can be found in other cities. But when I walk by it on the charming narrow road of Via della Madonna dei Monti in July, I am very tempted to enter. It’s only 15 euros. Inside is 40 tons of ice and 23 degree temperatures. You’re handed a blanket and a menu of different-flavored vodkas. It’s in the Monti neighborhood near the Colosseum which seems to trap summer heat like a nursery for African violets. I have never visited the Ice Club but some sweltering day I will. Reservations recommended: 39-06-978-45581 or info@iceclubroma.it.

Villa Doria Pamphilj


14. Parks. Believe it or not, Rome has more park acreage than Paris. Our parks just don’t have the cache. Still, they are great places to plop down in the shade by a lake and have a picnic or a bottle of wine. I live in Monteverde just below Villa Doria Pamphilj, a 455-square-acre park covered in Mediterranean pine trees with jogging paths, a huge lake and a 17th century palace once owned by Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of Pope Innocent X. Or go to Villa Borghese and picnic before touring its museum or Villa Ada in the ‘hood of world embassies.
15. Italian craft beer. Italy is the fastest growing beer nation in the world. Twelve years ago, Italy had only 70 craft breweries. Today there are more than 1,000. They are strong, smooth and varied. You can get IPAs, lagers and Belgian-style ales. My favorite birrerias are Bir & Fud, Via Benedetta 23 in Trastevere, a narrow bar with 30 beers on tap and a small patio, and Open Baladin, a beautiful, back-lit bar near Campo de’ Fiori at Via Degli Specchi 6, featuring 40 beers on tap and many more in a bottle. Here’s a link to a story I did on Rome’s beer boom for BeerAdvocate magazine in 2014. Is drinking beer healthy for beating dehydration? No but screw it. It tastes good.

What’s in my backpack? From Clif Bars to a tape recorder, these are what I never leave home without

This is the backpack I take on nearly all my travels as it always fits in the overhead bin.


A popular question celebrities get online is what’s the one thing they always carry in their bag when they travel. I’ve read everything from a teddy bear to those silly looking neck cushions that bounce around the top of bags like feather boas.

I have my list, too. Of course, it varies where I go. This year I’ve already been to Ireland, Beirut, Central Asia, Spain and around Italy so obviously my clothes vary. Last year I blogged about what to pack for Rome and the list below is what I pack when I leave Rome.

The amount you carry is key. As I wrote before, when you pack, wherever you go, write out a list of what you think you’ll need. Then cut it in half. Every trip you wind up not wearing something. If you only wear an item once, you wasted valuable space for absolute musts when you return home — like souvenir booze.

Also, if you’re traveling to one place for an extended period, such as three weeks or a month, buy some cheap local clothes after you arrive. I’m not talking about going to Switzerland and buying lederhosen but billowy, lightweight cotton shirts and pants can be bought for pennies in South Asia and South America. Just buy them in conservative patterns and colors so when you return home you can still wear them. You don’t want to walk around town looking like Ali Baba.

I travel light. I carry one backpack. That’s it. And it’s usually small. If it’s a hiking trip I’ll stuff a small day pack in the bottom of it. I feel I’ve failed if my pack is so big I must check it. I’m only a nervous traveler when I’m waiting at baggage claim. I don’t trust airports or airlines. Besides, I want to grab my pack from the overhead bin and leave.

There’s a country to explore.

So, again, use my tips as a guide, not a bible. Everyone has different needs. These are mine. These are what I always carry:

Clif Bars. Friends and family members from the U.S. who stay in my Rome apartment know the price: They must bring me Clif Bars. As a traveling food columnist for The Denver Post I called Clif Bars “The greatest invention since fire.” I was not kidding. These little 67-gram energy bars, developed in 1992 by a California outdoorsman and sold nationwide out of Emeryville, California, are the perfect meal replacements. They are 250 calories, only 45 from fat, and 18 percent protein. They’re flat, do not melt and their shelf life ranges between Ivory soap and Tuscan marble. Major U.S. supermarkets often sell them for about $1 each. I pack one for every day I travel. And the flavors explode in your mouth like fresh honey. If I was to be executed tomorrow, my last meal tonight might be a chocolate-coconut Clif Bar.

Clothes folder. The U.S. has a fantastic outdoor store chain called REI. It carries a brand named Eagle Creek which produces a flat rectangular base with four flaps. You fold your clothes, pile them on the base then close the Velcro flaps over them. It cuts down the size tremendously. Put the clothes in plastic to guarantee wrinkle free.

Hooded windbreaker. I don’t travel with coats. Regardless of how cold my destination, I take a lined windbreaker that rolls into a zippered ball and fits in the bottom of my pack. If my pack gets too full, I can wrap it around the handle. In cold weather, such as the high 30s at night in Tajikistan in May, I dressed in layers. Coats are too bulky and a pain when the weather turns warm.

Pepto-Bismol. Complain all you want about Big Pharm but Procter & Gamble got this one right. These little pink pills stop any stomach ailment before it occurs. I take two after every meal in Third World countries where the cuisine is so different from Italy’s that it can send the stomach into toxic shock. As my system gets used to the local food, I wean back on the Pepto. You get a bit constipated but that’s better than sitting on a bus in rural Mongolia desperate for a rest stop.

Seven pairs of underwear. I wear one for every two days. After about two weeks, when I’m in a place for 48 hours, hopefully a sunny place, I wash and dry them. I’m starting to buy Speedos. They’re comfortable and dry faster. No, I do NOT wear Speedos at the beach, unlike most of the male world. This is one fashion statement in which I’m proud to be an American.

Swimsuit. Even in a landlocked destination I’ll bring this essential item. While hiking in Kyrgyzstan in May I came across some beautiful thermal baths. I wore my swimsuit under my hiking shorts, took off my shorts and soaked for an hour, modesty and all. Also, swimsuits are easy to don in the middle of the night on a bathroom break with a shared bath.

Brown Italian loafers. I consider myself a backpacker but unlike budget travelers, I try to travel with some class. Italy has the world’s best shoes and brown Italian loafers dress up everything from cargo pants to jeans. I can hike a mountain in the day and go to a nice restaurant at night without looking like I just, well, hiked a mountain that day. They’re also as comfortable as slippers. The loafers squeeze flat anywhere inside my pack and quickly return to shape. I can buy a pair here in Rome for about 40 euros.

Mini flashlight. I travel to some places where electricity is as scarce as the English language. Flashlights are essential when faced with pitched darkness such as on Nicaragua’s Big Corn Island where I navigated through a post-midnight forest after a long night at a beach bar. In Belize I had to walk down a pitch-black service road before dawn, the haunting noises coming from the adjacent jungle made my flashlight my lifeline.

Lonely Planet. It’s the best guide book on the planet. Like this blog, use it as a guide, not as a bible. Its logistics are always spot on. It cuts down your pre-trip research by 80 percent. The descriptions of destinations are objective. Their writers aren’t afraid to warn about places that, basically, suck. I don’t use its restaurant recommendations very often. I talk to locals. I ask them, “Where would YOU go to eat local food?” After a great meal where I’m often the only tourist, I often return to my room and there it is. That restaurant is listed in Lonely Planet.

A book about the country I’m traveling. Your experience is enriched when you’re reading about the country through which you’re traveling. You learn more. It stays with you longer. I read “The New Silk Roads” while in Central Asia, “The Seasons of Trouble” while in Sri Lanka and “Gandhi” while in India. It’s like having a professional, experienced guide at your fingertips.

AlphaSmart. It’s a little word processor, sans modem, that I use to write a journal every morning. It weighs about one pound, costs less than $30 on Amazon, operates by battery and I can write on it anywhere. I’ve written everywhere from the shade of a camel in the Tunisian Sahara to the foot of a volcano in Iceland. When I get home I can download it all into my laptop which I can not afford to lose or get damaged. After three weeks in Central Asia, I downloaded 25,000 words.

Tape recorder. As a travel writer, you never know when you’ll meet a fascinating source. If I meet someone with a tale to tell, I’ll ask if I can quote them and go fetch my little digital recorder. Or I’ll bring it with me for an arranged interview in case we talk in a loud bar. After 45 years in the business, my handwriting looks like Sanskrit graffiti. I don’t trust it. I trust my recorder. So should the people I interview.

Sounds like a lot? It’s not. I can fit it all into a 24-inch-by-11-by-11 backpack that stores easily in the overhead bin. So this summer as the travel season heats up, remember to pack down.

Happy trails.

The Liechtenstein Trail bounces New York Times off my bucket list

Martin Knopfel, who designed the Liechtenstein Trail, and I at about the midway point before it opened in May. Photo by Marina Pascucci


TRIESENBERG, Liechtenstein — I’ve always had two bucket lists: one for travel, one for writing. My travel bucket list has shrunk rapidly after 105 countries. My writing bucket list remained frustratingly stagnant, even after retirement 5 ½ years ago. It sat on my computer screen, mocking me like an old boss saying I should find another line of work. I had plenty of time on my hands to knock off goals. I thought I would X-out Publish in a Major Magazine four years ago when Penthouse agreed to buy my story on a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, that specializes in S&M. Then Penthouse got sold, its direction changed and all I got was a nice kill fee and nightmares about leather-clad women in cages.

Marina and I holding up our New York Times debut.


I’d tell you the cliche that I could wallpaper the inside of my apartment with rejection notices from The New York Times. But I never received any. I didn’t get a single response. However, my sportswriting background turned me into a bulldog at a young age and now I’m just a stubborn old dog. A year ago, I made a friend who knew someone at The Times who knew the travel editor who put a bug in his ear about me.

The result came May 26 when The New York Times published my story on Liechtenstein along with photos from my girlfriend, the uber-talented Marina Pascucci. My writing bucket list just got shorter, finally.

Why Liechtenstein? Where is Liechtenstein? What is Liechtenstein? Good questions, all. I visited and wrote about Liechtenstein in 2016. The tiny principality in the middle of the Alps between Austria and Switzerland was a fall-back destination after a freelance assignment in Austria fell through. Turns out, the fourth smallest country in Europe has more than just beautiful, oversized postage stamps. From the gorgeous, lightly trodden mountains to the cute villages to the great cuisine, Liechtenstein is Switzerland light, the perfect off-the-beaten-path post for the intrepid traveler.

Last year while researching future travel story topics I stumbled onto this factoid: 2019 is the 300th anniversary of Liechtenstein’s independence. Yes, through Napoleon Bonaparte’s wide swath through Europe, World War I and Nazi Germany, Liechtenstein never lost its country. Or its soul.

I called Liechtenstein Marketing for a story angle. Among the year long list of events, they were creating a 46.6-mile hiking trail that connects all 11 cities in the country. It would open in May 2019 and would include an app that gives information and virtual reality visuals of 147 places of interest (POI).

The views of Triesen from Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s called the Liechtenstein Trail and in October, I was going to be its first guinea pig.

Marina is a gym junkie and not much of a hiker but she loves mountains. I love her photos of mountains. She came along. We had a one-night layover in Zurich then took the train south to the cute capital of Vaduz and a bus to a gorgeous off-season ski resort, Malbun, the only ski resort in Liechtenstein.

Sure, saying I walked across a country, knowing it’s Liechtenstein, is like saying I got published in The New York Times and it was a want ad. I once walked across Monaco. It took 45 minutes. Liechtenstein isn’t that small but it’s all of 17 miles long and nine miles wide. As I wrote in The Times, “It is one cattle farm bigger than Staten Island.” You can drive the length of it in 25 minutes. A middle-aged person with a long-expired gym membership could walk across it in two days and have time for lunch and dinner out both days.

“Many people have only vague cliches about our small country,” Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, wrote in an email. “I hope that the anniversary will help the world to get to know Liechtenstein better.”

Alois, also known as Count Rietberg, is the perfect symbol of Liechtenstein’s friendly, homey, small-town feel. Not many members of royal families in the world can be seen jogging through the streets of the capital, or sharing wine with the public at his own winery or walking the same trails I walked.

The 51-year-old Hereditary Prince, the eldest son of Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein, opens his castle to the public every summer for an annual party. A bigger party occurred Jan. 23, the date in 1719 when the communities of Vaduz and Schellenberg, at the time members of the German state, signed the contract forming the principality of Liechtenstein.

Me and Marina at our Hotel Turna Malbun balcony.


This is heady stuff for the population of 38,000. Vaduz, about as big as some rest stops on Germany’s Autobahn, has all of 5,300 people. Liechtenstein has no airport or military. It has two train stations, two newspapers, one hospital, one TV channel and one radio station.

It also has one very proud boast: It has had the same border for 300 years, something its bigger neighbors can’t claim. In Liechtenstein the only things big are its mountains. This anniversary is bigger.

“Historically, this is the most important event in my life,” said Leander Schadler, 61, a Liechtensteiner historian and hiking guide. “For the people of today’s principality, the (merging) of the earldom of Vaduz and the lordship of Schellenberg to an imperial principality was a fundamental change. My ancestors no longer lived in a German state.”

Liechtensteiners have also waited 300 years to tell the world where they are. Please note: They are between Austria and Switzerland — “not Australia and Sweden” as Liechtenstein Marketing CEO Michelle Kranz often corrects. It’s not just geographically challenged Americans they must educate.

“Good journalists in Switzerland, they don’t know what currency we have,” said Martin Knopfel, Liechtenstein Marketing’s marketing director who developed the Liechtenstein Trail. “They think we have the euro. (It’s the Swiss franc.) This is one of our major tasks: To put Liechtenstein onto the landscape and for us, the 300-year anniversary is a big, big, big chance.”

Before 2019, Liechtenstein was best known for colorful — and large — postage stamps and being a tax haven for companies around the world. Liechtenstein used a low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent to lure corporations in the 1970s. At one point, 73,000 holding companies were in Liechtenstein. The tax windfall helped give Liechtenstein the third highest gross domestic product in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg.

In 2008, U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom investigated companies avoiding local taxes by registering in Liechtenstein. Now Liechtenstein is no longer so lenient. It hasn’t hurt the economy. The average annual income is $65,000 and its unemployment rate is 2.4 percent. In fact, there are more jobs than citizens to fill them. About 20,000 people commute daily into Liechtenstein for work, causing what many locals say is the nation’s No. 1 problem: Traffic on the main two-lane road leading into the capital can be a bit slow at rush hour.

That’s it.

Liechtenstein has maintained its culture through 300 years of independence. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“The greatest accomplishment of the last 20 years has been how Liechtenstein has handled the global financial crisis and modernized its financial industry,” the Hereditary Prince emailed. “Liechtenstein has a very internationally oriented economy with a large export industry and an international financial center.”

It also has something that doesn’t make the news: 250 miles of hiking trails. Working with Liechtenstein Marketing, I broke up my trek along the Liechtenstein Trail into five days. I’m an experienced hiker: I’ve backpacked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I lived and hiked in Colorado for 23 years. I trekked for five days in Slovakia’s High Tatras in 2014, in the highlands of Laos two years ago, the Caucasus of the Republic of Georgia last year and the Fan Mountains of Tajikistan in May.

But never have I experienced hikes with such variety as Liechtenstein: mountains, forests, villages, farms, rivers — sometimes all in the same day.

“This is the difference between this trail and other long-distance trails,” Knopfel said. “Nature, nature, nature. This trail is really in the heart of Liechtenstein.”

I’m 63 and pretty fit. But despite the trail having a mile in elevation gain, it is for anyone. Those who want to bail, can stop in any village and grab a bus back to their hotel — as Marina did in the two days she joined me.

The hotel Jacuzzi was a great place to greet me after hikes. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Malbun, our lovely ski resort, sits on the southeast end of the country. It’s a short ride from any town using Liechtenstein’s efficient bus system. And the Jacuzzi, Turkish bath and sauna at the Hotel Turna Malbun were welcome signs upon return each day.

Here’s what makes the Liechtenstein Trail unique to the world: No need to pack a lunch. Because it connects all 11 towns, you can always drop your backpack at one of the plethora of restaurants. I never did. I wanted to cut costs. But I often walked past people sitting outside in the sun digging into kasknopfle, Liechtenstein’s national dish. It’s a big pile of short noodles covered in two cheeses and shaved fried onions. It’s great fuel for hiking up your next mountain if you don’t fall into a food coma first.

The Liechtenstein Trail officially opened May 26. In October, pre-app, I marched off feeling a bit naked using Liechtenstein Marketing’s stack of trail maps and my cell phone’s iffy GPS. With only a few wanderings astray, on sunny October days in the high 60s, here’s what I found (detailed map here: file:///C:/Users/johnh/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Panoramakarten-Grafik_2019_EN%20(9).pdf:

The 12th century castle in Balzers.


DAY 1 — Balzers to Triesen to Triesenberg: 8.6 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 5 hours, 15 minutes.

I stood on the edge of the border town in the shadow of a 12th-century castle high up on a hill. Above the castle the craggy brown peaks of 7,200-foot mountains faced another series of peaks on the other side of me. The only sounds I heard were birds chirping. The rural village road had nary a car.

Schadler met Marina and I in Balzers on the east bank of the Rhine across from Switzerland. The 12th century Burg Gutenberg castle is the first POI on the trail. Schadler explained that it belonged to Austria until 1824 when the community of Balzers purchased it and eventually turned it into a museum which it remains today.

Schadler is the authority on Liechtenstein history and hiking. Short, stocky with short gray hair, he peppered the day’s hike with an oral history of Liechtenstein. It began as the Earldom of Vaduz then became absorbed by the German state and the Holy Roman Empire. The German Reichstag felt that Schellenberg was too small to be a member so it joined with Vaduz to form Liechtenstein, which, in German means “light stone” for the color of the five castles that dot the landscape.

Leander Schadler, perhaps Liechtensteion’s leading historian, and me on a bridge heading to Triesenberg. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“There was a time when Liechtenstein was very, very poor,” Schadler said. “Armies were always going through the Rhine Valley and they took everything they could receive.”

During World War II Switzerland protected Liechtenstein and Adolf Hitler never invaded. “Maybe he had too much money in Switzerland,” Schadler said, half jokingly.

Balzers is a postcard-pretty town with bright white fences, vine-covered houses with a plethora of maple trees and a small creek running through it. We walked through town on deathly quiet streets then followed the Rhine until Triesen, Vaduz’s “suburb” to the south.

The trail then heads east and uphill, in parts, seemingly straight uphill. The steep trail to Triesenberg at 2,952 feet passes through beautiful green meadows with dairy cows whose clanging bells were about the only sounds we heard. We walked by dirt fields ready for farming. The trail turns to a dirt service road that is conveniently blocked off for foot traffic and mountain bikers.

A sign on one of many trash cans in the forest reads, “Don’t make noise in forest. Think also of animals.”

The unmanned souvenir shop.


We passed a small alpaca farm where alpacas graze near a self-service souvenir shack selling everything from cheese to llama wool. You look at the price and leave the money in an open cash register overflowing with money. I bought my nephew’s wife some alpaca wool gloves for Christmas and used the credit card machine to pay. Yes, Liechtensteiners are a trustful lot.

Between cuts in the trees are spectacular views of the Swiss Alps, all brown and craggy and imposing. Below are the tile roofs of Balzers and Thiesen peppering the landscape. Park benches are strategically placed at each vista. As I would learn, around every corner is a new view of this lightly trodden country.

All day we only see five people, all joggers.

Martin and I walk through the forest above the capital of Vaduz. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Day 2: Triesenberg-Vaduz-Schaan, 9.3 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 7 hours.

Knopfel met us at 8:30 a.m. at Triesenberg’s post office. Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein and the closest to Malbun, rests on a mountain with brightly painted houses sporting vegetable gardens and private vineyards and flower boxes with purple, white and pink flowers.. Grapevines hang over front doors.

Knopfel, 42, is a Liechtenstein native and lifelong hiking enthusiast. After Schadler led me through some thick forests and forks in the trail with no signs up yet, I asked Knopfel what should trekkers bring to Liechtenstein.

“What they should do is before they come here, download the app so they have it on their phone,” he said. “Once they are here, they don’t need Internet connection because the app will know your position by the GPS.”

The view of Vaduz, one of the many around every corner.


Day 2 was mostly downhill but no less beautiful. The main road that snakes its way up from the valley to Malbun has lookouts near cows grazing in meadows. Below I could see the town of Triesen, churches, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps beyond.

The path starts out steep into a forest and past little farm houses before we came to the day’s first Point of Interest: a rock. It looks ordinary, only five meters long and 4 ½ meters wide. However, it is 400 million years old, left over from a prehistoric glacier that 18,000 years ago stretched 35 miles into Germany.

We continued through the forest and, this being October, the leaves had turned to yellow, orange, green and red. It isn’t Vermont but add the view below of Vaduz and the Swiss town of Buchs on the other side of the Rhine and you may not find a better view of fall colors in Europe. I saw all of three hikers.

The 12th century Vaduz Castle is on the main road just above the capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci


As the mountain trail descended into a clearing, Knopfel told me this is the trail the Heredity Prince can often be seen. Then I knew why. Greeting us as we emerged from the trees was the princely family home: Vaduz Castle. If a 12th century castle can be unassuming, this is. While it looks majestic with its many A-frame roofs, tower and turrets, it sits directly above the capital. You can walk to it up the main windy road from downtown like a local market.

It has been in the family name since 1712 and their primary residence since 1938. I walked by the gated entrance, framed by ivy, as if walking by a neighbor’s. The castle isn’t open to the public, except one day a year, but Knopfel’s office negotiated with the princely family to include photos of inside the castle on the app.

We passed the castle and dropped into downtown Vaduz (Va-DOOTZ), where we stopped at a carnival and had bratwursts on brown bread for 5 Swiss francs (about $5), an absolute steal in a country with prices higher than Switzerland.

Vaduz is a small-town capital, with a walking mall lined with restaurants and boutique shops but that all but closes down at 8 p.m. I asked one local what you do at night in Liechtenstein and he said, “Go to Austria.” However, Vaduz also has the most Points of Interests. On the main road we walk by the Kunstmuseum art museum, the Postal Museum, the National Museum and garachly yellow brick Parliament building.

The walking mall in Vaduz.


Knopfel led me back up the hill past the ultra-rich Park Hotel Sonnenhof with a beautiful view of the castle from the gazebo and back into the forest. We eventually descended into Schaan, abrutting Valduz to the north and Liechtenstein’s largest city with a whopping 6,300 people. We stop near the bus stop for a well-earned beer.

After two days of going up and down nearly 2,000 feet, my legs were feeling the first signs of fatigue. Marina, whom I took to North America in August, told me, “I think I lost the two kilos I gained in the United States.”

“I have journalists and they say, ‘Oh, I’m a hiker and all physical and we should go on all the tracks,’” Knopfel said. “Then they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think Liechtenstein was so big.’”

Church of San Laurentius in Schaan, Liechtenstein’s biggest town.


Day 3, Schaan-Planken-Nendeln-Eschen, 10.6 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, six hours.

Schadler picked me up at my hotel and we drove to Schaan and walked through a string of businesses and past the 19th century Church of San Laurentius, another POI. I noticed there is no garbage. I remembered in Vaduz seeing a woman light a cigarette and walking 50 feet to put the match in a trash can. My street in Rome has so much garbage it looks like an alley in rural India.

Liechtenstein’s trails leading back into the highlands are spotless. Schadler says Liechtensteiners are particular about leaving the country the way they found it. We climbed high into the forest and he pointed out an example: A long expanse over a major drop off to the forest beyond. The country proposed building a 180-meter bridge for $1 million for easier access.

The citizens voted it down and leave it as it was, Schadler said, “No good for the forest, no good for the animals.”

Planken, home to Liechtenstein’s Olympic skiing heroes, Hanni and Andreas Wenzel.


The forest led uphill to the town of Planken, home to large, poster-perfect houses all lined with red shutters and flower boxes in full bloom. It’s also home to the Wenzels, Liechtenstein’s first family of skiing. Between Hanni and Andreas they have won five of Liechtenstein’s 10 Winter Olympic medals making the country, they proudly point out, No. 1 in the world in Olympic medals per capita.

We switchbacked down into Nendeln, walked through town where Schadler left me at a bus stop and told me I could walk to Eschen’s post office at the end of the trail just down the road. We said goodbye for the last time as the final two days it’d just be my maps and GPS.

I was on my own.

A tractor rolls along the street in Eschen, Liechtenstein’s industrial town.


Day 4, Eschen-Bendern-Gamprin-Ruggell-Schellenberg, 14.3 miles, 1,640 feet elevation climb, 5 1/2 hours.

We made a mistake.

The day before we were supposed to walk around Eschen, not make a beeline to the post office. Backtracking, I had to hike the steep, quiet residential streets of this otherwise industrial town for an hour, not a good way to start my longest day on the trail. However, the sun had just come up on almost a panorama of mountains and the dairy cows eyeing me lazily as I walked by a meadow gave me an early second wind.

Eschen represents what the Hereditary Prince mentioned as one of Liechtenstein’s great achievements. It’s the headquarters for numerous multinational companies such as Thyssenkrupp Presta, an auto systems manufacturer.

The trail led to Bendern on the bank of the Rhine, noticeably shallow from the lack of rains in the fall. So shallow, I saw a man sitting on a sandbar nearly in the middle of the river.

In the mid-50s and sunny, the weather couldn’t have been better as I meandered through Ruggell, wedged between the forest and the Rhine and where an old man took a pole to knock down apples from his huge tree.

A stone oven from the Roman Empire in Schellenberg.


From Ruggell I walked across expansive farmland and the length of a forest before ascending through a 100-foot canopy into a clearing. Here I saw Schellenberg’s claim to fame. Liechtenstein was part of the Roman Empire and in front of me stood a Roman ruin, complete with a round stone oven and lookouts over Ruggell, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps.

For a Roman soldier, this wouldn’t be a bad outpost.

A forest trail in Schaanwald.


Day 5 — Schellenberg-Mauren-Schaanwald, 6.8 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, 6 hours.

My last day may have been the most beautiful and the most exasperating. Rising early as I had to catch a flight out of Zurich that night, I found myself high above Schellenberg. At 9 a.m., as I climbed through farmland, a sea of clouds had settled under the mountains beyond. A velvet blanket formed the perfect backdrop for small, lonely farmhouses in the fields.

Inspired that I’d seen it all, I began double timing it to the Austrian border and the trail’s end. However, my cell phone’s GPS failed me. It couldn’t match up with the maps and I wound up asking directions in the town of Mauren three times and backtracking twice. When I finally made it across a huge green field into Schaanwald, I could not find the entrance to my last forest walk.

At the Liechtenstein-Austrian border and the end of the trail.


Fighting the desire to see if primal screams echo in the Alps, I called Knopfel who sent me on the right course. However, I took the wrong exit out of the forest and when I found the Austrian border, I had entered on the Austrian side. I missed one side street.

Still, I ventured 50 feet back across to Liechtenstein, turned around and snapped a memorable photo of the border sign and the end of my, ahem, cross-country venture.

Since the trail opened on the day my story appeared, Marketing Liechtenstein reports that more than 10,000 people have already hiked it. Did my story spoil it? No. In this Internet age, the world has no secrets. It just has more people with more information. Liechtenstein won’t change anytime soon.

Three hundred years of independence will do that.

The morning clouds sit under a small shelter above Schellenberg.

Menorca: Mallorca’s little brother is the ideal birthday getaway from Rome — or anywhere else

Cala Santa Galdana is just one of the beautiful beaches on Menorca. Photo by Marina Pascucci


SAN LLUIS, Spain — For the last couple of years Marina and I have tossed around a plan to live half the year on an island and half the year in Rome. If there is a more heavenly existence than that, it’s in a religion I don’t believe in. We focused on the Caribbean. I leaned toward Tobago; she favored Antigua. We discussed doing recon missions every summer to scout new islands.

That plan got scuttled when we saw the airlines fleece Italians going to the Caribbean every August, the most extended vacation time Italians have under their society’s Soviet-era work schedule. Every flight was more than 1,000 euros. We also didn’t want to spend our half year in Rome worrying every hurricane season if our newly acquired island flat would wind up kindling in Venezuela.

Then last winter I asked Marina where she wanted me to take her for her birthday in June. We’ve gone all over. Nice. Berlin. Oslo. Her answer surprised me.

“Minorca,” she said.

Huh?

Wait, I told her. I’m not going to Mallorca. The place is a tourist trap, lined with crowded beaches and drunk Englishmen. (Does Mallorca really have fish ‘n chips shops on the beach?) I’ve never been there and don’t normally judge anyplace until visiting it first. But Mallorca sounds like tripe: I don’t need to taste it to know I probably won’t like it.

“No,” she said. “MINN-orca.”

As it turns out, Mallorca’s little sister, which had avoided my rapidly shrinking bucket list for my 63 years, is one of the true pearls of the Mediterranean. I hadn’t heard of it because the Menorcans kind of want to keep it that way.

Located 155 miles southeast of Barcelona, Menorca (English spelling) has a population of 94,000 and is about a 10th the size of Mallorca (pop. 895,000) 80 miles to the southwest. Ibiza, one of the other major islands in the Balearic Islands chain and 190 miles south of Menorca, has 133,000 people and, I hear, almost as many clubs.

A couple on the beach of Punta Prima with the Illa de l’Aire lighthouse in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Abhorring clubs and drunks with equal vitriol, I thought Menorca would be as nice a present to me as Marina. Yet when we landed — it’s only a 90-minute flight from Rome — I knew I’d made one big mistake in my homework. We walked by the car rental desks and each one had at least 10 people in line. We went to the taxi stand and the drivers were doing crossword puzzles. We were the only passengers.

You need a car on Menorca. But this isn’t like you need a car in California. With 270 square miles, Menorca is about the size of El Paso. You can drive the lone main road of ME-1 30 miles from one end to the other in about 40 minutes. Small roads snake off ME-1 to various golden sand beaches, lonely coves and quaint villages.

Menorca, a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1993, has no scenic coast road. Instead, it has Cami de Cavalls (Bridal Path), a 115-mile walking path that circumvents the island broken into 20 handy hiking sections. Visitors don’t dance the night away in Menorca.

The walk the day away.

The view from our balcony at the PortBlue Hotel San Luis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


Correcting my brain lock was no problem. Our PortBlue Hotel San Luis, part of the PortBlue Spanish chain, arranged for a car to be delivered the following morning. The 133-euro charge for three days began a trend of surprisingly cheap prices for our entire stay.

The hotel is in S’Algar, an unincorporated coastal resort area in Sant Lluis, so named for King Louis IX when France ran the island in the 18th century. The PortBlue is one of the few buildings on the island more than three stories as Menorca’s government put the kibosh on construction for a recent three-year period.

Yes, this is MEN-orca and not MY-orca.

The PortBlue Hotel pool.


The PortBlue isn’t on a beach. But we had a huge swimming pool ringed with comfy lounge chairs, a big air-conditioned room with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean less than a mile away. The breakfast buffet, Marina’s find-or-your-life-is-over travel requirement, had more variety than Denny’s.

The PortBlue is one of those all-inclusive resorts where visitors can eat every meal and drink every drink and only leave if the grounds are invaded by cobras. One hotel source said a British couple has been coming here twice a year for the last 45 years. I wonder if they’ve ever seen a beach.

We did not do the all-inclusive. We only did breakfasts, allowing us to explore the island every day for four days. The beaches were atop our list as the island is ringed with rock-free beaches and the kind of secluded coves you dream about while working your 10th straight day at your computer.

We drove to Ferrerias, in the center of the island, and took a left down a well-paved two-lane road to a huge gravel parking lot just above the sea. We walked down a wide, dirt path through a forest for 15 minutes before it emptied out to Cala Mitjana, recommended by our hotel.

Marina and I gasped. We were astonished by the beauty of this small beach on a narrow cove lined with cliffs for diving beneath a forest of trees. The mix of turquoise and blue-green sea looked like a water color on a museum wall. We were also astonished by the crowd. It was packed, towel-to-towel flesh and not a lounge chair in sight. This is called savage where you pack in your own chair and umbrella.

Being spoiled by Italian beaches, which make up for what they lack in barren simplicity with modern comforts, we stayed only 90 minutes and returned to the car. Getting directions from a woman handing out restaurant fliers, we walked out of the parking lot and descended a steep staircase. In five minutes we were at Cala Santa Galdana.

The water at Cala Santa Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“Oh, my God!” Marina said in her soft Italian accent.

We had found Spanish Nirvana.

Cala Santa Galdana is a wide, gently curving beach about a kilometer long with fine, white sand and big shady trees scattered along the beach. Each comfy lounge chair had its own thatched umbrella. A couple of restaurants serve fresh fish and beach bars sling cold mugs of underrated Spanish beer.

I was definitely at peace on Cala Galdana. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We ignored the plethora of screaming children and fat, pasty English tourists and had a lovely two days on the sea. The Mediterranean was crystal clear and just cool enough to ward off dry, mid-80s temperatures. Between the comfy lounge chairs, a good English novel, the occasional cold beer and Marina under the umbrella, I think I saw a glimpse of our future part-time home.

Galdana isn’t even Menorca’s best beach. Cala en Turqueta, about three miles west as the seagull flies, is so popular a sign in the junction town of Ciutadella indicates if Turqueta’s parking lot is full. It always is by 10 a.m.

Menorca’s many outdoor cafes are perfect places for Estrella beer breaks. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The beauty of Menorca is the towns and villages all have their own individual character, fleshed out after a violent history. Formerly part of the Roman Empire, Menorca was also a target of pirates who raided rich Roman establishments. Then came the Vandals, Moors, Catalans, Turks and, presumably, Real Madrid. This is an island that over a 100-year period came under English, French and Spanish rule. The Spanish loved Menorca’s port to launch its naval wars and to begin the slave trade.

Sitting on Sant Lluis’ Carrer de Sant Lluis street, it’s hard to imagine the hardship suffered in a village so quaint. San Lluis is a collection of whitewashed buildings on quiet streets. A 40-foot flour windmill, built in 1792 and operational until 1942, dominates the landscape. An 18th century water well is nearby.

The 18th century windmill in Sant Lluis was operational until 1942. Photo by Marina Pascucci


The narrow road is cut off to cars on weekends but on weekdays not many come, either. We took an outdoor seat at Divinum, a wine bar that has five Menorcan wines in its collection from around the world. Owner Rachel Fletcher, a tall, statuesque wine connoisseur, came to Menorca when she was 9 after her father remarried and fell in love with the island on his honeymoon. He went back to England and brought the kids.

Forty years later, she’s still here. Over a glass of local Binifadet red wine with soft Spanish jazz playing in the background, I asked her what Menorca was like back when she was a kid.

“There was nothing,” she said. “It was wonderful. When we came over, there were four English families. We were one of them. That’s it. The port, the harbor, was all brick. If you moved over too much you’d be in the water. And it was real narrow.”

I told her it seems like Menorca has kept its culture. The island government’s restrictions on building have worked.

Carrer de San Lluis street in San Luis.


“Yes, Ibiza and Palma (Mallorca’s capital) have grown a lot more and they’ve got more hotels,” she said. “Here we’ve tried to maintain or keep the architecture. You don’t see huge hotels everywhere.”

Some in Menorca claim they’ve kept growth down too much. Tourism this year is down 30 percent. They blame excessive airport taxes that have made flights here more expensive than to Mallorca. A sample flight from Rome to Menorca on July 26 and returning a week later was 244 euros this week. To Mallorca on the same dates is 172 and with many more times from which to choose.

That’s fine with me. We were able to stroll the lovely city of Ciutadella, Menorca’s largest town with only 29,000 people, without ever running into a tour group in headphones. On the far western tip of Menorca, Ciutadella has quiet streets lined with maple trees, plazas filled with outdoor cafes and people strolling in the summer sun.

The pastel buildings on Ciutadella’s Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We took a seat in a quiet courtyard with two facing outdoor cafes. I ordered an ice-cold Estrella from inside where old Spanish women played video poker while young women in stylish shorts walked their dogs past our table. People of all ages biked down bike lanes with palm trees providing shade in the median.

We walked down Parroquia Sant Francesc d’Assis, an alley lined with small houses of beige and yellow and pink and blue. Pots with blooming flowers sat on window sills. And the town was spotless. In fact, all of Menorca was clean. We nary saw a cigarette butt. Coming from Rome, the filthiest capital in Europe, I almost felt as if I should take off my shoes.

Ciutadella’s harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci


“They are very recycling friendly,” said Vanesa Rodriguez, our hotel manager. “Everybody on the island is very responsible with the nature.”

At the end of the alley we saw Ciutadella’s beautiful harbor, a narrow inlet lined with pleasure craft bobbing up and down on cobalt blue water.

It made us want to jump in. So we did. I got us on a 3 ½-hour catamaran cruise out of Fornells, the major port town in the north. We joined about eight others from Sweden and Germany on a 40-foot boat under cloudless skies and pleasant wind.

Marina and I in front of Ciutadella’s 19th century city hall.


Few expensive pleasures are better than a sailboat ride on a perfect day. Spray over the bouncing bow cooled us off as we sunbathed on deck. When I gathered enough energy, I raised my head 12 inches and saw the high cliffs showing the geological marks dating back to the Jurassic Period. Due to the dryness, Menorca isn’t beautiful from sea. We passed barren land mass as we skirted around the west end of the island.

Snorkeling revealed remarkable visibility of about 60 feet. That’s South Pacific level for Europe where I’ve always avoided scuba diving despite being certified for 36 years. A school of a local seabream called an oblada circled around my fins before being served up in local restaurants later that week.

I came

The 40-foot catamaran even had a windsurfing board. Photo by Marina Pascucci

aboard and the captain greeted me with a pomada, an addictingly sweet local drink made from Menorca gin and lemon soda. With a little ice, it is what a Spritz is to Italy or a martini to Manhattan.

Besides the beaches, the tranquility and the villages, our other draw to Menorca was food. While Italy has the best food in the world (Shut up, you French. Tartare sucks.), Spain is certainly in the top 10. The fresh seafood along its 3,000-mile coastline, combined with its national dish of paella, its tapas and variety of grilled meats make dining out anywhere in Spain a gastro kaleidoscope.

Our paella at La Oveja Negra on Punta Prima. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We started out with seafood paella, Spain’s big sloppy skillet filled with brown rice, clams, mussels and octopus all swimming in a thick sauce. We found it La Oveja Negra, part of the string of casual, open-air restaurants lining Punta Prima, the beach just south of S’Algar. La Oveja Negra (The Black Sheep) has a sign listing all its different paellas, ranging from lobster to chicken and artichokes. It’s one of the heartiest dishes in Europe and the perfect fuel for a walk along the quiet beach in the moonlight.

At Meson El Gallo.


We ventured further afield to Meson El Gallo, a long one-story converted house in a garden covered with shady tree branches along the road to Cala Santa Galdana. A giant cactus stood in the parking lot, giving it the feel of a hacienda in rural Arizona. The waiters all wore jeans and T-shirts. If it was any more casual it would be a beach bar. But I had a terrific, lean steak in cheese sauce and a glass of Rioja, Spain’s internationally famous red wine that can’t match Italy’s gems but on a Spanish island in the middle of summer no other world wine is a better match.

But if Spain doesn’t have a law requiring every visitor to try tapas, it should. Tapas are Spanish hors d’oeuvres. These are not chips and dip or celery sticks. These are handcrafted snacks, usually hot, using everything from fresh fish to spicy sausage.

Salud to Menorca. We will return. Photo by Marina Pascucci


We returned to Carere Sant Lluis and took an outdoor seat at S’Olivera, next door to Divinum. From an entire page of tapas, we ordered little plates of croquetas de endivia (a breadcrumbed green vegetable native to Menorca), tiras de pollo (chicken fingers with salsa curry and mango sauce), camembert con jalea de moras (goat cheese with blueberry jam) and good ol’ fashioned fish ‘n chips. It was just the right amount of food and with a glass of wine each, the total bill was all of 33 euros.

About 80 percent of Menorca’s businesses close from about Oct. 1 to April 30. Still, that leaves about five months of pure island bliss, away from Rome’s heat during the tourist season and its growing garbage all year round.

Living in Menorca is a long way off but as this long weekend proved, it’s not just the destination. It’s the journey that’s the most fun.