Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it's my website's lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo

Procida is the anti-Capri. I love it so much it’s my website’s lead photo (above). Bianchi Tour photo

As a sportswriter for 40 years, one of my favorite themes was things that were too hyped or overlooked. Nothing burned the bottom of sports fans’ shorts more than reading that their quarterback is overrated. Nothing made them smile more to know their stadium is underrated. One man’s opinion is another fan’s scorn. It could be anything. Overrated? Jose Canseco. Underrated? Stanford football. Overrated? Dodger Stadium. Underrated? Annapolis, Maryland.

Italy gets more publicity than all of American sports combined. What doesn’t the average traveler know about my adopted country? A lot. Italy isn’t all quiet canals, Dolomites and cappuccinos in dreamy piazzas, ancient islands in an azure sea and endless vineyards in the Tuscan countryside.

It has its sore spots. It doesn’t have many. I struggled to find five overrated places in Italy. But they are there and as you all plan vacations for 2019, here’s a tip sheet: Italy’s most overrated and underrated destinations. I’ve been to all of them. Use it as a warning; use it as an insider’s tip. But use it. (They’re in the order of my rage and praise). Feel free to weigh in on your thoughts in the comments section. Those threatening my life please form a line to the right.

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo

The Duomo of Milan. EuropeanBestDestinations photo

1. Milan.
It’s Newark with a big church. The Duomo is worth a visit. The white facade with 135 spires looks like a birthday cake. But once you get past that, Milan visually pales compared to other Italian cities. Don’t blame the Milanese. It’s not their fault Allied forces bombed the place back to the Stone Age in World War II. But what’s built in its place is too modern to look historical, too old to look clean. The weather is usually awful. Yes, you can see the Alps from there — on July 15, about the only day there’s good enough weather to see past architecture as dull as Milanese cuisine. When your headlining dish is osso buco, a sloppy veal stew, you don’t deserve to be called Italian. The women are attractive if you like anorexics with attitudes and La Scala is nice but who likes opera? Plus, their soccer teams suck. (Forza Roma!)
Cortona. AikrPano photo

Cortona. AirPano photo

2. Cortona. Ever read “Under the Tuscan Sun”? If you didn’t, you’ve never wanted to visit Italy or don’t like self-obsessed chick lit. It’s about a woman building a new life in a fixer-upper in Tuscany, interspersed with Italian recipes. The 1996 blockbuster made Cortona, where author Frances Mayes lived, a must stop on the American tourist’s beaten path in Italy. Americans walk around town carrying her book, trying to identify her butcher, her vegetable stand and florist. Cortonese told me they felt like zoo animals. The truth is, Italy has dozens of quaint, walled cities like Cortona. You don’t need to fight tour buses to see one.
Trieste's Piazza dell'Unita.  Turismo FVG photo

Trieste’s Piazza dell’Unita.
Turismo FVG photo

3. Trieste. It figures that James Joyce would live in a town like Trieste for 10 years. I disliked them both. It’s a good debate which one is more boring. Trieste has the biggest seaside piazza in the world. Maybe that’s because there aren’t many. Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia is a massive 130,000-square-foot expanse weighed down like anchors by gray government buildings and two overpriced cafes. There is no brilliant architectural treasure as you’d find in lesser-known piazzas such as Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna’s Piazza del Nettuno or Palazzo dei Capitani del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno’s Piazza del Popolo. Also, tucked into Italy’s northeast corner on the north end of the Adriatic, Trieste is constantly plagued by the Bora, the cold wind that sweeps down from the hills surrounding the town.
Capri. Capri photo

Capri. Capri photo

4. Capri. Come here if you want to see or be seen — or stand in line for 30 minutes waiting for a bus to take you zigzagging up the hill. Granted, the hill’s view down to the Tyrrhenian Sea is one of the best in Europe. It’s a lot better than the views of elbows and asses that squeeze past you in the impossibly crowded Piazza Umberto I. The piazza is in Capri town which I wrote in a blog four years ago was “like a playground for millionaire yacht captains.” Capri is “an Italian theme park with better wine.” While the island is beautiful and the sea is inviting, Capri has no beach. None. At one spot I had to pay 21 euros to lay a towel on a rock. Without 500-euro loafers and a 300-euro sweater wrapped strategically around my shoulders I felt like Oliver Twist scavenging for more gruel.
Costa Smeralda. photo

Costa Smeralda. photo

5. Costa Smeralda. See above but spread it out for 55 kilometers across the northeast corner of Sardinia without Capri’s views. Costa Smeralda is the epicenter for Italians’ August exodus. It’s lined with stuffy hotels, private marinas and tricked-out yachts. Beautiful, tanned Italians with sunglasses that cost more than their weekly food budget sit on yachts and drink Spritz and wine on the bows of beautiful boats. It’s the height of Italian stuffiness and a magnet for Italians wanting to join the A-list celebs for a glass of Campari. Porto Cervo, Costa Smeralda’s main town, is as phony as an aging Italian actress’ face. And the prices in August make you wonder if Italy invented price gouging.
Me and Marina at Procida's Chalet Vicidomini.

Me and Marina at Procida’s Chalet Vicidomini.

1. Procida.
I’ve written about this idyllic little island before and I will the rest of my life. It’s right out of a movie set — which it was in 1994 when it was the setting for “Il Postino,” the classic love story about a postman in 1950s Italy who falls in love with a fellow islander. You can relive old Italy here. Just sit on one of the dockside restaurants with a Neapolitan pizza or dine at the heart-throbbing romantic La Lampara above the idyllic harbor and fall in love all over again. Then the next day go to the white sand beach on the north side of the island. Procida is only 10 miles north of Capri but a million miles away in authenticity.
Turin doesn't get the hype of other Italian cities but it's not Detroit, either. The Independent photo

Turin doesn’t get the hype of other Italian cities but it’s not Detroit, either. The Independent photo

2. Turin. Italians used to call Turin the Detroit of Italy. These Italians have never been to Detroit. The only thing Turin and Detroit have in common is car manufacturing except the cars out of Turin actually work. Turin, the gateway to the Italian Alps, is speckled with beautiful piazzas, tree-lined boulevards and long porticoed walkways. The 2006 Winter Olympics gave it a bit of a facelift but two things I love here stayed the same: The Mole, the spired museum dedicated to Italian film, and Barolo, Italy’s best wine and my favorite in the world.
Lake Nemi in Castelli Romani.

Castel Gandolfo in Castelli Romani. Like a Local Guide photo

3. Castelli Romani. One of Rome’s best secrets, Castelli Romani is a series of 14 small towns, many sporting castles, in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. Each one has its own distinct draw, like gelato has different flavors: Ariccia for porchetta, the sizzling roast pork eaten at a string of outdoor restaurants; Nemi, on the beautiful volcanic Lago di Nemi, home to great views and some of the best strawberries in the world; Genzano, where many wealthy Romans lived during Ancient Rome and now where Romans go for the best bread around; Castel Gandolfo, on Lago di Albano, so beautiful you’ll see why the popes have their summer residence here; Frascati, blessed with a beautiful park, perfect for a picnic with the town’s trademark refreshing white wine.
Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo

Arcipelago Magdellena. Shuttle Alghero photo

4. Arcipelago di La Magdellena. If you see Costa Smeralda, keep right on going to the point town of Palau and take the 15-minute boat ride to Magdellena. It’s a national park consisting of seven small islands all lined with gorgeous white sand beaches on romantic, individually carved bays. Don’t let the U.S. naval base scare you. The personnel are well behaved and blend in with the kind locals. You need a car and a camera. You’ll want to stop around every curve for a photo.
Urbino photo

Urbino photo

5. Urbino. I call Le Marche Tuscany Light. Le Marche has everything its more famous neighbor has but with a third the tourists and cheaper prices. Urbino is the jewel of Le Marche. High atop a hill, the walled city of 15,000 people is so beautiful UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1998. The home of the great Renaissance artist Raphael has kept its artsy rep after 600 years. Eat Le Marche’s signature strozzapreti (priest stranglers) pasta in the dimly lit Palazzo Ducale or just settle in with a glass of Le Marche’s trademark Verdicchio white wine.

Why Rome? From loathing to loving, the long, twisting journey to my dream retirement spot

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I retired in Rome in 2014 and we have both come a long way since my first visit in 1978. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Italians are very curious people, like anthropologists but better dressed. They ask you a lot of questions. Where are you from? Where are you going on vacation? Where did you buy your shoes? Things that matter to Italians.

As a subject, I’m different. I’m a novelty. I’m retired. Four and a half years ago, at age 57, I left the U.S. to start a new life in Rome where I plan to end my life as well. It was a colossal leap of faith, a major risk with a downside of winding up dead broke in a foreign land with no family or friends. So Italians, most of whom work until they die, always raise a coiffed eyebrow when I tell them my situation. And they, as well as tourists, all ask me the same question.

Why Rome?

It’s a long story, one made longer by the many twists and turns the journey took since I first visited here in 1978. The political and economic climate changes in Italy like its fashion scene. That made each visit unique and challenging in its own way. Most expats here all have the same story. They came to Rome for the first time and fell in love, either with the land, with the food, with a man or with a woman. The beginning of my tale is different.

I hated this place.

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Aldo Moro. Wikipedia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo

Peppino Impastato. Live Sicilia photo

In 1978 it was particularly bad. Inflation and unemployment poleaxed Italians, exhausted from a decade of economic chaos. The right-wing fascists, left-wing Red Brigades and Mafia all fought over the ugly daily headlines. On May 9, it suffered a particularly gruesome one-two punch. Ex-prime minister Aldo Moro, the leading figure in the dominant Christian Democracy party and who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigades six weeks before, was found murdered in the trunk of a car.

On May 1, Peppino Impastato, a noted leftist and outspoken critic of the Mafia, was kidnapped by his hometown Cosa Nostra in Cinisi, Sicily. On May 2 he was dumped on the railroad tracks with sticks of dynamite tied to his torso. Later that day, his body parts were found over a 300-meter radius. He was 30.

So this was the romantic Italian landscape I came skipping through as a skinny 22-year-old with a beat-up duffel bag and a dog-eared Youth Hostel card. I arrived in Italy a frazzled, filthy mess. I took a 27-hour train ride from the flaming shithole port town of Algeciras, Spain, to Milan. I stopped only in Barcelona just long enough to take a shower in what turned out to be the home of a screaming homosexual with gay porn spread around his bathroom. I blame only youthful naivete for not picking up that his Peter Pan slippers were a telltale sign. Fortunately, his shower didn’t work — or the lock — and I excused myself out his door before he could show me his paella.

In Italy I followed the American tourist path more beaten than the Atlantic City Boardwalk: Milan (Newark with a big church), Venice (too impossibly romantic to visit alone which I didn’t — if you count the 20 snoring, drunk backpackers with whom I shared a Youth Hostel dorm) and Florence (more excited about the John Travolta disco leather boots I bought for $25 in the flea market than Michelangelo’s David.)

Then, tired, hot and thirsty, I reached Rome. At the end of a two-week Italian run, I was arted out. I could suddenly understand why that mad Turk vandalized Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in 1972. He’d seen too many damn Michelangelo statues. He went crazy. So did I.

More than Renaissance art, I wanted a glass of ice. At the time in Rome, ice was distributed with the frequency of winning lottery tickets. Rome, even at that time in early October, seemed as hot as the inside of a Ferrari engine. Living in Oregon my whole life, I never felt humidity that was more appropriate for African violets. Also, the Italian language apparently didn’t have a phrase for “emissions control standards” and Rome’s smog baked me in the inside of a gray, smoky coffin. The Italian sun, the one I dreamed of growing up, was nothing more than a blotted, filtered orange ball.

Never a coffee or water drinker, I survived on room-temperature Coke, citrus fruit and a vile swill called Peroni beer. I was miserable.

I hit all the tourist sites and remembered being so exhausted at the end of the Vatican museums that I laid down on the floor of the Sistine Chapel, not for a better view of the ceiling but merely to rest. My highlight was jumping the fence at night with two Englishmen I met at the Youth Hostel near Olympic Stadium. We roamed the Colosseum’s corridors sans even small floor lights until a growl of a distant dog chased us back over the fence like the miserable, dirty degenerates that we were.

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter's Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo

Pope John Paul I funeral in St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 4, 1978. New York Times photo

I also saw history. On Oct. 4, I was one of 60,000 people who crammed into St. Peter’s Square to see the funeral of Pope John Paul I, who died Sept. 28 after only 33 days in office, launching a cottage industry of conspiracies that have lasted to this day. He died the night neo fascists shot at a group reading L’Unita, the Communist newspaper, killing one boy.

My memories of food in Rome were no better than of the food in my elementary school cafeteria. I lived on $15 a day. I ate salami and cheese out of grocery stores and pizza slices from the portable carts in the overrun piazzas. The pizza crust was as sharp as shrapnel. And what’s with only one ingredient? The combo pizza at my old Pietro’s Pizza Parlor in Springfield, Oregon, was better.

And during this year-long solo trip around the world encompassing 24 countries, nowhere, not Taiwan, not Indonesia, not communist Hungary, did I find a population that spoke less English than the Italians. I met no one.

On my way out of Italy, I found it absolutely no coincidence that fascists blew up the railroad track near Bologna and I had to change trains and stand the last two hours of the trip. It symbolized my entire Italian adventure. It bombed.

I didn’t return to Italy for 20 years.

I may never had if not for one chance encounter. I was covering Major League Baseball for The Denver Post and one day in 1998 in the Coors Field press box lounge I talked travel with Mike Littwin, at the time with the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. He said he loved Rome.

“Rome?” I spat, as if he said he loved Karachi. “It’s a shithole. I hated the place. I’ve had better pizza in frozen food sections.”

But he went on about the Pantheon, the food, the wine, the art. I walked away thinking, Hmm. Maybe I should give Rome another shot.

That weekend while reading my Sunday Post by my pool, St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, heard my private message to myself. There in the travel section was an ad offering a dirt-cheap round-trip flight from Denver to London plus one other European city. The list included Rome. I left my lounge chair, went up to my apartment and made a phone call. I was leaving at the end of baseball season.

Single and wanting to explore Rome’s romantic side, I thought, who could I invite? How about a Brazilian lingerie saleswoman in Zurich? That’s right. I had met her in Rio two years before while she was on business and we had recently lost touch. I sent an email and the timing could not have been better. She wrote that she just broke up with her long-time boyfriend and would meet me in Rome.

Thank you, St. Christopher.

Suddenly, Rome didn’t seem so bad. Unfortunately, a 24-hour romance one could read in a dirty novel ended abruptly on Day 2 when I returned to the room. She told me her rich ex-boyfriend was flying to Rome that afternoon and if she doesn’t meet him, he’d kill himself.

“So let him,” I said compassionately.

“No. He’ll do it. I’m going.”

“Are you serious? You’re falling for this? He’s bluffing.”

She packed her bags and left. I never heard from her the rest of the year. This was problematic. We had agreed to meet in her hometown of Natal, Brazil, that spring for a travel story assignment I received on dune buggies. The last thing I wanted in a sultry, sexy Brazilian beach town was a mere roommate.

As she walked out the door for the airport, she told me to wait by the phone and she’d call me. She spoke excellent English and I’m assuming she clearly understood my American idiomatic expression, “Fuck that!”

I explored Rome.

At the time in 1998, Italy was on an economic upturn. Investments and exports were rising. Economic growth was at 3 percent. The Red Brigade was all but dissolved. Romans were going out again. Chic wine bars, known as enotecas, were surfacing. Even the air was breathable.

I was out all day and night. Rome seemed cheaper than most American cities I visited on assignment. I could get a glass of wine for less than a Coke, and I discovered a wine that remains my favorite to this day: Barolo. I learned pizzas in traditional pizzerias have as much to do with the crap served on the piazzas as the Sistine Chapel has to do with a 7-Eleven.

I researched a travel story about day trips from Rome. Every day I went somewhere new: Ostia Antica, Rome’s ancient port; Tivoli, the town filled with old villas of Ancient Rome’s aristocracy; Frascati, where I had a lovely picnic with porchetta, the sizzling suckling pig famous around Rome, and Frascati’s trademark crisp white wine; Nettuno, a beach town only an hour away with water swimmable in November.

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. photo

Yes, Rome is a tough town to be in alone. photo

The lone problem came at night. After the Brazilian dropped me like so much rancid pepperoni, I drank in a new cafe every night, alone. Looking around I could tell Romans invented the term “public display of affection,” known during Ancient Rome, I believe, as “coitus minimus.” Everywhere I went, Roman couples were wildly making out. If I saw one more swarthy Roman bend a woman over a fruit cart, I swore I’d get one of those cat scratching poles.

I tucked Rome away as a regular destination in the future. Flash forward to fall 2000. I found myself in full burnout of sportswriting. Baseball bored me. My girlfriend at the time, a public radio reporter in San Diego, was equally burned out. We both needed new challenges, an adventure, a different direction in life, not to mention live in the same time zone for a change.

The Denver Post union contract allowed year-long sabbaticals. We could do anything we wanted during the year — write, travel, rob banks, whatever — and were guaranteed our jobs back. Maybe not our beats, but we’d have a job waiting. A Post news reporter friend named Joe Sinisi, an Italian-American, had just spent half his year in Italy. One 10-minute discussion hearing of the food, the landscape and the people convinced me.

I’d be a travel writer in Rome for a year. Rome would be perfect. It overflowed with travel stories and is centrally located. I could fly anywhere from Great Britain to North Africa within a couple hours. It was relatively cheap. Italian would be easier to learn than French or German (HA!) and sexier than Spanish. It was warm, a major consideration with a woman coming from San Diego.

So that November I took my girlfriend, Nancy, to the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas and on the first night gave her a wrapped present. It was a long narrow tube with a bow around it.

“What is this, a feather boa?” she said.

“Just open it.”

It was a rolled-up poster of St. Peter’s at night. I said, “Want to move to Rome for a year?”

(Guys, take a tip: If you want to score some points with a woman, try the above.)

After the shock wore off, she agreed but first we felt we should go on a recon mission. So that February 2001 we flew to Rome with backpacks, pens and paper. We took notes on every cost an expat would incur: public market food, public transportation, Italian lessons, utilities, wine, restaurants, apartments. We looked at neighborhoods with vacancies. She wasn’t impressed.

During one trip to the scruffy part of Trastevere, she said, “This place looks like Queens.”

However, after a week of wining, dining and exploring without a jacket in February, she turned to me as we sat over the best homemade pasta of our lives and said, “I’ll sell everything.”

We set our departure for that November. That’s November 2001. Yes, what better time to launch a career as a full-time travel writer than two months after 9-11? In one of the savvy career moves of my life, I tried selling travel stories when some newspapers weren’t running stories on destinations to which you couldn’t drive.

In the aftermath, 25,000 Americans cancelled their flights to Rome, which Homeland Security put on Yellow Alert, meaning there was a “significant risk” of terrorist attack. We went anyway and had the best 16 months of our lives. They were also the hardest. We moved to a foreign city where we had no home, no friends, no language skills and no job. We were living together without ever before living within 1,000 miles of each other.

Moving to Neptune may have been easier. The language seemed impossible; so did some of the kitchen appliances. She struggled to find a new line of work; I struggled with Italian school. The tension was palpable. At one point we were exchanging gunfire daily.

But, like an aging actress who gets herself back in shape, Rome slowly revealed herself as the great city it remains to this day in my heart. We found a beautiful, spacious apartment near the Vatican. We had all kinds of adventures. I spent two months in Rome’s gladiator school. (Yes, there is one.) I did a story on Solo Per Due, the world’s smallest restaurant, featuring only one table for one couple per night in the most romantic setting in Lazio. I made more friends than I ever had in Denver. I traveled all over, from Tunisia to Latvia. She joined me to London and all over Italy.

And the biggest discovery of all came from the realization that no matter how confused you get with the Italian bureaucracy, how frustrated you get with the language, how worried you get about money, one thing in Rome is certain.

You always have dinner to look forward to.

Unfortunately, my sabbatical ended — at about the same time our money did. We returned to Denver in April 2003 with the commitment to return some day. For ever. I became The Post’s national college football writer; Nancy took a job at a public radio station in Greeley, a small agricultural town 60 miles north of Denver.

The return was a quasi disaster. I had one of the best jobs in American journalism; she disliked her job in Greeley, a long commute to a town of slaughterhouses and air constantly smelling of cow pies. She hated the cold. She had few friends. For her, Denver was Karachi.

After four years, she had enough. She moved back to Rome in 2007 with the idea that I’d join her. I didn’t. I came close three times but each time jobs fell through, twice after I acquired work visas from the Italian Consulate in Chicago.

While long-distance relationship are trying, try one from 7,000 miles away. We saw each other twice a year, one time rendezvousing in Kuala Lumpur for a backpacking trip in Borneo. We swapped limoncello for leeches.

We finally set a deadline. I’d return to Rome by fall 2010 or we’d break up. I didn’t make it. I failed. An 11-year relationship ended because I couldn’t reinvent myself in Italy.

However, I reinvented my means to move. Unable to find a job, I decided to save my money and retire. I went back to Rome in 2011, again with pen and paper. I came up with a financial figure I needed to reach and met with my genius Denver broker, Stephanie Gudka. We strategized.

I reached the figure in August 2013, I spent that fall football season working on my visa and announced my resignation Dec. 26 in a crisp one-line text sent from the Palm Springs airport. I flew to Rome Jan. 10. It was a one-way ticket.

It’s 4 ½ years later and the thought of hating Rome seems as distant as my first words at 3 years old. Rome has given me a joy, at 62, that few can comprehend , a garden of adventure that never ceases to deliver. The sights. The tastes. The sounds. The smells. Rome is a kaleidoscope of pleasure that surprises me every day. I would never live anywhere else and I’ll never leave.

Nancy and I both found new life partners, and I truly hope she’s as happy here as I am. Rome is home. A rocky, tumultuous trail has led me to this lovely corner of the world, a place I could write about forever. I could write more now but I must go.

I have dinner to look forward to.

Lunch with Doctor Wine: One of world’s top wine experts, Daniele Cernilli uncorks his knowledge

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.

Daniele Cernilli at Checchino dal 1887. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine three straight years.

There are few things better in life than sitting in an historic Roman trattoria and drinking good wine and eating good food all afternoon. One thing that is better is doing it with one of the leading wine authorities in the world.

Daniele Cernilli is to Italian wine what Tom Brady is to American football. Decanter magazine ranked him among the 50 most influential people in the world of wine in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Known as Doctor Wine (, he has authored five books, including his most recent, “The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018,” a massive 615-page tome that breaks down every wine and winery in all 21 regions of Italy.

In 1986 he co-founded Gambero Rosso, the bible of Italian restaurants which adorned every kitchen of every Italy resident who cares about food. A philosophy graduate and former journalist and teacher of history and literature, the 63-year-old Rome native has traveled all over the world and is an international wine judge. He has been to the U.S. 30 times.

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo

Checchino dal 1887 has been in Rome’s Testaccio neighborhood for 131 years. Vista Esterna photo

We met for lunch at Checchino dal 1887 in my old neighborhood of Testaccio. Checchino sits near Monte Testaccio where in Ancient Rome they piled broken shards of terracotta pots used to store wine, olive oil and grain in the nearby warehouse, the ruins of which still stand. Started in, yes, 1887, Checchino has been in the Mariani family for six generations and once received a Michelin star.

It’s tastefully decorated with white tablecloths and drawings of old Rome on the walls. Sharp-dressed waiters bring out all the famous Roman dishes such as coda alla vaccinava (oxtail), rigatoni con la pajata (pasta with sheep intestine) and trippa alla romana (interior of a cow’s stomach). Yes, real Romans, such as Cernilli, still eat this stuff.

I wimped out and had the bucatini alla gricia (long pasta with pig’s cheek and pecorino romano cheese). Cernilli ordered us bottles of 2015 Chianti Classico from Brolio-Bettino and a Frascati Superiore from Vigneto Filonardi just down the road about 20 miles.

The food and wine were superb and so was the conversation. I sat down with Cernilli and Robert Della Vedova, my Australian friend and Cernilli’s English instructor:

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.

Cernilli, me and Roberto Della Vedova.

Me:: How does a wine expert from Italy get started in the wine business? Do you remember the first time wine became special to you?

Cernelli: Yes, of course. Imagine I was passionate for geography when I was a baby and I discovered that wine is a geography of taste. Every place, every wine region, has a particular taste, a particular scent. The wine is the marker of that. It’s very interesting. When I discovered this I was very interested in discovering more and more. Probably the first wine I had in my life that I remember was the wine that my father bought for the family. It was from Castelli Romani. It was a Frascati, probably. But also a Chianti Classico I remember from Carpineto, a very famous estate. I remember, for example, the ‘64 of Caponetto, I was 10 years old, probably 12, the wine was on the market two years later. Probably I had a little touch of wine when I was 12. I remember during the New Year’s Eve celebration, I remember some champagne, Cardon Rouge, with the label of the red cotton inside. I remember I was 10 or 12 years old but just to try because
it’s not good for a 12-year-old person to drink alcohol but the times were different then.

Me: So you’re 10 or 12 when you first got interested?

Cernilli: Just a touch. But the idea of the wine for an Italian family is like bread and olive oil. It’s not a great shape, especially 50 years ago, to have 12 years old person to drink a little bit of wine. Nowadays it’s normal.

Me: So your first wine was from Lazio. How’d that get you interested in geography?

Cernilli: It’s a good region for some wines like this but it’s not Piemonte. It’s not Tuscany. It’s not Burgundy. It’s not Napa Valley. It’s a region for wine that comes simply and for fragrant wines. It’s wine to be drunk not to be philosophered.

Me: But how’d that get you into geography?

Cernilli's last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.

Cernilli’s last book, the ultimate guide to Italian wine.

Cernilli: Then I discovered that the wine is very good. I attended the sommelier school and I became a teacher of sommelier after two years. In 1983 when I was 29 years old. I became a professional, then journalist. I founded a magazine that became very famous in Italy, the title was Gambero Rosso.

Me: What inspired you to do the magazine?

Cernilli: I was one of two founders. The other founder passed away, unfortunately, Stefano Bonilli. He was a professional journalist before me and had the idea. I wrote a lot for wine magazines. We started as an insert of The Manifesto, a communist newspaper. I was not a communist. I am not communist. The Gambero Rosso is the name of the osteria where Pinocchio was robbed by the cat and the fox. It’s a masonic history. Carlo Collodi was the first writer who invented Pinocchio and was a master mason. Walt Disney the same. The story of a piece of wood becoming a human person is a masonic story. This is the reason Walt Disney made the Pinocchio pictures.

Me: Has your appreciation of wine changed over the years now that you know it better?

Cernilli: You probably don’t listen to the same music. You don’t read the same books. You don’t watch the same films. It’s the same with the wine. Wine is something that’s a live drink. The wine is also a marker of the moment of the history of the technique of the spirit of the world. The technique is incredibly improved over the last 20 years. But there are other topics. For example, ecology, the sustainability of the production. Not to use sulfites of natural wine. Many people are very interested in that. A lot of people don’t care. Some people have great sensibility in this topic. It’s a new technique. Sustainability is very important. There are many ways to reach these kinds of results. There is no doubt it’s important to respect the nature and make wine with the least preservatives possible.

Me: Just philosophically, what do you like about wine?

Cernilli: Because it’s a great tradition of our Mediterranean area. Wine was born in this area, Greece, Middle East.

Me: Actually Georgia. I was just there.

My bucatini alla gricia.

My bucatini alla gricia.

Cernilli: There’s another birthplace that is Greece. It’s not just Georgia. It’s Armenia. Modern Turkey. Sicily and Greece. It’s something we drink for 3,000 years. This is important for us. It’s a great tradition. I feel in this my roots. The roots of the Mediterranean person is in the wine. It’s in the olive oil. It’s in the pizza.

Me: What makes Italian wine special?

Cernelli: Italian wines we have 500 denominations. We have about 5,000 wineries in Italy. No, 50,000 wineries. We have 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of vineyards. So that means 6,000 square kilometers. All the Italian vineyards if you put together, are the coast. Every little town, little situations can change. You can have the same grapes and very different wines because of the soil, because of the weather, because of the vintage. This year is a very wet vintage. Last year was a very dry vintage. If you tried a 2017 of this wine in the future and 2018 of this wine in the future it would be different. One more bigger, more alcoholic; the other more acid, lighter. So it’s a functional concept.

Me: French wine is the same.

Cernilli: The only difference is the French have less varieties, 20-25 main varieties. We have 1,000 varieties. Every region, every little area has a local variety. France does not have that. They abandoned a lot of local wines to make more modern-style wines. Bordeaux influenced the style of the wine all over the world. All the world from the New World, from California, from Australia, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc come from Bordeaux. The Burgundy wines are part of the New World: Oregon, some parts of South Africa. The French dominated, colonized the world of wine for many years. Now there are the Italians. And Italians are only in Italy. If you take the Nebbiolo or Sangiovese and put them in Napa Valley it’s not the same. It’s very different. There is not stability in the expression of the wines. So Nebbiolo can only be made in the part of Piedmont. If you put Nebbiolo in a different part you won’t recognize it. This is the particularity of the Italian wine.

Cernilli's coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.

Cernilli’s coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The recipe was invented at Checchino in the 19th century.

Me: My favorite wine in the world is Barolo. Give me your opinion of Barolo.

Cernilli: Barolo is the best wine in Italy. Barolo is fantastic. But Barbaresco is not very far from Barolo. They are made from Nebbiolo so they are in the region and are very close. Barbaresco is a little lighter, normally. It depends on the producer.

Me: I always tell people, Americans, because you can rarely get a Barolo for under $50 in the U.S., get a Barbaresco because it’s released a year earlier and it’s about half the price. It’s not as good but close enough to fake it.

Cernilli: From Castello di Grinzane Cavour, inside the area of Barolo, you can see the bell tower of Barbaresco. It’s only 20 kilometers.

Me: I see you teach wine tasting. How long does it take to develop your palate to where you can determine the fruits in a wine?

Cernilli: There is a technique approach to the tasting, a sommelier approach. They want to let us dream about the wine but not explain technically what’s in the wine. If you tell me that you feel the smell of the running horse in the wine, it is not possible.

Me: I went to a wine tasting once and some clown said he could taste the mushrooms of Toscana. We were in suburban Denver. Come on!

Cernilli: You look at the color of the red wine. You can compare the color of the wine with the color of some berries. It’s very simple. The wine takes from the wood spices and vanilla or pepper or cinnamon or something like that. Not more. Then you check the balance of the wine between the tannins, the stringents and the acidity that make you salivate. The matching is very important for the Italians. Matching for the food is very important for us because we drink to eat. Less for the French. Less for the British. For the British they want to drink then to eat. Or they eat then they drink.

Me: It’s interesting you say that because when I have aperitivos, if I just have wine, the Italians need food with it.

Cernilli: For example, you can’t have a Cabernet with an aperitivo. That’s incredible for us to have a big red wine for an aperitivo. It is not possible. I can have spaghetti amatriciana with a Cabernet, not an aperitivo. An aperitivo is a Frascati. Or a sparkling or a light wine, a Riesling, or a light red. Not a Cabernet, not a Brunello, not a Barolo. We have to have to some meat with a Barolo.

Me: I like Barolo with amatriciana. It’s a heavy taste and Barolo has big flavor.

Cernilli: When you have fat added during the cooking, you need tannins so the Barolo is very good. If you have fat inside like the cotechino or a very fat salami, you need acidity. You can choose a sparkling or a big white wine with good acidity. Gorgonzola with a sweet wine.

Me: What do you think of this Chianti?

Cernilli: In this wine you can taste wild cherries and probably some smokiness because of the barrels.

Me: Are you getting that from looking at it or tasting it?

Cernilli: Both. After 40 years of tasting wine, I can understand something when I see something into the glass. Because I can hear the noise and how the wine goes into the glass. I can understand the alcoholic level. Because the more alcohol you have, the more grisarol you have. The grisarol is like the oil. You can see. If you put a Palo Cortado, a big sweet wine from the Sherry region, it’s like an oil in the glass because there are so many sugars inside that it’s solid.

This is a real Chianti Classico. This is the most Chianti Classico you can have. In order to make the barrels, you must work with the fire and toast the inside the wood because you have to curve the wood in order to make the barrel. You have to burn inside. The smell of burning is in the wine.

Della Vedova: When I was growing up, we’re talking 50 years ago, Chianti was considered the cheap wine.

Cernilli: Chianti is a wine. Chianti Classico is atop the list of the Chiantis. There’s the Chianti Reserva. Now they have the great selection that is more than the Chianti Reserva. It’s like a Brunello.

Me: I noticed you wrote a book called “Memories of a Wine Taster.” Give me your best anecdote.

Cernilli: If you know the wine producer, they are characters. There was a lot of memories. For example, in Burgundy, Dugat Py, a very famous producer, it’s a farmer, it’s a simple person. We were 3-4 people to visit the estate, a very, very little estate in Burgundy. We asked for a taste of a very important wine. Chambertin, a very important wine. Very expensive. But he disappeared and came back with a tuxedo. Because to open a Chambertin he changed his dress for the respect he had for the wine.

I wrote about a Champagne producer, Ricotan. It was a man so he went in a nightclub, a lap dance and strip tease. The girl in the strip tease was not so involved in the strip tease. He said, “You don’t know your work. Now I will show you what you have to do.” He began to make a strip tease.

Me: Ever think Gambero Rosso would get this popular? It’s kind of the bible now.

Cernilli: No. It was the bible. Now they lose a lot of power. Not only power but, I don’t know, respect. In the last year they are very commercial. They are a big company and they need money to pay. They are in the stock exchange. They have to sustain the level of the value and options. The change was a big change. Because Stefano Bonilli passed away. I left the company (in 2011). A lot of people left after us. Now I don’t recognize it. It’s different. Very different. I don’t want to criticize. Probably they must do that but I don’t agree. So I went another direction. I do this new wine guide which has a lot of information and honesty, intellectual honesty.

Me: I find people in the wine industry — in enotecas, vineyards, wine journalists — very happy. You seem very happy. Are there any negatives about your job?

Cernilli: Two things: Corruption of some people and the alcoholism. Many people involved in wine drink too much. There are some people that destroyed themselves by the wine. It’s like a gynecologist who becomes a sexual maniac. People that eat in restaurant or go around the world, in order to sell the wine, to present the wine every day if you are not very secure of yourself and rational, the risk is very, very high. Because this could be a nice thing or can destroy you. It’s a soft drug.

Me: With whisky it’s more the feeling. With wine it’s the taste. If I get addicted it would be to the taste.

Cernilli: Yes, but the level of alcohol is very different. Whisky is 43, 44 and more. Wine is 14 or one third. I don’t drink any liquor. For me it’s too much.

Me: Beer?

Cernilli: I drink beer if I’m thirsty. It’s not something to think about.

Me: I drink white wine when I’m thirsty.

Cernilli: I drink white wine or water with lemon.

John: I have a very important question. Tell me why you get more headaches when you drink wine in the U.S. than you do in Italy? I say there are fewer sulfites and preservatives here.

Cernilli: I don’t think so. The Italian wine making is more safe wine making and more ecological.

Me: It’s more natural?

Cernilli: Natural is a strange word. Wine is not natural. Wine is human. Winemaking in Italy respects the nature because we don’t need, for example, irrigation. If you want to make wine in the States, you have to irrigate. Because you don’t have rain enough.

Me: There’s more rain in Tuscany than Napa Valley?

Cernilli: Yes. Much more. For us it’s impossible, it’s not legal to irrigate if there is not a big drought. This is one of the main topics. The second, the system of wine growing there are many changes in Italy. The use of pesticides is incredibly less in the last 10 years. Consider that 15 percent of the wine growing in Italy is organic. Fifteen percent is a lot compared to other parts of the world. Then probably we are auto criticism. We think to be worse than others. The image is probably not so positive. I’m very sure now, I saw a lot of vineyards in the States, Napa Valley, Central Coast, Columbia Valley in Washington state — and they are not so organic.

Me: Here’s the key question. I ask all wine experts this and I love the answers. I’ve had such a variety. Pretend you’re going to be executed in the morning. What bottle of wine do you drink tonight?

Cernilli: Probably the Monfortino ‘61, a Barolo. It’s one of the best wines I ever had. I don’t find now a ‘61 Monfortino.

Me: What makes it better?

Cernilli: It’s the emotion. It makes you remember. I remember when I had my Monfortino ‘61. I remember where I was. I know I can’t have another time with this wine because they finished the bottles. It’s not possible to buy. There were very few in production and it’s very famous. Now you can have the 2001, not the ‘61.

Me: How much was it retail?

Cernilli: I don’t know. Maybe 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 euro.

Me: It’s interesting because I ask a lot of sommeliers this and they often say very simple wines.

Cernilli: Simple wines are very important.

The Oregon Coast: Raw wind-blown beauty — and great chowder — warmed the heart of my Italian photographer

This wide stretch of unspoiled sandy beach south of Yachats can be seen all over the Oregon Coast. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This wide stretch of unspoiled sandy beach south of Yachats can be seen all over the Oregon Coast. Photo by Marina Pascucci

YACHATS, Ore. — I found it a little daunting last year when my Italian girlfriend said she wanted to see where I grew up. What kind of a ghoul tour could I give her in Eugene, Oregon? I could show her the bar parking lot where I passed out the night of my 21st birthday. Maybe she’d enjoy the street in front of my high school girlfriend’s house where I lost my virginity (the stick shift in the ‘67 Mustang could NOT have been designed for a more inconvenient spot). Maybe she’d like to see my frat house where they filmed “Animal House” while I was living there. Then again, she didn’t really understand the movie. Italians, God love ‘em, don’t find food fights remotely funny.

The most important thing on her must-see list, oddly, was Papa’s Pizza. It’s the pizza parlor where I worked the summer after high school graduation. She had a weird curiosity about her American boyfriend making pizzas. It didn’t matter that every single ingredient at Papa’s, from the tomatoes to the cheese to the salami, came from a box or can. Those pizzas had so few natural ingredients they were nearly synthetic. It was no concern that a Papa’s pizza could grease an International Harvester. She wanted to try it.

She also wanted to see my house, my school, my sisters. What she didn’t know much about was one of the best parts of my childhood, the part she wound up liking most during our recent two-week trip around the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon Coast is a way to get away from it all, namely people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Oregon Coast is a way to get away from it all, namely people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Oregon Coast.

Notice it is not called the Oregon beach. The word “beach” conjures up images of bikinis and sunscreen, Frisbees and volleyball, swimming and palm trees. The Oregon Coast is cold. The ocean is freezing. It’s between 45-63 degrees (7-17 celcius), depending on the year. Don’t even think about swimming. I went in once when I was 10 years old and I swear I’ve been sterile ever since. Before we arrived, just in case we took a quick dip, I looked up the Italian word for “shrinkage.”

The weather itself makes it feel like it’s on the Bering Strait rather than the Pacific. It gets 60 inches (150 cm) of rain a year. Wind sweeps in like icy thunderbolts, reaching 60 mph in winter, and pierces your ubiquitous hoody regardless of season. It was August and I wore jeans and a long-sleeve shirt every day. Marina, being Italian, dressed as if she was mushing a dogsled over one of the poles.

Me on Agate Beach, a frequent family destination when I was a kid and still beautiful in its simplicity. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on Agate Beach, a frequent family destination when I was a kid and still beautiful in its simplicity. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yet we take pride in that as much as its raw beauty. It’s why we capitalize “Coast.” The Oregon Coast is so unique. No place has beaches as broad with such fine golden sand as Oregon. From Highway 101, which goes the length of the Coast, it looks like one long continuous sand dune. Yet we could practically pack the number of beachcombers we saw in our rental car. If the Coast was 20 degrees warmer the crowds would make Manhattan Beach look like a river bank in rural Kansas.

We Oregonians? We didn’t know any better. My family would take the hour drive from Eugene and have BBQs on the sand. Trying to find a sheltered spot where our fire didn’t get blown out after 30 seconds would’ve challenged Navy SEALs. My father and I played golf with one of his local friends, and I distinctly recall the wind sending one of my badly hooked drives halfway to the Marshall Islands. The next morning after a storm we’d walk the beach and see little sea creatures playing in tide pools. We’d find various sizes of glass balls that broke away from nets on Japanese fishing boats and floated to shore. I had a very learned uncle who flew out from Bethesda, Maryland, just to collect the perfectly black rocks he said could only be found on the Oregon Coast.

Since 1967 all of the Oregon Coast has been public land. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Since 1967 all of the Oregon Coast has been public land. Photo by Marina Pascucci

What also makes the Oregon Coast special is every grain of sand from the California to Washington borders is public land. In 1966, a motel owner in Cannon Beach, about 80 miles west of Portland, tried banning the beach behind his motel from all but his guests. Lawmakers quickly introduced the Beach Bill and since its signing on July 6, 1967, all of the Oregon Coast is public land.

The Oregon Coast doesn’t have any palm trees but it doesn’t have any Club Meds, either.

To reach the Coast we drove diagonally from Portland through McMinnville, near the heart of Pinot Noir country. If you didn’t know, Oregon has the best Pinot Noir in the world. Just ask Oregonians. Or look at the prices. You don’t get any home state discounts in my Oregon, buddy. We stopped at R. Stuart & Co., a downtown McMinnville wine bar where I paid $15 for a tasting of three fantastic single-vintage Pinots and one blend. Thirsty for more and possibly a present for us as we sat by the ocean later that day, I asked the cost for a bottle.

Fifty dollars for the single vintages; $60 for the blend. I looked outside to see if I was still in Oslo.

We continued down the road until we met the Coast at Lincoln City, not more than a small logging town when I grew up in the ‘60s but now rivaling Cannon Beach as one of the top tourist destinations on the Coast. We headed south and just short of Waldport I pulled into the Flying Dutchman Winery. It was in the mid-60s and windy.

Marina, shivering, wouldn’t get out of the car.

The view from the Flying Dutchman's patio in Waldport.

The view from the Flying Dutchman’s patio in Waldport.

The cheerful man behind the bar poured me a lovely 2016 Pinot as well as a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and three others while we swapped notes on Italian versus Oregon wines. The wines were almost as good as the setting: right above the water with a big backyard featuring picnic tables all with fantastic views of the ocean. If you can handle the cold, it’s the perfect place to improve your wine palate.

I mentioned the view to Marina and suggested having a glass outside. She mumbled something in Romanaccio, the part of the Roman dialect exclusively reserved for profanity, that I fortunately didn’t understand.

However, she did join me for a bottle of local craft beer and some Oregon cheddar cheese behind our motel where a park bench pointed out to the ocean. While chilly, the Oregon Coast was one of the few places in the Pacific Northwest last month where raging forest fires hadn’t reduced the air to Beijing in July. We could smell the salt water as it pounded against the rocks. The gray overcast sky mirrored the ocean, a mix of roiling sea the color of steel and white sea foam.

Marina and I behind the Fireside Motel in Yachats.

Marina and I behind the Fireside Motel in Yachats.

Marina and I behind the Fireside Motel in Yachats.

Marina and I behind the Fireside Motel in Yachats.

Notice we stayed at a motel, with an “m,” not a hotel. For you Europeans, an American motel is like a hotel but usually just one or two stories and featured in most slasher movies. Not all have “FREE PORN” on their sign with a light missing. The Fireside Motel is a reputable, comfortable and very clean motel and an absolute steal at $120 a night.

In the summer the Oregon Coast is real expensive. As I searched for hotels I wondered if it would soon price itself out of the tourist market. I used Priceline, the U.S. bidding website where you put in a price, hotel level and date and if the computer finds a match, it automatically books you a room and charges your credit card. While you can’t review the hotel before the purchase, it offers major discounts at hotels desperately trying to fill empty rooms in the last week or so. I bid for four days and topped out at 175 euros. That’s nearly $200. Still no match.

What is this, the Oregon Coast or Saint-Tropez?

I punted. I took the recommendation from my sister who uses the Fireside for quick weekend getaways from Eugene with her husband.

It is pronounced YAH-hots, not “Yacchtssh” as Marina continually butchered. It comes from the Siletz Indian word for “Dark water at the foot of the mountain.” This little town of about 700 people has gone from an internment camp the U.S. Army used for local Indian tribes in the 19th century to No. 7 on travel guide guru Arthur Frommer’s top 10 list of favorite destinations in the … world. In 2007 Budget Travel listed it as one of the 10 Coolest Small Towns of the USA. That same year, the now-defunct VirtualTourist website called it one of the top 10 U.S. up-and-coming vacation destinations.

This all explains the lodging prices.

Yachats Underground

Yachats Underground

This also explains how Marina and I sat in Yachats Underground, the town’s local dive bar, talking to a 38-year-old mustachioed new father showing off his baby’s picture while bitching about local real estate. The Underground is Yachats’ nerve center. Hardened middle-aged women with bad hair and no makeup drink tall beers at the long, curved wood bar. A sign reading “DEEP SEA DRINKING” hung on the wall.

“You can’t find a place anymore in Yachats that isn’t taken by rich folks buying a second home,” the man said. “When you do find one, it’s $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom.”

Twelve hundred a month? That’s more than I pay for a one-bedroom in the middle of Rome.

“Nine years ago, $1,200 would rent you a house,” he said. “It’s $2,300 now.”

This is near where Ken Kesey wrote "Sometimes a Great Notion." Photo by Marina Pascucci

This is near where Ken Kesey wrote “Sometimes a Great Notion.” Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yet falling on the cliche, you get what you pay for, after two days in Yachats I could see the appeal. Burned out? Divorced? Dying? Walk along the manicured trail that parallels the ocean. Holding hands, Marina and I meandered through tall grass for a couple hundred meters, climbed around driftwood and jumped over small tide pools. We found our way to a giant expanse of beach, void of anyone but a stray man, obviously burned out, divorced or dying, strolling the sand.

The late great Ken Kesey, a fellow University of Oregon grad who grew up in Eugene’s neighboring town, Springfield, based his “Sometimes a Great Notion” novel in 1964 on a struggling logging family on the Oregon Coast. The author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” did a lot of writing in Yachats. As a writer, I always thought the Coast would be the perfect place to write.

Kesey said it’s too nice.

He once told an interviewer, “I can’t sit out there, look at the ocean and get any work done. It hammers the hell out of me.”

The Yaquina Head Light is the tallest of Oregon's lighthouses at 93 feet

The Yaquina Head Light is the tallest of Oregon’s lighthouses at 93 feet

The Oregon Coast is a wilderness paradise. Just across Highway 101 from the ocean is the Siuslaw National Forest where 630,000 acres of trees provide canopy for a spiderweb of hiking trails. Add 30 degrees, humidity and deadly snakes and it would be the Amazon. I recall in years past hiking in the shade for an hour then coming across a crystal-blue lake I never knew existed.

Marina and I eschewed the hiking trails for Highway 101 and drove up the road 30 miles to Yaquinta Head Light. Lighthouses litter the Coast like sentries. The state has 11 and the 93-foot Yaquina is the tallest of them all. It can be seen from 20 miles out at sea. It’s just too bad it wasn’t built until 1871. Before its construction, 69 ships turned into kindling and underwater tombs from not knowing where the hell they were. Blimps and the U.S. Navy protected the lighthouse during World Wars I and II.

Me near the water where sea lions and whales surfaced. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me near the water where sea lions and whales surfaced. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yaquina Head Light sits at the end of promonotory that sticks out into the sea like a drunken sailor’s middle finger. The Oregon Coast has a lovely giant aquarium in nearby Newport. The beach at Yaquina is better. Marina and I descended a tall staircase to the beach where we walked along the sand and examined tide pools with starfish. The sun had appeared. Marina’s camera clicked like a horde of crickets.

Then something appeared in the water.

A black head. A little black head with whiskers. Then another. Sea lions, the kind you pay $29.50 to see in an aquarium, were surfacing just about 50 feet away from us. They stared at us. We stared at them. Just on impulse, I waved. I thought one of them nodded. Anyway, they dove and disappeared.

Then Marina pointed behind them. Rising out of the water was a long black, shiny object about 20 feet long. It was a whale, one of the 36-ton gray whales that cruise by here daily to feed. This is what I wanted Marina to see. This is what she can’t see in Italy.

This is the real Oregon. My Oregon.

Mo's Alaskan cod sandwich and clam chowder.

Mo’s Alaskan cod sandwich and clam chowder.

Besides the Oregon Coast’s beauty, I also spent the last year regaling Marina about its food. She fell in love with the clam chowder last year in Newport, Rhode Island. The clam chowder in the other Newport is better, I told her. Mo’s in Newport is as legendary as Oregon’s lighthouses. Paul Newman and Henry Fonda often ate here while filming “Sometimes a Great Notion” in 1970. Robert F. Kennedy campaigned at Mo’s in 1968, no doubt swearing off New England chawdah fahevah. In 2011 Coastal Living listed it among America’s Favorite Seafood Dives.

It started in 1946 by one Mohava Niemi, a local chain-smoking broadcaster who turned it into a hippy hangout in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She later bought an oyster farm and has expanded to six stores. Mo’s makes a half million pounds of chowder a year.

We ate across from the street from the original in a small annex consisting of about a dozen tables overlooking two fishing boats. Nautical flags hang on the wall as does a black and white photo of a 500-pound halibut. Waitstaff run around in T-shirts reading “Eat Like a Pirate. Drink Like a Fish.”

We ordered the Alaskan cod burger and chowder. The burger was excellent. The cod was grilled, not fried. But the chowder was orgasmic, packed with fat clams and soft potatoes and thick soup, all topped with a little pat of butter.

After I spewed glorious adjectives on Facebook, fellow Oregonians who claim Mo’s is overrated roasted me with rebuttals usually reserved for murder trials. They listed a half dozen other tiny dives that serve better chowder, meaning we’ll just have to come back again.

On our way to Eugene, Highway 101 South revealed phenomenal vistas of long, empty beaches without a person or — gasp! — lounge chair in sight. The state highway department was smart enough to include lookouts to pull in so Marina could snap away.

The Siuslaw River in Florence. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Siuslaw River in Florence. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We stopped in Florence, just an hour west of Eugene and nearly surrounded by water. As we sipped our coffee outside a little gift shop, staring at the pleasure boats bobbing up and down on the peaceful Siuslaw River Marina had a familiar smile on her face. It’s a smile I see when we’re in special places in Italy, like staring at the Roman Forum at night or sitting alongside a canal in Venice or laying on a beach in Sicily.

“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” she said.

An endorsement on your home state’s beauty from an Italian, a better compliment can not be heard.

Vancouver: From skid row to Sheraton, a travel tale from hell turns into paradise in smoky Pacific Northwest

The boardwalk along Coal Harbour with Vancouver’s skyline in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — I knew we were in trouble when our Indian Sikh cab driver’s mood suddenly changed. Sikhs don’t believe in worldly things. Material possessions are accepted, not sought. So when a Sikh from India warns you about a poor neighborhood, you listen.

Particularly if he’s talking about your hotel.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!,” he said as he double-checked its address and turned a corner. “Vellie bawd ahreah. Why you stay theyah?”

Bad area? In Vancouver? Vancouver is one of the world’s ideal cities. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked it tops among the “most well-living cities” in the world five straight years. I was born, raised, educated and employed in the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver is the place we went to escape reality.

It’s like Sydney with slap shots.

In 2016 Vancouver's homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo

In 2016 Vancouver’s homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo

But as we drove down Hastings Street, we saw the source of his fears. Homeless, dozens then hundreds, lined both sides of the street. They stood, sat and laid three deep among scattered and battered pup tents, sleeping bags and blankets. It looked like a refugee camp from a border war.

I looked at Marina, my Italian girlfriend who dreamed of seeing Vancouver, the focus of our two-week vacation in the Pacific Northwest. Despite the jetlag, her eyes were open as if she just saw an asteroid destroy a small planet.

“Fa SCHIFO!” she said. That’s one of my favorite Italian phrases. Unfortunately, “It SUCKS!” doesn’t sound good coming from your girlfriend after you introduce her to her dream vacation spot.

The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.

The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.

It got worse. We checked into the hotel, the Patricia, and I wondered if it inspired “Psycho.” We walked in past a broken-down piano in the lobby. Marina is deathly afraid of spiders so I didn’t look for cobwebs. The elevator didn’t work. I tried turning on a reading lamp in our tiny fourth-floor room and the knob fell off in my hand. The bathroom’s folding door had no handle. It had no wifi.

As we dropped our bags, Marina immediately took a chair and wedged it under the door handle, as if we were escaping the cast of “Night of the Living Dead.”

Marina's reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.

Marina’s reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.

“No esco! No esco!” (I don’t go out! I don’t go out!),” she said.

I went to the lobby and asked the manager, a young, pleasant but beaten-down man who looked as if he’s asked every hour about the neighborhood.

“It’s not as dangerous as it seems,” was his endorsement.

Funny, when I booked the room way back in September, its description said the Patricia was next to Chinatown, which I know and enjoy, and Gastown, Vancouver’s hopping nightlife district. The Patricia is in Vancouver’s first neighborhood and built in 1913. Pictures of the rooms looked great. At $80 Canadian ($70 U.S.), it was about the only hotel I found in the city under $150.

Now I know why.

Marina was speechless. I could’ve told her I didn’t have enough time to research the area. After all, I only had 11 months. Instead, I drank.

Frustrated, angry and limping from kicking myself all the way up and down the four flights of stairs we had to climb, I went to the roomy bar and ordered a Patricia Lager. No, the hotel has no working elevator but it does have a craft beer.

Jeff, a smiling, pony-tailed bartender, poured me the beer and said the neighborhood really isn’t dangerous. He walks home from work. The homeless are too stoned, drunk or sleepy to do any damage. But the blight on an otherwise spectacularly beautiful city, with one of the top skyline views in the world, is like vomit on a tuxedo.

I told him, “I’ve been in worse rooms in my life. A hotel in rural Egypt had the shower drain double as the toilet drain. But in 102 countries, I’ve never stayed in a worse neighborhood.”

I told him I remember Hastings Street from the 2010 Winter Olympics. But it hosted a couple blocks of homeless, like any city. It was nothing like this, a post-apocalyptic urban meltdown. I counted five straight blocks with people sleeping on the street. That’s not counting the ones in shelters.

“In the 2010 Olympics they put all the homeless shelters on this street,” Jeff said. “It’s gotten worse ever since. They come from all over Canada because of the moderate weather.”

Yes, if you’re out of work, out of luck and out of money, Vancouver is the place to find a park bench. It’s the warmest Canadian city in winter and coolest in summer. It has never recorded a temperature higher than 95 and never below zero.

As he talked, an elderly homeless man teetered up to the bar with a $10 bill. Jeff went to the back and brought back a big plastic bag of 12 cans of Carling Black Label, a vile swill from British Columbia I couldn’t keep down even in my poorest college days.

“But it has 8.5 percent alcohol,” Jeff said.

A tall, older man heard us and approached. A sympathizer to the homeless, he said before the 1986 World Expo, all the hotels with single-pensioner rooms, such as the Patricia, booted all its tenants onto the street. Many haven’t left.

“I know how to fix it,” the man said before walking away. “Get a gun!”

Apparently, the man comes to the Patricia only for the music. On this night, it was three middle-aged guitarists playing as a half dozen elderly, lumpy Vancouverites rocked awkwardly in the dim light.

Meanwhile, Marina had returned from smoking a cigarette outside. Normally, she smokes only after meals. We lost our appetite long ago.

“John, I saw a couple smoking crack outside,” she said.

I wanted to ask a rude question but fortunately I didn’t know Italian for “Did they share?” Also, Marina didn’t look in the mood for humor. Ever since we entered the hotel, curiously, a raven appeared on her shoulder.

Like Portland in my native Oregon, Vancouver’s homeless situation is reaching a crisis level. According to a CBC report in March, Vancouver has 2,181 homeless. The number went up 2 percent in 2017 after a 16-17 percent jump in 2016. Forty percent were indigenous people, 22 percent were from outside Vancouver and 25 percent surveyed said they were addicted to opioids. Mayor Gregor Robertson’s No. 1 campaign promise in 2015 was to solve the problem.

Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.

Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.

However, fear not, bella. I’ve had worse travel stories from hell.

I’m a big fan of Priceline, the United States website where you bid for hotel rooms. You find the city and check off your desired neighborhoods, star rating and price. If Priceline finds a match, it automatically charges your credit card. It’s risky. You must take the hotel it gives you. However, hotels use it to fill empty rooms and the closer you get to your arrival date, the cheaper they become and are way below listed rates on their websites.

I didn’t think Priceline worked in Canada. I was wrong.

I sat, alone, in the lobby which did have wifi and inserted a four-star hotel for $170. Bingo! Priceline gave us the Sheraton Wall Centre for $170. I looked at its website. Its normal price …

… $570.

It’s on the West End near Stanley Park with views of Vancouver’s glorious skyline, an indoor pool, Jacuzzi and huge rooms with giant flat-screen TVs.

And bathroom doors.

We checked in the next morning and Marina hugged me before we reached the elevator. Yes, she said, she will sleep with me again.

Going from Vancouver’s East End, particularly Hastings Street, to the West End is like going from Tijuana to San Diego. They’re that close. In one short cab ride, we found ourselves in an August wonderland filled with water all around, glorious parks, fantastic seafood, liberal politics and safe streets.

Part of Vancouver's glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Part of Vancouver’s glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Canada and the Pacific Northwest, as I’ve written before, the Pacific Northwest is one of the few places on Earth comfortable to travel in August. The others are Scandinavia, Mongolia and, of course, Alaska. In our three days in Vancouver, it never got over 80 degrees. It never rained.

No wonder 10.3 million tourists visited in 2017, raising $4.8 billion for a city that employs 70,000 people in the tourist industry. And, no wonder, housing costs are skyrocketing to where the average two-level home costs about $1 million, nearly three times the national average.

Utopia ain’t cheap folks and if you can handle rain — it rains at least every other day from October to March — this city of 630,000 is as close to urban perfection as you’ll find.

The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The place I wanted to take Marina was Vancouver’s crown jewel: Stanley Park. It’s the largest urban park in Canada and my favorite spot in the city. It’s 1,000 acres encompassing a half million trees, some as high as 250 feet and 100 years old. Water surrounds nearly the entire park. A bike/jogging path circumvents the quasi island with a dirt-bike track zigging through the trees. It has a world-famous aquarium, snack stands and a tony cafe. In 2014 TripAdvisor named it the top park in the world.

We rented hybrid street bikes from one of the long line of rental shops along nearby Denman Street and cycled a short way across West Georgia Street from downtown into the park. As we started pedaling, I stopped Marina and told her to turn to her right. There she saw the view that has captivated me my entire life and millions for generations. It’s the view of Vancouver’s glittery skyline. The city has no signature world-renowned building but the collection of downtown skyscrapers and glistening new apartment high rises in the background and a fleet of pleasure boats bobbing on Coal Harbour is a painting few artists can capture. On a clear e day it’s breathtaking. It ranks up there with Rio de Janeiro from Christ the Redeemer statue, New York from an airplane and San Francisco from across Golden Gate Bridge as my favorite skylines in the world.

Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.

Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.

Cycling around Stanley Park is more tour than exercise. We couldn’t go too far without stopping at a site or a view. We stopped at a totem park with totem poles honoring the indigenous people who populated the island
before it was turned into a park in 1886. The paint still looked as if it was applied yesterday. We cruised up the east side, not to say slowly but joggers were passing us. We stopped to gaze at a tiny lighthouse and the long, majestic Lions Gate Bridge. We passed a long sandy beach with clean, clear water that looked inviting except for the inevitable sterility-inducing temperature. After Marina headed back to a cafe for lunch, I launched an assault on a twisty, road up a hill where the summit offered good views of downtown.
One of Stanley Park's many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One of Stanley Park’s many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yes, even now the views could be better. The worst forest fires in British Columbia history, totalling more than 5,000 square miles, has left Vancouver — and much of the Northwest — in a permanent brown haze. For three years I bragged to Marina about my spotless corner of the planet. Then we spent two weeks driving around what looked like L.A. in the ‘60s. Vancouver isn’t as bad as rural Washington, where people have been told in some areas to stay indoors, but the smoke did drop a slight film on one of the world’s best views.

We headed indoors the next day. We took a cute, brightly painted water taxi across False Creek to Granville Island, one of the great public markets in North America. Coming from Rome, littered with public markets sporting Italy’s best natural products, Granville Island was a must stop despite its tourist trappings. Inside a long, red A-framed building are 150 vendors selling everything from $300 hand-crafted knives to apples, from 150 varieties of tea at Granville Island Tea Company to rotisserie chicken and sausages at L’Epicerie Rotisserie and Gourmet Shop. After spending $2.90 for an almond cookie filled with chocolate cream and covered in chocolate, I walked back to the vendor and said, “This is the greatest dessert ever produced by human hands.” She reacted as if she’d heard it before.

Grandville Island's Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Grandville Island’s Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci

I bought a small hand-painted carving of an orca made by a local member of the Carrier Nation. To British Columbia’s indigenous people, the orca, or killer whale, is symbolic of communication, intuition and harmony, perfect for my retired life in Rome. The sprawling crafts store is one of more than 100 other businesses outside the market that help Granville Island annually generate $215 million worth of business for the city.

No wonder as we bounced around False Creek, passing 100-foot yachts and towering apartment houses, the Aquabus pilot told us the upper-floor apartments were going for $2 million-$4 million. Hell, if I retired to Vancouver, I might be on Hastings Street, too.

Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ironically, we wound up on Hastings Street on our last night. No, I hadn’t run out of money. We had to cross Hastings to get from the bus stop to Gastown. It wasn’t particularly dangerous. We passed some middle-aged men arguing in a slurring speech I couldn’t comprehend. Some older people were too passed out to even open their eyes. I smelled urine.
Vancouver's Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Vancouver’s Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But in two blocks we found Gastown. It’s a sprawling string of rollicking bars and restaurants along Water Street, anchored by the famed Steam Clock that toots an obnoxious steam whistle every 15 minutes. On a lovely comfortable night in the high ‘60s, every outdoor seat in every bar was filled. We did find a corner table at a funky split-level bar called Six Acres, billed as Gastown’s “coziest tavern” and maybe the only pub in the world with candlelit corners. At our outdoor table a waitress with a bowling pin tattooed on her thigh served me a Doaus Kolsch, one of BC’s growing number of craft beers, and stared at the ass of Gassy Jack. His statue honors John “Gassy Jack” Deighton who arrived in Vancouver in 1867 and built the first pub in this neighborhood. Vancouver has been toasting ever since. His statue, appropriately, is atop a whiskey barrel.
Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver's first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver’s first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Then a man staggered up to us and tried bumming gas fare. Maybe he was one of the lucky ones. Maybe he was one who’s close to getting off Hastings Street.