Monday, October 12, 2009

What to do with 40 Thousand?

Frequent flyer miles, y'all, not dollars. I passed the mileage needed for a domestic US ticket long ago. Boring. What I'm trying to decide is where in the world to go with my qualifying miles at the 40k level?

I have never been to Italy. Let's just let that one lie there, writhing in agony for a little while.

Siiiiiiigh. Gaaaaasp. Wheeeeeze.

Ok, now let me explain why. I'm a history buff and no country in Europe compares to the mother lode of history that Italy holds. All of those "once in a lifetime" tours barely scratch the surface as seen through the dirty windows of some tour bus on a "highlights" trip through traffic more than anything else. I also no longer work for the airline industry which would have allowed multiple visits for a relatively small investment in money at least as far as air fare is concerned. So why is Italy suddenly coming in to focus now?

Over the past year and a half I've managed to rack up 40,000 miles through work and personal travel on American Airlines and the AAdvantage frequent flyer program. I live in Dallas, my family is back east in the Washington/Baltimore area and recently my employer has sent me hither and yon from California to Florida and back. Add in my vacation to Australia and I've earned my way in to an "off-season" economy class ticket to any city served by American in Europe. Of the nine countries they serve, Italy is the clear front runner.

I grew up in Germany and have been to Belgium, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Switzerland and Spain. Russia is high on the list but not until they come to their senses regarding that astronomical visa entry fee. That leaves Italy. The question is and has always been, however, how to see as much of everything this phenomenal country has to offer?

For me, some of the points of interest include but are not limited to:

Sicily - Everything from the Greek settlement at Syracuse to the Allied landing beaches at Gela. Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Venetians and Phoenicians, among others colonized and fought over this heart of the Mediterranean. All left their mark and a uniquely blended culture behind.

Monte Cassino - The abbey at the heart of the Axis "Winter Line" holding the allies south of Rome and truly one of the most international battle scenes of the war, including a Syrian brown bear named Wojtek who was trained to carry live ammo. The area is ringed with cemeteries and memorials to fallen soldiers from Poland, Germany, France, Italy and the Commonwealth Countries from England to New Zealand by way of Indian Ghurkas. The Americans are farther west at Anzio.
One of the hardest fought campaigns of the retaking of Europe and who knows about it or goes there? And the added shame is that it's an easy day trip from Rome, less than 80 miles away.

Rome, Naples, Capri, Pompeii, Pisa, Florence, Venice, Milan, The Vatican and the other "no-brainer" major attractions. I mean, logistically it simply means flying in to the southernmost point of interest and working north or vice versa. It's having the time to do all of that which presents the daunting challenge.

Any one of these possibilities can take a bare minimum of a week to fully explore and discover. There's not much IN Florence that needs a week but most will say that it deserves a week simply BEING in Florence and absorbing the atmosphere. Divide the country in to genre tours - art & architecture, history & archaeology, politics & religion or food & wine and the time requirement still adds up to weeks and months at a time. I don't want to regret leaving a single stone, scone or bone unturned.

Then there's the expense. I haven't set foot in Europe since 2002, my last trip being to Amsterdam. The economics of not being able to afford going were largely due to being under-employed for several years after September 11th. Today the economics have everything to do with merely wanting to stretch a historically weakened dollar. Italy has never been particularly cheap to visit and the exchange rate between the dollar and the euro have only made things worse across the continent. I've been exploring the Pacific Rim instead, where the dollar still goes a pretty good distance.

Italy is certainly a nation worth repeat visits but I also have to balance that natural desire with an equally compelling wish to see as much of the rest of the world as possible.

Have you noticed yet that I didn't even mention Sardinia? All I know is next year in the "off-season" I may for the first time set foot in the boot of Italy. At least the ticket is already "paid" for.

Gotta go!

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