Each year in May, an Italian friend from the northern city of Bolzano invites me to visit him during a small, but fun-packed festival called ArtMaySound. For two out of the last three years, I had been able to arrange a visit - tickets for the eight hour train ride from my home town are surprisingly cheap when booking 92 days in advance (which is when they start selling them - try to go online a few minutes after midnight if you want the best deals). In those two years, I had a small booth in downtown Bozen where I was able to sell a handful of games from the publisher I am associated with. While it was never worth it from a sales perspective, I enjoyed a few days out with the ability to recover some of the money I had spent on the tickets.
This year, things were different. Since my family is currently traveling, I seized the opportunity and took a week of vacation, so I could travel further south and see some more of Italy than the partly German speaking part in the north. Ever since high school (about 25 years ago), when my ingenious arts teacher had shown me slides of a certain church interior in Rome, I had wanted to go and see it in person - but my wife had been to Rome before she had met me, so when thinking about traveling, we had chosen different destinations. But this time I was going to go!
Some Italian friends helped me book some train tickets within Italy, plus some cheap accomodation. ArtMaySound was going to be on the 9th/10th/11th of May, so my plan was roughly like this:
4th: Göttingen - Bolzano (eight hour trip, dropping off my gaming suitcase so I could go on with only light luggage) 5th: Bolzano - Rome (4.5 hour ride in the early morning). Two days of sightseeing! 7th: Rome - Verona (3 hour ride in the morning) A day and a half of wandering around. 8th: Verona - Bolzano (1.5 hour ride in the evening) Back in time for the festival 9th-11th: Bolzano (Selling games to tourists, plus some fun with friends in the evenings) 12th: Bolzano - Göttingen (eight hours, starting around noon).
Tickets? Check. Accommodation? Check. Places to see? Plenty. But what to do in the evenings? I am not the kind of person to enjoy sitting around in a cafe alone, staring into my coffee (I don't even like coffee). So I had to find people for gaming... so I wrote this thread: Two nights in Rome, one in Verona - anyone want to play with me?. I had some friendly replies, so it looked like I was all set.
A few days before I was about to leave, my friend from Bolzano still hadn't confirmed whether he would be able to host me during that first brief "dropping off my suitcase" stopover. So I called him on the phone. Turns out he had family matters to take care of, resulting in difficulties in hosting me for that particular night. But he helped me find an affordable hotel right downtown and offered to pick up my suitcase from there. Well, some unexpected expense, but that is life. So I went to Bolzano with vaguely the same train that Hannibal once must have once taken - a very scenic route. Everything went fine with the hotel, and after an eventless night, I dropped the larger part of my luggage and headed for...
After leaving the station in Rome, I had my first encounter with the weather in Rome: Light rain. The fun part about that were the literally hundreds of people trying to sell umbrellas to anyone stepping out of the train station, a bus, or just walking wherever. I had a rainproof hood, so the rain didn't bother me too much. My hostel was the cheapest in the city, I think (19 Euros a night in a dorm room). Essentially, someone had put twenty beds into his apartment and made a killing off that. Makes sense to me. I dropped off some stuff, picked up a free map and started walking into the city.
One great thing about Rome is that it is quite walkable. Well, at least if you are a crazy walker like me. My first main target (after the obvious pizza lunch) was Sant'Ignazio di Loyola in Campo Marzio, the aforementioned church. I had my first encounter with the quality of free maps in Italy - they were wrong in many instances, so I took a bit of a detour in the rain.
And indeed, it was worth coming to Rome for this. When they built the church, they had apparently planned to add a dome, but it was statically difficult or too expensive or something - so they just painted it on. While they were at it, they painted a sky-high ceiling in the main hall. In reality, it is much lower than it seems. Obviously, the illusion works only in certain parts of the church. Elsewhere, the images are warped. I spent plenty of time there and was really happy that I had come.
After a few hours, I returned to my hostel to take a rest. Later, my Roman friend (who lives in Göttingen, but happened to be in Rome as well at that time) called me and took me on another walk: Around the Colosseum (defiled by the previous pope - what a travesty. Makes me ashamed of being German like him), the circus Maximus, countless other ruins, churches and pretty buildings, all the way to the Vatican. The crowds were insane there - I had no real desire to go inside the cathedral. Instead my friend showed me some great places to pick up food, which were every bit as good as she had said. I went back home in the early evening, hoping for a call from the guy who had offered to take me to a gaming pub. When he finally called, we couldn't make anything work, because his girlfriend had the car and didn't return until late, so we decided to meet the next day instead.
And since I don't have a good photo for this part, here's a video which describes the weather condition during my trip well:
The next day brought more rain - almost all day, but it cleared up in the late afternoon. I walked around the city again all day, covering something like 20 km again (like the day before). My feet were blistered by this time, but Rome is just irresistible. The Fontana di Trevi was currently emptied of all the coins people toss in during the week - quite a sight to see. The Spanish stairs are probably nice as well when it isn't pouring. Outside the Vatican, I found a quiet street (almost unreal to notice real peace in a bustling city like Rome) which was only maybe 500 meters longer than the map claimed, but made me come upon this strange assorment of Fiat 500 cars - my brother (who is about 6 foot 8) used to own one ages ago. A fun sight.
At night, Massimo sent me a message, directing me to a far away metro stop where I would be picked up. Ready for adventure! I put on my blue Mickey Mouse t-shirt to be recognized, and set out to meet complete strangers for gaming. I was picked up by Angela, who then drove me quite a distance out of town until we were able to pick up Massimo. Back in the car, we started making a plan. Before we were going to a gaming place, they took me to a bar they were regulars in. I was introduced to Debo, who apparently had placed third in a nationwide beer drafting contest, and her young Padawan (Debo is a huge Star Wars fan). Lucky I had picked up a few words of Italian before the trip, as English failed here. But there was a small gaming shelf, and we decided to play a quick game of Ticket to Ride over our beers. I won, despite the Padawan betting on the perpetual winner Angela. So that was good. :-)
Massimo and Angela - my ingenious hosts for Roman gaming!
The small game shelf at Debo's bar
Debo and her Padawan
Later, we took another drive to the only real gaming place claiming to be open on a Monday night (a night in which many bars are closed to recover from the weekend). We had some difficulties finding it, racing through the neighborhood, Italian speed, about three times. Eventually we found it - and unlike claimed on their website, they were actually closed on Mondays as well. We got back into the car and started speeding again, Angela on the phone with her friend who checked further phone numbers online, Massimo phoning the places trying to find one that was open. And after quite a while, we finally found something (on the other side of the city, but not so far from my hostel). We took the long trip there and entered the fancy place. They served wonderful cake, but their game menu consisted mostly of 1980s classics. Well, we took a copy of Pictionary, probably the most worn out copy of any game I had ever seen, drawn on, rule-less and in Italian. We played just the way we felt like and Massimo remembered, and while the Italian was in the way of a good score for me, I had great fun until we finally called it a night and they dropped me off near my hostel.
The cake was better than...
...the gaming menu.
A really worn out copy of Pictionary - in Italian.
What can I say? Whatever you play, it can be a blast with the right crowd. Thank you, Angela and Massimo, I had a perfect evening of gaming, chatting and laughter with you - hope I can meet you again in this life! If I ever come back to Rome, it won't be on a Monday!
The next morning, I headed over to Verona where I was picked up by another friend who lives in Verona and had offered to show me around. The weather was like the Roman weather, and occasionally hearing about the sunshine in Germany sounded kind of weird. Again, I dropped off some things in my hostel, which was in much better shape than the one in Rome (well, costing twice as much, too.) My initial plan had been to stay only one night, then proceed to Bolzano the next evening, in time to participate in Dinx's Wednesday gaming night. But in the meantime I had noticed that the festival in Bolzano wouldn't start on Thursday morning at all, more like on Friday afternoon. Thursday night there would just be the opening ceremony. As I noticed that it would be easier for my host in Bolzano if I came on Thursday instead of Wednesday, I booked a second night in my hostel in Verona and started walking this pretty city as well (after a great lunch, by the way!).
Various women posing as Juliet on the famous balcony.
Verona is a sweet place, quite different from the colossal activity of Rome. But still very touristy, of course. We walked to most well-known places before my friend had to leave. As I hadn't found any information on gaming pubs in the city, I took a bus to the only gaming store I knew of, hoping to meet someone I could game with. I had to take an obscure bus (noone really seemed to know the route of it, and buying the ticket only worked with the aid of a friendly other passenger - the only one, by the way). I reached the game store ten minutes before its closing time. Davide, the staff, was very friendly, but confirmed that there were no gaming places in the city. But on the counter, he had a leaflet from a gaming club outside Verona - assuring me I could go there by bus, but not get back to the city at night. Not something to put me off. I walked back to my hostel and called the phone number mentioned on the leaflet. I talked to a guy named Michele and asked if anyone from Verona could take me to San Giovanni Lupatoto and back either the same night or the next. He immediately offered to pick me up the next night (he wasn't in town himself that evening), and to make sure there were board gamers present in addition to the usual role playing crowd.
So some more walking on that day, some of the best ice cream imaginable (some flavors at Pretto actually have two Michelin stars! And deservedly so) - and then I put my blue Mickey Mouse t-shirt back on (I had washed it in the meantime) and waited on the side of a road to be picked up again. Took only a minute, and I was in another car on the way to a gaming night. Michele, who had driven out there with me, showed me the community center which hosted the gaming events. They had an attractive collection of pretty much all kinds of games there, and I played some light games in a group of four. It was a blast, and I was especially happy to be able to understand some of the explanations in Italian. We played till about midnight, and it was a friendly crowd again! If you are ever in the area, call Michele to see if something is going on on a given night. I was no longer sorry to have missed the Dinx game night in Bolzano at all.
If you want me to cut that telephone line, you will have to give me a longer sword!
I arrived in Bolzano around noon the next day. My host had no time until the evening, so what to do? I had been in Bolzano three times before, so the downtown area didn't offer much to see for me that I didn't already know. But there is a cable car going to upper Bolzano and I decided to check it out. Upper Bolzano lies around 1000 meters higher than the city center, and the cable car goes almost straight up before covering some horizontal distance as well. I wasn't entirely comfortable during the ride and slightly worried about the trip back (when I would actually be going down such a distance). But of course, the view was fantastic, and it didn't even rain for once.
Upper Bolzano is a rural area, and I walked to a nearby lake (about 30 minutes from the station) where I could put my sore feet into water - wonderful, after walking maybe 70 km within 4 days! I struggled with the strong dialect of an elderly man who was giving me his views on the world (the area around Bolzano is German speaking, but of course it's a different kind of German from what I am used to). Felt like a real holiday.
After surviving the trip down, I went over to the Museion, a relatively new modern art museum in downtown Bolzano. I met my friend and host who told me that unlike in previous years, the entire festival would not be in the streets, but in the Museion itself. Which meant that I would sell less to German tourists and more to art fans. Well. I hadn't been prepared for that, but since it was raining so much, it was probably better that way. My suitcase was already there, but I hadn't mentioned that there was a backpack with it - fortunately, it was still in the storage area of the hotel (only a few steps away from the Museion).
The opening ceremony was very relaxed, with some live music and impromptu performances of some comic artists. I liked the works of this year's featured artists quite a bit more than those of previous years, and it felt good.
My host was still not able to host me in his apartment, but he brought me to his brother's, a bit on the edge of town. That was great, but I was a bit dependent on someone to drive me or on finding out about the bus lines (it was outside my map, so difficult to walk). Well, no problem - yet.
The next day, he picked me up and brought me to the Museion where I started setting up my table. There were about six gaming tables behind me, and when the actual event started, that proved to be great. I hardly had any customers, but I just had to turn around to play when nothing happened. Whenever someone showed up, I took a short break, and nobody minded. A friendly crowd for sure! In the basement of the Museion, they had set up some live role playing room that looked utterly cool - but my Italian wouldn't have been good enough for that at all. No matter, I learned a bunch of fun new games and had a great afternoon.
Live role playing on a doomed plane
The evening open air concert had to be canceled due to the rain. So my host and his friends asked me whether I wanted to go to the theater with them. I hadn't been to the theater in ages (aside from puppet shows with my children), so I said yes. Did I mention this was in Italian, which I don't really speak? Well, it was hard to follow, but an interesting experience. Some more drinks afterwards, and I went home really tired.
On Saturday, the festival went all day. I sold a few more games and played plenty of others and generally had a good time. At about 6 pm, the indoor event ended and I packed up my things. My host told me he would have to take care of the music part outside till at least 11 pm, so I was overjoyed when Peter asked me if I wanted to go to the gaming club for a gaming session - he would be able to drive me afterwards. At 6:45 we waited for a crowd to assemble to go to dinner, then gaming. I couldn't wait to see the famous Dinx gaming house in person. Well, then I learned that we would go for a drink first, because the dinner reservation was for 8. No problem either. We had a drink, then went for dinner. Italian dinner - meaning people ordered lots of food, deserts, coffee, drinks, you name it. It took till 9:45 till we were on the road again, and I only expected a little bit of gaming after this. Was I wrong! These people really mean it! The room contained a library of a few thousand games, and I saw so many things that I had always wanted to try that I regretted not being able to stay for a whole month. After a round of We Will Wok You with all 12 of us, we split up into two groups and I had the opportunity to try out a bunch of games. Peter dropped me off at the apartment at around 2:45 in the morning and I sank into bed happily.
A small part of Dinx's more than 4000 games.
The club won a new member that night.
I had set my alarm to 10 o'clock - my train would leave at 12:30 and I didn't know how to get to town yet. My host had said he wasn't sure whether he would be able to pick me up in the morning, I might have to try and find a bus. I figured that 2 hours would be enough for that, even if I didn't find one and had to walk, and I wanted to have time to take a shower and pack my stuff first.
I was woken in the middle of the night by my phone ringing. I had plugged it in in the living room, so I stumbled there to reach it, but too late. I saw that two messages had arrived at night - one from my host, saying he would pick me up at 7:50. I checked my watch - 7:49. Ding-dong! Here he was. I apologized, threw some water into my face, grabbed my stuff and ran down, quite shaken and sleep-deprived. Fortunately, the Museion cafe had put out some sofas onto the terrasse where the last music of the festival was scheduled to happen later that morning, so I slumped down, eat and drink something and try to relax. I took another walk eventually, then grabbed my stuff and headed for the train, thus completing a memorable trip to Italy, land of friendly gamers. Thanks, all of you, you were great! If you ever make it to my part of the world, there will always be a gaming table open for you!