There’s no shortage of travel scams, consisting of creative ways to make you part with your money or belongings. Some are shifty, others are blatant. As a traveler you’re often reminded of them, and it’s frightening how quickly you can lose valuables once you have become a mark. A friend who was in a crowd in Chile had someone come up behind him and take a knife to the bottom of his backpack. Before he realized what was going on, most of his stuff had been picked clean from the ground. Travel tip: chicken wire at the bottom of your pack is a good solution for that.
Probably the most common of shady characters is the pickpocket. Some areas are known for people with sticky fingers, like La Rambla in Barcelona. The street is profitable for these “artists” due to the fact that it’s crawling with visitors who stumble off cruise ships and are taking advantage of the many its shops and restaurants. The point is, show me a crowd and I’ll show you a pickpocket.
One day during a trip in Italy, we took the train north from Rome. We weren’t exactly sure where we were headed, but more or less towards Cinque Terre. Traveling by train is a great way to get around in Europe. You can catch up on your sleep, write, have lunch, or watch the world go by. Most companies, such as Trenitalia, have deals where you can get on and off as you please. The train we were on had a stop in Pisa. So, we thought what the heck, let’s go see the famous tower.
Getting off at Stazione Pisa Centrale, we had no idea where to go from there. The piazza outside the station was a madhouse, with a roundabout for people to get picked up and dropped off and another for public transit. We inquired at the biglietteria how to get to the Torre di Pisa. I imagine that is the number 1 question around here. There must be loads to do in this city of 400,000 or so, but like most people we stopped in for the Leaning Tower.
We purchased a couple of bus tickets and got dropped off 20 minutes later across the Arno River at the Porta Nuova, just outside the city wall surrounding the Piazza dei Miracoli and its famous tower. I suppose the wall dates from a time when protecting your city from intruders was a life or death issue. We walked past stalls of vendors selling everything from ice-cold beer to fresh coconut to gelato. It was amazing to see the array of products available with the word Italia printed on them. Of course, you could take home replicas of the tower, from fun size to family size.
A few things struck me upon seeing the tower for the first time. Like Big Ben, it wasn’t as tall as I had expected. I couldn’t believe how brilliantly white the tower and its adjacent buildings are. Wait. There are adjacent buildings? I never knew the Cattedrale di Pisa and cemetery are also here, along with the Battistero di San Giovanni, a huge baptistery renowned for its acoustics. And finally, even after having seen countless pictures over the years, the tower appears alarmingly tilted. A good sneeze might tip it over.
The place was overrun with tourists. Like many, we tried a cliché photograph of me “holding up” the tower. That didn’t work out so well. We strolled around the piazza, looking at the tower from every angle and taking plenty of pictures. The cattedrale offered a bit of shade, perfect for a short break on the steps. Even though this is a crowded tourist trap, it was a rather pleasant experience.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is impressive and worth your time if you’re ever in the area. We spent about 90 minutes wandering the grounds and through the market. I noticed a pop-up shop that sold Duff Beer, made famous by Homer Simpson, of course. Not that I’ve ever actively looked, but I’d never seen Duff anywhere. And there was a cooler full of it—in Pisa! I should have bought one.
We crossed via Bonanno Pisano to catch the bus that would take us back to the train station. There was a good-sized crowd already waiting, too. As we embarked I fell in step behind Dianne, keeping an eye on her backpack in this crowd while trying to keep an eye on mine. Tourists crammed together is this prime pickpocket territory.
Even though I was at Dianne’s heels, a young, unassuming lady in a summer dress cut in front of me at the last moment before boarding the bus. I thought it was odd, but didn’t think too much of it. Waiting in line in Europe isn’t always the way things are done.
Dianne and I were standing facing each other on the overcrowded bus with this teenager squeezed between us, and in Dianne’s face. As the bus left the stop, Dianne started yelling and hollering, tearing a strip off this girl with words I can’t repeat here. It took me a moment to realize what was going on. Dianne had her purse clutched to her chest, and the girl had brazenly opened it and stuck her hand inside—caught her red-handed.
Just as the bus stopped at the next corner, the pickpocket wiggled out of Dianne’s hold. I reached out to grab the girl’s arm as she escaped, but she was too quick and I was too slow. She ran off and disappeared. The whole thing was well choreographed, and her getaway, whether she had scored or not, timed perfectly with the opening of the doors. I imagine she found another mark on the next bus.
The whole incident took but a few seconds, and everyone on board heard the commotion. A man sitting there witnessed the scene, and with a big smile on his face he started applauding: “Bella!” The other passengers followed suit, clapping and cheering Dianne. I swelled with pride.“She’s with me,” I shouted to no one in particular.
What I actually meant, of course, was “don’t mess with me because I’m with her.”
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— Uncharted101.com (@Uncharted1o1) February 10, 2017