Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Italy, the finale

Ok, all of Venice in one post, direct from my travel journal. Ready, go!

The city has the feel of a cracking oil masterpiece. Buildings made of perfectly carved stone are covered in moss and sinking into the sea. The city is decaying and maybe because of its terminal state we are forced to appreciate its best qualities before it dies. It's so romantic that it's strewn with young couples making out, in parks, by the water, up against the ATM...

The romance is aptly paired with a mysterious layout that makes navigating Venice without a map impossible. Or possible if you want to sleep in a different hotel every night. I fought at times to enjoy this aspect of Venice and withold my doubts of ever reaching the hotel/restaurant/vaporetto/etc. The winding alleys are paved with designer shops and shifty men selling counterfeit Prada, and of course, souvenirs of all shapes and sizes. We didn't indulge as the prices are set more for jet-setters than grad students.

My favorite site of the city was Basillica San Marco. It's story is as colorful as its amazing mosaics. The church contains both the stolen bones of St. Mark and jewels stolen from then-ally Constantinople. It's a mix of Holy Roman and Byzantine that's quite impressive.

But mainly one goes to Venice to experience the city itself. The canals and piazzas are omnipresent. It was too expensive for us to catch a gondola, so we settled for short skiffs in traghetti. Most of the people we saw in gondolas weren't romantic anyway. There were rich Asian tourists, Americans videoing the ride instead of experiencing it, and one couple with a gent playing on his cellphone while the lady looked forlornly in the distance.

We took an interesting tour of the Jewish ghetto. This is far from the hum of San Marco's, tucked away like Venice's Jews. We saw the hidden synagogues and learned about how your pocket book as well as your religion influenced your status in Venice. The only part that shocked me was our tour guide insisting that the Jews were forced to live on this tiny island ghetto "for their own protection." How quickly the nanny state becomes the police state.

At any rate, Italy is gorgeous. The weather was mostly pleasant and the people are quite funny. They have a brusqueness with each other that looks like they are fighting, but then one will break out into laughter, the other joining. Our last night we ate cichetti (appetizers) and bar-hopped. It was a delicious and apropo ending to our romantic trip.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Italy, part 6

The only trouble, well the main trouble, with night trains is the fact that you check out of your hotel in the morning and have no homebase until the next day. I'm a big fan of naps, but even nap-phobic Ryan remarked that he forgot how often one returns to a hotel for this or that.

Even so, we started off the day at the Colosseum, followed by the Palatine, and the Forum. Even with an audio tour peppered with "Julius Caesar stood here" it doesn't seem quite real. The forum is a fascinating junk yard of marble debris-- I can see why Rome's elevation is now so high. We walked back to The Pantheon and marvelled at the perfect, mathematically improbable dome. Then we ate a huge amount of gelato (its so much cheaper in Italy than the UK! Ben and Jerry's is like 4 quid for a half pint!)

We wanted to get maximum value out of our Rome Passes so we tubed to the Nazionale Rome Museo and looked at more old statues. They're impressive and whatnot, but I'm a kind of over marble statues. I dragged Ryan away and we walked the Via del Corso (Rome's hip strip) and ate pizza at Campo dei Fiori. There was a great little band playing in the piazza, but as we approached there was a very out of place old lady with smeared makeup warbling along to "Summertime." The band came around to the cafe tables to ask for money, and this lady, apparently drunk, followed suit. When the cafe patrons refused her, she stood before us and sort of moaned out an awful sounding song until someone paid her.

After dinner we walked along the neglected Tiber river and wound up near Trastevere, the old Jewish district. The kosher fast food reminded me of our home in Gateshead, and we lingered a bit before heading to our final night train.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Italy, part 5

Rome in 2 days is quite a blur. Completely fabulous, but a blur. Rick Steves recommended doing Rome quick and dirty, so we allowed 2 days, however we wished for more.

We arrived at Rome's Termini station at 6:30am, we wandered around a bit before finding our hotel-- we were delighted to find out we could check in early AND we had our own bathroom! After a long nap and a shower we were ready for the eternal city.

The line at the Vatican Museum rivals Disney World. We joined the queue about 3/4 mile from the entrance, but it actually only took about 40 minutes of waiting, and it was our first experience of gorgeous Italian weather. The terrible part were all the beggars. I felt so guilty as we passed them, especially on the way to one of Christianity's biggest sites. We were on a tiny budget as is-- but shouldn't we help these folks? I felt wretched, but then I remembered, this isn't ancient Jerusalem, this is a modern socialist state which has provisions for unemployed and disabled people.

Still feeling a bit guilty we entered the opulent Vatican Museum. Too spectacular, really. The artwork was awe-inspiring, but it seemed like the money could have been better spent. But I couldn't make such comparisons by the time we got to the Sistine Chapel. It was the most amazing art I've ever seen. The figures and faux carvings jump out at you. It is an amazing expression of God's gifts. But even more astonishing is the altar piece "The Last Judgment." I've decided this is one of Italy's favorite subjects. On one side of Jesus are the blessed glowing in glory, on the other side are scary demons and icky corpses. Supposedly when the Pope saw the painting unveiled he fell on floor in repentance. All in all, I wished the Vatican Museum had exhibits on the naughty popes. Some of them were pretty bad.

St. Peter's Basillica was also astonishing and gigantic and opulent-- many artists all coming together for one purpose. And they have the gall to put plaques on the floor showing where other magnificent churches would fit inside it. Also, the funding for St. Peter's came from selling indulgences, one of the things that pushed Martin Luther towards Reformation. But anyway...

For dinner we ate a tiny restaurant off of Campo dei Fiori, which was amazing. It's run by a matronly cook who wears a headscarf and an old dress, who curtsies to her customers. She only cooks what she likes, each dinner is set. It was so much food! When they brought out the antipasti we looked around to the other tables, and saw everyone finishing their food, so we began to follow suit. I was pretty full after the 2nd course (the best penne with tomato sauce I've ever had) and there was still veal, sides, and a dessert to come. It was wonderful and it was only €23 per person.

After all that food we took a Rick Steves walk to digest. We wandered through the tiny streets which opened onto hidden piazzas and fountains. Rome is such a mishmash city, you're walking in a quiet residential neighborhood, turn the corner, and BAM! its the Pantheon, seemingly out of nowhere. Our walk ended at the Trevi Fountain, which is just as amazing as the movies, except thronged with guys harrassing you to buy roses. After politely saying "no, grazi" and smiling at their compliments, I learned this approach only emboldens them. A firm "no" and a cold look is the only deterrent. Despite being hounded, we through our coins into the fountain and enjoyed the romantic Roman evening.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Italy, part 4

Our last day in the Cinque Terre we checked out of our hotel and spent the rest of the day thinking of clever ways to dodge the rain. I dragged Ryan to the doctor in nearby La Spezia because of some mysterious target-looking sores, for which the non-English speaking doctor just handed him some antibiotic cream. Ryan was grouchy as he doesn't like going to the doctor. La Spezia is a cute city with boutique and orange tree lined avenues.

We went back to Vernazza and had a fairly uneventful day. Two meals at The Blue Marlin and Il Pirata della Cinque Terre, both very good. We went on another hike, for which my legs wouldn't forgive me for the rest of the trip. Mostly we just sat by the shore drinking wine and waiting for the night train to Rome.

After reading the Rick Steves' message boards I was feeling pretty wary about our night train decision, but it was fine. We had our own cabin which we managed to score a few hours' sleep in. The conductor comes and knocks on your door 20 minutes before your destination so you don't oversleep.

Italy, part 3

Got up earlyish and it had mostly stopped raining. Had my first real go at coffee with the traditional Italian cappucino (too bitter, even after 3 sugars, however Ryan would insist on them the rest of the trip.) Then we began our epic trek to hike the five towns of the Cinque Terre.

It was pretty misty as we left Vernazza for Corniglia, but the views were still spectacular. The trails were pretty empty minus a few French people. Every person we met on the trail that day we'd say "buongiorno", and without exception people replied in their native language. I don't know if this is reflex, to revert to your native tongue, or people just figured we were tourists as well.

Corniglia is perched high above the rocky shore, and cute if not particularly memorable. From there we descended a long set of stairs toward town 3, Manarola. We were about halfway down the coastal trail when we came to a closed tunnel. Because of the rain, this part of the trail was closed. We sullenly retraced our steps back to Corniglia's train station. While waiting for the train we witnessed a spectacular argument between an elderly American couple. It went something like this:

Old lady: Where did you go? You just wandered off and I didn't know where the hell you were!
Old man: I went to get train tickets.
OL: Well you didn't tell me that, we could've missed the train.
OM: Well we didn't, so just calm down. You're getting all upset over nothing.
OL: You clearly don't care about my feelings.
OM: I went to get train tickets, what was I supposed to do?
OL: You don't want to hike with me, then let's just go our seperate ways. I'll see you back at the hotel.

Their volume involuntarily included everyone at the tiny train station, and the OM walked away from the OL and came and stood by Ryan and I...awkward. The Cinque Terre isn't very big and we continually saw this grouchy couple the rest of our trip. Is there something about vacations that make couples go at each other, or are all vacationing couples crazy?

We had lunch in Manarola, and I was eating a delicious spinach and cheese tart with my hands when an old Italian man walked over and handed me a set of silverware. How embarrassing! It was an easy walk from Manarola to Rio Maggiore down the Via dell Amore, which is paved and level, and full of teenagers scrawling their names on every surface. Rio Maggiore was nice, but they were beginning to all look the same. Beautifully Meditteranean, but very similar to each other. We took the train from Rio Maggiore (town 1) to Monterosso (town 5) and enjoyed some gelato. After a bit of a rest I decided that we should do the last leg of the hike, from Monterosso back to Vernazza. I failed to remember that Rick Steves wrote that this was the most difficult part of the hike.

We climbed a million billion stairs, and high fived at the top, only to realize there were actually a million billion more stairs to go. I almost gave up and started a new life as a hermit in the woods, but Ryan promised me a foot rub and we persevered. Along the way we saw a cat sanctuary and a sign that asked hikers not to poop there. Two hours later, knees aching, we reached Vernazza.

After a shower and a nap we walked to the shore for a fancy dinner at Belaforte, a restaurant in the medieval lookout tower. It had great atmosphere and delicious food, but once again we were surrounded by loud Americans. One table spoke humiliatingly slowly to a waitress who spoke perfect English. The other was full of Californian doctors who discussed childbirth and how we are all covered in a "thin fecal film." Try saying that 3 times fast, actually don't, its disgusting.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Italy, part 2

It was raining when we arrived on the northwest coast of Italy, in a tiny town called Vernazza. This is the hidden treasure of our travel guru, Rick Steves, and as soon as we got off the train the blue books were everywhere.

An English speaking Italian with a large umbrella met us at the train station. His name is Egi and he owns a small B&B. Steves recommends showing up and sussing out a place in this part of Italy, but with the downpour we weren't in the mood for much hunting. So we took Egi up on his offer and got a fine, if overpriced, room. The room had no view and I was feeling disappointed until we got settled in. Let's just say the sound of rain on shutters can be surprisingly romantic.

We wandered out of the room around 8 to find some dinner. As soon as we entered the small trattoria recommended by Egi we were surrounded by familiar accents. A southern woman proceeded to tell us exactly what she ordered, what we should order, and what we should avoid, all before we were seated. When we did get a table, it was in a corner with the southern lady, her husband, and a similarly chatty English couple. As happens when Americans meet foreigners, each compared who disliked Bush more, and then they moved on to loud complaining. It was really embarrassing!

Rick Steves' travel philosophy is about blending in and experiencing the culture like a local. Apparently these couples missed that chapter. The English couple complained to everyone in earshot that the menu did not explicitly state that their meal came with vegetables and that they didn't want vegetables (typical?) while the American couple declaimed the restaurant's merits to a ridiculous degree. I'm glad you're enjoying your meal, but the entire restaurant doesn't need to hear all the details. Then the two couples moved on to the elections. If these couples wanted the atmosphere of a TGIFriday's they could have saved a lot of money.

But after they finally left, the locals resumed their pace of life and we observed a lovely birthday celebration for a little old lady. Plus it had stopped raining! We walked down the cobblestone road and danced on the pier.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Italy: the journey begins

Ryan and I decided to stretch our limited savings into a spring break trip to Italy. It would be nice to have a bigger bank balance, but we're not going to be in Europe forever, right? So, in February we managed to find some cheap plane tix and set the whole thing up.

We left at 8:30pm GMT on Tuesday, which meant arriving in Bergamo around midnight. I was dreading customs in my exhaustion, but the similarly tired Italian immigration officer simply waved us through the long line without even cracking the passports.

Our first real introduction to Italy was a wild midnight taxi ride through the streets of Bergamo. Despite the sleepies, it was fabulous. The taxi blared a sultry Italian chanteuse and smelled like church incense. We wound through the narrow streets of brightly painted plaster houses-- the scene reminded me a bit of Tijuana, in a good way.

We slept in a sparse hotel room with a community shower and bidet (Ryan tried it), and spent the next morning exploring Bergamo Alta-- the medieaval walled old city above the current one. We ate pastries while wandering narrow streets which often opened unexpectedly to a magnificent church or piazza. Italy looks just like the movies

What the hell?


Just got back from Italy, which explains the recent lack of posts. I'll post my Italy musings later, but for now I have a couple of things to get off my chest.

1. Who looks scarier, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope?
2. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were on the WWF (or whatever its called these days) last night! WTF? I have officially lost all faith in democracy. I saw it on BBC this morning, and if you would like to have your faith similarly shattered, you can watch it here:

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Does anyone have a clue...

...about what this is? It came in Ryan's Kinder Suprise easter egg. In his words "It's a French paint bucket who poops out that red cone of paint." I thought with the weirdly shaped beret that it might be a top, but it won't spin. Am I missing some famous French/German cartoon character?