Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bike shorts, then boardshorts.

Cycling in Maui is no easy undertaking; it takes a fair amount of heart to cycle here on a regular basis. First of all, if you look up "wind" in the dictionary, I would bet you'll see a picture of the Valley Isle. In fact, Maui is much like Chicago in that it always seems the wind is in your face no matter what direction you are headed. (Yes, I do realize that when riding a bike, there always WILL be wind in your face.) Secondly, the roads are generally ultra-narrow and about as smooth as a straight shot of ethanol. Thirdly, though it's stunningly gorgeous here, it's also really hot and humid during the midday hours. Finally, let's just say that drivers here are often not as concerned with cyclists' existence on the roads as they are with gazing at the gorgeous ocean or getting pissed off at the assholes that are driving while gazing at the ocean. So, the math is easy. Add it all up and what you get is me waking up at 5 a.m. to ride, before the trade winds, the heat, and the aloof/angry drivers roll out of bed.

Yes, you heard right. I get up at 5 a.m. to ride. Yes, even on weekends. Not every day, mind you, but every day I ride it's been early thus far. I know. I agree. Who the hell is this cycling fool and what did he do with Dennis?!

All that being said, as you can gather from some of the photos above, I have seen some amazing scenery while cycling here on Maui. It's fully been worth the going to bed early and the waking up before dawn, just to get out on the quiet, beautiful pavement to exercise my sleepy body as the day awakens.

I rode from the beach in Paia, halfway up Haleakala volcano a few days ago. That ride, 18 miles straight uphill from 0-5000' elevation, took 2 hours and 45 minutes. The ride straight back down took only 42 minutes!! That was a real rush, both from the energy expended while climbing for nearly 3 straight hours and the rocket trip back down. And, you'd have seen a HUGE smile on my face on that downhill ride if it weren't for my wanting to keep my mouth shut so I didn't get bugs splattered on my teeth.

I also rode halfway to Hana one day. The road to Hana is one of the most beautiful drives anywhere, twisting, turning, and rolling right along the ocean, through lush rainforest and black lava rock. Though a million people a day (exaggeration??) drive that road, I went so early in the morning that I was already on my way back when I began passing the trains of tourist cars.

Though I do most of my riding alone, I did recently meet a few people that I likely will ride with again on Maui. In fact, a couple of them are also signed up to do Cycle Oregon this year in September so it's exciting to know I will have a little "aloha" on that ride. I may end up riding for "Team Maui" in my home state's ride. Crazy, eh brah?!

I have, however, had a couple of mishaps.

One mishap was fully controllable, but somehow in my 5 a.m. stupor, I lost control and became a mathematical equation. What I can tell you is this: if you clip into your pedals and begin slowly coasting out of your driveway at dawn, do NOT turn around to catch a glimpse of the astoundingly beautiful Maui sunrise behind you until you have gained enough momentum to remain rolling forward. Though the sun will be illuminating you, it will not be your brightest moment when you turn around to realize that a) you are going so slowly that you're starting to fall over, and b) while turned around to see the sun you inadvertently steered directly toward the curb in front of the next-door neighbor's house. And, since A + B = C, in this case, C will find you half-toppled over already when you then hit the curb and finish the job, going ass over teakettle, while still clipped into your pedals, onto the neighbor's soft, squishy lawn.

The other mishap was so not my fault and it just serves as a reminder of how alert a cyclist must be at all times, regardless of how alert we assume drivers are. I was riding on a narrow country road, with very little traffic on it. A semi-truck and trailer hauling cattle came up on me as I neared a curve. I could already see it was clear around the curve so I waved the driver by; he saw my wave and passed me, giving me a wide berth and throwing out both a shaka ("hang loose" hand gesture) and a friendly thank-you honk for helping him navigate the curve safely. Not far behind him was another truck I could hear approaching (this truck was smaller, a Ford F-350 as I soon found out). While smack dab in the middle of the curve, even though I waved him around because the other lane was clear, this guy passed me without giving me any extra room at all.

At first, it seemed like not a huge deal; however, as the F-350 passed me, I realized that he was pulling a trailer full of cattle and I knew things were about to get really, really tight. See, on this particular road at this particular spot, there was literally no shoulder so I was riding my bike ON the painted white line and had only about 2" of asphalt escape on the other side. On the other side of the 2" asphalt escape was only a 6" strip of dirt and rocks separating me from a near-vertical rock cliff with some bushes growing out of it (read, I had NOWHERE TO GO). So, as the truck passed me without making an effort to give me any extra room, his trailer crept closer and closer to me...and then it crossed the white line. I had nowhere to go but voluntarily straight into that near-vertical rockface. I literally rode my bike off the pavement, into the 6"-wide strip of dirt, and threw my arms out wide while thrusting my pelvis into the rock, hanging on like a spider in a windstorm, my head turned to watch as the trailer squeaked past me. I didn't even have the time or the room to unclip from my pedals! I kid you not, that trailer did not miss me by more than an inch, and had it grazed me, I shudder to think of how I'd have been pancaked. I definitely got off easy with just a bloody knee and a galloping heartbeat. Thankfully I was riding UPHILL and was only going about 5 mph, which was slow enough to allow me to just leap into the rockface; had I been cruising on a fast downhill, I'd be shredded beef right about now. It may've even been worse than that one time back when I was 15 years old, riding my skateboard while holding onto the back bumper of Shawna Sparlin's car, when I got the speed wobbles, fell, and was dragged behind the car for about 100 feet before letting go. Yeah. I know.

But, the cycling continues on Maui anyway, both in gaudy yellow attire and with a renewed and heightened appreciation for making SURE drivers see me. And I really dig it. After all, what better reward is there for getting up early than exercising while surrounded by beautiful beaches, forests, mountains, rainbows, and palm trees, and then finishing with a swim in the warm ocean before going to work? Like the Godfather of Soul James Brown says:

I feel na na na na na na...I knew that I would na na na na na na.
I feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeel good...

Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Very Full Last Day in Italy.

Trip and I woke at ~ 6:30 a.m. at the Academy Hostel in Florence, dropped our backpacks in the luggage holding room, and headed out to the train station...destination San Gimignano, a supposedly super-quaint, medieval, hilltop town with many towers dominating the skyline. We'd been told it was a not-to-be-missed daytrip from Florence so, even though we had to be in Rome that night, we decided to head to San Gimignano for just the morning hours. After a relatively quick 30' train ride to a little place called Poggibonsi, followed by a 30' bus ride, we found ourselves walking through San Gimignano's modest city gate.

The unremarkable gate did not give a true indication of the impressiveness that lay within the village walls. The city was simply stunning. Sandstone dominated, which provided a nice contrast to many of the other towns we'd visited that had been constructed from denser, harder, differently-colored rock like granite or marble. While San G's sandstone may have appeared a bit more fragile, it was a nice change that made it look more unique than many other towns. Immediately apparent were the tall towers we'd heard about before arriving, and we were shocked to learn that the 14 we spied looming over the city were the only ones remaining of the 72 that used to dot its map.

We wandered around for a bit just taking in the atmosphere and taking a few photos before choosing to ascend the Torre Grossa (translation: big tower). Why not go up the biggest one, yeah? This tower was not as tall as some we ascended in Italy, but it was just as impressive. We emerged on the top into a pretty stiff, cool breeze on a mostly cloudy day, but the view was spectacular nonetheless. Looking directly down onto the town, one thing stood out...there were no signs! We'd walked through all of San Gimignano's streets and seen salami shops, wine shops, restaurants, t-shirt shops, hardware stores, little markets, etc. - and yet, it didn't become apparent until viewed from above that the impressive, centuries-old architecture is not marred by a myriad of marketing materials trying to convince you to patronize certain businesses. Actually, it is ALMOST possible to visit this town, and probably a thousand others like it in Italy, and feel like you really have stepped back into the 13th century. Life has changed little over time; yes, there is tourism and yes there is technology, but you still see people living as they have for hundreds of years, still shopping in the same little shops for the same essential daily items, still riding their same old rusty bicycles, still stopping to chat with the corner storekeeper as they stroll by, and still working long, hard days to carve out as comfortable of a life as possible. It was truly a refreshing break from the constant stream of information and technology we are assaulted by on a daily basis (and yes, the fact that I am writing these thoughts in a blog I post on the internet is not lost on me).

After descending the tower stairwell, we wandered uphill to the site of the old fortress in town. These days it's just a modest garden full of olive trees, grapevines, and wisteria, which just happens to be at the top of the city. It was so quiet, so peaceful, and so enchanting that it was hard to leave. But, leaving is what we had to do because we had to get back to Florence so we could get a train to Rome, so shoe shopping could be done before the stores shut.

WHAT?!?! Yes, you heard me right. Shoe shopping. Apparently, Trip had seen some really fashionable-looking shoes in Rome a month earlier when we'd arrived in Italy and his plan all along was to go back and buy about six pairs to take home to the US. So, we bussed it back to Poggibonsi, trained it back to Florence, hoofed it back to the Academy Hostel to get our backpacks, and basically ran back to the Florence train station to hop on the high velocity train back to Rome. We got there at about 3pm and immediately walked back to Funny Hostel, the first place we'd stayed in Italy. Mabri and Giorni welcomed us like old friends and we quickly dropped our packs and hit the streets looking for cash.

Ok, so here's the dealio, yo. Trip (you gotta love him) decided to forget to bring an ATM card to Italy. He did, however, confidently bring $2000 in US dollars in CASH. (I know, I know.) So, every time he wanted to get money over the month we were there, he had two options: 1) find a bank or moneychanger to convert the less-valuable US dollars into Euros, or 2) find a bank to give him an advance on his credit card. All over Italy it proved to be very difficult to do both of these things, and both were fairly to highway-robberingly expensive. I can't tell you how many times I waited in front of a bank with both of our backpacks while he went inside for a half hour only to come out empty-handed, saying that he couldn't get any money changed, or successful but pissed because of the $75 fee he'd just spent to convert $300. (All of a sudden my $3 ATM fee seemed like a blessing.) But, because it was our last day in Italy and we'd done everything I wanted to do, I was content to help him out on his last afternoon's journey of finding cash and buying shoes.

We walked around for about 30 minutes, walking very quickly so as to not waste his precious shoe-shopping time, and tried about 3-4 different moneychanging places...all were too expensive for Trip's taste, so we kept walking. Finally we found one that didn't gouge him too bad with fees (I GUARANTEE he will remember his ATM card next time he leaves the US) and he walked out with a pocketfulla Euros with which he planned to singlehandedly revive the Roman discount shoe economy.

So, you'd think we'd just walk down the street and find some cool shoes, try 'em on, buy 'em, and move to the next place, right? No. That's not how it went down. He had a very specific recollection of a street that had a number of stores with super-cool, super-cheap shoes for about 25 Euros a pair. So we strolled to that street, but all the shoes were shit, besides being upwards of 50 Euros a pair. He swore that he remembered better deals on better shoes in the stores on that street (I had not recalled that same I remembered it, the shoes were the same shit that we were seeing the second time around). So we walked. And walked. And walked some more. He was out of ideas, but still swearing that he had seen good shoes for good prices. Finally after about 2 hours of speedwalking through Rome, at about the same moment we both grew tired of the other's pace. I was tired of walking so fast, wandering fairly aimlessly, looking for something vaguely familiar but not certain. He was tired of my slower pace rapidly increasing the chances that his ultra shoe quest would fail. We agreed to split up and go do our own thing for the next two and a half hours.

In that two and a half hours, I continued to cruise around pretty quickly, but my motive was entirely different. I went to see the Pantheon during daylight hours, which we had failed to do the first time we were in Rome. The Pantheon is astounding and is one of the ancient world's most influential architectural structures. It was built in ~ 125 AD as a temple for all of the ancient Roman gods, but in the 7th century, it was converted to a Catholic church, and it remains as such to this day. It is massive and circular in shape; the height of the dome and the diameter of the dome both measure exactly 142 feet, and to this day the building holds the record for being the largest unreinforced concrete dome. There is a 30 foot diameter circular opening in the top of the dome which lets in all of the Pantheon's light (electricity hadn't been invented when it was built, remember!), as well as any rain that happens to fall. But, these ancient architects, they were savvy...they cut holes and a slight slope into the center of the marble floor to allow any rainfall to run down into a drainage system built under the floor. It was really kind of eerie and amazing to be standing inside a place that's seen so much history as well as a place that has stayed so well-preserved when Mother Nature's got a 30-foot opening through which to throw any kind of inclement weather she likes.

I also cruised again by the magnificent Trevi Fountain, the Forum ruins, the Piazza Navona, and a few other famous Roman places. I met up with Trip, as planned, at 830 p.m. at the Spanish Steps. You may recall that the beautiful Spanish Steps are those that connect the Piazza d'Spagna below with the Trinitá dei Monti (Trinity Church of the Mountain) above. When we were there a month prior, it was cold and the plants were bare; when we returned, there were blossoms everywhere and thousands of people sitting on the steps as well as milling around, just enjoying the electrifying atmosphere. We sat on the steps and busted out the peppercorn salame we'd bought earlier that morning in San Gimignano, along with some delicious pepper cheese that Trip had picked up after the shoe debacle.

Yes, the shoe debacle...apparently, after Trip and I parted, he increased his pace and walked from street to street, neighborhood to neighborhood, looking for any place familiar or unfamiliar that had great shoes for 25 Euros. He was totally unsuccessful and now had a wad full of Euros he'd paid a hefty fee to convert - Euros for which he'd have to pay another hefty fee to convert BACK to US dollars upon going home the next day. Sigh. I have to admit that even though I was definitely laughing at him, I also felt bad for Trip, having thrown such energy and $$ down the drain, coming out not only dejected, but also wearing the same dirty, American shoes that he'd started the journey with.

After our salame and cheese dinner, we forced our tired feet to make one last cross-town jaunt back to our hostel, where we spent a while packing up our belongings. I was trying to figure out how to a) fit, and b) safely package 4 glass bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in my bag, while still coming in under the airline baggage weight limit. Finally I got it as good as it was going to get and I just crossed my fingers and zipped up my bag for the last time.

We popped out for one last late pasta dinner in Rome. Though our hopes were high, we both knew that we'd left the culinary capital of Bologna days earlier and were probably going to get something only decent or mediocre. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it happened exactly that way. Our last pasta meal was really, really boring, with a bland tomato sauce and a few canned peas, and mushrooms tossed in more for color than taste, it seemed.

Upon hitting our hostel beds, we slept like babies for the grand total of about 5 hours before we arose, grabbed one last macchiato and cornetto (an espresso and a croissant filled with nutella), and boarded the last Italian train for this go-round. Before we knew it we were back in the crappy Rome airport and not long after, we were whisked onto a really big plane that miraculously was only half full. This enabled us to find seats in which there was no one else in the row with us, so we had all the room we could've wanted as we listened to music and watched free movies for 9.5 hours while en route to Atlanta. Oh, and the weather was gorgeous and as we cruised over Northern Spain/Southern France, we got a spectacular view from above of the massive, snow-capped Pyrenees mountains.

Atlanta was shocking, as it always is. Why is it that every time I reenter the U.S. from a trip, I am routed through Atlanta or Houston, two of the most OBESE cities we have in America? I always feel so tiny when I return home. It's funny how I go from being one of the fatter people when I'm outside of the U.S. to one of the skinnier people when I come back.

And now I'm back. What adventure lies ahead? Who knows, but there's always one looming on the horizon somewhere, even if I can't see it yet...

Oh, and P.S...the bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar didn't break on the plane, so, not only am I wearing unstained clothing, but I also sit at this moment enjoying some fresh-baked olive bread dipped in a little taste of liquid Italian heaven. Buonissimo!!

Ciao BELLA!!!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Renaissance Madness" or "What Happens in Florence...Stays in Florence"

When we rolled back into Academy Hostel in Firenze (yes, Florence), it was much like when we had returned for a second stay at La Controra Backpackers Hostel in Napoli earlier in the month...we were greeted as if we were rock stars! It must be interesting for the hostel employees to get to see people that they liked return for another stay, particularly so they can learn if their travel advice was a) heeded, and b) valuable. Marco, the main dude at the Academy Hostel's desk had given us a LOT of travel suggestions when we had been there for one night toward the beginning of our trip and it was really fun to sit down with him the second time around and tell him that in fact we HAD seen some of the places he wanted us to see.

Now Firenze is an amazing city. It's small and walkable, yet simultaneously large and vibrant. It's heart is liberally sprinkled with historically important sites, and yet this history is simply woven into a normal way of life for Italians. Florentines seem to still live the way they did hundreds of years ago, eating the same foods, living in the same structures, socializing in the same ways; and though they seem to understand the significance of all the historical architecture and art surrounding them, they also seem to just casually regard it as normal, as "the way it is". Life goes on for them as amazed tourists' LCD screens capture glimpses of history their countries lack. Even though some modern conveniences have clearely woven their way into the society's fabric (i.e., cell phones, televisions, cameras, automobiles/scooters), it still feels like you're taking a step back in time to wander its medieval streets. People actually still do ride old, creaky, single speed bicycles to get around town. Or they walk. And they stop to chat. They move slowly. Businesses close for several hours in the afternoon so people can go home and eat, sleep, or spend time with their families. Stress levels appear to be comparatively low, though Americans in general are more stressed out than anyone, aren't they?

Speaking of the historically unchanging, take for example, the Ponte Vecchio (or, "Old Bridge") over the Arno River. Back in the 1500's the bridge was lined on both sides by slaughterhouses. However, the rich and powerful Medici, the ruling family at the time, decided they'd had enough of the smell as well as the blood rolling down the bridge into the river and into the streets of Florence. They ordered all the slaughterhouses out and replaced them with jewelry merchants, whose shops exist to this day, essentially unchanged for 500 years. A walk over Ponte Vecchio today brings sights of jewelry store after jewelry store, right there on the bridge. At the end of each day, each of the elaborate, built-in, antique hardwood storefronts are folded up and locked securely, to be watched over by the bridge-patrolling carabinieri (military police) throughout the night. At dawn, the merchants slowly arrive and go through the laborious, daily process of unlocking their shops, unfolding the maze of shelving, and individually putting each piece back on display for another day's trade. As it was is how it is. We could learn a little something from that, I think.

We had happened to arrive in Firenze during the one week of the year that all museums are visited for FREE. This saved us a lot of money, but also made us have to really plan out the logistics of our museum visits. Given that we were there for a Friday-Monday period, and that some of the more famous places are closed on various weekend days, we had to plan out a detailed museum visit schedule. Since it was free museum week, and since we hadn't purchased any admission tickets in advance, we determined that to make sure we got into the two most important galleries, the Uffizi and L'Accademia, it would be wise to get there really early in the morning. So we planned our Uffizi trip for Saturday morning early and our L'Accademia visit for Sunday morning early.

Saturday morning's Uffizi gallery visit went just as we'd hoped: early arrival, 45 minutes in line, among the first in, and in/out fairly quickly as the large crowds were behind us. It was very impressive seeing the world's largest collection of important Renaissance art, although both Trip and I felt that a lot of the significance was lost on us. Neither of us being particularly well-educated in Renaissance art, we traipsed in three hours through a gallery that many say is not able to be fully appreciated in an entire day. Honestly, it all began to blur; however, there were some really, really amazing paintings by Il Perugino, Botticelli, and even DaVinci and Michelangelo.

Sunday morning's L'Accademia trip went just as I'd hoped. Note that I say "I", because I was alone for that one. Well, technically I was with a Norwegian girl from our hostel for a while, but what I meant was that Trip was not with me. No, I was unable to awaken Trip that morning after the previous evening's festivities so I had to ditch him and visit the Accademia while he snored off his bender. While I am not at liberty to divulge all the details, apparently there were some after-hours festivities that took place the night before which rendered Trip unable to function effectively on Sunday morning. I, unfortunately, did not get to witness all the festivities as I'd left alone (while still coherently functioning) Saturday night from the second pub of a multi-pub crawl. All I will say is I later heard tidbits of stories of drunken, shirtless pole dancing, on the bar, in front of an admiring and cheering, and, shall we say, largely alternative crowd. Oh my. Anyway, I am still trying to gather photographic evidence, not that I will share it with all of you, of course. He IS my best friend, you know. But, as I was saying...

L'Accademia is a gallery that houses Michelangelo's iconic David sculpture. I was able to sneak a couple of illegal photos of the sculpture because I was one of the first people into the gallery that cold, drizzly morning (yes, the Norwegian girl and I stood in line for the obligatory 45 minutes at the butt-crack of dawn in order to ensure we got in). David is AMAZING!! I had heard that it is the perfect sculpture in every way, the perfect form of a man, yadda yadda yadda. Well, I was shocked to be shocked when I saw it. The rumors were true. I walked around and around the statue, admiring it from every angle. It honestly does look perfect from every angle. Really. And, it is absolutely HUGE. It stands about 15 feet tall and literally dominates the room. David's head and hands are noticeably bigger proportionally to the rest of his body, but this was intentional because the statue was originally created to be placed high above the viewer, from which point the head and hands would have looked perfectly proportional. Wow. Furthermore, when looking at David from the right side, you can see his calm, boyish, relaxed manner portrayed. However, when gazing at him from the left side, you see the tough, strong, wary, victorious David who has just slain the mighty Goliath with just a single rock from his slingshot. David is simply stunning and was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip. I got chills, literally, just standing near this famous Michaelangelo piece, and he carved it at the age of only 29 years!

The Capelli Medici is the ornate chapel and mausoleum of the rich Medici ruling family that ran Firenze from the 14th to the 18th century. It is basically a testament to their richness and their arrogance, a fabulous flaunting of their immeasurable wealth. The huge octagonal chapel is literally covered in the most intricate of marble slabs and inlays. The work is so precise that it inspires amazement and wonder; it is shocking that anyone could carve rock in such ways and fit it all together so that it looks like it was painted. The work on all the walls, floors, and altar is so perfect that it is hard to see or even feel seams in it; you can almost believe it is pieces of solid marble that were mined as is. Unfortunately, I have no photographs of the chapel because the photo police were out in full force that day. In the mausoleum, two famous Michelangelo sculptures (Dawn and Dusk/Night and Day) adorn the final resting places of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Giuliano de'Medici, two of the most prominent and powerful Medici dukes. Night is portrayed as a woman preparing to sleep while Day is portrayed as a powerful, muscular man preparing to get up; seated side by side, they are lovers connected by the calendar for eternity.

After L'Accademia and the Capelli Medici, I just wandered around the old city taking it all in, framing photographs, nursing lunch at a little outdoor cafe, resting now and then in places where people have been resting for more than a millenium. The facade of the Basilica Santa Croce was fantastic, but I thought the innards were average by Italian cathedral standards. Of note, though, was that Michelangelo's tomb was inside, and seeing that was a fitting finale to seeing the multiple Michelangelo works dotting Florence's art landscape.

So, believe it or not, after the day of wandering around Firenze alone, I finally rendezvoused with Trip later that evening at the hostel. Turns out he'd woken up at 10 a.m. (3.5 hours after I'd left) and had been seeing all the same stuff I'd seen that day, just hours behind me. I was impressed by his ability to rally because I thought for sure he'd be completely worthless for the entire day, unable to achieve a vertical position due to a pounding hangover. I was glad to hear I was wrong, and he didn't miss out on the day's sights. And he would have missed out, because the days we went to these places were only days they were open during the time we were there...

(Random thought....Italian sculptures rock! So realistic, so life-like, so violent! I saw men fighting horses, men killing each other, women killing men, men killing lions, battles on horseback, triumphant poses with a severed head held high in one hand and a machete in the other. It was weird, being in a place that is now so peaceful, but getting a constant glimpse into the violent history that pervades daily life. Then, immediately adjacent to the violent scenes forever entrapped in stone there were the beautiful religious sculptures of Adam and Eve, the Madonna and the baby, and various apostles/bible scenes that were so peaceful, sweet, and loving. What an interesting juxtaposition. But wait, I guess religion and violence do historically go hand-in-hand, don't they?)

That night we had dinner with a Brazilian dude named Georges at a little haunt behind the Duomo. We got lured in by the relatively inexpensive meal (9 Euro for a plate) but raked over the coals with the ridiculously expensive Coca Cola (4 Euro for a 2/3 full glass. Dinner was a delicious lasagna, with some tasty fagioli beans, yummy bruschette and an average green salad.

The next a.m., we woke early for our final day in Firenze. Particularly cool that day was another treasure trove of Michelangelo madness - the Bargello Museum. Not only was Michelangelo out in full force there, but his contemporary Donatello was a sculpting star as well. In fact, Donatello sculpted a few of his OWN "David" works, and it was interesting to see the difference between his and Michelangelo's. We also climbed to the top of the dome of the Duomo (duomo actually translates as "cathedral", NOT "dome", surprisingly). Inside the massive dome was a 360 degree fresco (painting) of hell and heaven, with angels, demons, and people ascending from below to above. There were two circular walkways, one several stories above the other, that allowed viewers different perspectives of the paintings close above and the duomo floor far below. One of the most fascinating things about the fresco in the dome was the perspective it required. Up close, the wall looked like simply plaster with large, meaningless paint smears randomly applied. But, turn around and gaze 150 feet across to the far side of the dome and all of a sudden you are viewing an incredibly detailed and magnificent fresco replete with all of the accoutrements of heaven and hell. It's like you're standing in the middle of the painting as it swirls around you, and in order to see what it actually is, you have to look clear across the dome. I have no idea how an artist could paint something like that up many times must the artist(s) have had to stop painting, walk half the circumference of the dome, turn around to view the unfinished work, walk back and paint some more, stop, walk back around, etc., etc.?? I guess that's why the massive fresco itself took over 13 years to paint.

After viewing the inside of the dome fresco, we finished ascending the steep, slanted stairwell and emerged into glorious, warm sunshine on the top of the dome with limitless views in every direction. Florence viewed from above was truly a sight to behold. Like I've relayed throughout these blog posts, we climbed towers throughout Italy to get a) some exercise, and b) a perspective on the city and countryside impossible from street-level. Florence viewed from up high did not disappoint, and was probably the best climb we took. The top of the dome was large and had impressive marble columns, as well as room for many more people than the other towers we'd climbed. The day was partly sunny, with just enough cloud cover to avoid washing out all our photographs and still provide us with a little shade.

After heading down, we hit a street market where I picked up a leather purse for my mom, a sweatshirt for myself, and a few postcards. Back at the hostel that night, I picked up the house guitar and sat outside on the balcony for a while, serenading no one in particular. At one point I glanced over and saw that a woman had walked up from the courtyard below and was standing at the top of the stairwell listening to me play and sing "Brown Eyed Girl". She gave me a shy smile and when I finished she smiled, quietly clapped, mouthed the word "grazie" (thank you), and then disappeared. A few other folks came out from inside the hostel to hang out and listen, including Arabella, the beautiful English girl working the front desk that I had an immediate crush on. It was a fitting near-ending to our Italian trip...hanging out in a beautiful country, in beautiful weather, on the beautiful balcony, with beautiful people, making beautiful music, having beautiful conversation. Later that evening, after one last trip to GROM for some amazingly beautiful, extradark chocolate gelato deliciousness, we were off to bed, packed and ready to rise early for a daytrip to San be followed by travel back to Rome for our final night of vacation before flying back to the States.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Bologna Magnet". "All Tracks Lead to Bologna". Or, "Oh Lord, Stuck in Bologna Again".

So when you buy a ticket for an Italian train, unless you go First Class, you are not issued a specific seat. The flexibility of this is beautiful because you can just jump on the train and find a place to sit, wherever you want, without the hassle of finding a specific seat in a specific car. It makes the whole process much quicker and easier to just be able to sit anywhere, particularly if you are running late and catching the train just as it's leaving. And, most of the time, First Class isn't any better than Second Class anyway, so spending the few extra Euros is sort of a waste. But all of this Second Class train-riding bliss hinges on one easily forgotten requirement...the validation. If you remember nothing else, validate. Validate. It will make your life much easier, I promise.

What does this mean? Well, there are little yellow boxes placed in various spots in the train station and once you buy a ticket you have to walk over to any little yellow box and stick your ticket in to get a date/time imprint, or validation. Technically, until you do this, you haven't really bought a valid ticket and if you ride the train, you can be assessed an immediate 44 Euro fine if the conductor catches you. Well, we almost always validated our tickets properly before riding the train; there WERE a few times we forgot, but we laughed them off when we realized it later because it was only occasionally that the train conductor would come around and check the passengers' tickets, and each time they had come around before, we HAD properly validated.

So...we left Bologna early in the a.m. and took a quick, 30-minute train to Modena to wander around for the morning on my oil and vinegar hunt (see last blog post). After we'd had enough of Modena we walked back to the train station and, as had become our custom, we bypassed the ticket line and headed straight for the self-service kiosk. But, when looking at the schedule, we quickly realized that it is very expensive to get from Modena to Florence, our next destination, and you can't go straight there anyway. We had no idea why, but when we tried to buy a ticket to Florence, ALL the different options included a regional (cheaper) train from Modena BACK TO Bologna, and then a super-fast Intercity (expensive) train from Bologna to Florence. Well, we did not want to go back through Bologna, but clearly we we had no choice. And, since we both remembered Bologna having one of the largest train stations we'd seen, we were just positive that if we got ourselves back there we'd be able to find some cheaper regional trains to Florence. Therefore, we didn't buy the expensive one in the Modena train station and instead we just bought a cheap ticket back to Bologna. This all seemed like a great idea, and maybe it was....UNTIL on the ride to Bologna we realized, as the conductor came tooling down the aisle, that we'd forgotten to validate our tickets for the short ride because we had bought them in such a rush two minutes before departure.

We were sitting ducks. There was nowhere to go, though when the conductor was only a few rows away from us we briefly considered hopping off the train and running when the train stopped at a very random and tiny station. But, we decided to just take our medicine, to be grown-ups, to just sit there and....PLAY THE STUPID TOURIST CARD.

When the conductor got to us and asked for our tickets, the show was on. I had opened up my shopping bag and was proudly acting the tourist part, admiring all of the oil and vinegar I'd bought just a short while ago in Modena, while Trip had the Italian/English dictionary and the Lonely Planet phrasebook out while pretending to study. The conductor politely asked for our tickets but, upon seeing no validation stamp, he began sternly giving us a rousing Italian talking-to. We sat there, acting concerned, smiling, listening, letting him rant. Then he got to the part where he was demanding the 44 Euro fine. We knew exactly what he was talking about...not because we could understand him, but because we knew that there was a penalty for what we had done. "Blah, blah, blah, blah, 44 Euro, blah, blah, blah." Anyway, we spent about five minutes just trying to confuse him by smiling, grabbing the dictionary to slowly look up words, thanking him, telling him that yes we HAD bought a ticket and it was right HERE, speaking fluent English and broken Italian, nodding, feigning ignorance, and just generally slowing him down so much in his job that he eventually gave up. He informed us that, not only were we not validated, but we were also sitting in First Class!! (See, I told you the extra money wasn't worth it because we didn't even know we had mistakenly sat in First Class.) So, when he told us that, because we knew there was NO fine for sitting in the wrong class, we immediately apologized for THAT transgression and indicated we understood what we'd done wrong. We then stood up, grabbed our backpacks and gear, and quickly bolted toward the next train car before he could try to collect the fine. He let us go. And boy, let me tell you, did we feel a full-on sense of victory! (Is this how a pretty girl feels after she bats her eyelashes and shows a little cleavage to the cop who pulled her over for speeding? I'll never know.) Whew, what a rush!!

So, we get back into Bologna and, again, head for self-service kiosk to buy tickets to Florence. You can imagine how pissed we were to find only the expensive Intercity trains going there. We were shocked...huge train station, trains leaving every few minutes, why none of the conspicuously common regional trains we'd been riding all month? Seriously, the expensive, faster train was only a ride of about an hour and five minutes versus what would have been an hour and 30 minutes on a cheaper regional train (if any had been running at that time). However, the cost difference was 52 Euro vs. 19 Euro (about 70 bucks vs. 27 bucks), which we thought was ridiculous for saving only 25 minutes.

But, then we found that we could get to a different Florence train station for 19 Euro, on a train leaving in only two minutes, and it was only about a five minute walk further away from where our hostel was anyway!! Sweet, sign us up! So, not having learned our lesson, we again bought tickets in haste (sound familiar?). As the tickets were printing, I ran from the lobby to the platform to make sure the train was there and didn't leave, and Trip stayed back paying for the tickets. Minutes later he ran up the stairs and met me at the train's open door. When we handed the ticket to the conductor and tried to board, he said something crazy about it not being a ticket. WHAT?!?! It listed times, the car number, the seat numbers, the amount we'd paid, the date, the time, everything! But he wouldn't let us on because apparently what Trip had grabbed from the machine was only "printed paper number one", the RESERVATION. The actual TICKET was "printed paper number two", but Trip had left the machine after only the first paper had printed. The train was now scheduled to leave and the conductor told Trip he had to run back down to the machine and see if the real ticket was still sitting there, otherwise we couldn't board. However, by the time Trip huffed it back up the stairs to the platform where I stood (having been repeatedly pleading with the conductor to not close the doors on us) the train no longer stood there next to me. Oh, and he didn't have a ticket anyway. It was nowhere to be found.

So, pissed at having just wasted money on two tickets we didn't even get to use, and now faced with a choice of a 52 Euro train leaving for Florence in 45 minutes, and another 19 Euro train leaving in 5 hours, we just gave in. We bought tickets for the cheap one that left in 5 hours, VALIDATED THEM, and resigned ourselves to go read our books in a familiar Bologna park while waiting for dinnertime and another "best Italian pizza" at Il Veliero restaurant. Clearly we were not meant to be leaving Bologna yet, after all of the afternoon's escapades had unfolded to leave us stuck in Bologna again. Bologna magnets. It seems all tracks lead to Bologna. But, I gotta say, the whole thing was just comical. Plus, it didn't really feel too much like defeat to have to hang out another five hours in the sunshine in Italy. Maybe there is a god, because I got to eat my favorite pizza twice!

And yes, we did make it to Florence that night, on the right train, at the right time, with a belly full of buffalo mozzarella, spicy salami, and eggplanty goodness. Thank god Trip woke me up, though, because I was soundly sleeping off my pizza buzz when the train rolled into Florence at 10 p.m. If he had not been there, I would have probably ended up in Rome!!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Watery Venice, Meaty Bologna, and Balsamic-y Modena

"A Venice Fish" hostel was our home for 2 nights in Venice. It was pretty fun and the dinner/breakfasts were good, but man was the place gross! All I can say is thank god I brought flip flops just for such sketchy hostel bathroom floor excursions. Other than that, we had a great time. There were a lot of fun people staying there, and the staff was very generous.

One night the owner invited me and a few people (a Mexican guy, 2 Australian girls and 1 Canadian girl) into the "private" part of the hostel to smoke the hookah. Never having done that and being curious, I went with. He got the hookah primed and ready with some banana tobacco and about 4-5 of us sat around the table chatting and smoking. I had heard that smoking the hookah was a primarily social experience, without the a) high of a real drug, and b) harshness of cigarette tobacco, but I never really believed it. However, as it turns out, what I had heard was right on both counts. It was not harsh, though it reminded me nothing of banana as advertised. I didn't even cough after multiple hits and there was zero buzz of any kind. It really WAS just an interesting social and cultural experience. The verdict? I don't smoke, and therefore I would not seek out the hookah in the future; however, if it were offered to me in the future at a party or something and I was with interesting people, I may sit and have a puff with them just for an interesting experience. Anyway, at some point, the Iranian guy busted out his guitar and asked if anyone would sing along to "Hotel California"...I obliged, while he played the guitar and some Mexican dude played the bongos. We watched a YouTube video (Business Time, by a New Zealand group called Flight of the Conchords...VERY should YouTube it) and all sang along. I played a couple of my songs, and also played Brown Eyed Girl to which everyone sang along also.

The other night involved a lot of wine drinking in the common area of the hostel, and about 15-20 of us just hanging out eating, laughing, and chatting. At 11:00, when the hostel quiet hours are to start, one of the staff suggested we all go out to a bar and continue the party. We did just that, walking through Venice at night, the moon reflecting off the quiet canals, many people out for late night strolls or bar/restaurant hopping. We ended up in an outdoor bar, surrounded by buildings while sitting at tables in a large courtyard that apparently used to house one of the biggest meat (ironic, eh?), vegetable, and craft markets in all of Europe, hundreds of years ago. When that place closed down around 1 or 2 a.m., some people still wanted to go out dancing so we went there too, but the place was DEAD. We got a drink anyway (foolishly, at 9 Euros...about 13 bucks...EACH!!) but no one lasted long before we all headed back to our hostel bunks.

During the days, we walked all over the multiple islands of Venice (apparently there are 117 of them) without a map, getting repeatedly lost and discovering different parts of the city. While trying in vain to find the crown jewel Piazza di San Marco (or St. Mark's Square, for those that may have heard of it), we stumbled upon the Arsenal, which was just a huge castle-walled complex on the water which we could not see into...we later found out that this was where the MIGHTY Venice Navy, back in the 1100-1500's, was able to mass-produce ONE WARSHIP PER DAY using 16,000 employees and production-line techniques not seen again until the Industrial Revolution. Are you kidding me?! They built a warship in a day?! Day after day?!

The Piazza di San Marco was extraordinary. The Basilica (church) was full of some of the most intricate and the largest mosaics in all of the world as well as amazing marble floors with intricate inlays. There was a really beautiful clock tower with a half gold/half blue face that told the date, the time, and the phase of the moon. We ascended the campanile, or free-standing bell tower, which was 325 feet tall and looked right down on the plaza, which was surrounded by the basilica, the clock tower, and a long rectangular shape of old palaces which are now cafes and office buildings. Unfortunately, as happened so often throughout this entire trip, there was scaffolding obscuring a large section of the piazza. This piazza is the HEART of Venice and has been for nearly a millenium!! Crazily enough, the piazza occasionally floods under up to 4 feet of water, inundating the surrounding businesses and buildings, so the City of Venice is undertaking several flood preventions measures, including raising the towns outer seawall, improving the square's drainage system, and installing a series of mobile floodgates that could be raised only when floods are imminent. There is a lot of support, but also a lot of opposition for the audacious project, as people wonder if there is a significant conflict of interest given that the companies planning the work are also going to be the ones to eventually do the work. Hmm, I wonder if there is one large organization in particular trying to control the process. Just wondering, that's all.

Trip and I were able to recruit 3 Aussie girls to share in the experience and cost of a gondola ride through the canals of Venice. Having some estrogen in the boat was IMPERATIVE for the two of us, given that the ride feels somewhat romantic. We saw the Grand Canal as well as multiple smaller canals, and it was a super cool ride. The sun was shining, the city was bustling, and we got a completely different perspective on the city itself when on the water. It did not come cheap (100 Euros for a 45 minute ride), but split 5 ways it was manageable enough.

Other miscellaneous Venice moments:
**sitting by the harbor, on a rock wall, journaling/reading in the late afternoon sunshine
**sitting on a bridge, using my Leatherman to cut slices of amazing Italian spicy salami and cheese
**happily (yet sadly) eating the best pasta sauce in italy, for free, in copious amounts, at the hostel, cooked by the Iranian guy
**the only EGGS we got for breakfast in Italy, again for free, again in copious amounts, same hostel, same Iranian

After Venice we headed to Bologna. We had heard that Bologna is generally regarded as having the best food in Italy. In fact, we agreed! I had my favorite pizza there, and even though the crust we had in Napoli was slightly better, the Bologna pizza wins out because it had more ingredients and the ingredients were spread over the entire pizza rather than being tossed into quadrants. If you ever go to Bologna, go to Il Veliero restaurant and get the pizza with spicy salami, buffalo mozzarella, grilled eggplant, and arugola. Holy cow. Heaven on a plate.

And just when we thought our gastronomic delight couldn't be topped, we stumbled upon the best GELATO we had had in all of Italy. A place called Grom served an extra dark chocolate gelato, with little flecks of dark chocolate floating throughout its exquisite creaminess, that topped anything we'd had to this point. And I swear I'm not just saying that because of the gorgeous girl that served it to us. Honest!

But wait, there's more. We tasted the best balsamic vinegar we'd thick and sweet as to be easily confused with Trattoria Tony. (In fact, we later learned that we were very lucky to be allowed to eat it because this was a VERY special, 15-year-old balsamic that in the stores costs 23 Euros (32 bucks!!) for just 6 ounces.)

And just when you thought I was finished...we also were steered to the best lunch we'd had in Italy, at Tiburini, which is a cafeteria-style establishment that has been featured on the Food Channel here in America, and yet was still very affordable. We had a great Lasagna Bolognese with fresh noodles and a lot of delicious sausage. (Thank yous to Arlene and Nina, a mom and 12-year-old daughter duo from New Jersey that we met walking down a Bologna street, for their suggestion of Tiburini.)

Though the Bolognese food was amazing, we still feel the lack of spices in sauces throughout Italy. Is it an American thing to actually add oregano, basil, pepper, etc. to the pizza and pasta sauce? Yes, the ingredients here are very fresh and very good quality, but both Trip and I must admit to a newfound appreciation for the flavor of the food we eat in America.

Bologna also had other positive attributes...a cool gathering place called Piazza Maggiore with a cool, you guessed it, cathedral (5th largest in the world); a vibrant university scene; a great Italian duo playing excellent blues in the piazza (bought their CD); a syringe dispensing machine on the street near our hotel (we didn't wanna know either); the tallest tower we ascended in all of Italy (490 steps). Of note...this tall tower was leaning too, just like the one in Pisa, but a bit less. It turns out that many of the tall, old towers and churches throughout Italy have a lean to them. Were we overly trusting to be going up inside these things? I don't know...I didn't want to think about it!!

After 2 nights in Bologna, it was time to head for Florence. We decided to make a 30 minute jaunt over to Modena first so we could see the city/cathedral and so I could buy some olive oil and balsamic vinegar to bring home, given that Modena is THE HOME of balsamic. We headed out early and caught the quick train over there. The cathedral and tower were encased in scaffolding, again, but we still got inside the cathedral. This one was cool for different wasn't super tall and super ornate with marble, granite, and gold decor, but instead was largely dark red brick and dark wood, somewhat oppressive. It made one feel humbled, although in a different way than in bigger, brighter, more ornate duomos. Different is good, though. Variety is the spice of life. :)

We also wandered around a small Modena outdoor market that had a variety of sausage, salami, cheese, wine, and dessert vendors. Feeling like we needed to support the Italian economy, we tasted everything anyone would give us and then eventually I bought a bottle of balsamic vinegar, a bottle of olive oil, a big tube of hot salami, and about a half acre of apple strudel (we had missed out on this when we were in Bolzano the week before because we spent too much time drinking really tasty beer). After this market, we found ANOTHER larger and more permanent one to walk through where I bought even MORE balsamic vinegar and olive oil to take home. This brought my total to 2 big bottles of oil and two moderately sized bottles of balsamic that I was going to have to find a way to creatively pad and store in order to safely bring them home with me to America.

Next....the ordeal of finding our way to Firenze (Florence) followed by 4 days chilling and sightseeing there.