Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Napoli sucks...but I still kinda like it. (or, "Crime, pizza, and corpses")

After experiencing the many ruins and surprising likeability of Roma, our plan was to head south. Napoli was the next logical place to stop, given our awareness that it is said to have the best and most authentic pizza in Italy. We also were told to watch our backs and belongings, and to check our naivete at the door.

After all the places in the world I've traveled and scoffed at the "danger" about which I had been warned, I was not too concerned about Napoli. I figured it'd be a little bit run down, a little bit sketchy. Well, it was that to about the Nth power. Usually there's a "bad" part of town, but in Napoli, it was almost as if every part of town could be described that way. The people literally seemed to glare at us as we walked the streets, and few seemed to be happy in their own environment. I understand there is a VERY strong Mafia family or two or three in Napoli; with the exception of a very small upscale shopping district, the entire town seems to be falling apart, in disrepair, sadly past its prime. There is a palpable lawlessness permeating the city, just begging you to leave your valuable belongings safely tucked away in your backpack at the hostel, carrying only the Euros you think you'll need for the day. You think twice about pulling out your fancy digital camera to take photos of the shabby yet historic architecture and guarded, hostile inhabitants. You wish you'd have backed up your camera's memory card before going out on the town, so that when your camera is stolen by force, you at least won't lose the photos too.

That said, Napoli had some charm as well. The setting is beautiful, on a hillside, with streets ascending, descending, and curving around to afford you views of the sea and the city at many a corner. The word around Rome was right, too...the pizza was AMAZING. The crust was chewy and flavorful, the mozzarella and toppings fresh. There was a slight burnt taste imparted by the oven...I'm not sure if it was cooked on wood or stone, but it doesn't matter. Buonissimo!!! We also made a long 30 minute trek at night up the hill to a very fancy gelateria/pasteleria. Gelato is my new favorite vice, closely followed by a ricotta or a cioccolato pastry of some type. It's a good thing we're walking all over Italy, or I'd have already gained 25 lbs. It's probably only five thus far.

The hostel in Napoli was amazing...La Controra backpackers' hostel pays attention to its guests' needs, and the office staff is amazing. It had a gorgeous inner courtyard, super comfortable beds, and was painted with bright and contrasting colors throughout. The polished and friendly vibe inside the hostel is one hundred percent different than the rough and downtrodden vibe on the street, making me wonder if the vibe on the street is just an act and that behind closed doors Napolitanos are a friendly, helpful, smiling lot. Or perhaps the hostel staff faked it. Whatever...it's one of the best hostels either Trip or I have ever stayed at.

We met some great Slovakian friends called Stefi and Maros, a sister and brother duo that were our roommates. We got along famously and ended up sharing a day together, first taking the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii to witness the excavation site of the ancient village that was covered with ash during Mt. Vesuvius' 79 A.D. eruption, and later sharing pizza and beer together at our new favorite pizza establishment, Vesi Pizzeria.

Pompeii was astounding...the volcano literally looms RIGHT ABOVE the town. When it began to rain during our exploration of the old city, I almost could imagine it was ash falling. We had a tour guide, Ettore (Hector in English), who was a crazy Italian guy. He was full of information, but he said a number of things that made his 10 guests cringe as, apparently, political correctness is NOT a trait required in Italy. A few women may have been offended, though they pretended to laugh at his remarks.

Some of you may have seen photos of the bodies that have been discovered at Pompeii. As we learned, the bodies were burned and mostly decomposed after being encased in burning pumice stone/ash; what we witnessed, and what you see in the photos above are plaster casts of the bodies made during excavation. When they find a cavity where a decomposed body used to be, they fill it with plaster, and break off the outer layers, which leaves a plaster form in the shape of the body. In some of the bodies you could still see bones, particularly skulls with the very visible suture lines. There were pregnant mothers, protective fathers, chained up dogs, little babies...all have been unearthed and are on display. Amazing.

We're off next to Palermo, Sicily, way down south. We're taking a loooooooong train, but we paid the extra 17 Euros each (about 25 bucks) for first class, so let's hope that it ends up being worth it.

Ciao once again...

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Trip and I arrived in Rome at 7 a.m. after a long 16 hour journey from Portland. Somehow we managed to hit the ground running and we were alert enough to navigate from the airport to the Leonardo Express train to the Termini Centrale stop. Somehow after that we managed to get to the Funny Palace hostel where we were met by the owners Mabri and Giorni, 2 brothers who gave us a bottle of red wine and invaluable tips on Rome sights and navigation. After a brief stop to throw our belongings in the room, we began a 3 day exploration of Rome's most ancient, beautiful, and impressive sites/sights.

Passing through the hectic streets was easy after we learned that you simply don't wait for cars to stop for you when you cross the street. You just go when there's the smallest hint of a break in traffic, and cars-bikes-motorcycles just maneuver around you without even decreasing their speed. It appears chaotic and unsafe at first, but quickly you realize that it simply works. Hesitation messes up the whole system, so you just suck it up and trust that they don't want your tourist ass splattered on their hoods and windshields.

After a brief stop at a kebab shop (yes, our first meal was NOT pizza), we navigated our way to the Palatino/Forum. This is an ancient ruin in the heart of old Rome, replete with broken marble columns, still-functioning gardens, intact and glorious arches, and a horde of people just like us wielding digital cameras like weapons. It was astounding to see where various caesars, emperors, priests, and peasants lived, worked, and played. At walls crumbled and columns naked and stranded, piecing together the history with the present provides a unique opportunity to imagine how life in a different world played out.

The Colosseum. Wow! Talk about an unbelievable witnessing of history. Standing down at the ground level, looking down on the unearthed maze of hallways, trapdoors, ramps, and lifts below, staring up at the steeply inclined stadium seating, it was almost possible to imagine being looked down upon by 50,000 people screaming their opinions to the emperor as to whether you should live or die as you grappled with mighty beasts and other gladiators. Standing among the tourists and taking innumerable photos in the fading afternoon light, it was, however, almost easy to forget the tragedy that was frequently played out upon those grounds in years past.

The Trevi Fountain was astounding as well...built at the head of an ancient spring, the sculptures writhe and twist as they almost leap out of the fountain toward you. The god Neptune is in the center, and two men are on the left and right leading horses out of the water. One man is fighting to lead an unruly horse, while the other is calmly leading a more tranquil horse, and these two different sculptures represent the different moods of the ocean and how it can be totally calm and totally chaotic at different times.

The Spanish Steps are an amazing hangout for thousands of people on a sunny, warm day, but functionally they connect the Piazza d'Spagna below with the Trinity something church above. This is a place where buskers busk, lovers kiss, gazers gaze, readers read, eaters eat, and hangers hang. It is a magnet of a place, and I wish I could have spent days there...

The Vatican was something to behold. I almost wish I was Catholic so I could appreciate it even more, but even as a non-religious guy, it's impossible not to be impressed by the history, architecture, and sheer SIZE of the place. The Vatican museum houses the Sistine Chapel, which has some of Michelangelo's most famous paintings and is a busy, vibrant, bright, and holy house. While I didn't understand all of the religious significance, I couldn't help but be awed and have chills from simply sitting in such a special space.

Next door is St. Peter's square, which is actually kind of a circle, rimmed by rows and rows of solid marble columns standing (I am guessing) 60-70 feet high. At the far end of the square is the Basilica, the holiest Catholic church in the world (the Pope lives here at the Vatican), and it is honestly one of the most amazing architectural specimans I have ever seen. There is a duomo (dome) that is a perfect semi-sphere, an exact half circle that has to be 150 feet in diameter and height. Gold, sculptures, and massive historical religious paintings abound within these hallowed halls, and one truly feels dwarfed inside, put in his place, humbled.

While in Rome, we had excellent hostel roommates in Kara, from New Orleans but currently studying for a Ph.D in Economics in London, and Rafael, a Brazilian banker from Sao Paulo. Trip and I explored the sights above alone, but explored other parts of Rome with our two new friends. One evening we all took in the Pantheon, one of the oldest and best-preserved ancient Roman buildings, built in it's current form in the 100's A.D. We also went to a part of town called Trastevere where the most authentic food is said to be served. Honestly, we were all somewhat disappointed in much of the food, though the Spaghetti d'Carbonara I had for my Primi Piatti (first course )was delicious. The house red wine, however, was delicious, as was the company. We then wandered all over town at night, stopping here and there to take photos or sit and absorb the history/culture, and stopping at Piazza Navona for a delicious chocolate ice cream dessert (though no scoop of ice cream is worth 11 dollars!).

The next destination was Napoli (Naples), about which we hear conflicting reports. Some say it is great, some say it is gross, but all say it is somewhat dangerous with a palpable lawlessness that makes it imperative to cautious and alert at all times. It is also said to have the best pizza in Italy...


Monday, March 23, 2009

Goin' to Italy

Ok, my friends, 2009's first big adventure is a month vagabonding in Italy!! I'm going with my buddy Clint, whom some of you know as "Trip". We're flying into Rome tomorrow and going to basically wing it, cruising around whatever parts of Italy seem like they need to be visited. I'll try to do some updates on the road as I find time and computer access. (Hopefully it won't be like my trip to Spain last year where I started out blogging religiously, and as soon as I got busy and started having tons of fun....I quit, and still haven't finished.)

Ciao, amici...