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.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bergamo and Verona, with daytrips to Lago di Garda and Bolzano...

Bergamo was chill, and we'd have probably been more suitably impressed if we'd've gone there before any visiting other cities in Italy. But after all the amazing shit we've seen, I guess we're bound to be less than impressed sometimes by way of comparison. That said, we still really enjoyed Bergamo, walking up to the citta alta (high city) historical district, seeing a crazy cool cathedral with a really interesting sun calendar (figuring the date by where the shadow lands), and walking through another beautiful medieval city now filled with shopping, cafes, and bars.

We ended up at an amazing restaurant that had a huge olive oil and balsamic vinegar selection from which to choose so we did some taste testing with various ones. They had high quality plain olive oils, along with oils infused with chili pepper, mushroom, sage, and white truffle individually. The chili pepper one ROCKED and finally our tongues were feeling that familiar spicy tickle that we miss so much from food we eat at home in the U.S. The polenta dinner was tasty with the cheese and porcini mushrooms, as was the ravioli with bacon and the fresh tagliatelle pasta with prawns, squid, and zucchini. Again, as is common throughout Italy, there were small portion sizes and somewhat bland food, but the food was tasty nonetheless. We walked the 4 miles back to our hostel in the citta basso (lower city) because we couldn't find any buses running at about 10:30 p.m. (this is highly unusual in our experience, but Bergamo is a bit sleepy) and hit the sack.

The next morning, I got Trip to try a caffe macchiato (an espresso shot with a tiny dollop of milk served with a packet of sugar...very common) and he actually LIKED it. AND he now likes balsamic vinegar. See, traveling does broaden one's horizons sometimes. Even I like coffee now.

While Trip changed money inside a bank (a very archaic thing in the age of ATMs and credit cards...but Trip forgot his ATM card and brought a lot of U.S. dollars so he is now paying the price, literally, in both hassle AND conversion fees), I waited outside on a busy street. A super old Italian woman hobbling by all stooped over with a rickety wooden cane suddenly began speaking to me. I listened, understood NOTHING, and said "mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano" ("I am sorry, I do not speak Italian"). She then asked, in English, if I spoke English and I said yes. Then she clobbered me hard on the shoulder with her free hand and said "Well why didn't you answer me then?!?!" We shared a laugh over that one because I had no idea that what I had been hearing was English. We then had a quick chat about us heading to Verona and Lago (lake) di Garda, both of which she said were beautiful.

An hour and a half later we landed at the Verona train station. We both immediately liked Verona as it was quiet, pretty, serene, historical, yet buzzing with a positive vibe and activity. We took a bus and then walked to our B&B and the owner Laura met us to show us our room. She took a lot of time to explain the town's attractions and good restaurant/gelato locations (turned out she was spot-on, more than many other people have been). We did what we always do...hit the pavement, take some photos, look for interesting places/people/architecture, look for a tasty treat to fill our bellies, and just experience the city overall.

Verona did not disappoint. We stayed 3 nights at Laura's bed and breakfast (which actually had REAL, FRESH milk and yogurt available instead of just dry white bread and various jellies). We had a delicious polenta/mushroom/gorgonzola/spicy salame dinner at Romeo's house (we both are still trying to figure out how both Romeo's and Juliet's houses are tourist attractions, given that they, to the best of our knowledge, are FICTIONAL CHARACTERS). We both tried horsemeat, which is sold all over Verona. We didn't like just tasted like cow meat in bad brown gravy. Oh, and it's amazing what they can do with polenta - we had it in savory dinners as described, and we had it in super sweet desserts infused with some kind of alcoholic frosting layers and topped with dark chocolate BIRDS (Trip liked it, I was kind of grossed out). Odd, eh?

Verona holds Italy's supposedly best-preserved Roman arena, even better than the colosseum, though it is only the 3rd largest. We paid to go in and were highly disappointed because there was orange plastic contstruction fencing throughout, so the photos were all crappy. Haven't they heard of other barriers that aren't orange?! We paid 8 Euros each to get into the place because it was supposed to be so grand and the photos were supposed to be wonderful. Grrrrr. Still, once past that, the place was pretty damn cool, especially with the pink marble construction and the setting right in the middle of town surrounded by Verona's deliciously earth-toned yellow, red, green, and rust-colored houses.

We walked around Verona's Piazza Erbe with it's many vendors and outdoor cafes, we drank the Sprizz Aperol drinks that EVERYONE else had (sparkling white wine, orange liqueur, and a slice of fresh orange...much like a mimosa...we were not huge fans), we ate mystery fried food at the outdoor markets, we tossed back a few too many gelatos, we basked in the glorious sunshine.

One day we daytripped it up to Lago di Garda. It was COLD there, and very windy. We ended up in a town called Torbole, which holds the world windsurfing championships. I can see why. What I cannot see is why people would want to get in that lake. Holy crap, it's glacial. People were surfing in head to toe wet and drysuits, with hoodies, gloves, and booties. Sailing vessels were everywhere, mostly little tiny ones that sailing schools were using to teach their students. If you want to learn any water sports...windsurfing, scuba, sailing, kiteboarding...come here, pay a shitload of money, freeze your ass off, and hope you get good quickly! Sorry to my windsurfing friends (yes you Karl, and you too Karen) that would be horrified to learn that I have been to both Torbole and Maui, Hawaii in the last 6 months and not windsurfed in either place. Torbole was gorgeous, and then we walked around the point to Riva del Garda, another small town about 20 minutes' walk away around the northern tip of the lake. We just walked and walked, past all the sailors and windsurfers, past all the expensive shops, just taking in all the gorgeous glacially-carved mountain scenery and the setting in general. It was super touristy, but also we could see why everyone would want to go there. We slept on a blanket on the grass next to the lake in the afternoon when some sun finally burned off the cold fog in a 2-hour nice weather window. And we then bused it back to Verona.

The next day, we daytripped up into the Sudtirol, which is Italian for South Tyrol, which also called the Alto Adige...basically, it is the northern part of Italy, in the Dolomite mountains, the part of the country that closely borders Switzerland and Austria, where German is spoken nearly as commonly as Italian. We just wanted to get up into the mountains and have something other than pizza and pasta. We found what we were looking for in Hopfen & Co. where we had several big and delicious Dunkel beers (brewed on site) along with a big, fat bratwurst (that was decent for me but Trip absolutely loved). Better than that was the broken communication with the cute Slovakian bartender who we were trying to speak broken Italian with. She understood almost no English and some Italian...but our Italian sucks. It, however, was good enough for us to get her to agree to meet us after she got off work at 5 p.m. for dinner and beers. We were all proud of ourselves for picking up the bartender (Jana) and getting some local flavor injected into our trip - however, I don't think either of us was as prepared for the awkwardness that ensued.

After wandering around the quiet mountain town and seeing Utzi the Iceman (the 5300 year old man whose remains were found in a nearby glacier 10 years ago or so) and other mummies of the world on display in a local museum, we headed back to the bar to meet Jana. She brought a friend, but the lady was like 50 years old and spoke even less Italian and not one lick of English. So we sat there, generation gapping, unable to talk, trying to force down some mediocre and expensive food with copious amounts of good beer. That said, they were really nice and we all did try hard to communicate. We drew diagrams, gestured with our hands and bodies, used the English to Italian dictionary (sadly we do not carry a Slovakian dictionary). Fortunately, we had to catch the 830 train back to Verona since it was the last one of the night, so there was an end to the awkwardness. They were so sweet though, walking us back to the train station and giving us kisses goodbye on the cheeks. We sailed home to Verona on the 2 hour train, both excited for the unique experience we'd just had, and relieved that it was finally over because 3.5 hours honestly seemed like 3.5 days...

After a lovely and relaxing time in Verona, along with associated aformentioned adventures, we headed the next day to the vibrant and amazing Venice!!!!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Cinque-freakin'-Terre, baby!

The Cinque Terre - to whomever it was that told us we MUST NOT MISS this section of Italy... thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Riomaggiore is the southernmost of the five towns and it is here where we booked our two night stay. It turned out to be like Siena in that we booked a room and then once we showed up, we were walked up the hill to the apartment to which we had been assigned. It is not lightly that I say uphill because it literally was a 10-12 minute walk straight uphill on staircase after staircase. We slept on the top of the town, and though we did not have a view of the sea, our window opened onto a nice little courtyard with lemon trees backed by steeply rising hillside which peaked a short distance away. There had been a booking snafu at the "hostel", which had told us we'd have 2 dorm beds; instead, we were required to upgrade to a private room (still with shared bathroom), though we only had to pay 4 Euros more for this. We initially were a bit irritated because we did NOT want to share a bed, but hey, whatever. Ultimately the private room turned out to be a godsend because we ended up needing to hang and lay out copious amounts of laundry to dry IN THE ROOM after we were unable to get our clothes dry enough at the laundromat before it closed. (Ok, maybe we ran out of coins because I bought a caffe macchiato from a vending machine at the laundromat.) Disgusting, you may think, but au contraire! You had to SEE this machine!! It had fresh espresso beans you could SEE, and when you put in your order, it ground just enough espresso for your shot. A minute later it dropped out a cup with a shot of espresso and a bit of milk, with a little spoon, and a packet of sugar!! Best parts of all, it only cost 50 cents (Euro) AND it was better than Starbucks by far!

It was here that Trip decided to try to get a "faux-hawk", the name which we have given to the male haircut that has swept through Europe over the last few years. I think David Beckham, the soccer player, first made it popular. Anyway, it's kind of a mohawk, but more subtle, less drastic, and actually kind of cool. (I always am egging Trip on to adopt various hairstyles (i.e., the fauxhawk or the long rocker hair, or dreads) clearly because I am limited in MY ability to show my creativity through anything hair-related.) So, while our laundry was drying, we headed off and found a little shop on one of Riomaggiore's TWO, yes two, streets. After indicating through charades what he wanted, the guy was soon shearing off Trip's blonde American-ness and replacing it with something more fashionable. At least that was the plan. A week has gone by and the fauxhawk still won't stand up at all; we cannot decide if it really was a shitty haircut, or if Trip is just as American as they come and subconsciously resists any attempt to change that.

We had a boring dinner that cost way too much (seems this is a European trend, as it was like this all over Spain last year and Italy this year) and headed to bed because we were to wake early to begin the hike between the five towns. It's a good thing we got an early start too, because the more the hours passed, the more people we saw on the trail. In the end it turned out to be really way too crowded, but by that time we had seen all the best parts in a relative solitude. In all, it took us about 8 hours to hike the 12 km (about 7 miles or so).

The first section, between Riomaggiore and Manarola, was short and largely paved, called the Via dell'Amore. There was graffiti everywhere, which on one hand was unsightly, and on the other hand really interesting as lovers from all over the world have come to leave their permanent mark of devotion. Some have even left locks, indicating their unbreakable lifetime bond, clasped around various sections of chain that form the barrier between the path and the ocean waves crashing far below.

The second section, between Manarola and Corniglia, was longer, unpaved, and pretty flat until the last section which involved 10 minutes of straight up stairclimbing to the town perched on the hilltop. We grabbed a 10 a.m. beer and salami sandwich and sat at a little town cafe in the shade before striking out for Vernazza. The section between Corniglia and Vernazza was supposed to be closed in one section due to a big landslide, and because of this we were supposed to take a longer detour trail which involved a signficant amount of uphill. So we headed out of town on the trail that was closed, waiting for the detour trail signs...but they never came. After a couple of hours of solid hiking, with a lot of up and down, we started descending into Vernazza. Never did we take a detour, but more on that later.

Vernazza was spectacular and by far the most picturesque of the five towns. The town is at sea level, but it is in a steep canyon so there is a steep descent into the town and an even steeper ascent leaving town. Parts of the town are built on a steep rock spit that juts out into the ocean, affording spectacular views and photo opportunities. I think I used half of my camera's memory card in this one town alone. Anyway, we took some time to relax in Vernazza. We had some delicious gelato sitting on a long dock, surrounded by the sea. I hiked to the top of the rock spit and paid a couple of Euros to climb to the top of the castle for photos...a modest castle by Italian standards, but in a most interesting and amazing location. I ended up getting interviewed by a camera crew for the American AFN (Armed Forces Network) that was there in Vernazza doing a piece on travel to be broadcast to the troops. Nothing fancy....just what I've liked about the Cinque Terre, etc.

After spending a couple of hours in Vernazza, we readied ourselves for the final 2 hours or so of hiking into Monterosso. There was a lot of steep climbing and descending and we were far from the sea, without a lot of shade, on a fairly hot day. At some point we stopped to eat dark chocolate and oranges under a shade tree. At another point, there was a Italian guy who looked like Santa Claus, standing along the trail under a tree in the middle of nowhere, selling homemade Limoncello (a liqueur made from vodka, lemons, sugar, and water, I believe). He made it right there on his hillside farm. We had to buy some and partake, of course. It's strong stuff, actually, and we continue to sip it here and there when the mood strikes, but we do wonder if the stuff they sell in the liquor store may be a bit smoother and nicer.

Finally, we descended into Monterosso and there were two long beaches where we could take off our shoes and cool off in the surf. I say cool off because it was COLD...the Oregon Coast's water isn't much colder than the Mediterranean Sea here! We had great pesto lasagne and kick-ass bruschetta for dinner at a little cafe on the beach, which was a major score as we've been getting stuck with a lot of bland, expensive food in small portions throughout Italy. After dinner, we hit a train to get back our B&B in Riomaggiore.

Here's a funny aside, and I say funny because Trip and I are getting NO love from any of the Italian women... I had been checking out this cute girl as we boarded the train, as she was helping her mother down the aisle to find a seat. We ended up facing away from them so I didn't see her again until they got up to disembark. She flashed me a shy smile as they walked down the steps. I turned and told Trip that she'd smiled at me...I then told him that she was going to be waiting at the end of the platform, looking in all the train cars as they passed, hoping to make eye contact with me. He just laughed at me. (I just laughed at me too, because I was totally fantasizing and bullshitting.) Then, sure enough, as the train accelerated and our car passed the end of the platform, there was the girl, looking into all the train cars as they slowly rolled by. And, as we passed, her eyes finally locked on mine and she flashed me a big smile and a coy wave. Ha! Maybe there's hope yet. The next step is to now find a girl that will flirt with me when I'm actually standing in her general vicinity.

Tomorrow we cruise up to's supposed to be a pretty sleepy town, but with an older district at the top of the hill, and a newer lower district where our hostel is located.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pisa and Lucca

I had no idea that the "Leaning Tower" of Pisa actually leans as much as it does. At the top, until some major construction/restoration work was completed, it leaned FIVE meters from the vertical...that's 16.5 feet off vertical!! Now, it "only" leans 4.1 meters (or 13.5 feet). However, I can tell you that it's simultaneously totally awesome and somewhat disconcerting to be standing at the top of a 180 foot tall tower that's 13.5 feet "off". When you climb the sloped interior stairs to the top, you are required to leave all bags at the baggage check, but for some reason you can bring water bottles. However, they have water bottle police watching like hawks because when a stupid tourist sets down their water bottle to take that special photo, that bottle is going to fall over and roll until it trips someone and causes them to plummet to their death. Trip had only set his water bottle down for about a millisecond when the woman screamed at him from the other side of the tower, from behind a wall of tourists. I have NO idea how she could've seen him do it...but she had the radar on for sure!

Surprising for me was to see that the leaning tower is only one small part of a much larger and impressive piazza - the Piazza dei Miracoli, or Plaza of Miracles. This was the first piazza we've seen here that has copious amounts of grass for people to lounge on and take in the grandeur of the scene. The white buildings are set OFF by the deep green grass, and the whole scene beckons one to just sit and reflect - on our smallness, of the splendours of ancient Italy...AND of all the f$%&ing tourists clamoring to buy the infinite and ridiculous Pisa trinkets being hawked along the boulevard or to take the perfect photo of their loved one "holding up" the falling marble monstrosity, preventing it from toppling over and shattering.

Lucca was, by comparison, a quiet oasis in the middle of the tourist desert of Pisa. Yes, there were a couple of streets of high-end shops in Lucca, but it's vibe was super chill. It's a beautiful, old town surrounded by a 15 foot high city wall, on top of which now there is a path for people to cycle, run, walk, or whatever. Whatever pretty much means "to make out", because it seems that that is the primary Italian pastime. I thought they loved soccer (futbol) above all, but now that I'm here, I believe that kissing is their number one activity. Everywhere I look I'm faced with lovers publicly displaying their undying affection for each other. On one hand, it's beautiful and inspiring...on the other, it just pisses me off because I'm not a part of it!!

We stayed in a hostel located in a cavernous, old building that we learned was a former convent. Actually it was a little creepy because the staff was unfriendly, it smelled super musty, it was not particularly clean (I actually stole into and showered in the woman's bathroom because the mens' room smelled of years and years of fermenting urine). We were glad to get the hell out of there after only one night...but the building was cool, anyway!!

Lucca also had a very cool piazza...tall, brightly colored buildings and restaurants constructed in an elliptical shape and surrounding a large open space that used to be the space inside an elliptical Roman amphitheatre. Though the amphitheatre is long gone, visions of it are still immediately evoked when gazing upon the surrounding buildings.

We had one afternoon, one evening, and the following morning in Lucca. On that morning, I woke early and went for a run on the city wall. The entire wall that surrounds the city is only 2.5 miles around, so it was a very pleasant and easy trip, though it would've been surely easier if I hadn't been traipsing around eating pizza, pasta, cheese, and salami for the last 2 weeks...

A short walk to the Lucca train station later that morning found us then heading for the Cinque Terre. This literally means "five lands" in Italian, and it is a series of five coastal towns built right on the water in valleys or high up on steep cliffs overlooking the sea. All five towns are connected by a series of walking trails, and hiking from the bottom town to the top town is totally doable in one day. We decided to get a room in the bottom town, Riomaggiore, and chill there for a night, and then take the next day to hike to Monterosso, the town at the top. We had no idea of what was in store, only that many, many, many folks, both here and at home, had told us that missing the Cinque Terre was simply NOT an option on a one month excursion through Italy...

Until next time...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Umbria and the first taste of Toscano (Tuscany)...

We woke early and bailed from Napoli, caught a train to/through Rome, and got off in Orvieto. It's one of the picturesque hilltop towns that dot the Italian landscape. You get off the train and then buy a cable car ticket to be hoisted up to the top of the hill where the town is. This town happens to be in Umbria, and we stopped there just for a couple of hours' walk around, to ascend the 243 step tower for photos, and to look at, of course, the cathedral. At the top of the Torre del Moro, both Trip and I commented that we felt we'd FINALLY arrived in Italy. We could see forever from that tower on the top of the hill. Rome, Napoli, Sicily...none had had the "feel" we'd expected in Italy. Not that they weren't fabulous, just that they didn't feel how we'd expected Italy to feel.

Unfortunately, when moving on, we'd relied on our Lonely Planet guide which told there were buses 12 times/day from Orvieto to Perugia, where we'd made a hotel reservation for that night. The Lonely Planet was way wrong...there was ONE bus per day, and it had left at 550 a.m. (it was 2 p.m. when we learned this). But, like any savvy traveler learns on the road, you just roll with it. We found a train to a nearby town, which got us a train to another nearby town, which got us another train to where we needed to be. One last city bus got us to our Perugia hotel, and by 530 p.m. at that. We're getting good at this travel stuff, even speaking some broken Italian now!

Perugia was a much larger hilltop town with a vibrant university scene. Medieval architecture rules the old town. There's a "scala mobile", which is an escalator, that takes you up from the lower part of town at the bus/train stations up to the hilltop section where all the cool plazas and medieval web of streets are. We just wandered around taking photos, while planning our walking excursions around the first torrential (but brief) rains we'd encountered in Italy.

Side note...Italian eating establishments' hours SUCK!! Most restaurants are closed between about 300 and 730 p.m. Of course, after we're traveling/walking/exerting all day, we just happen to be starving at 500 p.m. every single day!! We could plan for this and have a snack in the bag, but we're both too busy enjoying other stuff to think of that. So, we end up cramming down some crappy food from the only place in town that's open and serving reheated whatever, only to find ourselves not hungry again until right before bed. Anyway, I digress.

The pizza in Perugia was interesting...sausage, black pepper, buffalo mozzarella, and one raw egg in the middle...cooked in a wood-fired oven for about a minute and a half at which point it, amazingly, was completely cooked. The crust was chewy and delicious, but again, we find the same thing we've found all over Italy - there is a distinct lack of spices in the food. Fresh, usually. Tasty, often. Bland, nearly always. But, we journey on, always in search of that elusive perfect pasta, pizza, gelato. Often we ARE rewarded with delicious food, but it's more often somewhat disappointing and we find ourselves saying it's more flavorful or better tasting back home. Is it sacrilegious to be craving a burrito?!

The next day we traveled into Tuscany by bus, to the AMAZING medieval town of Siena. Arriving into town, we hopped a bus we figured went to the town's center. It did, but only after going about 40 minutes out of the way. Oh well, we got a great tour of the suburbs and nearby countryside, right?! We both truly believe that the best way to get to know a town is to get lost in it anyway, and sitting on a bus is a great way to get one's bearings while assuring you'll at worst end up back where you started!!

We arrived and were warmly greeted at our bed and breakfast. The B&B's over here (and in Spain) are not what they are back home. They're far more variable in quality, much less fancy, much less pricey, and we can always get a room with two twin beds, thank God. They are essentially smaller, cheaper, more accessible hotels. Anyway, we were shown to our apartment (the B&B is spread over 5 apartments in separate neighborhoods around Siena because they are not allowed to knock down walls to create one big space in the historic old town). We got the scoop from the B&B girl on a good restaurant and hit the road to scope out the sights. Same old stuff...cathedrals, duomos, restaurants, gelato, photos, getting the feel of a town...but this town is SPECIAL. It just feels right somehow. We both agree it's our favorite town thus far.

Siena's Piazza del Campo is truly a sight to behold. A huge space surrounded by tall buildings and a huge tower, lined with bars and restaurants, and filled with people gathering to chat, drink, kick a ball, take photos, nap...this is what I think our towns lack in America, a real gathering place for the people where people just come to hang out together, relax, meet others, make friends, and chill. Of course the fact that we're so dependent on the automobile may have something to do with our lack of such places. We had homemade, fresh pasta for dinner with sausage, fresh cream, and was by far the best pasta thus far, with a sweet chewiness we've not yet had in Italy. Also, this was where we tasted the smoothest, most flavorful, sweetest, and best balsamic vinegar of our lives! Nearby, we stumbled upon a gelato shop with the flavors piled up HIGH, overflowing their containers, with the main ingredients pressed into the outside of the high pile for show (i.e., the strawberry flavor had fresh strawberries sticking out of the stack, pineapple had pineapple chunks, etc.). It was not only a tasty treat, but a visual explosion of flavor as well.

The next day, we arose early but couldn't get into the Siena duomo/cathedral for photos as it didn't open until 130 p.m., so we just grabbed some photos of the outside and hopped a bus to Florence where we had the next night's hostel reservation. That hostel turned out to be amazing...super clean, super friendly and helpful, super roomy, and super BOOKED. We couldn't book the next three nights following because they were full. So, what to do? Walk around Florence trying to find another room for the next three days? No way. Leave town! We'll cruise on over to quieter Lucca, Pisa, and the Cinque Terre first. Then we'll head up somewhere in the mountains in Northern Italy, then Venice, Bologna, and finally, back to Florence in a couple weeks for a few days when things are a little less forced and hectic around the Easter holiday. Gotta roll with the punches that traveling throws, right? Before leaving Florence, we headed out at night for dinner and ended up meeting a couple of American girls from Kansas/Missouri who were seated at the table next to us. We shared wine, laughs, and insults, which led then to a nice walk through Florence around the famous Duomo to a little pub at which we shared more drinks, laughs, and insults. Turns out they were at the end of their first day in Italy, and were now drunk and still very jetlagged. As their eyelids began to fall from exhaustion (and hopefully not boredom in our presence!!), we walked them to the Duomo, where we parted and went to our respective hostels. Tomorrow....Pisa and Lucca...

Arrivederci for now.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sicily...and Napoli one more time.

So...the first class train to Palermo, Sicily turned out to be awesome! Not only was it beautiful as it skirted the lovely Mediterranean Sea for hours on end, but Trip and I also rode in a private 6-seat cabin for the entire 9.5 hour journey. We had heard the Palermo was kind of a nasty place, similar to Naples, but we were proven wrong immediately upon leaving the train station on foot when a big dump truck drove by and a dude leaned out the window and yelled "Welcome to Palermo!!" That put us at ease, as did finally running into some people that returned our smiles and greetings of "ciao". We arrived at our hostel, called A Casa di Amici (A House for Friends) and were warmly welcomed by Claudia, a young and energetic hostel owner. Cute too, but I digress.

That night we were found a great, little, quiet and authentic Sicilian restaurant off the tourist track and had a FANTASTIC dinner of spaghetti and black mussels. Unfortunately, the house wine tasted like gasoline...however, we didn't want to be impolite so we plugged our noses and choked down the entire liter we'd bought. With a nice little buzz we ended up back in the hostel and invited to drink MORE red wine with the owner and other hostel guests. Alex, an Aussie chef staying there also shared some delicious panne cotte (sort of a custard dessert). We stayed up until well past midnight socializing. Upon arising the next morning, we planned our day - coffee/cornetto (croissant stuffed with nutella!!), dead bodies, beach, lunch...not necessarily in that order. Yes, I said "dead bodies".

The Catacombe is an underground place in Palermo where housed are rows upon rows of dried and decomposed bodies that are viewable for the low, low price of just 1.5 Euros. Why, you say? Well, apparently in the mid-to-late 1800's some local God-fearing folks decided that they wanted to wait, in their Sunday-best clothes, in a dark and cavernous basement with lots of shelving, for the eventual return of Christ. I guess they still hang out (literally, for some) and wait for the rapture, patiently, not knowing (or DO they know??) that they are posing for tourist photos every day between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m..

On the way to the beach, we found a total workman's lunch haunt and got some pretty darn good (and cheap) calamari and two pasta dishes that actually had some spices in the sauce for once. (Talk about bland pasta and pizza sauces...fresh tomatoes, yes, but spices are scant.) The beach at Mondello turned out to be GORGEOUS. There's a small town right at water's edge, and you have to drive through a forest reserve to get there. Sorry, Orlando, there were no topless women there, contrary to what you may have heard. However, while sunny, it was not particularly warm that day. Trip and I did manage to get into the cold water, but only swam for about 40 seconds....brrrrrr. We did lay out for an hour or so though to soak up some sun. After the beach, we went out and to find good Sicilian pizza, but were somewhat disappointed. The crust was dry and hard and the sauce was bland; but, they did put a lot of delicious ingredients on it, including salami, prosciutto, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, and fresh mozzarella made from buffalo milk. From that small sample size, we deduce that Napoli's crown of "Best Italian Pizza" is still intact.

One thing that sucks about Sicily is the "pane e coperto". That means basically they charge you 2 Euro per person to sit down at your meal and have the privilege of a basket of bread and someone to bring your food. This does not constitute service as there is none...they take your order, deliver it, and then ignore you throughout the meal (this seems to happen at each Italian meal). The problem with the coperto charge is that it does NOT go to the server, it goes to the house, the owner. The irony, and what really pissed us off, is that they say it's PANE e coperto (bread and cup, translated literally) but when we ordered pizza, we weren't even given any bread!! So after our meal, we realize we have to pay an extra six bucks to the owner for nonexistent bread and for having sat in the restaurant to eat pizza which we paid for. Ridiculous. Apparently, per Claudia the hostel owner (who hates it), you can refuse to pay the coperto charge and many locals do, but as tourists we didn't want to cause a scene or irritate anyone, especially when we couldn't fight back in their language. Pick your battles, right? Anyway, it wasn't the six extra bucks, it was the principle.

We woke the next day as planned to take the bus to Noto. Now Noto is off the beaten path, but is supposed to be amazing. We had to take a bus to Catania and then take another small bus to Noto. We decided to do this without a room reservation because we haven't seen many full hostels since we've been here. It's always a risk to do this because if a town is busy, you may end up walking all over town trying to find a room as the sun is going down...never fun. Well, we had a great travel day and made it to Noto by mid afternoon. We walked the 1 mile straight uphill in the boiling 85 degree heat to the top of the hill where Il Castello (the Castle) hostel sits, only to find out it is, as we soon found out in broken English "closed for EVER". Fortunately, it only took us walking around for about 15 minutes to find a suitable replacement, La Badia B&B. It turned out to be really nice and a really great value for the 25 Euros/person. The hostel would have been about 16 Euros, but this room was super nice and the woman who rented to us was wonderful. She spoke no English, but hey, we're getting pretty good at the drill now and can get around with little inconvenience after about 9 days here.

Noto was very quiet and pretty friendly. The town looks very different because all the buildings are a light colored sandstone compared to the darker granite, marble, and volcanic rock we've been seeing in other towns. The plan was to stay 2 nights, but after finding out that we couldn't rent scooters or a car to get out to the beach/forest preserve we wanted to see, we decided to just stay one night. We wandered around and saw a lame civic museum, a cool looking cathedral, and a super AMAZING theater. The theater was astoundingly gorgeous with 5 stories of booths, all with good views of the stage. Red velvet and gold were everywhere and I had chills going through my body as I listened to an imaginary Italian opera singer hitting the high notes on the register. Sadly, the amazement was doused a bit when, upon leaving, Trip touched the "gold" and informed me it was some kind of painted paper-mache surface. Oh well, it LOOKED amazing!

We're skipping the town of Lecce, which was recommended by Valerio the Napoli hostel guy, because we think we'd rather get up to the northern part of Italy for the rest of our trip.

Instead, we got up at 630 a.m. and headed down to the Noto bus station with a plan of a full day of travel back to Napoli. Yes, we didn't like Napoli much, but the hostel there is awesome, it's located on the way to Tuscany/Umbria (our next destinations), and we want more delicious Napolitano pizza!!

This time, after a 1 hour bus trip back to a larger town with a bigger train station, we decided to do SECOND class train tickets back to Napoli. But, to our surprise, while paying second class fare, we were rewarded with the same 6-seat cabin of which we were the only two occupants. Eight hours of private public transit, without anyone to interrupt us, with seats that folded down into beds so that we could sleep when we tired of gazing out at the Mediterranean...for only 40 Euros each (about 55 dollars?). No complaints.

This time, finding the Napoli hostel was a breeze because we knew all the local subway routes we needed to know. When we walked back in, even without a reservation, we were treated like rock stars! I guess not many people return after the first visit. We were rewarded by Valerio with information on the TRUE best pizza in town. Getting there was quite the snafu, even with two college degrees and a map. The map was awful, the signage was pointing us in circles, and not all of the streets had names. Finally, after using a combination of map-reading, intuition, and asking for directions in broken Italian, we ended up at Starita, the supposed best pizzeria in the supposed best pizza town in the country. And there we stood with 150 other people waiting to get in...

First things first, Trip grabbed us each a beer, which we stood in the street drinking with the crowd, as we tried to figure out how to get a seat in a restaurant that held about 20 people when we were 151st and 152nd on the waiting list. We decided to try to get our pizza to go instead of waiting for a table. I braved the crowd, wiggled my way inside, and used my first "Ciao, Bella" of the trip. I don't know if it worked, but the girl smiled and said I could order pizza to go...then when I ordered what I wanted, she stopped writing and looked up and asked if I was Valerio's friend from the hostel. I guess all his hostel buddies order the same thing!! By this time, she was taking time out of her busy night to tell me all about her pending honeymoon to the U.S., where she'll see Vegas, NYC, Miami, and San Francisco over the course of a month. She was so excited to meet an American and share how her dream of going to America is coming true next month. I had my pizzas in hand, literally, less than one minute after she yelled out my order. No doubt that we'd have waited for 3 hours for a table if not for this angel of a woman. I have no idea who didn't get their pizzas, but I know that we got ours and we RAN out of there before an angry mob (no pun intended) of hungry Italians beat us down and stole our pizza.

On the way home, from standing about 30 feet away, we saw a dude get crushed by a car while riding his scooter. Well, not crushed...but the girl did turn in front of him and he was thrown onto the hood of the car, then about 15 feet through the air onto the sidewalk into a metal railing. No helmet. I thought for sure I'd be doing CPR and applying direct pressure to stop massive bleeding. Yet, the dude popped right up, cussing of course, because his scooter was totaled. I handed him his hat (literally) and we left him and the girl to work it out, Napoli-style. Whatever that means...we didn't wanna know.

Arriving back at the hostel, we happened upon a great live, local jazz and rock group playing a show to hostellers and locals alike. After a beer and a little dancing, we lined up some hostels/hotels on the internet for the next few days and then headed to bed. This time, our Napoli experience was completely different. Some people even smiled at us on the street. Maybe it was all in our heads that Napoli is dirty and least a little bit, maybe?

Tomorrow it's off to Umbria, and a couple of hilltowns in the country. Woo hoo!!!

Thanks for bearing with my looooooooooooonnnnnggggg blog posts. This is also my diary!!

Love to all,