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 scenario...as 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!!