Friday, November 19, 2010

italian farewell

Florence is a culture lover's dream. The Uffizi Gallery offers an afternoon's worth of museum fatigue and Michaelangelo's David is captivating (seriously). I think I spent over an hour transfixed by its perfection. I'll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about art. I couldn't tell you the difference between a Rembrant or a Van Gogh or a Goya. But I could tell David was special. It was amazing to me that an inanimate object could have such a presence.

After Florence I took my own private tour of Tuscan towns. I went to Siena, home to the biannual horse races around its Piazza del Campo, San Gimignano, where all buildings are made from red brick and towers and churchs are 700 years old, and Lucca, which is completely enclosed in an ancient city wall. I also stopped in Pisa for a couple hours to take that famous photo before moving on to Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre was recommended to me by just about everyone I know who has visited Italy, and it didn't disappoint. It's comprised of five fishing villages along the Western Coast of Italy and boasts a world famous 9km hike from the first to the fifth. I had three nights there, so I did the hike twice with both of my full days. One of the sections between two villages was closed because of an avalanche, but the detour (which added an extra hour) was actually a surprising highlight. It was largely empty since most people opted for the train, and took me through vineyards and lemon groves hundreds of feet above the standard trail. The views were spectacular, the weather was perfect, and I even had a room to myself back at my hostel. Life was good.

After Cinque Terre I went to Bologna for two nights where I stayed with my friend Dinah who is studying there. I took my one full day to explore the city, but really Bologna isn't as much of a sight to see as much as it is a place in which to indulge. On my first night Dinah took me to a bar for 'Apertivo,' which is a Bolognese tradition where you pay for a drink and then get to dig into a full Italian buffet. I soon discovered I could get along pretty well in Bologna. On my second night we cooked up some handmade tortellini with Bolognese sauce we made from scratch.

From Bologna I took a train into Venice where I would spend my last two nights in Italy. Venice is the only place in the world where a map is utterly useless. Shoulder-width, cobblestone alleys snake through the city and render efficient navigation impossible. But that's the essence of Venice. To be there is to be wandering and truly lost. I used my time there to take a boat ride along the Grand Canal, visit St. Mark's Basilica, and see where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed. Standard fare, really.

I spent just over three weeks in Italy, by far the longest amount of time I've been in any country. Well worth it, too. Up next is the French Riviera, the Spain, and finally Portugal, where I will run out of European real estate and return home. But such thoughts are not for today. Not while there is still life in my shoes, wine in my glass, and a ticket in my hand.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

roman carnival

I set out from Switzerland at 6am to take full advantage of a Travel Day on my pass. I got all the way down to Naples, Itlay by 4 and spent the night there. Didn´t do much in Naples. It was the only place I´ve ever been where I truly didn´t feel comfortable. Italian police squads lined the streets near my hostel adorned with bullet proof vests and submachine guns. I saw a guy in a business suit knocked unconscious in the middle of the sidewalk on a busy street. So I decided to just grab a pizza and call it a day.

In the morning I took a short train ride down to the Amalfi Coast and stayed two nights in a little fishing village called Atrani. When I got there the first thing I did was jump headlong into the Mediterranean. The water was as warm and azure as I had hoped. At night I sat on a bench overlooking the sea and watching a lightning storm. I ate a ham and cheese sub my Aunt and Uncle had packed for me while watching waves crash over the breakwater and lighting flash across the dark Tyrrhenian water.

On my second and only full day on the Amalfi Coast I hiked to Positano. It was about 9km up to Bomerano, then another 7km along the famous "Pathway of the Gods" into Positano. It was probably the single most tiring day of my trip, not as much from the length but the constant climbs and descents. The towns on the Amalfi Coast are built on cliffs, so walking from one to the next simulates an epic stairmaster workout. Got some good workout out of my headband at least. It was worth it though. The sun-filled panoramic view unfolded in front of me on my way down to Positano and I immediately knew I was going to love Italy. I took the bus back to Atrani though....

The next day I hiked up to Ravello and an ancient castle atop Atrani for panoramic views of Amalfi and Atrani. Then I took a bus to Pompei to explore the ruins wrought by Mt Vesuvius 2000 years ago. After a few hours I caught a train up to Rome where I would be spending four nights.

Like a fool I didn´t book a hostel in Rome and was left wandering the sketchy streets around the train station while managing to find nearly every full hostel around. But eventually I ran into a Persian guy at the station who ran a B&B nearby that was cheaper than all the hostels.

If you´ve ever been to Rome, your visit probably closely resembles mine. For your first visit, there isn´t much variation in what you want to see. The Colloseum, the Roman Forum, The Vatican Museums, St. Peter´s Basillica, the Pantheon, Palantine Hill, Campodoglio, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain.... and so on.

Rome is a gigantic, well-oiled tourist machine. Buy the ticket, wait in line, take the picture. Rinse and repeat.

But what a great city. Centuries of history around every corner, heaps of religious relics, and gelato galore. I used my three days to walk through the city, and Rome is a walker´s paradise. Every street boasts authentic cafe´s, chintzy tourist traps, pizzerias, shamless street performers, gelaterias, and people from every corner of the world. Rome is the ultimate tourist retailer. Whatever you´re after, they have it in stock, and available in bulk.

After four nights and three full days I felt used up and laid-out, like a 10-year old who spent his weeks allowance at a carnival on the dizzy-rides and too much cotton candy.

After Rome I stayed in Assisi for a night which was a welcome down-shift. I saw St. Francis´ Basillica, the crucifix that supposedly inspired St. Francis, and had a day wandering the cobble stone streets where you can find all variations of religous knick-knacks imaginable.

Next on the menu is Tuscanny, where I expect to meet Michaelangelo´s David, the Leaning Tower, and more wine from a box.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

victory #9

Sorry for the delay between posts. I haven't been at an actual computer in a good while. This one comes all the way back from mid-Oct. Right now I'm in Barcelona, and have quite the stockpile of backed-up posts which I'll have to take care of. Anyway, I think I last left off in Austria.

I caught a night train in Vienna and arrived in Zurich by 7:00am. After a couple train changes, I was in Interlaken, then Lauterbrunnen, and a Gondola lift and train ride later I was in Murren, Switzerland.

My first impression of Switzerland was the efficiency of their trains. There's nothing a traveler appreciates more than dependability. Two minutes after pulling into the Zurich station I was on my way to Bern. Another two minute layover and I was enroute to Interlaken. Their arrivals and departures were spot on to the minute. I felt like I was on another Colby road trip with old head coach Tom Austin. His travel itineraries were always planned to the minute. "9:52 -- Arrive at Williams. 12:05 -- Specialists depart. 3:42 -- Victory #1!"

Murren is a genuine Swiss village halfway up the Alps. It caters to skiiers during the winter and hikers in the summer, so mid-Oct was a great time to arrive. I knew I needed to see the Swiss Alps, but the reason I chose Murren was because my Aunt and Uncle were staying there for a week. They had an apartment that they rent annually and I was thrilled to be able to check it out for a few nights. Three nights in the Swiss Alps, catching up with relatives, some of the most picturesque hikes in the world.... life was good.

Of course my Aunt and Uncle spoiled me rotten while I was there. Weisswurst, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken and potatos, and some killer lentil soup.... I was in Heaven. The way my Aunt cooks, I was better off with them than at a restaurant.

My first day they took me on the Northface Trail, their favorite, which took us across the rolling countryside with spectacular views of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch peaks.

The next day I hiked up the Shilthorn. It's summit is at about 10,000 ft, but Murren lies at about half that, so it was only a two hour climb to the top. The building at the summit was built especially for the James Bond movie, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and it offered incredible panoramic views.

I decided to take a different route back down to Murren, and the hike down took longer than the ascent. Well worth the effort, however. One of the best days of my trip.

My third day we hiked from Grutshalp to Murren, and then to Grimmelwald and back. Once again, I was spoiled with the scenery, weather, and company.

My time in Switzerland felt brief but well spent. A definite placement on the Mt. Rushmore of my trip. Next I have a travel day on my Eurail Pass to get all the way down to Naples, Italy, the ninth country on my trip. Pizzas, pasta, gelato and cheap wine await....