Archive for the 'Italy' Category

September 26th 2008

Posted under Italy

If you own a diamond, there is a greater than 80% chance that it was cut in Antwerp. Nicknamed Diamond City, Antwerp has 300 diamond-cutting workshops, 1500 diamond traders, and 4 of the world’s 25 diamond banks. But all of these are packed into an area of less than one square kilometer. The rest of Antwerp is a beautiful medieval city and vibrant university town. We liked it immediately.

Our hotel – one of the most comfortable of our trip and (unfortunately) priced accordingly – was located in the beautiful town square across from Antwerp’s magnificent gothic Cathedral of Our Lady. Its pretty church bells enchanted us throughout the day. Yes, we only had one day to explore Antwerp and were wishing we had more but that has been the recurring sentiment throughout our travels: there’s never enough time.

Since we overdosed on museums in Italy, we decided to do less museums and more aimless wandering in Belgium. The cool autumn air invigorated us to roam the streets, with their quaint, colorful 16th-century Guild Houses; stopping at leisure for frites, waffles and cold Belgian beers served in stemmed glasses. We are unapologetic winos on average but there is something so appealing about sitting on a sunny patio, bundled in jackets and scarves, sipping cold beers on a chilly afternoon. If we make it to 4:00 before happily indulging in our first cold one, we applaud our enormous restraint. That said, we must escape Belgium before our daily unadulterated gluttony expands our waistlines beyond the confines of our pants.

Antwerp’s most celebrated citizen is famed artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Rubens and his wife, Isabella, bought a house in Antwerp in 1610 and Rubens spent the following years enlarging and embellishing it, making it the most impressive early 17th-century home in Antwerp. Rubens’ house, with its diverse collection of art, is open to the public and we spent the better part of an hour wandering through the lavishly decorated living rooms, the artist’s studio, the portico, the pantheon of classical sculptures, and the ornamental garden. Rubens filled his home with works that he admired and from which he drew inspiration, including many still life paintings, portraits, and sculptures. Several of Rubens’ own work was displayed in the studio.

I have always loved seeing people’s homes. Regardless of size or decadence, a person’s home tells a lot about him. A home is a mini-museum of someone’s personality, full of trinkets and treasures with which that person has chosen to surround himself during the most private moments of his life. When I imagine our inevitable reintegration into American life, without a Big Texas house full of pretty things to come home to, I am warmed by the thought that whatever little place we find to call home in the near future will be filled with all of our special things: our sweet little dog; our warm, cozy bed (which we will NEVER take for granted again), our soft blankets, our kitchen stuff, and a LOT of travel photos! While we will surely welcome the return of our old, familiar things – which have hopefully fared well in their climate controlled storage unit in Texas – we take comfort in knowing that we can live happily with only the bare essentials. I have said many times throughout this journey that we feel quite at home on the road and I have meant it wholeheartedly. Our prolonged backpacking adventure has helped us to emotionally detach ourselves from our material possessions (excluding the dog). Home is where the heart is. We carry it with us and can unfold it anywhere with just a little love and creativity.

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September 23rd 2008
The Venice of Italy

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Dubai is touted as the Venice of the Middle East; Udaipur in India and Suzhou in China are each referred to as the Venice of the East; and St. Petersburg, Russia is known as the Venice of the North. We had finally descended upon the Venice of Italy, eager to unlock the secrets of its charm.

Meander through Venice in the morning and you will find the city still asleep, its tangle of narrow walkways, canals, arched bridges, and piazzas all but deserted. You’d be hard pressed to find an espresso bar open before ten. Morning in Venice is cool, quiet and peaceful. You feel a certain intimacy at this hour, as though you have the city all to yourself.

Walk through Venice at lunchtime, getting lost in the senseless maze as you follow your nose toward the tantalizing aromas of fresh baked pizzas, pastas and bread wafting through the lanes while trying not to succumb to the temptation of the gelato shops before lunch. The tranquility of morning has been trampled by a parade of tourists, moving through the narrow alleys like ants on a wall. Water taxis, ferries, and the quintessential Venetian gondolas maneuvered by burly, tattooed gondoliers in striped shirts navigate the canals. Almost everyone you pass is holding either a slice of pizza or a gelato cone. The outdoor cafes and fine restaurants are full of holidaymakers, indulging in three-course lunches and bottles of wine. Around every bend in Venice is a beautiful photo opportunity, especially the bridges where pretty painted buildings and the sparkling canals form stunning backdrops.

If you allow yourself a few hours of aimless wandering or if you (like all first-time visitors) get lost in the labyrinth despite your map, you will inevitably happen upon the two most marvelous and most famous places in Venice: the Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco. The Grand Canal is quite possibly the most beautiful street in the world. Snaking through the city in the shape of a backward letter “s”, the canal is the city’s lifeblood. It combines all of the best elements of Venice’s fairy tale perfection – stunning architecture in the form of more than a hundred 14th-18th century palaces; waterside restaurants; the picturesque Rialto bridge and, of course, the gondolas. The canal is also a major artery of commercial transportation. You cannot drive a car in this canal city; everything is by boat from the postal service and police patrol to passenger and commercial transport. The city seems to have been laid out by a hopeless romantic with no regard for practicality or pragmatism. From a logistical perspective, it makes no sense. From the perspective of a goggle-eyed aimless wanderer with no agenda and an appreciation for art, it makes all the sense in the world.

If the Grand Canal is Venice’s lifeblood, then the Piazza San Marco is its heart. Step into the vast, crowded, pigeon-infested square and your gaze will immediately center on the magnificent Basilica di San Marco. Venice’s cathedral – built on the plan of a Greek cross – showcases the Byzantine style in all of its glory with five bulbous domes and dazzling gold mosaics both inside and out. The dim, cavernous interior and the marble floor that has rippled over the centuries together create a dizzying effect. Across from the basilica, the top of the campanile affords a bird’s eye view of the piazza and the best panoramas of the city.

The rest of the Piazza San Marco is like a large pot, bubbling with activity. Two eighteenth-century cafes dot the square with elegant tables, their patrons entertained by lively, tuxedoed string quartets. The “music and service charge” at these lovely venues is six euro per person on top of your sixteen euro cocktail. Flocks of fat pigeons converge on every scrap of bread and pizza crust that hits the pavement while seagulls soar overhead, stalking pigeon prey. We happened to witness a dramatic kill that incited gasps from the startled pedestrians. Standing in the bustling Piazza San Marco, you get the odd yet comforting sensation of being in the center of the world.

Stroll the streets of Venice on a crisp fall evening and the city reveals its third personality. Restaurants are bathed in an alluring, incandescent glow and their warm interiors are a welcome respite from the chill. You feel inclined to sip wine and linger over dessert. Many of the restaurants elicit a cover charge per person on top of the price of your meal, which is decidedly annoying, but it’s Venice so you pay it, however grudgingly.

On our last night in Venice, my beautiful and gainfully employed little sister treated us to dinner at one of the expensive and pretentious restaurants on the Grand Canal in view of the Rialto Bridge. With the moonlight sparkling on the water, we savored juicy Chianti over courses of meat, seafood and pasta. It was the perfect exclamation point to Venice, where we indulged in more gastronomic tourism than any other kind.

The truth is that the magic of Venice is no hidden secret. At first glimpse, the glimpse you get while lugging your bags through the picturesque streets and across the Grand Canal to your hotel, you instantly understand Venice’s rightful place in art and literature. Ever looked at a beautiful painting in a museum and imagined yourself folded into the scene? Venice is that scene – around every turn is a painting – and walking through paintings is a surreal experience. It is no wonder that so many cities want to be Venice. After three amazing days in the senseless labyrinthine canal city that somehow makes perfect sense, I know one thing to be true: There is no Venice like the Venice of Italy!


September 22nd 2008
Drama Bolognese

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Over the many months of this adventure, I have written occasionally about our experiences in the hostel world. In our attempt to travel so long and far, we have mostly restricted ourselves to youth hostels and budget hotels. To borrow a line from Forrest Gump’s mama, “Hostels are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

After a long, wonderful day in Pisa and Cinque Terre, we arrived at our hostel in Bologna around nine p.m. There seemed to be some confusion regarding our reservation though we were never made privy to it as we stood patiently listening to the two clerks banter in Italian. When we finally received our keys – one for a men’s dorm and one for a women’s dorm – the clerk informed us that our rooms were in the other hostel just two hundred meters down the road. After some frustrated wandering in the dark, we found the “other hostel” and carried our load up to the second floor. I tried our Room 303 key in the 303 lock but the door would not open. I tried again. Natty tried while I stood aside, cursing under my breath. Finally, we summoned Aaron who confirmed that our key would not open 303 and then randomly discovered that our key would open neighboring 301. Hesitantly, we peered inside to find and empty room with three naked beds. With no hostel staff to be found in this “other” building and no phones, we agreed that it was too cumbersome, too late, and too cold to go back for a new key. We collectively decided that Nat and I would set up camp in 301 in hope that we would have the room all to ourselves.

By ten p.m., we had made up our beds, showered and settled in. A brisk fall chill had swept through the whole building and, as I opened the wardrobe doors to look for heavy blankets, I discovered a pile of possessions behind door number two: leather jacket, white collared shirt, camouflage dob kit, some miscellaneous articles of clothing, and a large metal wrench! The items clearly belonged to a man and our heads began spinning with paranoid ideas of a crazy wrench murder with a key to our room. Why would a backpacker need a wrench?

After Nat and I had catalyzed each other’s fears into a paranoid frenzy, I knocked on Aaron’s door across the hall to warn him that by morning, he might possibly be a widower. He thought we were being melodramatic but gave us the key to his room and told us to come in if anyone suspicious entered our room in the middle of the night. We could re-evaluate the situation then.

We were fast asleep in our cozy beds when, at one a.m., we heard a key clinking in the lock. I pulled the covers up to my nose and pretended to be asleep meanwhile spying in the dark as the young male latecomer tiptoed around, trying to organize his things and make his bed in the dark. I kept my eyes on the area around Natty’s bed. If he raised a wrench, I would leap out and scream bloody murder before he had time to strike. I sensed that Natty was awake and playing possum as well. As it turned out, he never raised the wrench but rather stripped down to his skivvies and crawled into bed. My heart finally stopped racing after another half hour and I drifted back to sleep.

At four a.m., I woke again to the sound of a key in our lock, followed by the horrid stench of stale cigarette smoke. Two male backpackers, who had obviously been assigned to the two beds in 301 that Nat and I were occupying, opened the door (at four a.m.!) to find all the beds full. Nat and I lay perfectly still, pretending to sleep, waiting to see what they would do. They stood in the doorway laughing for a few minutes and then left. We heard them talking and laughing outside the door for a while and then they were gone. I felt bad for them but I was too cozy under my warm blanket to be a Good Samaritan. There were no further disturbances after that. Natty and I both popped up before our alarm went off, packed up quickly and quietly, and got out of there.

We met Aaron in the hallway at the designated time, loaded the car, and laughed over breakfast at our crazy night in the hostel dorm. Natty has been officially initiated into the hostel world.

We spent the first half of the day walking around Bologna – the food capital of Italy. The few hours that we spent wandering through the city’s endless porticos and quaint university quarter were enough for all of us. Not surprisingly, the most memorable part of the day was the decadent lunch that we shared in a little “Mom and Pop” establishment with checkered tablecloths. The long walk and steaming plates of fresh made pastas in rich, meaty “Bolognese” sauce helped to soothe our nerves and lure our thoughts away from psycho wrench murderers. By the last bite of tiramisu, all seemed right in the world again.

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September 21st 2008
Cinque Terre

Posted under Italy

Cinque Terre is the stuff of dreams – five colorful villages, each with a unique character, built into a craggy cliffside on the edge of the Ligurian Sea. Cinque Terre has been designated a national park, which includes a protected marine area. Cars and motorcycles are prohibited from the villages – pedestrian traffic is carried between villages via an efficient train system. Add to that miles of cliffside walking trails, nearly vertical terraced rock faces cultivated with vineyards and olive groves, and stretches of pebble beach along the glittering blue Ligurian and you have a little slice of Heaven!

On a gorgeous sunny day, we pulled into the designated parking lot just outside the village of Manarola and wandered down the hill into town. The town spread as much vertically as horizontally; its weathered facades painted in dusty reds, yellows, sea greens and whites with green shutters and striped awnings. Small boats lined the streets; accordion players entertained café patrons at cozy tables with sea views; locals tanned themselves on sun-warmed boulders and swam in tiny coves; and Italian grandmothers leaned out of second story windows, watching it all.

Next, we walked a scenic, one-kilometer trail, called Lovers Lane, between Manarola and the easternmost village of Riomaggiore, browsed around town for a while at the focaccerias and ceramic shops, and snapped countless shots of the photogenic villagescape before hopping a train to the westernmost village of Monterosso. Monterosso has the longest stretch of beach of all five villages and the ocean was beckoning us for a swim. Of the utmost importance, however, was finding Focacceria Enoteca Antonia which reportedly served fifteen kinds of focaccia from scratch. Our stomachs were rumbling and our mouths watering before we reached the doorway just across from the beach. All four varieties of piping hot, generously topped focaccia were unbelievably delicious, making it hard to refrain from stuffing ourselves silly. After that, I felt wholeheartedly that my Cinque Terre experience was complete.

Natalie and I walked down to the beach and tantalized our tootsies in the gentle waves. Unfortunately, our swimsuits were in the car in Manarola and I must admit that I was tempted to strip down to my skivvies and dive in. The water was cool and refreshing and, flashing back to blissful dips in Amalfi, I was overcome with a mad craving for that enlivening shock of the ocean enveloping the whole of my skin. The sensation of freedom and weightlessness that comes with ocean swimming is like an awakening of the spirit. The beach at Monterosso was so delightful that we never made it into town. We just sat on a wall, staring across the Ligurian until it was time to go.

Leaving Cinque Terre was like losing touch with a good friend. You find happiness in other things but every now and then, when your mind stops spinning with the day’s distractions, your friend’s face flashes through your mind and warms you with fond memories. I hope someday to return to Cinque Terre, to wander the colorful streets of Manarola, to swim in the sea at Monterosso, and to explore the villages that we missed this time. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in the quiet moments when my mind is free to swim with happy memories of a very special place.


September 21st 2008
Leaning Tower of Pisa

Posted under Italy

Every country has an Eiffel Tower – a sight that simply must be seen, even if it is out of your way. In the States, we have the Statue of Liberty; India has the Taj; Kenya the Serengeti and China the Great Wall. In Italy, you must see the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

We set out early from Florence and rolled into Pisa by midmorning. The tour groups were already out in force and we followed an Asian herd from the parking lot to the magnificent Piazza dei Miracoli. Most people don’t know that the Piazza dei Miracoli is one of the loveliest in Europe with a manicured green lawn and two stunning Romanesque buildings in addition to the Leaning Tower: the Baptistry and the Cathedral. The entire picture is simply dazzling.

The Leaning Tower, which was designed as a bell tower for the Cathedral, began to lean even before it was completed. Shifting soil is the most widely suspected cause. In 1998, the ever-increasing lean was halted to 4.1 meters and successfully reinforced.

We made a slow lap around the piazza, snapping the requisite cheesy photos. I recall thinking that the view must be equally magnificent at night but what the Piazza dei Miracoli is missing are the outdoor cafés that surround every other piazza in Italy. The piazza would be a gorgeous venue for a moonlit cocktail but, sadly, there is not a single café in the square, just lines of tacky souvenir carts pushing Pisa shirts, Pisa hats, Pisa calendars, key chains and lamps. So instead of concluding our visit with a deliciously overpriced lunch in view of the Leaning Tower, we stopped off at McDonalds – old faithful – on our way out of town.

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