Rome Rome Rome: Days 1, 2, 3

I arrived in Rome Tuesday afternoon and in the train station was personally warned about pick pockets. (I later received a second personal heads-up.) So, I thought of Tom Ridge, raised my security alert to Orange and practiced "increased vigilance."

I took the underground Metro to my host Nicola’s flat, picked up the key from the janitor, and settled in. He wasn’t coming back until late the next night, so I had the place to myself. It’s nestled in a nice northern residential neighborhood, free of tourists, close to the metro and buses, and right across the street from a pizzeria.

The package I mailed to myself from San Francisco was waiting and I anxiously opened it to find the several books I sent, including a Rome guidebook, and about a dozen Cliff Bars. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to nap and reading about Rome. I allocated more time to Rome than any other city — 5 nights — because I had heard so many good things. So I felt no need to pack each day with activities.

The next morning I set off for St. Peter’s Square. The Big Man — aka Benedict, aka The Pope — was making his weekly address on this Wednesday morning from his summer house away from Rome. They were still broadcasting it in the main St. Peter’s square. The tourist scene in Rome is so thick that once you find the general location of a place you just follow the crowds. I walked along leisurely, still recovering from my frantic last day in Florence, and enjoying all the nuns from all over the world walking hurriedly into the square.


St. Peter’s square is amazing! Massive TV screens projected Pope Benedict’s address. The whole atmosphere is architecturally awe inspiring and spiritually very "alive." I could tell to even be in the square was an important religious experience. I listened to Benedict speak in several different languages and different sections of the crowd erupting at hearing their native tongue.

PopeFrom there I wandered over to St. Peter’s Basicilia / Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. A good 1.5 hour queue to get in. When I finally got in, I took my fine time. I checked out paintings and frescoes and statues. I took breaks on a chair and reviewed my guidebook for some historical background. There’s one huge arched hallway filled with gold and frescoes — incredible. The Sistine Chapel itself finally came and was kind of overwhelming. No pictures allowed, but to see frescoes like THe Last Supper up close and personal was awesome.Sistine

Exhausted from the several hour visit to the Vatican (a sovereign state with their own currency), I returned to the flat, hung out, and then headed down to the train station for some admittedly expensive wi-fi. I had a dinner at a cheap restaurant and then walked casually along the blocks near the main train station. This is a great after dinner walk. Few tourists, sun hitting tops of buildings, a warm breeze. I got so caught up in the beauty of my walk that 9 PM passed me and as I learned later the Metro line I take closes at 9 PM for repairs. I was screwed. It took me 2.5 hours to get home as I hopped on different buses and trams and each driver told me something different. Disaster.

Day 3 I focused on the Roman Forum, Coliseum, and Pantheon. The Roman Forum deserves a good hour of walking around. A guided tour is overkill, I think. Simply gaping at the relics and trying to imagine Roman business being conducted is good enough. Of course, it’s hard to stay too long at the Forum because you see the Coliseum in the distance. Seeing the Coliseum from afar was like looking at a guidebook. It looked just like it does in the pictures. Before entering the lengthy queue to get in, I bought a sandwich at a cheap stand set up outside. In front of me were some black American guys speaking ghetto English (which i haven’t heard in awhile) to Italians who didn’t seem to understand a word: "You not hearing me. Gimme my money back. Give me my fucking euro back. You aint givin’ me the right size ice cream." Indeed.Forum

The Coliseum lived up to its billing as the most important tourist attraction in Rome. On this stop I regretted not doing a tour — I think it’s chock full of interesting details which would have been useful. I also haven’t seen "The Gladiator" so I didn’t have my Russell Crowe imagery top of mind. Nonetheless, the whole set up can’t be described in words, so I leave a photo and a request that you, too, visit it.Collis

The Pantheon isn’t too far away and equally deserving of aesthetic and architectural praise. It made me think fondly about my 5th grade humanities assignment to build a replica of a pantheon using white cardboard. Seeing it up close and personal, it’s hard to get your head around a few questions: how did they find single pieces of stone that served as the doric columns? How can there be no reinforced concrete?

Pantheon Two full days in Rome knocked off the key attractions, leaving me with two more days to check out secondary sights and try to catch up on reading.


Two Nights in Florence

My stay in Florence was good but could have been better. I endured a series of unlucky happenings which dragged me down.

As my train pulled into Florence from Rovereto, the staple holding my Italy guidebook pages together fell off. The tourist office at the train station was closed. I couldn’t find the lockers to store my bag for the next few hours. All the while, I continued sweating profusely (I have the whole trip) since the heat continues to pound down on Europe.

After resolving all of these issues I made my way to the tour bus. I had calculated that doing the tour bus would be a smart move since it hit all the places I wanted to go to (easier than public transit) and would take me up into an adjoining town which has splendid views of Florence. After boarding the tour bus I was informed that Florence’s most famous art museum the Uffizi  – and arguably one of the three most important in the world – happened to be closed for the day. Shit! I intended to spend my afternoon exploring the museum and not save it for the last minute when I’d be rushed for time.
So I hopped on the one hour bus tour, got a basic orientation of the City of Florence, and then made my way to the galeria academe where Michelango’s David is held. When I asked somebody how to get to the “David” she asked me if I wanted to see the original or the replica. It raised an interesting question – does it matter? I decided to see the original, since I was in Florence anyway. This decision meant a 1.75 hour wait. Ugh. A group of Santa Cruz, CA based girls were behind me in line (second time in a row I’ve stood next to Santa Cruz people). They were annoyingly loud and talkative.

After waiting in line all that time, I got the front ticket window and only then do they describe all the security rules. I had to take my laptop out of my bag and turn it own and show that it was operational. The airport doesn’t even require that! Inquiring minds want to know why they didn’t bother to describe the security and ticket prices to people while they were in waiting in line, instead of furthering the bottleneck at the front. The staff throughout the museum were not friendly.
Once inside, everyone feigns interest in the paintings (we’re here for the David!). I, too, took a gander at the paintings and random statues. Not very interesting. I finally made my way to the main hall where The Man stood. Wow! It’s so much bigger than I expected. And so much more perfect than I expected. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, unfortunately. Seeing David probably made the wait worth it.

I spent the night at a Servas house. This is only Servas house I booked for the whole trip – many weren’t available. And frankly, it didn’t work out too well, for a variety of reasons. I ditched after the one night and the following morning checked into a hotel. For 100 euros I got two full breakfasts, a clean room and bath, wi-fi in the room, and easy walking distance to train station, laundry, and a gym. If you’re in Florence Hotel Kraft is a good bet.

Florence Day 2 included the bus and more great Tuscany views, but mostly some logistical stuff I needed to catch up. Did my laundry, worked out for a couple hours, did email and RSS. It was Monday, so no museums. In the evening I went to a cooking class (described on main blog).
On the morning of my final day in Florence, I set off for the famous museum which had been closed my first two days. Some of the most famous Renaissance art is housed here. Guidebooks say “Expect a 2-4 hour queue to get in.” With a 2 PM train to Rome, I left my hotel at 9:30 AM for the 15 minute walk. If I got there by 10, I could afford a 2 hour wait, an hour at the museum, and then time to walk back to the train station. Sure, I could have woken up earlier, but the whole reason I went to the hotel was b/c I’ve been on low sleep. Of course, I got lost on the way to the museum. I was told to “walk along the river” – unfortunately I walked the wrong way. 45 minutes later I arrived at the museum. The queue was painfully long (though a good chat with some Texans behind me and reading my book made it acceptable). As I approached the ticket window I looked at my watch. It was 12:45 PM. I knew that by now any time I would spend in this museum would be purely to say I’ve been there. Once inside, I spent a laughably short amount of time. No time for audioguide or sitting or reflecting, just racing through the hallways and try to draw 30 seconds of meaning from, say, Botticelli’s “Venus” painting.

Someday in the future I’ll return to Florence with more time, more luck, and several art history books at my side!

Day 19: Rovereto and Verona, Italy

Massimo and I spent most of our Saturday in Verona, a medium sized city in Northern Italy. We visited a big amphitheater where they were preparing for the launch of Aida. it’s the largest coliseum in Italy that’s fully intact (Rome’s are more in shambles, I hear).
Then we shopped. Verona is known for its fine Italian fashion. Massimo picked up some things, while I reflected on the extent of my shopping experience: once a year I go to Vacaville, CA which is a couple hours north of SF to the outlet malls where there are cheap shoes and pants and shirts. Outside of this trip, I avoid the deadly experience of buying new clothes. But window shopping in Verona was actually quite pleasant, as was helping Massimo decide which shirt most extenuated his charming Italian personality.

Verona is most known, though, for being the place where Romeo and Juliet is set. We saw the scene, including the balcony and a statue of Juliet. There was a line next to Juliet and I soon learned that grabbing her boob is supposed to bring good luck. So I waited my turn and went right after this American dad lifted his kids on shoulder and said "ok now touch her boobie." Good values to indoctrinate, indeed.

Img_1121 For lunch we had a casual meal and then lay on the grass in a park for a half hour. I searched, fruitlessly, for a hotspot, while Massimo bought a few more things. We left Verona in the mid-afternoon, headed in the direction of our village, and stopped at one of the small lake towns to watch Portugal vs. England soccer.

Next we headed over to one of Massimo’s childhood friends’ house in Rovereto. He and his girlfriend are web designers and have free wi-fi. I connected for a couple minutes, downloaded more than 400 emails, refreshed my RSS reader to more than 700 new items, and then closed out and we walked downstairs and across town to a Chinese restaurant. What a lovely evening! Warm breeze, cobble stones, people on the streets. The Chinese food was good – big portions, low prices. It’s funny hearing Chinese people speaking Italian. Thanks to Massi’s friend Mauro’s insider knowledge, I ordered a special kind of desert. In addition to the ice cream in the bowl, you get to keep the bowl! (I gave the bowl to Massi as a thank you gift).
After dinner I had a leisurely tour with Mauro and his girlfriend. We struggled to overcome the language barrier, which was fun. I learned that Rovereto is home to the largest museum of modern art and is a nice tourist attraction for people swinging through northern Italy.

My final full day in North Italy was more than 12 hours long – exhausting – but well worth it. I’ll miss this small village. This is true Italy.

Spending a Day in Venice

Friday Massimo and I drove 1.5 hours south from his village to Venice. 15 million people visit Venice each year and for good reason – it’s simply stunning. After a day wandering around my big take-away is that everybody should spend a day in Venice, but not a day longer.

We started at the Piaza San Marco, where we walked the street section of Venice, saw the Rialto bridge, and basked in the gorgeous architecture of the main square. Packed – packed! – with tourists from all over the world. I don’t think I saw a single Italian person who lived in Venice. We bumped into some Russian girls who “needed help with directions” (Massimo thought they wanted more) and they were awed by me being from America. “So far away!” they said. Hmm…
Instead of paying big bucks to go in a gondola, we simply watched others. It was fun. We did use public transit, a big boat, to go from Piazza San Marco to Plaso “Murano,” about a 20 minute boat ride away in Venice.

In Murano there’s the famous glass making factory. We caught the tail end of a demonstration. Wow! A guy used a 1000+ degree oven and put a huge ball of firey goo on the end of his stick and used another device to stretch it in different directions. In two minutes a fully recognizable glass horse was produced.
Food, hotels, water taxis, and just about everything else is super expensive. This and the crowds is why a day in Venice is about all a reasonably frugal and reasonably energized person can take.  But it’s definitely worth a day-trip. Perhaps the most picturesque place I’ve been to.

Welcome to Italy!

Thursday morning I left Zurich in car with my dear friend Massimo and we trekked 5 hours through Austria and Germany to Northern Italy where his family has a house in a small village near the city of Rovereto. It poured as we drove, but as we arrived in Italy – almost magically – the clouds disappeared, sun came out, and it was a brilliant day.

Before heading to the house we stopped at the small town of Malcesel. The views across Garda Lake were simply amazing. Cobble stone streets, colored houses with low ceilings, and gelato ice cream stores. Ah, Italy! We stopped for a mid-afternoon sandwich and people watched. Time and time again I am reminded of one simple travel fact: nothing beats touring with a native. Even though Massimo lives in Zurich, he knows his Italian and Italy.

We stopped by a grocery store to pick up some food for the next few days at the house. We walked inside and I’m immediately confronted with a huge section of bread. Tons of kinds of bread. All different sizes and smells and colors. Predictably, there were also entire aisles of pasta and olive oil. Massimo pointed out to me “the American section” – ie the frozen food section – and oddly enough there was a frozen pizza called “Big American Style.” It was your plain pizza loaded with toppings. Why would someone in Italy of all places by an American style pizza?!

The village I’m staying in is a true small village. Maybe 30 people. Everyone is family. The house is cozy. I read the Financial Times on a deck looking out on mountains (reminded me of Yosemite) and vineyards with Massimo’s most excellent jazz music playing softly in the background. For dinner, Massimo showed me true Italian cooking. we first had tomates and mozzarella (this is a universal food – I have it in SF, had it in Ireland, Switzerland, and now Italy). Great stuff. Then he made pasta with an interesting topping – salmon and all sorts of spices we picked up at the market. All throughout Massimo did his best Cooking Channel imitation. It wasn’t 5 star cuisine, and it wasn’t hostel cheap shit. Just perfect. Totally authentic.

In between course 1 and course 2 we poured through hundreds and hundreds of his pictures on his computer with Alicia Keyes, jazz musicians, and Elton John in the background. It was great seeing and hearing all the stories…including the many pictures he took when he was in San Francisco last year (SF is a beautiful city!). A couple glasses of wine, bread, pasta, and a pudding-esque dessert later, and I was feeling very content, and very lucky.

(pictures forthcoming)