A nice place to visit....sorry there are only a few pics, but my memory card got corrupted!
Italy Day 1 (Trip Day 6)
Getting into the airport in Rome was uneventful, but I was surprised to see guards with drug sniffing dogs sniffing out everybody leaving the terminal, then walking through customs without having to show my passport or get a visa stamp. Awaiting for the train into Rome, I met a young Spanish couple and chatted with them. The guy was a professional enduro racer, and had great things to say about his Husaberg 500 four-stroke. Somehow, even in Europe, parts for these bikes were hard to find. They also told me some bits about how to see good Flamenco when I return to the south of Spain, and asked me about American politics, which was becoming a familiar exercise. Waiting for the train I overheard an obviously American couple who were versed in traveling Italy, and who were also traveling to Florence the following day. They gave me some tips on finding good meal deals, and had good things to say about discovering Italy.
I found my hostel, met some American girls waiting in line to check in who relayed a horror story traveling in Barcelona a few years back: She was talking on her cell phone, and a guy ran by and grabbed it. Being the gutsy girl she was, she ran after him, and he turned around and socked her in the face! I had a funny feeling that such an experience would be more likely to happen to a female, but heeded the warning and bid them farewell. I made it to my hostel room, where there was a nice Korean gal packing up and ending her vacation. She had just completed a Master's degree in England, and took a month to make her Journey home. It was her last night, and we had a nice time talking about politics, traveling, and her experience in Florence, which would by my next destination.
I decided to wander around the immediate neighborhood and look for something to eat, and settled on a small ristorante that had a steak at a reasonable price. I know that Italy is famous for pizza and pasta, but general preference is to eat low carb, and I was feeling like a hearty meal for the first time in my journey. My steak was thin and cooked through, but the sauce was a wonderful tomato and garlic mixture, with a good dose of chili heat. I also opted for a soup, and chose the Italian egg-drop soup, something I had attempted to make some months ago. The broth was rich and tasty, and the cooked egg made it a hearty and interesting appetizer. Typical in Rome, my eatery had outside seating which took on the form of a small cage set into the street, where a few parking spaces would normally reside. It was just a little daunting to have cars, busses and scooters whizzing by just feet away, and wondered how often an accident ended up involving innocent diners in one of these streetside cafes. As my meal ended, I somehow realized that the restaurateur was an Arab from Egypt, and we had an interesting conversation interspersed with English and Arabic. The man bled his heart out as he told me about his 5 year old daughter who was killed in an accident just a year ago, and I wondered if it had started as an innocent meal on the streets of Rome. He took me into the restaurant and showed me pictures; I wished him God's love and bid him farewell.
It was time to go back to the hostel and get a good night's rest. Sleep had been somewhat evasive during this trip; I was beginning to feel a little run down after having gotten over a cold the day I departed, and after all the second-hand that I was realizing was likely going to be a feature of my entire trip. I was pleased to discover that Italy, too, has a law banning indoor smoking, but my general experience thus far was that there were so many smokers encroaching doorways and windows that the desired effect was not as successful as what I was used to in the US.
Italy Day 2 (Trip Day 7)
Waking up early and refreshed, it was time to run a quick errand in Rome, and get off to Florence to see some more of Italy before returning for Liz's arrival into this historic city. I realized I had overpacked, and my backpack was feeling heavy and looking bloated, so I made the decision to pack up a few things and send them back home through the post. I had the option to send items back with Liz, but this was going to be 12 more days of lugging, and I was feeling the frustration of having to carry just a little too much of my life on my back. So, I wandered around my Roman neighborhood looking for the proper post office to create and send a package, and finally succeeded. I was sending home about 12 pounds of stuff, mainly consisting of my Northface jacket, a pair of jeans, shirt, belt, a drum I purchased in Dublin, and a few books. My bag was suddenly more ambulatory, and I was ready to make the trek to Florence.
On my way to the train station, I stopped in for a pannini, and chose an interesting one that consisted of a breaded veal cutlet stuffed with ham and cheese. I also discovered some of the little known workings of cobblestone streets as I happened upon city workers making repairs: those little square stones are actually deep and shaped like a cone, much like a tooth with a long, conical root. It was a great AH-HA! moment, and I continued to the station.
Tough decisions about the train trek. The cost difference between the 3 different levels of train service was considerable, and I was battling my own frugal tendencies with my folk's conviction that if you are going to do anything, then do it right. The fast train was going to be about $60 US, and the slow train about $22. I decided on the fast train since my time in Florence would be limited, and was delighted to find that the fast train had electrical outlets by my seat, allowing me to finally sit and begin writing about my trip. Thus far, all of the writing you may have read has been done on the trains, a great way to spend the time since the trains have not been crowded, and people tend to spread out and avoid much conversation.
My initial walk out of the Florence train station was greeted with architectural beauty, and was so glad to have decided, on a whim, to come to this famous destination. Unfortunately, all of the pics I took between arriving in Rome, and reaching the Cinque Terre got corrupted, so either you'll have to use your imagination, or I'll spend a little time downloading some pics like they were my own! More cobblestone streets, with patterns that were reminiscent of psychedelia, and bicycles everywhere, which is always a welcome sign. I had arrived into Florence with no prior arrangements, and had to find an internet cafe and begin the process of trying to book a hostel, not knowing what kind of accommodations would be available. I completed my research, wrote down some directions, and decided that I was going to walk to the famous luxury hostel and ask for a bed despite indications from Hostelworld.com that this particular place was booked solid for the night.
Without a map, I managed to get lost, and asking directions from a number of people, which continued to lead me nowhere. I did have another interesting experience after asking a guy on the street for directions. First I tried in Spanish, then discovered that he had a little English, and noted an accent not similar to anything European. He was dark-skinned, and I decided to try Arabic...and was rewarded! He was from Egypt, and although my Arabic is poorer than my Spanish, with bits of three languages, I was able to get some directions that eventually led me to the right place. I happened upon the Florence Hostel Plus, and it looked like a nice hotel! I went inside to ask about a bed, and found myself walking up steps lines with red carpet, and into a lobby lined with marble floors and walls of clocks denoting the time in different international destinations. I hoped and prayed they would make me an accommodation, and was offered two nights in a 9 bed, mixed gender dorm room with a bathroom inside the room. Amenities were unbelievable, including a bar/club, eatery, pool, and sauna all for the typical price of a youth hostel. I made it to my room, and realized this was a vast establishment; with 5 floors, around 10 rooms per floor, with an average of 8 beds per room, I estimated many hundreds of beds!
The day was young, my accommodations were set, and I left on foot to begin to get familiar with Florence. Although the city was a little bit dirty, the architecture was magnificent, the city was interspersed with ancient cathedrals and other formal buildings, and the narrow streets and alleyways lined by tall buildings and balconies of flowers and clothes drying on clotheslines was very romantic. I was mesmerized every corner I turned, as there would be no more than a few blocks of such streets and alleys without an opening to a plaza or beautiful cathedral which would make for sights unseen outside a city that had such a long history.
My foot trek was relaxing and good exercise, and I was amazed by the Florentines' ability to be dressed in such warm but fashionable clothing, including scarves and jackets, when the weather was warm and humid. It gave me hope that I would eventually get used to what would be hot weather throughout my trip, but for the time being, I was happy to look like a tourist in my shorts and t-shirt!
Walking along, I noticed pizzerias, tabaccherias, trattorias, ristorantes, and cafes everywhere. Little boutiques would be hiding in the most non-descript of buildings, and I was delighted to stumble upon a 99 cent store! I had to go in, and was surprised to see something I had been seeing everywhere in Europe, liquor and beer for sale in any and all conceivable places. The metro stations in Madrid had liquor stands, and the hostels had beer vending machines. Here in Florence, I was looking at cans of Moretti beer at the 99 cent store, and had to try one. I asked the clerk if it was OK to drink it on the street, and he assured me that it was, so I went ahead and enjoyed a beer walking down the street.
Wandering on, I found a little Irish pub and decided to enjoy another beer, and was delighted to discover an American "ex-pat" from California as the bartender. I was glad to find an English speaking local, and we enjoyed each other over a couple of strong beers on tap. He gave me his impressions of living in Florence for 3 years, and recommended a restaurant, and a dish particular to Florence, the venerable Bistecca Fiorentina. This is a steak that is generally sold by weight, and often times is in the 2-3 Lb range, good for two people or one Kamal. I promised myself I would have one, bid my new friend farewell, and continued my walk where I planned to get my first meal in Florence, and go back to the hostel for a nap. I settled upon a pizzeria just a couple blocks from my hostel, and decided to order the "meat of the day" which was pork spareribs with white beans on the side. The meat was tender and wonderfully seasoned, and the resulting sauce of rendered fat and caramelization that dripped off the ribs onto the plate made for great bread dipping. The price was a relief at 7 Euro, and I was very satisfied with this first meal. By the time I got back to the hostel, it was later than expected, and my nap was delayed a bit talking to my roommates, and traded in for an early night's sleep. Although I had hoped and planned for Florence to be a relaxing and recuperating getaway, my bunkmate was a constant snorer, and the mean American girl across the wooden divider wall from him was unrelentless with her banging on the wall, and turning the lights on and off throughout the night to try and curb his snoring. It didn't work, and I think we all hated both of them. My strained sleeping experience was continuing, and I slowly watched the minutes go by, waiting for morning to come.
Italy Day 3 (Trip Day 8)
I "slept in" till fairly late trying to at least give my body a break, and was excited for my plan to rent a bicycle and pedal around Florence, sample the culinary delights, and see more of the magnificent old buildings and cathedrals. The internet was a bit spotty in the rooms, so I wandered to the lobby to hop on email and connect to the outside world a bit. There I met Monica, a sweet and pretty gal of Chinese Vietnamese decent, raised in Australia. She enquired about the country code, as her daily plans were to seek out a rock climbing wall outside of Florence, and generally take a day-long break from her childhood friend whom she was traveling with. After hitting it off swimmingly for about a half hour, we decide to spend the day together discovering Florence. The bikes and rocks would have to wait for the next tourist, and I was happy to be making a new friend on the world stage.
Bistecca Fiorentina. Bistecca Fiorentina. Bistecca Fiorentina. I was foolish enough to relay her this story, and at all of noontime, having yet to have a meal, she mentions that she would love to eat some steak, and that she had been craving some red meat for weeks. My new friend was turning out to be a kindred soul, a bird of the same feather who had a similar predilection toward discovery, gluttony, and excess. We wander looking for the restaurant that my "ex-pat" bartender had recommended, to no avail. We found ourselves admiring a particular shirt in a little boutique, and decide to ask the shopkeeper about a good place to get this steak. We follow his advice to a trattoria just around the corner, and sat down for the awaited meal. The Bistecca on the menu was 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, and we reckoned that it would do the trick for lunch, and would satisfy our craving for a good piece of meat. The resulting plate, that was delivered to us was PRECISELY what the "ex-pat" had described: a Ribeye-like steak bone-on, which was seared on both sides, then stood up on the bone and roasted for more time. Slices were made in the steak making for easy serving, and it was "blue" inside (one step less than rare), just as described. The taste was pure heaven, and we figured that it must have been prepped with some vinegar, as it looked blue but somehow had a texture of a more cooked piece of meat. The Florentines had something going with this steak, and I immediately promised myself under my breath to have another before leaving the country. I was highly impressed to see Monica eat every last bit of her portion, gristle and all, and knew that her Chinese roots mustn’t have been too far away. I picked away at the bone, and we decided it was time to continue our day with a search for her daily dose of gelato, and a mutual craving for espresso.
We had a great time wandering around Florence, eating gelato, drinking espresso, admiring and laughing at the statues of men with uncircumcised penises, and somehow happening upon the 99 cent store again. We shopped through the leather marketplace, an outdoor extravaganza of bags and jackets, and found ourselves on the hunt for a particular leather bag she had seen earlier as a gift for her mother. After sometime, she realized that she was late to meet her travelmate, and we headed back to the hostel with the plan to get together for dinner. She was going to make me eat pasta in Italy for the first time, though I continued to have a hankering for another steak.
After cleaning up, and discovering to my delight that the mean American girl in our hostel room had traveled on to another Italian destination, I met with Monica and her friend, and we wandered around looking for a good Italian meal. We found the restaurant that was originally recommended by the Ex-Pat waiter, and we decided to try it out. I ordered the Carpaccio, which was an interesting variation on what we normally eat in the US, it was slightly dried, and loaded with Arugula and parmesiano-reggiano, and was very enjoyable. I went ahead and ordered a Spaghetti Bolognese, despite seeing a Bistecca Fiorentina for one person...which I regretted! The pasta was nice, but it was just like a dish my mother makes, spaghetti with meat sauce, topped with cheese and baked in the oven. Right about this time, I was lucky enough to get a call from Jen, and I ran outside to catch up with her for a bit. Seemed as though all was well at home, so I rejoined my dinner companions, and we made the plan to return to the Hostel lounge and party a bit. Without any undue details, Monica and I made a good time out of the end of the night, and we bid our farewells.
Italy Day 4 (Trip Day 9)
I spent this morning booking details for my short excursion to the Cinque Terre region on the coast of Italy. This is a small area of 5 villages that is absolutely beautiful and secluded.
The train ride up was another nice cruise, and right before the one train switch, I came to believe that the two young travelers seated near me were going to the same place. I made contact, and it turned out that Tim and Sean were booked at the same hostel as I! Not that there were more than a couple throughout all five villages, but still the coincidence was a bit uncanny. We enjoyed our ride together to the most southerly village called Riomaggiore, and wandered around the "one street" village and found our hostel master. He showed us to our domicile, which was a narrow building with decidedly dangerously narrow and steep stairs to get to a room on the top floor with 5 bunks, a bathroom and mini-kitchen.
The boys and I decided to wander around, and took an hour walk around town where we snapped some photos.
We stumbled upon a cliff-top bar, and drank a few pints of beer and had a lot of laughs. The view was magnificent, the air clean, the sun warm, and the people friendly.
Since they had more time than I, it was time for me to split off, see what I would in the Cinque Terre, and make my way back to Rome to meet up with Liz. I found my way to the train, and went two villages up, Corniglia, about a 5 minute train ride. I got off the train, and took a good walk up a long road into town...this town must have been the smallest of all five; the town center had maybe 5 businesses, and was mostly residential. I stopped for a water and a very nice pannini, made a few phone calls, and went back to the train.
I managed to take a snapshot of a roadside map which showed the extensive hiking trails that join the 5 villages, certainly an attraction for more rugged types of tourists.
After all the walking, and having continued to battle my cold, I could feel the 3 large beers working diligently against my immune system...it was time for a nap.
Nap time made a witness of all my different dorm mates coming in and out, all trying to get me to come out and join the nightlife at the one bar in town...I opted to take care of myself, and once my energy returned, I walked across the street to the nicest restaurant in town where I was determined to have a Pesto pasta, since, after all, we were in the region where pesto originated.
As I perused the menu posted outside of the restaurant, a group of 4 similarly-aged Australians waiting for their table noticed me by my lonesome and insisted I join them for dinner, I accepted without hesitation! Thus began what would become a legacy of meeting up with Australian travelers who redefined the term "hospitable". In short, the night was filled with many laughs and stories, more of the same psuedo-dried carpaccio, and unfortunately a pesto that was so salty it was not worth mention. As I felt my cold pulling back on, I excused myself after dinner, and went to sleep in this very sleepy village.
Italy Day 5 (Trip Day 10)
I awoke feeling renewed, and although I had plans to travel to the largest and most northerly village in the Cinque Terre, I decided to instead to say goodbye to this lovely place on earth, promise myself to come back, and headed on my merry way to Rome to have a couple days to myself there before meeting up with Liz and seeing the sites that have made Rome famous.
Along the way I was able to take pictures of an area that was rich in Marble production. Looking out the train window, you could see the marble quarries cut into the mountain sides in the distance, and the marble refining factories just beyond the tracks.
Liz is a friend from home I invited to join me on my trip for a short bit. The poor girl had just been dumped "at the altar" (actually 3 weeks before her wedding day) after a 5 year relationship with a guy she assumed she would spend the rest of her life with. When she heard my trip would include Morocco, she told me of her long-held dream to visit that country, so I figured it may be nice to have a travel companion for a bit, and to give her a chance to get away from this fresh trauma and miserable circumstance at home. Liz opted to meet me in Rome, where we would see some sites, and then continue on to Madrid, then on to Morocco.
The train ride to Rome to meet her was uneventful. Apparently in Italy, its not often that train tickets get checked, and in the numerous train rides I had taken, mine had never been checked. I guess there is a culture of train riders who simply don't pay for train tickets, and instead opt to pay the 50 Euro fine if and when they get caught. From my experience of the cost of the tickets, and the rarity with which they are checked, it appears that such a system of cheating is more economical. Apparently the same thing happens with taxes in Italy!
Well, on one of the trains getting to Rome, I was checked, and had apparently boarded the wrong train. The destination was correct, but the class of train was nicer then the ticket I had bought. I had wondered why the ticket was only 3 Euro! So, the roving train attendant went ahead and figured the difference in price, and I was out another 12 Euro!
Getting into Rome, I checked into my hostel, and decided to simply wander around and relax before Liz's arrival, instead of try to see any of the sites. I was located in the university neighborhood, the part of any town that I have always liked and felt at home at. I took the time to wander around, and enjoyed the area, ate some food, and appreciated the feel of this student-populated area.
Back at the hostel, it was time to do laundry, and the laundromat was a short bus ride away. I asked around the small hostel if there was anyone who wanted to join me, and two Brazilian gals in my hostel room took me up on the offer. Between the three of us, we had just about no communication skills in common, which made for a great adventure! Brazilian 1 spoke a little Spanish (less than me), and fluent Portuguese. Brazilian 2 was Asian, and spoke fluent Portuguese, Japanese, and just a few words of English. She would at times translate what the other one was trying to say, who was much more talkative despite the language barrier. We used much body language, and overall had a great time! We made our way to the laundromat, which despite claiming to be self-service, did not allow us to do our own laundry. But the upside was that it would only cost the cost of the machines to have our laundry done, and the attendant was a young Brazilian guy who spoke many languages, so we all had an easy time getting by in the laundromat, and he served as a loyal translator for the girls and I.
The three of us decided to wait out the 2 hours of laundry by having an economical meal. We settled in at a trattoria run by an Indian fellow, and the food was decent and cheaply priced. The girls had lasagna, I had a piece of veal that was stuffed with cheese and ham, a Rocket salad (the Italians think we call Arugula "rocket" lol!) and we split a platter of cured meats such as salami, etc.
Italy Day 6, 7, 8, 9 (Trip Days 11, 12, 13, 14)
I awoke and trekked to the Hotel Liz had booked, which was clear across town. From here I decided to take the subway into town and wander around. I saw interesting sites and talked with interesting people along the way. A couple girls I met were from Jordan, they were enjoying their last few hours in Rome. Another man I met perusing a shop of cheap chinese imports led to a heated discussion about Obama vs. McCain. He mentioned that he was one of those wealthy Midwestern business owners who would end up seeing more taxes under Obama, I mentioned having just finished a PhD and couldn't find a job. We decided just to leave it there!
As I continued walking, I passed along a public demonstration/parade, and enjoyed the site over a kebab. In many foreign countries, people show there disdain for problematic social issues through peaceful demonstration. It seems that here in the US, we simply become disillusioned and disengaged, leaving the bigwigs to continue doing what they will. I enjoyed seeing people's efforts at getting their message out.
Finally, I made it to the Termini station where Liz arrived in the late afternoon.
Long story short, our days in Rome were fairly uneventful. Liz was a real pain in the ass; I had known her to be somewhat high maintenance and inclined toward refinery, but I figured given her situation, and the fact we were only friends, that her tendencies wouldn't become an issue. Wrong!
Possibly the most interesting part of Rome was our guided tour through the Coliseum.
Now there, I am not much for anything guided or touristic, but I figured if we were going to see the Coliseum, that there was going to be very interesting history that we would not otherwise get. This bet paid off better than the last, and I was awe-struck at the gruesomeness and barbaric proportions of some of the activities that occurred at the Coliseum.
Apparently, we were told that the movie "Gladiator" is a fairly accurate rendition of that time period, but I have yet to see it and compare to the history I learned during that tour. Some interesting tidbits: the Coliseum was lit up at night by burning the bodies of dead Christians (the Romans were Pagan), that the Gladiators and the crowds were warmed up by sending out blindfolded fighters armored in steel, who were of the lowest class of slave. We also learned that slaves and prisoners were allowed to see the shows for free as a way to provide them with some pleasure in their life in order to keep them from uprising against society.
We spent out our time in Rome, awaiting our Madrid layover and the impending trip to Morocco, by eating, enjoying the sites, and just relaxing.
We went to see a movie, and since the nearest theatre showing American films in English was very far away, we decided to see a dubbed American film. We also though it would be a great way to soak up some Italian culture, since this was how the Italians saw our films (apparently also the reason they hardly speak English). Well, we picked a terrible movie, but the greatest entertainment came from the watching the crowd of young Italians hootin' and hollering to the ridiculous dialogue and scenes in the movie. Although a fairly serious movie, "The Mist" drew lots of laughter from the absolute ridiculousness of the story and monster special effects. Liz and I decided it was better that we couldn't understand the dialogue, and were mostly happy with the experience! I also thoroughly enjoyed trying to buy the tickets; the nice gal at the ticket booth kept on trying to tell us in Italian that the movie was not in English, we understood this, and still wanted to see the movie, but she couldn't believe it! Her and her ticketing comrades laughed and laughed at us!
Tuesday morning came around, we made our way to the airport, and had an uneventful flight into Madrid.