Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Italy

I would like to preface this email with a quote from my trusty lonely planet guidebook: “If you’re hitting the road with others, keep in mind that travel can put relationships to the test like few other experiences.” I will say nothing more on that subject; however it needed to be said.

Day 1 – Thursday, October 27:
Thursday was my normal day of classes, early and late. In between, Meredith and I went to go get our passports back from the Luxembourg Foreign Ministry. We now had Luxembourg residency stickers, which is pretty cool. After English ended at 7, we (John, Daryl, Meredith, and I) headed to the train station and made our way to Luxembourg City and on to Basel. We had planned ahead, and like true MUDECers, we consumed 4 bottles of cheap red wine, trying to make it go faster. We kept ourselves amused playing hearts on the train. (John won on the last game, when I got 16 and dropped from first to third.) When we got to Strasbourg, the train stopped for quite a while, and the French police came wandering through the train looking through all the compartments. They opened our compartment door abruptly, took in the empty wine bottles and card game, laughed at us, and left. They apparently weren’t looking for us, and we were back under way to Basel. On the way we talked to the two French people in our compartment. The young woman told us in broken English that she was French, went to school in Belgium and didn’t like French people very much, which was amusing. Neither of them talked until we were all pretty buzzed, but then they got talkative, which is the wrong way around.
Our destination, Basel, is a boring little city on the border of France, Germany, and Switzerland. Therefore it is quite a railway hub. However, at 0030 it is pretty dead. Our connecting train didn’t leave for a good 6 hours, and so we had the longest six hours of our lives in the Basel Train Station. John managed to sleep most of the time somehow, but the rest of us were quite cold and miserable.

Day 2 – Friday, October 28:
We hopped on our train to Milan about 630, and immediately all fell asleep. When we arrived in Rome, we had a 1.5 hour wait til we got on our train to Rome. We ate and sat around, then boarded our next train. It was smelly and crowded, and also six hours long. That was not pleasant. Little did we know, the worst was yet to come. I finished my first book on this trip, which was a bad sign for me making my two books last the whole trip. We arrived in Rome at 18.30, having left Differdange at 19.30 the day before. That’s right, a 23 hour commute, we one-upped ourselves from the Prague trip.
I navigated to our hostel using the awesomeness that is the excessive amount of decent maps in Lonely Planet. (More on that later.) When we got there I gave them my name and they couldn’t find the reservation, so I gave them the reference number (I was very prepared). They then found it, and the reason it was so hard to find is that it was for the following night. I had managed to book all of our hostels a day later than they should be. Following an Edward Norton-like scene of me beating the crap out of myself, I asked if they had 4 rooms for that night. Of course they didn’t, so we left our bags there, and went to find a hotel/hostel and some food. We found a couple ridiculously expensive places, but ended up at Hotel Select, paying €90 for a double room. The original plan was to cram all four of us in there, but we eventually decided to just eat the price and get two rooms. We then found food, had some good pizza and pasta, got our bags, and crashed.

Day 3 – Saturday, October 29:
We all woke up and took real showers in our nice private bathrooms. (Gotta love staying in a real hotel every once in a while.) We headed out to wander in the general direction of the Colosseum. We wandered by some large structure that happened to be the Baths of Diocletian, and went through that museum after buying some bulk museum/monument pass for Rome. It was pretty cool; there were a ton of sculptures of various old dudes. There was a real nice courtyard with columns and statues that was very serene. After that we headed into the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli. That was quite impressive. I later had a revelation regarding such basilicas; however we will deal with that when I had it. By this time it was lunchtime, so we ate some pizza and pasta, and continued on our way. We wandered through the parts of the Roman Forums that you didn’t have to pay to see, which basically meant staying at street level instead of going down into the excavations. It was merely a shell of its former self, but you still got an idea of the size of it all. They hadn’t uncovered nearly the entire forum complex, yet it still covered quite a lot of ground. This was at one point a gigantic complex of columns, courtyards and buildings dedicated to and built by various roman emperors.
     We finally made it to the Colosseum. It was very impressive, a gigantic structure. Just as gigantic was the line to get inside, which was disheartening. We were then approached by an Italian lady from Tourus Maximus, saying that if we joined a tour for €6, we wouldn’t have to wait in line. We jumped at the opportunity, and it was definitely worth the €6 to not have to wait in that gigantic line. The tour guide started the tour with a short introduction of the Colosseum and gladiatorial combat, and at the end we could take pictures with three big dudes dressed as gladiators for free. This led to some hilarious photos.
We headed inside, and as promised, bypassed the line. Our guide was an Italian guy who spoke very good English and was quite witty. He explained how the Colosseum had collapsed. As it passed out of use and out of the hands of the Roman emperors, it was looted for the iron and bronze used to support the blocks. They dug holes in the rock and pulled out the metal used in the supports. As a result, it became much more fragile, and eventually Rome was hit by a pretty severe earthquake and half of it collapsed. Our guide pointed out a line about a meter and a half high on the columns and walls, and said that due to the pillaging and destruction, at one point it was buried to there in various sorts of rubble. That is until it was rumored that there was treasure buried underneath all that junk, and the Italians dug it all out, and of course, found no treasure. “Typical Italian archaeology,” was his comment. He told us more about how gladiatorial combat had worked and some of the inaccuracies in the movie Gladiator. As he said, he was so disappointed with some of these that he had only watched it 19 times. After the tour was over, we were let loose to wander around the whole structure, which was very impressive, as I may have mentioned. The actual floor which they covered in sand was long gone and you could see down into the rooms below where they kept the animals and other stuff. We eventually left the Colosseum and went to see the Arch of Constantine. That was quite impressive as well, and it was somewhat funny to me that they had built it using pieces of art stolen and pillaged from other areas.
We eventually headed back to our tour group for the tour of Palatine Hill that was included in the €6 that we paid to get into the Colosseum. Palatine Hill is one of the original hills Rome was built on, and became the place where all the emperors built their palaces. There are ruins of all these gigantic structures with arches and columns everywhere that were the extravagant palaces of the emperors. This was cool, and we learned a bit about the specific palaces, but we were pretty toured out by now, and eventually ditched the tour, wandered a bit more and headed off.
We found a restaurant on the merit of the proprietor telling us he had “Good food for you!” The food was actually pretty mediocre, and it took forever for me to get mine. Never trust them guys. We found another place, ordered drinks, and sat around telling stories for quite a while. The wine ended up being the house wine, I guess; the bottle had a label that said “Happy Hour” and looked lik e something a four year old would make. It wasn’t bad, despite all that. The waiter randomly came out and put food on our table without us asking, which was weird. The mini sandwiches were somewhat normal but when he dropped a plate of like two miniature pizzas on the table and said “Pizza!” in the happiest voice ever, we actually laughed, it was so ludicrous. We didn’t get charged for it, however, and all was good. We eventually headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags, and checked in at the hostel we were supposed to be staying at. It was actually pretty nice, and it seemed like all the people there spoke better English than I did. We were, however, in dorm beds in a room of 8 people, which is never all that fun. We settled in and crashed.

Day 4 – Sunday, October 30:
Meredith and I woke up early, intending to take the metro to the Vatican and join the Tourus Maximus tour of the place, since they promised to get us in quickly. They had come through at the Colosseum, so we trusted them to come through again. We found the metro station easy enough, however little did we know we were not in the right one, we were in the B line stop and needed the A line stop. None of this was well marked and what was marked was in Italian, which didn’t help. We got on a train and were going the wrong way and eventually realized we had no chance at getting there on time to make the tour so we went back to the hostel and ate our hotel breakfast. This hostel had a nice deal, where included in the price is breakfast at the bistro next door. They had rolls, stuff to put on the rolls, cereal, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, and fruit. It was pretty good. While we were eating we ran into about a dozen MUDECers who were also staying at our hostel. This would come to be a recurring phenomenon.
     When we were finished eating, we let Daryl be leader dude, and he led us into a shady area, which had some cool churches and such in it. We also saw some gigantic aqueduct type structures, which was pretty cool. We marveled as always at the incredible amount of money the Catholic Church spent building these churches. We eventually wandered back and found some food. We had to get to the Colosseum at a certain time to catch the tour to the Christian catacombs and other points of interest around Rome, so time was an issue. We wanted to hit to hit the Pantheon before that as well, so time was critical. Daryl asked the waiter for a check twice, and yet he never came, and as a result we were running way behind our timetable. Meredith and I decided to play it safe and head to the Colosseum, and Daryl and John went to see the Pantheon. We got there in time, and they showed up, having literally run half the way from the Pantheon, right before it started. We all ponied up €25 and we were off.
     First we went to St. Peter in chains basilica, which was really cool. It housed a set of chains that were supposedly those used to imprison St. Peter. They were in some shrine beneath the surface of the floor of the church. That was rather odd to have objects in a place like that. It looked somewhat like idolatry. The main attraction of the church was the statue of Moses, by Michelangelo. It depicts when he first got to the bottom of the mountain with the Ten Commandments and sees the idols that all the people are worshipping. He is portrayed sitting down, but he is in the act of standing up, as you can tell from how his feet and hands are positioned and his muscles are tensed. He looks like an absolute beast of a man, and also looks ridiculously angry. He has “horns of light” on his head that do actually look like horns. That was kinda weird, but overall he was one of my favorite pieces of art on this entire trip. He just looked so formidable and so angry that one just had to be impressed by the quality of the artwork. Also, something occurred to me in this church. I saw the gift shop inside the church, as there was in every church in Rome and I was instantly reminded of the Bible story when Jesus walks into a temple and there are peddlers and money lenders and changers everywhere, and he goes berserk, destroying the stands and kicking them all out. Anyone see a parallel?
     After this we boarded the bus (hence the trip costing €25) and headed to the outskirts of the city. Out here were the Christian Catacombs. There were four complexes of these, the one we were going to comprised 10 miles of tunnels and had 500.000 dead people in it. This is where the Christians buried their dead, since Rome was too crowded for a graveyard and Christians didn’t cremate their dead. This was not a secret, to be kept from the pagan rulers, but a matter of practicality. The pagan officials knew that it was there and they had no problem with it. Onward. We entered the gift shop, were handed tickets, and found our guide (another reason for the exorbitant price).
We went through the tunnels single file as there was barely room for one, no chance of walking any other way. All along the walls were niches in which people had been buried. The catacombs had been looted extensively, so many of the gravestones were gone and destroyed. The bodies, or more properly, the bones, were removed and given another resting place because people had been stealing bones when on tours. The size of the niches showed how small people were back in those days, as the average height was around 5 feet. The method of construction was really quite ingenious. They had discovered that the volcanic rock in the soil in that area was very easy to dig through, but when it was exposed to air, it hardened to the point that it was like rock. As a result, there was almost no shoring up necessary. One could still see the marks made by the gravediggers so many centuries ago. Air was provided by shafts all the way to the surface. There were actually 3 or 4 levels of tunnels, and we were in the 2nd level from the ground level. As we walked through we were able to look up into the air shafts and see the other levels of the catacombs.
Daryl wanted to break off from the group (forbidden), lay down in a niche (very forbidden), and have me take a picture of him (auch verboten). Although this was tempting, I didn’t want to get lost in the catacombs and I didn’t want to anger any spirits this close to All Saints. I did however, attempt to take a couple clandestine pictures since the reason they gave for the restriction was so that we wouldn’t get lost. I was confident that I wouldn’t get lost, so I took a few, only one of which turned out. (It really doesn’t show what it was like, but that’s life.) I was one of the better clandestine picture takers as my flash only went off in rooms where the guide couldn’t see and my camera is totally silent. Other people had all the sound effects turned on and were taking pictures. We eventually ended the tour back in the chapel they had built under ground, thus ending a pretty cool way to spend the day before Halloween. Outside at a stand in the parking lot I bought a cool Leonardo da Vinci t-shirt for €5.
On the way back we passed a pyramid that the governor in charge of Egypt built as his personal tomb. More on that later. We also passed the Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) which is actually the biggest, most striking complex in Ancient Rome, although there is no longer almost anything left of it. This is where they had chariot races with as many as 40 chariots at once. It was once a massive complex that seated 150.000 Romans, but now all that is really left is a dip in the ground, and some ruins on the higher ground that were not part of the meat of the complex. Also on the way back to the city center, the guide mentioned that the entire city sits 20 feet higher than it used to. That’s a lot of Roman rubble. When we got off the bus we found some food, had some more pasta and pizza and hit the sack, exhausted.

Day 5 – Monday, October 31 - Halloween:
Daryl and John awoke early and went for a long run, up and down the Spanish Steps and all over Rome. I slept. We all then had breakfast, which was good once again. We decided to go to the Muzeo Nazionale Romano, which turned out to be closed, as is seemingly everything on Mondays. The Vatican isn’t, however, so we hopped a bus to get there, and sat on that for a while. John had my newspaper and was somewhat comfortable and didn’t notice when Meredith, Daryl and I got off the bus. This led to a moment of panic, but thanks to the wonder of cell phones, we quickly found each other and headed to St. Peters.
St. Peter’s square is quite impressive. The massive number of columns as well as the massive numbers of statues of saints was somewhat overwhelming. One might even get the idea that Catholicism is a polytheistic religion from all the saints. The line was quite long just to get into the basilica, however, nobody seemed to mind when we wandered to the front and jumped in. John at this point realized that he had shorts on and wouldn’t be able to get in, so he went to find pants. We had to go through security, so to simplify things I threw my cell phone, camera and keys into Meredith’s purse. When we were through I grabbed my camera and we all headed different directions. (This will come into play later.) John had found pants at this point and headed in as well. St. Peter’s was ridiculous. I found myself wondering what incredible fortune had to be spent to build a place like this. I also admired the ceiling made from the bronze from the roof of the Pantheon. Catholicism takes precedence over paganism in Rome. There was so much artwork, including Michelangelo’s Pietà.
After wandering through every cranny of the basilica itself I decided to see how the lines for Pont Max Johannes Paulus II’s tomb and the cupola were. The cupola line still sucked, but the JPII line looked almost nonexistent, and I had 20 minutes until I had to meet back up with Daryl and Meredith. I headed into the tomb. By the time I was past the point of no return I realized that the part of the line I could see was not all of it, and it was in fact quite long. Once I finally got into the actual catacombs, I had already had to wait, but it moved somewhat fast. Once into the catacombs (not as cool as the ones outside the city) it absolutely stopped. I was stuck in a catacomb jammed in with people, and not moving. That sucked. My mild claustrophobia kicked in, and I half shoved my way forward, jamming myself into every open space. It still took forever, and by the time I was at the tomb of JPII, I was already 15 minutes late for my rendezvous. I took a couple pictures and raced out to the front of St Peter’s. They were nowhere to be found. I looked for 5 minutes or so and gave up. Why didn’t I text message them, you ask? Well that’s a very good question. My cell phone was still in Meredith’s purse. I’m an idiot. Anyway I decided to check the line for the Museums, which is also how you get to the Sistine Chapel. It was easily a kilometer long, maybe two. I said that’s not happening, and I headed to the metro stop to get home.
I made it home without any trouble, and hit the internet at the hostel to try to finish ironing out some hostel issues (I failed) and also check my mail. I learned that Amy Unander would be coming to Luxembourg this weekend. Of course, I would still be in Italy. Damn. I then hit the road to see the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps. On the way there I saw the remains of some random temple, just the pillars and one wall were left, right in the middle of the city. It was pretty cool but had been looted for metal like the Colosseum. I found the Pantheon (once a pagan temple, looted by the Catholic Church then turned into a Catholic Church). It is the best preserved Roman building in Rome. Its dome is considered one of the great achievements of men in the ancient times. The dome used to be covered in bronze that now adorns the ceiling of St. Peter’s in the Vatican and also provided the metal for some 80 canons. It was quite an impressive building.
I headed home again, to see if anyone had come back or at least left my cell phone in the room. Neither had happened. I sat down to update my little paper of what I did as well as empty out all the crap I had accumulated in my wallet. As I was doing this John and Meredith came back and said that Guy, my host dad, was in Rome, as we knew he would be, and that he wanted to meet us for dinner. Unfortunately, now Daryl had my phone and he was over where Guy was, so I still had no phone. We headed out to find the Piazza Navona, and when I found it on the map, I was rather annoyed, since it was right near the Pantheon, where I just was. There is no good way to get to that part of Rome either-no metro and the streets make no sense. We took the metro as close as we could get (not that close) and walked over. We eventually got there and texted Guy, who found us, and a happy reunion was had by all. Seeing as only Daryl had eaten lunch, we were eager to find food. We all sat down and ordered. Daryl, John, and I had various sorts of pizza, which were all good, and Guy and Meredith had pasta pesto. We were all voraciously hungry, so Meredith and I ordered Tiramisu, and John got himself pasta pesto as well. It was all quite spectacular. As John said afterwards, “That was a good meals.” Guy told us what he had done so far in Rome and what we should do, and I took notes. We all sat around and talked for a while, and watched as a young street performer violin player got mock yelled at by our waiter. Guy picked up the rather substantial check, despite our best efforts not to let him.
We headed over to the Pantheon and then the Trevi fountain to see them at night. While there I bought a statuette of Caesar, having talked the vendor down to about half the asking price. We hung around the fountain, tossed coins in backwards over our shoulders to assure our return to Rome, and had a grand old time. Eventually we bid Guy goodbye and headed our separate ways, which was hostel and sleep in our case.


Interlude – Random Italy Thoughts:


  • The word Birreria is hilarious.

  • Italy has awesome coins. The €2 coin has a depiction of Dante on it, which looks really cool. The €1 coin has the proportional man of da Vinci on it. The others aren’t as cool, but the €0.05 coin has the Colosseum, which is cool as well.

  • All stereotypes about Italians and pasta and pizza are true. These two were the centerpiece of every menu in Rome and Florence.

  • Italians like wine; they buy it by the jug, which is basically a keg of wine. This leads to restaurants having the house wine on tap. You could order it by the liter, and we did.

  • We ate well.

  • There were lots of beggars on the street in all the cities we went to, all in a position of worship like in India.

  • One who wasn’t in a position of worship, but walking around, a young kid, said “F*** you” when I refused to give him my Sprite. His clothes looked newer than mine; I had a hard time believing he was a beggar.

  • People on the street wandered around trying to sell roses to you, and also came up to you as you ate outside trying to sell flowers and other trinkets. Two different times John got very annoyed and told them to “Go away.” One of them understood this and was not happy, but didn’t do anything about it. John would not survive India.

  • If I never see one more “Madonna and Child,” “Annunciation,” or “Adoration of the Magi” it will be too soon. Come on guys, be original.

  • One can survive on nothing but pizza and pasta for 10 days. We all did it.

  • Cover charges and mandatory tips piss me off. When they add over €10 to a meal for four, I get annoyed.

  • We ate well.

  • Japanese tourists make me want to kill Japanese tourists. Groups no smaller than 20, all jabbering away loudly in a moon language, and making it impossible to see anything. And this was the off-season for tourism.

  • Leather jackets are awesome—more on this later.

  • Italian police are never seen in groups of less than 3. Many times they are in groups of 10 or more.

  • Italy is the only country that sells real sausage pizza. And it is good.

  • The word “prego” is listed as meaning “that’s fine” and “you’re welcome”. It most definitely means just about anything: A typical conversation with a waiter went like this:

  • -Prego!

  • -I’ll have pizza margherita and a sprite.

  • -Prego!

  • -I’ll have spaghetti pomodora.

  • -Prego!

  • -I’ll have spaghetti Carbonara, and a half liter of the house wine with 4 glasses.

  • -Prego!

  • -(Daryl) I’ll have that. *Points*

  • -Prego, Pizza [something Italian], prego!

  • -Grazie.

  • -Prego!

  • -*food arrives*

  • -(Waiter, as he places each plate in front of each person.) Prego! Prego! Prego! Prego!

Day 6 – Tuesday, November 1:
     We woke up and all exclaimed something along the lines of “Oh damn, this is our last day in Rome!” We packed, ate breakfast, left our bags in the hostel and all went different ways. First we hit the train station to see how to get to Florence. It turned out that we had to get reservations, which was inevitable. We eventually got reservations for €3 a piece on a slowish train. We then split up. Daryl and John went somewhere, Meredith went to the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps, and I headed down south of the city off the map. I wanted to see St. Paul’s Basilica. It wasn’t on my maps, but it had its own metro stop. Once I got there, I bought a better map, since I would be spending a good part of my day off the map I had, and headed to the basilica. It was quite impressive. Absolutely huge. There were a whole bunch of columns inside and just gigantic open areas in the long part, facing the main alter. Outside was a courtyard area with a gigantic statue of St Paul in the middle and surrounded by more columns. There was a golden façade with paintings on it facing the courtyard as well. Next to it was a bell tower that played songs on the hour. I walked all through this; texted my traveling buddies to tell them to see it if possible, and headed back to the metro.
I had bought a metro day pass, so I just took the metro to the next stop, which was Piramide. This is at St. Paul’s gate in the old roman walls, and also where the Pyramid tomb had been built into the wall. It was obviously not as big as the Egyptian pyramids, but it was striking nonetheless. It was either intimidating or comical to see it built into the wall, but whatever it was, it was effective. That part of the wall wasn’t going to be breached. I put my camera on my guidebook, put on a ten second timer, and took a picture of myself in front of the pyramid. As I was posing intrepidly, an Italian woman walked by, looked at me, and gave herself a bemused chuckle. I looked at my map, and realized I was right next to a park, so I headed over there and grabbed a milkshake that was more milk than shake, but very chocolately and good. I downed it as I wandered through the park, which was full of working Italians having picnics on their lunch breaks. The park was dedicated to those who fell during the resistance of Mussolini in the middle of the Second World War.
I then headed back to the metro stop and went to the Circo Massimo stop to see that close up as well as to go to the top of Colle Avantino, one of the other hills that Rome is built on. Guy told me that from the top you get a great view of the city. He was right, when I got there, I could see all the way to St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which is quite a ways away. I took pictures from there and at the Circo Massimo, but then it started raining, and I headed back to the hostel to grab my GoreTex jacket. I got on the internet to make sure our hostel in Florence didn’t give away our room since I told them originally that we would be there at around 11.00, and it was already noon. When I emerged with my jacket, Meredith’s umbrella, and peace of mind, I ran into the Anna crew. This is Anna, Michelle, Hanna, and Jackie. They are all nice and they are all very attractive. They had just gotten to Rome, so I got to play the grizzled veteran and tell them what to do and not to do. I then ran to the metro stop because I was supposed to meet Meredith for lunch like 5 minutes ago. We found somewhere to eat, got screwed royally by cover charges, and left. We headed back toward Circo Massimo, and found the church with the Boca de Veritas, mouth of truth. Legend has it if you stick your hand in and tell a lie, it will chomp your hand off. There were like a hundred Japanese tourists in line, so we didn’t get to put our hands in, but we saw it and took pictures.
We then headed to the Muzeo Nazionale Romano. This was really cool. One of the highlights was rooms of the frescoes and stuff that wealthy Romans had decorating their houses. Also cool was a mummy, unwrapped, of an eight year old child. That was pretty creepy. The coolest part was the basement vault accessible through doors comparable to those on an average bank vault. Inside was a collection of coins from the history of Rome. There was so much gold in that room that you could understand the vault doors. It had everything from the earliest chunks of metal to the euro.
We ran into Daryl and John and we were all pretty dead and hungry so we hit up the hostel to grab our bags, and hit a restaurant. I had an omelette that I finished in about 3 minutes. While we were eating, a fight broke out between two patrons. They beat each other nicely before the entire restaurant staff pulled them apart. One of them left, but the other one was sitting in the restaurant when the police arrived. There were at least 5 cops there, and they ended up taking him away. One of the cops knocked over all the advertising and menus outside the restaurant, thereby causing more disruption than the fight. At this point, we had about 15 minutes to catch our train. This was easily enough time, however Meredith was almost running, and getting angry that we were not running. We took our time, not walking slowly, but not running either. We made it to the train in plenty of time, though Meredith was still annoyed with us. It didn’t help matters when it became evident that the lady who booked our reservations only booked 3 reservations and though Meredith had a ticket, she did not have a seat. She sat in the aisle, sulking, despite there being an open seat she could have taken. I proceeded to lose horribly in Gin to John. I think the score was 200-31.
We made it to Florence after an uneventful and smelly trip. I pulled out Lonely Planet, and used the map to guide us to the street our hostel was on. On the way we passed Il Duomo and our jaws dropped at the sheer size of this monstrous cathedral. We found the street and walked from one end to the other without finding the hostel. We went back down the street and found the right house number, and the only thing telling us it was our hostel was the name on the buzzer. We buzzed in and found that we had a private room, which was pretty nice. We had to share a bathroom with the entire floor, which sucked, but I think we were paying something like $18 a night, so it wasn’t so bad. We quickly crashed.
Day 7 – Wednesday, November 2:
I awoke covered in mosquito bites. Never again do we leave the window open all night. Daryl and John hit an ATM so we could actually pay for our room. We first hit the Palazzo Vecchio. In what would become a recurring theme, John, Daryl, and I went in and Meredith wandered because she didn’t want to pay to get in. This was quite an elaborate building, many crazy elaborate rooms. My favorite was the map room. It had 53 maps of various parts of the world, and in the center was a gigantic globe, easily 1.5-2 meters in diameter. The display said that they still had no idea how it was made. The maps covered cabinets in which the precious objects of the palace were kept. Also cool was the statue of Judith and Olfernes, as Judith cuts off the head of Olfernes. After this we were ready to go take a nap and watch Gladiator, however that was not an option.
     We wandered through the Piazza Vecchio, looked at the copy of Michelangelo’s David that stands where the original stood until it was moved to the Gallery of the Academy. Also there was Perseus, holding the head of someone, and Hercules clubbing a minotaur. The famous Rape of the Sabine Women was there as well. After we wandered, we got food and ice cream, and it was good. (Side note: Italy—good at ice cream.) Then we wandered into the area outside the Uffizi Galleries and posed with the statues of famous Italians. I merely posed with Machiavelli, Dante, and Galileo, but Daryl and John posed with at least half of the statues. While this was happening there was a guy playing an acoustic guitar really well. He was playing some folksy classical stuff. I was very impressed and bought his CD for €15. I am now the proud owner of Los Colores De La Guitarra by Piotr Tomaszewski. I am listening to it as I write this.
We then went inside Il Duomo, which was cool, but the outside was definitely more impressive. There was a clock on the inside above the main door that was really cool and the inside was quite extensive. At this point, however, churches were beginning to fail to amaze me, no matter how…amazing…they were. I then climbed the 463 steps to the cupola above the dome. The worst part for me was when we had to go in the balcony in the dome above the floor of the church. I was terrified, and made my way to the other side to continue up as quickly as possible. A person with serious claustrophobia would not be able to make this climb. The stairways were very narrow, and there was no way out. When I finally got to the top, I was drenched in sweat from the combination of stairs and heights. It was worth it for the view. You could see all of Florence, and it was quite beautiful. I took lots of pictures as it slowly got more and more crowded. Eventually John, Daryl and Meredith came up as I was about to go down. I got Meredith to take a couple pictures of me, but my arm shots turned out better anyway. I headed down and got ice cream that was very good. We then tried to go to a museum nearby, but they wanted too much money from us, and we decided to go back to the hotel and have a nap.
At the conclusion of our nap, it was dinner time. We tried to meet up with a bunch of MUDECers that were also in Florence at the time, but that failed and we wandered through Piazza Pitti and the surrounding area for some time before giving up and sitting down at a restaurant. Here I had something other than pizza or pasta for the first time on this trip. The menu said it was chicken breast with ham and cheese. It came, and there was like this tiny slice of chicken on the plate with one thin slice of ham and cheese on top. Everyone else’s meal had similarly small proportions. We were rather disappointed by this dinner. We considered going to find another restaurant and have another dinner, but we decided to just go home and sleep. (Our wallets thanked us.) We were all lying in bed, when we realized the light was still on. Daryl started grabbing anything near him and throwing it at the light switch. He got it with his Florence guidebook on the second try and we all went to sleep.

Day 8 – Thursday, November 3:
     We woke up relatively early and I badly needed a shower. I took my time, I wasn’t paying for the water. When I got out, Daryl was gone. We headed to Uffizi, and saw all that stuff. The approximately 138943798 Madonna and Childs, Annunciations, and Adorations of the Magi were not all that interesting. My favorite piece in the entire museum, one of the most important galleries in the world, was a little known piece that consisted of a sculpture of a man sharpening a knife with a whetstone. It was just so different and so much more relevant, that I loved it. Also cool were some small paintings of Hercules clubbing things and people. We saw Birth of Venus and Venus of Urbina, I must say, good ole Venus/Aphrodite was a babe. The Dutch painters were probably the most interesting. There were also a ton of sculptures in the hallways. I didn’t know much about them but some were quite impressive. When we were done in there, we headed for the exit, only to realize that there was more. This must be the gruesome section as it had paintings with a lot of graphic violence--Judith cutting off the head of Olfernes and the like. When we were finally out of there, we headed over to Santa Croce.
     Santa Croce is another basilica with a green, red, and white marble façade, just like Il Duomo, except not as big. Inside were the tombs or monuments to famous figures like Galileo, Dante, and Machiavelli. It also had the tomb or at least a gigantic monument to Michelangelo. At this point it was just Meredith and I, and we were hungry. We headed back to the hostel, where we found Daryl, and we went to get food.
     After food the three of us wandered up to the top of Michelangelo Hill. At the top was yet another copy of David, this time done in copper. The view from up there was fantastic and the weather that day was great as well. We sat and stared out at the fantastic city and landscape in front of us for quite a while. There were some vendors selling tourist crap, but it wasn’t that crowded with tourists. There were cows, however. Not real cows, but art cows, like the cows on parade in Chicago a few years back. One of them was “Anatacow” which was like a cow with no skin, so you could see muscle and bone. I took a picture of Daryl taking a bite out of his leg. When we were done here, we decided to go to the neighboring hill, on which there was a fortress. We walked down to the bottom of the hill we were on, and climbed up the other one. When we got to the top, we realized the fort was closed for renovations. We saw a sign for a church, and walked that way, but it was also closed and very small anyway.
At this point we were very very tired. We kept walking and eventually got to the other side of the hill, and started down Machiavelli Street to the bottom. On the way down we hit an idyllic little park with a fountain and some very strange but beautiful trees. While we were on the hill we got a message from John asking if someone could let him into the hostel cuz he needed to use the bathroom. We were nowhere near the hostel and told him, assuming he would find somewhere else to go. When we got to the bottom, we made it back to Piazza Pitti. We found an internet café, and bought an hour of time for the three of us. We all checked our email and bank accounts. We left, crying silently. We finally got back to the hostel and told John we were there. He showed up 10 minutes later, still needing to use the bathroom. He was also very obviously somewhat drunk. He had apparently had a bottle of wine with lunch and another half liter with his first dinner. He refused to pay to use one so he had been holding it for hours. We laughed at him, let him in, and then we all went to find food. We ate a lot, and went back to the hostel satisfied.
When we got back, we ran into Justin, Jessica, and Zoe, and invited them back to our room for cards. We had acquired some vodka that day, and they had some wine they got for free, so drinks were had. I actually abstained, not being able to stand vodka at this point. Daryl drank a lot of the bottle straight from the bottle. We played some cards, and then Jessica challenged John to a contest of stories. They each told their stories; Jessica’s involved an interesting way to knock out the power of an entire row of apartments, John’s involved a party, a gun, a robbery, beating the crap out of the robber, telling the police a ridiculous story about the party, and a happy ending. John also told it better. He won handily. The bet was that the loser took their shirt off, and she took hers off for like 5 seconds and put it back on, which pissed off John. We went to bed.

Day 9 – Friday, November 4:
     We woke up very late. Daryl was hung-over as hell, and didn’t get out of bed. We didn’t have much more that we wanted to do in Florence, we were all done with travel, and we needed to relax. Eventually, John, Meredith, and I headed to the supermarket to get brunch. We had quite a feast: Frosties, strawberries, raspberries, bread, cheese, olives (for John), apples, juice, and milk. We ate heartily, read the International Herald Tribune cover to cover, and eventually headed back to the hostel. We decided to split up and do stuff. John wanted a nap, and Daryl, Meredith, and I wanted to wander. Daryl and I first hit some shops nearby where I finally caved. There was a very nice leather jacket on a rack for €150. As I tried it on, I was talking to the lady, and she said if I paid cash, I could get it for €130. I was hooked, so I dug into my wallet and found I had all of €120 in cash on me, so I turned to Daryl, and he only had €4.50 on him. So we looked at the saleslady and asked, how about €124.50? She said, ok, as long as we give them good press. I forked over the money, she cut the tag off, and I headed out in my new jacket. When I looked at the tag, I noticed that the original price was €460; I think I got a good deal.
     Daryl and I wandered off. The first thing we hit was Il Duomo again. We sat and stared at it, discussing how big it was, how much it must have cost, and other such things. When we were done marveling, we wandered off. We wandered until we hit Piazza Santissimo Annunziata. This was a nice Piazza with columned façades on three sides. The church SS Annunziata was cool as well, although I was no longer wowed by anything short of incredible at this point. We sat there and read about it for a while, then headed onward. We eventually got to San Marco Piazza, which I don’t really remember, so nothing interesting must have been there. Oh yeah, it was just a run of the mill plaza, lots of cars and buses, and the Church of St Mark, which was already closed. We left quickly. We headed up the road to the Piazza Liberta. This was a big green plaza with a fountain and a triumphal arch. This was a nice place, except that it was surrounded by a lot of traffic on all sides. After failing to decipher the Latin or Italian on the arch, and watching the fountain for a while, we headed onward. We eventually got to the Fortezza de Basso, which was a gigantic fortress that was now a convention center or something. In front of it was a nice park with a fountain disguised as a rock that shoots out water. Daryl and I lay down in the grass and just relaxed for a while.
     We started to head back, and on the way we hit the train station, since we wanted to make sure we would be allowed on the train to Venice the next morning. It turns out we wouldn’t have been, we needed reservations that were €12 per person. That sucked, but that’s the price you pay for taking EuroStar trains, they’re really nice. On the way back, Daryl bought a…magazine, as a gift continuing the tradition of the playing cards that he bought for him in Amsterdam. When we got back, we realized we didn’t have our keys, we left them on the dresser in the room. We thought Meredith had the other set, but apparently John had it, so we buzzed the hostel and they let us in. We waited for John to get back, then we went for food. We went to a nice looking restaurant, got nice looking food from a very nice looking waitress, and were very happy with ourselves. On the way back, we got some ice cream. (I got Tiramisu, it was REALLY good. Once again, Italians-good at ice cream.) We got home, played some cards, and went to sleep.

Day 10 – Saturday, November 5:
We awoke, threw our keys on the front desk, and headed to the train station. We had an uneventful 3 hour train ride to Venezia, arriving around 1130. We threw our bags in the baggage check area, and headed off. We wandered for a while; found the Frari church, which housed Titian’s tomb and a famous piece by him. That was cool, and then we found cheap food. It was basically a Sbarro’s, but Italian, and it was very good, I got a slice of pizza and a calzone for about 3.50. I ate those, and needed water badly. I found something to drink, and we wandered some more. We eventually found a place that had Gondola rides. The guy wanted €100, but we haggled and haggled, and eventually he settled for €60, or €20 a piece, since Meredith didn’t want to go on one. It was very relaxing, I wish it had been longer. We saw the house where Marco Polo was born, houses where Vivaldi and Mozart lived, and also the tower of San Marco Basilica. We had to do it, I mean, going to Venice without a gondola ride would be like going to Rome and not seeing the Sistine Chapel or going to Florence and not seeing David. Um. &%@#. Well, let’s move on.
     We then headed to San Marco Basilica. When we got there, we saw more pigeons than I have ever seen in my life. They were carpeting the ground. They had stands selling seed to feed the pigeons. Daryl bought some, and as soon as he opened the package, he was attached and covered in pigeons. We played with pigeons for a long time, at one point prompting John to say, with a pigeon perched on his shoulder, “I begin to see the appeal of a parrot.” We wandered through the square, which was spectacular, with columns on three sides, and the Byzantinesque cathedral on the third. You could almost believe you were in Constantinople/Istanbul for a second. Daryl and John went up in the tower, though I passed on the opportunity since it was €6. We then headed over to see if we could figure out what this white thing on the other side of the island was. It looked to us like a gigantic KKK mask. When we got there, we saw that it was probably some sort of modern art, but it still really looked like a gigantic KKK mask. We then wandered through a park and along the shoreline. It was nice, and we started to get bored with Venice.
After killing some more time, we decided to try to find a restaurant that we had walked by earlier. It had had the Rocky soundtrack playing, and due to Daryl’s obsession, he had to go there. We spent at least an hour looking for it. (As an aside, Venice’s streets make no freakin’ sense at all. None. Not helping matters was the fact that the maps in Lonely Planet had absolutely no street names. They had some canal names, but that only helped if you were near a canal. Basically, if we had a boat, the map may have helped, but as is, it was close to useless.) We eventually found the restaurant, looked at the prices, found that they weren’t too bad, and sat down. When we got our menus, we saw that there was a cover charge and 12% service charge. We ate there anyway, since we already sat down. After dinner, we wandered for a long time. We eventually sat in front of some church for a long time. It was starting to drizzle a bit, so we just sat under the overhang of the church and talked for a while. Eventually we headed back to San Marco which looked cool at night, and it started to absolutely pour. I was of course wearing a brand new leather jacket, which I did not want to get soaked. I bought an umbrella off a street guy for €5, and I was fine. We then trekked off for the train station. We gave ourselves close to two hours to get there. We ended up using an hour and a half in the pouring rain. By the time we actually found the train station I was ready to take a bulldozer to the city and bulldoze straight streets that cut right through the city and fill all the canals. That was exasperating. We got on our train, which had couchettes, and changed into dryish clothes. We layed out and fell asleep. We left around 23.00, and were due to arrive in Brig, Switzerland around 6.15. It seemed like 15 minutes. Sleeper cars are quite amazing.

Day 11 – Sunday, November 6:
When we got to Brig, we caught a quick train to Basel, and slept some more. When we got to Basel, we were informed that the quickest way available to get home was to wait for 4 hours and take a direct train. Four more hours in the train station at Basel. I hate that place. At least stuff was open this time. We had food, and sat around til we caught our train. The rest of the ride was uneventful. When we got home we realized Guy wouldn’t be home from Italy until late the next day, and as a result, there was nothing for us to eat. We got eggs from the farm next door, and made those for dinner. It was good. The end.

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