Monday, July 27, 2009

Recap, part 2.

Friday morning of our Italy trip, we got on an 8 AM train and cruised up the coast. Like this, more or less:

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La Spezia is the entry point for the Cinque Terre, which was where we'd be staying for the next two nights. From La Spezia, you take a local train that stops at each of the 5 villages; we stayed in Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, at a Rick Steves-listed place. For the record, I think Steves said the place was basic and overpriced, but I found this out after I booked the room, and the price was fine with me. Look, I'm an internetizen. I like to do business on the web. Any place that doesn't have a website or the ability to book online through some larger site simply isn't going to get my business. I realize this may mean that I miss some hidden gems, and I'm okay with that. Italian websites are uniformly wack, but I still want to see the website of the place I'm staying. All of this is kind of beside the point. Suffice it to say that I booked based on jillions of internet reviews, price, and ease of use. And for Cinque Terre, any place that did have the ability to book directly on the website was probably out of our price range. (Also, if you want names of places we stayed, just send me a message; I don't necessarily want this site to come up in searches for Italian accommodations.)

All that said, I really liked where we stayed. The room was just fine, spacious and clean, opening out onto a private terrace with patio furniture. In the morning, we got a nice breakfast and espresso drinks made to order, and the proprietor was plenty helpful, especially compared to the general non-existent standard of service in Italy. The hotel's location at the top of a punishing hill wouldn't be ideal for everyone (especially if you have a lot of luggage), but we were backpacking it and as I like to say, "we have legs; let's go."

This is descending the hill, and it's only a third of the overall distance.

About the second thing we discovered in Riomaggiore, after we checked into the hotel, was the planned train strike, due to start the next day and end after we were already supposed to be back in England. (Sad trombone.) There was a little bit of rage, confusion, and panic, until we later found out that a train strike just means A) that no one knows what trains will actually be running, or B) that local service is canceled but the bigger lines still operate. Our hotel proprietor was completely unperturbed by news of the strike and he told us he'd drive us to the main station in La Spezia on Sunday and we could get our Pisa train there, no problem. Which was awesome, as our other options (cutting our trip a day short, eating our hotel fee, buying another set of plane tickets, or maybe finagling a one-day car rental) were decidedly less attractive.

The train station.

Part of the attraction of Cinque Terre, for us, was this hiking trail (you can see it above the train station, there) that connects all five villages. There's actually an upper trail that's much longer and connected to a bunch of sanctuaries, and that would have been fun to explore if we'd been there longer/planned a more hardcore hiking trip. As it was, one of the trails we walked (Monterosso to Vernazza) was like the hardest 3 kilometers ever. It took almost two hours, thanks to skinny ledge trails next to dizzying descents, plus like a thousand stairs and other uphill activities. Amazingly, the trail was rife with 1) American teenagers 2) people in bathing suits 3) people in inappropriate footwear who were ill-prepared for the trek and 4) people without water bottles. The Venn diagram of these groups would have a very large intersection.

Sweaty self-portrait over Vernazza.
About 2/3 of the way through the aforementioned trek

Vernazza without my big sweaty face in the way

All this happened after Dom left us, though. On the first day we walked the first three towns together, ate anchovies (a big big deal in Cinque Terre; I nibbled and remain unmoved), ate pesto (invented in Liguria, the region we were in!), ate pizza (of course), and put our feets in the ocean.

Scendere giu.

We avoided the joints with the rental umbrellas.
Rental umbrellas.

Dom took off for Milan on Saturday morning, hauling U.S.A. gifts of Mrs Butterworth and Spanx for his friend Giulia (her request). That's when the Brit and I got serious about our hiking. We'd intended to hop on the train to Corniglia, climb a whole pantload of steps, hike to Vernazza, and eat lunch, but we got on the wrong train and went all the way to Monterosso, where we decided we were hungry for lunch and the Brit ate like 5 pounds of anchovies. We should have chilled for awhile, but instead we started our epic walk back to Vernazza. Fortunately, this decision did not lead to any toilet troubles.

Hiking through olive groves.
Olive groves on the hike

I joked that we should collect some olive branches to take home, for when we need to make peace with someone, but considering we were cruising through people's farms, that would have been a faux pas. You can see in some of the photographs that the hillsides are completely terraced, which just shows how we human beings are very very determined to grow food. Everywhere we went, there were lemon trees and grape vines, zucchini and tomatoes, even in people's negligible yards. In the house next door to our hotel, there were flowering zucchini vines trained overhead, shading whatever was growing underneath. We could see this from the little private terrace outside our room.

On our terrace.

Cinque Terre is definitely worth seeing, even in the high season--unless people make you crazy. There's almost no car traffic; they didn't even have a road to the outside world until the 1950s, and that road is high above the towns. You can walk everywhere even if you're not in very good shape, and as long as you're not staying way up a hill, it's probably fairly accessible to less able-bodied folks as well. Monterosso, in particular, had plenty of flat, paved (not cobbled) walkways. The good thing about tourist destinations is that they're set up to cater to the needs of tourists. The bad thing is that they're crawling with people. But with so much coastline and so many hills and paths, it was easy to wander out and enjoy an amazing view without feeling like an ugly American among ugly Americans.

Sunset from Riomaggiore.

Next up: Pisa, where everything leans.

Friday, July 24, 2009

At last, the recap.

It's weird: I was only out of town and internetless for two weeks, but during that time I really got out of the blogging/reading habit. Well I was reading, of course, but my reading material turned out to be Harry Potter books because there they were, sitting at the Brit's mum's house, and there is something special about reading Harry Potter books in England (unless, I suppose, you're already from there). To sum up: it's been hard to get this post going, and it's been hard to get my vacation photos uploaded, and it's been extra super number one lucky dragon rice bowl with special sauce hard to get back to work.

So about the trip. It wasn't one of those sit back and let everything go trips, nor a relax cozily in the bosom of the family trip, nor a mindless beach trip. It was a super-active look at stuff trip, basically, but I did get a tan despite all my SPF and didn't think about work for two weeks. Overall, a triumph of a holiday.

We had excellent transportation karma on our trip, which was a very important feature given all the running around we were doing. Planes, trains, automobiles, and hikes, and yet we hardly spent any time waiting around or being thwarted by crowds or idiocy. Airport security was a breeze. Even Heathrow wasn't a pain in the ass! I think the worst line we waited in was in the blazing sun outside the Rome airport, where a bus was allegedly departing for the Termini station "in 10 minutes" when we bought our tickets. We finally got on the bus at least 40 minutes later. This was our first taste of Italy and was fairly characteristic of anything there involving process or timetables, though the trains ended up being mostly on time--when they weren't on strike. But all of this makes me sound like a whiner, when really I was happy to go with the flow, figure stuff out, and ask questions when necessary.

People have been asking me what the best part of the Italy trip was--like, what was my favorite thing that I saw or did. Seeing a bunch of stunning and famous remnants of ancient history and spending time with two of my favorite people were kind of no brainers, and highlights that I certainly expected. But I have to say that maybe the very best thing for me was twigging to the fact that international travel is not such a big hairy deal, that I can manage in a country where I understand 90% of the conversations I'm likely to hear but (infuriatingly) can't formulate many useful sentences, and that I really don't mind looking like sort of a dumb ass in situations where I have to ask for help, haltingly, in a foreign language. A dirty secret about me is that being theoretically overwhelmed about some of this stuff may have prevented me from pursuing more international travel when I was younger and less encumbered. And it is one of my few sincere regrets that I never studied abroad during college or before or after or whenever. That was dumb. Not that living abroad is magically off the table now that we're older, but you know what I'm saying.

Anyway, here's a little collection of reminiscences.

Rome. We spent two nights in Rome, near Termini Station. Not the most picturesque neighborhood, but you cannot beat it for convenience. The hotel was very clandestine--you'd never know there was one in the building unless you were looking for it. It was super-quiet, air-conditioned, very roomy for three, and had a street market right outside each morning. And Rome is incredibly walkable, so it was no problem to get around from where we were. We basically just busted out the ubiquitous tourist map whenever we needed to locate ourselves, and then proceeded to the next attraction.

That's right, I'm leading off with the Colosseum, because I think it was the place we walked around the longest. It was very impressive (duh). I had heard all these anecdotes about the cats living all over the Colosseum and was looking forward to seeing them, but we only saw one sleeping scruffy cat in the shade of a Colosseum arch. My impression is that people in Italy love the feral cats. Inside the Palatine Hill, we spotted an old lady sitting on a shady bench with a cat-print bag next to her, and she was feeding a few prowly, bedraggled beasties, something she clearly does on a regular basis. Just chilling under a tree with some strays, you know, like you do on a Thursday. When we were hiking through the hills and trees in Cinque Terre, we actually saw a little, like, cat shrine on the trail, with a sign imploring passersby to leave their scraps of food for the homeless cats. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

More Colosseum.
There used to be up to 70,000 spectators in here. 70,000!

We met up with Dom in Rome. He'd been singing in Tuscany for a month or 6 weeks and finished up his gig and we managed to find him in the train station, despite the fact that his Italian phone number was erroneously connecting us to a very crabby Italian lady who told me, in Italian, to go fuck myself, which was hilarious. There's something so miraculous and also commonplace about meeting up with someone you know on the other side of the globe, right? It was like: look, it's our friendship, but in a different country.

The best ever.
I know I said all that stuff before about really rocking my bogus Italian, but I'm not going to lie, it helps to have someone with you who can speak the language properly. Dom showed us how it was done, so for example I learned to say "sono a posto" (I'm fine, I'm set) if someone is trying to get up in my grill and "help" me buy tickets at the train station (and then expect payment). Dom will also ask anyone for help/directions/recommendations, which was pretty funny when we were outside the Colosseum and he decided to knock on the closed window of a police car, where two cops were specifically not assisting the public and resented having to roll down the window.

I super heart these flowers and they were everywhere.
So anyway, we walked. We walked and walked and walked. And it was HOT--not any hotter than it gets here in the worst of the summer, but crazier somehow, more intense and merciless. (That's why I look like a greaseball in most of our pictures.) But that's what we like to do on vacation: walk around and look at stuff and hopefully eat well. We don't really shop--that's something I do on my own, but not really when I'm with the Brit. I mean, we've never been shopping in London, other than like two stores. This time around was no different, though both of us managed to buy Clarks in Saffron Walden before we flew home. Also, funny British candy (for the kids) and non-exported scotch (for my dad). I also bought an Italian Vogue in the Pisa airport.

Constantine's Arch.
We pretty much lost our minds taking pictures the entire time we were there. I knew this was happening but was powerless to stop it. There was another amazing view through every arch, another piazza around every corner, another cathedral, another fountain, another statue, another patinated old apartment building in some glorious Mediterranean color.

We also, thanks to Dom, connected with another friend from an opera thingie we both did 6 years ago, who's been living in Rome ever since. So I'll also freely admit that it really helped to have someone on our team who's been living in Rome and who knows the proprietor of an amazing restaurant and can also tell you where to get gelato. The restaurant, for your reference, was Ai Bozzi in Trastevere. It was the only truly excellent food we had on the trip, though lots of other places were very good. But it's likely I won't get fresh porcini mushrooms like that again. Really. They were that good. We feasted so hard I didn't take any pictures. The waiters just kept bringing starters: eggplant, zucchini, seafood, unbelievable ricotta, along with a light sparkling house wine that was perfect for the evening, for sitting outside in a piazza under the umbrellas.

(pardon the awesome camera work/video quality)
Besides the accordion band, which was like a parody of what you imagine you'll see on an Italian pedestrian street in the evening, there was a man selling bunches of lavender, which ditto. But it wasn't made up. It was all real. Once the sun starts to go down, everyone is outside. That's a wonderful thing about Italy.

Or they might just be out to maybe see Michelle Obama.
The crowd was for Michelle Obama.

See that little yellow-clad niblet at left, at the base of the column? Well, here's the actual deal. The G8 spouses and families had been foiling our touristic aspirations in Rome (e.g., shutting down the Colosseum), so we knew they were there. And frankly, I don't know what other statuesque African-American women in yellow would be cruising around the Pantheon with a security detail and a massive assembled crowd during the G8 summit. And I do know for a fact that Michelle visited the Pantheon that day. But in the photos I saw, she was dressed in black and was with her kids. So was this a decoy? Did she go twice? WHO CARES. LET ME HAVE MY AWESOME ENCOUNTER. As they say in Italian, "se non e vero, e ben trovato" (if it's not true, it's a good story).

The Pantheon

Spanish steps.
The Spanish Steps

Gelato was an important component of my vacation--less so for the Brit, who is more interested in the savory than the sweet. I felt free to get some whenever. Most of my Italian practice may in fact have been gelato-related. Good news for vegans: the fruit flavors are generally senza latte (no dairy). You have to ask, but every time Dom asked, they said yes.

Giolitti, gelato.
That's Giolitti, where I was instructed by our friends to be aggressive at the seething counter, and ordered two cones with three different flavors each. I was proud.

Piazza Navona.
Piazza Navona

There's more I haven't written yet, about the generally tacky look favored by Romans, about the profusion of harem pants and gladiator sandals and bra straps and what Dom calls "Tracy Gold glasses"; about the cobblestone streets and the intersections guarded by painted saints or inset mythological fountains at each corner; about brusque pizzeria proprietors and endless pizzas (not that I'm complaining); about so many overwrought marble and gold church sanctuaries that you lose track of where you've been and what the significance is; about running into people from Dom's program 3 times in different parts of Rome; about spaghetti cacio e pepe and Italians cooking the hell out of their vegetables; about getting the best night of sleep on our entire trip the first night in Rome, in a hotel room with two big mens. A lot happened and then two days later, we were on a train for La Spezia, hurtling 4 hours north to get to Cinque Terre. That's for the next post, and I promise it won't take me two weeks to get to it.

(Italy pictures, in the meantime, are here, and England pictures are here.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Seriously, now.

I am so close, so very close, to posting a trip recap. I might even have it done tonight. And I am finally done uploading England pictures to flickr, and will shortly start on Italy. I'm overwhelmed by internetular responsibility, but I'll be back soon.