Jul 25, 2009

Lost Diaries 4

Thursday, June 9, 2005

We are now riding the Eurail through the Alps, so when we are not inside a tunnel going through a mountain, we have a spectacular view of the French/Italian countryside. You can see up into the clouds to the snowy summits and down into the valleys to quaint villages with lush, green farmland. We have skirted mountain lakes that were a beautiful shade of green, and crossed several river/streams with white rapids. When we made the last stop on the French side of the border, there was a massive castle on top of one of the mountains. It was absolutely beautiful and I’m sure very strategically placed for defense when it was built. We just got back from the dining car where we enjoyed the Pizza Special – a soft (thank goodness) slice and a Pepsi for five euros. This was a great deal, since they wanted 2.10 euros for a bottle of water. It’s just like Six Flags, you’re trapped and they really take advantage of it. We were accompanied to the dining car by some LSU friends who are on the train – Clarence, and two girls whose names I cannot spell or pronounce. While in the dining car, we met some American students who attend the College of Charleston in South Carolina, as well as a guy from Michigan. As we were chatting it up and enjoying our own little piece of America there in the dining car, a very drunk man (Italian, I think) stumbled in. He proceeded to ask the guys questions like, “What country is this?” and “What time is it?” He then began to strip from the waist up, shedding several layers before arriving at his gloriously pasty and putrid bare beer belly. At this point, Damon, Clarence, and I saw fit to go back to our first class seats, far away from smelly, drunk, naked Italians. More as it happens. Always an adventure.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Good morning, Italy! We stayed overnight in Milan at the Terminal Hotel, which, per its name, is near the train terminal. I booked it on Expedia, got a decent rate in good old US dollars, and surprisingly, it was delightful. The room was the most spacious we have had here, the place was impeccably clean, and the shower was functional and on the wall at a normal height, which is rare here. The only drawback was that the bed, which at first appeared to be one lovely, real mattress with no crack, was actually composed of two foam pads with a well concealed crack down the middle. After checking in, we met up with the train friends to grab a bite to eat. We ended up at a wonderful little Italian pizzeria, where we ordered pepperoni pizza. When the pizza came out, there was not a pepperoni in site, but there were red and yellow things on the pizza. We were very puzzled, and the friends were a little irate, until I figured out that the pizza was topped with peppers. When we said “pepperoni,” the Italian waitress thought we meant “peppers,” so she brought us a pepper pizza. It was actually quite good; I picked the peppers off, of course. The train station, which was pretty much all we saw of Milan, was magnificent. It was a huge arching building with Roman sculptures all around and huge lion fountains squirting water from their mouths. Our train left at 6:05 this morning, so Damon is trying to catch some elusive z’s on the train right now. We both had a rough night – I think we were just nervous about oversleeping and missing the train. I woke up a million times. We will be in Venice for 9 a.m., and I have a list of sites and activities for us to complete before our train leaves tonight for Rome. High on my list is eating some gelato, which is apparently Italian ice cream and is supposed to be the best anywhere. I’ll let you know.

Side note: Italy appears to have the same graffiti problem that France has. Oh, and the hotel had AIR CONDITIONING!

We passed through fair Verona, where Shakespeare laid his scene for Romeo and Juliet, and it was fair, indeed, surrounded by beautiful mountains. Now it is the end of day two in Italy and I have already eaten pizza four times. After hopping off the train this morning in Venice, we checked our bags at the train station and went in search of a map. We could not find the one recommended by Rick Steves, so we settled for a cheaper, similar version. We hopped the wrong water bus, rode one stop, and had to get off and go the other way. Got a great view of the Grand Canal from the water bus, and even saw an ambulance boat (thought of you, Lacie) and a firefighter boat. We rode until the St. Mark’s square stop, then got off to tour the basilica that houses the body of the Apostle Mark as well as some amazing mosaics. We ended up paying for two tours of things we were not interested in, because things were not well marked and we thought each time we were paying to enter the treasury. Third try’s a charm, or third strike and you’re out, but this time we were charmed and 15 euros later we made it to the treasury and the original copper horses that topped the basilica. They are originally from Constantinople, but have been all over the world as the spoils of war. Napoleon had them brought to Paris, and I am not sure where else they have been, but they were massive and pretty cool. Next we set out in search of Harry’s Bar, which is an establishment that Hemingway used to patronize, so Damon wanted to go in and have a snack, but when we saw that a coke cost 7 euros (about $10), we got up and left. We also went into a Louis Vuitton store and a Prada store and discovered the stuff is actually cheaper in the US, if you can believe that. Next, we rode the elevator to the top of the Campanile, or bell tower, for a bird’s eye view of Venice. Speaking of birds, I lived in fear all day because of the prolific flock of pigeons in Venice. It was literally just like that movie The Birds. They were everywhere, and so fat they could hardly move. At St. Mark’s square, people were buying food and feeding them, and the folks would literally be swarmed by pigeons. Pigeons in their hair, on their shoulders – anywhere they could perch. It was disgusting to me. I personally wanted to kick a pigeon in retaliation for the Paris incident, but Damon would not let me. He was afraid PETA people would descend upon me if I did. My fear of those crazies outweighed my disdain for the pigeons, so they were saved for today. After the Campanile, we hopped the boat back to Frari church, but before we could go inside, guess what? Of course, Damon had to eat, so we stopped off at a sidewalk cafĂ© and he had real Italian lasagna, which he loved but I thought was gross, and I had pizza #4. In Italy they give you big water, so I was overjoyed by that also. After the meal we hit the church, and saw the 3 biggies there: Donatello’s John the Baptist, as well as someone else’s Assumption (not of Jesus, of Mary, who incidentally was not assumed in the Bible) and Madonna with the Saints (which raised another question of believability for me in how could Mary and baby Jesus be in the same painting with the disciples and some pope?) Leaving the church and my questions behind, we were determined to do the Venice thing and ride a gondola, but all of them wanted 80 euros for 50 minutes, so we finally found a couple from South Africa who would split the trip with us and we were fortunate enough to see the classic tour for half price. It was so fun, and really showed you a different perspective on Venice than the one you can get on foot or in the water bus. We saw Marco Polo’s house, as well as Casanova’s. The down side to the gondola ride was that the gondolier made both men sit on the same side of the boat, and we were all terrified that we would flip the entire time. I took a few pics, so maybe those will come out. After the gondola was the highlight of my day: GELATO! Gelato is Italian ice cream. It is super soft and uber yummy. I am having that every day in Italy. Eat your heart out, Mr. Ray. I think they even have banana flavor that you could mix with chocolate.

It was an hour to the train and we still had one site to squeeze in, so we raced over to the original ghetto. The Ghetto was the island of Venice that the Jews were forced to live on, and from the name of the square the term “ghetto” came, and is now used all over the world and in Elvis songs. It was almost Shabbat, so everything was closing. We peeked inside the museum and then went back to the train station.

Observations on the Italians: I can understand them easier than the French because instead of leaving the ends off of their words, they just add an “a” or “o” to everything, so that is handy. Damon thinks they’re hot, and they truly are a much better looking people than others we have encountered thus far. We think it’s the skin tone. They LOVE to point out French mistakes, and were happy to alert us that the train station in Lyon messed up our tickets. The man was so happy, I thought he would break into the dance of joy at any minute. So now we are on a train again, looking out the window at the remains of yet another hilltop castle, and heading for Rome via Bologna. Hopefully, there will be no strippers on this train, but I will keep you updated. Oh, and other fun Venice facts: Venice is actually built on some 1800 small islands, linked together by bridges, with canals serving as streets. Average depth of the canals is 5 meters, or about 15 feet deep. In most Venice residences, the ground floor is used as a basement only, since it is prone to flood at high tide. FYI.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Rome may not have been built in a day, but we sure did see it in a day. Since that was all we had, we got up at 7 and were on the streets for 8. Before I tell you the story of our day, let me first tell you about our Roman hotel room. When we got off the train last night at 1:30 a.m. and followed Rick Steves’ faulty directions, we walked an extra 2 blocks and asked 2 hotels for directions before finding the Hotel Fenicia. We had to ring a door bell to enter, and obviously woke up the desk clerk. He loaded us onto the world’s smallest elevator and told us to go to the fourth floor. The elevator was literally the size of a phone booth. Damon could barely fit in it, and turning around was totally out of the question. He had to back out when we reached our floor. The man proceeded to open a big set of doors with one strange key, and then opened our room with a skeleton key. The room was about the same size as the one in Paris, and thankfully very clean. The bathroom was almost as big as the elevator, and there was a pull cord which I thought flushed the toilet, but actually rang the front desk. The “Roman Bath” was in fact a real shower, complete with a bi-fold glass door. Unfortunately, the shower only held 5 minutes worth of hot water. I used it all and ended on a very chilly note, and Damon was totally out of luck. After this brisk start to the day, we set off for the train station – Roma Termini – where we checked our backpacks and headed for the metro. We of course got on the wrong train, so we had to go back and start over, but we arrived at the Vatican in short order. We had read all the Rick Steves tips, and knew that we should tour the Vatican museum first, since we could exit the Sistine Chapel and head straight into the basilica with no line. When we got to the front of the museum, there was a huge line running down the side of the building, so we broke into a trot to get to the end of it. When we turned the corner, the line stretched as far as we could see to another corner, and when we turned that corner it was the same thing. A mile and a half and two million faithful later, we reached the end of the line, and I reached my mini panic attack for the day, because it was becoming obvious that we were going to be spending all of our Roman holiday not seeing anything but the backs of the people in line in front of us. Damon, true to hustler form, left me in line and went to talk to some Italians who were selling tickets for museum tours. Turns out if you signed up and paid them a deposit, you could schedule a time to skip the line, go in through the exit, take an abbreviated guided tour, and see the Sistine Chapel all in about 2 hours. Since we had international student ID’s, we even got a discount, so we signed up and had time to grab breakfast before our tour time. Breakfast…ahhh, how sweet it was. My adventurous side took over and I bought a large donut-shaped pieced of bread sprinkled with sugar. When I ordered it, the man put it on some kind of grill thing to warm it up, and then sprinkled more sugar on it, and it was honestly one of the best things that I have ever eaten in my life, and the overall best thing on this trip with the notable exception of gelato. Hopefully I can find another one tomorrow morning, before I am forced to return to France and hard bread. Damon had a ham and cheese panini, and he liked his, too. We finished up just in time for our tour, and our guide was a very spunky and fashionable Italian lady who spoke good English with a hilarious accent. She was very opinionated, and at one point expressed her disgust that John Paul the Second would be canonized in June. She feels that this is entirely too fast. “He was a greata mana, don’ta getta me wronga, but it’s too fasta, I thinka.” Anyway, she shared many interesting facts, taught us about Papal seals, screamed in Italian at people who interrupted our tour, screamed in English at people who lagged behind on our tour, and gave us her top 3 reasons for hating Venice, which included: water, humidity, and how old it was, which sounded like an odd reason coming from a Roman. She was also very careful to point out that the Vatican Museum is the largest museum in Europe. Damon and I took that as a stab at the Louvre. Overall, the tour receives an “A” and the Sistine Chapel receives a “B-", because the most famous part of God and Adam touching fingers takes up only about 1/100th of the chapel and is surrounded by works that are arguably just as good, even if not as well known. After the Sistine Chapel we went back through the museum to pick up some mementos, and then out to St. Peter’s Basilica. There was no line just to get into the church, so we went in and filmed some. Damon loved it. It was beautiful; I think I actually preferred the style of Notre Dame, but I thought the square area was breathtaking, with its fountains, columns, and blue sky. Damon videoed and I took some still shots. Then we stopped by the Vatican post office to mail some postcards. The Vatican postal service is supposed to be much more dependable than the Italian postal service, and also faster, so some of you will soon be enjoying your very own postcard bearing the postmark of the Vatican. I sent 12, and the stamps all had to be licked, so if you don’t get one, please don’t be offended. It means I either ran out of time writing or spit stamping. From there we hopped back on the metro and headed for my must-see stop, the Colosseum. It is just right there when you step out of the metro, and it is truly colossal. We were starving and parched, so we grabbed a bite in a little snack bar, and then began to wander the Roman ruins in search of Palatine Hill, where we could buy a combo ticket that would help us bypass the long lines at the Colosseum and head straight to the turnstiles. We got the ticket, wandered the Palatine for a while (which is the hill where the Roman emperors built their homes and the word from which we derive our term “palace”) and then moved on to the Colosseum. It would have been much better if we had done a tour there also, but we felt pressed for time, so we just looked, photographed, and left. My next goal was the catacombs, but we found out they were already closed, so I was heartbroken. (We had already skipped the tombs at St. Peter’s in the interest of time.) We bought a map, consulted our list of things to see, and regrouped. We hopped back on the metro and off at the Trevi Fountain stop, where we bought a gelato and enjoyed the fountain and the people watching. This turned out to be our favorite stop of they day, because it was so relaxing. We then went to the Pantheon, and on the way accidentally saw the Trevi-Pantheon, which is a lesser but still impressive site. On the way back to the metro we spent some time at what I at first thought was Trajan’s Column, but after consulting the map discovered was not. After reading a little in a Rome book that we bought, I now believe it to have been Marcus Aurelius’s column. Who knows? We stopped by a nice Italian restaurant and had an appetizer and a big water. The appetizer was ham slices and cantaloupe. Isn’t that a weird combination? Damon said the two tastes complimented each other. I only ate cantaloupe, so I have no idea. By then it was time to go claim our bags and climb aboard. We sat next to some Californians on the train and talked to them the whole train ride, so I could not get any journaling done, which frustrated me. That is why it is 12:37 a.m. and Damon is snoring but I am still writing. When we made it to Florence, we had to call Antonio from our hotel so he could come check us in. Damon grabbed some McDonald’s, and we took a taxi through the back alleys of Florence to the Althea Hotel, recommended by Rick Steves. If this hotel was not better than last night’s, we were about to abandon Rick, but when we got here, Antonio turned out to be the most delightful person we have met so far. There is a bar across the street and some people were singing Italian drinking songs at the top of their lungs when we arrived, so we thought that was neat. Our room is neat and clean – more funny keys – but cool antique-ish furniture and a larger bathroom with a grinder on the commode that we will be filming the flushing of tomorrow for your viewing pleasure. I had never heard of such a thing. Anyway, we leave for Lyon tomorrow at 12:15, so we have big plans to see Florence tomorrow morning, and I had better get some rest now. Ciao.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

I am now sitting on a train from Florence to Milan next to a woman with a dog. The dog is sleeping under her feet. We have been seeing people in the train stations with dogs and wondering what they were doing with their dogs when they were on the train. Apparently, dogs are welcome on trains. Now we are sitting with two architect/interior designers from Peru and Italy. They are telling us about cheap places to go in Italy. We started this morning by oversleeping 30 minutes. The shower was wonderful, and the hot water plentiful. We were on the streets for 8:30, ready to take in the sites. First we strolled through a little market place, then we toured the Pitti Palace, which was ornate and art filled. From there we visited the Ponte Vecchio, which is a famous bridge with shops built on the sides. Local boys profess their love to their girlfriends by locking a lock onto a gate at the bridge and throwing the key into the river. We witnessed a bum with a bobby pin trying to pick the locks. Romantic, huh? Guess he wanted a divorce. Beggar report: The beggar situation in Italy was noticeable, but not too bad. In Venice we saw about 3, including one notably prostrate on a bridge. In Rome I saw 2-3, including one that I am almost sure had leprosy. She was covered everywhere, including a hood and long sleeves to cover her hands. She wasn’t yelling “Unclean” or anything, but I drew my own conclusions. This morning yielded another 2-3 in Florence. I expected it to be a much larger problem here, but Damon and I agree that Atlanta has ten times more beggars per capita than Italy. Back to Florence, from the bridge we walked on to the Uffuzi Gallery, which had a long line outside. We looked around outside and saw a copy of Michelangelo’s David. I think the real one is inside, but we were running out of time. Rather than waiting in line to see yet another priceless work of art, we decided to move on to something that was really important: gelato. We then went to Vivoli’s, which is the most famous gelato in Florence, and Florence is known for the best gelato in Italy. Damon had chocolate with chocolate chips, and I had chocolate and vanilla mixed. It was truly the best gelato we have had, so we were glad that we worked our way up to it. Not a bad breakfast. By this time we had to go back to the hotel to check out. We grabbed our bags and waited outside while Antonio called a taxi for us, but he came out to tell us there were none available and we would have to take the bus. While hiking to the bus we found a cab and were to the train station in time to grab some McDonald’s for lunch before boarding. After all, man cannot live by gelato alone. That brings us up to now, but I do have some other things to mention which I have previously left out. On one of the first trains that we rode, Damon tried to use the water closet as the train was pulling into the station, but it was closed and some old man yelled at him in French when he tried to go in. Turns out that on the smaller trains, there is no tank for the sewage, and if you use the restroom as you are pulling into the train station, your waste will just sit there on the tracks for everyone to enjoy. That is why smaller trains close their WC’s before pulling into the station. Another thing I forgot to write was our experience drinking from a Roman fountain. They have these spickets coming out of the ground that are like our outdoor faucets, but if you plug your finger into the hole, water squirts out of a second hole in the top like a water fountain. After seeing several people drinking from these, and being severely dehydrated, we decided to give it a shot. It was cold and delicious, actually the best European water I’ve had. We took pictures. Other Italian observations: the Italians have a great sense of style. Even their children are stylish. Nothing like France. Their bread is soft, too. Plus their food is out of this world, so all I have to say is, “Mamma mia, I love Italiano!”

More commentary from Scarlett: One thing that really bothered me about the Vatican was the blending of religious art and pagan art. The Vatican Museum was full of as much if not more pagan Roman art than Christian art, and no distinction was made between sacred and profane. The two were exhibited side by side, sometimes mixed in the same room. I think that approach could be confusing for non-Christians, since it does not draw a clear line between truth and fiction, and that made me uncomfortable. Another thing that makes me uncomfortable is how when you are an American traveling in Europe, every American that you meet wants to be your best friend for life, show you their vacation pictures, tell you their life story, etc. I think they are so starved for English speakers that they just leech onto you. It is frustrating when you have other things to do, and no time for idle chitchat with some weirdo yankee or tree-hugging Californian hippie. Last night’s train back to Lyon from Milan turned into a minor fiasco as well. When the train stopped in Milan, we had an hour and 13 minutes before our next train left, and Damon was determined to see da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The guys that we sat with on the train told us where it was, and even gave us their Milan guidebook so we could have the subway map to get there. When we got off the train we raced to the metro, hopped on the green line, and set off. Unfortunately, at the first stop, a girl tried to get off but the doors began to close and caught her backpack outside the train. All her money and her passport were in the bag, so she kept a death-grip on it as the train took off and careened through the tunnel. Her hand was inside the strap, and I just knew another train would come and rip her hand right off. When we made it to the next stop, the doors opened on the opposite side of the train, so she was still stuck, and it turned out that the doors would not open on her side again for 5 more stops! She asked Damon to pull the emergency release, and when he did she snatched her bag back inside the train, with only minor tearing of the fabric and no loss of ID or money. But, since the emergency release had been pulled, the train could not take off again until the conductor found the door that was ajar. This took about 5 minutes of our valuable time. When we finally arrived at our stop, we literally ran off the train and down the street to the church where the painting is. When we got inside, there were signs everywhere that said, “Sold Out.” Turns out they were booked for the next 2 weeks. Damon was heartbroken, but we did not have time to cry about it, since we had to start the 5k back to the metro stop. We arrived at the Milan train station with about 5 minutes to spare, and jumped our train for Chambery. We had a connection to catch there that would take us to Lyon. Unfortunately, the train sat on the tracks for an hour after we boarded, and by the time it left there was no way we could make our connection. There were at least 25 people on the train trying to reach Lyon, including 7 of us from LSU, so Damon took a leadership role and began trying to speak Fren-ital-glish to someone who could tell us how to reach Lyon before class time Monday. Several frustrating international conversations, and three separate plans later, it was decided that we would all exit the train one stop after Chambery, and board another train that was destined for Lyon. It took a lot of trust on the part of some very nervous Americans, but we all made it back to Lyon for 11:30 p.m. thanks to our willing but not so able interpreter, Damon.

Oh, another funny thing was that when we met those guys on the train from Italy and Peru, when we introduced ourselves, they immediately said, “Scarlett, like Scarlett Johansson?” I said no. Then they said, “Oh, like Scarlett O’Hara.” Guess Gone with the Wind really is the greatest novel ever.


Unknown said...

When I go to Europe, I want to go with you!
Today was fab...see you in the morning!!!

Grandma Tonie said...

Awww I just love reading the Lost Diaries---it is like re-living your trip all over again.