The last stop on my epic journey through Europe was in the land of my dreams - Italy. I had been waiting all of my life to go to Italy and had built it up to near utopian levels in my mind. Really, in the face of those expectations there was absolutely no way it could live up to it. Really, it was unfair, but that does not mean it wasn't an absolute blast.
After a lengthy train ride from Salzburg, Austria to Venice, Italy, I came into the station and quickly met up with Hannah and Kim, and over the next 8+ days we fit pretty much everything we could possibly think of in. We went to a completely insane amount of places, we saw an incredible amount of sights, we ate ridiculously delicious foods, and we had a hell of a time. Sure, I didn't get to ride a Vespa while in Italy, but I probably would have died anyways.
This covers the last days of my trip, from April 25th to May 3rd, 2009.
That face is made because I am super excited AND I just tore my pants
Cities/Areas visited: Venice, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano (San Jim-Jam!), Cinque Terre, Pisa, and Rome.
Soundtrack: Beirut, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra. Really though, it was pretty much just more Beirut.
Cinque Terre is the most beautiful place on the planet. Fact.
Best Place on the Planet: Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre means five lands, but in my mind it pretty much means "paradise." Cinque Terre is five small towns connected only by an awesome hike or by train, and each town is completely unique in its own right. We went to each of them, but the two we spent the most time in were Vernazza (our home for the night) and Monterosso (the beach resort town of the five). While there, we were blessed with incredible weather, completely breathtaking sights, delicious food, awesome company, and incredible luck.
Any time you come into a train station and manage to meet one of the pensioners from your guidebook and he readily offers you a room at a discounted rate, you know luck is working on your side. It's really hard to convey how spectacular these two days we spent were, but it was like existing on an entirely different planet for that time. It was completely and utterly relaxing while being everything I wanted to be from the trip. It felt like Italy, really and truly. Next time I go back to Italy, it will be to Cinque Terre only.
Best City: Florence
While Cinque Terre completely outdistances it overall, Florence was probably my favorite of the major cities we went to. It managed to combine all of our interests the best of any city, whether it was shopping, museums, gardens, restaurants, or lodging, it handled all of those things and handled them incredibly well. Even better was the fact that it was completely affordable and surprisingly small, as we could get from one side of the city to the other in seemingly incredible time. It was the most balanced of all of the Italian cities we made it to.
The line for the Vatican Museum - 3 hours!
Worst City: Rome
On the other end of the spectrum was Rome, which effectively was chaos in city form. Rick Steves described it as "bella chaos" - beautiful chaos. No offense Rick, but I completely disagree. This place was a complete mess full of insane drivers, rude people and the longest lines known to man. While it did have its plusses (extremely charming night times, the Colosseum was glorious), its negatives were profound and sadly outweighed the positives. Ending the trip with it was a terrible idea.
They loved him because he was tall, so they made an arm throne for him
Best day/night: Day 1 in Cinque Terre
Great train ride in. Check.
Magical meeting with a guy renting the world's most perfect room for the night. Check.
Weather becoming perfect. Check.
Awesome hike. Check.
Incredible dinner and awesome new friends. Check.
Best bar experience in Italy. Check.
Yeah...Cinque Terre was awesome, but the first day/night was clearly the bees knees.
Awwww yeahhhhh! Siena
Most surprisingly awesome day: Siena/San Gimignano
We never planned on going to Siena or San Gimignano, two smaller Tuscan areas near Florence. But when we got in and found out that all of the sights were closed the day we first arrived in Florence, we decided to change it up and check these places out. We were incredibly glad we did, as these cities captured the charm and essence of Italy far better than anywhere besides Cinque Terre did. The people were warm and friendly, the food and wine were delicious, the architecture was archaic but refined. Picturesque, and a really unforeseen delight.
We heart Hobo Town!
Best Train Ride: Venice to Florence in Hobo Town
Because we could not book seats on the train ride from Venice to Florence, we were caught in the nexis of the universe that is in between the posh train cars. Essentially, we were in nowhere land and we were destined to be there for three plus hours. Thankfully, due to the ingenuity of Kim, we created our own special little world called Hobo Town. All it took was to move one of the luggage racks up and tie it up using one of Kim's luggage straps, and voila! Instant area to sleep in without getting disturbed by anyone walking by. We even managed to be so dominant in Hobo Town that no one sat near us for 3/4 of the train ride, and then it got so busy Hobo Town's population grew.
Still, Hobo Town prospered.
The train from hell!
Worst Train Ride: Pisa to Rome on the Italian Labor Day
Imagine a train booked twice of capacity. Imagine young bastard Italians chain smoking regardless of no smoking signs. Imagine a crazy old woman dominating our space and annoying everyone. Now imagine that for five plus hours.
Most stressful train ever!
Hannah is less than impressed by the Accademia line
Best Sight: the Statue of David in Florence
While the line for Accademia (the museum that housed Michaelangelo's Statue of David) was completely ridiculous, the fact of the matter is the Statue of David was probably the single most awe inspiring thing I have ever seen in my entire life. The sheer size, detail and craftsmanship of it have to be seen to be believed. It is and likely will remaing the single greatest piece of art I have ever seen. Completely unreal.
No pictures? No problem!
Worst Sight: Sistine Chapel in Rome
The Sistine Chapel was extremely disappointing. I'm not sure if its the miles you have to walk to get there (while inside the museum, that is) or if it is blatant disregard of the no photo rules or the extremely dim lighting or the insane amount of people they allow in there, but all of those things add up to make it a crazy disappointing sight. I wanted to love it, but love it I did not.
This was a clean part of Rome
Worst feature of any city: Trash everywhere!
The thing that surprised me the most about Italy was how completely filthy it was. There was trash everywhere in cities, in particular Rome. It was inundated by trash at every corner, mostly in Rome which was particularly disgusting. It's not that I am extremely clean by any means, but the blatant disregard for cleanliness made me think that they had no respect for their city. Either that or the tourists didn't. Either way, I was very disappointed with whoever caused that complete mess.
The Mayor of Vernazza
Coolest local: The Mayor of Vernazza
All throughout our time in Vernazza, there was one constant figure: this little pomeranian whom I nicknamed "the Mayor of Vernazza." He would stroll around the town, strutting his stuff and generally acting like he owned the place. He was pretty much hysterical, and when he managed to walk into the Blue Marlin while we were drinking their late at night, I knew immediately he was my favorite Italian I met.
Best food: Seafood Risotto in Napoleon's in Florence
While I consistently was eating extremely delicious food throughout Italy, this meal beat all others. In this little restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Florence (as recommended by this woman named Florence from Paris we met in Hobo Town), I had a seafood risotto that was so delectable my mouth starts watering while thinking about it. It wasn't anything elaborate, just risotto with tomatoes and shrimp, but my god was it tasty.
Most addictive food:Gelato
Gelato, which is effectively ice cream in my mind, is crazy, crazy delicious. Not only that, but it seemed like every block would have a new gelateria, and because we wanted to make sure to get our fix, we would have gelato every few hours just so we could compare. Or because it was really good and we just wanted to eat it forever. Either way, it is impossible to go to Italy and not have a ton of gelato.
Rick Stevers unite!
Most random meet up: Rick Stevers unite!
While in Venice, we were trying to use our Rick Steves Guide to Italy as well as we could, but this one restaurant he recommended was almost impossible to find. In fact, the directions were so labrynthine that we managed to get incredibly lost, until we gave up and went into this cute little restaurant nearby. Somewhat predictably, this was the restaurant we were looking for. Not only that but the two tables nearest to us were fellow Rick Stevers who found it using his guide. We bonded over this, especially with an awesome liquor store owner from Vancouver who was in Venice researching new liquors on a "business trip."
Right. I was on a business trip in Europe researching alcohol too. I swear!
You break my heart...
Most emotional moment: Ravel's Bolero performed in St. Mark's Square in Venice
For some reason, I've always completely loved Ravel's composition "Bolero." It really is an emotional song for me, and its slow burn nature kills me every time. Now imagine hearing that after a couple bottles of wine and an espresso while in Venice. Needless to say, I was getting a bit verklempt watching this ridiculously talented group (fronted by a cute violinist) completely dominate it in St. Mark's Square. Utterly beautiful.
Best local gang: Yogurt
This is fairly ridiculous...just a warning.
While walking around Florence, we kept seeing spray painted tags saying "Yogurt!" over and over throughout the city (particularly near our hostel). This of course led me to developing a back story to the tag, creating a geriatric gang of yogurt enthusiasts who stand up to the younger gangs with their experience and savvy. This is the gang for me, I openly thought. Of course, realistically it was probably a random tag, but you never know.
Hey guys, you know what would be a great idea? Reforming communism!
Weirdest signs: Reform the Socialist party!
I kept seeing this sign everywhere. Evidently reforming the Socialist party and bringing communism back is high on a number of Italian's agendas. Not to be overly judgmental, as clearly the economy has been hit by getting swallowed up by the European Union, but I really, really don't think that is your answer. Maybe that's just me though.
"Drink these...right now." "Yes sir!"
Best Bar (EVER): The Blue Marlin
The Blue Marlin bar is pretty much the only bar in Vernazza and it was only open until midnight, but it was pretty much the coolest bar I've ever been in. It featured an owner who sang along to his American 80's hit song only playlist, a ridiculously cool bartender who was there by way of California (his wife lived there), and another guy who I am fairly certain was actually Asthon Kutcher. Throw in the locals who were completely awesome and the random Americans we hung out (including a giant basketball player from Cali who was playing ball in Germany), and Hannah, Kim and I were completely in love with this place.
I honestly can say it was one of the best bars I've ever been. Spectacular.
Most embarrassing moment (for anyone): Kid eating it on a Segway
While we were waiting in line at the Duomo in Florence to go up to the roof, this gang of Segway riders started rolling by. It was a group of younger guys and all of them looked relatively Segway savvy. Then, one guy near the back started coming up and I could tell he was going somewhere that wasn't going to work out particularly well for him. Sure enough, the kid crashed his Segway into a metal barricade and ate it in front of the entire line, drawing huge laughs from all watching.
Then to make things worse, the kid tried to mount his Segway once again and sure enough ate it again quickly. At this point not only is the entire crowd of hundreds of people laughing hysterical, but his friends have stopped to enjoy his misfortunes as well. The kid finally mounted the steed and made his way out, likely shedding a tear (or ten) as he departed.
Italy Wrap Up: So there you have it. While Italy was not everything I wanted it to be (too much commercialization, too insane, not enough Vespas, not enough mental image Italy), it still was an unbelievably amazing place that occasionally verged on perfection. Rome left a very sour taste in my mouth, but Cinque Terre, Siena and San Gimignano in particular more than made up for it. Venice and Florence were also excellent, but the smaller areas truly were the highlight.
All in all, I saw everything I wanted to see, I did everything I wanted to do, and you know what? I finally accomplished one of my life long dreams by going to Italy. It took me until I was 25 to do so, but there is value in that no less, and I am very glad I went with two of my best friends in Hannah and Kim. We went through our trials and tribulations on that journey, but we all had a great time and saw many amazing things.
Now that it is all over, it's time to start planning my next trip. South America anyone? Portugal/South of France/Switzerland/Germany/Czech Republic perhaps? Who knows. The world is my oyster, and I am glad I started it off with a bang.
The Colosseum in all of its glory
Come on wish! Come true!
These kids were playing in a park in Rome and were awesome
I'm in a Corona ad...I swear
Kim observing nature at its most wonderful
More Cinque Terre glory
Yada yada...Cinque Terre was pretty
Cool shot I took in Vernazza
Hannah, Kim and I dominating Tuscany
San Jim Jam
Kim ruining a serious shot
The Duomo in Florence
Florence - Pitti Palace
Myself breaking the law to take a picture
Venice lookin' real good
Our gondolier, myself, Hannah and Kim
Time of our lives in Venice
St. Marco Square in Venice
Going up the Grand Canal in Venice