After our whirlwind sprint through Croatia and subsequent overnight ferry ride from Dubrovnik to Bari, Italy, we received possibly our least formal greeting ever by a customs officer (not including the Nepali lieutenant I helped build a fort out of sofa cushions).
Apparently finding the formality of the whole process disagreeable – the lining up, the timid approaches to his little window, the passports to be examined, scanned and smirked at, he decided to cut out a few steps, boldly emerging from the disarming authority of his tiny glass cubicle to saunter around, unshaven and coolly apathetic in his stone washed jeans and purple polo shirt with the collar popped, stamping passports with a haphazard flair that impressed us even as it made us squirm with discomfort.
Does this guy really work here?
Will our stamps be valid?
Do all Italians wear that much purple?.
So far, so good. Then we spent a few hours wandering the narrow, laundry-strewn alleys of Bari’s old town before taking the train to…
Rome: An Undiscovered Gem
Who knew this place would be so impressive? Every trip we leave feeling we have a pretty good idea of what we’re truly looking forward to seeing and what locations are going to impress us most. Well, after 3 days in Rome we had a completely new appreciation for this grand old city.
Then there are those other stops along the way which are simply transit points with, hopefully, a redeeming quality or two. Well, obviously Rome fell into the latter category. Just another of those old Roman (I do have to admit the name seemed like a weird coincidence) cities that, let’s face it, has been on the decline for over 2,000 years now. I mean we were talking about a city that was once the centre of the civilized world (now located at the American Sign Museum on Monmouth Street in Cincinnati, Ohio) and have now sunk so far that they couldn’t even beat out Udinese for a place in the Champion’s League. Udinese! Grapes and all.
Anyway, in light of our low expectations we were pleasantly surprised to accidentally stumble across a popular sunset spot within a couple hours of arrival. The Spanish Steps, people were calling them, although they didn’t look so much Spanish as a refugee centre for people who love large purses. I have to admit, however, that the whole experience was somewhat redeemed by the appearance of a wedding party involving a pleasant looking young man and his fiancé, an eye-catching blonde who was clearly one of the stars of Real Housewives of Lazio. The hair, the inappropriately short – and, oddly enough, white – dress, the formidably solid pair of breasts and, of course, the permanent pout resulting from lips the size, shape and – presumably – texture of Jeff Bridges’ liver.
The traffic was pure chaos on the tiny, crowded, nonsensically laid out and mostly one-way streets, and parking seemed to be a delicate art form akin to squeezing an oversized wallet into the back pocket of Jonah Hill’s skinny jeans but there were just so many different things to see, it was almost overwhelming, you just didn’t know where to look. Like during Men’s Olympic Wrestling.
For more Italian driving escapades check out A Sicilian Road Trip
Moving on. Rome: shitty park, shitty river, but great gelato. So weird. And then there was this place called the Sixty’s Chapel, which seemed really popular for some reason, even though I didn’t see any full piece bathing costumes, smoking wasn’t allowed in the building and we weren’t offered even a hint of Free Love.
On the contrary, there really seemed to be a lot of rules. No talking, no photos, no inappropriate clothing (i.e. shorts, uncovered shoulders, overtanned cleavage) – although despite these stern warnings most women were dressed like they were on their way to enjoy mega-pitchers of mojitos at a Lethbridge stagette party, all the old men were surreptitiously photographing the ceiling (of all things) from the viewpoint of their saggy old scrotum, judging by where they were furtively holding their cameras, and everyone, starting first and foremost with the tour guides, talked constantly creating an ever-building crescendo for exactly 3 minutes until a crusty guard would step to the forefront and loudly admonish everyone in the room to “Ssshhhhhh!”.
Near silence, then a low buzzing hum, then widespread whispers, then fun conversations about the ice cream near the Trevi Fountain last night…”Sssshhhhhh!”. Repeat.
So, to recap, Rome is an unfortunately crumbling old city (their sports arena is so old and decrepit it doesn’t even have a corporate sponsor, humiliatingly known only as The Colosseum, rather than something cool like the Trenitalia Colosseum, or the Vagisil Colosseum) that has clearly sunk so far that its inhabitants have entirely given up.
I mean, slap a coat of paint on some of these old churches, or maybe some new asphalt over that bumpy cobble, something. But if you’re like most visitors who are only there to change trains and maybe pick up a new keychain of the Pope, its combination of grandeur, neglect and indolence offers a certain surprising appeal.
Then it was on to Tuscany, the part of the country everyone thinks of when considering an expat move to Italy. Understandable, since much of the region is beautifully tranquil (aside from tour bus time, that is). The tiny city of San Gimignano is famous for its 15 remaining medieval towers (the other 60 or so have apparently been pilfered over the years by various Austrian cities to hold up bridges or play tether ball) and its picturesque walls and brick alleys serve as the poster child for quaint Tuscan hill towns – tourist hordes, gelato shops, ATMs and all.
Of course, at about 5 pm each day the massive, pulsing tour groups turn around and ooze their way back down the narrow main street to erupt in the parking lot outside the walls like a giant tube of whitening toothpaste being stepped on by an unruly child named Warren.
And from then until 9 am the following morning, solitude is thine. Sixteen hours all to ourselves, to continue to work our way through the best pizzas in Italy, wander nonchalantly and take as many pictures as we wanted of the numerous red metal naked man sculptures which were scattered throughout the town for no reason we could discern other than possibly to dispute Michelangelo’s take on Italian penis size.
Another Tuscan hill town, the jumping off point for many of the popular Tuscany food and wine tours, although Siena qualifies as more of a real city on the basis of its various vegetable markets and purse stores. And the awesome balcony on our hotel that afforded us incredible views out over the city while we enjoyed our simple yet satisfying breakfast of cereal and bananas.
The rest of Siena, as far as we can tell, has two dominant features (not including its well documented “relaxed atmosphere”). First is its massive and impressive Duomo (that word seems to mean “biggest church in town” in Italian), which we glanced at briefly during our intense search for a cheap takeaway pizza place, having seen many big churches over the course of the last three weeks, and finding it harder and harder to tell the funny little arches apart.
Second, and of far more interest to us, was the huge Il Campo, the main square, surrounded by impressive palazzos and whimsical tunnels leading down into it, and rather than a square is actually a large half circle that slopes uniquely from the outside down to the middle, presumably making it easier for all spectators to see what might be taking place down in the place of honour in front of yet another big building, but which we appreciated mostly because it gave us a more comfortable place to sit and eat our pizza.
And hang out while we waited to be able to check into our hotel. Yep, just lolling about, taking in the spirit of the place, spending a bit of time casually writing in my notebook, relaxed, comfortable, then bemused as I watched a curly black pube tumble slowly across my page. You just can’t plan your classic travel moments.
Three Hours in Florence
Despite being low on time we managed to take advantage of the luggage storage at the train station to experience a few delicious hours of famous Florence, the one non-negotiable destination on every Tuscany itinerary. Another humongous Duomo, this one a different colour, the distinctive Ponte Vecchio, an uncommonly beautiful bridge full of houses and shops, and many, many sculptures of uncircumcised (and unlucky) dudes including one copy of the famous David. And its river was slightly less grungy than Rome. Kudos.
The amazing colourful coastal towns of Cinque Terre were what I was looking forward to most in Italy (with the possible exception of acceptable female moustaches, although everybody knows there is an unwritten rule that even if you see them you’re supposed to pretend they don’t exist, just like hockey players crying doctors with eczema).
Seven cool fishing villages perched on seaside cliffs joined by some reputedly outstanding hiking trails with clear and present views of the Gulf of Genoa. Sounded like a great way to spend a couple days getting back to nature after the busy cities, or an inspirational tampon commercial. Either way I was bringing my rain jacket.
Well, it was just as spectacular as we’d hoped – colourful, traditional, scenic, small, full to the nuts with Americans brandishing their Rick Steves guidebooks. He even alludes to this phenomenon in his book (yes, we’ve read it, he said shamefacedly). In fact, Rick Steves and Under the Tuscan Sun have almost single-handedly filled these two particular areas of Italy with Americans scuttling around on frantic two week trips eating pesto in unhealthy amounts, stomping around the paved streets in giant hiking boots (to be prepared for hauling half a dozen gargantuan rolling suitcases up and down the hills of Northern Italy) and awkwardly taking photos with their iPads (Why on earth does anyone think this is easier than using a camera?).
On a less cynical note – almost none of these Americans fit the usual stereotype (loud, boisterous, rude to waiters, recklessly guffawing) but were for the most part polite, appreciative and sensitive to their environment. And even tolerant of the numerous Canadians intent on differentiating themselves with their flag patches or, if they’re particularly cutting edge, with clever maple leaf key chains dangling lewdly from the zippers of their rolling suitcases like angry red skin tags.
On an “aren’t we cool?” note, four Australians were seriously injured by a small landslide while hiking one of the Cinque Terre trails the day before we arrived (well, the paved Via Delle’Amore, which is sort of like a trail). That’s not the cool part, though. In response, the Cinque Terre National Park authorities closed all the trails in a 15 kilometre radius with a succinctly worded 8 x 11 printout (“traiL Closed”) and a dusty red ribbon strung across just high enough that you didn’t really have to duck.
But that’s not the cool part, either. The cool part was that we said caution to the wind, no pain no gain, just play dumb, and numerous other things of that ilk, and just hiked the shit out of those trails anyway.
Of course, we were nervous about getting caught the whole time (the danger of further landslides never really occurred to us, strangely), and worked out various game plans depending on what point we were at – “If we see someone here we just say we came up here from town for a photo. Ok, now we play dumb. Really dumb, like you can’t speak English dumb, or Jessica Simpson dumb. Yeah, say something about the Chicken of the Sea, that oughtta confuse them.
Ok, if we see someone here I’ll probably just push you down the hill and make a break for it. If you can break something that would be ideal, they’re not likely to pursue that, considering those crazy Australians and all.” Despite all our contingency plans, however, in the end we just hiked incident free for an hour and a half one way, then an hour and a half the other direction the next day.
Not exactly the makings of a Jason Statham short film, or even Ellen DeGeneres’ online dating profile, but photogenic nonetheless.
Anyway, the point is…we broke all the damned rules! Then we did some laundry, you know, because it was time.
Well, it certainly appears to be sinking. It is most definitely old. There is a lot of water. And bridges. And pocket-sized dogs. That Piazza San Marco – increduloso! The doner kebab I had for lunch – incredibly average! Which I guess is why nobody ever talks about the doner kebabs in Venice yet they’re always blathering on about the piazzas, the canals, the old buildings. I really, really wanted to add “and such” there but I feel like I’ve done the In Bruges thing almost to death at this point. If I could come up with a cool quote from The Talented Mr. Ripley, on the other hand, I’d be all over it but I can’t seem to think of anything but his huge glasses. And how skinny Phillip Seymour Hoffman was. “Introduce-him-to-your-cousin” skinny. Although he seemed pretty irresponsible and a bit rude, though, so maybe not, after all.
Also check out: A Guide To All 6 Venice Neighbourhoods
Nonetheless, a beautiful and justifiably famous city that hits all of the essential points of Laynni’s travel trifecta:
Adorable little bridges
So let’s just say I’ve had my fill of hearing her croon, “Ooh, that’s a pretty one”. Unless it’s directed at my one of my grey chest hairs, of course.
See 24 Hours in Venice for a more in-depth look at this famous old city
Ok, Now For Some General Italian Observations
The people tend to be quite loud and, as the stereotypes suggest, seem to enjoy talking with their hands. And, from what I could tell, usually saying things like “the fish was this big”, “the bread was this big” and “Take your bail and shove it, Your Honour.”
There are more smokers in Italy than anywhere we’ve been in a long time, at least since, oh, I don’t know, probably the grand old days on the deck of Jim’s cabin back in July.
Finding yourself among a group of well-dressed Romans briskly walking home from work was much like desperately fighting your way through a raging forest fire, although at least in a forest of smooth, rich Marlboro trees.
While we did meet a number of friendly and helpful people, most of whom did not seem nearly as reluctant to speak English as we had heard (although they were far less receptive to Spanish than I had imagined when I repeatedly lumped the two languages together like Greek brothers in a tub of plastic balls), in general the people were more brusque than we were used to, usually giving the impression they were simply tired of explaining things to clueless tourists, not to mention our overzealous grinning.
I have never been anywhere with so many establishments where people will prepare food for a price. Cafés, bars, pizzerias, panaderias, focaccerias, enotecas, ristorantes, the list goes on (but I can’t remember more of it). Unfortunately, the food didn’t amaze us as we originally hoped it might, with the single exception of The Best Salami in the World, Hands Down, making Italy the place where Laynni “never met a salami she didn’t like”. And besides all the meaty double entendres that can be enjoyed with that, Italy is definitely the easiest place in the world to feed myself (“myself” implying plain, standard fare, mostly heavy, usually cheap, including meat at least half the time).
The natural result of this culinary ease being yet another Travel Trifecta, our patented “The 3 P’s of Food” theory, which quickly became our mantra:
This clever acronym was even easier to remember since it fit in so nicely with the 3 P’s of Sightseeing we had already learned in Rome:
Plodding (up stairs)
Pushing (through crowds)
Posing (in front of old shit)
And the internationally viable 3 P’s of Romance:
Prodding (for soft spots)
Pinching (anything that sticks out)
Ploughing (for pleasure)
Although it has to be said, Croatia has better pizza.
Well, that about does it for our quick Italian adventure. Now we’re off to St. Jean Pied de Port, a small French town on the Spanish border, where tomorrow we will start hiking the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way), an ancient pilgrimage route across northwestern Spain that ends in Santiago de Compostela, reputedly home of old St. James’ dusty bones.
Considering it is nearly 800 kilometres from St. Jean to Santiago and will take over a month to hike there I’m not surprised that’s all that’s left of him. In the interest of efficiency, and mostly of weakness, we will not be carrying our netbook with us so I’m not sure at this point how frequent or thorough our blog posts will be. Although considering the long-winded tome you just slogged through to get to this point you may be glad for the break.
Either way, wish us luck, because barring any unforeseen weather, unfortunate injuries, small talk overload, hiker’s boredom or especially severe cases of runner’s nipple (all justifiable reasons for quitting, he casually warned in advance), our near future is most likely to consist of 30-40 days of hiking, dorm beds, communal night farting and being shocked awake by strangers having recurring nightmares about blisters and X Factor, so I’m pretty sure we’re going to need it.
The luck, I mean, not more late night conversations about the Britney Spears – Simon Cowell dynamic.
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