Saturday, October 16, 2010

Positano - the walk of the lazy

It all started with such good intentions. We'll have a decent breakfast, make our way to Praiano and do the amazing, highly touted Sentiero degli Dei. But after breakfast the lounges chairs grabbed Dave and threw him down. I had to lay down as well lest they eat him alive. It was a worthy sacrifice.

We did finally make our way to catch the bus, and it was so fortunate because while the bus wasn't going all the way to Amalfi, it was going as far as Praiano - our starting point for the walk.

Before I go into detail about the drive, let me just share what we saw at one street corner. I think I've mentioned that the drivers are a tad aggressive and crazy. Add to that passionate - at the most inappropriate spots. This car was stopped at a stop sign - already an unusual choice - but the interesting part was that there was a young woman leaning in to the car giving the young male driver an exceptionally long and passionate kiss. I mean a get to third base type kiss. No worries about the people lined up behind, this young man had a job to do. I'm not sure what happened after we passed by... perhaps she got in. Anyway, on to the drive.

It was our first taste of the famed Amalfi Drive. Wow. Holy mackerel. That's really all I can say. I was impressed with the views from Cinque Terre. Well, this part of the coast is even more beautiful. The mountains are taller and the towns are bigger.

While you are able to capture an appreciation for it's splendor from the water, you really can't truly experience the staggering majesty of the heights until you seem to be mere centimetres away from certain death, clinging to the side of the cliff on a bus.

We read that we should sit on the right side on the way to Positano to get the best views. Heart stopping. I cannot imagine driving it. Thankfully the bus driver had a rosary hanging from his rear view mirror. It's important to make peace with your God when you know you may meet him at any second. Though it was a hair raising experience, it was so worth it.

When we got to Praiano, it was shockingly quiet when compared to the constant scooters and cars of Sorrento. We wandered around a little lost, going up and down switchbacks looking for lunch spot before heading out on our walk. All the while we were followed by a dog who gave us small heart attacks every time he'd go out on to the road. We decided to name him Beppe.

We found lunch at Hotel Margherita. The woman at reception explained how to find the walk. Oddly enough, as soon as she mentioned that it required climbing 2000 steps to reach the start and the hike required 3 1/2 hours to complete, the sky seemed that much cloudier. Definitely a threat of rain. Far too dangerous.

After we finished lunch the hotel's proprietor drove us to the bus stop. He goes down in our books as the nicest man on earth. Another wonderful act of kindness. Instead of the gruelling walk, we ate cannolis and drank limoncello. Seems like a fair exchange really.

You know what's scarier than experiencing those cliffs on a bus? Riding back standing up. I had to keep reminding myself I wasn't going to fall head first out of the bus and into the sea. Thankfully the pouring rain held out until we got out of the mountains.

One last note comparing Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast. The views may be that much more stunning on the Amalfi, but Cinque Terre hold a greater charm for me. Really, the only option is to do them both.

This morning the sun is shining and it's our last full day in Italy. We'll likely take a pass on another bus ride and instead indulge in "Dolce far niente" - the sweetness of doing nothing - and save our energy for the flight and then adventures in Paris.

Ciao ciao

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Exploring Campania

Sorrento has not been what I expected - very disappointing because I was really looking forward to this part of the trip.If I come this way again, I won't stay in Sorrento. By the time I leave I may teach a few people new English swear words.

We've decided to handle our extreme distaste for this town by heading out every day - which was our goal in the first place, so nothing lost there.

Our initial goal for day one was to relax and chill. After a walk to the town square about 1 1/2 kms away, we decided that was a ridiculous idea and headed to Capri. While it may only be 4 miles long by 2 miles wide, it rises to majestic heights from the sea.

As the hydrofoil approached, Dave pointed to the highest point of land we could see and said "I want to go up there." Well, he got his wish. Looking down we could see water that was a particular shade of turquoise and so clear that the boats almost look like they are floating on air.

The port was a little chaotic, but offered much better information and signs than the stupid Sorrento port (clearly, I'm still annoyed). Instead of taking the bus or getting ripped off by a cab driver (again, annoyed), we took the funicular - a cable car that rides up the side of the mountain. Dave went into James Bond mode. When he realized he didn't have to fight Jaws, we both enjoyed the spectacular view of the mainland and sea.

The five minute ride up the steep cliff takes you to the heart of the town of Capri. From there we escaped the crowds and, once again, the cars and headed straight up - I mean way up - towards Villa Jovis, the Emperor Tiberius' "Pleasure Palace" - 63,000 square feet of naughtiness. He spent the last ten years of his life pursuing illicit pleasures. The ruins that remain can barely begin to scratch the surface of what must have been. The views from that summit force you to stop in your tracks, they are that stunning.

Today the main inhabitant of this fantastic villa are these adorable little lizards. It's true, I'm a sucker for a lizard. Which explains some of the guys I've dated.

Thankfully, the way back was all downhill. We rewarded ourselves with gelato (of course) and then cruised the ridiculously high end stores. Actually, we window shopped and that was shocking enough. A Hermes bag that cost more than this trip. I will always take travelling over a purse.

Today, the weather looked like it might be a bit of gamble. Would it rain? Would it be cold? We decided it was likely perfect weather to hit Pompeii. The last time I set foot in the ruins, I was 10 years old. I was looking forward to seeing them as an adult.

The adventure began with the Circumvesuvian. It has taken me 3 days to learn how to say that. This extremely efficient train goes from Naples to Sorrento and is amazingly cheap. We had the good fortune to be entertained by a three piece band. Music is everywhere in Italy. I'll hold dear the memories of wandering through every city and hearing an accordion. Not that I love accordion music, but of course it just fits.

When we entered a man tried to talk us in to a guided tour. We thought "pfff, we don't need no guided tour." Wrong. We went in about 200 metres and promptly turned back and hooked up with a tour guide. It was great.

The site is overwhelming. It's basically a complete town preserved for centuries by the volcanic ash that killed the inhabitants. Of the estimated 20,000 citizens, 5,000 were killed, not by molten lava but by the poisonous gas of Mt. Vesuvius, which looms in the background. The eruption took place on August 24 in the year 79 BC and the events of the day were recorded by a man on the other side of the bay of Naples who watched the mountain explode. It actually was double the size it is today - the eruption ripped the top of the mountain right off.

I could go on and on because I find this fascinating, but instead I'll say that the last eruption happened in 1944. Ash drifted far south to where my parents lived in the arch of the boot (we're at the ankle).

The preservation is astounding given the centuries that have passed. Frescoes are still preserved, jars completely intact, statues - all protected by the ash. And then there are the bodies. They discovered hollows with bones inside. An archeologist came up with the idea of pouring liquid plaster in to the hollows. This perfectly reproduced the bodies - right down to the expressions of horror on people's faces.

One of the neatest things about the ruins are the dogs that call Pompeii home. These poor abandoned puppies are fed and taken care of by local volunteers. It's fitting as dogs were common pets in the town back in the day.

The overall experience can best be described as haunting, overwhelming and an excellent reminder that we shouldn't waste our time worrying about terrorists. It's the acts of nature that has the real power.

Tomorrow, if the weather cooperates, we'll be doing the walk of the gods from Amalfi to Positano. What's one more hike.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

From north to south

Our last day in Florence we decided David could wait because we were not interested in waiting in a line up that would likely stretch for hours. Instead we explored. We followed Dave's instincts and headed for the other side of the Ponte Vecchio, which was an great choice. We found all sorts of narrow little streets, a couple of churches dating back to the 15th century and even a traditional shoe maker and apprentice working away at their craft.

On the way back we stopped by the market and luckily for our bank account, my mood for shopping had passed. I hate to haggle and that's what the San Lorenzo market is all about. Loads of purses and wallets and scarves. Great deals in fact - it's where I found my purse the day before. Definitely worth a trip.

The locals call the market il Porcellino because of the bronze statue of a wild boar. I've since learned from Roberto that there were 5 casts made of the little fella and one of the statues resides at the University of Waterloo. I'll have to go visit. I can't believe we didn't get a picture.

We said goodbye to il Porcellino and headed to Napoli. We once again got to experience the super fast Eurostar, which shaved 2 1/2 hours off our trip!

Unfortunately, we had heard so many horrible stories about Naples that we were jaded before we got there. The cab drivers will rip you off. There are pick pockets everywhere. The only truth to any of what we heard is that the drivers are possibly the most insane in the world. Picture impossibly narrow streets (of course)with 2 way traffic and pedestrians who don't really see a need to get out of the way. Now add on dudes on their mopeds driving at top speed while screaming in to their cellular phones. I am not exaggerating!

Anyway, the cab driver was an absolute sweetie (and c*u*t*e!). Our hotel - Hotel Piazza Bellini - is easily the coolest, nicest place I've stayed. A converted 15th century pallazo, our room was a loft style with very modern decorations.

We started our visit as every tourist and local should - with Pizza. Neapolitans take their pizza very seriously. In fact, there is a guild sigh to let everyone know they are buying the real thing. The crust has to be just the right thinness, cooked in a wood oven and, traditionally, topped with nothing more than tomato sauce and buffalo mozzarella cheese. Who were we to argue with tradition? We went to Di Matteo on the advice of a travel writer. It was fantastic. Full disclosure - I had my first Neapolitan pizza at the age of 10 and did not appreciate it at all because it was not like my mother's. I've grown up.

We didn't plan to spend much time in Naples, but did hear that the historic centre was worth seeing. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. Right away it reminded me of a grittier, rougher New York City. This is what New York might have been like in the early 1900s. So full of energy, chaotic, slightly dangerous but really inviting. The crumbling buildings that give hints to their former glory also reminded me a lot of Havana, Cuba.

Aside from pizza, Naples is also known for making Nativity scenes or Presepi in Italian. There is an entire street full of shops dedicated to the figurines. Some of the traditional stables have been, shall we say, expanded upon, with the additions of rooms with little ovens for making pizza. I'm pretty sure there were no pizza makers recorded at the birth of Christ.

Ever present at all the churches were the "Travelers" begging for money. One incident was pretty comical. We got to a street corner and this poor old woman was begging - sitting so sadly - barely able to move - I felt so guilty. But then a cop showed up. She had no problem getting up and scurrying away. All guilt gone. I'm glad my mother never followed through with her threat to sell me to them when I was a kid.

I'll have to explore Naples on a future trip - it was definitely worth the stop - and half the price for lodging and food than the other places we've visited. For now we are in Sorrento with a view of the sea and Mt. Vesuvius. All we need is for the sun to return.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Under the Tuscan sun… er… clouds

We made it past Pisa and along the way were adopted by a great Australian family – a couple and their adult son who are travelling around Europe for 9 weeks. Much like cats, I can’t resist an Australian. They confirmed that there are no such things as drop bears. The company for the next few hours was great and they helped us with our bags through the Pisa train station.

We thought it was a short enough walk from the train station to our hotel. We were wrong. While it only took about 20 minutes, pulling cases along cobblestones is not a good time. We seemed to encounter an attitude in Florence that we have not experienced elsewhere. It has a different vibe than Rome – although Rome is larger, it somehow feels more intimate.

The hotel was a disappointment – it does not meet the description provided online or the rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Not quite what it’s cracked up to be, however it is centrally located, close to the Uffici and other major landmarks. It also offers a decent continental breakfast and Marco the man at the desk is quite nice.

After wandering around the streets and the shops, the city charmed me a bit more. The architecture is much different than Rome but also somehow familiar.

Our main purpose for coming to Florence was a bike tour through the Chianti region. The weather did not fully cooperate, but the ride was great. Tuscany Bike Tours is run by two great guys – Keith the Irishman, and Andy the Scotsman. Both were charming and very witty. They made the day a lot of fun. The team was rounded out with Amy who led our group.

We started off with a twisty turning drive out of Florence and into the tranquil countryside. Tranquil except the drivers are still kinda nuts. Our first destination was a 12th century castle that’s now a full time winery – Castello di Poppiano. In addition to wine, they also produce olive oil. It’s still owned by the original family – the Count and Contessa still live there and run the winery. Andy led us through the old castle explaining the different steps to wine and olive oil making. The top of the castle gave us fantastic views of the surrounding vineyards and olive groves.

Then came a real treat – wine tasting and olive oil sampling. Chianti is my favourite wine, so it was the easiest part of the day. We came away with 2 bottles – one of their Reserva Chianti and a Super Tuscan.

After being plied with liquor, we got on our bikes. Andy warned me that my seat was too low – he was right. The first hill was a hell of a struggle. After some quick adjustments I was relieved to find I do remember how to ride a bike. They started us out with a mainly downhill route. You could see that the locals respect cyclists and do not try to run them off the road. Instead they are patient and give lots of room despite the narrow roads. Perhaps they could come teach the people of Bamberg, Ontario a thing or two. Traffic was really reasonable and on either side of us with lovely vineyards, old churches and ancient homes.

Over lunch we got to know our fellow riders – mostly Americans – and invited them to share a toast to Thanksgiving. Lunch was in a local town and was good and filling and complete with dessert and wine.

Unfortunately, that led me to mentally check out of the fact that I had to get back on the bike. The half hour after lunch was a real struggle for me as we made our way up a “false flat” – this is where the road looks flat but absolutely isn’t. It’s just a long gradual hill. I remember thinking, “Look at the pretty vineyards, look sunflowers. Wow, I wish I could breathe!” Dave hung back and encouraged me to the end.

The weather was also not cooperating – it started to drizzle. And my legs were definitely not caring for this whole exercise thing. But I made it. Until it came time to conquer the steep 950m hill. I knew better than to even try. “I’ll take the van thanks.” Dave made it to the top but described it as “a bitch”. Pretty accurate description. I guess I better work on my cardio when I get home.

After getting back to Florence, Dave chose a nap over shopping. Shocking really. I discovered the Leather School of Florence. Such beautiful bags but I still can’t afford them. I did make it to the outdoor market just as it was shutting down and snatched a leather bag I’ve been eyeing since Rome. I’m pleased. I probably could have negotiated another 10 Euros off, but the bag is still about $100 cheaper than I’d pay for a leather purse at home.

Tomorrow there may be more shopping in our future and hopefully David if the lines aren't oppressive, then another train to Naples and on to Sorrento.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The easy way back

Today we decided to heed the advice of the owner of a gelateria and hike from Corniglia to Vernazza instead of the other way around. From now on, I’m consulting the purveyors of frozen treats for all life’s dilemmas. He did not steer us wrong.

After ”breakfast” and a leisurely stroll through the town of Monterosso, we trained it to Corniglia to start our journey. As an aside, we’ve decided we could make a killing if we came back and opened a restaurant that only served breakfast. We could open from 6:00 AM to noon and only serve full English, American and Canadian breakfasts (the bacons are all different). The rest of the day we can spend a spiaggia (at the beach). Italians are not big on breakfast. However, I have fallen deeply in love with cream filled brioches. It’s ok, I’m sure the walking makes up for it.

Corniglia is my favourite of the 5 towns. It may also be the smallest. It’s missing 90% of the tourists of Vernazza but has probably double the charm and none of the hotels.

We started out with a hearty lunch – thank you Robert for the tip – we found Ristorante Cecio at the top of the hill. It offered great pasta and an extraordinary view of the Ligurian Sea. As with the entire region, the food is simple but flavourful. Dave decided to go for pasta with pesto. To make it more interesting they also threw in a few potatoes and green beans. He is now a believer of pesto. I went for a more exotic feature by ordering pasta with crab meat and tomato sauce. The crab meat wasn’t plentiful, but it was tasty. A fried pork chop, salad and the ever present acqua minerale rounded out our preparatory meal.

Corniglia is at the top of a hill, Vernazza is not. Imagine then that the walk from Vernazza to Corniglia includes an unyielding and steep climb. The path coming from Vernazza had sets of stairs where you could not see the top if you were standing at the bottom. Those situations always make me want to sit on the ground and cry. Instead you summon up your inner goat, take your time and eventually you’ll get there.

The way we approached the walk was gentler and far less draining. Don’t be mistaken, there were still stairs, but not nearly as many and not nearly as steep. Stairs cannot be avoided in these five towns. Whether you take the paths or not, stairs are everywhere. My fitness trainer would be proud of me.

Compared to the walk from Monterosso to Vernazza, I found this path more scenic – the entire time you have a view of the sea - and less treacherous because the path was wider. The way was so scenic, in fact, that you had to remember to look forward and not just out at the view. A path made of stones and stairs tends to offer a number of tripping hazards if you aren’t paying attention.

I wish I knew what flower was giving off the sweet scent that accompanied us on our
walk. It kind of smelled the way honey tastes. If I ever get to smell it again, it will take me right back to a turn on the path where we caught our last good glimpse of the town of Corniglia.

As we approached Vernazza we encountered a fair number of people who obviously had no idea how hard their work was going to be. We saw a lot of men in sweaters who would surely be topless by the end of the journey, a number of questionable choices in footwear, and a couple people carrying purses and bags. My favourite was a guy wearing a coat and carrying a laptop bag – it didn’t even have a shoulder strap. I kind of felt bad for not warning them, although turning back would cost them no more than a bit of tarnished pride.

Once we reached Vernazza there was time for a coffee, a gelato and a bit of shopping for a Christmas tree ornament – a travel tradition that I have come to cherish. Vernazza is still too busy for me to want to spend too much time there.

Three days was the perfect amount of time to spend in Cinque Terre. It gave us time to explore the narrow passage ways (you can’t call them streets, especially because cars aren’t allowed), discover the regional wine and food and hike a decent amount. It feels like this is a bit of dream come true. We will come back. Dave keeps wondering how much for that apartment overlooking the sea.

We have our train tickets for Florence tomorrow. I always find travel days stressful – probably because we’ll only have 10 minutes to catch the train from Pisa to Florence. Well, if there’s a mishap, there’s always a leaning tower we can visit.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Incredible journeys from sea to sky

Every trip has a bumpy day. Our travel day from Rome to Monterosso had a fair share of stress, panic and frustrations. I can sum up the challenges of the day by recounting one incident that happened on the train. I was opening a 2 litre bottle of water that I had perched between my legs to get a good grip on the cap. Apparently my thighs had a good grip on the bottle because as soon as the lid came off, I squeezed with more force than intended and the water came spurting out - all over my pants. And I don’t mean a spot. I mean the full front of my pants were soaked. Dave being the uber intelligent man that he is knew better than to laugh. About 5 minutes later, I was still soaked, but we were both laughing. That’s the good thing about our bumpy day, despite the missteps and the stress, we still laughed a lot.

Most of our problems of the day were solved by the kindness of strangers. It’s funny, everyone warned me quite a bit about how bad Italy is for pick pockets and that everyone is out to rip you off. While I will continue to be vigilant about my bags and my wallet, I will say that we have been greeted with a great deal of helpfulness and generosity. From the custodian at the train station in Rome who directed us through the poorly signed station, to the 2 local gentlemen in La Spezia that helped us find the unmarked train and our unmarked stop (would it kill them to call out the stops?), to the lovely young man who helped me carry my 12,000 lb suitcase up the stairs as we were running to catch our train – they all helped us to get to where we were going.

It’s also kind of cool how a single day in a new place and little bit of information can make a huge difference. I now know how to read the once mysterious train schedules and how to decipher the stops between these five local towns – especially in the dark. This brings me to the spectacular area where we are hanging out for the next couple of days – Cinque Terre.

About 5 or 6 years ago, I learned about this region in Italy while watching a travel show hosted by Valerie Pringle. She talked of this magical place where you could hike between 5 rustic villages and have lunch or a coffee in a secluded piazza while looking out to sea and chatting with the locals. I have wanted to travel here ever since. When I was putting together our itinerary and realized that a side trip to this region was a definite possibility, I was so excited.

The 5 towns are perched on the rugged coast. Until the latter half of the 20th century, there was no access to the towns by car – and the only access between towns was along ancient trails carved out of the steep hillside. Astonishingly, farmers have managed to make use of every square inch of the mountainous area by building terraced vineyards and olive and lemon groves. That takes fortitude and determination.

We decided to summon our own fortitude and hike the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza. We pretty much had no idea what we were in for. The trail is scenic, picturesque and at times breathtaking. It is also treacherous, physically challenging and at times downright frightening. There were points where we were hiking along a ledge that was no more than a foot wide, no barriers, nothing to hang on to and if you slipped, your fall would likely require rescue by professionals and a series of broken limbs. And that’s exactly the point when you’d meet another hiker coming from the opposite direction and you’d need to figure out how to give way.

I was amazed by the trail we were on, especially the stairs and the walls that make up the terraced vineyards. Someone worked to build all of that. How? What made them say: “Yup, this looks like a good steep side of a cliff. Let’s build a farm!”
The satisfaction of climbing what seemed like a million steps and hiking about 100 km (OK, it was only 4, but it was all up hill) was surpassed only by the spectacular views of the 2 towns and the sea. Along the way we were treated with waterfalls and the perfumes of the flowers and lemon trees warmed by the sun. After our 2 hour journey we wandered the town of Vernazza and sat by the sea watching the kids play in the water. Thankfully there is a train that runs often between the towns. There was no way we were doing that hike again – hells no!

Today, the towns have been discovered by an endless number of tourists. In fact, they are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are no secluded piazzas anymore, but you can still enjoy a coffee or a bottle of wine while looking out to sea. I won’t lie; Vernazza is so crowded – crazy crowded. I can only imagine how over run it becomes in August, which is the true high season. With the temperature in the mid 20s it was just this side of tolerable for hiking. I’d love to know what it’s like in November, though the rains would likely make the trail impassable.

The next day, although we were physically exhausted and slightly dehydrated after the Monterosso to Vernazza trail, we were determined to conquer all five towns. On a whim we decided to take a ferry over to the furthest town, Riomaggiore, and hike our way back. Excellent decision. The ferry gave us a view from the water that just isn’t possible from any point on land. It also revealed that 2 of the 3 remaining hikes would be just as demanding.

A casual conversation with a British couple sitting next to us led to a thoroughly delightful day. Sarah and Ed, our new friends, decided to pack up and move from their respective homes in London and Ireland to Northern Italy. They told us all about the challenges of living in Italy and adjusting to a new culture. We spent the day chatting and laughing and probably wisely, doing a minimal amount of hiking. The three towns we explored are much less crowded, which was a welcomed surprised.
The walk from Riomaggiore to Manarola was a gentle stroll along a paved path that covered a distance of just 1 km. The path has been nickname La Via dell’Amore. All along the path lovers have fixed padlocks to the side of the cliff to seal their love. An adorable tradition.

We ate lunch – the highlight of the day - in Manarola. While the scenery wasn’t great, the food was. I now have found a new food to love - pesto. Pesto is not served in Southern Italian households. Something about it did not appeal to me, so it was something I had always avoided. Liguiria is known for its pesto, so I had to try it. I now love it. Basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmeggiano mingle together to create happiness. Another discovery on this leg of the trip was made during dinner last night. Our cheese tray was served with honey. The sharpness of the cheese contrasted beautifully with the sweetness of the locally produced honey to produce a heavenly combination.

The path from Manarola to Corniglia was closed – likely because of rain in earlier in the week. We took the train instead and this is where we said goodbye to our friends. Dave and I explored the tiny town perched 382 steps above the train station (there was a sign, I didn’t count) and luckily, we even found gelato. Tomorrow we plan to return and hike from Corniglia to Vernazza. My legs will be done for – for a few days anyway.

Ciao ciao for now.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

It never gets boring

Last night exhaustion won out over writing - so today it's time to catch up.

We decided to continue on our self made tour with the idea of tackling Ancient Rome. We figured if the Huns could do it, so could we. Alas, we are weaker than the Huns. The long lines and the punishing sun convinced us not to actually cough up the 25 Euros to walk amongst the ruins of Ancient Rome.

Instead we enjoyed the view from the outskirts. We actually were able to enjoy quite a view without the worry of sun stroke. My only regret is that I would have liked to go inside of the Colosseum again. The last time I was there, I was 10 years old and have very fond memories of it being full of cats. I can't resist a cat.

Getting to the site in itself was an adventure in figuring out the Roman subway - actually it is quite easy to navigate, except the station where we had to switch lines because it is undergoing some sort of major construction. It was an excellent test for how we'll get to the train station on Wednesday afternoon to head out to Cinque Terre. We passed with flying colours, even asking for directions in Italian. It's very helpful to grow up in a city with a subway. If you live in a city without one, consider shipping your children off to Toronto to get around on their own - it's character building. And once again, I'm revealing why I don't have children.

Our progress was hampered a bit by rain - but we did manage to see the Piazza del Popolo, walked along the outside of the huge Borghese park - which offered great vistas of the city, stumbled upon an exquisitely decorated church, found Bernini's fountain of Triton and his sculpture of The Ecstasy of Santa Teresa before we were shooed out by a grumpy priest who was not so subtle about the fact that it was closing time.

Remember I told you about Dave downloading the maps onto his phone? Well, Rome2Go saved our bacon. We would have been permanently lost without the app. Doomed to sleep on the streets of Rome. Ok, I'm being a bit dramatic, but it is the best $1.29 we have ever spent. In fact the one time we didn't use it and trusted my sense of direction, we went the wrong way - shocking. I reminded Dave to never trust my directions again.

The highlight of Monday was the food. We splurged with our meals. For lunch we took the advice of our guidebook and ate at a little spot called Ristoranti Abruzzi. I ordered the mixed salad (insalata mista) and Dave ordered lasagne. Half way through, we swapped. The salad was good, the lasagna was mouth watering. For our secondi, I had roasted lamb and potatoes while Dave had the roasted veal. We shared those dishes along with a very large Italian beer and sparkling water. It did not disappoint, though 50 Euros for lunch was a tad pricey. Apparently, we'd rather eat our tour money.

For dinner, we gave up on walking all the way back to the Piazza Navona and found a small family restaurant called Trattoria della Stampa on a quiet side street. We shared prosciutto and mozzarella for the starter. For our primi, I had the gnocchi, which melted in my mouth, and Dave had the cannelloni, which made him very happy. We shared a plate of chicken cacciatore and eggplants. My favourite part of the meal was the 1/2 litre of wine for 5 Euros. Love it.

We were overjoyed at the end of the meal when we realized we were close to the Barberini subway station and home was a 2 Euro ride away.

Getting a good night's sleep was important because it was an early day today. We decided to take on the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. We were advised over and over again to go as early as possible. So we happily shelled out for a guided tour that got us in before the Chapel opened to the public. Well worth it in every way.

We were able to walk right past the lines - I refrained from sticking out my tongue. Our guide was knowledgeable and funny (British, need I say more?) and most importantly the Chapel was as empty as it will ever be. The crowds 2 hours later were suffocating. We could take our time and Anton explained every single panel to us, sharing fascinating details. He also took us round the Vatican Museum and gave us a run down on all the significant pieces.

My impression of the museum can be summed up as "overwhelming". The Vatican has managed to gather the most stunning array of art dating back from ancient time through to modern day pieces that are still donated each year.

The impressive collection began with the purchase of a statue of Apollo - an impressive reproduction of a lost Greek antiquity. Unfortunately, while the Vatican was collecting art, Christianity was also destroying it. The Emperor Theodosius ordered the closing and destruction of pagan temples. As a result, thousands of works of art were destroyed. Follow that with Pope Pius IX taking extreme exception to certain male... um... members... and you have statues destroyed in the name of removing the offending parts - all in the hopes of keeping us safe from their influences. Yes, well, that didn't work.

The hall of the tapestries revealed more beauty and an interesting tidbit about the bible. Turns out there is likely no truth to the biblical story of Herod's order to kill all baby boys under the age of 2. Scholars now believe that one of the scribes who worked on transcribing or translating the gospel of Matthew likely added that in! Now that is some nerve.

But on to the Sistine Chapel itself. I actually gasped when I walked in. The overall effect of the entire chapel, from the mosaic floor to the walls to, of course, the magnificent ceiling is an explosion of colour and beauty to the eyes.

I've been to Italy twice before that I can remember - once in 1978 and again in 1986. Both times I could not see the Sistine Chapel because it was closed for cleaning. The ceiling took more than 4 years to paint. It took nearly five times as long to clean it! You can say I've been waiting a lifetime to experience this.

To know that Michelangelo spent those years in an agonizing position, standing, with his head tilted up to the ceiling (not lying down as we have been led to believe) to create that incredible piece of art is awe inspiring. I don't have the determination to write a short story once a week and this man got scoliosis for his art and dedication.

The main part of the ceiling consists of 9 panels depicting stories from Genesis. These are surrounded by paintings of the prophets as well as females depicting major oracles. On the one wall near the alter is an enormous painting featuring Jesus judging the dead. It includes fascinating political statements of who gets in to heaven and who is forever damned. Let's just say if you are a Protestant, it isn't looking so good for you. Sorry.

I found that going in to the St. Peter's Basilica to be a very different experience. The Basilica is filled with works of art but there are two pieces that stand out for me. One is the La Pieta. Michelangelo's vision of Mary holding the body of her crucified son is moving and haunting as it is beautiful. The other piece that stands out for me is the statue of St. Peter. The foot rubbed beyond recognition by the faithful manages to send a chill down my spine.

The rest of the day was taken at a much slower pace. We were able to meet up with my cousin Lia and spent a lovely evening catching up. Our time together included a return trip to the Trevi Fountain and this time we each threw in a coin. I feel better knowing that we'll be back.

We leave tomorrow for Monterosso in Cinque Terre. If there is Wi-Fi, I shall post.

A domani (I hope).

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rome day 2: We walked and walked and walked some more

I'll admit it, I apparently have zero sense of direction. That may have added about 4 kms to our walking today, but it was glorious.

After dedicating a full 12 hours to sleep last night, we made the decision to forgo our original plan of doing a hop on/hop off tour of the city and instead take advantage of the walking tours included in our Frommers guide book. It was definitely the right choice.

We decided on the Renaissance Rome walk with the full intention of then doing the Heart of Rome as a follow up. The majority of the walk took us along a quiet nearly deserted street, Via Giulia, that runs parallel to the Tiber River. What a gem.
Nearly every palazzo on the street was built 300 - 400 years ago and were homes of great artist and powerful families. Many were commissioned by the wealthy Popes of the day - I guess there were no vows of poverty back then. One particularly fascinating find was the church of Santa Maria dell'Orazione e Morte. The monks who lived here would gather the the unclaimed bodies of the homeless and prepare them for burial. Someone had to do it. I especially liked the skulls carved in the facade. No point in being subtle when you've got a job to do.

We eventually made our way to the Campo de'Fiore. My only regret is that we hit it on a Sunday - when there is no fresh food market. We did take advantage of one of the many restaurants and enjoyed the company of our lovely Scottish waitress (that was unexpected) at The Drunken Ship. The beer was so nice and cold and she even directed me to where I could grab a sandwich across the way and bring it back. I so admire people like her. She just decided to up and move to Rome for six months because she came for a visit and loved it. If you have children, encourage them to be adventurous.

We were completely taken by narrow winding streets of 16th and 17th century buildings. We'd be walking along streets with insane traffic and veer off slightly only to find the most quaint and quiet little havens with a fountain in the centre or a church with paintings by Carravaggio tucked away. Dave continues to be amazed and enthralled by how small the cars are.

Of course so much walking meant having to keep up our strength. So after we admired the architectual wonders of the Pantheon, we had our first taste of gellato. Caramel Cream, Strachiatelli, Baci and Capuccino - that's right, 4 flavours in one glorious waffle cone. Such magnificent yumminess. We enjoyed it while people watching on the step of the fountain in the centre of the Piazza in front of the Pantheon. It was interesting watching the difference in Italian parenting - when one boy got particularly whiney because his brother touched him, one "OH" from his father was enough to shut him up instantly. I'm going to try using that voice at work when I get back.

This is, unfortunately, where my sense of direction got us completely going in circles. A helpful police officer and one guy on a moped gave us pretty vague directions but we finally found the Trevi Fountain. It was incredibly crowded - I can't imagine what it would be like there in August. It's also not how I remember it as a kid. I wonder if I'm remembering another fountain altogether. It was still rather magnificent.

We knew it was time to call an end to our tour when we got to the Spanish Steps and we both said "Seriously? We're supposed to climb this f*&^ing thing?" We picked our way through the sea of humanity that were occupying the steps and decided to start our search for dinner. Thankfully at this point Dave's sense of direction kicked in and he got us going in the right direction. He later mused that he really appreciated how confident I was each time we set out. He's a patient, patient man. That being said, as I type this, he is downloading "Rome to Go" maps for his iPhone. "No offense," he said. None taken.

Tomorrow we're going to hit ancient Rome.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Day 1: Rome - Fantastic even if you are exhausted

Months of planning have paid off wonderfully - I mean from the absolute get go. Let's just forget about the flight - let's face it, no flight on Air Sardine Can is going to be good. I had rather intimate contact all night with my seat mate - a pleasant woman originally from South Carolina. I very much enjoyed the constant announcements in 3 languages. Who doesn't want duty free at 2 AM?

Passport Control in Italy is somewhat hysterical. It involved a couple of guys who I assume work for the Italian government waving everyone in and not even looking at our passports. There's something to be said for their lack of paranoia.

Once we landed, the only real frustration came with learning how to dial a phone in Italy. It didn't help that Dave's super cool fancy iPhone doesn't seem to like to work in airports. It wouldn't work at Pearson (my excellently built in Waterloo, Canadian technology BlackBerry worked just fine at Pearson, thank you very much!) and it wouldn't work in Rome until we left the airport.

We had pre-arranged a limo through a company Adele found - - for the price of a cab ride, we had enjoyed the luxury of a Mercedes. Excellent find - thank you Adele.

Our driver turned out to be an incredibly charming older gentleman who could not stop telling us how lovely we were. First thing I noticed about Italian men is how fabulously they dress. Everyone in a suit. Bellissimo. Anyway, turns out that my Italian was much better than his English - so it was great practice. His compliments and the obvious fact that he understood me, has given me the confidence to speak Italian. Take that critical Italian relatives.

Our apartment in Rome is fantastic. This was another happy find thanks to Patti's friend Bruce. We are about 3 blocks from The Vatican. Not only is it convenient for sightseeing, but if one of us kills the other, we are mere steps away from forgiveness.

Once we participated in a vigorous nap to try to keep us from drooling in our exhaustion, we hit the streets. A keen sense of observation is needed to keep from being killed by mopeds. Aggressive does not even begin to describe the driving style. For the highway portion of our journey I thought I could drive here, no big deal. As soon as we hit the city any delusions I may have had disappeared completely.

We especially enjoyed watching people park. Romans take parallel parking to a whole new level. 25 manoeuvres back and forth are required because that's what you have to do when working with less than one inch in front and back to get your car in. Earlier in the day I thought an Alpha Romeo driver was crazy for trying to get in to a spot that seemed to have less than a foot of clearance from a BMW - turns out that was plenty of room.

At the end of the night we watched a Mini driver use tactile method of getting in to a spot. By tactile, I mean hit the car in front and then the car in back over and over again until he was good and wedged in. When he was "done", the woman rolled down her window and said "Is it ok?" We responded by shrugging our shoulders and saying "I guess so". She then looked worried and pointed to the car in front "Is that your car?" When we said no, she responded "Va bene, allora." I have no idea how they're going to get out. They didn't seem too worried. Perhaps just get a group of guys to pick up and move the SMART car in front of them up the street a few feet. I'm sure it happens.

The sightseeing highlights of the day included St Peter's Square (we haven't ventured inside yet), the narrow and winding streets around the Piazza Navona, and watching the sunset by one of the bridges to Castel Sant'Angelo. I remember being fascinated by this ancient fortress and dungeon when I was a child. It was satisfying to be up close to it and to cross the bridge.

Dave was taken by the architecture immediately. Turn a corner, there's another beautiful monument, church or piece of history. He openly appreciated how understated the Italians are about everything (that's sarcasm, for the sarcastically impaired). He's also lucky that he didn't get smacked when he touched one of those dudes dressed as a statue in Piazza Navona.

Because it's Saturday there were weddings all over the place. There were a few wedding parties near the Castel having their picture taken (hmmm, is that a dungeon you are posing next to in your wedding garb? Interesting choice.)

We had dinner at this great accidental little find on Via d. Pace called La Focaccio. We shared Buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto as well as a great pizza with prosciutto, artichoke and hard boiled eggs on the topping. Fabulous. It only cost us 23 Euros - a mere 7 Euros more than our coffee and cookie treat by the Vatican. The place was crowded with tourists and locals alike. We sat outside and watched the world go by - including another wedding!

The coolest about coming back to Italy after 25 years absence is something completely unexpected. I felt instantly at home. The smell of coffee, the passionate conversations, the hilarious expressions in Italian - all the things I grew up with in an Italian household are all around me. I heard people say things my grandfather or aunt used to say. Italy has changed significantly since my parents left in 1950, but somethings just remain the same. Especially that everyone talks with their hands. I belong here!

I hope my writing gets better as I get more sleep.