Friday April 21, 2017
It was a short time in Naples, but my departure also marks the end of my Italian journey. What a time I've had here - so memorable for so many different reasons. I've enjoyed it immensely, despite some of the hiccups along the way.
I took the ferry from Sorrento to Naples without a problem, and checked in to the hostel. The friendly guy at the reception recommended some sights for me to see, as I hadn't planned on visiting anywhere specific. Down from the port is Castel dell'Ovo, which overlooks the Gulf of Naples, so that was the first stop. I continued down to a park by the waterfront before heading back to the center of town. If there was one thing I needed to do, it was visit L'Antico Pizzeria da Michele, a Michelin star pizza restaurant in Naples.
I got my pizza takeaway as the restaurant was full, and although the ambience wasn't quite right, the pizza was pretty good, and only €4. I wandered around some more but retired to the hostel soon after. I was a little miffed at the poor quality wifi and couldn't even get 3G reception, so it was a pretty boring night.
Today was pretty relaxed. I wandered around the block, stumbling upon a few churches and whatnot. I got some takeaway pizza from nearby and took the bus to the airport, and caught my flight to Milan, then to Heathrow without a problem. The view of Italy from the plane is stunning. As we left Naples, the sight of Vesuvius overlooking the gulf was so pretty. As we neared Milan, you could see fields of green and gold stretching to the horizon. We flew over Switzerland and its snow-capped mountains, and over France's green pastures. We neared the English Channel... and suddenly all this cloud covered the land.
It rained as I left Heathrow and took the Underground back home. I picked up some microwave food from Sainsburys on the way. A pretty sad welcome after four weeks of adventure!
Wednesday April 19, 2017
Sorrento is a quaint resort town, obviously very touristy and would probably be way busier in summer, but I have enjoyed my time here immensely. The town itself is not full of things to do, but the areas around it are what make it so special. As I type this, I look up from my phone screen to see the Gulf of Naples, all shades of blue with white crested waves, and Vesuvius off in the distance, and I can't help but smile at all the beauty around me.
After taking the train from Rome to Naples, I took the metro to the port and booked a ticket on the ferry to Sorrento. The signboard with all the departures wasn't working and as a result, I almost missed my ferry, but I did make it in the end. It took 30 minutes to get to Sorrento and I was immediately amazed by how picturesque it is. The streets are lined with orange trees in full fruit, and you can totally just grab one if you so wanted. I had an average dinner, but as I was walking back to my accommodation, I noticed people had lined the streets in anticipation of a procession. It turns out Sorrento is one of the few places in the world that has an Easter procession of this kind; dozens of people dressed in black hooded garb, chanting, waving incense, and carrying symbols of the crucifixion as they walked down the street. It was solemn and quite daunting, especially since the robes they wore resembled the kind worn by the KKK. It was an interesting experience nonetheless, and I'm glad I was there to witness this event, even if it was accidental!
On Saturday, I took a tour of the Amalfi Coast with a very flamboyant guide called Roberto, who couldn't stop telling us to kiss our wives at every romantic landmark. We visited Positano, Amalfi and Ravello; it reminded me very much of Cinque Terre, the whole "town embedded in cliffside" aesthetic. The natural geography of the area produces some amazing clouds that cascade over the mountains, covering the many terraces of orange, lemon and olive trees. We took a short boat ride around Amalfi as well, at Roberto's recommendation, and I enjoyed some of the local citrus desserts. Perhaps too many. I met some cool people along the way, and coincidentally some of them would join me on the Vesuvius and Pompeii trip the next day (I was just thankful that the Vesuvius/Pompeii tour wasn't a total scam.) It was quite late when we got back to Sorrento, thanks to heavy traffic along the way.
I was up early and off to some random car park to start the tour of Vesuvius and Pompeii. The forecast was for rain and thunderstorms, and sure enough, as we neared Vesuvius, the dark clouds began to roll in. We managed to stay dry, but you could see nothing of Naples and the gulf from the crater. Despite that, the terrain was interesting and had a slightly sulfurous smell. It's odd that you're on top of Europe's most dangerous volcano, and although the crater is a shadow of the mountain that erupted in 79AD and destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, it's still quite an experience to see it up close for yourself.
After a very average lunch at an obviously touristy restaurant that we were semi-forced to go to, we were taken around the ruins of Pompeii. I was amazed at how much was actually preserved, and with a bit of imagination, you could catch a glimpse into what the city would have been like before it was destroyed. Various murals, despite fading in colour over the past 2000 years, also gave clues to what Roman life was like. We visited a typical villa Romana, a spa, the central marketplace, a basilica, an amphitheatre, and even a brothel! There's so many little things that historians were able to uncover and deduce; with no sewerage system, people would throw waste onto the roads to be washed away. As a result, stepping stones were constructed to allow people to cross the road while still allowing chariots and horses to pass through, and sure enough, the visible grooves of where the chariots used to go remain today. Each major intersection would be marked with a fountain, and each fountain would be decorated with a face or markings; slaves who couldn't read could use these fountains to navigate their way around the city instead of having to rely on the signs around. Chips of marble embedded in the road acted as cats eyes for the weary travellers arriving from the port at night. There's so much history behind the ruins that I hadn't even considered how massive the city is, and of course, how the devastating eruption in 79AD changed it all in an instant.
It did rain a little bit during our walk, but we remained mostly dry. We headed back to Sorrento and after freshening up at my accommodation, I went to a restaurant recommended by an Australian couple I met on the Amalfi Coast tour. Funnily enough, they were there was well, and later on another couple from the tour joined us. It would have been past 11pm by the time I got home, I had such a good yarn with everyone there.
I had a bit of a sleep in on Monday, then headed down to the port to catch a ferry to the island of Capri. It was so busy that the latest ferry back was 3.30pm, giving me four hours to explore the island. From Marina Grande, I walked up to the central plaza then took a walking track to the south that went past the Arco Naturale and some other beautiful natural sights along the coast. I wandered around the central plaza some more after lunch, and then it was time to go already. I was feeling a little adventurous so I walked over to Sant'Agnello, east of Sorrento, just to claim a few spots in the Mystic Pokemon gyms, and was back in Sorrento for dinner.
Yesterday was quiet. I had another late start, and after taking away some food from town, I walked out to an abandoned fort on the west side of the peninsula. Magnificent views of the bay, and totally serene; there were maybe ten other people there exploring the area, some even so brave as to go for a swim in the chilly Mediterranean waters! I walked back to my accommodation for a quick break, but then it started raining and I lost all motivation to do anything, so I had a solid nap. And that was basically all I did that day! It's nice to relax once in a while, and after three full days, it was probably a good idea to just chill.
Now I'm just waiting for my ferry to Naples. It's slightly windy today but the sun is out, so it's quite pleasant when you're out of the shade. My time in Italy is almost up!
Friday April 14, 2017
Rome is regarded as one of the most amazing cities in the world, packed with ancient ruins and iconic landmarks, there's so much to see and do. It was so unfortunate that I got food poisoning in the first night, because the food I've had in the past couple of days has been very good.
I felt well enough to walk around on Tuesday, so I headed to the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It was crowded, a sight I would soon come to loath. From there, I walked to the Altar of the Father, Trevi Fountain and Pantheon, but I was tired and went home to rest. I secured a Roma Pass card for entry to the Colosseum for the next day.
I was up early on Wednesday to get to the Colosseum and Roman Forum/Palatine Hill. It was great to walk around these archaic sites, appreciating the architecture and grandeur of the ruins around me. Because it was morning, it wasn't too crowded, and I spent a good three hours wandering around. I had lunch nearby and headed to the Vatican to see the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.
John, my Catholic friend, calls it organised chaos. I bought "skip the line" tickets for the Vatican Museum, which basically means I'm part of a sham tour group until I get through the doors, then I'm free to wander at my leisure. We still had to wait a considerable amount of time to get in, but the public access line didn't look like it was moving at all, so I suppose we did skip a line of sorts. In fact, the line is there because of security checks, not to buy tickets or enter the museum itself, so anyone going through has to pass through security.
After I left the group, I wandered around, but there was a set visitor path to follow. The layout is quite good, there's a single route to the Sistine Chapel that takes you through tons of exhibitions of art and architecture. It's incredibly crowded with tour groups blocking passageways and people stopping in the middle of the corridor to take The Perfect Instagram Photo. I didn't care. I just walked straight past. In hind sight, it would have been good to have an audio guide to explain everything, but as I'm not really into art, I just admired the things I saw and moved on. When I got to the Sistine Chapel, hundreds of people were already there, gawking at the magnificent roof that Michelangelo had painted. I recognised the segment titled The Creation of Adam, the famous painting of God with his outstretched arm, about to touch the finger of Man.
I walked to St Peter's Basilica afterwards, recognising the familiar sights of "that place where the Pope does his address". It's quite a marvellous square, surrounded by columns and shadowed by the iconic dome that can be seen from so far away. The line to get in circled right around, and I didn't feel like waiting that long, so I left for dinner, then was home to bed. I was still tired from lack of food and energy, but my appetite was picking up slowly.
Yesterday, I was back at St Peter's Basilica to try and get in, but they had closed until noon for a Holy Thursday mass. Instead, I went to the Terrazza del Gianicolo, a terrace overlooking the whole city and walked back to the Vatican for a quick lunch. I joined the crowd outside the security gates waiting to get into the basilica and as they opened, people surged through, pushing and squeezing. I was unhappy. Even after all of that, we still had to wait to get through security before going into the basilica.
Eventually I made it through. I followed Rick Steve's audio guide, which was awful because he kept telling me to go backwards against the flow of the crowd, and also to inaccessible places. The basilica itself is beautiful though, and the dome is absolutely massive up close. I spent €6 climbing to the top of the dome, where you can barely move because so many people had the same idea. It can be a bit claustrophobic going through the narrow passages, but it's one of those things that you have to do while you're there.
I wanted to see these catacombs on the Appian Way, so I took a bus back into town and waited for another bus that would take me there. It never came. I got frustrated. I ended up going back to the BnB to sleep because I didn't feel like going anywhere else. It was a sour way to end a relatively disappointing time in Rome. The crowds, the public transport, the food poisoning, all just culminated in a pretty sad time for me unfortunately. Sigh.
Tuesday April 11, 2017
So much for the lovely sentiment at the end of my last blog - "Here's hoping Rome will be better!"
I wasn't aware I had to tell my B&B hosts what time I was arriving - I booked them through booking.com, not AirBnB, so I assumed it was a business instead of a side rental. Anyway, I arrived and no one was there, so I called them up and a lady on the end of the phone said she could let me in in an hour; that's fine, I said, and I waited. 90 minutes later, no one had showed up so I called her again and she said her scooter had broken down and she would be another 30 minutes. Finally she arrived to let me in, and we're all good.
Except my room smells of cigarettes.
I went out for dinner to a highly recommended local place, again with a very basic English menu and the staff having very limited English. The food tasted fine; I got two bruschetta, fettuccine with smoked salmon in a cream sauce, and panna cotta drowned in Nutella, and I felt quick sick after the dessert. I went to bed and woke up this morning feeling awful, and sure enough, I've got food poisoning.
I've spent the whole day in bed, I haven't eaten anything except water to replace all my lost fluids. I'm quite miserable and the damn room still smells like cigarettes. I'm hoping I'll feel better tomorrow, otherwise it might be a very quick run through all the major landmarks. I've got tickets booked for the Vatican on Wednesday, which I can't miss, so if I'm not better by then, then I'll have to force myself to go. Worse comes to worst, I've still got Thursday to see everything, but then I'm off on Friday to Sorrento.
Sunday April 9, 2017
Florence has been a mixed bag. Overall I've enjoyed my time here, but definitely not as amazing as Cinque Terre. I left Riomaggiore early in the morning and took the train to Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. I had lunch there and continued on the train to Florence where I arrived in the afternoon. I had forgotten to specify an exact time with my AirBnB host and he wouldn't be home until 6pm, so I sat in the park for a few hours killing time. It began to rain.
When I finally got access to the apartment, I warmed up for a bit and then headed to a local restaurant for one of the best meals I've had since arriving here. No English menu, owner can't speak English either, highly recommended by locals and tourists-in-the-know - all good signs. It was truly food cooked with heart and soul, traditionally Italian. I also accidentally ordered a quarter carafe and was really smashed at the end of the meal.
I stumbled home and tried to sleep but my mind was racing all night long. I was in a pretty sad state the next day, not hungover but tired. I covered most of the major sights in the city - Mercato Centrale, Santa Maria del Fiore and other cathedrals, the river side, Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and Cascine Park. I wanted steak for dinner but learned that the famous bistecca alla florentine is actually a 1kg T Bone designed for two people, and I got really sad at that. I ended up going to a place near Santa Maria del Fiore, right in the middle of town, that was recommended by Trip Advisor. They had a steak on offer and I was desperate so I took the bait. I should have known that being in such a touristy area, it would be terrible and sure enough, it was the most disappointing meal I've had so far here.
That night I got really sad about Florence and frustrated about steak. I felt like I'd covered most of the city, which is mostly just churches, buildings, art and fashion. I was a little over architecture because it was kind of samey throughout the country, I didn't really have an appreciation for art or fashion and I still had ages to spend here. Thanks to some encouragement from Charlotte, I booked a day trip to the Tuscan countryside for Saturday, but I still had all of Thursday and Friday to kill.
I wandered aimlessly on Thursday. I went to the train station to pick up some transport tickets when it started raining. I explored the lower level shopping area when I came across a public piano and I suddenly got very excited. However, some dude was playing the world's longest and most boring piece on it, so I wandered and waited some more. After he was done, another dude hopped on and played an even longer and more boring piece, and then repeated it for an hour until I finally had the impatience to ask him for a turn on the piano. I played my usual three crowd pleasers and felt much better about myself, and it had stopped raining too, so I left. I really wanted the steak thing to work, so I tried again, and I can say that this time it was a huge success. The meal also came with 500mL of red wine which I did not finish, wisely.
I went to see Michelangelo's David on Friday. It's quite amazing actually, much bigger than I expected it to be. It's stunning that it's carved from a single block of marble and there's an incredible amount of detail, right down to the muscle definition and the veins on his arms. It was a beautiful day, so I headed south of the river to Piazzale Michelangelo, just up the hill, where there weren't as many tourists as in the city center. The view there is fantastic, the city's major landmarks popping up over the otherwise flat skyline, the roofs all uniformly red. I spent some time at the cemetery next door too, and then headed to a restaurant just north of the river for a seafood dinner. It was exceptional. On the way home, I joined mass at Santa Maria del Fiore, mostly just to see the inside of the cathedral, but ended up following the procession outside. There will be a lot of things happening in the lead up towards Easter.
I was up early and off to the train station on Saturday for my Tuscan day trip. Our first stop was San Gimignano, nicknamed medieval Manhattan for its several stone towers. At one point there were over 70; after the war and other damage, there's currently 14. I climbed the tallest one, Torre Grossa, for an epic view of the countryside; fields in every shade of green, sandy brown buildings with the iconic red roofs, blue skies that reminded me of New Zealand. San Gimignano is also home to a famous gelateria, which won a prestigious award in 2007. I can vouch for that; the flavours were interesting and exquisite, quite different from the regular "plain" ones you get like lemon, strawberry, chocolate. I got a nut, wine and honey mix with an orange and grapefruit sorbet. It was amazing.
We stopped for lunch at a winery where we tasted some Chianti Classico wines, and had lunch. The wines are famous for their composition, and to be deemed "Classico", they must be certified with a certain amount of grape only grown in that region. The wines are typically fruity and very drinkable, and I enjoyed them a lot.
Our next stop was Siena, a beautiful little town with more cathedrals and towers. Known for being a banking center, we got a guided tour of the various architectural styles and history behind some of the buildings. We also learned about the Palio, a horse race that pits the 17 districts of Siena against each other, twice a year. After visiting the cathedral, I climbed the tower in the middle of town for some breathtaking views of the city and its landmarks, with the countryside in the distance. I managed to talk to a New Zealand couple from Tauranga too, and we mused about how bad the weather was at home.
Our final stop was Monteriggioni, a small fort just north of Siena. We weren't there for long, but I walked along the walls of the fort, admiring the now setting sun illuminating the green fields with its orange light. By the time we got back to Florence, it was past 8pm, and after dinner, I was back at home close to 11pm.
The Tuscan countryside is as pretty as everyone says it is, and I think that was my most enjoyable day of my time in Florence. It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy Florence, but I was just too churched and museumed out. My experience with food was either very good or very bad, and that also affected my mood. Here's hoping Rome will be better!