At the Italian border, we stopped to show passports to armed officials, who interrogated my compartment-mate, and had a dog sniff our luggage. When I got to Milan, I hopped on the Malpensa shuttle bus, wondering whether Janet would still be there when I arrived. I arrived a little after 10h15, and wandered around for a bit. Before long I found Janet dozing in a seat. She was glad to see me, waiting for a bus to Turin, where our hotel room was reserved, as the bus folks told her that a bus to Turin was quicker than a bus back to Milan followed by a train to Turin.
She had been sick throughout her plane flight, so waiting around for the Turin bus on the hope I might still show up was fine with her. She wanted to ride together, so I exchanged her Turin ticket for a Malpensa, and we headed back to the shuttle bus.
Well, except that the shuttle bus return ticket I had was for a different company than the one Janet had. I went and bought yet another shuttle ticket, then tried to “give away” the odd ticket when the bus guys explained that we could just use it later, when we went back to the airport, as Janet was scheduled to do in two weeks.
Another hour or so back to Milan, a couple over to Turin, and we wandered through the rain to our cozy 70â‚¬ hotel room, which had a tiny private bath and a squeaky bed. The rainy afternoon was spent making the bed squeak, and when the weather broke, we wandered lost around Turin trying to find food, which proved more frustrating than we expected. Afterwards, we returned to our little nest, and spent some more time giggling about and provoking the squeaky bed.
We made our way through the rain to Turin’s station. We split up to wait in seperate lines for train tickets. A guy in a closed ticket window beckoned Janet over, and got us two second-class tickets on the next Eurostar. It was a confusing enough transaction, where the price kept changing, and in the end we had three tickets – one for the two of us to Milan, one from there to Firenze, which is what the Italianos call Florence, and a third one which was the supplement we paid for Eurostar Italia. We made the train – despite my dyslexic tendancies to think we were bound for Venicia – and things were pretty zippy. We figured out the three tickets, and decided that while Eurostar is nice, we’d prefer to ride the slower trains that don’t cost extra.
Two of the hotels reccomended by Lonely Planet were in a three-story building that housed six seperate one-star hotels. We booked a room in the first one that we could find a person manning the reception, paying 62â‚¬, saving ourselves 10â‚¬ by not splurging for a private bath. The room felt like one in a hostel with four single beds, and a long list of rules posted on the wall explaining that we were not allowed to invite our friends over to drink alcohol. I clarified that the room was indeed private, and we pushed two of the beds together.
We spent the rest of the afternoon getting lost in the markets, checking out restaurants, grazing on snacks, and scoping out Internet access for the laptop. We found a suitable replacement for my hat, this time in grey, for 10â‚¬. That evening we had pasta and wine at a covered outdoor table at a nice little restaurant where the waiter gave us a discount for paying with cash.
After breakfast the next morning, we decided to try our luck at one of the other hotels in the building. We spent the next two nights at 60â‚¬ apiece at the nicer Marini Hotel, a floor below, where they had a wall of clocks set for different time zones, a wall of movie stars’ pictures, and a current poster for Firenze’s daily train departures.
We wandered near and far in the rain. We found a couple of good places that would allow a portable computer on the Internet for a very reasonable price. At one point, I fed birds by kicking around the crusty bread someone had tossed in the park, and mashing it in to edible-sized pieces with my foot. We toured the Duomo, which was very pretty, but we could not figure out where we could climb to the top. We stumbled upon the tower adjacent to the Duomo, and climbed that to the top instead, as the skies cleared, and became sunny, affording us a splendid view. We spotted the line that we would have waited in to climb to the top of the Duomo, and I congratulated us in falling in to an equally wonderful view without waiting in line. Just as we were done seeing Florence from above, it began to rain again. Fate was smiling upon us.
We acquired salami, mozerella, bread and wine for dinner, and enjoyed some tasty sandwiches during a quiet evening together.
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Whilst in Florence I could not keep my eyes off the cute little Fiats that were driving all over the place. Two are in this picture.
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An umbrella-toting crowd on the streets of Florence.
We decided to check out the Uffizi Gallery, but the line was long and nasty, so we gave it a pass. We wandered through more rain, checking out the funky Ponte Vechio, a bridge over the Arno River with little jewelry shops growing off of its sides. Janet has a degree in Horticuture, and wanted to check out the Giardino di Boboli, across the river. Through the rain we wandered, uphill, uphill … to Piazzale Michelangelo, where we were afforded pretty, overcast views of Florence. We continued wandering across the south hill, looking for the garden, but when we finally found it, it was closed, as we continued our wide arc through the South of the city, back North across the river, and home to the hotel.
That evening we stumbled on a splendid little restaurant where we ate very well for 12â‚¬ each from the tourist menu, which earned us two courses, a side dish, dessert, wine, and bread. This experience was an extremely pleasant conclusion to our last evening in Florence.
Rocket Arena Multiplayer Gaming Zone
Via A. Lamarmora 23 (Telephone 055 576 991)
Cool little gamer’s den on the East Side, said they’d connect a laptop. Prices were reasonable.
Planet Web Internet Point
Borgo Albizi 66 rosso (Telephone 055 245706)
A funky little dive with super-cheap connections; 2â‚¬ per hour before 11:30 am and 3â‚¬ per hour after. Support for laptops, Japanese and Korean keyboards, and CD burning. Their bandwidth and latency sucked ass while I was there, but it was sufficient for e-mail.
Via Zannoni, 10r (Telephone 055 21 61 12)
Friendly, cozy place with an excellent 12â‚¬ tourist menu.
We would have waited in line for train tickets, but we saw an automated vending machine for tickets. We got in the very short line for that, but found we were standing behind a gaggle of Italian women who had to really struggle with the machine for a long time to get it to vend them their tickets. While they were struggling, Janet went and stood at a longer line at another machine.
The Italian ladies figured out they had to ask for S. Whatever, instead of Saint Whatever, then they had to figure out what train they wanted, and so forth, and finally how to pay for it. Just as they finished purchasing the ticket they proceeded to stumble through another, and another, and another … as Janet’s line quietly shrunk in size. I figured that the line would blaze as soon as the ladies were done, because behind them stood a Japanese lady, and an Italian man who started coaching the ladies’ transactions from behind.
Janet got to her machine first, but not before a young man she figured was German kept changing his mind about the details of his transaction. After she deftly coaxed our ticket from the machine, she explained that the Americans in her line seemed entirely proficient with the automated ticket machine, which I took as a point of national pride. Of course, we forgot to validate our ticket when we got on the train. We noticed this fact just as the train was scheduled to depart, and as I explained to Janet how if I jumped the few feet over to the little gadget that would “validate” our tickets, the train would start rolling, leaving me on the station platform with her right to travel on the train that she was on with our luggage, and the train began to roll, and I explained that validating your ticket was not at all a big deal, because the conductor knows we’re dumb tourists anyway, and we’re just doing our part to make him write more stuff on our tickets, and besides, hey, we still know how to work a simple computer, which is saying a lot in Italy.
We took turns snoozing on a slow, cheap train through magnificent scenery. We made it into Rome in the afternoon, and holed up at the Pensione Esther near the station, where we stayed for 52â‚¬ per night under the friendly gaze of the old lady who lived there, who when not smoking, cooking, or watching Italian soap operas in her kitchen, was vigilantly mopping the bathroom floor.
We set off towards the Colosseum area, and ended up in this museum commemorating Italian unification, which was itself pretty dull, but was way up high, and gave us great views of Rome. Dinner was had at a deli-type of place near the station. Janet seeed to like it, even though the place was full of smoke, coming in part from the chef, who was smoking as he prepared our food. I swear my pasta came in a bowl that hadn’t been washed. The clientele were pretty colorful as well. One family was from somewhere south of the Rio Grande, dark Indian faces speaking Spanish. A guy in a suit, sitting near us had a woman in tight pants walk up to him and start speaking in French and Italian, while a third guy joined them in Italian. The bill was pretty reasonable, and they gave us grapes for dessert.
I had seen posters for Robin Williams’ “One Hour Photo” and one of the waiters directed us to a nearby movie theater. “One Hour Photo” was not playing there, in part because it wasn’t open ’til next week. We found a glossy promotional piece that explained what movies were playing where, and a friendly movie theater employee walked over and pointed out to us the section with subtitled movies. Janet was keen to catch “The Tracker”, an Australian movie playing at a little art house a few metro stops up.
Metro tickets can only be purchased from a vending machine, which can only give change in multiples of five cents, for tickets that cost â‚¬,72. The machines furthermore refuse to short-change either you or themselves, so without a couple of cents in change, you can not aqcuire a ticket. We established all of this in Italian.
When we arrived at the relevant station, we asked a young guy who was standing around with throngs of other youth for directions. He grabbed the glossy movie thing, flipped through the pages some, puzzled at the theater we wanted, asked a couple of buddies, and pointed us in the wrong direction. We later ran in to some nice older ladies who asked if we were walking or driving. It was nine blocks from the Metro station. When we got there, the movie was well underway, and we spent some time talking to the ticket vendor, Giorgio, who was chilling outside with some English-speaking buddies. He was originally from Naples, and recomended a good Naplotean pizza place near the Colosseum.
On the way back, we didn’t have any two-cent pieces. I told Janet to forget it, because you don’t really need a ticket, and we have expired tickets, and that’s not a bad story for some dumb, exasperated, frustrated tourists who are just trying to get home, in the unlikely event that the authorities should ask to see our tickets. I’m sure there are a fair number of Romans who have trouble enough getting these insane tickets, such that the authorities have probably given up hope.
I think the ticket thing goes like this: people are sensitive about the subway raising its fares, but the system needs all the money it can get, so when they convert to the euro, they don’t round the prices at all but translate the lire fare directly into â‚¬,72. This is fair, of course, but the problem is that the existing ticket machines can only dispense so many varieties of coin, and will only be able to give change as small as five cents, even if it can tell the difference between the one, two, and five-penny pieces when inserted. As a result, anyone who rides the metro regularly either has some sort of pass, or carnet, or hoards two-cent pieces like an American college student hoards quarters for laundry. (Assuming they bother paying the fares at all.)
There was a big line in front of the Colosseum to purchase tickets for admission to the Colosseum and Palatine. We walked over to Palatine, where there was no line, and purchased our tickets. Palatine is much nicer anyway, the hill littered with ruins of many an Imperial monument, since the earliest settlement of Rome. We spent some time wandering about the place, in fair weather. We headed over to the pizza place that Giorgio reccommended, The Forum, and had some delicious pizza at a good price from friendly staff. Italian pizza is an entirely different beast from the Chicago pizza that I love, but it is at least as spectacular in its own right.
At the Colosseum, we encountered a cute little kitten, who had a cold, and any number of parasites, and sunburnt ears, but seemed well-fed. It was a lonely critter, so we wiped the snot off its face with a tissue, and I pet it for a good long while, which helped clean its fur, and brought much purring. As we walked towards the elevator to check out the second level, it excused itself from my arms and snuck back in to the ruins.
We then walked over to Trevi Fountain, back up to the theater to see our movie. On the way back to the hotel, Janet spotted a supermarket which had really cheap food. We got juice, and some sandwich material, and from this was provided our evening meal.
Via San Giovanni in Laterano 34-38 (Telephone 06 700 25 15)
Variety of tasty, authentic Napoletian pizzas near the Colloseum. Great service and value.
Via G. Lanza 73
Inexpensive, friendly, laptop accessible, with provision for Asian keyboards.
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White columns stacked in front of what was once some important public building.
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Vivid colors on this ancient wall mural greet the modern eye.
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Raised sidewalks and pedestrian crosswalks. The spaces between the stones in the street are for wheeled carts.
We rode on from Rome to Naples. As you travel North to South, Italy shows you two sides of Europe. The north, Milan, is like anywhere else in Western Europe, where wealthier people shop in fancy stores. As you move South to Naples the sun gets brighter, the mountains get more barren, and the people hang brightly colored laundry on clotheslines out of their homes. Rome represents the Southernmost outpost of Western Europeanosity, beyond which, to the South, lies a land that’s still wild. Sicily is where the mobsters came from, and Janet picked our hotel because the guidebook described it as “safe and affordable.”
We visited Pompeii, which is a bit of a train ride outside the city, but worth the trip. We wandered for hours through this ancient Roman city, frozen in time by a volcano. Walking along narrow, but sturdy streets, with raised sidewalks on either side to keep the pedestrians out of the filth. Columns, mosaic floors, painted walls, restaurant ovens . . . it felt very much as if we were in some special place where ancient Roman culture was still fresh.
Walking along modern Naples’ crowded streets was challenging, as sidewalks were narrow when they existed at all, and the cobblestone streets had guys on scooters racing whichever way they wanted. Napoli is home to Italy’s best pizza, and we picked our way over to Napoli’s best pizza place. It was a pilgrimmage, for me, because Chicago has the best pizza in the world. But as I learned in Rome, Italian pizza is an entirely different food, magnificent in an entirely different way. In Naples we experienced the penultimate pizza.
The pies are thin crust, and they come in margherita and marinara – which means with cheese, namely thick slices of fresh mozerella, or without. The pies come in medium size or large and even though the menu and the food is simple, it is a wonderful, delicious, filing meal. They offered water or coke. I had two pizzas and two cokes. It is unfortunate that Chicago Pizza and Neopolitan Pizza share the same name, because they are different foods, and they are each the best of what they are.
We took a ferry over to the island of Capri. Janet wanted to see the famous Blue Grotto, which is a bit of a ways from the port where the ferry comes in. We decided on exercise and hoofed it up and up and up and up these stairs carved in a cliff by some ancient peoples whose only means of getting to the other side of the island was to climb up those steps in the cliff. Well, it was good exercise, and back down and down and down again to the Blue Grotto.
The Blue Grotto is this little sea cave that, well, the sunlight shines in through the sea water and the place looks blue. You pay a few bucks to take your turn on one of the rowboats that is constantly being paddling into the grotto and back by strong Italian men who understand the tourist value in embodying a stereotype. As they row into and out of the grotto, they sing loudly that ladadadeeda that I know only from Tom and Jerry.
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Me, some cute girls dressed like pasta, and a random Italian dude who
came to spiceup the picture.
The Blue Grotto . . . is blue. Well, Janet liked it, which made me feel that the trip was worthwhile. We took a bus back up the hill, before taking the ancient steps down the cliff, and back to the ferry to Napoli. When we got off the ferry we stumbled across a pasta show, that was being held on Naples’ waterfront to encourage Italians to eat pasta. What we were told is that Italians were getting fat, and the government wanted them to stick to their healthy traditional foods. So, for dinner, we ate pasta at the pasta show.
As we left the hotel, the lady warned Janet that we might not make it to Venice, because the trains might be on strike today. The train station was pretty dead, and we saw young folks outside, one group with a hammer and sickle poster, another group across the way with a Palestinian flag. Janet and I concluded that maybe it was pretty much just a holiday to get out and protest, and go on strike, and I concurred that a protest just wasn’t a protest these days without a Palestinian flag.
Since we weren’t sure what “so” meant on the big board, and we weren’t about to stand in the one, very long line that everyone else was standing in to get the skinny, and since there were so few people around, especially ones who seemed to know anything, we went ahead and bought tickets from the nice, naive, machine for the first train we could get to Venice: a Eurostar that was on the board, scheduled to leave soon, with an “so” annotation.
We subsequently learned that “so” was another way of saying “sopp” which is another way of saying “soppresso” which apparently means “cancelled” although other trains were actually “cancelled” or routed “via soppresso” which confused us when we saw that a train was leaving for Milano “via” another station that was on my map, so I was able to convince Janet that that “via” did not meant cancelled, via soppresso, soppresso, sopp, or so.
We had actually woken up early, but since our 9:30 Eurostar wasn’t meant to be, and the IC for Milan via Bologne wasn’t until 10:36, I got in line to change the tickets, while Janet went looking for breakfast. At about 10:30, I was very very near the ticket window, but since lines are never single-file in Italy, I wasn’t sure when I’d actually see the ticket guy. From what I could tell, we had an IC ticket clear to Venicia, which was valid to get us to Bologna, as a connecting point. The Eurostar fare was billed as an IC plus a supplement that was on a seperate ticket, that we could get refunded. Janet was inclined to stick with the line and have the guy make sure everything was cool, but at 10:34, with maybe one or two people still ahead of me, and other anxious folks wishing very much to squeeze in to see the guy, I made an executive decision to ditch the ticket line and get on the train, which we managed to do shortly before it started rolling for Milan.
At Bologne we found ourselves in a line with other luggage-toting folks, running through the underground walkway between platforms to catch the Venicia train in time. Since it was late Friday we decided that finding a hotel in Venezia would be either impossible or insanely expensive. We stopped short in Padova instead. We found ourselves in a one-star hotel that charged more than what it said on the room’s door, so on our way out the next morning, we collected a receipt, with the intention of subsequently contacting the hotel licensing authority in Padova. But first, we wanted to find a better hotel.
All the better one and two-star hotels were full. We stumbled on a $150 room in a four-star hotel, but opted instead for the $20 beds in the youth hostel, which was actually pretty cozy. Since we’d burnt most of the morning searching for lodging, we decided to forego a visit to Venicia, and stay in Padova, strolling through the markets, eating fruit. I spent some time reading the international versions of Time and Newsweek thanks to the Cafe in the middle of Padova that is always open, while Janet went window shopping and dropped by the train station to get the refund for our previously soppressed Eurostar.
That evening, in her dorm room, Janet ran into the trio of girls she’d spent time talking to on the train. They were exchange students studying in Bologne, visiting Venice for the weekend. One was Swedish, another Argentinian, and the third a Korean girl who had moved by herself to Toronto to finish high school when she was fifteen.
Kicked out of Padova hostel for college group. On to Venicia, finding a room, visiting Murano. Herded in to lame glass-blowing demonstrations. Saw neat artistic glassworks. Slept next to German father and son that I’d slept next to the night before in Padova.
Head for Milan. Barely missed desired IR, but that’s okay, because we had to hit Padova anyway because I’d left my camera battery charger at the hostel there. Regional to Verona, IR to Milano. One-Star Venicia was nice, had a TV – CNN! $49 for the eve, no bath. Out to dinner at self-service Brek – fun, good, inexpensive, watch the guy cook.
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