Sunday, March 27, 2011

Winter Wanderlust: Seconda Parte

Without Ana’s influence, I returned to my style of traveling with no particular plan. I started hitting up Italian friends to see if I could crash at their places. The first person to fall for it was my friend Agnese who had been at Benza’s for New Years. She and I hopped in a car with some guys we barely knew and headed up to Genova where we did a quick tour and had fun being derisive about modern art.

We then caught a train up to the coast to Agne’s home town of Finale Ligure which is right on the sea. She was quick to inform me that it’s the same coast that is oh-so-touristy in France and that most inhabitants of the area were a bit bitter at France’s success. Anyway, her dad picked us up from the train station and took us to their house where they were already halfway through a big ol’ family dinner. As soon as I sat down, everyone was talking to me, asking me questions, and most importantly, offering me food. I can safely say that it was the best meal I’ve had in Italy, and some of the best company.

The next day, Agne helped me plan the next step of my journey and she showed me around the town. We also went down to the beach and had a nice walk in the sun. It almost didn’t seem like winter.

That afternoon, I headed off to Parma. I had no idea what I was going to see, but I knew where I was going to stay. There was a hostel just outside of town, about 25 minutes from the train station. When I arrived, I oriented myself and started walking. Before too long, I made it to the hostel. Of course, the internet, while informing me of the location of the hostel, neglected to tell me that the hostel was closed. And I mean full-on closed. The gate was closed, all the windows were covered and if it weren’t for the little sign outside, I would have assumed that it wasn’t a hostel at all. I called Agne and she started searching the internets to help me find another place. I proceeded to wander back to Parma and then wander the streets asking prices at every hotel I came across. After a couple hours, I finally ended up settling because I didn’t want to sleep on the streets. The receptionist at the front desk was really friendly, and while he said he couldn’t offer me a room for less, he did give me a better room for the basic price. I went upstairs and tried to make the best of my semi-fancy room.

The next day, I experienced Parma in the daylight and found it about the same. So I headed up to Cremona to stay with my friend Beatrice. She, like Agne, was a great hostess and showed me all around her town. Cremona is famous because it’s the hometown of Stradivarius, that guy that made nifty violins a while back. We wandered around, looking at all the different parts of town named after Stradivarius and all the statues of Stradivarius. That night we went out to dinner with Bea’s family and I tried a Cremonese specialty, the Torta Fritta. It’s pretty much pockets of friend dough that you put various meats and cheeses inside. So good! That night, Bea’s dog managed to eat my shoes, so the next day involved some shopping before I went on my way to the next stop, Mantova.

Mantova is known for being the hometown of Virgil, most famous for his supporting role in Hell: The Dante Alighieri Story. Despite a statue, there’s not much to show for Virgil because he has been dead for a very, very long time. There is, however Palazzo Te which is a 16th century palazzo with some beautiful frescoes and a museum inside. I passed most of my day looking at all sorts of neat stuff inside the palazzo and then headed off to Bologna that evening.

In Bologna, I had the good fortune of finding a hostel. It wasn’t exactly in Bologna, but it was within a half hour by bus and it was, according to the internet, really easy to get to the right bus stop from the train station. After wandering the streets of Bologna for an hour or so, I finally found the right bus stop and hopped on. As we were driving along, I noticed that there was no indication of where we were or what the stops were. There were no signs at the stops and nothing was announced on the bus. This concerned me because I was counting on my knowledge of the name of my bus stop to facilitate my arrival at the hostel. After a while I decided that it was worth it to ask the bus driver. I had to do this every time I returned to the hostel because there weren’t even any defining characteristics nearby.

When I got to the hostel, it seemed pretty normal, like any imposing compound in the middle of nowhere. I headed up to my room which was your traditional hostel dorm. What was a bit unusual was my company in my hostel dorm. When I entered, I saw the indication of my two roommates. One bed was in a state of shocking disarray. To say simply that it was unmade would not suffice. There were sheets everywhere. In stark contrast, the other bed was extremely neatly made and resting on the floor in a precise ninety degree angle to the bed was a pair of sandals. Before long, the owner of the sandals returned to the room. As would be expected, he was a very courteous asian man. I would say he was middle aged, but he could have been one hundred like those Tibetan monks that look 16 but hung out with Confucius back in the day.

Later that night, my second roommate came back. He was preceded into the room by his odor. Luckily, he wasn’t selfish and was perfectly willing to share his stink with us for the next couple days. Now, at this point, someone might get offended by my assertion that he was a hobo. Keith, they might say, not all stinky people are hobos, any football player can tell you that. And they’d have a legitimate point. What defined this man for me as a hobo was his charge that he carried with him. He had, on a dolly, what appeared to be a rectangular plastic column in the Grecian style. Every night when he returned from what I can only assume was hobo-ing for the day, he would enter the room with his column and put her gently into his closet, which he would then lock. I had the opportunity, once, to see that the column was hollow. The only object I could easily discern within his column was an almost empty plastic bag of car soap. That’s right, hypothetical skeptic from earlier, he was clearly a hobo.

While I was there, I also saw Bologna.

After three days in Bologna, I headed off for my last night away from home in the famous city of Ferrara. It is not, NOT where Ferraris are from. I got to my hostel, where I was in a room for eight, but literally the only guest in the entire hostel. It was a little spooky. I decided to go out that evening to see a bit of the city and find some food. I walked toward the center of town, and as I rounded a corner BAM, castle. With a moat and drawbridges and everything. The Ferraresi are awesome. It’s like they found this badass castle and thought, ‘How cool is this? Let’s just build a town around it.’ And they did. And it’s called Ferrara.

Then, I went back to Pavia and slept for days.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Winter Wanderlust: Prima Parte

It’s been months since I’ve written, and I figured I should remedy that, so here goes. I’d say I was going to pick up where I left off, but that was quite some time ago. A popular question among Italians I talk to is how long I’ve been in their country. While it sometimes comes off as hostile, I think they’re just trying to make conversation. When I say I’ve been here since June they always ask if I’ve been home at all and then proceed to be thoroughly shocked that I haven’t. “Then what did you do for Christmas?” they ask. Well generalized Italian friends, I will now attempt to answer that question.

First, I’m going to assume that in this case Christmas refers the entire time that the college was closed and, as a result, I was homeless. I had planned a nice week of travel with my friend Ana who I met in Lecce. So, on the day the college closed I headed to Milan to meet her. I grabbed us a hotel room in the slightly sketchy district near the central station and awaited her arrival from Paris.

Before long, she called me to inform me that because of snow her flight had been cancelled and that she hoped to get a flight the next day, the 24th. So, instead of following our previous plan and heading to Bologna, I stuck around Milan the next day as well, but we all know that she didn’t get that flight either. However, the people at the airport were kind enough to inform her that there weren’t any open flights on Christmas.

Since we already had reservations in Siena for the 25th, I caught the 6am train from Milan. I spent my Christmas morning with a nice little Spanish family. Between my elementary Spanish and the massive similarity between Spanish and Italian, we managed to have a nice little conversation and a pleasant little trip.

When I arrived in Siena, in following with my basic practice of poor preparation, I started wandering toward where I remembered seeing our hostel on a map the day before. I had almost arrived when I decided to call the number that I had for the hotel. It turned out that the address that I had was of the booking agency and not in fact the hotel. So, I turned around and headed back to the center of town. I wasn’t too upset, however when I discovered that I was in a very nice Bed and Breakfast right behind the main piazza of Siena (for an extremely reasonable price).

By the time I got settled in and had me a little nap, it was just about time to get dinner so I headed out to see what was open on Christmas. Luckily, I found a nice little place to get a pizza and took it back to my room where I watched reruns of cross-country skiing competitions on TV and went to bed early.

The next morning, I woke up and the sun made its first appearance in months. I’ve yet to find a city more beautiful than Siena on a sunny day. I spent my entire morning wandering the streets in wonder and taking all sorts of pictures. That evening, Ana finally made it to Italy and caught the train down to Siena. We had a dinner at the restaurant attached to our B&B which was clearly something frozen tossed in a microwave. Oh well, at least it was cheap. The next morning, I, now quite an expert on Siena, took Ana for a tour and then we caught an afternoon train to Florence.

At this point, because I get all confused with what stuff happened when, I’m going to reproduce three days in Florence in a one day format. So, prepare yourselves.

We woke up early because we had reservations at the Accademia. If you’re not sure what that is, it’s essentially a big building with plaster casts of unimportant statues. Oh, yeah, and then there’s the David, Italy’s huge, naked, marble superstar. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical going in that this statue could so easily spawn obsessions in some people I know, but when I saw him, I totally understood. There’s this unexplainable wonder that comes with standing right next to… well, shit, it’s unexplainable. I never got up the courage to covertly snap a forbidden photograph, but it was ok ‘cause we had to hurry off to the Uffizi.

The Uffizi is one of the most famous museums around. It’s like Italy’s Louvre, but way more disappointing. From what I could tell, they gathered every mediocre religious painting from the last thousand years and stuck them in a building. Walking through the rooms, it goes a little like this: Christ, Christ, baby Christ, San Sebastiano(who is super famous because it was an excuse to paint a guy full of arrows), Christ, Mary, random member of the Medici family, martyrs, Christ. I have to admit however that Botticelli’s Venus is right on par with David and, in itself, pretty much made the entire visit worthwhile.

We then decided to follow the advice that our friend the internet had given us and check out a local gelato place. It was a bit pricey, but as it turned out, the best gelato of all time. For the first time, I was thankful for the bitter cold as it preserved my dear gelato so I could eat it ruhl slow.

Seeing Florence from street-level was getting a bit boring, so we climbed a big ol’ hill nearby up to Piazzale Michelangelo which overlooks the entire city. From our nifty vantage point, Florence looked even cooler and we noticed that there was some nice countryside and some sort of sketchy tower nearby. And so began our quest for la Torre del Gallo. We pretty much just walked toward this cool looking tower until we found out that it was on private property and we couldn’t go see it. At that point, we were already outside of Florence, so we just kept going. We wandered country roads for the next couple hours and found some neat little frozen-in-time type towns.

After a couple worrisome moments in which we might have been lost, we managed to get back to Florence and find our way through the streets to our hostel. They were more psyched than me that it was my birthday and offered to take me along for the evening’s pub crawl for free. Seemed like a good idea, so Ana and I went and had a night on the town with random hostel members. We made some friends, and laughed at some people singing karaoke and had an all around good night.

The next day, we headed off to Pisa for some New Year’s festivities at my friend Benza’s house. We had a huge dinner, laughed a lot, drank a lot, and then went to go dancing in a piazza. I, losing interest, managed to wander off and get lost on the streets of Pisa. Luckily, Benza was able to find me and steer me back to civilization.

The next morning, I woke up early to accompany Ana to the train station. As we walked through Pisa, we saw some heavy duty cleaning crews trying to restore the city after the chaos of the night before. Without any problems, I sent Ana on her way.

Here, I find it prudent to take some time to describe another Italian tradition. When you go see a movie at the theatre, any movie, there is an intermission exactly halfway through. It doesn’t matter what’s happening, explosions, important dialogue, they can and will take a ten minute bathroom break. That’s more or less what I plan to do here.