Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lucca & Siena.

My past week has been spent exploring more of Tuscany, in the two small cities of Lucca and Siena. My intention after my first three cities was to spend some time by myself- something I haven't done enough of at all on my trip. I have met so many amazing people- mostly travelers and a few locals- but I really needed this time to chill... and I've - well, for the most part - done just that.

Lucca is a historic, charming bite-size city with a minimal amount of tourists. I started my stay there with a run on top of the city's walls, which is basically a beautiful park enclosing the city-- complete with a biking and running path, picnic tables, and playgrounds. Just a walk around the walls gives you a glimpse of Lucca's overflowing Botanical gardens, stunning Romanesque churches and other historic buildings. 

My first opera experience ever was in Lucca-- and is apparently the place to go -- because Puccini, the famous opera singer got his start there. Every hair on my body stood up as I listened to the female opera singer (there was one male, one female) belt out every song... She was remarkable. The man? eh, slacking. 

One downside of Lucca-- the hostel. It reminded me of a classy prison... if that makes any sense at all. Ok, from the outside, it's decent. And the front desk guy was extremely comical and friendly. BUT It was always dark and freezing cold, and I paid 2.50 Euro for a PAPER towel and wash cloth.... I didn't even know those existed. And one of the women in my dorm snored much louder than any of the guys I shared rooms with in Florence or Cinque Terre. 

I did figure out a trick to get people to stop snoring if you don't know them well enough to slap them or pour water on them--- Cough really, really loud. Usually, they will wake up and most of the time, they will shut up. 

Lucca is also the place I figured out I could eat lunch for about 4 to 6 euros-- the markets in Italy are fabulous for buying picnic lunches. Everyday I was there, I bought bread, cheese, tomatoes, salami or whatever else, and took it into the beautiful park. I'm starting to realize I have no money, so my need for elaborate meals all the time is pretty much going out the window. But, honestly, I have no complaints. It doesn't get much better than Italian cheese and bread. Not to mention- the SALAMI- Thank God I started eating meat again. I don't know what I am going to do when I get back to the states-- Salami there is disgusting. 

Anyways, after two nights in Lucca, I took a bus to Florence with the intention of getting on a train there to Siena. Well, apparently the trains were on strike all day long... the Florence airport was a madhouse. People were screaming at each other in multiple languages and everyone was pissed they couldn't get to their destinations. I stood in line for about an hour to be told I may get on my train. I took the chance and bought the ticket. About 4 hours later, I made it to Siena. 

Exhausted and starving (and in need of some wine), I made my way to a little trattoria and ate. I had no idea I was seated front row for a huge political debate. A local man and his wife were leaving when they started talking to the restaurant owners about the Italian government and how awful it was (this is all I could truly gather with my unsatisfactory-but improving-Italian skills). The man grew very angry and started yelling about how Obama is doing things right. (Yea, okay). 

After I spent about a half hour being entertained by him, I slid out and went on a hunt for a pub I found in my beloved travel guide. Well, I made it to the street, but no sign of the pub (My book's a little dated, and sometimes it lists places that have already shut down). 

But, there was a wine and cocktail bar. I ordered a "spritz", which is a mixture of Prosecco (sparkling white wine) and some kind of fruity mixer. After a few minutes of observing the rowdy Friday night college crowd (Siena has a university), a group asked me to join them. They were all native Italians, which I was very happy about-- I spoke my broken Italian to them, they spoke their broken English to me. 

They were quite funny, drunk, and more than willing to share their wine with me. One of them asked if I could sing, "I believe I can fly" for them. Apparently, they are about 10 years behind, and unfortunately I was not quite intoxicated enough. 

But after talking to them for a while, it was clear they are all driven, all with different career paths. Two of the girls were going to be an economist and an artist, and two of the guys- an engineer and a lawyer. And they too, think Obama is the man. (?)

So, my days in Siena were spent mostly wandering the cobble-stoned hilly streets, relaxing, cooking, avoiding tourists (even though I am one), and learning more about how locals live here. I climbed the Torre di Mangia, visited the Duomo, and went to a popular running place called Piazza Della Liberta at sunset, which was incredible.

And now I am re-charged and off to Rome... ready for yet another adventure.. ready to meet more people and reconnect with a few. I'll be staying in a 12-bed hostel with the first friend I made on my trip in Bologna. I'll also be meeting up with two girls from New Jersey-- one who I met standing in line at a restaurant in Florence-- she actually lives there now and teaches Italian kids P.E. (pretty sweet deal?). 

And the other- Alisa- is on her own journey through Europe  before she goes to med. school.  I met her standing on the train to Lucca... we got to talking, realized we grew up about 15 minutes away from each other, and she told me about her experience with working on an organic farm in Italy during her trip. Fascinated, I took down her info, she told me about the organization, and I ended up finding a farm to work on near Alicante, Spain- for about 10 days. It looks amazing- I will be helping with anything the family needs, perfecting my Spanish, tending to their animals, picking fruits, veggies, olives and making olive oil, hiking, climbing, and decompressing from Barcelona (my first stop in Spain). I've always wanted to have an experience like that, and... well, I'm getting it much sooner than I expected!


Cinque Terre.

I knew I had made a good choice as soon as our train slid at lightning speed into the Vernazza (one out of five small towns in Cinque Terre) station--- the view from the window looked surreal-- the spotless, crystal clear, aqua blue water was unlike anything I’d seen in real life. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor and remained there over the next 4 days.

My new friends and I spent our time there hiking up and down the hills and mountains---through woods and vineyards---connecting each small medieval village to the next.  And, we ate – the best pizza and seafood I’ve had in Italy so far -- drank copious amounts of wine, and laughed more than I have in a very long time.

Oh yea, and 3 of us went scuba diving. I had no intentions- absolutely none what so ever to go. I was planning on going for a ride in a kayak and maybe a swim. But two of my Aussie friends casually asked me if I wanted to go, and strangely- and much to my own surprise- I said yes.

The idea of scuba diving always scared the shit out of me—I was born with a pretty decent case of claustrophobia and always want to have wide-open spaces. Nevertheless, I doled out the 50 euros, put the tank on, listened to the nice Italian man’s instructions, strapped on my flippers, and went for it. Note- this would never happen in America. People can’t just go scuba diving without proper lessons or a certification. Granted, we didn’t go out on a boat—we got right in at the marina and stayed fairly close to land.

But our instructor was fabulous—he was very calm and reassuring. My fears vanished as soon as I went under the first time. I was surrounded by thousands of fish, all swimming together like little sea soldiers. Never in a million years did I think I’d be touching the coral on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. And, never in my life will I forget that experience.

If I had any disappointment with Cinque Terre it would be the number of tourists--- but, hey I’m one of them, so I get it. And, this actually happened to be the absolutely only place where I met any rude Italian people-- There was one coffee shop that apparently sought out only bitches for employment.

And my hostel was by far the crappiest one I’ve stayed in yet. Actually, it wasn’t even a hostel. It was a 2-bedroom apartment with ELEVEN beds. And ONE bathroom. And again, with guys—the snoring (and farting) here was worse than in Florence.

At first, to be honest, I wanted to cry. But, after meeting more people and knowing that my dear Australian friend Sarah was right there with me, I actually (strangely) grew fond of our little shithole. I’m not supposed to be staying in snazzy tight-waddy places anyway- I have no money and I’m 22. Plus, it was in a great location-- just steps away from the marina and close to good bars, restaurants and markets.  

This is where I had to say goodbye to Sarah, Tracey and Nez-- 3 of my good Australian friends I’ve made so far on my journey. Nez was hanging around a bit more and Tracey was off to see the rest of the world (literally). Sarah was off to Switzerland and I was going back down through Tuscany. But, she and I are meeting again either in Amsterdam or Madrid for our November birthdays—she will be turning 26 the same weekend I am turning 23!

Chin Chin amice! 


So, I am – let’s see – three cities late writing in my blog… And since my last post, I have absolutely fallen in love, head over heels, with traveling. It’s pushed right out of my “planner-mode” and right into “living for the moment” mode. Don’t get me wrong, traveling involves planning… obviously. Otherwise I’d be out on the street sleeping next to a dumpster.  But, plans change, and this experience is helping me to accept that. And, to absolutely love it. What’s better than not knowing what or who is around the corner? Instead of being fearful, it’s much more fun to get the hell over that and just take it all in.

Like I said, the morning I left Bologna, I had the opportunity to take a cooking class with two amazing and kind Italian chefs. I was expecting some huge sign and a big culinary school, but as I hesitantly wandered down a tiny alleyway and almost gave up, I found the little sign and made me way in. It was only me and an adorable family from Scotland who were just dropping in to Bologna on a long-weekend get-away (must be nice). We spent four hours making pasta dough, rolling it out, and forming 3 different kinds of pasta. I have a new respect for Italian women who spend so much time making fresh pasta- it is NOT easy! By the end we had Gnocchi with Ragu sauce, Ricotta and Parsley stuffed tortellini (my personal favorite), and tagliatelle (fettucini-shaped) with traditional Bolognese meat sauce- and of course ate all of it with some delicious red wine. Bella!

So I hopped the train to Florence, and the cab driver dropped me off in front of a big building with no signs for my hostel. None. Surely I am in the wrong place, I thought. I pushed a button next to the door, heard the buzzer and let myself in. Still skeptical, I shoved my way-too-big suitcase into the old-school elevator and made my way to the top floor. Sure enough, this was it. I was greeted by a typical loud, friendly but intimidating, plump Italian woman. The place was completely different from the first hostel I’d stayed in… It was like a little apartment with a few rooms, bathrooms, and a kitchen. This would be my first time staying in a “mixed dorm,” which means I live with guys--- eh. It turned out to be fine, minus all of the snoring.

I met my first Australian friends within 5 minutes of checking in—I have grown to love the Australians. By now, I’ve met about 10 of them. They are true adventurers, and do not understand why Americans don’t generally explore the world more. -- Two of them invited me to come on a tour of the city and a leather factory, followed by dinner and wine that night –- My first night in Florence ended up to be quite hilarious—filled with perhaps a little too much alcohol.

There was a lot of alcohol, actually. After all, Florence is the capital of Tuscany—where the most extraordinary (in my opinion)--- wine vineyards exist! On Wednesday, an Aussie friend and I took a tour to the Chianti, where we went to several wine tastings, toured a vineyard, and indulged ourselves in ridiculously delicious olive and truffle oils (a said to be aphrodisiac)…and more wine.

We ended that trip with a visit to San Gimignano, a tiny medieval village, where we climbed the tower and ate, apparently – the world’s best gelato. That night, we had the ever-famous Florentine steak, which was inexplicably delicious.

And the flea markets in Florence are phenomenal- open all day, everyday-- and you can find pretty much anything you can imagine. The city is famous for the leather, so I went on a mission all week to find the perfect brown leather jacket—at the lowest cost possible. After bargaining, questioning, being bombarded by salesmen, and trying on about 10 of them, I purchased my first real Italian leather.

The Uffizi Museum definitely owns up to its popular name. Despite the massive amounts of people and tour groups speaking in every language imaginable, the artwork is phenomenal. In a strange way, it was incredibly satisfying for me to find the paintings I studied day and night out of a damn textbook for an ass-kicking art history class during my freshman year of college. My favorite is “Venus of Urbino” by Titian—the painting of Venus lying naked on a red couch with her dog. But after a few hours in the Uffizi, my claustrophobia kicked in. I was led through about five gift shops, and eventually made my way out.

After spending five nights in Florence, I’d say I covered the city fairly well. The greatest thing about it is that you can walk everywhere within a half hour--at the very most. On my last day, I made it to the other side of the famous Pontevecchio Bridge to visit the Boboli Gardens—I could have stayed there for an entire day--- The gardens are adorned with beautiful statues and regal fountains.  It was seemingly never-ending with dirt paths leading every which way, in and out of woods, up and down huge hills, with areas to lie in the grass and just watch the bustling city of Florence pass by.

After numerous people told me there is one place I cannot miss out on, I –yes-changed my plans—instead of venturing through more of Tuscany right away, I decided on a 4-day detour to the remarkably beautiful Cinque Terre.

Ah, Bellisimo!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ciao Bologna !

I have always heard that when you travel as I am doing, you meet people from everywhere. Well, since my last blog post, I have met a girl from the Bronx, Martha, a 23-yr. old solo traveler who has quickly become a good friend of mine. She's living in my room, and as soon as I asked her where she is from, and New York came out of her mouth, I honestly felt relieved. She was the first traveling American I have met thus far.

Besides Martha, I made a couple of friends here from Amsterdam, Spain, Australia, and Italy as well. It's really amazing to hear people's stories, why they are traveling, about where they have been, and where they plan to go next. The more people I talk to about their adventures, the more places I want to see. Martha and I will be meeting in Rome at the end of the month, once she finishes up  her month-long 6-country trip.

We spent Saturday together exploring more of Bologna... the highlight was climbing up one of the "Due Torre," an infamous tower in Bologna. It was quite the workout, but quite worth it. The view at the top was completely breathtaking.

Then, we had 2 or 3 run-ins with mimes on the street... All we wanted was a picture, and all they wanted, was our money. Apparently, I was not supposed to snap a photo of them without paying. One literally chased me down the street! I've become quite stingy with my money, and am not about to blow it on a mime. I have also grown very fond of the no-tipping policy they have here in Italy. No complaints there at all.

Martha and I walked the entire city, from bottom to top. We finished off our trek with a delicious meal in a laid back restaurant called, "L'Osteria del Montesino"... another good find out of my now-beloved guidebook. We shared wine, a plate of "formaggio" (cheese), and I had turkey for my main course. We decided to go for a night on the town, along with a few others from our hostel.... quite the scene on Zamboni St.----the street where Bologna's university is-- which is also the oldest college in Europe.

On a side note, I love ordering a vodka with soda here, because it is unheard of... every bartender looks at me like I am insane. Last night, one actually gave me one full glass of vodka, and one full glass of soda!

And, today was my last full day in Bologna... I spent it with Martha and Bram (from Amsterdam) at mass in the Basilica San Domenico, which is by the far the most beautiful cathedral I have seen so far. This morning was my third time visiting the church in 5 days because I am plainly awestruck by it. The service was unsurprisingly wonderful, with a beautiful choir.

Then we asked some Italians on the street for a good, local place to eat. They happily brought us to a local bookstore with a restaurant built inside of it. We loved it, because there was not a tourist in sight and the food was cheap and fabulous. We all ate "Tagliatelli di ragu".. a classic bolognese pasta and meat dish. Yum.

Tomorrow, I will be packing my bags and headed to Florence, but first I will be taking a 3-hour cooking class in the morning... I feel like that will be the perfect way to end my stay in Bologna- which is said to be the culinary capital of Italy. I've decided to travel south to Tuscany, as the weather is getting colder. Once I've hung in Florence for a bit, I'll take a day trip to the Chianti country and tour a wine vineyard, and then head down to Siena. From there, we shall see where this journey takes me.

Chin Chin!     Cheers! 

Friday, October 7, 2011


I am actually sitting in a public internet area in the Piazza Maggiore in the center of Bologna, Italy. I came in here to hide from the current downpour.. the first I have actually seen since I arrived in Italy 3 weeks ago. The weather has been perfect .. crisp and cool in the mornings and evenings, and a bit toasty during the day. Anyhow, Bologna is not quite what I expected it to be... it is a decent sized bustling city with lots of character.

I am staying in my first hostel ever, on the outskirts of the city.... by far the cheapest place I could find. At first, I thought it was a bit of a shithole, but honestly, it has what I need.. clean sheets, decently clean bathrooms, and nice people.. from everywhere you can imagine. There are a ton of people from England and obviously Italy, then Germany, Spain and I actually met an older man from Poland last night when I was sitting out in the patio of the hostel. I also met a Pakistani family at the train station.

My wallet and passport sleeps with me at night.. I literally cuddle with my money while I am sleeping. Bizarre maybe, but there is no way in hell I am getting stranded alone with no money and no passport. I have already experienced a few occasions of almost being or actually being ripped off.. due to the fact , im sure, that I am obviously American, and blonde. My first meal alone, I asked the waitress what she liked... you know what she pointed to...the freaking Lobster. First of all, the lobster was 18 euros.. by far the most expensive meal on the menu, second of all, I did not come to Italy to eat lobster. She seriously thought I was a moron. So, I smiled, and told her I would have the pizza. For 7 euros.

Another example.. i have taken the taxi twice to my hostel... one driver charged me 17 euros. The other charged me 11. On a more positive note, my lunch yesterday was at a place called Trattoria Belfiore, which I hunted down out of my guidebook. It was a small and charming, dimly lit restaurant with lots of Italian businessmen and a couple of families. The pleasantly plump owner immediately came to my table and tried the best he could to explain everything on the menu to me. I chose Verdura Mixta, which was a delcious plate of zuchinni, potatos, squash, and other veggies grilled in olive oil. For my main dish, I wanted to try something local, so he broughtme Togliatelle alla bolognese, which consists of long fat noodles with bolognese sauce.. a meat sauce. I washed it all down with Prosecco.. the famous sparking wine of Italy. I am continuing to love tradition of drinking wine at every meal, every day.

This morning, I was wandering the side streets near the Piazza Maggiore, in search of the open air market I have been reading about. An incredibly nice Italian woman came to me and led me to the most incredible market I have ever seen in my life... Endless displays of meat, fruit, veggies, baked goods, wine, cheese, and more lined the side streets. By far, the best market I have seen in my life.

This weekend, I am working my way through the museums, cathedrals, and gardens of Bologna as well as I can...Yesterday, I visited an old museum full of beautiful artwork from the Middle Ages. Today, I am on a mission to find a tower I can climb, in order to view the apparently breathtaking view of the entire city and surrounding landscape. I am intrigued by the towers of Bologna, because one day, there was over 200 towers that rose above this city... built by noble families as symbols of their prestige and wealth. And only a few are still standing, and even fewer are sturdy enough to climb.

I would love to go to the theater here, the Teatro Communale, for a ballet or an opera. The thing I am most excited for is my cooking class I will be taking on Monday morning before I leave Bologna... at a place called Gli Amici di Babette... a local cooking school. After that, my journey takes me to either Florence or Venice. I have yet to decide, and I must soon. They are in completely opposite directions of each other.