Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amalfi Coast.

My last stop in Italy was in hands down, the most beautiful area yet. At least -- in my opinion -- it just took the cake. Plus, it was exactly where I needed to be to come down from the crazy Rome high.

I made it to the train station fairly late at night since I had to connect in Naples and take a local train out to the smaller towns where I'd be staying for 5 nights. Although it was pitch black, it seemed charming and the hostel was by far the nicest one I encountered on my trip-- and the same price as everywhere else.

Really, this place shouldn't have even been called a hostel-- it was fully equipped with a lounge/bar/restaurant that was basically transformed into a club when necessary. The food was actually decent and cheap and the breakfast was free. The staff was full of the most sincere people I had met and I got the feeling that they actually wanted to be there. There was a rooftop balcony-- actually, a few of them stacked on top of each other. Sure, I had to share my room with about 11 other people, but it was immaculately clean and the bunks were actually built into the walls-- an extreme luxury from what I had been used to! I even had a little bedside table to put my crap in. AND, the elevator actually worked.

Since I hadn't seen Sorrento or any of the nearby cities in daylight, I went running the first morning to get my bearings. I'll never forget that run, simply because after every 6th of a mile or so, I was getting more and more blown away by the beauty, charm, friendliness, and tasteful architecture this place had. I automatically thought; If I live in one place in Italy, it will be here. Absolutely.

There were little outdoor markets lining the streets, all the locals were so cheerful and friendly, and just happy to be there. Well, I get it. They live in one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. And it's hard to lose sight of the ocean when you're in any of the towns along the Amalfi. And the water's unbelievable translucent pale green color that has the ability to capture my mind's attention for what seems like forever. It's just not what I am used to on the Florida beaches, which have their own wonderful features, but this was just different.

I spent my 5 days there, wandering the streets of Sorrento, eating freshly caught seafood, and riding motorbikes along the Amalfi coastline with two friends who lived in my room. They were Jarn, a "Kiwi" or New Zealander and Magdelana, a Chilean girl who was traveling for 9 months -- half of which she would be spending volunteering with children in Africa.

We split the cost and got two bikes. With my track record behind the wheel of any sort of motorized vehicle, I figured it would be a good idea for me to ride with Jarn, who seemed to know what he was doing. Magdelana, on the other hand, basically lied to the renter guy and said she knew how to drive one. She pretty much taught herself, which was great, but this meant Jarn and I were always about 50 miles ahead of her!

Anyways, that is a picture I will have in my mind for as long as I live-- spending a day cruising along the Amalfi coast-- hopping from city to city-- Amalfi, Positano, Ravello-- and stopping wherever we pleased to take photos, talk, and just relax in the natural beauty which surrounded us. That day was surreal.

I spent the rest of the time mostly by myself-- took a ferry to the island of Capri, which was obviously pretty, like the rest of them, but much more "upscale," you might say. I was honestly a little disappointed when I spotted a Prada store after taking the long but beautiful hike to the top, where the actual town was located. I took a quick glance in some of the shops and quickly realized this was a place for mostly Americans who had so much money they didn't know what to do with it. There were stores full of nothing but designer everything. That's all fine, but not really what you call authentic! So, I just got a beer and watched the sunset over the water-- really can't complain anymore about that one.

I thought about taking a day trip to Naples, but changed my mind after I heard one girl's horror story. This girl and her boyfriend were staying in my room, and they had just spent a few days in Naples. They were walking down the street around 9 p.m., and some dude rides by on his motorbike and yanks the strap of her purse (which is going across her torso), pulling her along with him across the pavement. Eventually, I guess the guy gave up and she was fine-- left with a few bruises and scratches, and well--obviously horrified. I decided it would be a wise choice to stay away from there- especially as a female traveling alone.

I've gotten lucky with this type of stuff I think-- knock on wood. There has not been one time where I have felt unsafe or in danger of anything. It may have something to do with me knowing I have to be alert and conscious of my surroundings at all time-- and I must take care of myself. I think any female can travel the world if she knows how to do that.

So my plan was to go to Pompeii one day... Figured I'd catch the train and spend a half-day there exploring. Funny thing I learned quickly about public transportation in Italy (especially in smaller towns)-- and many countries in Europe in general-- They really don't need much of a reason, if any, to just shut down for a day or two. Once I got to the train station, I learned that the trains were just not running that day-- for apparently-- a reason that no one knew of or even really cared about at all. And, buses were not running either because there were "large boulders" in the middle of the road. Let me just say, I saw these "boulders," and they were more like big rocks that I could move with my own two hands.

I was bummed a little I couldn't get to Pompeii. However, I really didn't mind this carelessness in transportation-- I actually appreciated it. It is so drastically different from America's stick-up-everyone's-ass mentality, and quite frankly, it was refreshing. People are less obsessed with plans and constantly having to go somewhere everyday at a certain time. Some may call it lazy. In my opinion, it's a much better way to live-- learning to go with the flow and realizing that things just aren't going to happen the way you necessarily thought they would, and usually for the better.

That day, I ended up just wandering around and allowing myself to get lost-- no time constraints of a train, no agenda, just being. And, to me that is when traveling is really becomes the most fun, and the most transforming.

Leaving Italy was sad for me because I was actually become somewhat conversational with my Italian and I really had developed a strong love and respect for the entire culture. It is such a beautiful place and I will cherish the time I spent there forever. I know I will be back one day.

Onto Spain!

Friday, November 25, 2011


So-- Once I left the beautiful land of Tuscany, I felt re-charged and ready to go. I believe I left for Rome on the perfect day—it was pouring down rain in Siena, and actually getting really cold. And when I stepped off (or waddled off with my absurd 50 lb. suitcase), the change in weather was drastic. It was bright and sunny—my scarf and big coat were now completely unnecessary.

Usually, I wouldn’t write about my train station experience, but I had one worth noting in Rome’s “Termini”. I was making my way to the exit and this old (I’m talking 75 to 80 range) Italian man stops me and starts chatting. At first, I didn’t care—he seemed happy and nice—and I really loved any chance I had at improving my Italian. But within 5 minutes, this man was asking me to meet him at 9 for dinner that night—So, I smiled and told the creep I’d have to check with my friend.  I gave him my number-- Of course, not my real number.

Seriously, nasty old man? I barely even look my age. Actually without mascara on, I could probably pass for 18. It’s one thing when guys around the same age go for it, but when men start seeking females over 50 years younger than them, it’s simply insane. But all Italian men (or boys) I came across on my trip seemed this way—this mentality of “Oh, I want you so I can have you”. To me, this is incredibly unappealing, and actually—“No, you can’t.”

Anyways, my hostel in Rome was one among few with a full bar – and the only one with a free drink with check-in. Besides that, its quality was mediocre. The worst part about this one really had nothing to do with the hostel actually—it was this German who was really a nice guy but had the absolute WORST smelling body odor in the entire world. I’m talking to the point where you can’t focus on what he’s saying because of the stench and it lingers for about an hour after he leaves the room.

But really, I’ve come to realize the conditions of the hostels really don’t matter in the whole scheme of things—no one comes to hang out in the hostel room, especially in Rome.

Right away, I met a few somewhat interesting people—a girl from the Netherlands who was only 20 and just dropping in for a little break from her real life, along with a bartender from Philidelphia who visited Rome and just never left. 

Then there was the bizarre military guy from Israel who (after a few drinks…) decided to tell me all about his Jewish upbringing, including the fact that he’s circumcised (OOHHHKAY? Thanks, for that buddy) and that his parents are angry with him for not wanting to get married. He secretly wants to be a film director and coming to Italy seemed to give him the motivation to actually follow that dream. Whatever works, right?

But the best person I got to see in Rome was my newfound fellow-traveler and New Yorker, Martha. We met in Bologna at the beginning of my solo journey and just instantly clicked… decided Rome was a must do—together.  So, I waited at the bar for her to get in and we had the most outrageous night of our Rome experience—just endless laughing and debauchery until about 4 or 5 in the morning.

The next day, we somehow managed to make our way onto a walking tour of the city- given by yet another American implant who had simply fallen in love with Rome. He was obviously passionate about the city and I actually learned quite a bit of history (there’s A LOT to know in Rome). He showed us the typical but must-see tourist sites-- Palatine Hill, the Colossum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon.

The Pantheon was absolutely phenomenal. After witnessing its grandeur and enormity with my own eyes, I could barely wrap my mind around the amount of time, analytical thought,  blood, sweat and tears that went into creating that beast of a structure.

But it was also the place where I fell prey to a horrible tourist scam Martha and I were leaving the building as these horribly fat and sloppy looking men dressed in Viking outfits asked us to pose with them. So, we shrugged our shoulders and went along with it. For about 10 minutes, we let them show us how to hold their fake swords, and pretend to kill each other. Although we did get some fabulously ridiculous photos out of that 10 minutes, they tried to charge us FIVE EUROS a piece. We instantly felt like the dumbest two people in the world. 

I simply told these morons this was insanity, that they should tell people before-hand (But of course, this ruins their entire ploy),  gave them half of what they wanted and walked away. Learned a big travel lesson there-- That is one mistake neither of us will ever make again.

Oh, and never go to a pub crawl that is claimed to be "THE BEST EVER". We paid 20 Euros for this thing--- In our defense, we thought we were getting: 1. Free drinks at several bars, 2. Free entry into a night club, 3. Free Pizza.

In reality, we got: 1. Free drinks at one bar for the first half hour (where we spent 3 hours) 2. The company of wasted 18 and 19 year olds playing beer pong,  3. Front row seats to some skank taking a body shot off the bar manager.

After unsuccessfully getting our money back and making it clear to these people their pub crawl sucked, we ditched it and made our own fabulous night.--Yet another lesson learned.

The rest of my time in Rome was spent roaming the cobblestone streets- making it through the Jewish Ghetto, which has been home to Europe's oldest Jewish community for over 2,000 years.  And I discovered my favorite section of the city- Travestere- a small charming village of narrow roads, bustling shops, and trendy eateries- mostly filled with 20-somethings. We had a meal of pasta, pizza, and wine for about 15 euros a piece at a classic Italian trattoria, which is an amazing deal.

And wandering through the inside of the Colosseum was enough to send me back in time when everything was in action. I could blink my eyes and just imagine what it must have been like-- the entire stadium filled to the brim with screaming Italians waiting for their gory, blood-and-guts entertainment to take place.

Martha and I went to the Vatican City to see the infamous St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican. Something interesting which I never knew-- the Vatican City is actually an independent state from Rome with its own government system and postal service.

And as I roamed the hallways of the Vatican, I was absolutely blown away by the enormous amounts of gold paneling, and endless intricate designs and sculptures on the ceilings. Surely this was the most phenomal interior beauty I have ever set my eyes on.

Everything in Rome was that way- just ridiculously thought out and aesthetically appealing in every way any human's mind could imagine. Our last day was a Sunday and Martha and I decided to find a mass in one of the hundreds of cathedrals in the city. So, I did a search online and found one with a mass at a reasonable hour and we went.

All I can really remember is sitting in complete silence-- I had no desire to speak-- This place humbled me. It made me feel small in a way that felt so uplifting. I went up to receive communion, and as I took a long glance up close to the altar, tears filled my eyes. As korny as that sounds, I don't care. It was indeed a small cathedral but its raw beauty created more of a holy, faithfulness inside of me more than any other church I stepped foot in. 

So, after almost a week in the nocturnal city, Martha was headed back to "real life" in New York, and I was moving further south to the Amalfi Coast, to my last Italian destination on my journey.