Trip Start May 31, 2007
72Trip End Ongoing
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Once again we've managed to cover a fair bit of ground since the last update, so strap yourselves in - it's gonna be a lengthy and mildly enjoyable thrill ride! This one covers Vienna, Venice, Milan and Arezzo. Thanks again to all who've sent us emails and messages, we appreciate it.
We pulled into Vienna from Prague fairly late in the afternoon and set about looking for a room. Unfortunately, we'd gotten off the train at the station that didn't feature in our 'Lonely Planet' guide (maps were scarce), so we headed in the direction of a faded sign promising a youth hostel "only 15 minutes walk away"
15 minutes turned into half an hour with no hostel in sight, so we decided to head towards the section of the city covered by the guidebook. This proved to be mostly uphill, and we were getting pretty weary lugging the backpacks. Luckily the city turned out to be attractive & well-tended, with parks and trees scattered about at regular intervals. Our guidebook stated that Vienna looks like a giant wedding cake, and that's not far from the truth.
After seemingly endless trudging, we eventually spotted a B&B that looked affordable off a main street. We climbed several flights of gloomy stairs to the third floor and were greeted by a cadaverous looking man, who informed us that he only had 2 single rooms available, miles apart. This wasn't ideal, but as it was getting late, we were getting fairly desperate. At this point, the guy decided to tell us that the room would require a 40 Euro deposit *each* and that he'd need to keep our passports.
I asked why that might be and he went into a long, rambling speech, like a man in the grip of a fever dream. He suggested Eb and I might not actually know each other, and that we might have met at the train station, and that the keys to his rooms were very valuable - very valuable indeed
I'm not sure what scenario was playing out in his imagination, but for my part I could imagine waking late at night to find him standing at the foot of my bed holding a block of wood and a hammer, 'Misery' style.
After hasty consultation with Eb, we decided to back away slowly without making eye contact & find a hostel where the proprietor wasn't in need of prescription medication and a good lie-down. We were turned away from a couple more places that were chockers before finding a very nice (but costly) B&B.
Vienna turned out to be very ornate, a great city for walking and taking happy-snaps. We sampled several coffee houses and toured many of the city's attractions, strolling from one end of the city to the other. After a day or two, everything started getting a bit much (most buildings look like they were designed by a pastry chef rather than an architect), so we needed a change of scenery.
We decided to travel to Slovenia. After much screwing around at the train station with various timetables and Austrian ticketing officials, we found that we'd missed the last train by 3 minutes. On a whim, we decided to head to Venice.
The only train we could catch into Italy turned out to be an overnight sleeper train. We located our room, which contained 6 sleeping palettes and a wholesome Canadian couple on their honeymoon. It was okay in a claustrophobic-but-cheap kind of way. The Canadians turned out to be nice folks, and related many amusing tales from their stay in Egypt.
After a surprisingly heavy sleep, we woke in Italy. The conductor (a ferocious Austrian woman who greeted every passenger request with a disgusted sigh) told me with a disgusted sigh that we were too late for our free breakfast. Ahwell.
Venice early in the morning looked beautiful. The paved streets were empty, and the boat traffic on the canals was just beginning to stir to life. The combination of blue sky, green water and ancient houses made for an extremely memorable scene. We walked around for a while through winding sidestreets, and eventually found a decent-enough 1 star hotel, where we were able to dump our bags.
By this time, the streets were packed with early-rising tourists. By 'packed', I mean we had to crab-walk most of the time to avoid middle-aged Americans in shorts bellowing at each other, and tacky stands selling "CIAO BELLA!" t-shirts and mugs. There was also a disproportionate amout of shops selling carnival masks and capes. Only a couple of streets away from the main strip, however, we felt like we had the city to ourselves.
Venice turned out to be ridiculously expensive (it's apparently the most expensive city in Italy). 2 small coffees and a couple of tartufo deserts cost us something in the vicinity of $20 Australian. Luckily we were able to have a lot of low-rent fun just walking around and taking in the sights, including the impressive looking Piazza San Marco which appeared to be sinking. Water could be seen flowing up through cracks in the tiles.
We were considering a gondola ride for a laugh, but they were around 70 Euro to rent for 50 minutes. We ended up just getting around on a ferry. In any event, Venice was unfortunately proving too pricey to justify staying there too long, so we decided to head to Milan.
Milan is the second most expensive city in Italy, so things were looking up! We didn't actually stay here too long, as it wasn't really a city suited to backpackers. Milan was chock-full with high profile fashion labels, models & Donald Trump-types. We were two unkempt Australians smelling like travel socks, wearing CIAO BELLA t-shirts and carnival capes.
The Last Supper is located there, but we didn't really feel that compelled to go and check it out as it was over the other side of the city and was already plastered on every wall in our hotel. We decided to walk to the major attraction in the city - the Duomo. It turned out to be architecturally impressive - all jagged spires and towers. We were going to duck in for a quick look, but Italian police were searching bags and patting-down sightseers before they walked through a metal detector.
We found it all a bit grim and dispiriting, so we decided to take a stroll through the main shopping drag to gasp at expensive accessories for the painfully thin. We bought some gelati (we were instructed to pay first - I assume we looked like gelati-thieves) and continued to stroll around the city, but it just wasn't grabbing us. We made the decision to head to Florence the next day.
After some confusion at the Milan ticket office, we managed to overshoot Florence by a mile. In our defence, most of the journey took place through tunnels, and we figured we'd eventually pull into the main station. No such luck. The stop we decided to disembark was named Arezzo, and it turned out to be a very nice medievel town. At the top of the main street (up an enormous hill) was a stunning view of the Tuscan landscape. A lucky accident.
We got a room at a B&B run by a very nice woman, and after an awkward, silent breakfast with the only other guests - an older French couple wearing bike pants - we decided to try our luck heading to Florence a second time. We made doubly sure we had the right station and departed Arezzo early the next morning.
On the crowded train, we were forced to stand between two carriages. After a while, an American guy with a guitar strapped to his back joined us, and after hearing our accents, asked us where we were from. We told him Australia, and he was overjoyed.
His name was Vince, and he was in Italy to get married. Vince was an incredibly nice guy, and invited us on a tour around Florence with his fiancče, friends and family. We happily accepted, proceeded to meet his wedding party, and made a lot of new friends in the process.
Florence itself turned out to be absolutely crammed with tourists. We'd never seen anything like it. Everywhere you turned, there were stands flogging more CIAO BELLA! shirts, plastic statues of David and Italian flag boxer shorts at exorbitant prices. I heard more international accents than Italian.
Florence feels like walking around a very impressive movie set - not much about it feels genuine. Luckily we had great people to hang out with, otherwise the crowds, touts, beggars and noise would have been fairly dispiriting. Florence's old buildings and artworks were indisputably beautiful when you managed to get a good look at them, however.
After saying goodbye to our new US chums, we checked out the Uffizi gallery. This required a wait in line of just under 2 hours. The Uffizi contains a bunch of works by Bottecelli, DaVinci, etc, and turned out to be ultimately worth the wait, though sections inside the gallery required queueing.
The next day we jumped on a train back to Arezzo to meet up with the US folks. They were staying in a villa in the hills outside the town, and we were very graciously invited to hang out for an evening. It turned out to be absolutely spectacular, set in an old mansion-style house with jawdropping views of the hills on all sides.
We spent a bunch of time alternately relaxing, swimming, chatting and sampling excellent local wines - all capped off by a huge dinner in a friendly local restaurant. Email addresses were exchanged, future arrangements were made for tours of Melbourne - good company, a good meal, and an excellent night was had by all. The whole experience was the highlight of the trip by far. Thanks guys.
After our experience with Florence, we decided to get away from crowded Italian cities for a while, and head to some crowded French cities instead. We caught several packed and sweaty trains from Arezzo to Nice.
Thanks to all who've made it this far, and hopefully you're enjoying these entries- they're certainly fun to write. Keep the messages coming, and we'll hopefully catch up with you guys soon!
Liam & Eb