. A budget of over $100 a day is just a little north of my Vietnam budget. Though it always seemed worth it whether I was staying in a 19th century palazzo or gorging on a three course meal. As far as the "Stupid American" comment you are probably thinking that I am getting all high and mighty after having travelled for so long and have little patience for clueless vacationers, and you are probably right. But there is a difference between an American travelling in say Thailand and some of the Americans you see in Italy. The former is fairly laid back and adapts to the place where they are, sometimes annoyingly so. The American in Italy is on a one to two week holiday and expects Italy to be just like America but with Italian food and the Coloseum. Kind of like Disneyland's "It's a Small World." They are amazed that Italians often speak only Italian and are not in the least afraid of voicing their surprise. The only concession they seem to make to being in a foriegn country is their willingness to snatch up Italian haute couture, which probably never sees the light of day once they return to Des Moines. I don't want to labor the point but I have to share a couple of funny examples. A man commenting to his wife and another couple in the Florence train station, "Thank god a McDonalds, I am sick of pizza and pasta. Shall I grab 4 cheeseburgers?" If you have kids, okay I'll cut you some slack, but four adults? The punchline is that he went in the wrong door and came out complaining that all they had was pizza and pasta
. My next favorite was this older retiree from Florida who I sat next to on a full train from Pisa to Florence. We were talking about the various places he and his wife had visited and he asks me "Doesn't Italy make you feel glad that you live in America?" What the @#%$&! Ummm....I'm speechless. I mean maybe Germans get excited when they see schnitzel on the menu or Chinese make comments about how much sweeter Beijing is than Florence, but I doubt that even if I understood either language I would hear similar comments.
I should share that I have developed a fairly strange way of exploring a country, which stems from my lack of effort prior to arriving. I just can't get motivated to read alot about a place before I get there and my favorite way to discover a new place is to just get lost and be surprised. This strategy worked perfect for Italy, though it probably wasn't the best strategy when I went to Naples. From the moment I found my hotel in Rome (not a simple task) I just started walking around and didnīt seem to stop until late in the evening each day. Fortunately, I have been blessed with a strong bladder (having to "go" when you are lost absolutely sucks!) and a decent sense of direction. After a long day of walking I would try to find a nice tratoria bordering a piazza to relax with dinner and wine before an easy sleep. Rome didnīt get the raves and reccomendations that people had shared about Florence, but I absolutely loved it
. It just seems to have it all and knows how to show it. On my third day, after having already visited countless piazzas, the Coloseum and the Forum I made a plan (hate making plans) to go to the Vatican Museum and see the Sistine Chapel. I thought I went early enough to beat the crowds but evidently 9 a.m. isn't nearly early enough. Son of a bitch! The line wrapped all the way along the Vatican walls back into St. Peters Square. If you have been there you know thatīs a hike. It was also 5 abreast on the sidewalk spilling out into the street. After 2 1/2 hours of standing in line all I could think was this better be awesome and it is going to be crowded as hell in there. It was awesome and it was crowded as hell. Michelangelo's ceiling frescoe in the Sistine Chapel is terrific especially with the vivid colors after restoration, but the whole place was pretty spectacular. Most of the museum is made up of the lavashly decorated residences of former Popes. The whole thing is over the top. After the Museum I went and waited in line to get into the Basilica and it was equally over the top. In fact excessive comes to mind. I donīt think the Papacy needs to employ Jerry Lewis for a labor day telethon anytime soon.
After Rome I ventured down to Sophia Loren's birthplace of Naples. Not exactly a goldmine of beauty but it does have a certain grubby appeal and it was a great place to take a day trip to Pompeii and down the Amalfi Coast
. Other than being the celebrated home of a hottie, Naples is the birthplace of pizza and it supposedly still makes the best pie. I can't argue with that in the least. As a single guy, eating pizza for lunch and dinner isn't exactly a stretch. One of the nice things about Italy that I haven't experienced since Vietnam and India is the regional variations on cuisine. Venice has its seafood, Tuscany has its fresh, simple dishes and a mean Florentine steak, Liguria has pesto and foccacia. I know it's not McDonalds good, but it's the best that these simple Italians can do. Naples is full of vivid red buildings and has a nice view of Mt. Vesuvius over the bay. It also has a fine archaelogical museum that had some unreal mosaics from Pompeii and Heculaneum. The Gabinetto Segreto in the museum is a special room that was closed until 6 years ago and displays ancient porn from Pompeii and other greco-roman sites. It was hilarious, look for the photos. My second day in Naples I headed down to Pompeii and had no idea how massive the sight is. I spent three exhausting hours walking through what I would hesitate to call ruins as everything is almost perfectly preserved. It was worth heading south for, but not as much so as a couple of nights in Amalfi on the coast where I went next. The bus ride to get to Amalfi from Naples was an experience. The road hugs the coast line, but from a pretty good hieght, so that you are looking out the window at a long drop down to the sea. The road is so narrow at points that they have workers stationed with radios holding traffic in one direction while a convoy of cars comes from the other direction
. Great spot and I got to work on my purple skin tone and read a great book.
One thing that I learned early on is to never be without a book, even if it means you have to read some real rubbish. It just isn't always easy to find English books unless your content to read novels written by authors named Christie, King or Ludlum. The one book you can find anywhere is Dan Brown's "da Vinci Code" which I had the misfortune to read back in Lebanon. Obviously I am the only person on the planet who thought it sucked. So when you find a good book store, preferably a used book store, it is imperative to stock up. The downside is that you are never reading the books you want to be reading about the places where you are. In Greece I read a book about Italy and in Italy I read a great book (found it at a great used book store in Naxos) about Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The later book is James Michener's "The Source" which in Michener fashion weaves real history with fiction to paint an incredible story of the Jewish faith and the Middle East. I love those kind of books. Sorry bit of a digression.
So from Amalfi I spent a good day trying to get to Florence which took a bus ride and a couple of trains, but you canīt complain when the destination is Florence. What a GREAT city, one of the best I have seen
. Everyone says the first view of the Duomo is jawdropping, and it is. Just like the first view of Michelangelo's David
in the Galleria Dellī Accademia. In fact one thing that has just been reinforced over the last few months is seeing something in person over seeing a photo. This is especially true of art in particular. Klimnt's paintings are totally different in person, same for Botticelli's (which I saw in Florence's Uffizi Gallery). In fact I never liked either of those artists work until I stood in front of one of their canvasses and was blown away. Standing in front of the statue of David
is the zenith of appreciating art in person. Florence is a place to get lost in, live in and just absorb everything it has to offer. I did take one day trip out of the city to Pisa and then spent another day and night in Siena, before heading off to Venice. One thing about Sienna is that it got some of my diminishing funds when I sprang for a coat and a couple of shirts. I justified the jacket as a must since the weather was getting colder and the shirts looked good with the jacket so I couldn't afford not to get those. I did however hold off on the siena colored pants, though it was very hard since they were so close to burnt orange and would have looked damn sweet while I was yelling at a Sooner fan to drag his butt back across the border after the annual TX-ou game. One of the best piazzas in Italy was also in Siena. The sloping Piazzo Dell Campo where they hold an annual horserace and have been doing so for centuries was terrific
From Florence I went on to Venice and once again, wow. Really great place with loads of opportunities to get lost, just not always so easy to get back to your hotel when you are disoriented and surrounded by water. The massive Piazza San Marco enclosed at one end by the Basilica and the other three sides by the columned arcades of Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove is the single most striking square or piazza I have seen, eclipsing the main square in Krakow in size and grandeur.The basilica was yet another excellent example of a truly extravagant church covered in brilliant gold mosaics. In some strange way Venice reminded me of Istanbul, which is a good thing since it is one of my favorite cities. Just a great place that still makes you feel like you are stepping back in time.
From hear I have to thank Richard again for a great travel tip. I had planned to go to Milan and then on to Barcelona, but upon Richards suggestion I bypassed Milan and went on to Genoa and then down the coast to the villages of the Cinque Terra. I spent one night in Genoa, filling up on some great pesto lasagna and faccocia, before getting a Sunday train down to Monterosso, the first of the five cities. The train ride to Genoa was one of my favorites because of the older lady that had the seat across from me and practised her English on me for the 4 hour ride, giving me lots of information on Italian art and history in the process
. The Cinque Terra is made up of five villages (thus the name) hugging the coast south of Portifino. The coast line hear is crazy beautiful, but the villages are just as stunning in their quaint charm. If the weather was better you could hike between each one, but the rain forced me to take the 5 minute train rides from one to the next, though I did manage to go between two of the villages on foot. Cinque Terra was one of the highlights of Italy for me, even though the weather could have been better. After two nights in Monterosso, I headed up to Milan to get a train on to Spain. ran into a slight problem as the night train had just stopped going daily and I had to spend the night in Milan. There are certainly worse things that can happen and I took advatage of getting to see a little bit of Milan which was nice, especially if you like to shop. Milan also seems to serve as a reminder to the rest of the world that they don't dress as well or look as fabulous as those in Milan.
Actually I think Italy serves that same purpose for the rest of the world. It's a passionate place where beauty reins as the ultimate trump card. Whether it is how they play soccer, the clothes they wear, the gusto with which they live, or their less than austere places of worship; all that matters in the end is "Bella Italia". What a way to live even if you have to eat pizza and pasta all the time.
The morning after my last update I sleepwalked to the metro station at 6:30 a.m. (encountering many Greeks stumbling home from a Saturday night out) and made it to the airport in time for my 9 a.m. flight to Rome. Getting to Rome was like a shot in the arm after so many months of travel. I mean the excitment from seeing another "sight" starts to wane after awhile. It sounds awful to say but it is all too true, at least it was starting to be before I got to Italy. All the superlatives heaped on Italy are well founded and deserved. The fountains of Rome, the canals of Venice, the grace of Florence, the rugged vistas on the coast, the laundry hanging from every window in Naples, the ostentatious churches, the faded siena and yellow homes, the always close proximity of a relaxing piazza, and of course the perfect meals chased down with the equally perfect wines are the cliches that make up "Bella Italia." I really never found a bad spot and certainly never found a bad meal. The only drawbacks to Italy for me were the cost and the emergence of the "Stupid American." Let's start with the least offensive, the cost