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July 02, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 6

This is the sixth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


Ciao! (In Italy, 'ciao' is used both as a greeting and a farewell)

Last time I wrote, I was in Barcelona, and I've had quite an adventure since. I made two expected stops and two unexpected stops, met many very interesting people (let no one say that traveling is lonely business!), sampled a variety of the legendary Italian gelato and lots of other fun stuff.

My last day in Barcelona was more about wrapping up loose ends like doing email, postcards and wandering around a little, soaking up the last bit of Barcelona before I went to Genoa. I had a bad experience at the post office there, being short-changed a stamp and then trying to express this situation in to people who spoke almost no English. I also visited the Barcelona Aquarium that day, and was a little disappointed given how much I'd paid for entry - the aquariums in Boston and San Francisco are much better, in my opinion. Still, I did learn a little about Mediterranean sea-life (which is amazingly similar to sea-life elsewhere).

The train from Barcelona to Genoa was a night train. I arrived at the train station early, and when the train was announced, boarded immediately. I laughed to myself when I saw what must have been almost thirty other backpackers board the same train! Soon enough we set off for Port Bou, the Spanish-French border station. Little did I know at this point that my next few days would be radically different from how I had anticipated. Just before we arrived at Port Bou, I began chatting with four British girls across the aisle from me. Before I knew it, we were sitting together chatting at the border waiting for our train (90 minute layover). They were very nice, and were heading to Nice, France. And so it was that after many more hours of chatting, I decided that instead of spending my extra time in Genoa, I would stop in Nice and spend more time with my new friends.

Nice is the city with the second largest tourist industry in France. This is mostly because in the late summer, a large portion of the middle and upper class French population move to the French-Mediterranean coast for vacation. The beaches in Nice however, aren't the kind that I was used to being from North Carolina. These were pebbly beaches, with the sea floor dropping quickly away as one goes away from shore. The first day I was there, I had my first European beach experience, and also discovered that the sunscreen that I'd brought with me wasn't good anymore (it was a little old, and I'd combined the last part of several identical bottles that I had lying around). I did, however, very much enjoy soaking up a little sun in such an exotic location. As I sat/lay there, on either side, into the distance stretched the same pebbly beach dotted with people. When I looked to my left, I saw the curve of the coast and the rows upon rows of hotel buildings lined up like cornrows blanketing the slight slope that reaches back away from the shore. I also noted that French beaches were top-optional, and that rule wasn't specific to age. Then there were the guys walking around selling cold drinks for exorbitant prices. My favorite guy had a little rhyme that he sang that had bits of English in it as well as the names of the drinks he was selling. That night my new friends, Laura, Laura, Clare and Marie, and I had very large (and very yummy) pizzas and then stopped by a couple of bars. Oddly enough, the best bar we stopped by was an Irish Pub. That night also happened to be the same night in which Brasil won the match that got them into the World Cup Finals. As some point during dinner, there was a little parade of people showing Brasilian pride that went by our table on the street banging drums, cheering and wearing Brasilian-flag clothes. They seemed quite happy about their team's good fortune. It was also this day that I read an interesting article in an English paper my friends had about the Germany win. It seems that not many people were really hoping Germany would win in the Final.

The following day, I couldn't resist being in town, even one as focused on worshipping the sun as Nice, without seeing a museum. Fortunately, Nice features a fantastic Matisse museum. That brought the number of Matisse/Picasso exhibits I've seen on this trip to five. In the morning, I went for a swim in the cool Mediterranean waters, which was wonderful. There were cool currents that buffeted me while I swam up and down the coast. One thing I'd noticed, and still wonder about, is that there didn't seem to be much of a tide - the water level throughout the day seemed to be roughly the same. Can anyone shed any light on this matter?

After another evening swim in the sea, and another pizza dinner (sans the showing of Brasilian pride that night, although I did see one of the same guys out there performing again (he was something of an acrobat)), I then headed for the Cinque Terre having very much enjoyed my unexpected stay in Nice. My new friends were heading to Florence next and then to Rome, so we talked briefly about the possibility of meeting up again. I arrived in the Italian town of La Spezia, the 'gateway' to the Cinque Terre as the local train that serves the five towns of the Cinque Terre (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corneglia, Vernazza and Monterroso) leaves from there. Each of the five towns is right on the Italian coast, and four of the five are perched right on the shore. This area has a simply breath-taking abundance of picturesque views - I could have snapped a shot of almost every bit of coastline I saw! The five towns are nestled right up against the shore, with the land rising steeply and rockily away from the spray of the waves that continually crash ashore. The land itself is a tangle of folds of land, covered in the greens of plant-life and the grey of stone. Blanketing the hillsides around each town is a spider web of little trails that service the terraced vineyards. The Cinque Terre, particularly Corneglia, is renowned for its wine (my guide book claims that pottery in ancient, far-away cities sang the virtues of the wine from this area). My first day was composed of a lot of walking around and soaking up the slowness and persistence of life there. The area has been declared a national park by Italy, so I think it's supposed to, and will continue to look like it hasn't changed in hundreds of years. The little harbor in Riomaggiore, where I was staying, was particularly interesting, as there was a group of older Italian men that hung out there in the evenings. They didn't necessarily do anything that interesting, but it was actually a lot of fun to watch them :) That night, I met a group of four girls that were partly sharing my dorm-room. Three of them were Canadian (Canadians have quite a bit of national pride) and the last was an American that they'd picked up in Barcelona.

My second day in this beautiful place (I had already begun thinking about how I might return for a much longer stay) was to be spent mostly doing the 4-5 hour hike that connects the five towns. The night before, my new friends and I had talked about hiking it together, so I got started a bit later than I had intended (it seems that I tend to rise earlier in the morning than most traveling-folks my age :)). The first part of the hike was more of a stroll along the Via del Amore (Lovers Lane) with amazing views of the shoreline and the ocean. This brought us to Manarola, the second of the towns, which was also nestled in a fold of the land with the buildings stretching up away from the central road on the surrounding hills. The shore-side path from there to Corneglia was washed out, so I parted ways with the girls (they took the train) and struck out to find a more inland route. I spent the next two hours hiking along those narrow spider web trails that crisscross the hillsides connecting all the terraces. I managed to get about half way to Corneglia before finally admitting defeat, being both hot and hungry. I picked my way back to town, got lunch and took the train to my next stop. Even though I was unsuccessful, I still had a great time getting thoroughly lost in the hills. The views and the pleasure of good hiking in such a beautiful area made it all worthwhile. Because of what my guidebook said about Corneglia, I stopped there for a respite in the form of a glass of local wine (which cost me 1.30 euro). It was some of the best wine I've had! It was so good, that I bought a bottle (for only 18 euro) of what the guy behind the counter called 'the best'. I have yet to crack it open, as I'm saving it to share with some friends. I don't think it will make it back to the States thought, as I have another month to travel. I didn't see it, but Corneglia apparently has a nude beach as well. Between Corneglia and Vernazza, I met a very nice couple of professors from Portland, Oregon who were also hiking. They went at a slower pace than I might have done myself, but I decided early on that I would rather spend the time chatting with them. Finally, we arrived in Vernazza, which is perhaps the most picturesque of the five towns - I think of it as being just a bigger Riomaggiore. It has a really neat harbour complete with frolicking bathers, a wide piazza on the shore with several nice restaurants (which were all booked up since it was Saturday night) and tons of character. It was there that I met three very interesting american students whom I'd run into in passing several times before in or after Corneglia. It turns out that these three (Melissa, Catherine and Jeff) were physics students doing a summer internship at the Pisa, Italy gravitational wave interferometer detector (if that doesn't mean anything to you, that's okay, just know that this device is one of several that are being used to do a very important, multi-national experiment). So naturally, we started talking since we all had physics in common (it did occur to all of us how odd it was that physics of all things would be one of our commonalities). It was getting late, and the next leg of the hike would take another hour, so we caught the ferry and strolled around Monterroso. There we ran into two guys from Seattle who were in Paris on a Boeing, Inc. trip. The students were just in the Cinque Terre for the day, so they caught a train back to La Spezia, while I caught one to Vernazza for dinner.

My first day in Florence was a busy one. So was my second day, as there's just so much to see and so little time! I'd called the day before and reserved a time to see both the Accademia Museum (where Michelangelo's David is) and the Uffizi Gallery (which has the largest collection of Renaissance paintings in the world, as well as Boticelli's Birth of Venus and others). The David deserves every bit of its reputation, and was truly impressive! It's very big too. I liked the Uffizi more though, because for the first time I was able to see and understand the evolution of artistry from the seemingly awkward, two-dimensional pre-Renaissance painting into the very sophisticated, emotive and very realistic painting of the Renaissance. The neat thing about the Uffizi is that all the paintings are arranged in chronological order, so it's very easy to see the progression of style. And so while on this museum tour, I finally began piecing together my own perception of the evolution of art, as it traveled from the first known example in the cave paintings in France to the post-modern stuff I've seen both in London and in Paris. It was a very fulfilling revelation, more so because I 'discovered' this way of looking at art on my own. Considering how many art museums I've seen while on this trip, one might think I was an art student or something! It was this day that I also had two SWE (Small World Experiences): while I was in the Uffizi museum, I ran into a guy Victor and his female friend that I'd also met on the train from Barcelona. Later that day, I passed a pair of Americans that I'd met just briefly at the train station in Monterroso in the Cinque Terre on my way to Vernazza for dinner.

My second day in Florence was devoted once again to architecture, and there's quite a bit of really important stuff to see there. There's the massive Duomo with the dome constructed by Brunelleschi (apparently Michelangelo said he liked Florence's dome better than the St. Peter's dome in Rome); the Medicci Palace which I had up until now thought was just a massive building - I discovered that the side I'd seen in class during college was just the facade to a lesser building; the Hospital of the Innocents, the St. Maria Novella and a fifth building that I think I studied but couldn't quite be sure (it didn't make a strong enough impression on me in class, I suppose). The Duomo is very, very big, and has what I guess is typical Italian Renaissance decoration (I also learned that the Duomo church was started in the 1200s, and the facade seen today wasn't put up until the 1800s) with a white marble base heavily accented with red and green marble in a very decorative face of gothic elements arranged in a strongly classical way. One neat thing about the Uffizi building is that it's shaped like a big 'U' and on the inside in each of the columns is a statue of some important person (like Michelangeo, Donatello, Machiavelli, Dante, etc.). It was kind of neat to stroll along with their faces gazing down. I also sampled quite of bit of gelato that day, and can attest first-hand that gelato is as near to a form of edible art as one can possibly get. Yum! My favorite flavor is called Strachaiccelli and is a kind of vanilla with chocolate bits in it. There was also Nutella gelato, which was also very yummy.

My second day in Florence was also my 23rd birthday. It was a very nice birthday present for me to be in Florence for the day - I'll have to see if I can beat that next year :)

In the evening, I strolled the streets looking at all the shops (Florence is a great place for shopping) and somehow managed to wander into the designer section of town. I pretended that I was wealthy beyond need and looked at stuff in the Armani store, the Versaci store, the Gucci, and several who were so exclusive that I'd never even heard of them before! I can't imagine spending 91 euro on a t-shirt, but if I ever decide I need to (which I doubt) I know where to find it now (Armani). That was also the day that Brasil won the World Cup. It wasn't hard to figure out who'd won since starting in the late afternoon I started to see people wearing Brasilian colors parading around cheering. Then I came upon a massive gathering of people in the Duomo square, all celebrating - there were several vehicles in the middle of what must have been several hundred people; there were several guys on a van waving huge Brasilian flags, a few women dancing up there, and someone was playing loud music too. There was cheering, singing, drinking and a general air of exuberance that I don't think I would have seen from the Germany supporters had Germany won the cup :)

During this time, I'd been thinking about my next stop. I'd intended to see Siena next before heading to Rome to meet up with my friend from Haverford Josh Adelman and a friend of his. I decided though, that it really would be nice to see Rome again (more great architecture, culture and art!) and I might even be able to meet up with my British friends again before heading off to Greece. Thus I skipped Siena (will have to see it on my next trip) and arrived in Roma today.

It was also today that I had my first major crisis of my trip. It's difficult to describe how distraught I was at 3:00 p.m. today when finally (after three hours) I was able to figure out why no ATM machine anywhere in Rome, and I tried over a dozen of them, would take my card: it had expired at the end of June and was thus invalid!! I had planned and checked what I thought to be literally everything for this trip, but had neglected to even think about this going awry. And of course, it was something that I hadn't thought about that became my first trip-crisis. Adding to that, I had less than ten euro to my name and needed to pay for my room tonight. Fortunately, I was able to get some cash through my credit card, bought an international phone card and called home (the calling card wouldn't let me call 800 numbers in the States for some reason, so I couldn't call the bank directly). The bank said they mailed out a new card a few weeks ago, and my mother, who shall here-to-fore be credited with saving my trip, is going to FedEx it to me here in Rome.

Quite a week it's been! :)

Ciao! Aaron

posted July 2, 2002 11:24 AM in Travel | permalink