15 Things that Made Italy Unforgettable

March 2-12

  1. Trying to align my hunger with the late Italian dinner hour….well if I have one lunch at 11:30, and another lunch around 3, maybe a snack at 5:30, then by 8 I should be the right amount of hungry to eat my weight in pasta.

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    A strategic afternoon snack

  2. The pervasive national passion for houseplants.
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  3. The way the ticket machine at the railway station yells “PICK OUT YOUR CARD” once the transaction is over. Only about 30 seconds after an equally loud announcement to avoid pickpocketers…maybe if they didn’t announce that my card was available for the taking, it wouldn’t be a problem!
  4. Trying to choose a pizza.
  5. Air drying socks, no better way to start a day than slipping on some cardboard booties.
  6. The sound of Italian spoken quickly, which can only be described as staccato.
  7. The effort to make sure no two houses have exactly the same hue of peachy yellow.
  8. BASIL…PESTO….BASIL ON PESTO.
  9. Wine that’s cheaper than beer and sangria that’s cheaper than both.FullSizeRender 20
  10. Pondering why anyone would say “arrivederci” when you can say “ciao”…Who has time for 5 syllables!?! I ran into so many doors craning my neck around trying to stutter out the last few consonants. Just say “ciao.” For your personal safety.
  11. The series of hand gestures I exchanged with a Pharmacist in attempts to get some sort of cream for Jakob’s chaffing.
  12. Seriously considering the necessary logistics to steal a little cash from the Trevi fountain.IMG_6220
  13. Adding “i,” “a,” or “o” to the ends of English words and hoping they come out Italian…ya I told someone “una momento” is that even Italian?
  14. Tomato Basil potato chips that answered the nagging question: What would happen if ketchup chips and all dressed chips made a baby?
  15. Cinque Terre (yes this post is really just a shameless excuse to throw all of these gorgeous pictures online, because Instagram couldn’t even handle them). After two months on the road, it’s the most beautiful sight we have seen.
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    First sight after stepping out of the train station in Monterosso

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    The hiking begins!

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    First glimpse of Vernazza

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    sooo many stairs

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    Manarola!

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    An Australian couple on the trail told us about this great café. Jakob declared it the best dinner of the trip!

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    Stairs!

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    STAIRS!

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    Jakob in his happy place

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    I guess the stairs were worth it

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    Catching the sunset in Riomaggiore

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    Perfect end to what we both agreed was our favourite day of the trip. Yes, we missed one of the 5 villages…but we did that on purpose so that we would have to come back.

The Forgotten of Florence

March 5-8

Somewhere between Rome and Florence a few things changed.

For one, whatever digestive thing was waking me up 5 times a night somehow resolved itself. After typing my symptoms into Google, I was pretty sure I had contracted a wheat allergy, and considering that we are in Italy, my life span was estimated at about 10 days. But good news, it turns out I was allergic to Rome, not wheat, so now that we are in Florence, I am sleeping through the night again.

These towel swans helped too.

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You know you’re not a real backpacker when there are towel swans on your bed

The second thing that changed was my sandwich game. After nearly two months of meat and cheese lunches hastily stashed in our mouths in coach buses, museum lobbies, and cobblestone squares, I decided it was time to return to the finer details of the lunch making art. So like a practiced flight attendant, I pulled out at least seven ingredients, and put together a lunch that would make my mom proud, all while cruising through Tuscany at about 100km/hr.

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The third thing that changed is our travel resolve. The flight sequence and car rentals of the past few weeks had disrupted our tried and true “bus everywhere” policy. So as we settled into our Flixbus seats we felt a return of the enthusiasm and energy from our trip’s early days. In fact, by the time we got to Florence, we didn’t collapse exhausted into our beds and pull out our ebooks. No, we laced our shoes tighter grabbed a quick snack and headed out into the neighbourhood.

It was nearing dark, but still we decided to check out the nearby park along the river. As we made our way down the well light tramway through the centre of the park, I insisted that we cross the tracks and find a more scenic pathway, nearer to the river. Mere seconds after we had crossed the tramway, we regretted our decision. Under the thick canopy of the trees it was closer to nighttime than evening and the path ahead was dotted with clusters of two or three men. I made a nervous joke about checking out the Florence drug-deal scene and then fell silent when I realized that my voice may tip off an eavesdropper to my tourist status. A few steps further and the clusters appeared to spread and then converge strategically. Our pace quickened and our faces deadpanned as we eyed the nearest tramway crossing back to the light side of the park. 30 very long seconds later, we were safely across and wondering weather we had been too foolish or too fearful. Either way, we decided to leave the park and find other sorts of trouble.

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Exploring in the gathering dark and rain

The next hour of exploring our corner of Florence included attempts to sneak into the Opera house to watch the prep for an indie rock show, Jakob’s rebellious proposal that we climb a fence as a shortcut home, and some casual spying on a soccer practice in a velodrome.

The real mystery was not why two foreigners were sneaking around the dark corners of the Florence arts and sports complex, but what Italian phrase found on a map would translate to “Surmountable Danger?”FullSizeRender

By the time we were done exploring we had found a Mexican restaurant. I know, we are in Tuscany, the birth place of every delicious food with tomatoes and basil, why would we want to eat Mexican food? Try going two months without a burrito and then you can judge. So we happily spent the evening snacking on overpriced guacamole and tacos while the skylight over our heads offered a front row seat to a gathering thunderstorm. We agreed that tomorrow we would eat all the pizza, pesto, and wine we could find.

Our first full day in Florence had one objective: find travel friends. It had been a while since we had met a fellow backpacker or vacationer and we were hoping to stumble across a hilarious Australian or a fun-loving American. Our number one travel friend finding plan, thanks to Elyse, was to attend a free walking tour, scope the crowd for a friendly face, and then ATTACK! So I put on some make-up for a change, Jakob flossed his teeth, and we set off for the walking tour.

The tour turned out to be a total dud. It was your stereotypical old dude rambling on about old things and other old dudes for a couple of hours. Nevertheless, we had our eyes set on a down-to-earth American(?) couple. We had made casual comments about the size of the tour group at the beginning and frequently tried to stand near them at the tour stops. At risk of being total creeps, I even practiced a few introductory lines.

“Where are you guys from?”
“How long are you staying in Florence?”

It’s a good thing I wasn’t on the dating scene for long, because those are really the only half decent pick-up lines I could come up with.

In the end, we abandoned our feeble efforts and the tour group. It’s probably not a very good Renaissance tour if even I’m dreaming about lunch rather than paying attention.

With some help from Google, we made our way to the best pizzeria within 500m and translated most of their menu items. We immediately picked out danger words like: mushrooms and anchovies. Yuck. We were seated at the same time as another English speaking couple at two tables barely an inch a part. As we mumbled back and forth our thoughts on the pizza list we couldn’t help but overhear each others’ commentary. Jakob finally broke the awkwardness.

“I think that blue cheese one looks great too, I’m tempted to get it.”
The guy pondering blue cheese broke into a smile.
“Ya I think I’m going to go with that one. I heard you mention it and now I think I am going to have to get it!”

Any sort of imaginary barrier between the tables disintegrated and we began giving our input on each other’s choices. Margarita for her, blue cheese and pear for him, pesto for me, and prosciutto for Jakob.

They were Masters students from the US in the midst of a 15 month MBA program in Florence. He was from Seattle and she was from San Diego (?) …to be honest I stopped listening after he said Seattle and our travel-friend radar exploded.

Once our pizzas arrived we took turns telling our stories. They met three years ago when they agreed to be roommates in a mutual friend’s house. Before he even moved in, they were dating. The day he moved in, he decided to forgo his room and just move into hers. She agreed on one condition, that they return to Italy some day. She had fallen in love with the country during a semester abroad in undergrad. Without hesitation, he agreed to be the number two love in her life.

By the time we paid the bills we realized we hadn’t even introduced ourselves. So we shook hands, exchanged names and wished each other happy travels and studies.

With out day’s objectives fulfilled we only had one thing left to do. Actually enjoy Florence.

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The centre piece of Florence, a magnificent marble Duomo.

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Couldn’t get enough of the magnificent views from Piazzalle Michealangelo

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Florence really did feel like it was nestled right in the Tuscan country side. I was pleasantly surprised to find that even a big city could still have a rural vibe.

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Florence is filled with fortress-like palaces from the time when people were less likely to trust their neighbours and more likely to have a personal army.

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Florence is a city of high fashion, including the founding Gucci store. Not to be out done, Jakob had to show off some of his moves.

Day two in Florence was International Women’s Day, and that means all state museums in Italy were free for women! After extensive research I settled on spending the day at the massive Gallery d’Uffizi. With 90 rooms full of medieval and Renaissance art, I was sure that I wouldn’t be disappointed. Jakob needed a bit more convincing.

Here was my solution:

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Jakob was both thrilled and nervous. In fact, the day before museum day, first thing he said when he woke up was: “Just so I can prepare myself, will I be doing a scavenger hunt today?”

Turns out he had no reason to fear, he found three within the first 10 minutes:

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#5 Gentile da Fabriano “The Adoration of the Magi”

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#4 Piero della Francesca “Duke and Duchess of Urbino”

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Sandro Botticelli “The Birth of Venus”

The first two on the list proved a bit more difficult and they were also the two that I was most excited about. Clue number two was for the artwork of a nun from Florence, Suor Plautilla Nelli. The museum had chosen International Women’s Day to unveil (pun intended) their new three room exhibit dedicated to one of the Renaissance’s many forgotten female artists. Jakob wandered past the portraits of nuns without drawing the connection to his scavenger hunt clue.

The first clue on the list was for the one work that I couldn’t leave without seeing. When we reached the exit without laying eyes on it, I balked and immediately began moving against the flow of the museum goers. Searching for the nearest security attendant I fumbled through a mispronunciation of the artist’s name, Artemisia Gentileschi.

The attendant shrugged and looked away with a mix of nonchalance and exhaustion, “well it’s closed.” She gestured briefly towards the 90th room which was roped off. I stared in disbelief and the attendant turned away.

“No, no, no, this isn’t possible,” I pushed further back into the museum and Jakob followed reluctantly, “I’m not ready to leave.”
“Let’s just sit down for a minute,” Jakob suggested.
We sat down and I told him that he wasn’t going to be able to find the first clue in his scavenger hunt. He seemed okay with it. So I started at the beginning of the story, so he could share in my devastation, as he often did when I failed to grasp the gravity of a particular sports upset or victory.

“This piece of art appeared in every one of my women’s history classes. One of my classmates even made her own version of it for an assignment. It was painted by a woman in the Renaissance! That’s incredible because most women didn’t get to participate in the Renaissance. People talk about it like it was this great time of new ideas and the birth of modern society, but really only a tiny fraction of people were privileged enough to take part. We remember the names of the men like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Michelangelo, but we have forgotten the women and children and minorities and so many other people who also lived at that time. This painting is one piece of evidence that women could be just as talented and creative as the men of their time, we have just forgotten about them.”

I rambled on for a bit longer until Jakob nodded in agreement. He suggested we go find some gelato to help us cope with the ongoing injustices of our world and I reluctantly agreed. Walking past room 90, I craned my neck hoping for a fleeting glance of Judith and her maid servant’s strong arms transgressing the boundaries of gender and overpowering Holofernes. But like so many strong women, past and present, they remained hidden.

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Artemisia Gentileschi “Judith and Holofernes”

Rest Day(s)??

February 26-March 4

This is the story (more of a picture book really) of how one rest day turned into four.

After nearly two months of winter travel we were both craving some beach time. Our level of desperation for sunshine and surf only became fully apparent when we caught ourselves scoping the Airbnb map of Italy for any accommodation as long as it was cheap and close to a beach. Coliseum? Pompeii? Venice? We didn’t care, we just wanted to lay down and let the sun do all of the work. So yes, I would say we have reached some level of travel exhaustion.

Where did this moment of desperate trip planning take place? In Edipsou, Greece, a tiny resort town fed by piping hot streams of thermal water. So we gave our heads a shake, shut the laptop, pulled on our bathing suits, and began searching the deserted town for its famed thermal pools.

Only a few steps away from the beach and we could see billows of steam rising from the shore. In seconds, we had our shoes and clothes piled on a nearby rock and were tiptoeing over mineral encrusted rocks towards a scalding waterfall.

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Usually, as a tourist, I am the one trying not to stare at people who are doing something unfamiliar to me, but this time the roles were reversed. As we relaxed in the algae covered volcanic rock pools, Edipsou locals, bundled up in parkas and scarves, took turns peering over the railings to inspect the crazy ‘Americans’ who had taken over their beach.

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We were eventually joined by a Siberian woman on vacation and a Greek-Australian basketball player on his day off. It seemed we all needed some warmth and relaxation for our own reasons. We chatted off and on, but mainly spent the evening silently submerged in the ocean/spring water.

On our second day in Edipsou, we decided to put a bit more effort into our budget spa experience. At the risk of offending locals, we began hauling rocks of assorted sizes from the beach and redirecting the thermal water flow to create a new pool.

gopr7703-1 Our well intentioned efforts were mainly a failure, and we managed to overheat the one pool with a perfect temperature, while creating one fragile and leak prone new pool. Fearing retribution from the Edipsouians, we bid the village goodbye and headed south hoping for not only another beach, but also better beaching weather.

After a four hour drive and one goat herd sighting:

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we arrived at the Peloponnesian seaside:

img_0943Where we took our beaching very seriously:

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While we were happy to see some sun, my favourite part of the day was maybe not what you’d expect…unless you know me well then you might not be surprised.

Some sort of mystery citrus fruit was growing at our beach house Airbnb! It was almost the size of a cantaloupe with a thick spongy skin that, from the outside, made it seem rotten. If the neighbours had been home at the moment, they would have seen a pasty white blonde girl jumping around in the courtyard tossing a massive fruit in the air and begging her husband to get her a knife so she could hack it open and see if it was poisonous. It wasn’t poisonous, but it was impossible to eat because of its incredible size. I offered Jakob a hunk, but he likes to know the name of a fruit before he eats it.

Eventually we did meet the owner of the orchard. On our walk back from the beach later that evening, a deeply tanned Greek farmer stopped his tractor in front of us, climbed down and motioned for us to follow him. He reached over the fence and plucked two ripe fruits (which were recognizably oranges) and pushed them into our hands. What’s with people and giving us free produce? He then began to push open the orchard gate, motioning for Jakob to help. We set down our beach stuff and made a feeble effort to pay off our citrus samplers. He nodded in thanks and sent us on our way. For future reference, I will accept oranges in exchange for small favours.

This was not our last strange encounter with an elderly Greek man. On our second day at the beach house, we had run into problems with the washing machine. As in, we had put all our most essential clothes in, shut the door, discovered it didn’t rotate, and then couldn’t open it again. Our approach to the problem started with a frantic youtube search for “how to break into a washing machine” and ended with an apologetic text to our Airbnb hosts. They ensured us that a mechanic would come later that day, so don’t fault us for thinking that the hunched old man who wandered into our yard around 5:00 pm was the mechanic. He shook our hands and began a spirited one-way discussion in Greek. If “baba” is Greek for grandpa, then maybe he was the grandfather or our Airbnb host, or he wanted to be our grandpa. I’m still not sure. At this stage we still assumed he was the mechanic, so we led him into the kitchen. He followed, inspected the washing machine, and began explaining the issue… in Greek of course. Jakob and I repeated any words we could make out, adding a question mark and some hand signals. The conversation became even more vigorous. Until we realized that: one, he wasn’t the mechanic, and two, we had let a stranger into the house. We fell silent, shrugged our shoulders, guided him back to the yard, and waved good bye.

Eventually, the actual mechanic showed up and we hauled our liberated laundry over to a neighbouring beach house with a functioning washing machine. I spent the next few hours practicing my Greek letter recognition skills, which as an arts major, consisted of no more than π and Θ just five days ago. Painstakingly, I translated the words ‘Cotton,’ ‘door,’ and ‘end.’ Which is really all the words anyone needs to do laundry. Jakob endured my sporadic shouts of “TELOS! I get it, like teleological, like the study of the end times. Telos is the end of the laundry cycle!” Only the coolest kids use theology to do their laundry.

So in case you missed it, in the course of about three days, all we had accomplished was three beach visits, two discussions with Greek grandpas, and one load of laundry. We agreed that we would achieve more in the coming week.

Our first day in Rome was clearly a reactionary response to our recent laziness. Over the course of only about four hours we had:

Explored several narrow medieval streets:

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Scarfed down some delicious gelato:

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Tried to blend into a wall:

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Walked over some bridges:

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Sat in the middle of a square: fullsizeoutput_403

Climbed to the top of the Spanish Steps:

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Stared up at the Pantheon:

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The Pantheon is one of the most impressive buildings we have seen so far and, even better, entrance was FREE! It was built in the 2nd century and turned into a church about 500 years later. Today, it still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome.

and finally, watched the sun set over the Vatican:

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a papal pigeon

We walked over 20km of Rome’s streets and plazas and counted it as practice for our planned pilgrimage in May. I can’t think of a better place to practice for a pilgrimage.

What are we doing today? Well the length of this blog post should tell you that we aren’t walking 20km. No, we are 50 days into this adventure and today is the first day that our bodies refused to cooperate. Jakob experienced a bad combo of poor underwear choice, friction, and 20km of walking and I was experiencing some sort of digestive rejection of Italian food. So we decided to listen to our bodies and take a real rest day. Not a beach day or a travel day, but a sleep in, eat breakfast at noon, read books, and go to bed early rest day.

While our Airbnb kitty may look sceptical:

fullsizerender-3I am quite confident that it was the right decision.