To: people on the old mailing list
Subject: ITALY and GREECE!!!
Date: 3rd September, 2011
Apologies for not writing sooner (to those I’d promised I’d write to), and apologies for writing at all (to those who don’t want to receive ‘another travel email’ – just let me know).
BEWARE: this is a long email. I have no excuse other than my laptop claims to have 9hrs 47mins of battery life and I’ve resolved to test it.
I hope you’re all well :-)
I am too :-)
It hasn’t even been a month since I left , but already feels like so much longer – I’m definitely getting money for jam in the space-time continuum. In reality I’ve had about 2 weeks in Italy, with a week in Greece in the middle (pre-arranged to meet up with brother Steve), and currently (well at the time of writing) I’m on route to Paris (via train). I’m planning to stay there about ten days, before winding down through the south of France into Spain, in order to start work on the 3rd October. Attached is a map of my (slightly illogical) itinerary…
So far no major disasters have befallen me, just some minor hiccups such as transport delays and broken sunglasses (I dropped a bag on my head), and vending machines eating coins. But my luggage continues to arrive in tandem at every destination, I haven’t had anything stolen, or been ripped off, and I’m feeling as healthy as can be (for someone subsisting almost entirely on wine, cheese, gelati, and no exercise). I do wear a wooden bracelet all the time.
ITALY: has been everything I hoped for and more. More tourists than I care to compete with, more art and history and breathtaking landscapes than I can fully take in, and more flavours of gelati than I can ever hope to try. The cliffs are bigger than I imagined, the architecture grander. The bar, in my books, has officially been raised. Despite being peak season, I haven’t blown my budget (well, as much as I feared). Some of the hostels I’ve stayed in were incredibly good value (think swimming pool with a view of Tuscan hills for 30€ per night, with fresh figs and giant jars of Nutella at breakfast), and simple but delicious food is cheap and easy to find. The only thing that’s failed to impress me is their transport system, which makes Melbourne’s look like the model of efficiency, and is unfortunately an unavoidable and expensive expense.
ROME: as it was my first destination I was bursting with enthusiasm, which was good, as Rome takes a lot of energy! On Day One I woke up at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds, see the sights, and break in my new sandals (risky business). My first stop was the Colosseum. As you step out of the train station, it’s RIGHT THERE!!! Gave me quite a shock. That’s when it finally hit me that I was on the other side of the world, finally, doing all that I’d been daydreaming of and planning and saving for, that it’s all actually happening right now, in the present tense!! It was a very memorable moment and I had a bit of a teary, whilst keeping my other eye out for pickpockets. So overall I loved Rome – the history just has such an impressive physical presence, and yet the modern Romans still hold their own against the crowds and remind you that it’s a living city with so much more going on than tourism.
FLORENCE: doesn’t hold out quite as well. It seems to be predominantly populated by ex-pat students and tourists, the locals were sensibly scarce. I wonder where/when the real city occurs? However, the on-show version is still truly beautiful. The Duomo was my favourite building (but of course). I’m still not sure what colour the domes actually are – green? honey? blue-grey? rust? Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me. The light sure did. I loved how it can be seen from almost every angle in the city centre, lurking above and between the tall narrow streets, like a monster in a Shaun Tan illustration.
VENICE: felt like science fiction. A spectacular, ancient city, sinking under the weight of all the modern people (and their cameras). I felt exhausted for it, and hated being just another bloody tourist. As much as I’d love to visit during the off season, then I’d still be just another bloody tourist, but eating into their respite. Having said that, I’m so glad I went. I couldn’t not go, and it was so majestic, and so inspiring to think that people once had the imagination and ambition to build it.
NAPLES: is a filthy, boiling mess of a city, full of corruption, but refreshingly void of tourists. I loved it. The streets are piled with rubbish and the shells of burnt out motorbikes. Apparently the mafia has a power hold on waste management, and somehow makes money from leaving it there. Crossing the road feels like bungy jumping, you’ve just got to step out and hope. But there was a great crowd in my hostel, I felt safe the whole time (except for crossing the road), and it was a good base to make day trips to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. I also had the best value meal of my life. There are a handful of pizza restaurants in close contention for ‘Best Pizza in Naples’ (ie, ‘Best Pizza in the World’), and me and three other backpackers managed to fluke a table at one of them. It came to 30€ for four very big pizzas, a plate of mixed fried thingies (aranchini filled with melty cheese, crumbed zucchini, other mystery delights), two bottles of wine, and soft drinks etc. I’m not sure what was more unbelievable – the bill, or just how good a plain margarita pizza can be!
OTHER PARTS OF ITALY:
TUSCANY: is just like the postcards. I hired a bike and rode (downhill the whole way) to Vinci (where Leonardo was born). It was a beautiful little town with winding streets and terracotta rooftops. It then took me two buses and another bike ride to get back, as there’s no way I could ride the same distance uphill.
CINQUE TERRE: 5 beautiful little cliff-side villages, a gruelling walk between them under the hot hot sun (we cheated and got a ferry part way), followed by a refreshing swim in the Mediterranean. As we were enjoying some gelati and watching the sunset, my kiwi companion made the mistake of commenting on how it had been a perfect day, I said that’s exactly what I was thinking, thereby jinxing the trains home.
PISA: I’d made every effort to boycott this tourist trap, but due delayed trains from Cinque Terre, ended up being stranded for hours and hours at Pisa station. The worst thing was that it was so late, and we were so hungry, and the only place still open was McDonalds… so I was forced to fail both my boycotts at once.
POMPEII: was fascinating, those ancient Romans were ingenious! They had sliding doors, and aqueducts, and proper insulation, and phallic arrows carved into the pavement so that foreign sailors who didn’t speak Latin could still find the brothels. I think Swanston St could also benefit from the same giant stepping stones, so that people can cross the road without getting their feet wet. My tour guide was a colourful old Italian man, who gave us an impressive operatic performance in order to demonstrate the natural acoustics of the Pompeii amphitheatre.
AMALFI COAST: a giant version of Cinque Terre, probably my favourite destination so far. The trip was worth it for the views on the bus ride alone. Loved wandering the towns, people watching on the beaches, and washing away all the grime of Naples.
BOLOGNA: Mum’s is still better, but I may be slightly biased. The city itself had a great vibe, particularly around the university, for some reason I can imagine living there.
VERONA: great architecture, though the rain caught me totally off guard! ‘Juliet’s balcony’ was a pretty, if somewhat artificial tourist destination, built long after Shakespeare. There’s a statue of Miss Capulet and people line up for the privilege of rubbing her right breast, to bring luck in love. I know my cynicism will get me nowhere, but I just couldn’t stomach queuing, anymore than I could stomach the souvenir shops packed with fluffy love hearts. The city itself is really, really nice though. Very trendy shops, and marble streets all through the centre.
ANCONA: is a good place to sleep, if you’ve just got a ferry from Greece.
GREECE: was different. I flew there from Venice, and met Steve at the airport, sans drama, and sans mobile phones! (who’da thunk it was possible?)
STEVE: was full of excitement and tales of debauchery from his Top-Deck tour, made me feel hung-over just talking to him. But it was great to catch up, and we had a delicious meal on the roof of our hotel in Athens, overlooking the Acropolis at night.
THE FOOD: was even better and cheaper than Italy, I thought. More varied, lots of meat and seafood and salad, and the bakeries were overflowing with sticky baklava goodness.
THE TRANSPORT: was stunningly inefficient.
THE SERVICE: was exceptionally friendly, and genuine (I won’t bore you with the exceptions). One delightful hostel owner even went home to get her chess set for us, just cos I’d enquired if there was one.
SANTORINI: not as postcard perfect as I’d hoped, but I did have very high expectations. This may be because everyone says it’s the most beautiful of all the Greek Islands. However we were only there for two nights and there was a lot more to explore than we had time for.
IOS: we went there for the night life, which was sadly underwhelming. The island is full of the worst kind of Aussies; loud, drunk, ignorant, and embarrassing. Unfortunately all the bars now cater for this crowd. Going out felt totally orchestrated. The way it’s ‘supposed’ to be done is to start drinking in the afternoon, then go to sleep from about 8 until ten or eleven, then start drinking again, and not even think about heading out until midnight (if you’re really keen), or 2am (if you’re really cool). Once you hit the bars, there is an elaborate ritual of which to go to and when, depending on drink specials or whatever. The problem is that if you’re in the wrong bar at the wrong time, it will be totally empty, and if you follow the correct procedure, you’ll be forced to listen to the same top forty (really just top 3) hits on repeat at every venue. On the second night out it already felt like Groundhog Day. I’m all up for starting late, if there’s something happening beforehand (like work or dinner or a show), but why not just start at a normal hour, and if it’s fun, stay out longer! If you need to sleep until eleven so that you can then say you were up until dawn, then that really isn’t hardcore. And personally, I prefer a bar that fills at a natural pace, depending on the merit of the music and the crowd and the beverages. And, the wine in Greece is terrible! There. I’ve had my rant. Though apparently there’s much more to Ios than the main party town, so my fault for following the crowd and not thinking outside the square. But…I really just wanted a massive night out!
PAROS: was a pleasant surprise. Beautiful, relaxed, and authentic. We loved our meal so much on the first night that we went back to the same restaurant, and despite moving tables, the waiter let us have the same potted olive tree (Homer) at our table both nights.
TIME IN GREECE: was mostly spent eating, drinking, reading, playing cards, perusing the shops, napping on ferries, swimming, sunbaking, and having at least a couple of siestas each day, because so much relaxation can be exhausting.
GOODBYE STEVE: we parted at Athens’ port, and he somehow made it back to Australia before my ferry got to Italy. However, Steve I’m sorry to say that my bus ride across mainland Greece had really beautiful scenery, I thought it looked even nicer than the islands, you missed out. (But it was a pleasure to travel with you, and thanks for the three kilos of Dutch cheese. Made me very popular in the hostel kitchens.)
THE FERRY TO ITALY: was an experience. Unlike the island ferries, where “deck” means you can sleep anywhere that’s not reserved, for the twenty something hours from Patras to Ancona, “deck” meant “deck, or the corridor on level 7. and no, you cannot bring your luggage into the lounge. and no, there is no luggage storage on board. and just so you know, another thousand passengers are getting on at the next port, so you’d better find some floorspace quick smart and stay there”. I did find a nice little cosy spot on the lino under a stairwell (quite fitting as I’ve been re-reading Harry Potter), and woke amongst a sweaty jumble of Greeks and Italians (they come prepared with blankets and inflatable mattresses, the parents get pillows and the kids use dad’s belly). So now I know.
And then, and then I was back in Italy… but now (I’ve just noticed), I’ve crossed the border into France! how exciting! The rooftops are slanty instead of flat!
Such a shame, as much as I’m really looking forward to France, I really, really loved Italy. I’m hooked on buffalo mozzarella and pistachio gelati, and my Enspangliano was coming along nicely. Definitely want to go back there, in less of a rush. A good incentive to become wildly successful at something someday.
Definitely had better wrap this up, you’ve no doubt all fallen asleep at your desks, and I’m really getting tired, and my writing is getting really lazy.
And so, arrivederci amigos e familia, hasta la prossima vez. Capisco?
Much love to you all