GENOA, ITALY: April 13-14
Ah, Genoa, the birthplace of dear Christopher Columbus! Columbus, who is the reason I have to clarify that I am the dot-on-forehead sort of Indian, not the feather-on-head sort.
On Sunday the 13th, we were up early to catch a train to Genoa, which was of course delayed because of continuing strikes. When finally we reached our hotel, we were greeted by a friendly, wrinkled old lady from some other European country who loved talking to us simply because she could talk to us in English. She told us all about how she used to live in London, how her sister now lives in Australia, how she sometimes forgets proper English because she rarely gets to use it. The woman went on and on, but she was extremely generous and warmhearted :). Italy got off to a good start with this hospitality in Genoa, but in Pisa and Florence, it continued to slip from its pedestal in my mind.
After depositing our luggage in the room, we walked around the city a bit and quickly discovered that there is not a lot going on in Genoa, Italy. Its only claim to fame is its being the birthplace of Columbus, and while this is an excellent claim to fame, it doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment. Somehow, we found ourselves playing UNO on the steps of the Palazzo Ducale. I lost, but not without a fight! I used to think I was too laid back to be a competitive person, but let’s be honest: I really like winning. After a rousing game or two of UNO, we were pretty much starving, but restaurants don’t begin serving dinner until at least 7 p.m. (another downside of Italy: you can’t eat meals whenever you want! Ok, fine, now I’m just nitpicking), so we killed some time at an outdoor bar before shuffling into a small restaurant for a bowl of the greenest pesto I have ever seen. The noodles themselves were literally bright green. Solid first real Italian meal! After dinner, we got gelato, which became a really bad, albeit delicious, habit for the remainder of SPRING BREAK 2010.
We hung out down by the port for a while afterwards, where we stumbled upon an incongruous statue of Gandhi. I am telling you, my people have left their mark everywhere!
The next day, we visited the tiny, cramped Casa di Columbo (Christopher Columbus’ house) and the Palazzo Principe. We split up after this because, as we often discovered, sightseeing with even as few as 5 people can get tricky. The thing about traveling is that everyone has a different way of going about it. It’s only natural to butt heads sometimes if your idea of a fun vacation is sleeping in until noon and mine is getting up early to see the sun rise over the mountains. Melissa, Marcos and I are pretty similar when it comes to traveling in that we like to experience as much of whatever it city we’re in as we can, we do a LOT of walking, we go to bed late and get up early, and even if we’re tired, we’ll keep barreling on because, after all, you can sleep when you’re dead! (After 5 months of this, we are all three of us pretty exhausted, but I’d say it was completely worth it :).)
The three of us walked all the way up to the allegedly highest point of the city to get a panoramic view. This became something of an obsession throughout this trip. I think we managed to get panoramic shots from high points in every city!
Little did we know when we hopped on a train to Pisa that evening that what should have been a straight shoot from one Italian city to another would turn out to be an hours-long ordeal (the first of many, it seemed) that involved us being stranded between Genoa and Pisa for a couple hours in the middle of the night. I like to think everything is an experience, so I don’t really mind that we ran into so many glitches, especially since we emerged out of all of this unscathed (except my feet, which have taken a beating this semester) – but if I had a choice, I’d really rather not repeat those few cold hours waiting at a semi-deserted platform in La Spezia for a train that we could only hope would eventually show up!
PISA, ITALY: April 15
The train we expected to take us all the way to Pisa instead stopped at La Spezia. I still have no clue where that is, except that it’s not Pisa. We were the only ones left on the train, and the conductor told us we had to get off because this was the end of the road. So we got off, and we ended up waiting in the cold for what must have been at least 2 hours. I am not going to lie and paint a pretty picture so I only have good memories: it was a little bit miserable. Italian trains are confusing and unreliable. Most of the people we tried to ask for help weren’t very helpful or reassuring. It was dark and cold and Giovanni, the guy at our hostel in Pisa, was angry with us because we were late arriving, even though it was all out of our control.
When we finally got into Pisa at close to 2:30 a.m., we were greeted by a group of drunk teenagers hanging out in the piazza just in front of our hostel (“Welcome to Italy!”). Nothing like a drunken welcome, let me tell ya! haha. I went straight to bed because we had to be up early again to check out in the morning.
The next day, the weather was beautiful! Hot, even. We ventured over to the Field of Miracles, where we took the standard touristy photographs with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I’m not really sure why the Leaning Tower is a Wonder of the World. I suppose it’s a wonder that it hasn’t fallen over yet, but really, the thing is just a big mistake. It’s not colossal like the Great Wall, eerily symmetrical like the Taj Mahal, or impossible to build like the Pyramids at Giza. The Leaning Tower is a miscalculation! haha
After lunch and more unnecessary gelato, we ambled around and saw l’Università di Pisa, established in 1343 and one of the oldest universities in Europe. Pisa is even less happening than Genoa – which is completely fine! You take a city for what it is, I think, and experience it the way it’s meant to be experienced. Claire and Britt took an earlier train to Florence, but Marcos, Melissa and I decided to stay back a bit and enjoy our only day in Pisa. We rented a 3-person bike/car contraption and peddled around the dusty streets of Pisa (video #9)! There wasn’t anywhere we couldn’t go, so of course we biked everywhere, meaning we ended up sandwiched between cars on regular roads. I’m sure we irritated the drivers of said cars… haha. Although we had several near-death experiences, it was a lot of fun!
At 6 p.m., we got on a short train to Florence, which gave us some gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. Florence is a great and beautiful city, but this was the point in the trip when I was finally starting to get tired of traveling – I can push myself to all kinds of extremes, but I do have a limit, after all… Thankfully, we only had a few more days before our return to London. Or so we thought. But we had no idea that a friendly neighborhood Icelandic volcano was about to throw stranded travelers all across Europe into a frenzied panic.
FLORENCE, ITALY: April 15-21
Florence! Oh, Florence. Firenze. It really is a wonderful city, but it’s definitely not my favorite place in the world. Maybe it was bad timing: so much in life is about timing. When things happen at the wrong time, they can end up a mess. But I was a weary traveler when I got to Florence — add to that the fact that I got a 45 euro fine, that the people were pretty rude, and that we were trapped there for a couple extra days with no way out when this volcano erupted, and maybe you can understand why Italy is not on my must-revisit-someday list.
Our first day there, we hit a lot of major tourist attractions, including both the Uffizi Gallery, where we saw works by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Michelangelo, and the Accademia, where Michelangelo’s original David lives. Both places were beautiful and definitely worth a visit. I didn’t understand why David is such a big deal until I was standing in front of it, amazed by its size and details and perfection. It really is awe-inspiring. We walked along the Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) on the Arno River, which is interesting because it’s one of the few (maybe only?) still existing that has shops built on it.
At various points during our stay in Florence, we also saw several other museums. I wish I could remember the names, but it was about this time that I’d been traveling so much that museums, palaces and churches were all sort of starting to blend together. I also stopped fastidiously recording everything we did each day (I am not writing all of this from memory… haha).
The next day, we went to the Medici Chapel. The House of Medici was a politically influential family that rose to prominence in 14th century Florence. The family tree includes no less than 4 popes – now that is a pretty intense family. The Medicis were never monarchs, but they might as well have been, as they dominated Florentine government. Florence wouldn’t be what it is today – a huge historical art house, really – if not for the Medicis and their encouragement of the Italian Renaissance.
Later, we went inside Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, more commonly known as Il Duomo, and its accompanying museum, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. We climbed the 414 steps to the top of Giotto’s Campanile (an arduous task when your daily sustenance consists of pasta and gelato), from the top of which we could see all of Florence spread out before us, and some of the Tuscan fields on the edges of the city. I could have stayed up there forever, watching the miniature people below me, whose umbrellas made them nothing more than colorful blotches on cobblestone, wander between weary old buildings that have seen and weathered so much but are now just buildings.
Also in the Piazza del Duomo and opposite the cathedral, we saw replicas of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, the gilded bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry. Some of the door’s original panels, along with many other artifacts and pieces of the Duomo, are now in the Museo dell’Opera for preservation purposes.
It was on our way to the chapel that Melissa and I got tickets for not having a bus ticket. We were waiting directly behind the bus driver with money in our hands to pay for our tickets, but these bus drivers look at you like you’re annoying when you try to pay them. They just usher you onto the bus and start driving before you’ve given them you’re money. You really have to go out of your way to pay them, and I think it’s because they want us tourists to get caught so they can fine us. Which is exactly what happened. The 2 policemen who talked to us pretended not to speak any English, so we couldn’t even explain ourselves. We went to the station’s police department when we got off the bus to pay, and even there, suddenly nobody spoke any English. We couldn’t argue our case at all, and these officers and our bus driver (who was apparently in training, looked like he was 18, wore fancy sunglasses and giant studs in his ears, and might very well have been a cast member of Jersey Shore) were pretty much laughing at us. It made my blood boil. I am normally a calm person and it really takes a lot to genuinely piss me off, but in this situation – excuse my language – I was ready to flip a bitch. I thankfully didn’t because I was dealing with foreign police and wasn’t particularly in the mood to get arrested or escorted away… haha. But clearly, this put a bit of a damper on my Medici Chapel experience.
It’s a sorry thing that this is one of my more prominent memories of Italy, because it’s a great country. This, and the incredibly rude salesman at a stall in one of the markets who refused to sell a purse to Melissa. This, and the messed up, inefficient trains. This, and rude Giovanni in Pisa (though he redeemed himself a bit by apologizing for his attitude the next morning). This, and the woman at one of the clubs we went to who shortchanged me 10 euro for my ticket and then refused to listen to me. This, and the fact that people were curt, they didn’t smile, they seemed perpetually irritated by any kind of tourist. A city can be full of the most beautiful things in all the world, but if its people are rude, that city is no longer beautiful to me. Dublin is significantly less attractive than Florence, but Dublin’s people are the absolute nicest people I have ever met, and for that reason alone, Dublin ranks higher than Florence in my mind. I miss the warm people of Dublin; I miss nothing in Florence.
Well, that’s a lie – I miss the 45 euro I had to cough up for that ticket.