Adventures: Throwback to Italia (Part 2)

Finally continuing my walk down memory lane of the time I tread Italian streets…now where was I?

Right, after 2 days of stormy skies and mild rain, we departed Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, on a bright, sunny day toward Florence.

Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

However, we made a pit-stop in Pisa–stowed our bags at the safe train station storage for about 3 hours, which gave us just enough time to come up with some creative-ish shots of that world-renown diagonal tower and carry on. As most anyone will tell you, there isn’t much else to see in Pisa, besides a few shops perhaps.

Our train got in to Florence later in the afternoon. Here, we stayed in our first hostel of the trip, located right next to a giant church and only blocks away from the popular sites.

There isn’t much to say about our room, except that it was very orange.

The mirror asked if I had rolled in Cheetos.

This city is booming with culture and a variety of languages–the most I had ever heard in one place at any given time (then again, I haven’t traveled to New York yet).

The smell of fresh, real leather permeates into the narrow streets as you walk by and make your way toward the Duomo. The only way I could really think to describe that structure then and now is that it is just so stinkin’ big! Pictures couldn’t do it justice, unless they were taken by NASA.

The Duomo, Florence, Italy
Chalk artist on the streets of Florence, Italy

One thing we found irritating all over Italy, and the Ponte Vecchio Bridge was no exception, was the plethora of vendors selling knockoffs of everything and shoving them in our faces, but it was also quite amusing to watch them roll up their fake paintings and take off when the police would stroll into the area.

Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Florence, Italy

We covered quite a bit of this city in the last half of our day of arrival–we had to get some gelato even though the wind whipping through felt like the North Pole.

Before it got too late, we grabbed groceries from a local Billa or Coop and hopped on a bus back. Overnight, we placed our yogurt on our outside window ledge to keep cold since our room wasn’t endowed with a mini-fridge.

I can’t tell you how excited we were the next morning to find they hadn’t been pecked by pigeons or fallen to an inevitable fate.

We felt like geniuses, at least for a few hours.

That morning we headed out with purpose to find out tour times and purchase tickets, and I must interject that it was here at the ticket booth we encountered a most disgusting man. Without even a blink or a blush he burped into the microphone, while just before that had been picking his nose and ears.

Our choices were either the Uffizi art museum or the Accademia gallery where Michelangelo’s original sculpture of David resides.

Since the latter didn’t have an opening until three that afternoon, around the time we would be looking for a southbound train, we opted for Uffizi instead, figuring the imitation David statue in the Piazza del Duomo was as much as we cared to see anyway.

Sometimes I wish I had more of an appreciation for art–I really do try. I guess just after the hundredth sculpture of an emperor’s head, the thousandth depiction of the Virgin Mary, and the millionth nude image, you could say I’d had my fill.

But, it did beat walking in the rain, which subsided slightly by the time we walked outside and booked it for the train station.

Don’t get me wrong, this place definitely has its charm, it just didn’t leave as much of an impact on me as I’ve heard countless others claim. We were all ready to move on, and we had our longest journey ahead of us yet.

The ride to Naples on the express train is probably about 3 hours, but from there we were to catch a smaller train with the local company, Circumvesuvania, to get to the Amalfi Coast.

During the first leg of the trip, we made good use of the time by making Nutella our staple snacking sustenance along with strawberries, bananas, graham crackers and whatever else we found stuffed into our backpacks. We looked like heathens, covered up to our wrists in sweet smudges, but we were happy heathens nonetheless.

You learn to sleep when you can

Fast forward about 6 or so hours and many bumpy, noisy miles on the apparently-not-cared-for local train, we made it to a dark Sorrento, probably around 9 PM, and realized a bit too late that we had missed the last bus out of town toward the room awaiting our tired selves.

But not to fear, because there just so happened to be a cab driver who told us, in broken English, that he knew that side of town very well. Figuring we had no other option but faith, we took up his offer, and I was granted the privilege to sit in the front seat and make small talk (as well as subconsciously make mental note of the surrounding areas we passed through…just in case…).

I’m pretty convinced now that man was an angel (totally forget his name now), because he charged us peanuts compared to what he probably would have wanted for the journey to get to our condo, which, had we even gotten that far on our own, would have missed completely in the darkness and dense coastal fog.

However, when we arose the next morning and opened our curtains, all the confusion from the night before was a faint memory. This was, and would be unanimously voted eventually, as the best of all the places we stayed, for a number of reasons.

Island of Capri from the condo in Sorrento, Italy

Not only was our view spectacular, but we had a very spacious, two-room apartment all to ourselves, complete with a dining room and kitchen, where we finally created our very own cooked meals and ate like queens!

All of this for about the same price as any of the other hotels/hostels we stayed.

Gocci Di Capri, just outside Sorrento about 20 minutes, is the place to stay!

We didn’t waste much time getting out of there, though–we had every intention of taking a ferry to the Island of Capri for the day.

The drive into town via bus

Unfortunately, it was just our luck to find the ferries were all cancelled due to an extremely rough and white-capped ocean, although the sun was shining bright and beautiful.

Police (Cabinieri) boat at the docks in Sorrento

What could we do? Explore.

First things first: coffee.

I had thoroughly enjoyed every cup of caffeine I had tasted in Italy so far, but was feeling brave at that early hour to go for something called a “nocciola” (<– click to see a video and description) which seemingly was developed in that region.

Steep steps to the street

Street to the docks, Sorrento

This little wonder was placed on the bar in front of me in a shot glass, and I double checked the menu for the ingredients to be sure (nope, no alcohol), then slowly sipped and savored every rich drop–remember this drink, fellow-coffee lovers, it may be small but it’s the quality that counts!!

Next we wandered the streets and shops and enjoyed the aromas of citrus (known for the area), crepes, and fresh roasted espresso beans all around us.

Here we found the locals friendly and relaxed–who wouldn’t be happy to live somewhere so beautiful?

Cutest town award: Sorrento, Italy

We were very surprised at the number of stray cats and dogs in every city we visited, yet they seemed especially plenteous in Sorrento.

Seemingly, the townsfolk take it up as their community duty to feed and care for them with a generous smile on their faces–we watched an ice cream shop owner graciously hold out a cone for a dog without hesitation.

The wind was pretty insane that day.

But it was also one of the clearest days we had spent in Italy and we would not be thwarted. We meandered to various scenic viewing spots along the roads and hidden behind several rows of shops, just gaping in awe. From one of the areas we were even able to see the Island of Ischia as well.

Lookout point, Sorrento coastline

We also happened upon a deep, enchanting chasm containing an abandoned building which we later learned is called the Valley of the Mills.

Besides a small creek, not much water seems to flow through the area now as it once did.

The overgrowth of lush green vines and other foliage makes for a mysteriously medieval-like setting one cannot help but be enraptured by.

Valley of the Mills, Sorrento

A little later, after perusing many stores, I finally caved and bought a coral faux-leather jacket. I had seen many in all the places we had been but had procrastinated and wanted to find one for a good price and which I absolutely loved; it is now one of my favorites.

I’m not much for souvenirs and knick-knacks, but articles of clothing are always a good, useful exception.

Making our feast

Late afternoon we stopped to see what we could find at the grocery store for our first homemade meal, then we caught the bus back to the villa for a relaxing evening in, gazing westward.

This was by far our least expensive and largest meal we would have on the trip.

Sunset in Sorrento (Island of Capri to the left)

The next morning brought unfortunate and inconvenient news. The hotel manager informed us that the Circumvesuvania railway that had brought us there would not be able to return us, as the workers were all on a strike which would last for a couple days at least (this also included the buses).

We had hoped to take the ferry to Capri for the day, since the weather was now on our side, but since we were to check into our hotel in Rome that evening, we feared it would not be possible to squeeze the travel into the same day.

Beyond bummed, we decided it would be smartest to catch the ferry to Naples in order to hop on a train to Rome. However, the first problem was getting into town, since the buses weren’t running.

Our kind (I might also mention young and handsome) hotel manager gladly offered to give us a free ride. Talk about customer service.

The boat ride was warm and refreshing, a nice alternative to the trains. Upon our arrival to the dock, we were told the train station was a lot farther than we originally estimated, and since we had been told by nearly every other Italian in every other city to watch our belongings quite acutely while in Naples due to the high crime rate, we booked it.

Dirty, cracked sidewalks were lined on both sides with street suspicious vendors peddling trinkets, so we were forced to single file after each other, looking as disinterested as possible, working up a sweat hauling our gear for probably 10 miles, and trying not to stop for more than a few seconds at stop lights.

Alas, we made it, all our junk intact. I can’t recall for certain if it was here or at the Florence station where we literally ran to jump onto our train, but I like to chalk it up to Naples since it was definitely our least favorite place.

I was the last to climb aboard; for a moment I lost my balance on the edge but was pulled in safely by some Italian women who smiled and laughed and patted my back and I had wished so badly to say more than “grazie” (thanks), but I think they knew.

There was still plenty of daylight left when we got into Rome. After walking just around the block to check into our new home, hotel Marco Polo, which was well-equipped with a mini-fridge, we set out to get our bearings and find some food.

I can’t describe the sensation I felt when I glanced casually down a side street for restaurant signs and instead caught a glimpse of the Colosseum at the end of it. There it was, a grand and historical monument, a time-capsule, right in the middle of modern life; it was surreal.

But more on Rome later. We rested well that first night and planned a day trip the next day back toward where we came from, to see the ruins of Pompeii.

Ironically, this required changing trains in Naples again. All we could do was laugh.

That morning I was standing over a trash can at the Roma Termini station, peeling an orange, when a beggar came up close to me with his hands out. I simply split my fruit and plopped one half into his hand, nodding groggily. His face was priceless, but he accepted and went on his way.

Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii, Italy

I will say this about Pompeii, we searched all day up and down those hot, uneven cobblestone streets for the deceased and preserved citizens to no avail.

Maybe it sounds morbid, but we just wanted to see the dead people!

This is one of those places, I actually did regret not having some sort of tour guide to explain what we were looking at.


But as usual, we still managed to have a good time on our own.

We did come across what we figured to be an ancient hot tub along with plenty of pottery and engravings.

Looks like a spa, right?
Because Pompeii.

There is also the arena or amphitheater and then an entire courtyard of statues and images…and, of course, lots and lots of rubble and ruin.

The climate in this region was much warmer, like the Amalfi Coast, and I was genuinely regretting wearing my boots, leggings, and sweater.

That’s unpredictable spring for you, right?

Excavated amphitheater in Pompeii

So, that’s perverse Pompeii in a nutshell. Definitely intriguing in its own way.

But when in Rome…

The following morning just so happened to be Palm Sunday, and as you can imagine, the Vatican and St. Peter’s square was just crawling with people. This was just before the new, and current, pope had entered his office officially.

St. Peter’s Square surrounding the Vatican, Rome, Italy

We passed through security and watched part of the ceremony; some in the crowd wiped away tears, many others held and waved olive branches.

Wishing to avoid the masses (ha ha, so punny) as much as possible that day, we pushed our tour and climb inside the Vatican to the next day instead.

Italian gestures: not just a stereotype

We had pre-purchased city passes for Rome before our trip, which got us into a couple main attractions for free and then discounted tickets for others, but if given a chance to do it again, I probably would not have bothered.

If you’re into museums, then this might be a very important option for you, but I’m the type that would rather explore and buy tickets as I go and become interested along the way.

Surprisingly, much of the main attractions in Rome can be covered on foot and in a short amount of time.

Piazza Navona Fountain, Rome

We purposely left extra days in our schedule when booking, just in case we either wanted to slow down the pace or take a side trip, like Pompeii, especially since we had no idea how long it would take to get the full feel of Rome.

By this time in our trip, it felt nice to not have to power-walk to and through every site. We definitely relaxed into the environment, letting our creativity flow at its own rhythm.

Truly, besides the first night searching for our hotel in Milan, I never really feared being lost in Italy, even when we were clueless what direction we were facing or what street we were to be on or how to even pronounce it in the first place.

Rome, although it is definitely a bustling, busy city, puts off the same leisurely vibe that the rest of Italy gives off.

Piazza Navona Fountain, Rome

No one blares horns at you for crossing in the middle of the street, people aren’t tapping their feet impatiently in checkout lines, and they also have no problem squeezing as close to you as possible on the bus.

We’re pretty uptight here in America, I gotta admit.

One of the many chapels…

Another thing I wish I would have done more of is take a picture of every place we ate and the food I ordered, not only to be a silly foodie but obviously for this blog.

Usually, though, I was starved and only gave myself enough time to pray and chow before my camera even came to mind.

The best lasagna. Ever.

 I guess I deceived myself in thinking I already had enough pictures. Lies.

The capitol building

Wherever the place above was (I think close to the Pantheon: top right), we liked it so much we ate there twice–definitely a first!

Capitol building, Rome
Street performers near the Forum, Rome, Italy

One of our top priorities was to find the best gelato and try as many flavors as possible. So when we stumbled upon Gelateria Della Palma, boasting 150 different flavors as well as countless other Italian desserts and candies, we made an important mental note to visit this shop once again as well, and we did.

The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Entering The Colosseum, Rome

The other attraction I seriously regret not following a tour guide through is the Colosseum. Yes, Bible history had taught me quite a bit about this corrupted construction, but I would have much rather have liked to have heard more of the details and stories rather than trying to find and read the little plaques.

Inside The Colosseum, Rome

I definitely felt eerie chills standing in this giant stone structure. Even with a thousand other noisy tourists around me, it was impossible not to feel a sort of reverence for the amount of blood that spilled there centuries ago.

These photographs are of what remains exposed of the underground system that held slaves, beasts, and what other contraptions used to bring them to the surface for savage and cruel crowd entertainments.

Inside The Colosseum, Rome

The Roman Forum has an appeal I had not foreseen. This was largely because we were not expecting it when we had set our footsteps toward the Colosseum, only to have our attention lured to this picturesque scene.

At this particular moment, the sun shone perfectly, bathing the broken, battered bricks with soft, warm rays.

I was suddenly captivated into an ancient world where it seemed time had ceased; I was drowning out the sounds of cars and people and spoken languages I didn’t understand.

This, this I understood clearly.

Beauty is a language all in itself that refuses to be limited by words or speech.

Our feet led us onward until we discovered the Trevi Fountain, where legend has it if you toss a coin in over your shoulder, you will once again return to Rome. We gave it a couple shots, just in case…

Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
‘Bout to flip my penny

Making our wishes!
Spanish Steps, Rome

Attention Spanish-linguists: I will say that knowing even just the basics of Spanish will get you pretty far in Italy, as the languages are quite similar.

But you don’t even need that til before you know it you’re repeating “grazie,” “prego” (please or welcome), and “ciao” (hi/bye) or “buongiorno” (good morning) like second nature.

We also became fairly accustom to hearing the phrase “ciao bella” (hello Beautiful), and don’t think that I’m bragging about it. Most of the time they were not the most flattering words to hear, depending who was calling it out.

Needless to say, some of our funniest memories involve the many bold and often creepy men we encountered; there seems to be at least one “guy” story per city.

Our last night in Rome, we visited the Spanish Steps one more time and took a few turns around the city before stopping into a gigantic but cozy looking McDonald’s to grab a snack since it would be a while before our next solid meal (plane food does NOT count).

Know this: You don’t have to avoid McDonald’s in Italy. They actually sell very tasty, non-Americanized, espresso drinks for much less the cost than you will pay at a small cafe. Of course, it does kill the ambiance of “being in Italy,” but if you just need your coffee already, don’t be shy–even the Italians like it! They also offer a more refined menu that includes cheesecake…

Anyway, it had been raining on and off all day and we had tried to stay as dry as possible without much luck.

We weren’t exactly looking forward to our 13 hour plane ride (plus a 7 hour overnight layover in Moscow), but our own beds and showers were sounding better and better.

With tired feet and image-filled, knowledge-overloaded minds, we sat down with our drinks and snacks in a corner and watched people.

Well, it wasn’t long before a young gentleman, fashionably dressed as they all are, spotted us then nonchalantly took the table right beside ours. First there were the polite but timid smiles in our direction, but before you knew it, we were carrying on a hilarious full-fledged charades game just to hold conversation with the guy–we definitely laughed more than we spoke.

Alas, we had to say good-bye and tell him no a few too many times to giving him our Facebook names, even if he was charmingly harmless.

What happens in Italy, stays in Italy, right? 🙂

We agreed it was the best way to sum up the entire trip; we couldn’t have planned it any better ourselves.

Pompeii Views
Pope Palace, Rome

As I said before, sometimes the reality of the images seen and the places visited (from the bizarre to the spectacular) doesn’t hit home even after the return home.

But one thing for sure, I came back ready to plan another out-of-country trip by the next week.

The travel bug is real, people! Consider yourselves warned.

Until next time…Arrivederci!