Thursday, 11 September 2008

Italy Express

It's a good thing I take as many photographs as I do :). Especially when travelling. It's been well over a month since I actually left Rome, and Italy, but scrolling through the images, that's hard to believe! Of course, there's a catch there. With a couple of thousand pics involved, (of which roughly three quarters are actually mine :|) a few hours could easily disappear unnoticed :).On to the actual tale then, of four cities and one rather empty town. So initially John and I had planned on an overnight train ride from Paris to Milan. Fortunately, one of the chaps at the course in Paris introduced us to really cheap European flights :D. We ended up paying less that we would have for the train! And had that extra Sunday in Paris! Not so fortunately, our plan had a bit of fine print :|. The flight out of Paris wasn't out of Paris at all! It was from Beauvais, like an hour's drive away. Took us two, thanks to a cab driver who didn't speak English, and assumed we were headed for Charles de Gaulle :(. At the other end we landed at Bergamo, again well outside Milan, but at least the shuttle coach dropped us off smack in the middle of town :).After roaming about in Milan Centrale, more than a little lost and confused, we managed to get ourselves tickets for Venice the following morning. (Yes, that's the first thing we did, exit strategy you see :P.) And then, to our huge relief, we found the baggage deposit counter. Firstly, I was less than confident of the status of our hostel bookings, seeing how the booking website had disappeared. Plus, the hostel itself was way outside town. So we just dumped our bags, bought us a nice city map, and set off!Now Milan, unlike Paris, has a very manageable total of 3 metro lines, not 14 :O. And the absolute best thing about it all is that for 3 € you get a full 24 hour pass to travel on all three, as many times as you like :D!! With no clue as to what we wanted to see, the first place we landed up in was Piazza del Duomo. Turned out to be a pretty good start :). The buzzing modern shopping arcade set within the ancient arches of the Vittorio Emmanuel II building, where the Louis Vuittons and Pradas jostled for space with the pizzerias and the McDonald's! Almost frail in its delicate stonework, but truly dwarfing with its forest of sky-scraping spires, the (apparently very famous) Milan Cathedral! And of course, the pigeon crap smeared statue of ol' Leo DaV in the little garden almost hidden between big sprawling buildings.The thing you need to understand about the whole trip is that there was absolutely no laid down plan involved :D. I'd just gone through a week of people explaining to me, with the help of every possible 'tool' known for analysing one's personality /:), that I was everything I try every minute of every day not to be :|. And then declaring their surprise about how they'd never have figured without said tools X-(. Anyway, so I went into overdrive with the anti-planned approach. No prior reading on the places we were headed to, and hence no clue what we might want to see, and what not. Land up somewhere, look around, pick another spot on the map and just head for it, then repeat :D. At the end of it all, while I had no clue what most of the places I was visiting really where, letting myself go in the current of constant visual overload was beyond liberating :).
We strolled over to the Castello Sforzesco, and the fountain at its gate. Peered at the moat that was now dry, covered with a rather inviting looking carpet of green. And lunched on what was to be the first of several pizzas over the rest of the week :). Eventually we figured it was time to find out where we were staying the night. The most interesting thing about our hostel (other than the fact that the bookings were intact that is) was the sign right outside the metro stop that said 'San Siro this way' :). No, we didn't pay a visit. There wasn't a metro line leading there, and it was too far to walk. (I'm just not that big a fan :P.)
Santa Maria delle Grazie
At the hostel we found out that one of the more famous things about Milan was DaVinci's The Last Supper, exhibited at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Not that we had much hope of actually getting a peek, with no prior reservations. It turned out that the exhibit was closed for only one day of the week. Any guesses which one? Here's a hint. We were there on a Monday :(. I guess it was better that way. After a brief foray into Corso Venezia, Milan's high fashion street (and feeling thoroughly out of place within seconds :P) we returned to the fountain and the Duomo.
Despite being farther south than Paris, sunset was quite a late affair. Then it was back to the hostel for a good night's sleep before heading off to the next destination, Venice! The train ride was nice, once we figured out that the tickets we'd bought actually had coach and seat numbers, all in Italian :P. (This time when I bought train tickets for the trip out from Munich, I actually put every bit of text through a translator, and sure enough! Seat and coach numbers! Live and learn ;).) I hadn't actually registered that Venice was in fact not on the main land of Italy! So that came as a nice surprise :D.Once we saw the baggage deposit place, we headed straight for it, then for the map :D. It's actually a little surprising, how Venice is still above water, and hasn't sunk into the mind boggling maze of little and not so little canals that completely pervade its every part! Especially given the sheer number of people that seemed to throng every narrow dark street! Oh yeah, that's the other thing, the impossibly narrow cobbled streets, in between stone walls rising high enough to allow only a midday sun to peep through, if you were lucky! For pretty much most of the day criss-crossing the city, we didn't see a single motor vehicle, or a road on which it could ply! I loved it :).Following the rather dubious looking signs painted on walls, we headed for that ultimate symbol of Venice (in my brain at least, seeing how it has endured an unfortunate amount of force fed Shakespeare :-<), the Rialto! And the huge jostling crowd amidst the lively 'bazaar' that seemed to overflow the rather wide bridge, seemed to have retained some essence of a hallowed place of trading. (And the kind of bargaining that would have left the local fish market in Asansol hanging its collective head in shame!)From there we made our twisting and confused way to the Piazza San Marco! Honestly, if you think about it, there's no way you can miss it :). All the little streets seem to pour out eventually into the massive piazza! Unfortunately, as with every other place we visited in Italy, the cathedral was being renovated :|. And as a start of a trend that would follow us around almost everywhere except Rome, we figured we didn't have enough time to waste standing in a queue that led inside the Doge's Palace.From the Piazzetta, the part of St Mark's Square facing the Grand Canal, we could see several rather interesting structured across the water, so we resolved to make our way over to the nearest bridge across. Unfortunately, that seemed a simpler achievement on the map than it was in reality :). The thing that caught my attention was a little icon on the map that marked the location of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection! The only thing I actually knew about it was a vague recollection that it housed some of Picasso's work. I'm not a big Picasso fan, but given that I was in town, I had to go see it! (It'll take way too long to try and explain the reason, and no one who reads this would ever be able to make head or tail of it anyway :|.) With some difficulty (mainly the running into walls while walking with face in map kind) we managed to track down the almost obscure sign on the gate... The sign said 'Closed on Tuesday'. No prizes for guessing what day of the week we spent in Venice :(.Most of what was left of the afternoon was spent on a water bus. Not intentionally :D. First it took us a while to actually get the 24 hour pass thing. Seeing how we had to walk back and forth a little to find a water-bus-stop that actually sold passes :|. Anyway, that done, we took the first bus that came along. Unfortunately, it was the wrong direction, and summer being the appropriate season, we made a nice and leisurely trip all the way to Lido, about and hour and a half of extra travelling in the Laguna Veneta! We missed the minimum time limit for the bags we'd left at the train station, but what the heck :).The most fun part of the hostel in Venice was that it was right on the waterfront, and not on the main island :). Oh, and that the guy at the food counter hated Peroni with a vengeance :P. Oh, and the extremely chatty Belgian girl who was on her way around the world (her plans included India, Vietnam and Brazil) and who thought it was hilarious how we were travelling through Italy without the slightest knowledge of the language :P. So before we turned in, we sat around with feet dipping into the water of the Lagoon between Giudecca and the main island in the gathering darkness, as each passing boat sent ripples over the calm surface that finally sloshed contentedly near us. Yeah, I think from the hostel perspective, Venice was the best :).Next morning we were off again, this time towards Florence! The lack of power sockets in the AIG hostels we were staying in was somewhat alleviated by those in the Eurostar train compartments! So I took the opportunity to recharge my camera batteries. And while John augmented the night's sleep with an extra nap, I just let it all sink in a little. In a little over 48 hours I'd gone from a small sleepy airport outside Paris to a train, halfway between Venice and Florence, via Milan. !!!!!!!!!!! (*silent version of a hyperexpressive equivalent of 'Oh my GOD! This is so totally unreal, and kick ass!!'*) :D There were people all around, mostly looking like the regular passenger kind, so I kept my jubilation under wraps :). And the best was totally yet to come!
Once we'd dumped our stuff at the station, instead of heading into Florence, we decided to go check out Pisa first. It's only about an hour or so by the local trains, and seeing as the trip's through some of the more scenic parts of Tuscany, it was quite nice. When we did get there though, we found out that the station is almost exactly at the opposite end of the town from the primary attractions, i.e. the Cathedral of Pisa and it's world famous bell tower. Yes, that would be the leaning tower :). This has got to be the only example of a massively flawed piece of engineering that actually makes money!But seeing how tiny Pisa actually is, it took us barely any time to get there! It was a little sad though, how the rest of the town seemed almost deserted and the only people you saw on the streets were either going to, or returning from, the Cathedral Square. And of course, the square itself was chock full of tourists, with their radio headsets and the guides, with their microphone transmitters. Oh yeah, it's all high tech stuff! We happily ignored the history (or the versions being propagated on the particular day) and stuck to being shutter happy and superficial :D.
Then on the way back, the train broke down :|. Or well, something broke down. John, once again, was fast asleep, and all the announcements were in Italian /:). But we were very conveniently stopped at a station. So maybe it was something to do with the track ahead. I figured it would be a good time to get off the train when, following one particular announcement, everyone proceeded to quickly reach for their bags :|. Thankfully, it was just a matter of hopping onto another train and taking an alternative route back to Florence.We chose to actually find the hostel first, before looking around any further. You see, this hostel had no proper address! They told you to take such and such bus to such and such stop, which would be 'about 15 minutes' from Firenze SMN, and then look for a signboard :|. After a good 25 minutes and still no sign of said signboard, I sought help. The bus driver appeared to be used to this kind of a request. And at the proper stop, he even stepped out of the bus to show us the way to the hostel! Turned out about half the passengers in the bus had also stepped off, sprouted backpacks and were looking rather relieved :).Having made a further three trips to and from the town centre, by the time we ventured out the next morning, we were expertly picking out relevant stops and so on. (Well, I was. I had the map :P.) The first stop was at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. Not because it was one of the most famous sites in town, but 'cos the bus route went right past it and it looked really awesome!! Honestly, when you just travel as blindly as we did, it's so cool when you realise later that it all worked out almost better than you could possibly have planned it :D.
Impressive as I thought the interior would be, the queue seemed way too long, even quite early in the morning. So we went walking around it, and found a side door that had just opened, and therefore, had no queue! In we went, turned out it was a trip to the top of the largest brick and mortar dome in the world! Even 600 years after it was built. As with most other things, we had no clue :P. The view was breathtaking though, both inside, what with the massive depiction of the last Judgement, and outside, with an absolutely unhindered view of the entire city!
So after spinning around the top a few times, taking in the we sat down facing the Arno. Or what would be facing the Arno, if you could actually see it amidst the carpet of red roofs! What you could see was this rather tall and lonely looking tower. So we decided we'll head for it, making a detour here, or a stop there, amazed at how every alley had something that seemed shrouded in a sense of historic significance. (Of course, I hadn't been to Rome yet :). But that comes later.)
We did eventually manage to find our way into the heart of Florence. And I was immediately captivated by the open gallery, the Loggia dei Lanzi!! There's this thing about sculpture, I can't seem to get over how any hand can fashion the coldest parts of this earth, stone or metal, into such fascinatingly expressive creations! Having a sculptor in the family hasn't helped...
Eventually I managed to step past the fake David. (Well, I hadn't read up about it, but this much was obvious, no one in their right minds would leave the original out in the open like that :P.) And past the queue into the Uffizi. I'm not that much of a fan of painting anyway. I did like the products of the caricature artists who'd set up shop at the gallery's steps though :). And through there, finally, we came up to the banks of the Arno. And were greeted by this curious spectacle.
Over the Ponte Vecchio and past the jewellery shops that reside on it. (Yes, that's right, on it. The bridge is practically overhung with shops!) We made it as far as the main entrance of the Palazzo Pitti, the Medici residence. Turned out you had to get tickets somewhere else :|. That was pretty much about the last straw :). Yup, by that time we'd come to hate queues with a vengeance. A long late lunch, watching kids, and on occasion, their parents going wild on the carousel nearby. Quite a satisfying end to the unfortunately short stay :).
We'd got tickets for the afternoon, a train to the final destination, Rome! Now when we'd made plans for this, (actually, that's not entirely accurate, John had made the plans, then I'd decideed to tag along :P) my only condition was to spend as much time possible in Rome :D. The rest of it was obviously nice, but completely non-essential. So we got to Roma Termini, and set about getting our bearings. The tourist guide place was pretty cool! They even had free maps, good ones :).Took us a while to find the way to the metro, given how huge the station is, underground :|. But we managed a 3 day city pass, bus and metro :D. Given the time of the day, we headed straight for the hostel for a change. This time, at least the bus stop itself was called 'Ostello' :P. Once you get the hang of it, public transport in Rome is not too bad. We managed to find our way to the Trevi Fountain in no time! Along with about a zillion other people :-<. At least there was a little more space for everyone, compared to Venice :D. John managed to find his way close enough to the water to throw his coin in, and I even managed to grab it in flight! (You'll have to look really close. And while in all fairness, it might just have been one of the many many coins that were being chucked in by just about everyone, I claim it was the one John threw, so you've gotto take my word for it :D.)We were dying to see the fountain with lights, so we decided to take a bit of a walk around while we waited for it to get dark. The first thing we landed up being impressed by was the Column of Marcus Aurelius. And soon after, we saw the first of the ancient Egyptian obelisks in Rome! With what looked like full on heiroglyphics and everything! Turns out my guess was spot on :D. Making our way through the by-lanes, with Pinocchio making workshops, haunting head-masks and street side restaurants with seriously mouth watering fare but absolutely zero empty tables :(, we arrived at the Pantheon just in the nick of time.I'd barely stepped in through the doors when the announcements began. The Pantheon was closing for the day, everyone was politely being asked to leave immediately :|. In the fading light and in my hurry to get at least a half decent shot of Victor Emmanuel's tomb, I ended up with some interesting specimens of photographs sharply focussed, but on the wrong subjects :P. But at least I did get to see what remains of the chap who seems to be a really big deal in this country :). I mean, seriously, even one travelling as blindly as me noticed how the name seemed to be everywhere!!The only other seemingly interesting place that lay within reasonably walkable distance was Piazza Navona, and so we went for it. One half of which seemed to be completely covered with portrait artists! It was a little scary looking at some of the works in progress though :P. And I was rather annoyed to find that the fake Statue of Liberty was actually a man!! (We only found out 'cos he was packing up :|.) Throughly tired by the insane amount of walking we'd done that day, first in Florence, and then in Rome, we chose to call it a day and headed back towards the Trevi. The lighting, in my opinion, was quite worth the wait :).Seeing how the hostel was pretty close to the Vatican, that's where we chose to make a start the next morning. For a change, we actually had the time to stand in the queue to gain entry to St. Peter's! The fact that the hour appeared too early for most tourists helped no end, 'cos that meant a rather short wait :). (We saw the snaking lines on the way out, believe me, not a pretty sight :|.) First, we made for the cupola. After what seemed like an eternity of steps, that kept getting narrower and narrower and traffic jams on said stairs, we finally made it to the top.
Eventually we made our way into the cathedral proper. I don't know how much there is to say, but just looking around, trying to take it in, I guess there wasn't much room for thinking. I spent about a couple of hours, just looking. I guess it's fair to say that I was impressed :). The only bit that sticks out is when this gentleman, having patiently watched me trying to get a clear shot at the sculpture for a while, eventually came up and told me that if I kept waiting for people to move away, I'll have to wait forever :). He of course thought he had stayed clear of my shot, I guess the wideangle fooled him :P.
While I'm not big on museums, having come this far, the Sistine Chapel, I had to see. Unfortunately, the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica are at opposite ends of the Vatican City :|. And once you go through the entry, that's it. The directions to the Chapel lead through every other exhibit in the entire museum!! I swear!! It took me hours, literally, to finally get to the Sistine Chapel. Despite the rather darkened interiors, the permanent throng of rather noisy tourists, and the extremely annoying bunch of officials, I managed to find a spot to myself for long enough to at least have a good look at what the fuss was all about :). Unfortunately, they don't allow you to take pictures in there. Of course people do, some are even tactless enough to do so with the flash on! Anyway, I finally managed to satisfy myself on one point. I now know what it actually smells like under Michelangelo's masterpiece :). (Sweat mostly, what with all those people :|. But still :D.) The staircase, I hadn't heard about, but liked very much!
Of course, amidst the infinite corridors and stairways and twists and turns, and every one of them packed to the brim with guided groups, I'd completely lost sight of John. Seeing how there's only one exit to the building, I chose to wait right outside. John chose to wait just inside :|. And since I managed to exit the labyrinth before he did, we were both very hungry by the time he chose to finally have a look outside :P.Later we decided on a bit of a walkabout. By which I mean walking past the Castel Sant'Angelo, crossing back and forth over the Tiber, finding the Mausoleum of Augustus closed, and finally finding ourselves at the obelisk in the middle of the Piazza del Popolo. Sitting in the shadow of the fountain hiding from the early afternoon sun was nice, as was the view from the top of the Pincio. And it looked like the lady in the kimono and the bright red umbrella had followed us from the start :D.Eventually we figured it was time to head for the destination that has to top everyone's must see list for Rome, the Colosseum!! I had been really psyched for this for a long time :D. And although it's obvious that most football stadiums these days are larger, it still has that colossal impact at first sight! It was getting towards closing time, and we were planning to head back the next morning anyway, so for the time being we just went for a look around the outside. I guess the outstanding feeling for me was one of awe! I suppose the pyramids are older though, and were built of even bigger blocks of stone :). I've gotto go see those at some point!
We left almost distressed at how much of the structure was lost. It is really easy to see the reconstructions. And once you catch onto that, it's depressing to see how much of the structure is actually of rather recent creation :|. We ambled up the Via dei Fori Imperiali, past the ruins of the Roman Forum, looking back now and then at the majestic figure cut by arguably Rome's most recognisable ancient landmark at one end. At the other end, is almost definitely the largest of the more recent ones, the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II. I did say he was a big deal in Italy didn't I? Only like the first king of a unified Italy :).As a footnote to an already fascinating day, we unwittingly chose to have dinner at a place run by Bengali speaking people! I kid you not! Of course each one of them also spoke Italian absolutely fluently, and English with an Italian accent :|. But amongst themselves it was unmistakeably Bengali! I do think it was more Bangal than Bangla, but hey, either way it was a pretty cool coincidence, I thought.First thing after breakfast the next day, we headed back to the Colosseum! It was early enough for a reasonable queue, and then we managed to bypass most of it thanks to an audioguide counter that had just opened :D. And yes, I guess the book was handy too :P. The best thing about the way it's been restored, in my opinion, is that it allows you to walk all around the upper level! The historical commentary was a nice background, but it was more fun to let imagination take over, and run riot :D.The pass for the Colosseum gets you entry to the Palatine Hill area, as well as the Foro Romano. The ruins are for the most part rather spectacular. But in both places there seems to be so much that has been lost that it can be a little depressing. The gardens on the Palatine Hill were quite nice, albeit a wee bit confusing. We started at the ruins near the Circus Maximus end of the hill, and rather suddenly emerged on the terrace held up by these massive retaining walls, providing a commanding view of the entire Forum!
Afterwards we decided to go have a look around Termini, and in the process actually emerged above ground in that area for the first time :). This being the last afternoon, with both of us leaving at different times the next morning, we were content to merely amble around the streets. Close to the station is Santa Maria Maggiore, so that's where we started. From there to the Piazza Vittorio, where incidentally, it seemed preparations were in progress for some sort of an open air show that required a large white screen!Then we decided to take the metro to get a glimpse of a part of the Aurelian Walls! And also of San Giovanni in Laterano while we were at it :). For a change, the somewhat dark interiors of the basilicas were very welcome! It was cool and very quiet inside, and the sun was practically scorching the skin off our bones outside :). But more than that there seemed to be a measure of peace and quiet here that would have been impossible to even imagine inside St. Peter's!
The Papal cathedra
We spent quite a while in the gigantic shadow cast by the facade of San Giovanni in the afternoon sun. Contemplated a walk down to Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the tip of which we could just see above the trees along the boulevard, but eventually dismissed the idea in favour of lazing some more in that shadow :D. I believe the discussion did veer to comparative religion at some point, somewhat inevitably :).Unfortunately, by this time I'd figured out the deal with the public transport, the fact that I'd have to leave in the night to stand any chance of catching the early morning flight. So there wasn't much else to do but to head back to the hostel, pack up, and head back to Termini. John and I said our ciaos there as he headed off to the Colosseum to see if he could get some night photos, and I proceeded to methodically walk up and down every possible stretch of Roma Termini, above and below the ground, to try and kill time till I absolutely had to take a train to Fiumicino. Looks like he fared better :). At least I did manage to find a few empty seats and a power socket at the otherwise very very dead airport. The night went reasonably well thereafter.So there it is, the full account of my fabulous week in Italia!! Since then John's been transferred to another boat, so there's no saying when we'll be meeting again. He's now trying to stay un-frozen north of Alaska, and I'm trying to get through the last week of this trip (that's sprung a surprise mammoth back-deck spell) without losing my mind... Why I didn't choose to split this up into more reasonably sized posts? I don't know. I guess all of it sort of just mixed and flowed into one superlative experience.... Given how long it actually took me to put it all down, if anyone's actually made it this far down, congratulations would be in order I suppose :).

Currently: tired :-<
Listening to: Crash Test Dummies - Swimming in your ocean


Anu said...

I made it! :D
8143 is my favourite picture. And 7587. And 7527.
Took me all the way back to 5 years ago, as did the rest of the post. Yay :)

prajna said...

I followed thewhole post to the end tooo ,... I have to make Prasad read it so he is impressed enough to plan Italy trip!

Sam Jam Boom! said...

I have recently been to Italy for the first time.Trevi Fountain is mind blowing despite all the tourists...took me back when Isaw your pics..