I always wanted to spend a good amount of time in Italy, so I always held off going there since a weekend didn’t seem to give it enough justice. The past few weeks, I was lucky enough to spend 2.5 weeks touring around Italy, and it was everything I thought it could be. So let me explain why… So my 2 and a half weeks consisted of 3 different parts: beaches in Sardinia, city sightseeing of Rome, Florence, and Pisa, and hiking in Cinque Terre. I think it was a good blend of the 3, so here we go…
I started out by flying to Alghero airport in Sardinia on Friday, July 15th. From there, I was to stay with my friend Giulia who I met in Prague. Giulia and her mom picked me up from the airport and we drove to their home in Sassari. They live in a beautiful home outside of the city with a big yard, a little area for chickens, and very big home. Through my time here, I got to see what the Sardinian lifestyle is really like. I must say that I love it. I’ll explain more a little later. We arrived, and Giulia’s mom (who speaks a little English) made a great meal of pasta, salad, and of course bread, meat, and cheese. What I absolutely love about their lifestyle is how they take advantage of the great weather all the time. Their doors and windows are wide open to let in the fresh air, they eat pretty much every meal outside on the patio, they’re outside working in their yard. It’s not too humid, but they get a lot of sun. It rained one day while I was there (middle of July) and it was the first time since May. Giulia’s mom loved it since it meant she didn’t have to water her flowers that day and since it’s such a rarity! Giulia’s mom was so generous with my stay there. She was always cooking and was always very kind and inviting. It was the typical Italian hospitality that I’ve heard of. After dinner on Friday, Giulia, Alice (our other friend from Sassari), and I all went out in Sassari since there was a music festival going on. We hung out and had a drink, and I got to meet more of their friends and family. They said that Sassari is usually dead so I picked a good day to come. On Saturday, Giulia, Alice, and I made a road trip to Stintino which was a pleasant surprise. I knew Sardinia was supposed to be beautiful, but this place blew me away. I’d only seen water this clear one other time in Australia, but it is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. Clear water, a national park in the background with a small mountain, and an ancient tower on a small island which was used to watch for attackers long ago. I am not doing it justice by describing it, so I will just have to show a picture to you to show the beauty. It’s a place where you get there and never want to leave. That evening, we stayed at Giulia’s family’s small apartment in the city of Alghero. Alghero is a popular destination for the British and Irish for the beaches and beautiful city center of Alghero. Lined with little pedestrian street and plenty of eating places (of course the gelato, pizzerias, ristorantes, and my new favorite Cornetti shops). Cornettis are like croissants cut open and filled with something, like whipped cream and bananas, chocolate, or anything else. It’s as good as it sounds. After getting cornettis and ice cream in our walk through Alghero, we heard about a beach party going on nearby, so we headed to that. It was strange to see a club scene on the beach. A DJ, techno type music, but not in a dark, smelly club. It was a good time being there, but being in the sun all day exhausted us so we went back to the flat for some sleep. The next day we woke up and had breakfast in the small coastal town of Fertilia, right by Giulia’s flat.
One thing I learned is that Italians do not like a salty breakfast. It’s always easy sweet biscuits, pastries, or something else sweet. This is ok with my on vacation! One thing I really like about supermarkets in Italy is that you can go to the deli and have them actually put a sandwich for you. So you can say you want this meat, this cheese, on this bread, and they’ll put it all together and just charge you for how much they used. Can get a really good sandwich for a few dollars, perfect for taking to the beach! The 3 of us then headed to a beach called ___ which had less people in it. This beach was more rocky, but it was in between two big cliffs which gave a cool feel. The water again was as clear as bath water on yet another sunny and 80-85 degree day. After getting burnt the previous day (my white skin can’t take the Sardinian sun), I tried to take it easy and cover up my shoulders more. Of course it’s difficult to do that when the water is hard to resist, but I made it through. After laying on the beach and swimming for a while, Giulia and I climbed to the top of one of the cliffs for some great views and nice pictures. We then drove to ____(will put in the name after I find out from Giulia) which has a few lookout points so we got a few more nice pictures and enjoyed the view. Just amazing how beautiful this little island is. Afterwards we went back for a nice relaxing evening at Giulia’s house and another great dinner made by Giulia’s mom…end of another great day! The next day (which was Monday, not that it matters when you’re on vacation ) Giulia and I drove to Is Arrutas, which was about a 2 hour drive to a beach on the central west coast of Sardinia. I must admit that this beach wasn’t as beautiful as the others, but it is known for the very small, ground up rocks that make up the beach. I guess they’re more like pebbles, but the only place I’ve seen such small pebbles making up a beach. We met Giulia’s friends there for the day and had a great time. They didn’t speak the best English, but it was still a fun time with Giulia translating. One of them was from Cagliari, the south city in Sardinia and the other was from San Paolo, Brazil, and they brought along a friend also from Cagliari. We went into the local restaurant on the beach for lunch and coffee, and then played foosball out by the beach. Since this was on the west coast, it was much windier than the north beaches, and the water was much colder. However, we still had a great day there! On the way there, we got lost and drove through several little towns. Very typical Sardinian towns with the buildings right on the roads, so if you step out of the building you are pretty much on the road. Giulia asked for directions a few times and people were extremely helpful. These little towns always seem very interesting to me since it’s always just locals there with no tourists, and you can see how people really live there. On the way back home, we stopped at Giulia’s grandmother’s flat in Sassari. Her grandmother isn’t in the best shape right now and is always in bed at home, so it was important for Giulia to visit. A lot of Giulia’s family was there so I got to meet them, and none of them spoke English. I got to meet her Grandma and Giulia translated for us. It was nice because she told me to say hi to all the Italians in the US for her. She said that her father went to the US for a while when she was younger. Interesting to think about how different her life and background is compared to my grandparents. She is a very nice woman and I hope that things get better for her soon!
On Tuesday, the weather wasn’t the best. This was the one day of rain in 2 months that I mentioned before. Still made a great day of it though. In the morning, we took around Sassari and went to Giulia’s favorite pastry shop called Sechi. Had some pastries for breakfast and what Giulia calls the best cappuccino in Italy (I can’t deny that it’s true). She explained that the milk in a cappuccino shouldn’t be foam but more creamy. Rather than a layer of foam at the top and the coffee on the bottom, a real cappuccino should be all blended together. I couldn’t agree more…was definitely the best I’ve had. After this, we drove to a town called Castelsardo which is a town built around a castle which was built on a huge hill near the sea. Up by the castle are beautiful tiny little streets going every which direction (left, right, diagonal, up, down). On the way there, we picked up Giulia’s family friend’s child, who’s name is Giovanni and is 14 years old. He’s a cool kid. He loves basketball, and he had just gotten back from a basketball camp in Italy. Funny thing is that he was the waterboy for a game between Sassari and Treviso, so I told him that former Hawkeye Greg Brunner played for Treviso. He said that he remembers watching Greg and that all his teammates called him Baldy (in Italian).
From Castelsardo, we went to Sorso to have dinner with Giovanni’s family and Giulia’s mom. Now this was Italian hospitality and lifestyle at its finest. We got to the house and immediately they pulled out the wine and some crisp bread for a little appetizer. We sat around and talked (with Giulia translating), and then I asked Giovanni and his little brother, Emmanuela, if they wanted to play basketball. Funny how a sport is kind of an international language. Neither of them spoke English, but we had a great time playing. After this, they both became much less shy and a lot more comfortable around me, so that was cool to see. The adults then called us to come have dinner, so of course I was sweating as we sat down.
Italians eat dinners much different than us. They will have several different courses, and usually just one or two things at a time. It’s a big social event, rather than just a quick dinner. So we started out with 2 different types of ravioli (which probably would’ve been enough for a meal), then we took a break while the father finished grilling the steaks. 10 or 15 minutes later, we sat down and at the steak and also bread. Then the mother brought out vegetables consisting of tomatoes with olive oil and separately also eggplant. Apparently they absolutely love eggplant in this region and even have a funny song about it. Then the mother brought out homemade pastries called ___. Next was the watermelon, and then finally ice cream. I must say that I love this style of eating. Nothing is rushed, and it’s all about just enjoying the company and the food. We ate for probably 2 hours, and Giulia said it was even quicker than usual. This was one of my most memorable nights, and I really felt like part of the family. They told me that I have to come back next year, so I may have to take them up on that offer
On Wednesday, the nice weather was back so of course it was to the beach. Giulia and I went back to Fertilia, which is a small town outside of Alghero and went to a small beach there. Of course another beautiful beach, and this time Alghero was in the distance with the hills behind it. When we were on the beach, we heard someone walk by and say “Prosim” which means please in Czech. Both of our ears perked up, and we thought it was cool to hear the language somewhere new. I’m sure I will always be like that in the future when I hear someone speaking Czech.
After the beach, we met Alice and her German friend for a nice walk around Alghero, took a few beers to the shore, and watched a very nice sunset. There is no better time in the day than between 7pm and sunset. The way the sun shines makes everything beautiful, and I always find myself amazed no matter where I am at. The heat dies down, and everything is so calm before getting dark. It’s something I’d never appreciated until the last few months.
After the sunset, we went and got a pre-dinner cornetto and then went for a pizza. The place serves 1 meter pizzas (about 1 yard). For 4 people, it was perfect. 3 different types, about a foot each, and all good with a glass of wine. After this, we went for a coffee and then drove back to Sassari. The next morning, I ended my Sardinian stay by Giulia teaching me how to make the perfect coffee. I’d never seen the real Italian coffee machines before, but it’s a great little machine. Just put water in the bottom, add the coffee to this little filter, then put it on the stove on low until the water boils up through the coffee and into the top part. Giulia explained the specifics on what not to do, so now I consider myself a pro. Her mom even said it was a great coffee and said that if I can do that 3 times per day then I am welcome to live in their home. Unfortunately I think she was joking, but I’m not sure if I was when I said yes!!
Giulia then dropped me off at the airport, and I headed to my next destination of Rome…
Unfortunately, summers in Italy are packed with tourists and that means there is a huge demand for Couchsurfing hosts and a low supply of hosts since many people go away from the cities in July and go to the sea. Because of this, I didn’t have much luck with couchsurfing and stayed in hostels. I did have some great experiences in hostels though. In Rome, I hung out with a few Americans and met people from many parts of Europe.
One thing I didn’t realize was how jam packed Italy is with American tourists. Sometimes it felt like I was actually in the US and that I was seeing more Americans than Italians. I guess the difference between Prague and Italy is that there are so many families that go to Italy for summer vacations. I think people are still afraid of Prague and Eastern Europe so they don’t go there as much. I swear that sometimes 1 in every 3 people I would pass were American. Amazing!
So onto Rome…I arrived on Thursday evening, and had a nice walk around the city (more of meandering with nowhere in mind). Stopped and got a cannoli, went into some old churches, and then found myself by the Colosseum. What was really nice about seeing the Colosseum is coming around the corner and seeing this huge ancient Roman Colosseum in the distance. It’s a rare view to see a 2,000 year old stadium when it feels like you’re just walking in a city. I stood around and gawked at the outside of the Colosseum for an hour or two before heading to my hostel.
The next morning woke up and had breakfast at the hostel (a big cornetto, a crossaint, orange juice, and a coffee of your choice!) and then headed to the Colosseum again to go inside. The lines to get in are ridiculous. People actually line up for an hour or two to get a ticket to go inside. Even at 10am on a Friday there was a line for about an hour. I got a tip to go across the street to the Palatine Hill and buy the ticket there. I went over and there was no line. So I bought the ticket which gets you into the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, and the Colosseum. So I started with Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, then made way inside the Colosseum. Very interesting to see these places with history dating back a few thousand years. The political and sporting centers for the Roman empire…places that you read about in so many books and plays. Going to places like these give me a thirst for knowledge. Here I am at a place that I know a little bit about, but there is so much more to know with the fascinating history. I find this whenever I travel…afterwards I have a list of books or different places I want to learn more about. I can tell you that there is enough that I want to read for years.
After the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, I walked through all of the big sites in the city including the Pantheon (which was very impressive also), the castle, Piazza Spagna, Piazza Venice, Trevi Fountain, etc. I stopped and got a good focaccia to go for lunch, which was the most typical lunch (and sometimes dinner) I had on my trip since it’s cheap and good. I realize mid-afternoon that I was already tired of walking around the city which I think was a shock after coming to Rome from Sardinia. The slower, laid back, beach every day lifestyle in Sardinia is quite different than the busy traffic, tourist ridden city of Rome. I decided to go take a walk through their main park in the evening to get the feel I was out of the city. Afterwards, I headed back to the hostel, met a few American guys, and just hung out and went for a walk around the area of the hostel.
The next day, on Saturday, I had a different hostel booked so I had to take my stuff there. This one had a great location just 3 minutes by walk to the Vatican. Definitely not as friendly as the other hostel or as clean, but what can you do? So I dropped off my stuff at the hostel and headed to the Vatican. I was very impressed by the Vatican. It was much bigger than I expected, with the St. Peter’s Square probably being as long as a football field each direction. At one end sits St. Peter’s Basilica, the icon of the Vatican. From here, I walked down to Tarverso which is an old working class area that is now full of cafes and restaurants. This was one of my favorite places in Rome since it’s full of the tiny streets going everywhere that I love so much about Italy. I was there on the Saturday, so of course it’s full of tourists but that didn’t ruin the experience. I got a coffee and a pastry at a cafe and then walked back to the area of the Vatican.
Here I walked around to try to find a cheap dinner, and I found a little pizza place that also serves a type of calzone. Here I actually had a very good experience with the shop owner which is actually pretty rare when in the tourist places in Italy. My calzone was going to cost 3.20 euros, and I gave him a 5 euro bill with 20 cents on top so I can just get a 2 euro coin back. He refused me at first, and I thought he didn’t understand what I was trying to do. Then he refused me again, and then one more time when I insisted. He was just trying to tell me to keep the 20 cents and he would give me back the 2 euro coin anyway. Obviously this isn’t a big thing, but it’s not something I came to expect in the tourist areas in Italy.
After getting back to the hostel in the evening, I met a few people who were staying in the same room who were 2 Brazilians traveling around Europe who were a mother and a daughter. We started hanging out and talking and then more people joined, and then more people, and soon we had all 8 of us in the room hanging out. Mix of Brazilians, Americans, and Belgians. This is what I really enjoy about the hostel environment, and it’s easy to find this in different places.
The next morning I woke up at 7am to go to the St. Peter’s Basilica to try to avoid the crowds. I am definitely glad I did this since there weren’t too many tourists in there and I actually got to enjoy the place. It’s a massive basilica and obviously is very significant to the Catholic church. Just being inside was surreal to be in a place with such great significance.
Originally, I was planning on staying in Rome for 3 full days, Florence for 2 full days, and then get to Cinque Terre for 2 or 2.5 days. Like I said before, I realized that I was already tired of the city siteseeing. So I changed my mind to leave Rome on Sunday morning rather than late Sunday evening so that I can see Florence sooner and get to Cinque Terre sooner (for the outdoors). This is what I really like about traveling (and especially traveling alone). I just jumped on the computer on Sunday morning and happened to see that there was a train leaving in about 1 and a half hours. Without having to ask anyone or even tell anyone, I just packed my stuff and headed to the train station.
Italy actually has a great network of trains that are easy to get around and at good prices. I used the train 4 times, and each time I just went to the ticket machine, selected my route, and swiped my debit card to pay. Then that ticket would be valid to that destination for the next 2 months for the 1 journey. That means I could jump on any train of the same company, so there was no pressure to make a certain train. The trains were cheap, too. I traveled from Rome all the way up to Milan and only had to pay about 70 euros total ($105). Very impressed by their network and system.
So I then arrived in Florence around 5pm, and I had already found a couchsurfer to stay with who wasn’t available until about 11:00 pm. So I just started walking around the city. I was immediately impressed by the beauty of the buildings in the city. The city is built with Renaissance style architecture, which is where the Renaissance movement was started in the 14th century. That evening, I just walked and observed. The city center is also very touristy, especially on this Sunday evening after a rain. I was especially impressed by their Duomo (Cathedral). It’s one of the biggest in Italy I read. You come walking around a corner and you just have this massive cathedral standing there. It’s kind of shocking if you’re not ready for it. After this, I continued my walk. Some of the highlights are a replica of Michaelangelo’s David situated where the original was (the original is now in a museum in Florence), Ponte Vecchio which is a medieval bridge which has several shops, and then finally Piazza Michaelangelo which has the best views of Florence. I got up there for the sunset which was well worth the walk. It was full of tourists just hanging out. When I was up there, I noticed a guy’s shirt said NIC-9 on it. I looked again to make sure it was the same NIC-9 I knew, the conference that Freeport high school is in. Sure enough, it was, and I found that he and his brother are from Rockford and have been traveling for a year from Australia to Asia and now Europe. He just graduated high school last year, so that’s definitely a big move to take a year off to do that. It’s something we as Americans don’t do as much as Europeans and Australians but I hope that it catches on!
I then went and met my host for the night, whose name is Cecilia and she’s a general practitioner in Florence. She has a beautiful flat on the outskirts of the town, and she was very generous in letting me stay there. I didn’t get to spend too much time with her since a family member had health problems, but she was great to talk to in the times we did. One of her favorite books is also Walden, which is interesting for a doctor to have that minimalist mentality. One thing she said that I’ll always remember is how we as people get too far away from nature, which isn’t natural. We’re always in cars, buildings, etc, and many of us are rarely in touch with our nature side. I had never thought about this before but it’s very true. For most of us (me especially included), if we’re dropped in the middle of a forest, we wouldn’t know how to survive. We’re very tamed people, and I guess one of my goals is to become more in tune with nature (something I’ve never done before). Look out Peru!
On Monday (my second day in Florence), I did more exploring. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet anyone through couchsurfing so I was always looking around alone. In a city, this gets kind of old. Seeing buildings is only exciting for so long in one city. The good thing is that when I start to feel like this, then I become even more proactive at talking to people. I met a few different Americans at different places. I think I met more Americans in Italy in 2 weeks than I did in 6 months in Prague! The highlights from this day were walking from Cecilia’s flat to the city and seeing the non-tourist parts, getting breakfast of a pastry and a cappuccino at a local cafe, stopping at a small market for fruit, and then just generally walking around the city. It’s refreshing to be able to communicate just a little bit in Italian, rather than having almost 0 ability to communicate in Czech. Had some funny encounters as people were generally friendly in these non-tourist parts.
On Tuesday, I hopped on the train in the morning to make my way to Cinque Terre, but with a stop in Pisa for the day. Thanks to Cecilia’s boyfriend’s advice, I also made a short trip from Pisa to Lucca which I will talk more about. Pisa is right on the way to Cinque Terre, so it didn’t cost anything extra to just get off the train and look around for a while. The leaning tower is about a 20 minute walk from the train station, and it actually is quite a nice town. It’s a university town with a large amount of tourists. I was pleasantly surprised by the leaning tower. It’s one of the biggest tourist spots, so I thought I would hate it. The tower itself was very impressive, had a nice look to it, and I was surprised by how much it’s actually leaning (I obviously take all tourist talk with a grain of salt). Everyone around is doing their poses with the tower, like acting like their holding up the tower, or pushing it over, or holding it with their feet, etc. It was actually hard to get a decent picture with just me in it since there was just people everywhere. It was cool to see and I’m glad I stopped.
I then took the train to Lucca, which is a little walled town about 30 minutes by train from Pisa. For security reasons, the town was built inside these walls. The town is now expanded outside the walls, but the heart of the town is inside still. It’s a very nice little town. I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if I was with someone, and this is one of the disadvantages of traveling alone. It was definitely cool to see, but like I said, you can only look at buildings for so long. The town was filled with tiny streets, nice squares, and a lot of restaurants. I grabbed something quick and ate it on the steps of a church, and continued my journey around. I then took the train back to Pisa and then onto the train towards Cinque Terre.
One might call my “do it last minute” attitude when traveling a fault. I think it usually works out for the best except for 2 things: prices (of flights, buses, hostels, etc) and housing. Obviously housing is something you need every night and there are limits on options. Because of trying to do everything last minute, sometimes this causes problems. I prefer to couchsurf everywhere, but sometimes I just get around to requesting too late and don’t find anyone. For Cinque Terre, I actually had a host lined up, but he messaged me the day before and said that he has a family member with health problems and wouldn’t be able to host me. This means that I had 1 day to find housing. Right away, I started looking at hostels and found that there were many open beds so I didn’t book anything and thought I would just figure it out the next day. The next morning, I wrote down the number of a hostel that I wanted to stay in. I didn’t call until I was on my way to Cinque Terre…and he says they’re all full. So I’m heading to La Spezia (the city outside of Cinque Terre) and have no housing, no numbers for hostels. So I’m pretty worried the whole train ride. I get to La Spezia and was lucky to find a tourist office, but she wasn’t much help. About an hour later, I decided to call back to the hostel again. Well, somehow they now had a bed for the night with absolutely no problem. This is the kind of disorganization and service this hostel had for the 3 nights I stayed there, but at least I had a place to stay!
While trying to find the bus to the hostel (which was located in a small town called Biassa), I heard some people speaking English and seemed to have American/Canadian accents. I asked them about the bus, and they were staying at the same hostel. There were 4 Canadians and 2 Swedes, so we had dinner in La Spezia and then had a nice evening relaxing at the hostel.The Canadians only spent 2 nights in the hostel, but the 2 Swedes were there for even 1 more night than me. So I got to know these two pretty well.
So after getting a good night of sleep, I woke up ready to do some hiking. Cinque Terre is a national park known for its 5 villages and hikes in between. Each town is located on the coast and each has a different feel. I started from Biassa and hiked to Riomaggoire, the first town. The hike from Biassa is exactly what I needed. Most people from the hostel take the shuttle to Riomaggiore, but it was full so I just decided to walk it. After spending several days in cities, I needed a break from people. In the 2 hour hike from Biassa to Riomaggoire, I only saw one group of people pass by on the same trail. It was a great way to start out the day along the coast and through the hills with some great views. I then stopped in Riomaggoire, had a quick lunch of a focaccia, ate some fruit while enjoying the views of the city and the sea, and relaxed for a bit before continuing. Then I walked on the Via dell’ Amor (path of love) to Manarola. This path has amazing views off the coast and provides a romantic environment (hence the name). This was by far the easiest path I did all day.
Manarola was my favorite town of the 5. The town is built on a smaller hill in between some bigger hills, and the bigger hills are full of vineyards. Levels and levels of grapes line the hills behind the town. The main path from Manarola to Corniglia was closed, so I avoided taking the train to Corniglia by taking the detour. This was the most difficult part of the day. It was a 2 hour detour over some of the higher hills, and it proved to be the best hike of the day. There weren’t as many people around, the scenery was beautiful and unique. After getting to the 3rd town, Corniglia, I was already exhausted. My legs were shaking coming down the last few hills so I was wondering if it was the best idea to try to finish the whole hike in one day. I still had 2 long hikes remaining. After refueling with another focaccia and fruit, I headed onto the 4th town called Vernazza.
After getting to Vernazza, I felt like I could barely walk. However, after more food and a short rest, I continued on toward the final town, Monterosso. I knew there was a beach there, so I promised myself a swim after making it there. That’s the main thing that kept me going. Well, an hour and a half later, I made it through the final stretch and into Monterosso. My legs were relieved to be finished, and I enjoyed a nice swim to cool off. I left Biassa in the morning at 8:30am and arrived in Monterosso at 7:30pm. That’s a solid 11 hours of hiking with a few stops thrown in there. I then got the shuttle back to the hostel and enjoyed a pizza from the local pizzeria.
It’s also worth noting some of the people I met in the day. I met 2 Americans from DC who were traveling Italy, 1 American woman traveling (who happened to live in Prague 20 years ago), and 2 Americans from Madison. The funny part about these last two is that the girl is currently working in the General Mills finance program (which I applied for and didn’t get the second interview!) and she knows one of my friends from Iowa, Erin, who played softball for Iowa. Can be a small world.
I spent the following day with the Swedish girls that I met, whose names are Frida and Hanna. We stopped at the rocky beach in Riomaggoire for a while, then went to Manarola where I swam again and jumped off some rocks, and then we took the train to Monterosso for some quality beach time. It was a hot day which was perfect for the beach, so it was a good day. The day I hiked was relatively cold and rainy, so it worked out perfect. I was ridiculously sore this day from the hiking. It was very difficult to walk up stairs and I was walking with what looked like a limp the whole day. My body isn’t used to an all-day hike. Anyway, we stayed at the beach, then went to a restaurant there, and finally got a bottle of wine to share as the sun set. This night, I stayed a hostel in Riomaggoire (disorganization at its finest), so I then hung out with a Brit and a half Irish/half Sardinian for the rest of the evening.
The next day, I went with the Swedes to a town called Pontevenere. I had read about it on Couchsurfing since someone said it was nice, and that’s about all the info I had before we left our hostel. So we decided to go to La Spezia to try to catch a bus to Pontevenere. We missed the bus from the hostel to La Spezia, so we started walking. It was going to be about an hour walk but I had the idea that we should hitchhike instead since this road will only lead to La Spezia. I put my thumb up to the first car that was passing by, and with great luck (or the fact that I was with 2 girls) the car decided to stop! It was an Italian guy and a woman from Madagascar. He spoke a little bit of English, but not much. So we cut down our hour walk with a 10 minute drive.
So we got to La Spezia, found the bus stop, and hopped on the bus towards Pontevenere. This was one of the most exhausting bus rides of my life. It was a public bus and we were on for about 45 minutes. The bus was packed with mostly locals, but the windy roads, hills, and aggressive driving of the driver was enough to feel like you just beaten up. I am actually getting dizzy and nauseous just thinking about it. So we arrived at Ponetevenere, a little town on the coast. I was expecting nice sandy beaches (not sure why I was expecting that), but it was mostly big rocks. So we laid out on the rocks to enjoy the weather and then got lunch in the town. They decided to go back to the hostel around 3pm, but I stayed to enjoy more of the weather. This was my last day by the sea in a while, so I wanted to take advantage.
That evening, we just hung out in Biassa and got a pizza. Biassa is actually a really nice town. It’s a sleepy little town in the mountains (or big hills) with 1 restaurant, 1 little supermarket, and houses with practically no space in between. The tiny roads in between the houses go every which direction, so you can tell when these were built there was really no plan. Just build your house and we’ll go from there. But it gives the little town great character.
This was my last night in Biassa, so the next morning I headed to La Spezia and had a coffee and a walk around the town before jumping on the train again. After an entertaining 3 hour train ride, I arrived in Milan. Trains are always full of entertaining and interesting people. Travis, Sarah, and I had a hilarious experience when going from Switzerland to Germany in March. This little boy got on the train and sat right next to us. He couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, but he was talking on his cell phone, sitting with his legs crossed, reading the news paper, everything you’d expect a 40 year old to do. Just his mannerisms and the whole scene made me lose it with laughter. I actually had to step away because I was actually crying from laughing so much.
On the way to Milan, a lady came into the compartment of 6 people, and she puts her dog cage right in the middle of everyone. Train compartments aren’t very big to begin with, and the middle is where you put your feet. So immediately, we all kind of looked at each other wondering what she is doing. Then she took out her dog and was treating it like it was a baby. She was one of those crazy dog lovers. Right when she got the dog out, her phone started ringing in her bag so the guy across from me helped her get it out. Essentially, she tried to put the dog bag in the cage but the dog refused. As we helped her hold open the cage, she shoved the dog back in. Everyone was on the brink of cracking up because of how ridiculous this woman was. That moment is just classic: when you look at someone else in the compartment and by the look on their face you know they’re thinking the exact same thing you are. You don’t even need to speak a word, but you everyone is feeling exactly the same. These kinds of interactions make train travel entertaining in Europe!
So I made it to Milan. And another last minute blunder of mine: I checked hostels just the morning before leaving to Milan and could not find anything decent at a decent price (unless I wanted to pay 15 euros to sleep in a hostel which has bed bugs…according to the reviews). So I thought about it and made the decision to sleep in the airport. Economical, no reservations needed, just not comfortable.
So I had the whole day to explore Milan, which I had never heard great things about. I can see why now. The cathedral and main square is nice, but that’s about it. It’s a lot of shopping and tourists, but I’m not sure what a tourist would do in Milan for more than a few hours. I spent most of my time in the city park which actually pretty nice. This was the hottest day I had in Italy, and it was probably close to 90 or 95 degrees. Because of that, I just sat in the shade for most of the afternoon and people watched.
In the park, one guy came up to me and started talking to me about Jesus which I’ve found pretty rare to happen in Europe. He obviously wasn’t Italian, so I started asking him where he was from originally. He grew up in Eritrea (a country just north of Ethiopia) but made his way to Italy. I started asking him in more detail about how he made it there. Turns out he escaped from Eritrea to Sudan and then to Libya and then finally to Italy. We had a good conversation about the government in Eritrea (moreso me learning about the situation). With all of the liberties we have as Americans (and the western world), it’s easy to not connect much with people living in dictatorships. Meeting someone who went through all that is eye opening, as he was lucky to have escaped and now living in a democracy. Sometimes we don’t realize how lucky we are.
So around 9pm I took the bus out to Bergamo airport ready for a nice comfortable night of sleep, at the time hoping something as comfortable as if I was staying at Marriott. I got there, found an open chair around a bunch of people that already had all their camping gear out. Eventually, I struck up a conversation with them. It was a group of scouts (boys and girls) from Belgium whose ages ranged from 16 to 24. They made a 2 week trip around Italy by themselves with their group of 13. We also had a 35 year old guy from Sri Lanka join our conversation. This was another eye opening experience at seeing how well developed high schoolers are in some countries in Europe. These kids were extremely smart, open to new cultures, curious, outgoing, excited about adventure, and so well rounded. All of them speak English well, and they’re asking so many questions about the US, talking about American politics, traveling, and so many other topics. I had such a good time hanging out and talking to these guys and girls that I actually didn’t sleep one second the whole night. I could never imagine having these types of conversations with high schoolers in the US. If I am hanging out with a 17 year old in the US, I imagine it wouldn’t be about Obama, Bush, the war in Iraq. Just how well developed these kids were absolutely impressed me. Same with the 2 Swedes that I hung out with in Cinque Terre. They were 17 and 18 years old, but if I didn’t know their age I’d put them somewhere around 24 or 25 based on their personalities. The 2 Swedes were telling me about their high school business project where they had groups of 6 students and were responsible for creating their own business. They not only came up with their business idea, drew up their business plan, etc, but they actually started it and ran the business. They had to go get sponsors for their start-up fund and then used it for their operations. Many of them made a few thousand dollars in the project to be split among the group. I didn’t even get this kind of experience in college, and they were in their 3rd year of high school. It’s something that is hard to wrap my mind around after comparing it to the public high school education that I went through.
So after my 12 hour stay at Hotel Bergamo (the airport), I got my flight back to Prague. It ended a spectacular 17 day trip through Italy where I had the chance to visit the beautiful beaches in Sardinia, the Colosseum and ruins in Rome, the Rennassance architecture in the Florence, the leaning tower of Pisa, the walled town of Lucca, the beautiful coastline of the Cinque Terre, and the nomal city of Milan. But most of all, the people I met and spent time with have given me the best memories. Staying with Giulia and her mother and hanging out with Alice and their friends in Sardinia, meeting the Americans, Brazilians, and Belgians in Rome, couchsurfing with Cecilia in Florence, hanging out with the Swedes Hanna and Frida in Cinque Terre along with a group of Canadians and Americans, and finally the group of Belgian scouts in the airport. All of these people have influenced me in some way, and as always are my favorite part of traveling. For how many people I met in just 2.5 weeks of traveling, I can’t imagine how many people I could meet if I went and traveled for 6 months. The kind of connections I would make with people all over the world would be invaluable. Something to think about and I definitely want to take that kind of trip at some point in my life.
In my trip, I learned what it means to be Italian which I find to be one of the most unique cultures in Europe. Being Italian is:
Integrating your home with the outdoors
Dinners that consist of many courses and the social aspect is just as important as the food itself (which both are held at high standards)
Being extremely picky, especially about coffee and food
Always complaining about other drivers…and letting them know by screaming or making various gestures, or both…but then acting like it’s absolutely fine after you make the same driving mistake you just complained about
Eating only a sweet breakfast…eggs and bacon for breakfast are the most ridiculous breakfast
Spending the summer at the beach so you become an extremely dark brown color (this may be more Sardinian)
Stressing your words in a way that it always sounds like you’re arguing with the other person, even if you’re just having a normal conversation
Charging for everything, but especially in the touristy places. Along the beach in Monterrosso they would make you pay in most areas or would kick you off, almost every church charges you to walk in, bathrooms of course, even charge an extra fee often times to use the silverware and plates at a restaurant.
But most of all, just being laid back and enjoying life with the weather, beaches, food, and the people.
So that is it. This was an extremely long post and most of it probably extremely boring, but I wanted to write everything down that I experienced on my trip. I hope that you didn’t fall asleep while reading it and got some enjoyment out of it. Italy really is a great country, and I hope to live there sometime in the future for at least a short time (mostly for the food and the beaches). Now just another week left in Prague and then back to the US for some good family time in the midwest!