Italy and the Gang

(Venice, Florence, Rome – 4 April 2014) I don’t want to talk about it. It is a travel misstep so egregious it pains me to relive in the telling. Bare in mind, Jessica and I were not just responsible for ourselves now. Mallorie, Brandon, LeAnne and Mickaela were traveling with us, thus compounding the gravity of every travel decision we made. [Mallorie is Jessica’s daughter, Brandon, her boyfriend, and LeAnne and Mickaela are Jessica’s nieces.]

As travel days go, we knew this was a big one. We started in Mykonos, Greece, flew to Athens, caught a second flight to Milan, and then hopped a train to Venice. That last leg is the one that went awry.

Venice is thought of as an island city. And it mostly is. It only fails the island test because of a narrow manmade causeway that connects it to the mainland. The tricky part for travelers is that Venice (the island) belongs to the larger, “Province of Venice.” Meaning that a substantial portion of what is Venice exists on the mainland side of that causeway, too. It’s the non-tourist part of Venice that nobody outside of the area knows or understands; the part in which real people live and work and play. This is only important to our story because each of the two connected “Venices” has its own train station. One is called Venice- Mestre (that’s the one on the mainland side) and the other is Venice- Santa Lucia. We know all of this now, but didn’t at the time we purchased the train tickets.

So here’s what went down. When our train arrived to Venice- Mestre- the destination printed on our tickets -we assumed that was it. We all disembarked the train, smiles and excitement in tow right along with our luggage. But then we exited the train station and looked around…. confusion set in. The directions to our Venice apartment didn’t match-up with our surroundings. It struck me first, “I think we got off too soon.” Jessica chased down the nearest railway employee and showed him our ticket. He gestured and pointed while speaking only Italian. Jessica did the same, while speaking only English. Who knows what each thought the other said? When they were done, Jessica urged us all to get back on the same train we had just hopped off.

It was a mad dash back to Track 5. Or, was it 6? Maybe 4…? In the end we half-guessed the right track and were happy to see our train had not yet pulled away. As a final check that we were getting back on the correct train, Jessica showed two uniformed attendants our tickets (or should that be, “uninformed?”). The train whistle blew short. We had to hurry! One giant awkward pause later and one of the employees finally motioned for us to board. Whew! We’d made it back on with no time to spare. The door closed behind us and the train started rolling.

Feeling good that we’d realized our mistake and corrected course before getting ourselves into trouble, we were all high-fiving and full of self-congratulations, until….

Welcome to Trieste?

Using my iPhone, I watched the pulsing blue dot that represented us slowly move northward on the map. We needed it to be going east. I expressed my sinking feeling to the group by saying, “I don’t think this is right.”

We saw a train employee onboard and double-checked my hunch. It was true. We were securely trapped on a train carrying us further away from where we wanted to be. Our roller coaster of ups and downs just went way down.

To the Italian city of Trieste we rolled. The apartment we’d booked in Venice would remain empty that night. It was already after 10 pm and no trains would be returning towards Venice until the morning.

By the time our trained pulled into the Trieste station it was past midnight. An additional hour was spent walking the streets of Trieste in search of an affordable hotel for the night. What a debacle! In the end, we settled on a hotel that was miles more expensive than we could afford, but by that time we were all out of patience, energy and options. Getting some sleep at all costs rose to the top of everyone’s priority list.

Venice- Truly One of a Kind

We finally arrived to Venice approximately 12 hours later than planned, but once we did, all was forgiven. The sky was a brilliant blue, the air was clean and filled with the energetic sounds of Venice in high gear. Our gang of six was infused with new enthusiasm.

The little Venice apartment we’d rented couldn’t have been more perfect. Peer out the bedroom window and see boats on water passing on the “street” below.
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Oh yes we did. We had to, right? Of course, the gondola ride! Not cheap, but we split the cost six ways and piled into the boat. It’s such a cliché thing to do, but a thrill nonetheless; one of those pure magic moments you wish you could bottle up and keep around for whenever you need a lift. Our gondolier’s name was Andrea (In Italy, this is only a man’s name). He didn’t sing for us, but he did manage to kill a large rat (made of rubber) that somehow climbed into our boat. I asked him if he’d given rides to any celebrities during his many years at the helm. Bruce Springsteen and Robin Williams were a couple of names he dropped.
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Fun video. Short and sweet!

Most of our time in Venice was spent wandering around aimlessly and happy. St Mark’s Square, the Riatta Bridge, the gelato (lots of gelato), we soaked it all up as much as time allowed.
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Our final morning in Venice, Jessica and I went for a quiet early morning walk. Have you ever seen the streets of Venice like this?
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Florence

Florence, Italy is known for having more than its fair share of great works of art. Michaelangello’s David is undoubtedly Florence’s most well-known single piece of artwork, but that’s only a beginning. Practically every corner of the city contains some world famous statue, fresco or painting. Most of the buildings are adorned with statues and ornate fixtures. Too bad I’m a genuine knucklehead for art. I look at art like a cat watching a card trick.
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This huge church, referred to as the ‘Duomo,’ is the centerpiece of Florence. English speakers will understandably interpret duomo to mean dome. This is surprisingly incorrect! The name il duomo is a shortened term for “house of God.” (Think of the root of the word domicile.)
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Its grand dome could even be seen from our Florence apartment.
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While all of our time in Florence could have been spent rambling from one museum to the other, we decided to choose one art museum only- The Uffuzi -and then divide up our non-museum time among random pursuits. Fortunately, a few members of our group have studied a bit of art-history and a couple (Mallorie and Mickaela) even possess some talent for it themselves. Many artists are drawn to Florence. Walking around the city, we often saw young people with artist pads sketching away.

Everything we saw in Florence was accessed on foot. We had no car nor any need for one since there was plenty to see within walking distance. However, it did leave me wondering what we might have missed. I don’t really know where I got this image, but I pictured Florence to be more full of grassy parks with white marble statues sprinkled about. Not what we found by any stretch. Did we ever see a single blade of grass, much less a tree? I hope I’m exaggerating, but… at least in the part of the city we saw it was bricks and concrete surrounded by more of the same.

Florence had some pretty sights in the evening, too. (Hey, is that grass I see?)
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At Home in Rome (and the Vatican)

Rome was our home for four days and nights. We “lived” in a quaint, 3 bedroom apartment, walking distance from the grocery store, dozens of cafés and restaurants, and the metro stop. It felt like a sampling of what it must be like to live in Rome.

So much to do. So much to see. And so much walking. Let’s get started.

Our first walk was from the apartment we’d rented to Vatican City, about 10 healthy blocks. There we saw the oval-shaped St. Peter’s Square, and the largest church in all the world– St. Peter’s Basilica. Quite a sight. And made all the more interesting by the Rick Steve’s audio guides we’d downloaded to our smart phones in advance.
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Inside the behemoth church that is St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s cavernous!
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We also paid our respects to the famous Sistine Chapel, where we heard Michelangelo spent some time with a paint brush. What an ordeal that was. So many people!!! And the circuitous route one must take to get there is worse than a rat’s maze. All visitors to the Sistine Chapel begin their journey at the Vatican Museum. Call me a simple-minded bore if you wish, but I honestly struggle getting into viewing items on display at museums, historic and amazing or not. Jessica is much more in-tune with high art.
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Room after room we shuffled with the flow of the crowd. Through corridors, up stairs, down ornately decorated hallways. Hall after grand hall. We would sometimes stop to gawk at a grand and famous painting or two before rejoining the flow of humanity.
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Finally, we entered the Sistine Chapel. The room was floor-to-ceiling artistry and wall-to-wall people. There is bench-seating around the perimeter of the room; all spaces taken. Wait! There’s a spot! A couple of people got up and Jessica and I dove for their slots. From there we queued up another one of Rick Steve’s audio guides and listened while Rick helped lead our eyes across the ceiling. No photos allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. Whoops! Did someone sneak one?
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On another day, the gang went early to St. Peter’s Square for “an audience with the Pope.” Every Wednesday (assuming he is in town), the Pope makes a rockstar-like appearance in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. Hundreds of seats are set up for the crowd that swarms in for a glimpse.

Right as he first appeared he came rolling towards his fans in a modified, topless, SUV-looking vehicle. The people screamed his name, whistled and applauded. Pope Francis stood up in the back and leaned out towards the people while rolling slowly around the perimeter of chairs. You’d have thought it was Justin Timberlake (wearing a beanie) based on the cheers. To really get the masses excited, Pope Frances would periodically remove his hat and toss it to the crowd, only to put another on his head seconds later so he could repeat the stunt.
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The Roman Coliseum and Forum

Of course, we all went to the Coliseum. Such an amazing and formidable structure it was (and still is). Again, we used another of Rick Steve’s audio guides to help liven up our visit. [A brief word about these guides: They’re informative and free.] In learning about what went on at the games, one thing is for sure, man had an incredible appetite for gore and brutality. And then to call it entertainment….
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Adjacent to the Coliseum is an area known as the Forum– essentially, it is what remains of “downtown Rome” from back in its heyday. We walked through the rubble with another of Rick Steve’s audio guides and learned more stuff (we’ve since forgotten).
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Ticking Off Rome’s Landmarks

We were intent to tick off more of Rome’s famous landmarks so naturally we had to pitch a few coins into the Trevi Fountain.
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The Spanish steps were next. We’d heard eating and drinking were not allowed on the Spanish steps. If true, enforcement of this rule is non-existent; there was gross trash all over the place. It was even hard to find a clean spot to pose for the perfunctory photo.
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I think they said the Pantheon is the oldest surviving continuously used building in the world. Its function and usage has changed many times since it was built some 2000 years ago, but the building itself still looks strong. It was originally built to honor the many hundreds of Gods worshipped by the Romans. Hence the name, Pan is latin for many, and theo was their word for god. Pantheon! (See, I did remember something.)
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A Gelato A Day (Sometimes Two)

It was hard not to eat gelato everyday. Gelaterias were everywhere. And as soon as one person wanted one, everyone else had to get one, as well.

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Many of our meals while in Italy were purposefully done on the cheap. Meaning, we would buy food at the grocery store and fix stuff at the apartment. Doing this enough times eased our minds about eating out. Food is expensive in Italy…at least for us. The problem really the unfavorable dollars-to-euros exchange rate. 10 euros for them is 14 dollars to us!

I think everybody from our gang had good eating experiences while in Italy. Mickaela ordered eggplant parmasean three consecutive occasions from different restaurants. It worked out perfectly, though, since she reported that the first one was excellent and then each that followed was even better than the last. One of our best “discoveries” in food was a something called an Arancini. It’s an Italian fried rice ball! None of us had ever heard of such a thing before, but it was dee-ee-lish! Seek them out. Eat them up. Arancini!

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Other fun pics:

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Gladiators!
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Back To Our Groove

The two weeks that Mallorie and the crew were traveling with us flew by so fast! For Jessica and I the pace of travel definitely accelerated while they were around. It had to. Our intention was to fill their two-week vacation with as much goodness as could reasonably fit– Athens, Mykonos, Venice, Florence and Rome. May their experiences sustain them for a while as they return to their normal lives.

Seeing them depart for home, made us think of that day when our year-long journey will come to a close. We have such mixed emotions about it, too. I hope to find a chance to say more about that in a future post. But for now, Jessica and I are plunging headlong into the next phase of our trip- more of Italy. We’ll be going to Naples, then traveling all the way to Palermo, Sicily. Stay with us!

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