Posted on 09-08-2007
Filed Under (Vienna, Great Food) by admin

It was just about 9:00 pm, and the ride to Vienna would be 11 hours… That meant we were about to ride in a legit. sleeper train. Our room had four beds, Two on the bottom and 2 above. We got settled into our cabin, and I hopped onto a top bunk. As sweat began pouring from our bodies, we became more and more aware of the temperature. Our cabin clearly had air conditioning, but with the train off it wasn’t running. I’m normally pretty good with heat and cold, but the thermometer on my watch was reading just around 100 degrees and our train was already 20 minutes late leaving the station. I put my iPod on closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the sauna we were in.

Something about the heat knocked me out. I planned to try and do work late into the night, but I just fell into a coma for the entire ride. I do remember stopping at the next stop, another station in Venice, and a fourth guy came in our cabin to fill it up. I woke up at some point late in the night, heard a few minutes of conversation between the other guy, Mike and Hayley, but then fell asleep again until the morning. I woke up to a cup of bitter tea and a roll being delivered. I met the other guy in the room, who’d Mike and Hayley were up until about midnight talking to. He was older than us, in his late 20s, and apparently some kind of teacher. We arrived in Vienna about an hour later, and said our goodbyes.

I’ve gone most of my life without ever really knowing Vienna even existed, but then saw Before Sunrise. It’s a movie about an American guy and a French girl who meet on a train through Europe, and spend a night exploring Vienna together. Needless to say, I was interested in seeing how the actual city matched up with the movie, and was hoping I would recognize some of it. Looking at a map at the train station, though, I noticed that there were 4 train stations; we were in Westbahnof (West Station) and there was one for each of the other directions. In the movie, they exit a large train station, and cross a bridge. We were at a fairly small station, away from any water, and were pretty far from the North Station, which is right by a river. It seemed we were, at the moment, relatively far from where it all took place, so I put the idea of recognizing things on the backburner as we started out to find our hostel.

We were a subway ride away from our area, so we took an elevator down to the “U”, as it’s called in Vienna. We got to the tracks and thought, “…Do we need tickets, or something?” We went back to the main subway area, found an information booth and learned that Vienna works on a similar system as Italy. Tickets are bought and validated in a machine before getting on. The validation prints the time and station you got on, and each ticket has some amount of time its valid for (75 minutes, 24 hrs, etc). Tickets are rarely collected or checked, but occasionally they are, and then, I assume, you pay hefty fines for not having a ticket. It’s an interesting honor-system twist to managing transportation fares, and it seems like few people try to cheat it.

Our subway ride lasted a little under 10 minutes, and we started following the directions to our hostel. We were walking down a street reading the page we had, when we heard an old woman asking if she could help us. She read the directions, and told us our street was 2 blocks away on the left. A few minutes later, after going 2 blocks and taking a left, we were at our hostel, which was more of a cheap hotel. The kind of accomodations possible for 20 Euro a night in Vienna, and much of Europe, are pretty amazing.

It was still morning, so we relaxed from travelling, tested our beds out and then headed back into the heart of Vienna. Reading the guidebook, we often saw it referring to the “Outer Ring” and the “Inner Ring” of the city. Apparently, Vienna used to be comprised of a busy inner city, and big homes with farmland encircling it. Now though, the farmland has become more like the inner city, and in many cases is clearly separated by major large roads that make a ring shape. So, we were heading towards the inner ring, inside those large roads towards an area that would probably be somewhat comparable to Piazza Navona.

Vienna is known for its kaffe, coffee, so we started by heading to Klein’s Cafe. We sat outside, infront of colorful buildings and a statue. Hayley and Mike had Melange, a strong cappucino-like coffee, and I had Eiskaffee, black coffee with whip cream on top (though, its usually served with ice cream). I am normally not a coffee fan at all, and it might have just been that I happened to be sitting in Vienna, but this coffee was really good. We also ordered some light food for lunch. ‘Vienna’ is actually the English name for the place, most of Europe calles it Wien (Pronounced Veen), as in Wiener, the sausage. So, Mike ordered the staple dish, Wienersnitzel, I ordered “Sandwich Royale”, a tomato, cucumber, ham and camambert sandwich, Hayley ordered Apple Strudel, and we all shared. We had read that it was expected and proper to “linger” in Vienesse cafes, so we stayed for quite awhile, enjoying our kaffe, food and started planning our time in Vienna.

After we left, we spent the rest of the day wandering around the Inner Ring. There was a lot of action; street performers, people selling tickets for operas, an art sale of these cute little cartoons… all the sorts of things we’ve come to expect from European cities. At one point we saw a large crowd of people, so we headed in that direction to see what the fuss was. There was a group of, what looked like, Russian breakdancers. They were lively and some of them were really good, so they attracted a lot of people and it was hard to stop watching once we started.

But, just as they were starting to do their spiel to get people to put money in their golden trophy, we heard a roar of people from behind us. We looked over and it looked like two crowds of people rushing together, holding Iraqi flags. They were cheering and jumping and holding each other in the air… It all seemed pretty jovial but we had no clue what was going on, and it seemed most Austrians didn’t either. Oddly enough, soon after it started all the church bells started going off and didn’t stop! We couldn’t tell if they were celebrating too, or trying to over-power the other celebrators. We watched for awhile, I took a bunch of pictures, and finally noticed a guy holding a sign that said Asia Cup Champions. It was a pretty awesome sight, but quickly broke up the breakdancing, and most other street performances in the area.

We then started heading out of the Inner Ring and towards a restaurant called Centimeter, where they sell Viennese sandwiches by the Centemeter. I guess I didn’t explain earlier, but my sandwich at Klein’s Cafe, and those at Centimeter are prepared differently than the way we normally have sandwiches. They have a long, thick slice of bread on the bottom, that can be basically any length, and then put toppings on it and cut it into, roughly, inch-wide pieces. So, at Centimeter, we ordered 20 centimeters of ham & tomato au gratin. There was more on the menu at Centimeter though, and a few options looked hard to resist. They had a few different dishes that included “chops”, so we tried one that came with 2 chops and chips… And then the main event… TWO METERS OF WURST.. for just 6 Euro. How could we possibly pass that up? It came with shredded raw horseradish, which seemed common in Vienna, and 2 mustards. Everything was delicious, as usual, and we had cheap Viennese beer to go along with it.

We walked back to the hostel, and saw quite a bit of Vienna… The walk was not a short one. We got back to the room and all sorda just crashed. We’d been up since pretty early in the morning and were walking most of the day. There was this one techno song they played at the Pink Palace both nights that seemed very Spanish/Greek, and bunches of Spanish girls would dance this particular dance whenever it played. The three of us liked the song, so we’ve been trying to keep the tune in our heads long enough to figure out what the actual song is. We finally had some consistent internet in Vienna, so I stayed up trying to figure out what song it was, but went to sleep to no avail. We still don’t know, and I have a feeling it will be nagging me for a long time…

Anyway, we woke up the next morning and this time we bought a day pass for the subway in Vienna. We took the subway into the Inner Ring and went to eat, this time at Stein’s Cafe. This time, my Eiskaffe really did have ice cream in it and it was pretty amazing. I also ordered ‘Putenfilet’, basically at random. Unlike the stracciatella in Rome, though, this turned out to be a great blind-pick. It was sesame roasted chicken on rice and vegetables with cream sauce, and very, very good.

After lingering, we saw some of the sites, including Stephansplatz, a church in the center of Vienna with a large steeple. After checking out the inside of the church, we took an elevator up to the top of the steeple. The top was pretty high up, and we got a great view of all of Vienna. I walked around the steeple and then, finally, saw a familiar sight! Far in the distance was a large ferris wheel that had a cameo in Before Sunrise. From the movie, I remembered an amusement park/carnival around the same area as the ferris wheel, so we figured we’d take the subway over and see what it was like. The great thing about having the metro day pass in Vienna is that we could take any form of transportation anywhere all day, so shooting over to the other side of Vienna was no problem.

When we got there, it was clear that it was definitely the ferris wheel from the movie, and we learned that it is actually a very old part of Viennese history. The Riesenrad, as it’s called, now holds 15 large gondola-type cars but used to hold 30 (You can see the extra old supports and that the cars are numbered with only even numbers). We entered the old amusement park that the Riesenrad sits in, and agreed that we would ride it as the sunsets, but for now just check out the park.

I thought it was awesome… It was clearly very old, but considering that it seemed to be in pretty good condition. There weren’t many people there, but it seemed more like a boardwalk, where people start flooding in as the sun goes down and all the carnival games turn on their blinking lights. There were a ton of rides and games, and it actually was bigger than I had imagined. We walked around and played some games, then saw the tallest set of amusement park swings we’d ever seen and had to ride them. The ride was fun and spun us so high around Vienna; we got more great views of the city. We found the kiddy-area of the park, where they had some intense kiddy rides… They actually had real go karts for them to drive, not just a flat track with a wobbly steering wheel.

We had left overs from lunch, so we sat down at a table and ate them after checking out a pretty standard arcade. The sun was looking quite nice as it approached the horizon, so we got donuts from a woman who made them right in front of us with this little contraption, and then headed to the Riesenrad. Unfortunately, it looked like there was a long line, and it turned out to be much more expensive to ride than we’d anticipated. As much as I wanted to experience the Riesenrad, we decided it didn’t really make sense.

Instead, we checked out the gift shop. Inside, we saw a variety of standard gifts, and I began looking through the postcards of Vienna… Flipping through, and realizing we were leaving the next morning, I felt like we’d missed so much! There were so many other interesting buildings, gardens and sites to see. One in particular, which we’d read about in the book but never got around to going to, was Schloss Belvedere, a large estate type home with what were supposed to be beautiful gardens. The sun was still shining light over Vienna, so we decided instead of wishing we’d seen more, we’d use our last bits of the day to go checkout Belvedere. We hopped on the subway and walked the rest of the way, passing by Sudbanhof, the South Station.

We walked along rows of trees lining a pathway to the gates of Schloss Belvedere as the sunset just behind it. It was a pretty amazing site, and I think this was the perfect time to see it. I got a few pictures of the front of the main building at Belvedere just before both my camera’s batteries died after working hard all day. I missed a few great pictures, but had a chance to really take in the gardens as we walked through. The front had flowers and garden’s as I’d expect the, while the back was mostly groomed bushes and fountains… Actually, we noticed in one area that they were actually growing bushes inside of bushes… Ballin’.

Outside of Belvedere, we took a tram to where we were hoping to find a U stop that would take us back to our hostel. On the way to the tram, though, we ran into a bunch of the other buildings we were afraid we wouldn’t get a chance to see. It was nice to see a bunch of places in Vienna we hadn’t seen the day before, and hadn’t been planning on seeing. I got on the train satisfied with the day, and we made it back to the hostel to get ready for the night.

Vienna supposedly has an incredibly happenin’ night-life, so we were excited to check it out. There was an area called the “Bermuda Triangle” which is a triangular street known for its club-scene. We’d read about “experimental-techno” in Vienna, and our curiosity was perked. Unfortunately though, it was the middle of the week and this crazy bar scene appeared to be completely dead. We asked some girls on the street where a good place was, and they pointed us to “Chill Out Bar”… It was a nice bar, but a bit too chill… The laid back music and comfy chairs were putting us to sleep, so we headed out. We wandered around the area more, but it seemed hopeless, and we had a train to catch the next morning anyway, so we called it a night.

All in all, I really loved Vienna… It’s one of the tops on my list of places to come back to. We got a great feel for the city, but it seems like there’s still so much more to experience, namely the Riesenrad and experimental techno.

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Posted on 29-07-2007
Filed Under (Great Food, Italy, Elation, People) by admin

We left Corfu by ferry at about 7:30 pm. The ferry from Corfu goes to Iguomanitsa, another Greek island, and we had a several hour wait there. The ferries in Greece are not only used to move people and cars, but more importantly to move large trucks with their cargo. We went to the dock/shipping yard about an hour early, but our ferry was late so we spent the time watching trucks go by and playing cards. When the ferry finally arrived, we quickly hopped on, got a quick bite ( I had tomato mozzarella ), and then got to sleep. It was about midnight, and we arrived in Bari, Italy at around 9:00 am.

In Bari, we had another long wait, our train didn’t leave for about 5 hours! I worked on my laptop until my battery died ( Been working a bit on your site, mom), and then we just sat around waiting. I got a delicious mozzarella & proscieutto sandwich from a deli by the train station and had to get used to being back in countries that don’t speak a ton of English; there wasn’t much of a language barrier in Corfu.

The train was on time, so we got on and had a 4 hour ride to Rome. The train had electrical sockets, so I worked most of the ride on getting the image link code working. We arrived in Rome without a hostel, but Mike’s book recommended “Alessandro’s Palace”, so we walked there from the train station. When we arrived, we booked a room for three and saw that this hostel was actually another one of the 12 Best hostels in Europe.

We saw the bar, but we were exhausted from another day and a half of travelling, so we just headed up 3 stories of stairs to our room… Which wasn’t particularly impressive. It was a small room with three beds squeezed in, and a small fluorescent light didn’t do much to brighten the room. Although they were considered Europe’s ‘best hostels’, the common theme seems to be that they aren’t really nice places to stay, but instead cheap resorts for teens to party at. This was great for Corfu, and we’ve heard “The Flying Pig”, in Amsterdam (Another on of the 12), is an amazing place to stay, but for places like Rome where we’re just looking for a nice place to sleep, we decided to stay away from Europe’s best 12.

After resting a bit, Mike and I went out in search for internet, to let the world know we’re alive. We wandered Rome in search for an internet cafe or open wireless network, and after a long search finally stumbled across an open network… Unable to find a bench within range of the signal, we sat down on the sidewalk against a building and did what we had to do… We looked like some weird breed of homeless with expensive laptops. After working for about 15 minutes an Italian guy came running towards us, “You guys found WiFi here?!” Apparently, he lived in a nearby building and had been searching for weeks but couldn’t find anything… I guess we just have a sixth sense for wireless internet.

We didn’t waste too much time checking our email on the sidewalk though, the sun was starting to go down, but there was plenty of Rome to see. Hayley had been to Rome with her school before this, so she knew a ton of good places and a lot of information about the sights. She suggested we head towards Piazza Navona and get dinner there. The all knowing guide book suggested Antica Taverna, a small restaurant with excellent cheap food. Hayley wasn’t particularly hungry though, so we saw the Pantheon and then Mike & I got dinner, agreeing to meet her back at Piazza Navona.

Finding the restaurant was not easy! The streets in Rome are mostly tiny and turn all over the place… Finding a path to get somewhere on a map is usually pretty straight forward, but looking at a map of Rome is like looking at a maze. Turn after turn, vespa after vespa, we finally made it to Antica Taverna and got a seat outside. The food was amazing, I had spaghetti with shellfish and Mike got a lamb dish. The price of eating at restaurants like this is a bit more expensive than going to a supermarket, but the quality of food for the price in comparison to the United States is amazing.

After dinner, we met up with Hayley at the Piazza and, although it was quite late by now, we got a good feel for it. There are many Piazzas in Italy, basically large open spaces in the middle of buildings and roads, but Piazza Navona is especially unique. It is much larger than other Piazzas, and is long and oval shaped. In the middle is a large fountain, that was unfortunately under renovation. The Piazza is sprinkled with amazing painters, drawers, caricature artists, street performers and guys selling knock-off bags.

We hung around until around 2 am, when the artists and performers started heading back home themselves. We started our walk back to Alessandro’s Palace, which was pretty much on the other side of Rome. We considered taking a taxi, but for 10 euro, it didn’t seem worth it. I’ve been pretty much in favor of just walking everywhere; it’s free and we get to really take in the different parts of the cities we’re in. We probably walked entirely across Rome 10 times, and took a slightly different route each one. Besides, not taking a taxi allows us to invest our money into better things, like getting some Gelatti, as we did on our way back from Piazza Navona that particular night (and most nights in Italy).

We woke up the next morning in our dark and dreary room, checked out, and went to search for a new hostel. Mike’s book recommended “E & S Hostel”, South of Alessandro’s in Rome, so we trekked over there with our stuff to check it out. We found it, and buzzed upstairs. A click, and we went through a huge door, into a courtyard. A gate blocked our entry into their building though, so we buzzed again… Another click, and through the gate. Now up a tiny “lift”, through another pretty large door and a woman greeted us. It was a more standard hostel, a large apartment with several rooms that the owners rent out for nights. E & S was, in particular, really nice. It reminded her of a spa; the walls were off-white and it was lit brightly. There were pictures of random peaceful things on the wall, like seashells in the sand or juicy fruit. All we got were nice beds and a nescafe machine, and that was perfect. We hit the jackpot this time.

It was early in the morning, and our room wasn’t even all ready, so we made a strategy for the day. The book recommended a small & cheap pasta restaurant across the river in Testaverde, a smaller neighborhood. The area was great; mostly old buildings with ivy draped down the sides and narrow cobblestone walkways… We twisted and turned through streets until arriving at the little restaurant we’d been aiming for. The small restaurant was bustling when got there at around noon; the one waitress working went by us a few times smiling while helping other people, and eventually got us a seat inside by a big open doorway. We looked at the handwritten and photocopied menu, figuring out what we wanted.

We looked under the ‘Pasta’ heading and saw things we recognized, Ravioli, Rigatoni, Gnocchi… and things we didn’t recognize… One in particular struck my eye, Stracciatella. There was a chocolate and cream flavor of Gelato that had the same name, so I wondered how that would translate in pasta. After we ordered, I realized I could check a language book I had that had a food dictionary. “Stracciatella - Meatbroth with egg”…

What?!

What is that doing under pasta?! I wanted to be adventurous, but also wanted to enjoy this supposedly great restaurant, so I ordered some Rigotoni, in addition to the soup, since it wasn’t expensive. The soup came out, and looked pretty intense. It was a beef broth with big orange blobs of meat oil and it was filled with foamy, scrambled-like eggs. It was better than I thought it would be, but not incredible, though Mike really seemed to enjoy it. My rigatoni was pretty amazing though, and the restaurant definitely lived up to its name in the book.

We then curved crossed the bridge again, and headed to what I would consider to be the most famous area of Rome, where the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Arch of Constantine and other Roman ruins are. I’m not exactly sure how to write about them. They were amazing, and everything I would expect them to be. We walked slowly through things, took pictures, sat down on rocks and watched tour groups go by. Hayley knows tons about Italy, and specifically Rome, so she passed on her knowledge. Nothing was too intense, but we saw everything we needed to see.

It was around 5:30, so we walked back to our hostel to recharge. A gust of cool air blew threw as we opened the door, and felt fantastic. After naps, we went to a supermarket and got ingredients for sandwiches and some cheap bottles of Fragolina, cheap fruitty wine. We sat outside on a fountain at a more modern looking building with a big front courtyard, that was designed to have the look of the ancient Roman buildings. The sandwiches were delicious as usual, and we watched the other Italians on the fountain and in the area.

We walked around Rome a bit more that night, and stopped at the Trevi Fountain which was beautiful and a really lively place with lots of people sitting around watching the fountain and playing music. Hayley had Mike and I throw coins in over our shoulder, to ensure a speedy return back to Rome… It worked for her! As we were leaving, Hayley mentioned that the second coin you throw finds someone love in Rome… I snuck back to throw in another coin, but I think I have to wait for my speedy return-trip before I find love there.

For our second day in Rome we headed to the Vatican. We first booked a train to Venice for 6:52 am the next day and a sleeper train from Venice to Vienna. We decided we would take a bus to the Vatican and then walk back, because it was getting late and we wanted to be sure we’d make it to the Vatican Museum to see everything. We paid for three bus tickets in the ticket machine, but only two came out. We stood around for awhile, thinking about what to do, and two other Americans behind us tried buying a ticket, but now no tickets came out. An official looking guy came over and said vandals break the machine to steal money, or something, so we have to call a number to get our one Euro back.

The way the bus system in Italy works is, you have to buy your ticket and validate it on a machine on board the bus, but they are only checked sporadically. If you’re caught without a ticket, you get a large fine, but it’s somewhat rare to get caught. We figured we’d just chance it with two tickets and hope it turned out alright. Of course, though, a few stops after we got on, Italian ticket collectors hopped on, and we started wondering if we’d made the best decision.

They were just glancing at tickets, though, so after he glanced at Mike’s ticket, he stealthily passed it to me between the seats and the ticket collector was none-the-wiser. We got really lucky, as we saw the collector’s giving plenty of tickets up ahead in the bus… So, if you’re ever in Italy, pay the 1 Euro for your bus ride!

We made it to St. Peter’s Square, outside the Vatican. There is a curving wall of columns that go a few rows deep, and it was designed so that if you stand at one point in particular, all the columns line up, so it looks like a single row of columns. It’s amazing how much time architects of the time must have invested to design little tricks like that… It makes me wonder if there was ever a (Da Vinci Code-Style?) purpose to it, or if it was really just a challenge they wanted to accomplish.

The Vatican itself was pretty amazing too. The shear quantity of artwork is incredible; the amount of artists and time it must have taken to create is unfathomable. How the museum works, basically, is you follow signs for the Sistine Chapel as you go through room after room of murals, paintings and statues. I thought of the Vatican as basically the Sistine Chapel and the Basilica, but the bulk of the amazing stuff came before. Room after room of arched ceilings all covered in individual framed murals of different sizes. The walls were completely covered, and even the floors were artfully crafted.

When we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, it was a bit of a let down. As we entered, guards had us put our cameras away and I had to take off my hat… Not too big of a deal. People were supposed to be quiet/silent in the Chapel, but there were about 100 people in there, so the was a murmur of whispers over the dimly lit room. It was pretty peaceful, actually, but then the guards started loudly commading “SHHHH”. A minute later, we heard, from large speakers drilled into the ancient walls, a blaring “DING.. DONG”, like the sound an airplane makes when the seatbelt sign goes on, but loud enough to make you cringe. Then, at the same volume, “PLEASE DO NOT MAKE NOISE IN THE SISTINE CHAPEL. PLEASE PLACE ALL CAMERA AND VIDEOCAMERA EQUIPMENT IN YOUR BAG AND REMOVE ANY HEAD COVERINGS.” This message then continued in at least 10 different languages, and lasted several minutes. The message itself didn’t ruin it for me, but this act that they were playing, that they really respect this one place in the Vatican, seemed so absurd as they drilled through its walls to blare announcements.

The art, even, in the Chapel left me a bit unsatisfied in comparison to the art that came before it. It seemed particularly famous only because the artist was so famous, when much of the art before it was at least on par or better. We were then directed into St. Peter’s Basilica, though, and that was incredible… By far the most incredible part of the Vatican, as far as I’m concerned.

The ceilings rose so high, but were covered in decoration and paintings. The light shone in through the windows in the ceiling, serving as the only lighting source. Tall sculptures and fountains lined the walls, and pillars holding the ceiling up created small crevices and alcoves to walk through. The whole inside was just so extravagant, it left Mike and I wondering why the Church would need such extravagance as we exited…

We then started on our walk back towards Rome. We wanted to go see the inside of the Pantheon, and Hayley had a church nearby that she wanted to show us the inside of for secret reasons… The walk back was long and hot, and we decided that after seeing the last of the sites, we would search for a genuine pizza dinner, which we hadn’t had since Florence. My mouth started watering.

We made it to Sant’Ignazio Church and Hayley asked us if we noticed anything strange about it. It was a beautifully built and decorated church, but something seemed off. Mike figured it out quickly, “The dome isn’t real?” Hayley was surprised how quickly he noticed, but it did look a bit distorted from our perspective. Hayley said that after starting construction they ran out of money for the dome, and I read elsewhere that the people in the Piazza during its construction didn’t want a dome blocking the sunlight. The artist painted a dome that looks perfect from a specific gold spot on the floor, and as you walk towards the alter you realize it is completely flat… Truly an amazing and less-known site to see in Rome!

Next up was the Pantheon, which was the only thing that could have rivaled anything we’d already seen today. The columns in front are massive, and inside is a perfect, beautiful dome with no supports. Apparently, its construction is still a mystery, because it is a poured concrete perfect dome. It isn’t absurdly extravagant on the inside, but doesn’t need to be, because the architecture alone is so amazing.

After the Pantheon, we began the search for pizza. We wanted to get away from the touristy areas, so we started heading away from the Piazza Navona area. We walked and walked, passing by places that were just too touristy, too expensive, or just didn’t look good. We twisted and turned all through Rome, until we found a place that looked pretty decent. We went to get a seat, but they weren’t open for another 30 minutes, so the search continued.

Finally, we found the perfect place, Pizzeria Baffeto. We asked for a table for three, and they sat us at the same table, outside, with a man and his daughter. “Awkward.”, I thought at first. But the man was really friendly and we all started chatting. They were from Shefield, North of London in the UK and in Rome for a 10 day vacation. He had been here many times, and spoke some Italian. They were, of course, interested in our trip and we went through the whole itinerary, and they commented on each leg. “Ah, Prague… Your drink and your food, very cheap there!”

The pizza was excellent. We got Il Pizza de Baffeto, basically everything on it… Mushrooms, artichokes, sausage, prosciutto, peppers and in the middle, a fried egg… Weird, yes, but delicious. We also got a 4 cheese pizza, which had some mystery cheeses on it, but was at least as good as the Baffeto. We had a pitcher of the house white wine, cheap and also delicious. We always get house wines because they tend to be the cheapest, fairly good, and of a mystery proof that always seems stronger than bottled wine.

After a great meal, we said our goodbyes to John Booth, we found out his name when he gave us his business card, and began another walk through Rome. We came across a large crowd of people near Piazza Navona and got into it… We realized it was mostly older people, and saw an older Italian singer on stage, singing in Italian. The music wasn’t our usual preference, but in the particular setting, Rome, it was a great thing to have stumbled upon.

While I was entranced by the music, Hayley and Mike decided they wanted to visit a Wine Bar, something we often saw around Rome. They looked up a good one in his book, and soon after we were sitting at Cul de Sac, a small Wine Bar near the Piazza. We were sat outside and a man soon came to take our order. He was fairly young, in his late twenties, had a shaved bald head and a pointy goatee… He definitely looked the part. We asked him if he had suggestions:

“What color wine?”

“Rossa.”

“How much do you want to spend?”

“About 15-20 Euro.”

Seeing the menu open to the Sicily Page, “From Sicily?”

“Any Italian wine, really.”

He began flipping through the pages, filtering through the details we’d given him. He pointed to one, we nodded and he brought out a dark bottle with an orange label. He opened it, smelled the cork and, satisfied himself, gave a pour for Hayley to test. Her year or so experience of drinking Franzia boxed wine obviously paid off, because she nodded it ok, and after all tasting it, we agreed it was delicious.

The night so far had been amazing, and as we watched a waiter at Cul de Sac pass us by, we realized we were missing just one thing: Caprese, tomato, mozzarella & basil. We couldn’t resist ordering, and had the best we’ve had yet. Instead of slices of tomatoes, their recipe used small cherry tomatoes that were incredibly juicy. A guitar player came over and played some Gipsy Kings-esque music, and we soon after left, heading towards Piazza Navona.

It was a Friday, so the Piazza’s performers were out in full-force, as we had never seen them before. There were puppeteers, rock bands, an amazing guy stuck in a still walking pose, with his clothes stuck blowing in the wind, for hours, and an amazing string quintent (?) of what seemed to be music students. We stayed around Piazza Navona for a long time, and a guy making bracelets semi-conned me into buying one by throwing the string on my finger and starting to braid it.

We had a long walk back to the hostel, but stopped at Giolitti’s, a famous Gellotti restaurant (yes, restaurant), that Hayley knew of. It was still bustling at midnight! We ate our last Roman Gellotti, and got some rest before our ride to Venice early the next morning.

The whole night was fantastic, by far our best in Rome, and the perfect note to end on… We’ve already seen Venice now, and are in Vienna, so I’ll update on all that next.

One last, Ciao!

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Posted on 18-07-2007
Filed Under (Great Food, Italy, People) by admin

So, we’d just left Balmer’s. It was 9:20 in the morning, and our train was leaving at 9:30. The walk from Balmer’s to Interlaken West usually took as about 15 minutes. We knew we had to have left earlier, but there was nothing we could do given all the things that had been going on with our hike the previous night.

My watch was ticking closer and closer to 9:30, and Hayley said she knew a shortcut so we quickly down a different street. “Should we start running?”, Hayley asked. “Probably.”, I replied, and started running with my pack on.

A few moments later I heard Hayley say, “Only one of us needs to get there to hold it.”, and I was suddenly running by myself. I just kept going down the street Hayley got us on, but as I reached the end I realized I must have had to turn off somewhere… I was on the opposite side of Migros from the train station, which is probably a bit more than 500 ft from where I expected to be. I kept running towards the station, and as I got there Mike came out through the station to rush me onto the train… Apparently Hayley’s shortcut works if you follow it correctly!

So, we made it just in time, and the trip to Spiez was only about 20 minutes. The next train, from Spiez to Milano was about 3.5 hours, which we much prefer. Long train rides are one of the few times we can really just relax and get some sleep. Unfortunately, although it was a long ride, the train from Spiez to Milano was a bit of an experience itself and I didn’t end up getting any sleep at all on it.

We walked through the train to Wagen 16, noticing that it was a very full train. We were weaving through people with our large bags through 3 train cars, only to find a group of 3 old people in our seats. There was another American couple that was going through a similar issue on seats diagonal from ours. I guess the train is so full and people just sit stop honoring the seat reservations. Ultimately though, Mike asked and they surrendered our seats before the train really got going.

Hayley and Mike fell asleep almost immediately, but it seemed a bit risky for all of us to sleep at the same time on such a full train, so I transfered some pictures onto my laptop and did some work. The seats on the Eurail are setup with 2 seats next to each other, with a table in the middle, and then another 2 seats that face the first two, in fact almost all trains in Europe are setup like this. At a stop, about 30 minutes in, a man got on and sat in the seat diagonal from me; I was sitting in the window seat.

He was dressed casually, but well, wore glasses and had shortly shaven, blondish hair that was balding. I acknowledged his presence with a smile, and he smiled back… Seemed like a nice guy, and I was guessing, to myself, what nationality he was and what languages he would speak.

I was working on a pretty terrible sketch of Mike sleeping when he began snoring lightly. Hayley drifted awake and woke Mike up so he would stop. Soon after he’d fallen back asleep, he, again, started lightly snoring. Hayley didn’t awake this time, so I looked up at Mike, and then the man diagonally from me. He signaled with his hands that the snoring didn’t bother him and I should leave Mike alone. I went back to doing what I was doing, but his snoring progressed until erupting, causing the entire train cabin to break out in laughter (this has actually happened a few times, and gets even the coldest-looking people smiling).

We awoke Mike again, and a few seconds later a man came around to check passports as we entered Italy. The man diaganolly from me spoke to me in English to me as I got my passport back. He noticed that I had one of the new passports, and asked if he could take a look. I showed it to him, and explained the new Radio Frequency ID tag they all have. We exchanged a few words and went back to our own business soon later.

A few minutes later, Hayley asked to switch seats with me so she could rest her head on the window as she slept. We did, and the man became the man across from me. As we waited for customs at the first stop in Italy, we began talking, “It is always a long wait here, like this.”, he started. Apparently he made this trip often…

When we entered the Milan area, he picked up conversation again and started telling me about homes we were passing and the area in general. We began really talking to each other, and he became my tour guide for the remainder of the trip. He explained a lot about Italy to me, and the towns we were passing by. We were passing by lakes, he took out a map to show me where exactly we were and how the lake we were currently passing curled up into Switzerland, where he was from.

Eventually we discussed his background, (he’s a history teacher/humanitarian/researcher working at a Swiss University on a project at the moment), my own background, our trip, and details about where we’ll be and things to do. He told me Florence, though very nice, is very touristy, but if we just cross the river it’s possible to find much more genuine and exceptional food/stores.

We also talked about the pick-pocketing in Italy, and I told him about our mugging in Paris. He replied that crime in Italy has no malicious motivations. To them, it’s more of a test of wit or skill or “a restaurant owner overcharging a confused customer, so he can buy his wife a present.” I’m sure malicious crime exists in Italy, but I think he is probably right on certain levels; they’re looking to get one by you, not hurt you.

Anyway, we talked about a lot of really interesting things, and it was a really unique treat to find someone so helpful and talkative on the ride to Milan. We arrived and parted ways without ever exchanging names.

Mike, Hayley and I saw a train to Firenze (Florence) on the board in the Milan train station and ran to it, because the layover was short. We were on car 12 and started heading down, but suddenly realized that there were clearly only 8 cars! We found a train conductor of some sort, a younger guy, and asked for help. He spoke absolutely no English, but said something about “partitto” when looking at our train. I connected the dots from French’s ‘partir’, and realized he must be saying our train had left. He walked us down the platform to a TV, pointed to the train we were supposed to be on, and showed that it was blinking which signaled its departure.

Somehow, he communicated that it would be ok if we got on his train to Firenze instead, so we got on and started walking through cars. They were all small cabins with 6 seats, and we weren’t really sure what the deal is with them. We walked back near the door where the conductor was, so he could at least vouge for us, and figured we’d just stand. He hopped on just before the train started movie and urged, “Prego, prego!”, pointing toward the seats. Again, a time when someone really seemed to care about us. He didn’t want us to be stranded in Milan, he wanted us to get where we were going… And he didn’t want us to have to stand up, even though we hadn’t paid for seats.

We found seats in a cabin with 2 other people, a quintessential Italian man and a firey red-head talking on her phone in Italian. The ride was relatively uneventful. A woman came around to check for tickets and we showed her the Europass and tried to explain what happened. She said something in Italian and moved on. The red-head then told us, in Italian-accented English, that the the woman had said, “You’re on the wrong train, but its ok.”

We arrived in Florence at the end of the afternoon and found our way to 8 Via Bolognese (Pronounced Bowl-own-ay-zee), where our hostel, Dany House, was. We met an older italian man, wearing a silk button down shirt, with the first 3 or 4 buttons undone who gave us big smiles and welcomed us in. He had a large aparment in a building that had separate rooms, each with a shower right in the room, and a toilet behind a wall that was definitely built after the fact. It was actually quite a nice room, though. He came in about 5 minutes later and brought us some cold red wine that he makes. It was excellent, but some sort of Italian moonshine-wine, because it was incredibly strong. Finally, he suggested a restaurant nearby so we headed out to eat.

The man across from me on the train was right though; this side of the river was very touristy and we found ourselves in a restaurant that made delicious food but had waiters that said “Yeah, sure.”, without even an Italian accent. It was a nice meal, but felt wrong.

We were about a 10 minute walk from the Duomo and the heart of Florence and decided to check it out at night, before calling it a night. We got our first Gelatti, amazing, of course, and got to see some of the major sites without the crowds and heat.

The next day, we headed back towards the Duomo to see it all again in the light. It was just as magnificient. Hayley mentioned that it is all very similar to famous structures like Notre Dame, but these are so colorful… The buildings are amazing and uniquely beautiful to see. We checked out a Da Vinci museum we’d seen on our walk back at night, and got to play with some recreations of his inventions. I’ve always loved Thomas Edison, but more and more I feel my general mindset connects much more with Da Vinci.

We began heading towards the river to cross to the other side of Florence and heard applause as we approached a covered sidewalk. Through the arched entrance, we heard a woman opera singer performing with a man playing an accordian. The accordian player, I noticed, was wearing bright, baby blue converse shoes that somehow caught my eye. Both of them were incredible, and we started leaving after the first song, but couldn’t resist and went back to listen to another. I’ve been loving the little unexpected treats like this along the trip, this one just costing me the few Euro I tipped them with.

Across the river, we took some pictures, checked out some great little shops and found a little tucked-away pizzeria to eat at. The waiter and waitress didn’t even understand English…perfect. We ate delicious pizza, trying 3 different kinds and splitting them. I don’t know why, but something about the meal just felt like a perfect moment to me. The food was good, the people were genuine and welcoming, the conversation was relaxing… It was a great time.

We saw some more sites in Florence, and then stumbled onto a real mime. He was dressed in forest green pants, a torn shirt and had his face painted black and white. He found a little area where three streets connected, and as unexpected tourists walked through, he would mimic or trick them. If someone had pronounced body movements or behaviors, such as talking on a cellphone, or super-confidently, he would get just an inch behind them, without them noticing and mimic their exact body movements. Eventually he would get his face so close, they would see him out of the corner of their eye and scream or laugh.

Even better, if a couple was walking hand-in-hand, he would sneak up and slip his own hand in replacing either the man or the womans. He hung back, still holding hands with the boyfriend until the unsuspecting guy would look over and scream, seeing his girlfriend turned into some monstrosity! The street performances in Florence were amazing. This guy had us and hundreds more entertained for a very long time.

We’d spent the entire day in Florence enjoying the atmosphere, and started heading back around 5. On the way we got a caricature of the three of us together, which was incredibly done. We found a Wash & Dry on the way back, and stopped at Dany House only quickly to get our clothes. As we neared the door, we heard incredible piano playing coming from the living room area of the apartment. The door was partly closed, so we just went to our room and enjoyed the music. We were getting incredible performances all day! When the song was over, we clapped and the older-man owner came over to our room, surprised that someone had come into the apartment. “Molte Bene!”, we cheered. He played another song as we got our things together and headed out to to laundry.

While the clothes were going, Mike & I ventured off to get internet, where we found the place I used for my last post. This wouldn’t be worth writing about, except as I was sitting there, tapping away, I looked as a woman entered that I strangely recognized. She was with a man, and I suddenly realized she looked just like the opera singer we’d seen earlier that day. I looked down at the man’s shoes, and sure enough, the same bright, baby blue converse sneakers! Somehow, the opera performing couple we’d seen earlier had ended up at the computer next to mine in some random internet cafe in Florence. They left quickly, but we had just enough time to show them the CD of them that Mike had bought. She gave us a victorious smile, happy that someone had recognized them in public, and they yelled ‘Ciao!’ to us as the headed out the door.

We really wanted to go to the Tuscany area where we could do some wine tasting in Chianti. A younger, English speaking woman worked at Dany House in the morning, who helped us navigate our days and made us breakfast. The first morning in Florence, she suggested a bike tour of Chianti that people always really liked, so on the morning of our second day, we thought it might be something worth doing. Unfortunately, it left from the other side of Florence, on the North side of the Ponte Vespucci Bridge, and there was no way we could make it there in time. We were originally going to do wine tasting, then Pisa the next day, but decided to switch it up.

So, we spent the morning using the Dany House computer to research and book our ferries and hostels through Greece and then went to the station to reserve our tickets to Napoli (Naples) for late the next day. We also got tickets to Pisa for a day trip to see the leaning tower. It was actually much more beautiful than its given credit for. It’s made with a yellowish-ivory colored stone, and I never really noticed or appreciated the large number of arcs and columns circling the outside on every story. Seeing the tower in person also makes the leaning aspect much more real and incredibly strange.

We spent awhile looking at it, and watching people do the typical “holding up the tower” pose for pictures. Finally, we attempted it ourselves. I really wanted, and tried for a long time, to get a picture of me holding it on my big, or with my feet and hands, instead of just the standard pose… But it was difficult to get a good one. People enjoyed watching me try to balance and hop around on one foot with my hands up in the air, though.

As the sun set, we headed to a small restaurant that Mike’s book suggest called “Il Pailo”. We got a big table right infront of their large open door and had one of the best meals yet, for very cheap. The food was, really, the absolute best Italian food I’ve ever had. The started with Bruschetta, then shared Rissotto alla Raculo (Like spinich, we discovered) and the meal they told us they are none for, Beef with Raddichio (Translated as ‘Rocket Salad’, but was like cabbage). The beef was perfectly cooked strips of meat stacked and covered in an incredible sauce, covered in this Raddichio. I had their Rossa, Red, beer which was also very good. Another perfect moment, I would say.

We just made the last train from Pisa back to Florence, and were wiped out by the time we walked back to the hostel. We seriously walk miles and miles a day, everyday. Our performance is showing improvement too… After completing our first week we decided we could evaluate what we had actually used from what we brought, and ship what we really haven’t needed back to the states; it was worth getting it off our backs and minds. So, this morning we rushed to the UPS Store when it opened, at 9 am, and had to make it across Florence by 10 am, to catch the van to go on the biking tour.

Things were moving slowly at the UPS Store, and my watch ticked past 9:35 as we left. We either had to figure out a bus to take and hope it would get us there by 10, or just walk across Florence in 25 minutes. We decided we trusted our feet more, and walked as fast as we could. We had already checked out, so we had our full-packs on. I was already getting used to it, though, and now dropping some weight, it feels like nothing. Somehow, we got across the bridge to the van with 5 minutes to spare. A week ago, that would have been an absurdly long walk, but we finished it today ready for a bike ride through Tuscany.

We met our tour/bike guide Nicole, who was American, from Pittsburgh and at first she didn’t seem especially talkative or welcoming. We met another kid, about to be a freshman in college, and a group of 2 adult couples, who would be biking with us. We started by biking to a Vineyard in Chianti, where we got a tour of the facilities. They made red wine and olive oil. We got to have a tasting of different varieties of both after the tour, and it was all a delicious breakfast for Hayley, Mike and myself.

We then biked towards an area where we would be eating lunch, which was included with the tour. The meal was a full meal, with an entree, then salad, then dessert and coffee. It was excellent; I had cheese and spinach ravioli and a chocolate covered piece of Italian ice cream cake. I also tried some Italian Cappuccino, which was very good. During the meal, we started really talking to Nicole and sharing stories of our travels. She was actually really friendly once we started talking, and it was a lot of fun. The older group of 2 couples appeared to be pretty intensely into biking, and were seemingly upset that the meal took so long, when they just wanted to ride.

No one really liked them, they rushed us all through the course and made it difficult to really look and appreciate the scenary. They were probably the best biker’s out of the group, but I stayed with them throughout the 23 km ride, and it felt great to hear one of the women in particular get upset as I passed her.

In reality, that really didn’t keep me from enjoying Tuscany. It was absolutely amazing. Acres and acres of vineyards and farms lined the streets on both sides. Off in the distance were mountains, fading out towards the horizon. Cars zipped past us adding some excitement to the ride, but they were attentive to cyclists and it was never especially dangerous. The terrain was very hilly, which made for a really nice bike ride. There were fairly challenging stretches, and then spans where we could just coast downhill, admiring the landscape. A couple downhills were shaded by trees on both sides, arching over the curving road; it was something else.

The group of adults had driven their own rental car to the spot we started, so Nicole drove just the three of us and the kid we’d met back to Florence. Nicole admitted on the way back how annoying the older group was and we all reminisced on the ridiculous things they said, providing for an entertaining ride back. It was sad to say our goodbyes to her as we got our bags back together on the Ponte Vespucci bridge, but we had a train to catch so we head towards the station as fast as we could.

No need, though… It turned out our train was pretty late and Mike found out, from a man at the desk that we could take a direct train not much later that would get us in quicker than waiting to catch our now late train. We hung out on the ground in the station for awhile, and I’m writing on my computer as we’re about to pull into Naples. We should have internet at our next residence, so hopefully posting this will be a breeze.

And that’s Florence! Sorry this was so damn long, but I wanted to get all of Florence done so I’d be prepared for Naples. We’re actually staying outside of Naples, which is supposedly a pretty bad city, and are just using it to get to Capri and Pompei the next two days. They’re both supposed to be great places to visit, so hopefully something unique and terrible will happen that will be interesting to write about.

Ciao!

p.s.: for Lina & Sami, I usually write my posts on the train, sometime late at night or early morning… Sometimes I start it and finish later… Just whenever I find a moment to write, I work a bit on it.

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