Monday, November 29, 2010

Day 19: Cinque Terre and Pisa

I hope everyone reading this had a lovely Thanksgiving and weekend. Being my first Thanksgiving away from home, I had a lot to be thankful for. Joking aside, talking to y'all on the phone was almost as good as Aunt Jo's sour cherry pie. If missing my family's Thanksgiving isn't bad enough, I also missed the CouchSurfing Thanksgiving. I can only imagine what sorts of delicious mystery dishes ended up there. Thankfully, I was having an death defying adventure in a small Italian group of towns called Cinque Terre.

"The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. "The Five Lands" comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. (Wikipedia)" Until a few days ago, I hadn't ever heard of Cinque Terre. When two of my hostel mates said they were going to Cinque Terre, the name alone grabbed my attention. After they told me more I was interested, after looking at a few pictures, I knew I would be missing the CouchSurfing Thanksgiving.

Bas and Eva are lively 18 year old cousins from Holland and California. We've been hanging out for the past few days, having a blast. I was excited to explore Cinque Terre with them and enjoy some local food, wine, and architecture.

Getting up at 9 yesterday morning nearly killed me. After a quick grocery store breakfast, the three of us got to Firenze SMN Station. We got on our first train, headed to La Speiza.

Eva writing in her journal alongside my "Free Tarot Reading" sign.

When we arrived at La Speiza, Bas was as disgusted as he was surprised when a drunk dropped his pants in the bathroom and started peeing next to him. Luckily we were shortly underway on the final train to Cinque Terre.

Can you tell Bas is from Holland?
Quite the pair.

We entered into a tunnel where the ocean teased us through holes. It was blue and magnificent. As soon as we arrived in Riomaggorie we were immediately held captive by the scenery around us.

My first Mediterranean encounter!

We hopped off the train, psyched and full of life. Ready to explore. Beautiful. Awesome. Let's go! The towns of Cinque Terre are built into the cliffs so the paths extraordinarily steep and include a lot of stairs. I felt like I was climbing the hills around Florence (only with full pack). The fun started when we got to the hostel only to realize that it wasn't open. In true Italian fashion, no one cared to post on the website and no hours were posted on the door. Thankfully I found another hostel while on Wikipedia, in the next town over, Manarola.

Under the street there was waterfall.

Manarola's hostel is all the way (or so we thought) at the top of the hill. After a climb through the town's windy streets, we found the hostel. "Chiuso"… Closed… Sweet. Every place we went was either closed or wanted an exorbitant amount of money. Feeling uneasy about our sleeping situation, I start joking about sleeping in my tent.

The town of Manarola at sunrise (the next morning).

They decorated the hills above the town for Christmas.
No wonder Italians only need a small breakfast to start the day.

Don't you love it when something you've joked about happens? While Eva and Bas went to look at more rooms, I pursued my own agenda. I started up a flight of steps that lead straight up the hill. As I got higher and higher the steps got narrower and more crooked. Once they began looking like an ogre's teeth I found the perfect spot for my tent. When I met back up with them, we went to check out one last room. €80 for one bed? No thanks. My mind was made up – I had a date with Mrs. Mountain.

Bas and Ross.
You do the math.

Setting up camp devolved into a dangerous collision of treacherous climbs, bruising falls, and expeditions to find the ultimate spot. Carrying a 35 lb pack up and down slippery stone steps with worn moccasins along a cliff's edge is exhilarating to say the least. This land is used for growing grape vines and most of it wasn't tent (or backpacker) friendly. After a thorough search, we settled for a nice patch of grass, further up the cliff.

Sunset over Manarola.
You could totaly get blown off the path into the ocean.
Snug as three goons in a one man tent...

Setting up the tent went smoothly, despite the darkness and a chilly breeze that was picking up. We squeezed into the tent like clowns in a tiny car and enjoyed some downtime. For dinner we savored a hobo hodgepodge of a cold can of lentils, slices of bread, basil, apples, and oranges. We laughed and carried on, blissfully unaware of events to come.

Take it from me, three backpackers, one sleeping bag, and a one man tent have unfavorable odds against howling sea winds, Italian rain, and 4Âșc weather. Despite sleeping in our jackets and huddling together, mother nature taught us a lesson. Poor Bas nearly froze to death, and Eva and I didn't fare much better. In my tent's defense, we would have been fine if we each had a sleeping bag. Between waking up and constant shivering, the three of us collectively managed a normal night's rest.

The morning sun illuminated the side of our tent, along with our weary spirits. As we emerged from the tent, we were greeted with a view so spectacular it made our night not seem so bad. In fear of getting busted we packed up the tent in a jiffy and started our descent. This path was terrifying! I wish the picture showed it better. There was a totally deadly drop off here. Thankfully we all made it down so I can finish writing this blog entry.

Holy Moly! Good morning!
At least our room had a view.
Taking down the tent.

After a night of elemental abuse and spiritual growth we headed back to Florence.

Happy to be warm on the train.

Along the way we stopped in Pisa. There wasn't much to see there other than the tower. Failing to be original, we took pictures with the tower "come si deve." I empathize with everyone that has laid in the road gutter to get these shots. Pisa was beautiful. We saw a group of college students protesting higher tuition. Go get 'em!

The Pisa church compound.
If I was taller I'd have better leverage.
Now kids, play nice.
Weird ninja moves.

When we got on the final train back to Florence, we all breathed a sigh of relief and had a good laugh. We feel like we've been kicked all over. I can't wait to return to Cinque Terre when it's summer and the hostels are open!

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Day 16: If They Are Roses (Book Review)

Sometimes strangers know what you need, even when you do not. Rewind to a week ago. I was at a bar trying to score some late night internet to fuel my Breaking Bad addiction. Sitting outside, trying to download the next episode, I'm interrupted by a waiter. "Siamo chiusura," he said. Moments like this are really frustrating for me. "Sorry, I don't speak Italian," I replied, totally embarrassed. "Nous fermons!" Apparently I needed to clarify, "I only speak English." With a shake of his head he said "That's bad. We're closing," he took the plates he had been collecting behind the counter. When he came back he handed me this book "If They Are Roses" by Linda Falcone, he had a "happy to help" look on his face. "Grazie!"

If you're going to Italy, buy this book.

Linda Falcone is a writer, currently employed by The Florentine, an English newspaper in Florence. She writes a weekly column that focuses on an Italian word or phrase, which she combines with her personal experiences, to use as a magnifying lens for examining Italian culture. Whether she's explaining how Italians can be happy even though they may not get what they want, through their use of "vorrei" (would want), or how they're open to surprising opportunities with "prendere la palla al blazo" (catch the ball at the bounce). Linda has a knack for spoon-feeding readers Italian culture in bite-size portions. It's my pleasure to review Linda Falcone's "If They Are Roses," which I recommend to anyone traveling to Italy.

Ci penso io!

Her book, "If They are Roses" is a collection of her cross cultural insights. The chapters are short and packed full of wit. They're the perfect length for a traveler who may only have a few minutes to read each day. Additionally, Leo Cardini has graced the book with hilarious comic styled illustrations that intrigue and communicate. Between the writing and the illustrations, this book fulfills two of my traveling goals.

Woo hoo! The back of the book!

My main purpose for traveling is to learn about different cultures. While the language barrier can be negligible in many instances, talking to locals is a bit of a problem. Becoming fluent in Italian isn't feasible in a few weeks, thankfully knowing the basics goes a long way. Linda's book has helped me learn a plethora of useful phrases and understand the etymology behind them. I'm learning about the language and about the culture simultaneously. It's amazing how the language informs the culture and the culture informs the language. Not only can I better remember the phrases, I can better remember the culture. All thanks to the bartender. "Prendere la palla al balzo!"

You can read all of Linda's Florentine articles online. Or pick up a copy of the Florentine if you find yourself in this beautiful city. Ciao!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Day 14: One Gear, One Love

Bake me a cake and light the candles. I've survived two weeks.

I was going to blog about the Uffizi gallery which I spent 3 and a half hours digging through yesterday, but I'll bet you'd rather hear about my bike trip through the hills of Tuscany.

No photography allowed in the Uffizi... You didn't see this picture.

My second night in the hostel, I moved to a new room and met some new folks. One girl told me that she was traveling Europe on bike. I told her that I was super jealous. She introduced herself as Kirstie, from the UK. When said she was going to take a bike trip around the hills of Tuscany tomorrow, I said I'd love to come along. Two days ago Hamid gave me use of his bike so what good fortune that I met up with this two wheeled road warrior.

Enjoying some chocolate and a view.

The next morning, three of us set out, peddling up into the hills. We made quite the troupe. Sarah didn't have a lot of biking experience, Kirstie was the weathered wayfarer, and I rocked a one speed city bike. Up, up, up we went.

The girls loved my camera's auto timer.

Photoshop's photomerge feature really puts the view into perspective.

Sarah rented a bike from a spot nearby our hostel. They proved to be incredibly helpful. The man behind the counter gave us a map, suggestions, and even raised my seat for me. He had a good laugh when I told him that I was exploring the mountains on a one speed. "You will sweat your soul," he laughed.

Kirstie had the most useful map holder for her bike.

I wish I could print my own postcards!

Our first destination was the town of Fiesole. A beautiful town that overlooks Florence where wealthy Florentines love to vacation. The man at the bike shop said this would be the most difficult part of the terrain. The phrase "Don't worry, this is the most difficult part" soon became a joke. We needed something to keep us laughing…

Sarah on the left, Kirstie on the right.

Up close to the hill towns I saw on the train ride.

I wouldn't mind living here.

Sarah spoke Italian and was in charge of asking for directions.

Fields of olive trees. They tasted awful.

"This is the hardest part."


Keep on peddling.


While triumphed over every hill we climbed, whenever we turned a corner, there was more. Always more. We tackled the steepest hill right before lunch. It looked nearly vertical. The pictures do not do it justice. I laughed the whole way up "Don't worry, this is the hardest part," I think the girls nearly killed me. We found out later that this monster was 18% grade. Much steeper and I think the asphalt would run back down hill as they were paving the road. I reckoned that I could produce nearly the same torque as the average European car.

Can you imagine living here?

Each town more charming than the next.

"This is the hardest part" (it really was)

We biked through town after town. After 4 hours of climbing we had a picnic style lunch on a hilltop. It was magnificent. The rolling hills of Tuscany are the perfect compliment to open faced tomato and basil sandwiches. As we cleaned up from lunch, we hoped the "hardest part" was behind us.

This is where we ate lunch.

 Getting back on the road.

Wooo hoooo!

The gods smiled upon us and soon after lunch we found the road which would bring us back to Florence. Thankfully it was down hill.

Look at those signs. What a nice road.

We sped, screaming back to Florence. I hit 28 mph. That was fast enough for me.

Florentine sunset.

Duomo descends into darkness.

After a 26 km trek, we got back to the hostel and celebrated with a trip to the sauna and two bottles of wine. A day to remember (and blog about).

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Day 12: CouchSurfers Unite!

I have yet to sleep on someone's couch, but I already love CouchSurfing. Initially I was put off by their website and the amount of material I needed to digest. However, once I dug in, I was enthralled.

The Palazzo Vecchio.

CouchSurfing is more than a resource for moochers. They have done an amazing job at designing a system that allows people to get in touch with one another. Users can find, friend, and message one another – but most importantly, there are groups and events in every city organized by Surfers.

Under construction.

While browsing through the events in Florence, I found one for a historical tour of the city. I'm no history buff but I wanted to see if this CouchSurfing thing really works, and hopefully make some new friends in Florence. So I signed up for the event and waited excitedly for two days…

Some days I'd like to be a statue, watching the world go by.

I left the house with only a vague idea of where to meet the group, an even vaguer idea of how to get there, and no clue who I was looking for. Prepared as usual. I wandered off to Piazza del Signoria, listening to groups of people to see if any of them were speaking English. Needless to say, that strategy didn't work out. I suddenly had a moment of inspiration and used my iPod to zoom in on Alex, the organizer of the event's, profile picture. After a quick look around, there he was, standing on the steps. Win!

The group in Piazzo del Limbo where dead babies were buried.

Excitedly, I went over and introduced myself. He returned the favor with "Oh man… you are from the US? I can tell!" Some first impression. After some friendly abuse, I felt included in the group. They were very friendly and almost immediately I made great conversation with Alex, Paul, and Nirit. Our conversation got cut short as the tour began.

Buildings around Piazzo del Limbo.

Alex is studying for his Ph. D in religious history and beliefs. To that end, his tour of Florence was based around how civilizations are shaped by their beliefs. Essentially, how people acted, based on their beliefs. To understand a person's beliefs enables one to understand their actions. Cool beans. Additionally, he organized this as an open tour. Anyone that had knowledge of a subject could add freely. It was like wikipedia but in real life… Luckily there were more Florentines than American goofs.

Talk about community. There was even a family there.

Our first stop was right around the corner from Piazza del Signoria. The Uffizi. For centuries, these majestic offices have housed the brains of Florence. There are 22 marble statues around the edge of the courtyard. They include revolutionaries such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante, plus lots of other names I've never heard of. One revolutionary who was not included, was Savonarola.

The tour continues...

Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican monk who came to Florence in order to reform the Church. In the late 15th century, there was a common belief that the world was going to end. The citizens of Florence were stressing because they were determined to go to heaven. To help assure one's ascension, one could pay 'indulgences' to the church. An indulgence is a gift of money that would reduce the amount of time you would be in purgatory. For example, if you paid $50 to the church, they would give you a piece of paper that says your stay in purgatory will be reduced by 500 years. Because the lengths of time were so great, they strengthened people's fears and raised money for the church at the same time. Pretty ingenious, eh? One adventurer got his purgatory sentence reduced by 35 million years!

The Duomo, where Savonarola gave his sermons.

Savonarola thought this was all a bunch of hooey. He began giving his own sermons that contradicted what Pope Alexander VI was saying. Well Poppie didn't take to that too kindly and… to make a long story short, burned Savonarola at the stake. This public execution took place in Piazza Signoria, right where we were standing. Cool! Heretics (and witches) were burned at the stake, because burning someone at the stake was believed to seal their fate – to ensure that they went to hell. Something to do with fire and stuff.

Where Savonarola was burned. Standing on history.

Besides Savonarola, we also learned a section of Florence was demolished during this period and rebuilt in accordance with a more modern grid structure. If you look at a map of Florence it's easy to tell which part has been rebuilt. This rebirth really helped the city grow. I think the new streets are narrow, the old ones were about half the width. Imagine getting a bucket of dirty water (or worse) dumped on your head. Thanks for the wider streets!

Old Italy, small streets. New Italy, slightly less small streets.

Those are just two of the delicious tidbits I learned about on the tour. I am beginning to realize how much history is imbued in this city – it was the center of the renaissance. This tour gave me something much more important. I made like six new friends! CouchSurfing rocks. It brings out the best in people by bringing people together. Sharing experiences and sharing knowledge for free (as it should be). I'm excited to expand my CouchSurfing network and my heart and brain as well.

What a good time. Thanks everyone!

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