Thursday, October 27, 2011

Firenze e Venezia

I figured I'd give another update on the eve of my Fall Break, lest I go away and fall behind by four countries. I know it's nearly November, but back in September I returned to Tuscany for a weekend in Florence (Firenze).

We started our tour through the little city at the Uffizi, which is basically a religious art museum. It was interesting and all, but there are only so many depictions of "Mary and Child" that my eyes can take. I just kind of roamed around thinking, "Why do all of these artists paint such an ugly Jesus?" and then I got hungry and wanted to leave. Museums aren't really my "thing." I'd rather explore the city streets, examine the buildings, eat, relax, and just kind of get a feel for how everything works there. After the Uffizi, there was no shortage of that.

We then headed to Piazza Santa Croce (which, if I'm not mistaken, is the piazza in which my favorite Italian teacher in high school once lived) to find the market and something to eat. One thing I love about Italian cities is that there are little to no high rises. When you're walking down a street, you can see straight down to the end and past the city into the mountains. Who know I'd like mountains so much?

Mountains at the end of a street in Florence. We don't have stuff like that in Philly.
The restaurant, for me, was rather lackluster. I made the mistake of going north of Rome and foolishly ordering carbonara, because I just can't seem to give up on it yet. It was very yellow and eggy, and they used bacon. Bacon, people. I didn't finish my meal.
After lunch, we headed back to the Duomo of Florence and proceeded inside. A lot of the people I was with found it to be somewhat disappointing, but, on the contrary, I absolutely loved it. For as extravagant and detailed as it is on the outside, the Duomo of Florence is very plain on the inside. It's large and full of tourists, but it's very quiet. By no means am I a religious person, but it just had a sense of reverence that the other churches I've visited simply don't possess. 
The outside of the Duomo
 The inside of the Duomo - as close as you can get to the altar
Then we headed to the market, which is famous for its cheap, good-quality leather... that I didn't buy. I'm sorry; 90 Euro isn't cheap for anything. And everything cheaper than that is ugly. I did, however, enjoy strolling about the market, being heckled by immigrant sellers and listening to everyone try to haggle. Also, there was a really cute dog outside one of the stores.

The cutest and saddest dog I have ever seen
Of course, we had to sample the nightlife in Florence. It took us awhile to exit the hostel, mainly because half of us had a new roommate - an Australian make-up artist. After everyone's make-up was done, we headed back to Piazza Santa Croce, bringing him with us. We found a little bar next to the basilica and set up camp there for the night. It was tiny and there were barely any people there, but it was a good time all the same.
We had a short day on Sunday, as we had to catch a train at 3 in the afternoon, but we made the most of it. We had heard of a point that you could climb to and view the entire city, so we headed there across the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is a great novelty, but it's really just a crowded bridge that you can't afford once you get on it. I prefer to see it from a distance. And then we did. We climbed an absurd amount of stairs (and I had a respiratory infection, mind you!) to the top point to see the view.

 The old walls of Florence

The Duomo from the top point
And then I left Tuscany for what could be the last time this year. I only cried for twenty minutes.
We didn't have much time for rest; the next weekend, we hopped on a faster, more expensive train up to Venice. Venice had a bit more character than Florence... but that was not always a good thing.
Our train pulled in at around 9 pm. Quick memory refresher: it's dark at 9 pm. New fun fact: it's even darker in Venice at 9 pm. Venice is a canal city, so there are no streets and very few street lights. It's also very confusing to walk around in. Needless to say, we got horribly lost and had to ask anybody and everybody for directions. Fortunately, but perhaps unfortunately, we found our hostel.
After a somewhat hostile encounter with reception, we were given the key to our room. We opened the door to find four mattresses, and that's about it. No sheets, no blankets, and sacks of fiber insulation that I think were meant to pass for pillows. We had to ask for our bedding, which turned out to be thin, white sheets that looked like they had just been freshly ripped from someone's curtain rod. We were unaware that we had to ask for blankets, so the first night was very cold.
What else is there to do in Venice besides explore and shop? Answer: not much. And that's just what we did. We walked around for about an hour until we found Piazza San Marco, which I'm not sure contained more people or pigeons. To my dismay, most of the architecture was covered by scaffolding, including one of the only things to see in Venice: The Bridge of Sighs.
Deeming the actual city of Venice too crowded and dirty, we bought water taxi tickets and headed over to the far more peaceful Murano, which, as many of you know, is famous for its glass blowing industry. 
  Sand outside a glass blowing factory. It's basically just glass.
We spent about five hours in Murano, sampling some of the region's famous seafood and shopping, shopping, shopping. To everyone who got a souvenir: you're welcome. Then we returned back to Venice for a nice, relaxing night at the hostel. There's really no other type of night to be had in Venice; the whole city basically closes down at 9 pm.
The next day we were up bright and early and ready for our gondola ride. One thing about Venice that is definitely worth the money (lots of money... be prepared) is the gondola ride, if for nothing else just to chat with your gondolier. Ours was named Georgio, but he called himself Georgio Clooney. Far from it, but he sure could pilot a long, skinny boat.
  The gondola ride - probably the most beautiful part of Venice
We explored a bit more after our ride, hitting up a little restaurant on our way to the train station and having one more delicious meal.
  This was "Chittarra" pasta with lamb. No, I didn't share.
Venice wrap-up: it wasn't my favorite. It's very, very crowded with tons of tourists; you may as well just visit Little Italy in Disney World. What was really disappointing about it was the lack of "everyday life." I didn't really get to see how people lived there, or maybe I did, but they just blended in with the rest of the tourists. Venice is also very dirty and is covered in graffiti. It's not your typical Italian city, so be prepared when visiting.
So, now we're all caught up. New updates are coming in the near future... Dublin, Amsterdam, Prague, and London: here I come! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Catching Up: Siena, Arezzo, Pienza, and Orvieto

In the last three weeks, I have visited seven Italian towns and cities. I'd like to present four of them now.


It seems odd to start with my favorite town, but I'm determined to tell this story as chronologically as possible so as to satisfy my self-diagnosed OCD habits. I was already very excited to come to Siena; I had done a project on a neighborhood in Siena in high school and, having learned so much about it, was itching to see it in person. Siena is a hill town of many neighborhoods, each with its own "mascot" (i.e. an eagle, a panther, a shell, a duck, etc.), and each with its own sense of neighborhood pride. Why? Well, Siena is the town in Italy in which the Palio, a huge horse race, takes place. You're going to want to click that link.
Siena delivered to me exactly what I had expected. We were given a guided tour by our professor of the main areas of Siena - the entrance to the town (uphill, representing the strenuous path to paradise), the main square (Piazza del Campo, where the Palio is run), and the duomo.
Piazza del Campo
Inside of the Duomo of Siena

It's strange; I spent no more than five hours walking around this little town, and I somehow feel the most connected to it than I have to any other. We didn't have our best food here (that's coming very soon), nor was it the most beautiful sight we saw. It just has character. As we left, I stopped in a little tourist shop and picked up a scarf of the neighborhood I researched: Pantera. I have a hard time spending money on myself, but this I felt was absolutely necessary.
  I'm a little Panther, short and stout
 Our next stop was Arezzo, another little hill town where we stayed for the weekend. After a quiet night there-- oh, wait, we didn't have a quiet night there. No, instead of going to bed and catching up on many hours of sleep, we ventured out into the town to find a little bar to fill with 37 Americans. I don't know whether the problem was that we couldn't find one or that "bar" in Italian means "café," but... we ended up at a café. That doesn't mean we didn't treat it like an American bar. It was a night that we will all remember (as will many passersby carrying video cameras), complete with loud music, colored lights, and table dancers. Yup, table dancers. In a café.
The next day, we got up early in the morning (some of us had to be dragged) to take a tour around Arezzo. We saw not one but four different churches, including the Duomo of Arezzo, where we actually attended mass. 
Candles for prayer in the Duomo

After mass and a meal of pizza topped with truffles, we got on another bus to traverse the hills of Tuscany and take us to our next destination: Castel del Trebbio, a small, tiny, miniscule 39 room castle situated on top of the hills that is well known for - you guessed it - its wine.
 This has more or less become my signature pose.
I was overwhelmed at this place. The scenery around the castle is indescribable, and the castle itself is beautiful. We received a history lesson from our tour guide about how the business came to be, which includes love on a train, not enough time, and a thank-you card in the form of a castle. Where's my castle? Hmm?
We then went down into the cellars of the castle, where they make the wine and olive oil.
 Barrels upon barrels of Chianti
And then - the culmination of the weekend - we got to taste the wine. We tried four wines: first, the standard white they make at the castle, then a Chianti Classico, followed by a Chianti Ruffino, and finished off with a sweet dessert wine in which you dip biscotti. I can't choose my favorite, but it's a two way tie between the Ruffino and the dessert wine.
What do you do after a wine tasting? Why, buy more wine, of course! We all cleaned out our bank accounts at the castle's gift shop (you're welcome, mom!) before sitting down to a delicious dinner of pasta, pheasant, and (surprise!) more wine.
The dinner was deceiving, though; little did I know that I would have to wait until the following Monday to have the best food I've had thus far. On Monday we left Arezzo to go to Pienza, a very, very small hill town known for one of my God: Pecorino Romano. That's right, in my house, we pray to the God of Pecorino Romano, and if there's no Pecorino Romano in the house, we go out and get Pecorino Romano, even at four in the morning. I'd never been partial to the hunks of Pecorino before, but I wish I had bought a wheel of it and a jar of honey to dip. You'll think I'm crazy until you try it.
Me, cheesing and cheesed in Pienza

Our final stop on the tour was in Umbria at a little town called Orvieto. I'm not quite sure for what Orvieto is known around the world, but I'll forever associate it with some of the best food and wine I've ever had. We were basically given free reign to walk around Orvieto on our own, and we spent most of this time eating lunch at a little restaurant that we happened upon. Amici, I have been searching for the perfect dish of homemade tortelloni stuffed with (surprise! I don't remember) and radishes since I got here (c'era un piccolo scherzo), and I finally found it in Orvieto.
 I know you're supposed to have red sauce with red wine, but whatever.
You had better believe I cleaned that plate. How could I not? Would you look at it??
So, amici, that was my weekend in Tuscany. Sorry, Sperlonga - I'll be honeymooning here instead.