Archive for the 'Italy' Category

Dec 12 2007

Ben vs. the Dolomites

Published by under Italy,Northern Italy

Brittany about to ski
Brittany before the tears

I’ve never been skiing in my life, so before leaving northern Italy for good, we decided to make one last stop: the Dolomite Mountains. Well, we thought we had decided to go to the Dolomites when we boarded our train from Bologna Tuesday afternoon. But half way through our train ride to the northeastern city of Trento, Brittany wondered: might we be better off skiing in the Alps instead? Mind you, the Alps, being in northWESTERN Italy, are clear on the other side of the country from the Dolomites. But it’s not like we had managed to book accommodation in the Dolomites for the night (or ever managed to booked any accommodation ahead of time, for that matter), so we decided to get off the train in Verona, and look into heading west instead.

At the moment that we made this particular decision, the train was stopped in a station. I leaned over to the girl sitting across from us and asked, “Quanto minuti a Verona?” which probably means “Where is my friendly waffle?”, but fortunately she understood that I was interested in finding out how much longer until the train arrived in Verona. She looked at me a little nervously, pointed straight down at the ground, and said: “Verona.” Right. While our new friend looked on in an empathetic panic, we scrambled to gather our scattered belongings in time to get off the train.

After making a heroic slide onto the Verona train platform (and reaching back to grab my fedora JUST IN TIME), it dawned on us that we really didn’t have much of a plan beyond narrowly escaping the train’s sliding doors. What we did have, thanks to our guidebook, was a map of Verona that showed a nearby internet cafe. Since everyone knows that the internet is the source of all human knowledge, we headed to the cafe to check out our Alpine options.

Well, it turns out that trying to plan a trip to the Alps and board a train there in one night is hard work, and makes us tired. So after a few minutes of that, we gave up in favor of finding some french fries to eat. Luckily for us, there was another train heading to Trento (our original destination) in an hour. And our luck continued: unlike the first time we tried to make it to Trento, this time we would have french fries.

Due in no small part to our internet/french fry layover, we arrived in Trento to discover that we had just missed connecting with the last bus of the night that was bound for our ultimate goal: the ski town of Madonna di Campiglia. The bus station operator wasn’t kidding — we could still see the bus heading up the road that leads toward the mountain. Brittany could also see that the bus was about to hit a red light, and that was all the hope she needed. She startled me by bursting into a full sprint for the bus, and probably startled the bus driver more when he noticed a crazy American girl banging on the bus doors at a traffic light. In fact, she startled him so much that he was helpless to resist her efforts to commandeer a bus ride. And that is how we came to be the last two people who would make it up the mountain before the next bus departed at noon the next day.

It was pitch dark when we finally (and miraculously) arrived in the Dolomite ski town of Madonna di Campiglia. Which made running up and down icy hills between hotels, trying to negotiate last minute rooms, an even colder and more miserable experience. We begrudgingly settled on paying out the nose for the dodgiest looking hotel on the mountain. Which won out by virtue of being the least disturbing orifice that we had the prospect of paying from. Also, I like to stay “dodgy” now, which I’ve decided is the British form of “sketchy.”

We slept soundly that night, and woke up Wednesday morning, eager to finally ski the Dolomites. Brittany had been skiing a few times years earlier, but I had never touched a pair of skis. Figuring I’d pick it up by watching Brittany, I declined to pay for the one-hour lesson from a private instructor. How hard can skiing be, right?

That’s an interesting question, and one I don’t think I’m fit to answer, given that I still haven’t been able to try this “skiing” that I hear so much about. But after Wednesday’s events, I’m now fit to teach a graduate-level course on a similar, but ultimately unrelated sport. I’m still working on its name, but I can tell you that it involves skidding uncontrollably down a mountain in a straight line, thereby rapidly gaining the momentum necessary to be ejected from your skis into a mid-air somersault, and landing, sans dignity, face down in the snow. Other classes I’ll be offering on the slopes back home include:

  • Locating Buried Skiis
  • Mid-Air Acrobatics 101
  • Proper Use of Shoulders to Efficiently Carry Skis Past Danger Zones
  • Practical Application: How to put your skis back on mid-slope, and then instantly achieve terminal velocity

Trying to understand these "skis"You might think that I couldn’t be THAT bad at skiing, but I promise you that I’m far worse than you could ever imagine. My case in point: My lift pass was good for 3 hours of use, which I imagine is enough for a moderately evolved, half-drunk human being to go up and down the mountain several times. Three hours after starting, I was still lost somewhere on the mountainside, not having managed to descend the slope ONCE.

Eagle-eyed passers-by would sometimes spot one of my limbs protruding from beneath the snow, and ski on over to offer helpful advice in the many languages of the world. One fellow (Swiss, I think) taught me how to stand upright on my skis on a hill, which allowed me to peacefully meditate on nature’s majestic beauty in between harrowing tumults down her sheer cliff faces. An Italian man tried to teach me a scissor-like skiing technique, which I took to mean is good for beginners. Putting this technique into practice immediately resulted in one of my more epic catapaultings of the day. I still need to thank him, since his advice allowed me to absorb the beautiful mountain views from far more interesting angles than most visitors will enjoy.

Brittany hung around to watch my antics for some time, but even she eventually moved on to participate in actual skiing. During my eternal descent down the mountain, I had time to note that I was lapped by the following:

  • Children
  • The elderly
  • A skier talking on a cellphone (seriously)
  • Hikers
  • Snow

My favorite skiing positionIf I’ve ever been worse at anything in my life, I can’t remember it. And just in case all of the above humiliation wasn’t quite sufficient, I also managed to tear holes in two pairs of pants, and rip three fingers off my right-hand glove. Imagine the worst skier you’ve ever seen – one tumbling, falling, and crawling his way down the mountain. Now please introduce me to him, so I can correct my initial mistake and finally pay for a lesson.

The weird thing is, you’d think that after all that, I’d be done with skiing forever. But I guess I’m enough of a masochist to say that I’d give it another go. However, at the urgent insistence of my knees, thighs, butt, arms, back, and neck, let’s just not make it too soon.

8 responses so far

Dec 11 2007

Return of the Daytrippers: Northern Italy

Published by under Italy,Northern Italy

One good thing about working on an Italian farm was that I got to see psychotic pigs frighten Brittany every day at feeding time. Another good thing was that our farm was located near the town of Imola, whose train connections allow for convenient day trips around northern Italy. During our week-long stay on the farm, we worked for 5 days and were allowed 2 to ourselves. Since we’re sissies from the suburbs, we considered those days off to be hard-earned. Our mission: to spend them wisely…

Day Trip #1: Venice
There probably isn’t much I can say about Venice that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. I will say that, upon arriving in Italy, I was bearish on the idea of going out of our way to visit Venice. I figured that 1.) It’s probably gimmicky, and 2.) I already saw The Italian Job, so what else is there to know?

Brittany and gondolierWell, one thing I didn’t know is just how touristy Venice is. I read in town that Venice has a population of about 500,000 people, but that each year it sees over 10 MILLION tourists. In the face of such an outsider onslaught, the city has struggled to maintain its historic identity. Sorry, Venice! But for the true Venetians sticking it out against the likes of me, life is no gimmick at all. They really do motor around town in little speedboats, and park them right outside their front doors. The first time you see an old woman walk out of her front door, hop into her parked speedboat, and zip off to the vegetable market is one of those moments that makes the trip to Venice worthwhile. Especially since now that her boat isn’t blocking your view, you can clearly see Mark Wahlberg cracking an underwater safe in the canal! Just kidding, the water’s way too filthy to see him.

Contemplating the pigeonAnother surprise lies in wait for the first-time visitor to Venice: pigeons who have lost all of their natural fear for human beings. Let me explain. Some time in modern history, a Venetian entrepreneur noticed that his city had become over-run by the filthy, flying rats that we know as pigeons. In some sort of bizarre social experiment, he decided to find out how much he could charge tourists for the chance to let these winged vermin crawl all over their bodies. He set up a rolling cart in San Marco Square, and started selling small bags of bird seed at a euro a pop. It didn’t take long for the Venice pigeons to learn that humans = food source, not threat, and they were soon dive-bombing any person in the city carrying a small white paper bag. And while people from all over the world curse the pigeon infestations in their home cities, something about being in Venice makes them line up for the chance to wear a living pigeon coat. So here’s to you, Mr. Pigeon Feed Cart Operator. I didn’t even pay for a bag of seed, and I still couldn’t keep your domesticated pigeon horde from roosting on my body.

In short, the city’s over-run by tourists, the water is one of the most unsettling colors I’ve ever seen, and there’s no end in sight to the swarming pigeon epidemic. So why go to Venice? The answer is simple, my friends: Tenors on gondolas.


Day Trip #2: Bologna
In terms of tourist appeal, I think Bologna must be the polar opposite of Venice. When Americas think of Venice, we think of romantic gondola rides down the Grand Canal. When we think of Bologna… well, first of all, most of are probably not familiar with the fact that Bologna is a city in Italy. Most of us ARE familiar with the mystery meat known as bologna, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve been more familiar with it than you wish a couple of times in your life. Reading back on that last sentence, I’m not even sure what it means, but I do know that one of my father’s comforts in life is a bologna sandwich, so let’s all work together to make sure that meat with rinds is a horror that ends with our generation.

The point is: forget about mystery meat for a moment, and go to Bologna when you visit Italy. Much like Americans call NYC “The Big Apple,” or Philadelphia “The City of Brotherly Love,” Italians call Bologna “The Fat One.” Why? Because Bologna is considered by many Italians to have the best food in the country. And if Italy is the country with the best food in the world… then you understand why this is one city you need to visit, unless you hate yourself.

We’ve gotten tired of the stares that we receive whenever we try to snap photos of our plates in restaurants, but I’m happy to report that we found a hole-in-the-wall trattoria in Bologna called Il Tari, where we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon lunch of such local favorites as zucchini-wrapped prosciutto. For the price of a cashew in Venice, we stuffed ourselves silly in Bologna, and left in an argument over which one of us is now “The Fat One.”

Bologna by nightAn unexpected bonus was that Bologna dresses to the nines for Christmas, so we enjoyed the city’s lights and giant Christmas trees, as well as street shopping in the popular Christmas market. Bologna (and all of northern Italy) does get cold in the winter evenings, but it’s never too cold for gelato! Well, it actually was far too cold for gelato, but it’s manageable if you keep your scarf over your face in between licks. And it was worth it, since a gelateria called Gianni served us what was, quite possibly, the best gelato of our trip.

Our daytrips brought our time on the farm to a close, so next time you’ll be hearing about an experience neither of us is going to soon forget: skiing in the Dolomite Mountains.

3 responses so far

Dec 09 2007

Green Acres

So I don’t think Ben and I are cut out for the farm life. I think this epiphany dawned on us sometime between finding out we had to start and maintain the woodstove fire in order to have hot water, and when we realized the cows have to be fed/milked on schedule, twice a day, in order to stop their incessant moo-ing. Not to mention the rampant manure.

But we really did enjoy our work on the farm in Imola, Italy, and appreciated a more “authentic” and less urban Italian experience. Victoria and Davide, our hosts, run an impressively varied operation, from animal husbandry to a huge vineyard. Plus, Davide builds all renovations and extensions to their house and farm himself, making him the ultimate handyman. I can see why Victoria, a British ex-pat, stuck around Italy when she only came to visit, and promptly married the guy.

Needless to say, our work was diverse: from brick laying and grouting to planting bay trees. Our daily chore was feeding the animals. It’s hard to feed animals and operate a camera simultaneously, but we tried to film a video while feeding the cows and pigs:

(Of course the cows decide to be quiet on the one day we film. And I know, Brittany wielding a pitchfork is never a good idea.)

Other work highlights included Ben trying to maneuver a wheelbarrow full of hay up a very steep hill — and I mean full, as in the stack of hay was two times the height of Ben. Yes, it toppled. Ben returned to the room in a full sweat swearing that he’d never done anything so hard IN HIS LIFE and how in the world is HAY so HEAVY?

There was also the time, of course, when the pig escaped. Ben and I were happily cleaning bricks when we looked up to see a huge pig trotting across the yard. “Uh, Davide…?” we said, in unison.

“SI??” he replied, in that way that Italians have that make everything they say sound operatic and bellow-y.

“Is the pig supposed to be there?”

Davide sprinted into action, trying to create some sort of makeshift fence using boards and benches to funnel the pig back into its pen. I wish I’d had a camera for the moment when Davide was pulling on the pigs ears and Ben was pushing on its butt with all his might. Instead, I was jumping/screaming/throwing rotten apples into the pen in a feeble attempt to lure the pig back into its prison — and by “into the pen” I mean that most of my apples actually hit the pig and/or Ben because I have terrible aim. But that pig wasn’t going anywhere without a fight and a lot of ridiculously loud squealing.

Another task included occasionally watching Victoria and Davide’s two adorable daughters, Isabel and Charlotte. Isabel, who is three, took a liking to Ben and would bounce up whenever he walked into a room and scream in a cute Italian/British accent “PLAY! Let’s play!” She particularly enjoyed a game of catch where Ben would pretend to be scared of the object she was tossing. Ben, who doesn’t have much experience with kids, was confused.

Ben and Isabel
Ben and Isabel

“Brittany?” he said to me one night as I was stoking the woodstove. “Why isn’t Isabel tired of that game? I mean, she thinks it’s hilarious every time.”

“Just how kids are: easily entertained.”

“Yeah but…she wants to play it again and again and again and again. And again and again and again… ” at which point Isabel came bounding into the kitchen dragging something that looked like the mattress for a changing table. My questions about whether or not her mother knew she had that “toy” did not stop her from propping it up on Ben’s legs and demanding to be lifted up into his lap so she could slide down. Another game that lasted an hour!

The location of the farm allowed us to spend our free time exploring small nearby country villages. We also used our two days off to take awesome day trips to Bologna and Venice. But that blog is for another day, as I now have to work my current mission: to eat as many chocolate croissants as possible while in the land of their origin. I also insist on calling them KWAHSON DU SHOCOLAH in a heavy French accent and I think Ben’s about to go insane. At least he would be if he weren’t driving me crazy with his constant exclamations of “SACRE BLEU!”

One response so far

Dec 06 2007

Hiking the Cinque Terre

We’re back in business! We said goodbye to the pigs, went skiing in the Italian mountains, took an overnight train, and arrived in Nice, France, this morning for the next leg of our adventure. We are reveling in the mild Southern France temperatures and ubiquitous wifi. It has been a whirlwind few days, with many bloggable stories, but we have some catching up to do first. Back to Italy…

I would like to point out that Ben had an equally hard time resisting the urge to spend in Florence as I did. Often, as we were wandering the city streets, he would stop abruptly, walk into a store and pick up a sweater or a jacket. “I never even thought of this,” he would say, as he lovingly stroked the item. Then he’d flip over the price tag, gape at the number, and storm out of the store. For the next 30 minutes I’d have to deal with Ben muttering to himself, shaking his head and/or ranting about why we don’t have stores like this in America. “I’ll TELL you why,” he’d yell. “Because we have to make room for ANOTHER FRIGGIN’ GAP.” (Granted, he has a point. For men, the disparity between shopping options in Florence and those in America is huge. Florence has entire stores dedicated to neckties alone.)

Yes, Florence is expensive. But it’s not unreasonable. If the dollar would actually hold its weight against the euro, we may have indulged more. Jay-Z feels my pain.

IMG_2250We decided that the next stop on our Italian tour would be the Cinque Terre, a coastline stretch of five small fishing villages so beautiful they’ve been dubbed the “Italian Riviera.” The towns are connected by an 11 kilometer trail that winds through vineyards, farmland and orange and lemon groves, and gives spectacular views of the ocean and rocky shoreline. Cinque Terre has increasingly become a popular detour off the typical Venice-to-Florence tourist path. To hike the trail used to be free until a few savvy villagers realized the goldmine they were sitting on. Now it’s five euros.

In typical Ben and Brittany style, we arrived in Riomaggiore, the first Cinque Terre town, without a place to stay. We emerged out of the train station late that evening, pumped for room negotiations, only to find that it was pouring.

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

“Yeah, really,” a voice said behind me – a voice that sounded disarmingly not like Ben’s and more like a fellow American girl’s. We turned around to discover a couple that happened to be in the same predicament as us: cold, laden with luggage, soaking wet and without a room.

So, naturally, the men were dispatched to search for a vacancy, a task that proved more difficult than anticipated as Riomaggiore is a teeny-weeny village in the middle of nowhere. Just as we thought we may have to hop the train back to a larger town, we saw the confident figures of Ben and Daniel appear through the sheets of rain, walking towards the station, room key in hand.

Sharing a place with Daniel and Tonilyn allowed us to split the cost in a town that turned out to be surprisingly expensive. It also gave us an opportunity to finish off the Cretan raki we’ve been carrying around. This was probably not the best decision the night before an 11 km hike, but since when have we made any decision with regard to the consequences? Remember that time we decided to blow all our money gallivanting around the world? Yeah, that was stupid.

IMG_2287We had planned to wake up early, but didn’t end up setting out until about 11:00, after an embarrassingly long time spent trying to figure out how to use an Italian stovetop coffeemaker. Thankfully, the rain had passed and the day turned out to be atypically sunny and warm, and perfect for trekking on the Italian shore.

Verdict: Cinque Terre’s terrain is gorgeous and varied and despite a few muscle-taxing uphill climbs, compared to Samaria Gorge, this hike was a piece of cake. It may be a three-hour train ride out of your way, but it is absolutely a must-see, and a highlight of Italy for Ben and me.

Our post-hike evening was spent relaxing, making pasta (the pesto in this region is the best in Italy!) and swapping pictures with Tonilyn and Daniel.

We received a surprise early the next morning when we heard the landlady pounding on our door. “YOU OUT?” she said, as Ben opened the door.

“Huh?” Ben said, sleepily rubbing his eyes. “Out of what?”

“ROOM. OUT OF ROOM! TEN O’CLOCK. ALWAYS TEN O’CLOCK.” Italian (and Greek, for that matter) landlords have the annoying tendency to never tell you when you’re required to check out, or if there is a checkout time at all. And when they spring it on you the day that your supposed to leave, they act as if you’re the dumbest person alive for not knowing that, DUH, check out time is ALWAYS TEN O’CLOCK. Even though sometimes it’s 11:00 and sometimes it’s 12:00 and sometimes they stare at you blankly when you inquire about a checkout time at all.

I also want to note that it wasn’t 10:00 yet when she was pounding on our door, a fact that didn’t stop her from glaring at us the entire time we got packed and ready.

Wandering through the streets of Riomaggiore, Ben and I debated how to fix our current predicament: homelessness. We reluctantly dished out the eight bucks per hour for the only internet point in town to try and find a hostel in Switzerland, a hostel in Milan, a farm in the area, or any place at all that could house us for the night.

You may be confused when I say “farm.” We’ve recently run across a program called Help Exchange that pairs travelers with host families all over the world: in exchange for a few hours of work per day, you get free accommodation and food. We located a farm in the Bologna area that was glad to host us for a week.

We are finally able to upload pictures again! Uploaded the rest from Florence and Tuscany and the Cinque Terre. (Even labeled a few!)

Next blog installment: Ben and Brittany’s adventures on the farm! (Yes, we filmed a video.)

3 responses so far

Dec 02 2007

Stay tuned while we experience technical difficulties…

Ben and I have taken up residence on a farm in the Bologna countryside. Each morning, a rooster cockle-doodle-doo-ing wakes us up at 7:20 on the dot, reminding us that we have to feed the pigs their slop. Seriously.

Needless to say, the internet access here is limited. Every time we try to upload a photo, the computer explodes. So despite wanting to tell you of our many adventures, including hiking the Cinque Terre and chasing escaped pigs, we will have to postpone blogging until we leave the farm on Tuesday. Until then…

6 responses so far

Nov 28 2007


Published by under Florence,Italy

Because Florence is in the heart of the beautiful Tuscan countryside, and because the temptation to spend all our euros on a city-wide fashion shopping spree was perilously close to consuming Brittany, we tried to fill several of our days in Florence with day trips to the surrounding towns in Tuscany. Brittany will undoubtedly contend that her marketplace purchase of outfit-complementing scarves was an isolated and necessary event, but years of experience have sharpened my vision enough to recognize the first slide down a most slippery slope.

Day Trip #1: Montespertoli
According to a brochure in Florence’s tourism office, we had arrived in town just in time for the biggest event of the year! That is, for all 34 residents of a town I still can’t find on our map: Montespertoli. For one weekend every November, this small town celebrates its annual “Paneolio” – an olive oil, wine, and truffle festival. And for once, not the chocolate type of truffles that Brittany insists are a necessary part of her daily blood sugar maintenance regimen. Rather, the rare and subterranean mushroom type of truffle that requires trained pigs and/or hounds to sniff out. I stopped reading the brochure after the part about trained pigs, and it was off to Montespertoli!

Once in Montespertoli’s town square, the festival was surprisingly difficult to find. But the little bit of Italian we’ve picked up was enough to save the day. More accurately, the day was saved by friendly townsfolk who chose to help a pitiful American guy walking in circles and proclaiming in his best Italian, “Please, where are the truffle?”

img_1985Inside the official Paneolio giant tent, we sampled the region’s wines and partook in the season’s new olive oil. We did not partake in the season’s truffles, which carry a pricetag to match their pungent bouquet. A truffle salesman (did I really just write that?) did let us smell the coveted white truffle, which can be yours for a mere 4,000 euros per kilogram (or, about $3,000 a pound). I tried to convey to him that the truffles smelled delicious, but in retrospect, rubbing my stomach in circles really only succeeded in making me look like an ass. Maybe next year.

Day Trip #2: Greve in Chianti
We couldn’t miss out on drinking Chianti in Chianti, so we picked one of the more bus-accessible towns in the region for our second day trip: Greve in Chianti. You’d think that the town would just be called “Greve” and would be content to simply exist in the Chianti region, but I guess that someone on the tourism board had his eye on a bigger cash cow. Lest any potential visitor miss the fact that Greve exists in the Chianti region of Italy, every map and brochure of the area is guaranteed to only refer to the town as “Greve in Chianti.” I guess the plan works, as they successfully lured two visitors this week all the way from Richmond in Virginia.

img_2108One of those visitors (me) arrived in town quite nauseous after the loopy bus ride from Florence. I managed a few sips during our afternoon wine tasting, but you’ll have to ask Brittany in Chianti about the quality of the diverse wine selection available. Sadly, they weren’t on the menu for Ben in dry heaves.

Thanks to the town’s helpful tourism office, we procured a map of recommended area hikes, and spent most of the afternoon in and around a medieval castle in the Chianti countryside. Today, the castle is home to a variety of locals who seem to be farming the surrounding area, and it thus presently functions as a tiny town. I took a video of us exploring the castle’s nooks and crannies (to be uploaded…)

It gets dark around 4:00 in the afternoon here now, but this isn’t all bad news. Since I coudn’t see out the bus windows at night, I avoided a second wave of nausea on the bus ride back to Florence in Tuscany.

Day Trip #3: Siena
img_2172It’s easy to make Siena into a daytrip when you’re based in Florence, but if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t. Siena really deserves more time than that, and I actually think it would be an even better place to spend a week than Florence. Once one of the most powerful Italian city-states, modern Siena is full of history, Gothic architecture, and charm to spare. Meanwhile, Florence is full of the tourists. Some highlights from our day in Siena:

  • Climbing to the top of the Fortezza (fort) at sunset, and enjoying the evening city views.
  • Taking the Siena for Young Explorers guided tour pamphlet with map, available at the city tourism office. Full of must-sees like Europe’s original Jewish ghetto, the museum of local fauna, and “a park where you can stop for a while to play in the soft grass.”
  • Searching the botanical gardens for the so-called “living rocks,” which are described in our Young Explorers guide as being two leaves that are camouflaged as rocks. Directional signs posted in the garden failed to ever lead me to the alleged leaves, which ensured that a pleasant stroll quickly detoriated into a scene filled with much shouting and guide throwing. Brittany suggested that the leaves are simply doing a very good job of camouflage, and I have determined this to be acceptable. Recommended!

img_2143I get the impression that Siena isn’t any cheaper than Florence as a place to stay, but for pure ambiance, there’s really no comparison. My advice: spend your week in Siena, and take a day trip or two to Florence. But I must disclaim that Brittany vehemently disagrees, so maybe the right thing is to split a week between the two cities. As Calvin & Hobbes once said, a good compromise leaves everybody mad.

3 responses so far

Next »