Archive for November, 2007

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.

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Nov 22 2007

Thanksgiving in Florence

Published by under Florence,Italy

First – HAPPY THANKSGIVING! It’s tough being away from home during the holidays. Separation has accentuated how lucky I am to have such great family and friends back home, so even though we’re celebrating a million miles away with ravioli instead of turkey, I am particularly thankful this year. Have an extra helping of mashed potatoes for us!

Apologies for the slow blog updates this week. All of our spare internet time has been devoted to figuring out what in the world we’re doing next. We’d pretty much planned this far — couple months in Greece, work our way up the Italian boot. But now what? This question arose in an urgent way upon realizing we have no place to go at the end of this week. Currently considering working on an organic farm in Tuscany, skiing in Switzerland, or living in a villa on the French Riviera. Or all of the above. Because, you know, why not? It’s both stressful and liberating to not know where you’re sleeping the next night. I’m not that concerned since I’m traveling with Ben — life has a way of magically and inexplicably working out to Ben’s advantage despite little effort on his part. So I cling to him for dear life, trying to ride off his luck.

Florence has been beautiful and relaxing. Even though it’s a bustling city with enough history to occupy you for weeks, compared to the enormity of Rome, where every corner you turn you’re confronted with something amazing and ancient and famous, Florence seems like a breeze. We’ve spent our time leisurely strolling around the city, drinking local wine and taking day trips around Tuscany.

And shopping! I’ve been really good this entire trip, having not shopped for nearly three months. That’s a lifetime record for someone who thrives on bargain hunting. It hasn’t been hard thanks to all the incredible things we’ve been doing and seeing. In Florence, however, where designer stores line every street and the Italians around you are unrelentingly chic, it’s difficult to resist.

I’ve run across several unanticipated hindrances: while I might be convinced to spend $250 on a cashmere coat back home, when 250 euros means 375 dollars, it’s hard to justify (side note: Florence is the most expensive place we’ve visited – spent the equivalent of $15 on a stick of deodorant!). Secondly, everything I buy I have to lug around with me. We’ve been purging our belongings as we go (YOU try heaving a thousand-pound suitcase up a narrow, ancient staircase), and the idea of adding to the mass is not appealing. Trying to find a way to sneak my purchases into Ben’s suitcase when he’s not looking.

the church of the duomo
The Duomo!

Apparently there’s art in Florence too. We visited the Uffizi Gallery, which may as well be called the All The Renaissance Art That Matters Gallery. Every time we entered a new room, we were astonished at the number of pieces we recognized and had studied in school.

We also made the obligatory visit to the Duomo, the famous church in the center of Florence. Brunelleschi’s dome, an impressive engineering feat even today, dominates the Florentine skyline. The church with its ornate white, pink and green marble façade will startle you every time you happen upon it, as it’s breathtakingly gorgeous, seems to emerge out of nowhere amidst tiny clothing boutiques and panini shops, and is SO HUGE.

florentine skyline
Florence from a distance

A few days into our week in Florence, we climbed up to a piazza south of the Arno River — a place I remembered from my high school trip here nearly a decade ago as affording unparalleled views of the city. As we were leaving, we ran into a familiar face: the Latin teacher that had chaperoned my trip and brought me to that spot ten years ago! The world is wacky.

Having lived here for months, Mr. Ross showed us the city’s best wine bars and restaurants. Wine being the way of life in Italy, his tour of the good enotecas around town (a pre-lunch white, two liters during lunch, a dessert wine, and a post-lunch glass) meant that I found myself quite tipsy at two o’clock in the afternoon. Ben and I got the scoop on all of our old high school teachers, and attempted to adjust to calling him “Steve.” We also unwittingly revealed how little Latin we’d learned when I asked if it was ever a spoken language and Ben confused nouns and verbs. Then we went home and I promptly passed out.

The best part of our week here for me has been our trips into the Tuscan countryside. But I’ve rattled on long enough for today, so I’ll leave our tales of 4000 euro per kilo truffles, medieval castles and drinking Chianti in Chianti for another day. Ciao!

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Nov 19 2007

Greece: A Recap

Published by under Greece

Vimeo | YouTube

My first video compilation. I do not like Windows Movie Maker. How nerdy would it be to ask for video editing software for Christmas?

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Nov 15 2007

The Vatican for Cheapskates

Published by under Italy,Rome

Picture this: 1/3 of the Earth’s population, lined up in single file on a never-ending sidewalk. People of all ages, shapes, and ethnicities. Now imagine that you must wake up in the pre-dawn hours of a cold winter morning, in order to take your place in this line of humanity. At the very end. Got that? Perfect. Now you might as well say that you were with us this week when we lined up to enter the Vatican Museum.

Here’s an interesting fact: November is Italy’s lowest month when it comes to tourism. And people actually try to visit the Vatican in the summer? Actually, I shouldn’t ask questions to which I already know the answers. I couldn’t figure out why one guy in the middle of the line was wearing bermuda shorts in this weather, but his wife told us they’d joined the line in June ’05.

Emperor Nero's bathtub. This purple marble is the rarest in the world.
Emperor Nero’s bathtub of Egyptian marble

Of course, there is one question worth asking: is the line worth it? Definitely. The Vatican Museum has the most ridiculously impressive collection of art and artifacts I’ve ever seen. And I like going to museums.

We were surprised to find that the price to get in wasn’t half bad either: 11 Euros (current exchange rate = 71 US$). Then we learned the price for a guided tour: 20-30 Euros per person (current exchange rate = 1,600 – 43,000 US$). And because most pieces in the Vatican Museum aren’t labeled clearly (or at all) you need some sort of guide. We knew we’d been beat, so we shelled out 60 additional Euros, and got the guided tour.

Now, let’s treat that last sentence as a test for you. Did you really believe that we paid 60 Euros for the guided tour? If yes, then you still have a long way to go before you realize how cheap we really are. If no, then you probably read this site too much and should get back to whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing.

Even the ceilings of the Vatican Museum are art
Even the ceilings and floors of the Vatican Museum
are art!

We did not, in fact, shell out 60 Euros (current exchange rate = infinity US$) for a Vatican tour. Since we are shameless penny pinchers, we looked into Vatican tour options before ever visiting the museum, and discovered that you can actually rent a handheld audio guide inside the museum, for a mere 6 Euros. The problem is, the volume is SO soft on the handheld unit that you must hold it right up to your ear to hear it, thus forcing you to purchase one unit per person. But armed with this knowledge, we brought my iPod earphones with us to the museum, and these turned out to fit perfectly in the handset’s audio port. And by each taking one earphone in one ear, we were able to share ONE handset, rather than shell out for two. So we looked like two idiots, wandering around the museum with one earphone in my ear, one in Brittany’s, and the cord dangling between us. But that’s two idiots with 54 Euros still in our pockets, to you. Well, I shouldn’t say “still” in our pockets. Brittany found a market selling Nutella on the walk home.

We finished up our Vatican day with an afternoon visit to St. Peter’s Basilica. Verdict? Beautiful, just as every visitor expects. And I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest room I’ve ever been in. Does Wal-Mart count as one room?

IMG_1877The two coolest features of St. Peter’s just may be above and below the actual chapel. Climb a mere 550 steps, and you get to walk out on a railinged area that surrounds the dome. I can’t imagine that there’s a better view of Rome, since nothing I could see for miles in the distance was nearly as high as we were.

Sepulchrum sancti petri apostliDescend underground, and you can visit the papal crypt below the church. The popes of Christmas past weren’t getting many visitors, but John Paul II’s tomb was surrounded by a number of tearful, kneeling guests, and was decorated with plenty of fresh flowers. This meant that I didn’t have to fight any crowds to see the tomb of St. Peter himself, who is buried 50 feet below the (already underground) spot you’re actually able to visit.

Wrapping up with the Vatican meant that, for us, we had wrapped up with Rome. Yesterday afternoon we caught a train to Florence, where we’ll be spending the next week. We’ll be visiting the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, and every gelateria that I’m unable to hide from Brittany. Ciao!

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Nov 14 2007

I’m just glad we haven’t used the phrase “When in Rome” yet

Published by under Italy,Rome

Have you ever been squatting in the bathroom of an ancient Roman ruin while being yelled at via headset by a small, Italian woman? Unfortunately, for the rest of my life I will have to answer that question with the affirmative.

A little background on how I ended up in that unfortunate situation: Ben, Danny (our hostel friend from Arizona) and I had sprung for the guided tour of the Colosseum/Palatine Hill/Roman forum, if only to avoid the ridiculously long queues. The tour guides speak into a microphone and hand out small headsets so they don’t have to yell to be heard. After a brief introduction, while waiting for the rest of the group to get through security, I quickly slipped away to the bathroom while Ben kept an eye out for our group as they began their tour.

But nothing escapes the watchful eyes of a feisty Italian woman. “Where are the other two?” she accusingly asked our innocent companion, to which he reluctantly replied that we’d gone to the bathroom.

“Oh this is bad! Very, very bad!” our tour guide yelled, her tinny voice blaring out of the headset in my jacket pocket as I peed. “So hard to find people inside. This is what I told you! If you leave the group you must return the headset! Where are those people??”

ColosseumWe slunk back to the group, having been remotely chastised. Apparently we started a trend because other people started wandering away during the course of the tour. Her spiel was often interrupted with “Hello! People from India! Come back!” or “People with the babies! Stay with the group!” Towards the end of the tour she kept mumbling in our ears: “I do this five, ten times a day, never this happens! My God!” Say that with a thick Italian accent and you’ve got the idea.

Trip lesson #78,451: When you get home, appreciate your cell phone. A few minutes before closing time, Ben and I stopped by the official AS Roma football (yes I will refer to soccer as football) team store to inquire about tickets to that evening’s match. Upon learning that cheap seats were available, we realized we needed to contact our friends at the hostel to find out exactly how many tickets to purchase. No problem, right? We’ll just call them, we thought, instinctively reaching into our bags for a cell phone. It always takes a few moments to realize that we no longer have them. What followed was a highly complex series of back-and-forth events that resulted in no tickets being purchased at all. I admire my parents for living in a far-gone era without cell phones or the internet. Seriously, how did they do ANYTHING?

Approaching the Stadio Olympico
Approaching the stadium, ignorant of the impending

We decided to head to Stadio Olympico anyway to try and purchase tickets from the box office. Do Italian stadiums have box offices? I still don’t know. As we approached the stadium, we saw hordes of men out front, wearing masks and carrying bats. Having heard about the hooliganism of avid European football fans, we remained alert but not alarmed. That is, until we saw a menacing mob set a dumpster on fire. We became a little concerned. We skirted the edge of the fire gang and approached a police officer who seemed to be barricading himself within the fence of the strangely empty stadium. “Cancelled!” he said, adding emphatically “Go away! You need to go away!”

We knew that something was seriously awry and walked quickly, heads down, through the angry crowd back towards the bus stop. We watched from a safe distance as the mob began destroying streetlights with makeshift bats, dragging items out into the middle of the road and setting them on fire. Upon returning home, we learned that we had witnessed the beginning of a riot that made international headlines. We would have taken pictures, but the masked men didn’t seem like they were in the mood to smile for a camera.

The next day…

We’d heard talk of a church decorated entirely with human bones and, however morbid that may sound, our curiosity was piqued enough to seek it out. Sure enough, a church decided to put the bones of their deceased friars as well as those of poor Romans to use in what is a strange, creepy decorative art. The walls and ceilings of several chapels are covered in human bones in intricate, sometimes playful, patterns. Even the chandeliers are made of vertebrae. We weren’t allowed to photograph, but I took a picture of a postcard:

The Crypt of the Capuchins
Yes, every last pattern is made of human bone. This “Crypt of the Skulls” is followed by the “Crypt of the Pelvises” and the “Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones.”

We followed our grim sightseeing with a meal at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant patronized by grumpy Italian men (always a good indicator of a great restaurant). We dined on spaghetti a pomodoro, some sort of lasagna with a creamy, smoky cheese sauce, and minestrone. I realize I talk about food way too much in my entries, so I won’t go into more detail. Suffice it to say that the food alone is reason enough to visit Italy.

One of our favorite nighttime activities is participating in cross-cultural drinking games with other hostel-dwellers. Americans, ourselves included, always have a wealth of drinking games at the ready, which we’ve enjoyed teaching to fellow travelers. We will spread beer pong to the edges of the globe! The British, it seems, don’t bother with the pretense of so-called drinking games. The only game Lee and Lucy, a British couple on neighboring bunk beds, could come up with was “Drink While You Think.” Now that’s hardcore.

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Nov 13 2007

Rome: Come for the tacos, stay for the religious artifacts. (P.S. There are no tacos.)

Published by under Italy,Rome

Ben and Mrs. MooneySince the first days of our trip, we’ve constantly been making bets with each other on how long it will be until we run into someone we know. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have money placed on Friday. After two months abroad, we met up in Rome with the parents of my oldest childhood friend, David. It was a surreal experience to walk a mere kilometer from our hostel to a central Roman hotel, and to find sitting in the lobby, the Mooneys! They had a few hours to kill before boarding their cruise around the Mediterranean, so we decided to check out some of the Roman sights together. Side note: Since when do I use kilometers as a standard of measurement??

USING THE AREA FOR DEFECATING IS PROHIBITED.” Or so proclaims one of many unexpectedly posted rules you will encounter at Rome’s Spanish Steps. The Spanish Steps are only so named because they lead to the Spanish Embassy, which is a disappointment for those expecting tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and especially nachos. With guacamole. Other cryptic warnings posted at the Spanish Steps include…


Besides the ridiculous signs, there is yet another upside to the Spanish Steps: namely, if you do visit them, it’s only a little further down the road to Piazza di Popoli. This is a far superior square, which contains several cool fountains, statues, and one giant obelisk. Not to mention a church that contains a couple of works by Carvaggio. I didn’t know who Carvaggio was either, but it turns out that he painted “alternative” takes on well-known Biblical stories, which meant that he was always butting heads with the reigning Pope.

The good news: Carvaggio’s paintings are really cool, and it’s worth going out of your way to see them. The bad news: the churches capitalize on your desire to see his paintings by keeping them in darkened rooms. So how do you see them? By inserting coins into a machine, which operates the light. 1 Euro = 1 minute of appreciating Carvaggio, or something like that. Then the light goes back out. Unless of course, you have more Euros… [Insert maniacal papal laughter]*

Guaranteeing a return to Rome Like everyone else in Rome, we made the obligatory trip to Trevi fountain, and tossed coins over our shoulder into the water. Doing so is supposed to guarantee your return trip to Rome. Brittany threw a coin in when she was here nine years ago, so I guess it works! I was loathe to part with our precious Euro pennies, but we were fortunate that Mrs. Mooney was carrying some worthless American coins, which we could all painlessly toss into the fountain. A nearby beggar saw me with the American coins, and gave me some change from his tin cup.

Before the Mooneys left us for their cruise ship, they were kind enough to treat us to lunch. Dear Mooneys: thank you for the awesome paninis! Going from PB&J to Prosciutto, Mozzarella, and sun-dried tomatoes on fresh baked bread was a definite upgrade.

Special bonus for lucky you! Highlights from Day 2 in Rome:

Gelato in front of the PantheonGelato in front of the Pantheon! OK, so we were really just in this part of town for the gelato. But it turns out that the Pantheon is really close to the gelateria, so we figured we might as well swing by. The Pantheon was once home to all the Roman gods, but is now home to all the Christian statues it can conceivably contain.

Something I didn’t know: the Pantheon is also the final resting place of Raphael, and you can see his tomb in a glass case inside the Pantheon. Another thing I didn’t know: it’s the current stomping grounds of pushy street vendors who, inexplicably, try to sell you multi-colored squeezable monster toys, and/or bubbles. I still have no idea what these toys have to do with the Pantheon, or Rome as a whole. Don’t try to ask the vendors though. They’ll assume that whatever you say or ask translates directly to: “I must have all your multi-colored squeezable monster toys!!!” And once a street vendor has attached himself to you, good luck EVER getting rid of him. It’s like an STD that shouts, smells, and tries to sell you toys that no one would ever want.

Looking down the well that Peter dug in his own dungeon.Seven minutes before its closing time, we slipped into Chiesa San Pietro In Carcere, or “The Church of St. Peter in Chains.” The church is so named because it is built right on top of the very dungeon where Peter was held by the Romans, while awaiting his execution. Just inside the church entrance, we descended a narrow flight of stairs into the dank concrete room where Peter was held. You can still see the bars to which he was chained, and the spring which he dug in order to baptize his fellow prisoners. It’s a tiny little church, but a definite Rome highlight for me! You can see the symbol of the upside-down cross in the photo, which is a reference to the fact that Peter was crucified upside-down.

I admit, I’m a nerd for these Christian heritage sites, which means you’ll have to endure more of my religious excitement in Rome. I’m also a nerd for guacamole, but unfortunately for you, it’s nowhere to be found in Rome, so it looks like we’ll ALL have to go without. Nope, not even at the Spanish Steps. What gives???

*[Insert Ben inching one step closer to eternal damnation]

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