Archive for November, 2007

Nov 11 2007

Ciao Napoli

Published by under Italy,Naples & the South

Greetings from Roma! As I write this, I am about to enjoy the first sushi I’ve had in two months, compliments of Stefano, our personal Italian chef. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re behind on the blog (again), so this is my catch-up entry. Back to Naples…

positanoPart of the reason we chose to visit Naples was because of its proximity to other choice destinations. The Amalfi Coast, a one-and-a-half hour metro/bus ride from Naples, is billed as the most beautiful stretch of coastline in Europe. You know those pictures of the Italian coast in which immaculate villas perch on cliffsides that tumble sheer into a bright, turquoise sea? That’s the Amalfi Coast. So despite our seriously aching feet, we decided to make the journey to Amalfi to take a ten-kilometer hike (known as the “Walk of the Gods”) along the coast.

We stepped off the bus in Positano, the first coastal town, only to be blown back in. The wind on top of the cliff that day was hurricane-force — the kind of wind that makes it difficult to walk forward and impossible to talk. Given that neither one of us had really wanted to take the hike, but neither one of us wanted to be the first to chicken out, the inclement weather gave us the perfect excuse to ditch the four-hour hike and take the bus tour instead (the unfortunate result being that you can never get good pictures through a bus window). I can’t say that I’ve seen all European coastlines, but I’d be surprised if Amalfi can be outdone. It’s surreal. Like you can’t believe there are places in the world as beautiful as what you’re seeing. The bus dropped us off in the town of Amalfi, where we wandered the narrow alleys, ate some great spaghetti and (as usual) got horribly lost.

into the oven
Making pizza at our favorite pizza joint

Speaking of food, I’m going to take a moment to mention the pizza in Naples. My vote: OH MY GOD. Pizza will never be the same to me again. While some places offer a sparse variety of toppings, the two authentic Neapolitan pizzas are the marinara (tomato sauce, bit of garlic, and a few leaves of basil – no cheese!) and the margherita (the same, with sprinkled fresh mozzarella). It’s mouthwateringly good – so good, in fact, that you can eat it for six nights in a row and crave more. The most amazing part is the crust. It’s thin, but never crunchy, always doughy and chewy and with a slight taste of charcoal from the authentic wood-burning ovens. Now I’m really hungry.

On our way back from Amalfi, we stopped in Sorrento to pick up some limoncello, a specialty lemon liquor made in the area, which we drank on the metro ride back to Naples out of a brown bag, until we realized we looked like huge winos.

Having seen the devastation at Pompeii, the next morning we decided to face the beast himself: we were going to scale Mt. Vesuvius. The dark mountain sits low on the horizon, with a constant cloud of smoke hovering above. It may seem unintimidating from a distance, but as we approached the base of the volcano and the smoke became thicker, we could see wide trails of gray rock where the flowing lava had killed everything in its path. My bravado waned. The volcano hasn’t erupted since 1944, making this period the longest it’s been silent for centuries — they’re expecting the next one to be a doozy! I don’t know why we keep putting ourselves in these questionable situations.

As we began the sharp uphill climb to the crater, I forgot my fear thanks to my physical pain. Despite my whining, Ben would not stop in the middle of the trail on the side of a volcano to give me a foot massage. Sometimes I just don’t get him.

vesuvius abidesSteam oozes from the crevices of the vast crater at Vesuvius’ peak. A slight smell of sulfur lingers in the air. The vantage point offers unparalleled views of the Bay of Naples. You can also see the tiny village of Pompeii from atop the volcano, and you can’t help but imagine the devastation such an eruption would have on the massive sprawl of Naples below you. Ben wondered about Neapolitan insurance premiums.

We were taking the afternoon train to Rome, where we would face yet another villain. The ride would have been uneventful had we not made one crucial mistake. Whenever you purchase a public transportation ticket in Italy, they’re valid for a certain number of days. When you actually use your ticket, you are required to validate it, which stamps the date and time on the ticket, to prevent you from using the ticket more than once. In our hurry at the station, we forgot to validate. It didn’t occur to us that we’d forgotten that step until I handed our ticket to the controller en route to Rome and his response was “50 euros.” Say what? What followed was an argument in which he kept saying “machine!” and “50 euros!” and we kept insisting we did not understand. From what I could gather, he was being quite unreasonable. He walked away to continue checking tickets and find someone who spoke English. Luckily for us, he proceeded to get in a row with another passenger, which occupied him until we arrived at Termini in Rome, at which point we quickly slipped out and ran away.

We arrived at our hostel after our hasty escape to find a feast laid out for us. We choose Roma Inn because of its cheap prices, free breakfast, free wifi and, most importantly, free dinner! And this is no ordinary dinner. The chef they employ prepares yummies such as stuffed mushrooms, pesto gnocchi, bruschetta, quiche and pastas galore. The bad part about Roma Inn is that it attempts to fit eight beds in a room the size of a pick-up truck.

Wow, that was a whirlwind tour of our last days in Naples. I’ll leave our first days in Rome for the next entry, mostly because dinner is served. Rome is incredible — my favorite city we’ve visited so far. Arrivederci!

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Nov 10 2007

Hostel Shower (a haiku)

Published by under Italy,Rome

Hostel Shower

What is that damp growth?
I’m glad I wore my flip-flops.
There’s no hot water.

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Nov 08 2007

Vesuvius Abides

Published by under Italy,Naples & the South

We woke Tuesday morning to find that Brittany’s cold had abated a little, so we decided to make the most of the day. And as my feet can now attest to, a very full day it was.

Vesuvius looms over the CircumvesuvianaAfter a breakfast of chocolate croissants (tasty!) and plum cakes (you’d rather not know) we caught an early morning ride on the Circumvesuviana. Brittany finally pointed out to me what everyone realizes but me: Circumvesuviana means “around Vesuvius,” because this is exactly where the train goes. And when you find yourself, full of plum cake, on a train that circles Mt. Vesuvius, there’s one stop that sort of stands out on the wall map: Pompeii.

One of the tamer scenes from the Pompeii brothelThe first thing I’ll say about Pompeii is that it’s BIG. When Vesuvius buried the city in 79AD, it preserved the whole thing. And from the looks of it, Pompeii was a bustling place. We walked right inside all sorts of buildings that look almost exactly as they must have when still in use, from bakeries to bathhouses to brothels. And yes, the brothel was the most giggle-inducing part of the site for all tourist groups present. A lot of this has to do with the fact that above each preserved cement bed is a fresco, depicting in vivid detail the particular “specialty” of the lady to whom it belonged. Have you ever seen the picture menu that McDonald’s hands out to illiterate diners? Meet its great-grandfather. I’m lovin’ it! Almost as much as the elderly Korean woman who was snapping giggly photos next to me.

At some point during the day, Brittany pointed at one of the smaller mountains in the shadow of Vesuvius, and I followed her finger to see that this mountain was puffing smoke. Let me help you imagine why this was slightly disturbing for me.

Question: Mt. Vesuvius is starting to puff smoke. Where in the world DON’T you want to be?

A: Safe in bed back home.
B: Anywhere but Italy.

As I pondered the scene before my eyes, I realized that I’d never again be able to criticize someone for not learning lessons from history. Only one thing kept me from fear-induced insanity: the knowledge that in case of eruption, I held one distinct advantage over the rest of the terrified mob. You see, I’ve managed to Escape From PompeiiTM several times at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, so I’m one of the few tourists who knows that somewhere around here is a log flume waiting to deliver me to splash-down safety. Smugly, I also reminded myself that I know exactly where to sit in the log to avoid getting drenched and having to endure wet underwear for the rest of the afternoon. What was I talking about?

Victim of Vesuvius, frozen in timeWell, as you can guess, Mt. Vesuvius didn’t blow its top after all.* But if one ever needs a grim reminder of its wrath, the casts of human bodies at Pompeii are more than sufficient. When the good citizens of Pompeii were suddenly engulfed, a number of their bodies left permanent impressions in the volcanic ash. These impressions were used to create plaster casts of the victims, which do a disturbingly accurate job of representing the poses (and facial expressions) that they adopted in their final moments. For me, seeing these casts was the most emotional aspect of the visit.

Gelato in NaplesSince Pompeii required us to not only get up at a decent hour, but also to trek around for several hours, we decided to reward ourselves with desserts in Naples. We tried sfogliatella, the city’s most beloved treat. Sfogliatella is a flaky pastry filled with sweet cheese, orange rind, and candied fruits, and we purchased ours from the very restaurant where it was invented. If my description of sfogliatella sounds tasty to you, then you’ll probably love it. It didn’t to me, and I didn’t. I did love my pistachio gelato, but it was mostly eaten by Brittany, despite her claims at the counter that she was “too full” for gelato. But who’s bitter?

Naples DuomoBefore returning to the Circumvesuviana, we slipped into the Naples duomo a half-hour before closing time. Here we found ourselves in for quite a surprise. The duomo has lots of art, relics, historical importance, etc. etc. But what it ALSO had on Tuesday night was a crazy man who had somehow managed to scale a wall inside the central chapel. When we arrived, he was clinging to some decorations near the 30-foot ceiling. And screaming. The polizia were gathered around on the floor below, but didn’t really know what to do with the fellow. Anytime they started to talk to him, he just screamed louder. Meanwhile, I was merrily snapping photos of the affair, much to the apparent consternation/humiliation of Brittany.

Right about the time I finally became convinced that he did indeed plan to jump to his death, the wall-climber slowly started to make his way down. When he reached bottom, he was promptly arrested, and the duomo promptly became boring. It was closing time anyway, so we gathered ourselves to head back to the hostel. But when we exited through the front door, we were suddenly blinded by the flashbulbs of the paparazzi! And I’m talking drunken Lindsay Lohan style. I guess they hoped we were the jumper coming through the door, so I imagine that two fully-sober, underwear-wearing Americans came as something of a disappointment. As we pushed our way through the throng, it quickly became apparent that the paparazzi were on the scene to cover some sort of demonstration that had popped up outside while we were gawking at Spiderman. Or, while I was gawking. Brittany doesn’t seem to gawk well with her head down and in her hands.

The crowd outside the duomo was singing loudly, and the apparent leaders were holding a banner of Che Guevara. I tried to ask someone what was going on, but the only answer I received was: “Manifesto!” So there you have it. Anyway, I filmed some of the enthusiastic singing, which turned out better than my blurry photos of the web-slinger. (video to be uploaded soon…) I knew the tunes, but not the words, which made it difficult to join the jubilee. Plus, we were exhausted. As far as I know, the crowd is still out there singing into the night. As for me, I haven’t forgotten what I saw at Vesuvius, so I’m just going to hide under the covers for a while.


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Nov 05 2007

Naples: The Keebler Elves are watching…

Published by under Italy,Naples & the South

The feat of getting from Greece to Italy was nothing short of a miracle for Ben and I, who have trouble navigating ourselves from place to place in the States. Our first mistake was accidentally purchasing and boarding the train with only one ticket from Athens to the port. I don’t know how this happened as I emphatically said “dhio! dhio!” to the teller, who insisted that my one ticket was two. Because we were running horrifically late (thanks to missing the metro twice), I didn’t have time to argue. Thanks to Ben’s incomprehensible ability to charm/become best friends with everyone he meets, we were not kicked off the train when the ticket-checker confirmed we had indeed only purchased one ticket.

The second challenge was the language switch. Whenever I bumped into anyone (which happens too much when I’m simply walking, let alone pulling a giant suitcase), I would bumble “signomi… er, sorry… er, mi scusi.” Needless to say, I got some funny looks. We also discovered that Italian public transportation signs do not have English translations, which was fun!

I won’t relive our two-day comedy of errors further. I will say that this ferry ride was a vast improvement thanks to actually springing for a cabin and the fact that there were only about three people on board. Sail with Endeavor Lines, because apparently no one else does!

neapolitan streetWe took our first sojourn into Central Naples yesterday. It is exactly as everyone described to us: dirty, dark and hectic. The traffic frenzy is even worse than in Greece, if possible, and if I wasn’t being nearly run over I was being asphyxiated by noxious fumes. The are definitely areas of the city you need to avoid, vestiges of a time when the city was known as the prostitution capital of Continental Europe. We spent most of the afternoon wandering around centro storico, the heart of the old city, where the main streets still follow the street plan of the ancient Roman city. The streets are paved with black cobblestones and giant gothic churches tower over alleys teaming with pedestrians and street vendors. Tall buildings flanking either side of the narrow alleys block most sunlight from reaching the street. Imagine a medieval Gotham City. This is the best description of Naples we could come up with.

I don’t mean to paint an unfavorable picture of the city. Somehow Naples manages to be quite picturesque and architecturally charming. The city as a whole exudes energy and sass. With with the exception of a few major four-lane thoroughfares and a handful of boring, cement-block high-rises, Naples is chock full of historical structures, ranging from ancient Roman obelisks to Renaissance churches (including an awesome 13th century castle). It’s so unlike any major city in the U.S., where the oldest building is 200 years old. Neapolitans would scoff at a building that was a mere 200 years old. Their apartments are older than that! 200 years? Please, that’s about as exciting as the neighborhood Burger King.

The highlight for Ben was that the centro storico is also the home of many well-known mob families in Naples. Yes, organized crime, known as the Camorra, is alive and well in Napoli. Although mafia violence has subsided in recent years thanks to the imprisonment of the godmother, little happens in Naples without a “nod” from one the families. Our guidebook points out a couple of Camorra family homes, which we obviously sought out and took pictures of. Ben became paranoid that I was saying the word “Camorra” too often and too loudly and insisted that I refer to the families as the “Keebler Elves.”

Ben has given me some sort of sinus thing, which obviously mutated in the passing because while he’s sitting pretty, my head is about to explode. A visit to the farmacia is in order.

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Nov 03 2007

Italy at Last

Published by under Italy,Naples & the South

We finally made it to Naples, after 2 long days of travel. I still feel like the ground is moving beneath me, due to the fact that getting from Athens to Naples requires the following:

  • Athens metro to the Larissa Train Station
  • Train from Athens to the port city of Patras
  • Overnight ferry from Patras to Italian port of Brindisi
  • Train from Brindisi to Caserta
  • Train from Caserta to Naples

And once in Naples, it requires a ride on something called the Circumvesuviana to reach our hostel. Don’t be fooled! Circumvesuviana does sound just like a fun spinning carnival ride that will whirl you to your destination of choice. But I’m sorry to tell you that when you excitedly validate your ticket and burst through the turnstile, it turns out to just be an above-ground metro.

We’re staying in a hostel called Fabric, which is quite unlike any hostel we’ve yet seen. There’s a large common room with HDTV, free DVD rentals, free Wi-Fi, and an in-house restaurant. Inexplicably, there’s also an in-house club, which could only be called CLUB FABRIC. Since CLUB FABRIC can only be entered from inside the hostel, and getting inside the hostel requires booking a stay in the hostel, you may think that CLUB FABRIC is just a way to milk more money from its guests through the sale of overpriced beer. You may also think that checking out the local bars and restaurants would be a better way to see the real Naples, meet locals, and find cheaper drinks. But based on the commotion reaching my bed from CLUB FABRIC in the wee hours of this morning, it looks like you think too much.

Still, Fabric’s many amenities exceed expectations, and we’re happy to be here for the next few days. Also, we found a place nearby that will sell you a made-to-order pizza for 3 Euros, an unexpected coup that would make any no-tell motel seem like the Ritz to me right about now. Score!

And now it’s off to the supermercato for whatever food we can find that doesn’t require a refrigerator to keep, or a stove to prepare. Which leaves… Nutella.

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Nov 01 2007

A conversation with an Athens hotel owner

Published by under Athens,Greece

A conversation with a British woman who owns a small hotel in Athens

Ben: Hello, is this the Villa Olympic?

Woman: Yes

B: I’m calling to find out if you have availability for 2 people to stay one week, starting tomorrow.

W: Yes, plenty.

B: Great. And what would the price be?

W: 35 Euros a night, if you stay for a week.

B: OK, thanks very much for the information. We’ll be arriving in Athens tomorrow, so perhaps I’ll give you a call then.

W: Well, what does that mean?

B: Oh, it means I’m calling around to check out prices, so I’ll possibly be back in touch tomorrow.

W: Well, if THAT’S what you’re doing, fine. But don’t expect me to wait up all night.

B: Umm, OK, I won’t? Thanks for your help.

W: Do you really think you’ll find anything cheaper than that price?

B: Well, that’s why I’m calling around, to try and find out.

W: I think you’re just being… (low mumbling that I can’t make out)

B: All I’m really trying to do is compare prices between hotels…

W: This isn’t a hotel, it’s a HOUSE!

B: Umm, I’m sorry if I’ve offended you in some way, I didn’t mean to.

W: Where did you get this address??!!

B: The internet.

W: Oh, you just do your work.

B: OK then… thanks for your help.

W: Yes, you just DO YOUR WORK.

B: Goodbye!

With crazies like this out there, you can see why we’re so grateful for Mudfish’s hospitality! And on that note, we’re catching a train this morning to the Greek port city of Patras, where we’ll hop an overnight ferry to Brindisi, Italy. By Friday night, we’ll be in Naples! Goodbye gyros, raki, and fish… hello pizza, wine, and fish!

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