Adventure

My First Overnight Train

 

I awoke and turned over to gaze out the window. The white sky flashed by and my breath was quickly stolen by mountains and dark evergreens wrapped in a morning fog.


I was in Austria after a overnight train from Florence. Fallen asleep in one country and woken up in another.

I had loaded onto the train in Italy, the first in my sleeper car of six. Although I had been a little premature in my arrival (an hour early in my nervousness), it was good to be first in the compartment as it quickly dissolved to chaos. As a single, female traveler I was in an all-female car. However the compartment was very small for six people and their international luggage. My bags wouldn't fit under my bed. The overhead racks required me to climb the ladder with my luggage and the staff were still checking tickets the door. So my small bag went under the bed--albeit halfway under--and my bigger bag behind the ladder. I took the folded sheets and blanket on my bed and made it.

Once I had stowed my stuff, the other passengers arrived. All at once they tried to situate themselves and their stuff. The train started moving before they got settled and soon bags were stacked behind the ladder and laying across the floor. I watched them struggle and jabber away in German and Korean from my bed, laying down. I was laying in bed already simply because there was no place for me to stand my bed was much to close to the above one to sit in.

After what seemed like ever, the other girls and women settled in. It was still relatively early so some talked or ate snacks. A staff member came around to collect our tickets and check on us. I made a trip tothe train bathroom, that was small, but relatively clean. Upon returning, one girl turned off the light, closed the door, and locked it.

Next came trying to fall asleep. I guess I thought I would be lulled to sleep by the rocking and repetitive shudder of the vehicle. I tossed on my bed (actually quite comfortable) kept up by the lights at every station, the sound of one girl's phone as she played some game, and the nervous thought that I was going to sleep among complete strangers. From what I could tell only one spoke English, and I felt like they could raid my bags or something while I was unconscious. I can say now that on a sleeper train, it is literally just mutual trust that keeps you with your possessions and your life. It's like everyone is hoping they aren't among a thief or serial killer, so no one has any time to steal or murder.

That is mostly an exaggeration, yet it was the train of thought that kept me awake for a few hours. Eventually, I nodded off and slept--until border patrol knocked at our door at six in the morning asking for passports. After being cleared we were all up and started to freshen up. (Note: this is when the line for the bathroom is fifteen minutes long.) Breakfast was included in the form of a surprising fresh kaiser roll with jam and coffee. Then I had an hour or two to pour over the details of my Workaway in Austria and watch the amazing landscape outside my little window.

As we got closer to the end of the line I packed my bags and pulled them into the hallway. The very kind staff came around to pull bags from overhead and rearrange the beds into seats. Finally, we came a stop and I set foot in Vienna, ready to board a regional train and get to a real bed.

 

Tuscany+Cinque Terre

 

When planning Florence with my mother, she booked us two tours with Walkabout Florence, one to see Tuscany and the other to visit Cinque Terre (pronounced chinca terra). I was reluctant to lose to whole days in Firenze, but now I would highly reccommend these trips out of the city if you have some extra time.

First on the 'Best of Tuscany Tour,' we explored Siena, saw the oldest bank in the world, and the Bascilica of St. Catherine. Upon seeing the black and white marble interior, I can say that I have never been so enamered of stripes as in that moment. Just as beautiful were the inlaid marble floors, creating intricate scenes in unusual colors. Our tour group also learned about the horse race famous to the city, the Palio, which pits the city sectors against each other in this religious event. A delicious farm-to-table meal followed with paired wines made on-site. The tour guide was native to Tuscany and entertained us on the bus rides with interesting bits of knowledge about the nature and people of the region. Then we went to the nearby city of San Gimignano, known for its medieval towers. Once holding over a hundred house-towers, the wealthy families protected themselves in their height. When a feuding family or enemy attacked the tower, servants would drop stones and hot oil on the assailants. Now only a handful of towers stand, but among them is a townhall covered in frescoes and an award-winning gelato shop (my raspberry and rosemary gelato was my favorite in all of Italy)! Lastly, we headed for Pisa and her Field of Miracles. Unfortunately, we were at the very end of visiting hours for the Leaning Tower, to climb it we would have needed tickets in advance. Since we didn't have enough time to really explore and most sights were closing, we opted to relax with some coffee and hot cocoa. We really liked this tour, but it is somewhat rushed. It would be worth it to spend more time in each city, or even take day trips to each. Still the sights were beautiful and the tour informative and fun.

 

Cinque Terre is five, brightly-colored towns perched above the Mediterranean Sea. We once again signed up with Walkaway Florence for a tour of the towns and a hike or two in between. Unfortunately, it rained all the way through our eleven hour trip. This meant that many shops were closed and sandbags piled high as the towns have a history of flooding. Still our small group visited Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. A few members of the group did take a short and very wet hike, but the tour guide changed up the plans and we spent some extra time in the villages and sightseeing. The seafood lunch in Corniglia made me a little nervous as it included sardines in lemon ceviche, a crab fritter, octopus, and cuddlefish, but it was delicious. The rest of the trip was marked by sheets of rain, soaking wet jeans, and deep puddles. It was about a three hour drive to and from Cinque Terre, and if I ever visit again I would recommend taking two or three days and staying in the area in order to truly appreciate the gorgeous seascape and tumbling villages. It was nice that we nearly had the towns to ouselves, bar a handful of locals, yet I could help wishing it was warm enough for a dip in the sea or the boat ride the tour includes during the warmer seasons. Still, we had a good time with our little tour group, running to jump on trains and exploring in the rain. Even the gray skies and the squish of my sneakers couldn't take away from the beauty of the Italian Riveria.


 

A Rollercoaster: the Ups and Downs of Rome

I arrived in Rome cranky and quite sore from my long train ride. Made my way out of Termini station and managed to follow the signs to the red line metro. I descended and went to the platform for the direction of my hostel. Here I was accosted a wall of people, four or five thick, pushing and shoving each other towards the yellow line and the gap. In two minutes the metro arrived--full, hands plastered on windows-- and barely a few people hopped off b efore the crowds gutted forwards, the momentum of one shove pushing and toppling people into the cars. The previous passengers glared and tried to squeeze tighter with little luck. The doors in front of me closed, a passionate string of words flew from some ladies' mouthes and the doors reopened and the push continued. I did not make that metro. I waited for the next, hoping it would be less full. Unfortunately it was about the same, but this time I was near the front when the doors slid open and the tide pulled me in. I got more than a couple dirty looks; as apparently my luggage, stacked one-on-the-other and clutched to my side was taking up too much room. When I stumbled through the doors again and dragged my suitcases up the stairs, I felt like I had just walked out of the latest zombie-plague movie. Luckily, this was the fullest the metro ever was for my time in Rome. Yet there wasn't a single time where I took the metro without my personal space being encroached upon or feeling like a sardine. I wanted to take a photo or two, to better illustrate the lack of space needed to take a breath, but I was afraid that I would be voted (shoved) off the metro by locals or my phone or camera stolen. Arriving at my hostel, I was welcomed with a glass of champagne and a biscotti and thus I knew I would like it. Dreaming Rome was my first hostel experience and I would definitely do it again. It was two apartments in a complex that were decorated somewhat eclectically, but with much pizzazz (as emphasized by many Christmas lights). On my first night I was treated to free pasta, a relatively often event at the hostel, and a nighttime, driving tour of Rome. Fabio the manager was great, showing us many secret sights and quirks of the city. My room at night was clean and comfy. I had paid for the girls' dorm room, but because of overbooking I was in a private room the first two nights, the second with another girl. The best part of the hostel was the social, yet relaxed atmosphere. One night we played headbands before watching weird and funny youtube videos. Another night we crossed the city in search of a tiny pasta bar. It was interesting to hear from other travelers, who came from and had visited places all over the world.

image image imageOn my first full day in the city I set off for the Vatican. As I rounded the corner of the walled micro-country, unease slowed my feet and made my eyes jump. The people packed on the sidewalk extended as far as I could see. I had read about these kinds of tourist crowds, but travel blogs had assured me that in the off-season the waits wouldn't be long. They were wrong. I guess one of the guys on the sidewalk could smell my hesitation, because he came and tried to sell me a tour. He was very nice, but I was determined not to be ripped off or scammed. So thirty minutes later I set off on a kids-priced tour of the Vatican museums, the Sistine chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica with a free bottle of water in hand. I'm actually very happy I paid for the tour because not only did I skip the line, I got to learn many of the stories and myths behind the ancient art and architecture that I would not have on my own. And for those who don't know if visiting the Vatican is worth their time because they are not religious, I must say it is necessary in order to view one of the best art collections in the world and see frescos that will make your breath catch in your chest.

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Also I visited Castel Sant Angelo, a fortress of sorts. It contained some interesting exhibits about the history of the fortress and also war in Rome. However it was the view from the top that justified the entrance fee--the perfect skyline view of the city in every direction.

In the evening, I walked around Piazza del Popolo, a centerpiece in Rome. Here people gathered to meet friends, watch the street performers, and promenade before dinner. Absolutely excellent for people-watching, though I was asked if I wanted to buy a 'selfie stick' about twenty times.

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I walked up Pincio, a hill overlooking the square and the city, bordering the Borghese gardens. I must say the gardens were nothing special, semi-well kept with a handful of roses near the entrance. The real treasure was deeper in when I walked by a restaurant (Pic Nic) that was barely more than a stand with tables outside. As I paused to look at the menu, I was very kindly offered ravioli, freshly made that morning. How could I say no? I sat down and was treated to the best ravioli of my life and a chat with the owner.

The next morning I set off with two girls that I met at the hostel. We waited over an hour for a bus that never came. So we started walking. We were heading towards the Coliseum when we noticed more and more people wearing red. At Porta San Giovanni, we looked through the arches and saw a street full of red. This is why there was no bus. A huge strike was going on that crossed kilometers of main road and some side streets. It took us quite a while to thread through the lines of protestors and duck under flags and banners, as the protest extended all the way to the Coliseum.

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At the Coliseum the lines were somewhat long, but a simple ticket we had bought online that morning (with an added two euro online fee), allowed us to walk right in. We used this ticket again at the Roman Forum. I enjoyed the splayed ruins of the forum, but the Coliseum took the cake with its sheer massiveness. The arches repeated against the blue sky, the crumbled maze in front of us, the steps and tunnels around the edges, all of it created a place where you could truly imagine another time, another world.

We had lunch in Trastevere, by far my favorite neighborhood I saw in Rome. The restaurants look fresh off the movie set. While there are a good many tourist traps, there are also little flower stalls and crooked corner buildings.

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The most disappointing part of Rome was how much I couldn't see. Reaching the Pantheon at 5 pm Saturday night, we found out we were not allowed inside due to a mass. I walked by the Trevi fountain that night with friends on the way to dinner. It was so covered by scaffolding and construction supplies that there was a sign next to it, pointing to where you should throw your coin. I did not even attempt to see the Spanish steps as the managers of the hostel told me that it was much of the same thing. This was true of many buildings and sites. So while I reveled in the encrusted ceilings and capped columns I saw throughout the city, there seemed an unusual amount of construction blocking my view.

In all, I'm glad I found time to see a bit of Rome. I loved the mythology, the deep history, the gelato, and the ancient foundations. I'll be back again, when there aren't massive strikes and reconstruction and when I have time to wander the streets some more.