Italy

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.


 

Florence Favs (Part 2)

Academia GalleryGreat museum, I would put this above the Uffizi if I had to choose. Not too big, it's not overwhelming or tiring. Mostly Italian 1300-1700s paintings and sculptures, but on the second floor was a small exhibit of illuminated texts and some variety of other art. However, the main reason people flock to the Accademia is to see Michelangelo's original David. Now you might see the copies at Piazza del Signoria or Piazza Michelangelo and think you've seen it; you're done. But if you have even the smallest appreciation or love of artwork, I beg if you to pay the museum entrance fee, maybe stand in line (definitely something to buy tickets beforehand during the tourist season), and look at the real thing. I was warned by a friend, yet still taken aback when I turned a corner and found myself amid half-finished sculptures before glancing down the long hall and seeing him. Magnificent. Every detail is perfect, every vein and muscle from any angle. As a tour guide near me pointed out, the veins on the back of the hand hanging down are much more visible than on the hand by his shoulder--because if the gravity and the tension in the lower hand. Just wow. I could have walked around him, sat there, sketched, gazed, studied all day long.

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San Miniato/Piazzale Michelangelo You'll probably hear about Piazzale Michelangelo, a parking lot on the outskirts of the city with a great view. However it is swarmed with tourists and street vendors and even then it is still a parking lot. I suggest you skip it altogether and head up a little higher to the church of San Miniato. It is less crowded, more beautiful, and you can buy cookies made by monks. If you go at the right time you can hear the monks singing Gregorian chants (rely only on the official website--we missed them before of some misinformation). Also there is an absolutely charming sculpture garden on the way up that contains modern sculptures, a multitude of rose bushes, and a little stream. Look for an open door in a stone wall as you climb up the hill of the main street leading to the Piazzale, for a great little corner to enjoy the view and write some postcards.

image image image image image image image image La Bussola Pizza This was the best pizza we ate in Florence by a long shot. Arrived for a late lunch/early dinner and chatted with the friendly staff. It is somewhat upscale, but not too expensive. Ordered a margherita pizza and a sheep's cheese, pear, honey, and walnut pizza to share. The first was pretty good, but the second was amazing. I wouldn't have minded eating here twice.

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Museo Davanzati A house museum that exhibits the daily life of an upper-middle class household. It was interesting to see things not just featuring the Medici's and the like. Highly recommend planning one or two hours here. Check the website for times they give tours of the third and fourth floors which are not otherwise open to the public. Even so a few euros is worth the painted rooms and detailed furniture on the first two floors, plus a beautiful little courtyard. Focusing on the quirks and habits of the people of the Renaissance, you will be intrigued by artifacts like shoe-shaped hand warmers. image image image image image image image image

Uffizi The Louvre of Florence, though not really as large, it is definitely a big museum. Plan to go in the morning or when you have time and are not too tired. Gallery after gallery of gorgeous art, and amazing sculptures and interiors in between. The ceilings. I think my neck hurt all day from craning it upwards constantly to admire the details of the frescoes.

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Pitti Palace We tried to do the Pitti Palace in the same day as the Uffizi and it was rushed, sometimes skipping galleries because our feet hurt and our eyes drooped. Here you will find the apartments of the Medicis and exhibitions containing modern art (1700s-present) and more. The imposing stone palace is a good look at the powerful oligarchy; however, it should be noted that if you have visited many palaces and fancy, historical apartments, this one does not quite stand out. image image image image image image image image

Boboli Gardens We appreciated these expansive gardens more than the palace. Simple, but elegant even as the winter sets in. There are many statutes and hidden little pathways among the evergreens. This is the ideal place to spend a few hours out of the city and tourist rush.

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Giulio Giannini e Figlio Right on Palazzo Pitti is the sweetest bookbinding shop, filled with more amazing hand-printed papers. More distinctly it contains many leather-bound notebooks of excellent quality. image image

Maria Pace Creative Clothing Stumbled across this boutique on the way to the Boboli Gardens. If you are looking for unique women's fashion, this is perfect. The sewing machine shuddered away as we entered, the owner working on a new garment. All the clothes are sewn by her and by hand. The designs are mostly coats, sweaters, and skirts with modern lines and heavily textured fabrics. The prices are quite good for the quality and individuality of each item.

Tamerò pasta We randomly decided to eat dinner here one night when nothing else was open at 7pm (Italian restaurants start filling up around 9pm). What a great find. Right on Piazzo Santo Spirito, the window filled with rolling pins and chefs making pasta show its the real deal. Our pasta was fabulous, my hesitant choice of pumpkin and amaretto sauce ravioli paying off. The former parking garage had a fun vibe, with a crumbling hole in the wall, slick artwork, and loose graffiti. As we left, the DJ was setting up for later in the night and the pasta chefs were busy rolling trays of gnocchi, spaghetti, and more.

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Bartolucci

This wood carvings shop is a specialty of Florence--mostly because it makes traditional Pinocchios, the wooden puppet whose story originated in this city. This colorful shop has many playful goods, perfect for a child's gift or just looking around.

Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella A gem tucked away by the church, this is a shop full of skin and bath products smells heavenly. Originally run by the monks of Santa Maria Novella, who made and sold their medicinal and beauty goods. Today you can buy perfumes, hand creams, potpourri, and the famous rose water, many of which are made from centuries-old recipes. Many products run a little on the pricey side, but still the delicate scents and sparkling interior are worth a visit.

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Gelataria la Carraia We visited this gelataria on the left bank of the Arno twice. It was that good. Especially creamy and well-flavored. If you like dark chocolate, you must try their rich, cold, and not-too-sweet version. Though you will probably never find a seat inside, you can sit on the bridge outside or walk along the river.

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Vivoli Hidden in the quieter streets near the Basilica of Santa Croce, the neon sign casts orange vibrations on the cobblestones, calling you in. This was the first gelato we had in Florence and we greatly enjoyed it. Like many traditional gelato shops, you pay first and then order at a separate counter. My favorite flavor I ordered was eggnog, but the crèma (a simple custard with egg and milk) was delicious. Definitely the best I tasted was my mother's caffé gelato--that imbibed a frozen, sweet, and milky espresso.

Perché-no! A bit touristy, with a location a few streets from the Duomo, but still quite tasty. The sorbets were a nice break from the gelato and I was surprised to really enjoy my chocolate sorbet. Other than when I was handed my gelato and the cone crumbled leaving me with a handful of melty sugar (which the staff replaced) this place was perfect for an afternoon snack amid sightseeing.

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