Friday, June 4, 2004
This morning, we decided to hop back on the local train and go tour the ruins of ancient Pompeii. In the year 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the entire city. Everything happened so quickly that the city was almost perfectly preserved under layers of ash, turning Pompeii into a life-size time capsule.
Pompeii is already so large that it would have been impossible to see entirely in one afternoon, and more buildings are still being excavated. We just sort of wandered around, occasionally checking the map to see what we were looking at. We were able to view mosaics and frescoes that were still mostly intact — amazing considering that the city was once buried under lava and volcanic debris.
There were a couple of preserved human bodies, and even a dog, both frozen into positions that looked as if they were trying to hide from the eruption.
Apparently phallic imagery is big in Pompeii. We found one memorable fresco of a man weighing his penis in a scale, and in a building that apparently used to be a brothel, there was even more penis art. I’m glad nobody asked for a postcard from Pompeii, because they all had pictures of penises.
After we finished in Pompeii, we returned to Sorrento for lunch. I had been wanting seafood this entire time, so I ordered spaghetti con polipetti locali — “spaghetti with local baby octopus.” It came out as a plate of noodles and tentacles with marinara sauce, and turned out to be very delicious. The server also said my Italian pronounciation was very good, so gold star for me. At least I know that I can read from a menu and not offend someone.
After our meal, we spent some time walking around Sorrento. It’s apparently famous for its enormous citrus trees. I think some of those lemons were the size of my head! Being situated on the cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Naples, our hostel’s property has a path that leads down to the “beach,” but it is really just a rocky outcropping that provides access to the water, if you want to jump in.
While waiting for the bus back to Santa Fortunata, we met up with the rest of our classmates. Apparently two girls who forgot their passports on Thursday ended up getting into Naples so late that that trains had stopped running, so they had to take a taxi to Sorrento, which cost over €100. I kept thinking it would have been cheaper to find a hotel and stay the night in Naples, then ride the train in the next morning. Of course, later on I heard some stories and realized why nobody wants to stay the night in Naples — it sounds kinda scary.
When we returned to the hostel, we noticed a sign by the office that was advertising a boat ride to Capri for €21 a person. We tried unsuccessfully to ask the man behind the counter whether or not it was a good value (he did not speak English as well as the night clerk), until he finally told us that the public ferry was only €19, but this tour would take us around the whole island. Sign me up!
Saturday, June 5, 2004
We woke early so we would have time to catch the boat to Capri at 8:30. When we arrived at the dining hall, someone asked to see our complimentary breakfast tickets, but we were never given any, so we had to run over to the front office to get them. We barely finished eating with time to sprint down to the beach and hop on the boat. We picked up a few more people at a local marina, and then set sail for Capri.
The water was a little choppy, and a lot of my childhood memories involve fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with my dad, where I was seasick the entire time. I was concerned about vomiting, but thankfully I didn’t. The ocean was such a vibrant, iridescent ultramarine color — something I had never seen before. The shallower areas were clear as crystal, and we could easily view all the way to the bottom.
The boat circled the island and took us past the Grotto Bianco (White Grotto), a small cave like a mouth opening up out of the the rocky cliffs. They took us around to the back side of the island, and we passed through a natural rock archway jutting up out of the water like the fin of an enormous fish. We docked at a public beach located near the city of Anacapri. We would be given the day to explore the island, and the boat would pick us up again at the end of the afternoon. The beach was mostly pebbles, unlike the smooth white sandy Panama City beaches I was used to. It was far too cold to swim, so I spent a while walking up and down the shore to pick up sea glass.
After an hour or two, we started getting hungry, so I went to find my flip-flops, but they were conspicuously absent from the spot I left them. I was bewildered until Shel spotted one of my shoes bobbing on the waves! She didn’t mind the cold water, so she managed to swim out and retrieve it. Unfortunately it seemed that the other castaway flip-flop was gone for good. While searching for my shoes, we were being observed the whole time — by a little old man we’d soon come to know as Giovanni. When Shel finally came out of the water, we saw him standing in front of a beachside restaurant. He was calling out and motioning for us to come over. We were still hungry, so we decided to accept the invitation. (Besides, where could I go with one shoe?) He spoke a lot of English, and immediately introduced himself and offered us the best seats, no service charge, “anything you want!” At some point I realized he was talking mostly to Shel, who was only wearing her swimsuit. As he ushered us over to a table, he made some random comments about how “Your mothers raised very good daughters!” (Whatever that means.)
After we ordered our food, he asked if anyone wanted a side salad, but we had been in Italy long enough to find out that sides usually cost extra. Giovanni exclaimed, “For you, no charge!” so Shel replied, “Okay sure, I’ll take a free salad.” He frowned at her and said, “I did not say that!” before walking away. By this time, Shel had dried off so she put her clothes back on. Giovanni ignored us for the remainder of our meal, refused to take my Visa card, and told us to leave a tip “in cash.” (Didn’t he promise no service charge?) I deduced that if we had all taken our shirts off, we might have gotten a free meal.
I decided that I could either go barefoot for the rest of the day (which is admittedly a pretty normal thing for me to do) or buy a new pair of shoes. Luckily we found a little shop near the beach that was selling flip-flops. The cashier thought it was funny when I came in barefoot and told them “what had happened was…”
After buying lunch and replacement shoes, I was left with no cash. We decided not to bother taking the bus into Anacapri and just hung around on the beach for the remainder of the afternoon. We ran into a few other girls from our group, and eventually we all decided to be brave and go swimming. The blue water was so seductive, even though it felt like being submerged in a bucket of ice. But, at least I crossed the Mediterranean Sea off my list of places to swim.
We spent the final few hours just avoiding a sunburn, until our boat came back and we began the return trip to Sorrento. As we circled back around the island, we stopped by the Grotta Verde (Green Grotto) which was basically just another archway where the light reflecting off the water made it appear to glow green. Our final stop was the Grotta Azurra (Blue Grotto) which is similar to the Green Grotto (only blue, obviously), and a very popular tourist attraction. If you want to, you could pay money to take a small rowboat into an even smaller cave. The tide was so high by this point that people were having to lay down in the boats in order to get into the grotto. To that I said no thanks.
Back in Sorrento, the other girls went to take showers while I decided to go find a bancomat. For some reason there was no ATM on the hostel property even though they only took cash payments. The hotel across the street didn’t have one, so I just started walking in hopes that I’d stumble across a bank. I had walked probably half a mile — and almost been run over by several trucks and a Vespa — when two men, whom I assumed were my age if not younger, pulled up next to me on a motorcycle. The conversation that followed went something like this: one asked me if I spoke English, I said yes. The other asked me if I was Canadian, and I said no, I’m from the US. For some reason this made them suddenly very excited, and one asked me if I wanted to go out with them later. By this point I was getting uncomfortable, so I said I was meeting a friend and excused myself. When I relayed this story to Dr. Comerford later, she told me that Canadian girls are considered prettier, but American girls are considered more promiscuous. Good to know…
Sunday, June 6, 2004
We woke up really early to catch the train back to Naples. For whatever reason, the train was delayed, so we missed our connecting train to Chiusi and had to wait for another. We arrived just in time to hop on the last bus to Montepulciano!
At dinner, we learned that Ronald Reagan died. Dr. Trendell also reminded us of the anniversary of D-Day, because without the people who fought and died in World War II, we might not even be able to visit Italy today. Speaking of dinner: have I mentioned that several girls have a crush on our server, Eliseo? He seems to be a typical Italian playboy. It’s really very funny. Our other server is Fabiola, who doesn’t know as much English as Eliseo, but is still as sweet as can be. I think at the end of the trip we are going to take up a collection so we can give them a gigantic tip, for putting up with 40+ hungry, cranky, tired Americans every night.
Monday, June 7, 2004
Today, sketchbook class hiked all the way down the mountain to see the cathedral of San Biagio. It’s one of Montepulciano’s “landmarks” but was not swarming with tourists. In fact, we were the only people there. Just like almost every other church we’ve seen throughout our trip, it had scaffolding all over one side because it was undergoing restorations.
Later in the evening our entire group had a wine tasting at the Crociani family vineyard. We were told a little bit about their history, then given a selection of four wines to sample. Well, it wasn’t really a sample, they just left an entire bottle at each table. The varieties of wine included three reds and one white. The first was a young red from 2002 called Rosso di Montepulciano, and had a robust flavor that I enjoyed very much. The second was Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, an aged red from 2001, followed by another Vino Nobile from 1999. Both were made from the same grapes, but each had a distinctly different taste. Vino Nobile is one of the 27 types of wine produced in Tuscany that have gained recognition as being best in the region. The last wine we were given was called Vin Santo, a dessert white made from grapes that were pressed after they began to ferment, then aged for 7 to 10 years. The bottle we were given was from 1993. However, I did not like this one as much because I found the flavor to be sickly-sweet. I only enjoyed it when I dipped biscotti into the wine.
I soon realized that Italian wines appear to have a much higher alcohol content than those bottled in the States. I only had a couple of glasses, but my face felt flushed and I wanted to go take a nap! I don’t know if it was actually the wine or if my brain realized how tired I was. Waking up at 7am or earlier, day-long field trips, and weekends completely consumed by travel don’t leave a lot of time to relax. Lately I’ve been feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things we’ve been doing. I also realized that we’re now about halfway through our trip, when I overheard a couple of people talking about how much they’re ready to go home. I haven’t quite reached that point yet, and I don’t know if I will. I love almost everything about being here, and the few little annoyances don’t really bother me too much. It’s really cool how much of the language I’ve picked up in such a short time.
Tuesday, June 8, 2004
Another field trip; today our sketchbook class went to Siena. As usual, a bunch of people showed up at the bus stop with hangovers. Ms. Murray told us that the ride to Siena was “a little rough,” so anyone who feels like they might get sick should probably sit up front. Basically the whole group sat up front. To make matters worse, we had the most aggressive bus driver — he would ride other cars’ bumpers and honk incessantly until they moved over, and he would speed around blind curves without slowing down, even as cars in the opposite lane were barreling toward us. And he was ranting in Italian the entire trip. The few people in the back of the bus kept yelling, which was funny, but I’m actually surprised nobody threw up. Or that we didn’t all die.
Siena is a quintessential Tuscan city; a lot like Montepulciano, only larger. The city is centered around the Piazza del Campo, and all the major roads converge there, so it seems pretty hard to get lost. Our first stop was the art supply store of course, which was quite small so we had to take turns going inside in groups of three. Fun art fact: the soil from Siena is the original source for the color burnt sienna. They were selling little jars of dirt that could be mixed with a binder (such as linseed oil or egg yolk) to create paint.
Our next stop was the Piazza. It’s divided into nine sections, reflected by patterns in the brickwork, representing the nine political districts of the city. There were quite a few people sunning themselves out in the Piazza. Some of us had lunch in the shade while waiting for the rest of our group to meet up.
Following lunch, we visited a Christian art museum, which did have a few interesting pieces but overall was in dire need of restoration. Afterward, we visited the duomo and baptistry, which were undergoing restoration at the time; the duomo’s museum presented yet another medieval Christian art collection. We were given the the opportunity to climb to the top of the clock tower for a great view, but the weather was balmy and there were over 400 stairs, so I can’t imagine why nobody wanted to. (Sarcasm.) Shel and I found a Leonardo Da Vinci museum hidden in an alleyway, and since students get a discount, we’re hoping to return to visit later on.
On the way back to the bus station, a couple of us bought linen scarves from a street vendor. Mine is a really pretty cranberry color. They seem to be a trendy item here, even in summer (I assume to keep the sun away, or to cover shoulders in church). I also keep seeing tote bags that all say “Pink Bag” on the side even though they come in colors other than pink. Occasionally I will see one that says “Pinko Bag.” I can only assume that the people who buy them don’t speak English, because I also saw one that said “Kevin Bag.” Maybe Kevin is a fashion designer or something.
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
I’m going to dedicate this entry to the wonderful world of Italian food!
1. “Breakfast” in Italy is a cappuccino. Since I don’t really drink coffee I’ve been eating croissants or yogurt with fruit instead. Occasionally you will see restaurants offering “American Breakfast” (bacon, eggs, etc.) on a separate tourist menu with stupid high prices.
2. Tuscans eat a lot of meat. I think we’re given beef for dinner at least three times a week, and they like their steak rare — bloody and practically still mooing, which is how I like it too! Most people in our group don’t seem to want it unless it’s cooked so long that it becomes impossible to tell that it was alive at some point. Italians aren’t known for their meat-free lifestyles, so the vegetarians in our group have started complaining because they’ve mostly been stuck eating tomato slices, eggplant parmesan, and cheese plates. There are some items on menus here that you probably wouldn’t see in the States, including horse and pigeon. Rabbit is also common. To my knowledge, we have not been served any of these… yet. I wouldn’t be opposed to trying any of them, but I can’t imagine that horse would taste very good.
3. A couple of nights ago at dinner, everyone requested salad. When Eliseo and Fabiola brought out the salad plates, most of my classmates just sort of stared blankly, until someone said, “Where’s the dressing?” Dr. Comerford leaned over and said, “No Italian dressing here, guys!” One girl’s jaw dropped and she exclaimed, “We have to eat dry salad?!” I pointed at the bottle of balsamic vinegar in my hand and said, “You’ve been putting this on your bread every night, but it can go on lettuce too.” It was hilarious, like nobody has ever made their own salad dressing before?
4. Pizza doesn’t always come with tomato sauce. Some versions have alfredo or pesto sauce. Some have no sauce at all. My favorite toppings are funghi (mushrooms) and carcofi (artichokes).
5. I’ve really grown fond of these hand-made fat spaghetti noodles called pici. I’ve been buying it in little bags from one of the produce markets on the Corso and it cooks in almost no time. I really like one that is flavored with tartufi (truffles).
6. For some reason, peanut butter is either expensive or unavailable here. Italians substitute Nutella, which apparently most people in my group had never heard of until we arrived. It is a chocolate-hazelnut spread and tastes good on almost anything.
7. Restaurants only offer bottled water. You usually have a choice between naturale (mineral water) and frizzante (sparkling water) — but don’t expect ice cubes. Also, don’t expect free refills… on anything, even water. I admit that I do miss being able to drink all the water I want, not to mention buy a Coca-Cola for less than five dollars. It’s funny that beer is cheaper than water and wine practically falls from the sky, but you have to sell your soul to get a Coke.
8. In addition to gelato, I’ve discovered panna cotta, a creamy custard usually drizzled with chocolate. I actually found some in prepackaged cups at the supermarket. Also, real tiramisù is soaked in alcohol.
9. Italians prefer their food to be made fresh, so preservatives aren’t very popular and they don’t appear to like food dyes very much either. Even McDonald’s is no exception. The food is better and even the ketchup tastes different. I think it’s the tomatoes, or maybe the absence of corn syrup. There are a couple of items on the menu that don’t exist in America, including a salad with salmon and shrimp, a “Crispy McBacon” sandwich, and a “Caribbean combo” (a pita bread sandwich with some kind of tropical dressing). The missing food dyes are really obvious in things like candies and sodas. Orange Fanta looks like Sprite, compared to the scary neon color it is back home.
10. Plastic bags and cling wrap don’t seem to exist here. It’s difficult to pack a lunch without them! Wrapping in brown paper is the best I’ve come up with so far.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
Another trip to Florence today, this time with the art history class. This makes visit #3 for Shel, Margie, and me. From there we will be heading north, to Venice (finally)!
Of all the cities I have visited so far, I think Florence has left the strongest impression on me. At first glance it is a crowded, chaotic place; absolutely saturated with museums and cathedrals to the point of absurdity. However, there is rhythm to the city that truly demonstrates its role as the birthplace of the Renaissance; the dirt and noise does not overshadow the beauty and history. Each time I leave I’m left with a feeling of nostalgia, almost like I’d been there before. Of course, Florence is also the chosen city of one of my favorite fictional characters — Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Today we visited the Accademia, which was originally the first art school in Europe. Now it’s a museum that is well-known for housing Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Biblical hero David. (There is a copy outside in the Piazza della Signoria, but this is the real one, so no photos allowed.) “David” is 12 feet tall, standing on a pedestal under an arch at the end of a long hallway. His face is very lifelike, with a pensive expression as he stands poised and ready for battle. Several unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo also line the hallway preceding David. These sculptures include his second Pietà, which was the last piece he began before his death. This exhibit gave me the feeling of stepping into the artist’s studio and viewing his works in progress. Since I’m not a sculptor, it’s always amazing to me that someone can concieve a form and bring it out of a block of stone with nothing but a hand chisel.
Since we had seen the duomo and baptistry already, us three were excused from class to go back to the train station to wait for our ride to Venice. We’ve been walking around all day, so naturally we’re exhausted, and the weather had gradually warmed up to a sweltering 90 degrees (no, I don’t know what that is in Celcius and quite frankly I was too hot to care). By the time we boarded our train to Venice, we were practically drenched in sweat. As fate would have it, our train’s air conditioning was broken — I don’t know if it was just our car, or the whole train, but either way we roasted for the entire duration of the three hour ride. Yesterday I made another reservation for us, at a different hostel. This one was recommended by several people who went to Venice during the first week of class. Camping Fusina was located just outside of Venice, predictably in a town called Fusina. As we were waiting for a bus, a stranger approached us and asked us for the time, then used that as an opening to engage us in a conversation. When our bus pulled up, he got on with us and continued to talk, then finally he asked, “My English is like macaroni?” When I said I didn’t follow, he replied, “Americans like macaroni. So, my English must be like macaroni, yes?”
After walking around all day in the heat, riding in a hot train, and getting on a hot bus, we arrived at the hostel, checked into our room… and it was hot. By this time I was going to cry if I didn’t at least get a shower. Fortunately, Camping Fusina was much nicer than Santa Fortunata. We actually got our correct room this time, and it was okay, aside from the lack of air conditioning. It was clean and had real beds. I think this is about as close to actual camping as I ever want to be.