A Travellerspoint blog

July 2010


Seeing the Sights in an Afternoon and Disaster Averted in Florence

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When we got to Pisa at 4pm, we went to the place to lock up our baggage and found out it closes at 9pm. We wouldn’t be back to the station until 10 or so for the 10:30pm train to Florence, so we unfortunately had to carry our bags around Pisa all day. Or more accurately, I would be carrying my backpack and both duffel bags around all day. We bought a map and saw that the Leaning Tower was all the way at the north end of the town and the train station was way down south. Luckily, we found out that Pisa is a small town and it took us 20 minutes to walk the length of our map. The funny thing about Pisa is that the entire tourist section is in one block. There’s the tower, a cathedral and a baptistery all right next to each other, with an endless row of vendors lining the side of the block.

Kristine went to buy tickets while I guarded the bags and she was happy to find out that you can’t bring bags up the tower and have to check them. Our ticket for the tower was for an 8 o’clock tour and they wouldn’t let us check our bags until 5 minutes before the tour, so we were stuck with them for another 3 or 4 hours. We went inside the cathedral which was actually pretty amazing, although the outside architecture of it was probably the most impressive. The baptistery was a circular building which gave it incredible acoustics. It’s known for the echoes it makes. Although you have to be silent inside, every half hour one of the security guards makes noises in all different pitches. It sounds like he has a chorus with him because the sound reverberates so many times that it sounds like there is several voices. It was cooler than you might think. By this time, we had a few minutes to take the requisite “holding up the tower” pictures before actually heading up. On the lawn in front of the tower, there is signs all over the place saying that the lawn is off limits and there are two security guards patrolling with whistles. They take their job way too seriously although the fact that they try to keep you off the grass in the first place is kind of ridiculous. Every once in a while, they security guards were out of sight for just a minute when people would start creeping on the grass to take pictures. Eventually the lawn would be filled with people until he came back blowing his whistle like a crazy person. Quite entertaining to watch.

Going up the stairs in a lopsided tower is pretty disorienting and it was cool to get to the top and walk around the edges to see how much higher one side was than the other. We were up there just around sunset, which was perfect. We headed down for dinner was within sight of the tower itself. There was even a little band walking around playing music. One thing that kind of ruined the ambiance, however, was that they turned the TV on which was right above us and had an MTV-type channel playing mostly American songs. Not exactly adding to the Italian atmosphere. The waiters at this restaurant and a few others we have been to take orders on PDAs which was kind of cool. I’m sure it makes things much easier on their end. I really like how everything here already includes tax and tip. It gives you a more realistic idea of what you’ll be spending and also keeps too much change out of my pocket since most prices are at even numbers. It takes forever to get your check no matter where you go and we ended up kind of having to hustle back to the train station. Speed walking with both our bags was fantastic. We made it with a few minutes to spare. Pisa was a great little town. It was cool to see what it’s like being outside of a major city. Things certainly were much cheaper, even despite the fact that we were in a very touristy section. I’m definitely glad we made the trip, although I’m not sure what we would have done there if we had stayed longer. All of the attractions truly were in one square. Most of the other people seemed to be there on day trips as well, which makes sense since a train ticket to Florence is only 7 euros for a 1 hour trip. Since I was carrying the luggage most of the way, Kristine had the map and kept bragging about not getting us lost like I had in Rome, even though Pisa is about one tenth the size of Rome and we only took the one major road from the train station to the leaning tower.

When we got to Florence, it was quite a walk to our hotel and I was again carrying all the bags. We ended up getting there just fine, but sat outside the hotel pressing the buzzer for probably 45 minutes. I went to try to use a payphone but the payphones here only accept calling cards. We were about to start asking people to use their phones to call the hotel number until another person came in and let us in with them. There was luckily a computer for public use and I suggested Kristine send the owners an email that we were here. We also checked and confirmed that both the hostelbookers website and the hotel website said 24 hour reception. We had been inside a half hour or so and were getting ready to sleep in the hallway when one of the owners came in and let us into our room. I was honestly expecting a free night or something but instead they tried to convince us that we said we would be arriving at 8pm and that we should have called if we were running late. First off, we definitely said 11. Maybe she could have convinced me that I accidently put in 11am, but 8? No way. Secondly, she tried to tell us that it didn’t say 24 hour reception on their website and that they wouldn’t be there late unless we called (calling with what phone by the way?). Finally, we were told that there was an error in their booking system and that we would have to switch rooms for tomorrow night. Fantastic. I guess that’s Italian customer service for you. My mom probably would have tried to get a free night out of it (although I would have been surprised to see this lady budge after she tried to blame all the problems on us) but we were so tired at that point after a long day of traveling and just happy to have a bed to sleep in. We booked this hotel because the reviews said the continental breakfast was really good and our breakfasts so far have been pretty bad. This breakfast better be fantastic.

Posted by atbrady 16:32 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Close Call

Ticket Validation

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I’m not sure why they don’t treat train tickets like the subway where you have to put your ticket through to go through the turnstile. Instead, you can hop right on the train and then they have to have a guy come around on the train to check your ticket. In Europe, before you get on the train you have to validate your ticket which basically prints the station and timestamp on the ticket before you hop on so that you can’t reuse the ticket. If you don’t you get charged a huge fine. Anyways, we got on the train and about 3 minutes before it was about to leave, we realized we hadn’t validated the ticket. Kristine hopped off and ran to the machine and ended up making it just fine, but that could have been interesting. Now that we’re on the train, there’s two or three separate guys on the phone that are all literally screaming. Its going to be a looongg four hours.

Posted by atbrady 16:31 Archived in Italy Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Tourism Hyperspeed

Cranking it up to 11

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This morning, we woke up as hobos which was exhilarating! We officially have nowhere to sleep tomorrow night and have no idea where we’ll be. When we woke up, we headed to the train station to plot our next move. We had talked about spending a few days traveling through Italy, probably stopping in Florence first, but Kristine showed some interest in Pisa so we looked into it and saw that train tickets from Rome to Florence were the same price as the tickets from Rome to Pisa then Pisa to Florence. The plan is to get to Pisa ASAP, spend the afternoon there, and then take the last train to Florence. Our rough plan is to spend tonight in Florence then all day tomorrow and tomorrow night and leave some time the next day. If the side trip to Pisa works out, we’ll probably do something similar by making a side trip to Bologna on the way from Florence to Venice. Athens may be out of our itinerary, as we have both heard from separate sources that its overrated and that there isn’t much to do. We thought about going to the Greek Isles to relax a bit and making a day trip to Athens, but who knows. The flight from Venice to Barcelona is only $79 compared to $239 from Venice to Athens, so that might have made the decision for us. Anyways, I’m now sitting in the train station with Kristine asleep on my lap waiting for our train to Pisa!

Posted by atbrady 16:29 Archived in Italy Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

Ancient Rome

Last Day/Night in Rome

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After our great experience at the Vatican yesterday, today we’ll be seeing the sights of Ancient Rome. Breakfast was again uneventful and we hopped onto another overflowing subway train to Capitoline Hill, which was laid out by Michelangelo. There, we stopped at what was billed as the world’s oldest museum, built in the 17th century to house Ancient Roman art. Notable was the remains (feet, head, parts of the arms) of an enormous statue of Emperor Constantine. The statue was so big that his little toe was about the size of my head. The sculptures throughout the building were pretty amazing, especially considering how advanced they were for their time. Literally inside the museum was the foundation of an ancient Roman temple built on this site. Finally was a breathtaking overlook on the Roman Forum (where all of the ancient remains are located). We had planned to go walking through the forum, but you could see all that there was to see from this overlook and from the street and decided that it wasn’t worth the 10 euro ticket. We were able to see some restoration work being done in the area, which was pretty cool. After walking along the side of the forum, we found ourselves at the Coliseum, complete with guys dressed as gladiators trying to get you to give them money to take a picture with them. It was amazing to see so many ancient stones outside the Coliseum simply stacked into piles. Since we had our Roma Pass, we were able to skip the line which was about two hours, one more reason why the Roma Pass was the best deal in any city on this trip. The Coliseum had a few plaques about its history as well as some interesting facts about gladiators as well as replicas of their attire. Overall, however, Kristine and I felt that both museums and Rome in general was a gold mine of ancient ruins that was poorly organized and preserved. Especially after the well planned and polished museums and attractions of London and Paris with plaques everywhere giving you more information, Rome seemed to just let visitors in to see their treasures and expect them to be content just looking. Personally, I enjoy refreshing my memory from things I learned in school years ago or reading the stories often detailed in various plaques. Romans are remarkably lucky that their sights are so beautiful that people will still come, but overall there is plenty of room for improvement.

We made a quick pit stop nearby for lunch and had great sandwiches. All over Rome there are continuously running water fountains. While this seems pretty wasteful, they have been great to be able to fill up my water bottle wherever we go, although Kristine refuses to drink the water. After lunch, we returned to the Castel Sant Angelo that we weren’t able to make it to yesterday. It’s basically a fort and provided another fantastic panorama of the city. Again, we felt that the building itself and the rooms inside could have been better explained. At this point we were near the Piazza Navona which we loved so much and stopped there for some gelato. I got half mango and half lemon gelato. It’s much different from our ice cream, somewhere between ice cream and sorbet. Kristine had chocolate which basically tasted like fudge and was also great. Even during the middle of the day, the Piazza was filled with people and street performers. There were some cool bands, but also some random street performers such as a person who puts on a glittery gold robe and an Egyptian mask and basically stands still for as long as possible and expects you to give them money. Hunter and I had seen the same act in Paris and thought it odd that in no way was it related to the place we were in. I also saw more I heart Roma shirts, this time however, they said I <3 NY but had NY crossed out and Roma scribbled underneath. They really need some new ideas. One shirt I do like that I have seen in London and Paris as well are college shirts (i.e. the Rome shirt says Universita Roma and has their crest).

With our gelatos in hand, we headed to the Pantheon. It is the only building from Ancient Rome that remains intact. You probably know it as the domed building with the hole in the middle (seen in Angels and Demons). It was a great way to end our sightseeing adventures in Rome as it was beautiful to admire. Even after a busy day, we didn’t end there. My guidebook had recommended going to the Spanish Steps where vendors and tourists congregate. On the way, we stopped two separate times at random churches that were open and were absolutely beautiful. It was amazing to see that even those that don’t make it on the tourists radar are just as old and majestic. We also passed the Trevi Fountain which was ridiculously packed during the day. You couldn’t even get near it. We were happy to have made it last night when it was lit dramatically and we had it to ourselves. At the Spanish steps we didn’t actually buy anything, but we were exhausted and the steps provided us with a seat to for great people watching. We watched countless tourists get scammed by the dozens of flower scammers using the same methods over and over again. There was also plenty of vendors selling other useless trinkets. We hopped back on the subway to stop at our hotel before dinner. No matter what time you are on the subway, it is absolutely packed.

After dropping off our things, we headed to a nearby area, Via Veneto, recommended by my guidebook for food and nighttime activity. After last night’s epic walk, we wanted to stick close by our hotel. It was still a good 15 minute walk and gave us a chance to see a part of the city we had not yet explored. The restaurant we went to was pretty cool, one of the types surrounded by pictures of the owner with celebrities. Apparently it’s a popular place for the stars to go when they’re in Rome. Dinner was pretty good. Kristine gave me a hard time for ordering Lasagna since I had done the same the last two nights when she ordered boring Italian meals she could get at home. I guess I just wanted to see what Italian lasagna was like. It was pretty good, if unspectacular. We noticed our waiter speaking to us in great English, to the table beside us in German and to the wait staff in Italian. We ended up finding out that he was from Pakistan and spoke 7 different languages which was incredible. Overall, there are a lot more English speakers here than in Paris, which I was a bit surprised about. Even small shopkeepers speak decent English. After dinner, we walked around Via Veneto. It was a cool walk, as it was the area with high end hotels and bars, but ultimately, we would have gone back to Piazzi Navona if it had not been such a long walk. That was probably our favorite place to be in Rome. It was the kind of place you could sit at and enjoy for a whole night.
So far, the weather on the trip has been fantastic. In the past 9 days, our worst weather has been a cool afternoon in Paris and a 5 minute drizzle which is pretty good in my book. Since you have to wear pants and covered shoulders in the Vatican and at most Churches in Rome, the weather here has almost been too hot, but I can’t really complain. While the sights in Rome were absolutely fantastic, from the Piazzas to the architecture and of course the Coliseum and Vatican, the rest of the city wasn’t as impressive. As soon as you left any of the attractions, the city seemed run down and not especially inviting. I had a great experience here but could never see myself living here, unlike the last two cities.

Posted by atbrady 16:27 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Day at the Vatican

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This morning we woke up early to be able to spend a full day at the Vatican. After another fabulous corn flake breakfast, we hit the road and picked up a Roma pass which entitles us to public transportation for 3 days and 2 sights as well as discounts to the other sights after our first two for only 25 euros (32ish dollars). It was one of the best deals of our trip since sights average 10 to 15 euros apiece and the city is quite sprawled out making the subway a necessity anyways. Although the Vatican didn’t count as one of the sights we could use the Roma Pass for, we needed to use the subway since we are on the far eastern side of the city and Vatican City is on the extreme western side. Just a block from our hotel is Termini Station, and I finally figured out why our hotel played up their proximity to it. When searching for a hotel, ours had bragged about being one block from Termini. However, whatever part of Termini Station that I arrived from the airport in was both run down and small and I felt as if I had been scammed. However, I now know that the station is in fact the hub of the metro lines as well as the train lines and basically contains an entire mall. We quickly learned that Rome’s subway is absolutely packed and many of the passengers got off at the stop for the Vatican. We followed the stream of people to the entrance to the Vatican Museum. On the way, we quickly realized that we were not the only ones with the bright idea of coming to the Vatican today. The line way absurdly long and stretched around a few corners of the Vatican walls. It looked as if it would take at least a few hours. At that point, we heard a girl walking by selling tours where we could skip the line and have a three hour guided tour of the museum for just 15 euros more than the admission fee. Although I had been avoiding such tours throughout the trip, this seemed worth it because the line was so long and there was so much to see inside the Vatican. After waiting around a bit for our tour group to form, we skipped the line and headed straight into the Vatican museum.

Our tour guide, Elaine, was from Toronto and first took us to a courtyard where she described the Sistine Chapel. Since you must be silent inside, there are posters in this courtyard where she could talk about the different elements with the help of some visuals. Interestingly, we learned that Michelangelo was a bit of a loner and had a big ego and when they needed someone to paint the chapel, Raphael suggested Michelangelo since he was a sculptor and expected him to fail which might keep his ego in check. When Michelangelo took the job, he hired a bunch of artists as his apprentices and had them paint the chapel. What he was really doing was taking notes on their techniques which he was completely unfamiliar with until one day, he thought that he had learned enough and he locked them out of the chapel when they went to lunch and never let another soul inside until he was done. Also, there is a clear progression from one side to the other as Michelangelo both mastered the technique and improved on it. He then tore down their work and completed the entire ceiling on his own for four years. Our tour guide did have an interesting critique of the work, however. He had not been able to use live models for his paintings and instead used the various Greek sculptures and paintings for his own masterpiece. However, Greek art rarely depicted women, so the women painted in the Sistine chapel look very manly. Also, the painting on the wall had originally depicted all of the figures in the nude until one pope thought it inappropriate for the church and had another artist come in to paint robes on the figures. We also learned that because so many candles had been burned in the chapel over the years that the paintings in the chapel had become dark and barely visible. The Vatican went looking for someone to pay for the restoration until a Japanese TV company offered, but only if they could have the rights to the images for a few decades. The Vatican agreed and because of this, no pictures are allowed in the chapel. Even though we learned about the chapel first, it was the last stop on our tour, so we first when through the rest of the museum.

The tour ended up working out great. We were given headphones so that our tour guide could talk into a microphone and we could all hear her even if we were in a crowded room. We learned about countless stories behind the various pieces that were really interesting and that we would have otherwise walked right by without giving much thought. One such painting was the school of Athens. Most people would probably recognize it if they saw it. It is by Raphael where he painted the faces of many of his contemporaries on the bodies of famous scholars from ancient Athens. We were told that he was not planning to include Michelangelo in the painting, but that one night he snuck into the Sistine Chapel and saw what a great job Michelangelo was doing and decided he had been wrong and included him in the picture. We also learned that Raphael often paints himself in his paintings and that you can tell which person is him because he is always looking out at the audience. Another interesting thing was learning about how you can tell the subject of the painting by the symbols he carries. Hercules carries a wooden club, while most saints hold symbols related to their martyrdom, with the exception of St. Peter who is always seen with two keys, one to heaven and one to the church. When St. Peter was condemned to death on the cross, he requested to be hung upside down so that he would not die the way Jesus had died. After his death, followers stole his body from the Romans so that he could be buried. Since they were in a hurry, they cut him at his ankles to get him down. For centuries St. Peters was said to be built on his remains and in excavations as recently as the 80’s, a body was found cut at the ankles and with carbon dating confirming that the body was from St. Peter’s time. The architecture inside the Vatican museums was exceptional, but even more impressive was that every inch of the walls and ceiling was covered in art. One interesting room was the map room in which maps are painted on the walls depicting the entire known world. However, the orientation of the maps seemed suspect until our guide told us that they were all oriented as if you were looking at them from Rome because Rome was “the center of the universe.” Another amazing thing was that we were even allowed to walk on the original mosaic floors which were both beautiful and intricate. Even after everything we had seen, nothing could compare to the Sistine Chapel at the end of our tour. It was truly an impressive sight that you would have to see to believe. The colors were vivid, the paintings were highly detailed and the sheer size of this massive “canvas” was astounding. It was also kind of funny to watch everyone trying to take pictures of the ceiling before being yelled at by one of the security guards.

After our tour, we headed out to St. Peter’s square for some pictures and then grabbed a quick lunch.
In the afternoon, we noticed that the line to get to the top of the basilica had died down considerably, so we got in line for the privilege to climb 551 steps to the peak. Near the top of the dome, the hallways got pretty tight and curved sideways with the dome. From the top, the 360 degree view of Rome was impressive. Once we made it back down, we finally toured the basilica itself which certainly lived up to its reputation. We tried to fit in the nearby Castel Sant Angelo before the end of the day, but weren’t able to get in. The park area around it was nice, however, and we enjoyed it for a while as we planned the rest of our night. For dinner, I found a place in my guidebook near the Vatican called Sicilianboca which Frommer’s billed as the best Sicilian restaurant in Rome. It’s funny how Italian restaurants have so many courses offered. First there’s the appetizers, then the soups, then the antipasti, then the first course (usually pasta), then the second course (some kind of meat), then the salad and finally desert. The place we went to was relatively inexpensive, so we went all out with the courses. For an antipasti, I had a tomato salad which ended up literally just being tomatoes, but it was fantastic, especially since I’ve been deprived of fruit and vegetables on this trip. The food was good and filling and we had the house wine which was also good. For desert, we had hollowed out fruit that was filled with gelato of the flavor of the fruit. There was also a walnut and chestnut that were surprisingly good. It was a cool idea and tasted delicious. We ended up making friends with the entire wait staff who told us about tipping in Italy (it’s already included), having pasta last, and a variety of other cultural nuances. It seemed like they were just as fascinated by our culture as we were with theirs. After dinner, they told us about the new wine store they opened next door and the free tastings, so we went over and grabbed a bottle of a Sicilian white wine. On the way home, we planned to hop on the metro, and stop and Trevi fountain to drink some of our wine before going home (you can drink anywhere you want around here—it’s kind of weird to see at first). Kristine remembered loving it on her first trip to Italy. You’re supposed to toss a coin over your shoulder into the fountain and make a wish.

Anyways, we got to the metro and saw that it was closed. It was about 5 minutes after 12, so we assumed that it closed at 12 which seemed ridiculously early for such a large city. Since we had just spent a small fortune on dinner and wine, we decided against calling a cab and instead started the walk across the entire city of Rome. It turned out to be quite an adventure. In Rome, about 10% of the streets have street signs. In addition, there are so many small alleys and side streets that even the giant map I bought didn’t have all of the streets included. There are no simple blocks or intersections of two streets. Instead, very few streets last more than couple blocks before becoming something else. Some streets are actually piazzas, which have multiple streets going into a central square. When you come to these, it’s difficult to know which street to take out because there are never any street signs. Even worse, there are monuments everywhere, most of which are on their own roundabout and have several streets converging into them and leaving you clueless as to where to go after them. This all culminates to make Rome a navigational nightmare, and in walking from one extreme end to the other, I got us lost a fair share. On the way, Kristine got scammed by a Pakistani guy who came rushing up to us and handed her flowers. He said they were free so she took them and shook my hand and asked where we were from and told us he was from Pakistan. Then, he started asking me for some small change. I gave him a euro and he wasn’t satisfied and wanted more. I had had enough and told him thank you and we left. We checked our pockets and made sure we weren’t pick pocketed or anything like that. Of all the ways to get scammed, it certainly could have been much worse. Kristine started getting paranoid and ended up throwing out the flowers because she thought they were poisoned which was nuts but hilarious. We did eventually make it to Trevi Fountain, and it was so late by that time that we were able to enjoy our wine among only a handful of people there. It truly is a beautiful fountain and is even more impressive at night. One thing we did notice on our trek was that there is a policeman at every major monument at night watching for vandals. It was sad that that’s what they had to do, but at least they were able to keep Rome’s monuments pristine, if not the rest of the city. Upon finally reaching Hotel Aquarium, we were exhausted and passed out almost immediately. However, at this point I had run out of clean boxers and still had not been able to make it to a laundromat since we are on the go from 8am until at least 12pm every night. Instead, I washed my boxers in the sink and set them out to dry. It’s not long until morning, so I hope that they have time to dry.

Posted by atbrady 16:23 Archived in Vatican City Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

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