Wow, hi, it's been a bit. Sorry for the lack of posts the last little while. To be honest, I did say upfront that I don't have a set posting schedule, and there could be long breaks between posts, due to activities, Internet connectivity, etc. Well, this time, it was more because I was staying with family, and the time that I could be spent type-typing away, I preferred to spend with my family. But now I'm super behind schedule, so let's try to fix that.
So, Italy! I have to say, my time in Italy, compared to, well, select days in Morocco, was been a cakewalk. Not just because I had the opportunity to relax, but more people speak English, things seem a bit more normal, and it's more expensive (hey, cakes are expensive, so the analogy fits). Not as much really crazy stuff going on, but to be honest, I needed a little decompression after Morocco. (And that's going to be something I learn to build into my schedule from here on out.) I guess that would be pretty much expected from a Western nation, but it was nice regardless.
I arrived in Rome with little fanfare; I had no real intention on this being a Roman holiday, so I thought it best if I just got out of the city at my earliest convenience. I got on one of many buses that would take me to the Roma Termini train station, and took a whirlwind 30-minute tour of the city...well, mostly of the freeways leading into the city. I saw a couple of domed building's that I took some pictures of ("hey, it might be something important"), but for the most part, it was a strictly practical affair.
I arrived at the train station, and with a couple questions asked, found myself a train to Florence (my first stop on this trip) that would leave within 20 minutes. This good fortune was somewhat soured by the fact that the ticket cost 46 Euro (which was about the same price I paid for all the time I was in that great Marrakech hotel). There was a (somewhat) cheaper option, but it was the slow train, and would not arrive at my destination for another 6 hours. Sometimes, it's worth it to spend money. I used my time and limited Wi-Fi on that train to finish my last blog post, and before I knew it, we had arrived in Florence. Immediately, the first thing that struck me about this city was its lampposts. In any normal city, a three-bulb lamp would be just that - a pole with three bulbs coming from the top. But in Florence, these bulbs are held up by a metalwork vine containing snakes, birds, and dragons, supported by swans, on top of a spiral poll which stands atop three griffon legs. There is no reason any lamp needs to look like that. And yet, they all do. It's that kind of superfluity and overt ostentatiousness that made Florence my favorite of the Italian cities I visited.
It was evening when I arrived, so I decided to keep an eye out for a place to eat. And, lo and behold, near the train station stood a McDonald's. I remembered my commitment to try a McDonald's in every country I visited, and instantly regretted it. Here I was, in one of the most culinary celebrated countries on Earth, and I was settling for a McDonald's. But a promise is a promise, and so I went in and scanned their menu. I immediately saw the two items that would make up my meal. The first was called the "Nuovo Focaccino", which was a salami and provolone sandwich (with some sort of mayo, I think) on focaccia bread. About as un-McDonald's in design as anything I'd ever expect. For a side, I got "Crochets di Spinnacci e Parmesan". You can probably guess what these were but basically imagine a McNugget, but filled with a green spinach-cheese mix. Neither was bad, per se - at least, not nearly as revolting as the McFondue - but even if I normally ate at McDonald's, I would never make them a part of my diet. Especially at the price - 3 Euro apiece. But worst was the drink - 2.50 Euro for a 250ml cup - that's about a Happy Meal size - half-filled with ice, and no refills. That last part blew my mind. I never realized how much we, as Americans, take our free refills for granted.
Anyway, after spending a full 10 Euro on that waste, I walked to the hostel, which was considerably more developed than I was expecting (probably because it was actually part of a chain of hostels ["Plus", in case you've heard of it] rather than just some empty building), and I was overall very impressed with it, except for the fact that they had messed up on the booking, and I was going to have to move to a different room the next day. Even so, I was pleased with the room I had, as it was a six-person room that I only had to share with one other guy. That being smooth sailing, I turned my attention to my plan of action for the next day. I went down to the hostel's computer room and began furiously researching everything in the area, and saw that I could get a so called "FirenzeCard", that would get me access to most of the big attractions, often in their priority lines. The rub? It was 50 Euro for a 72-hour card, and I'd only be able to use it one day. After debating its merits and doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I decided to go with it, willing to accept the fact that I'm probably losing some money in the deal.
Actually, here's a spoiler: I didn't. If you're going to Florence, and are as efficient as me, that card is worth it.
Anyway, I woke up, packed my bags, and dropped them off at the front desk to be picked up later. This was probably about 8am - the earliest time I could pick up the card would be 8:30, which was still a preferable option than getting up at maybe 7am to get in the general line for the Uffizi or Academia. However, true to my most basal nature, I got lost almost immediately. Luckily, one of the cool things in Florence is the fact that when you get lost, you can just find yourself somewhere. Like, I turned a corner and, oh, there's the Duomo. People were in line, others were taking pictures; I was lost while knowing exactly where I was.
Now, what was weird about Florence (and also Rome, to an extent), is how much of it I remember from the historical fiction video game Assassins Creed 2 (and Brotherhood, respectively), which in part took place there. If you're unfamiliar with the game, it takes place during the Renaissance and involves you running, climbing, and jumping along all the buildings in the city as your find your assassination targets (don't worry, the targets are all quite evil). Seeing as so many of the buildings that existed during the Renaissance still exist, I was getting flashbacks with each new building. The theme music ran through my head, and I had to fight every instinct to start hopping on stones to climb to rooftops. I did jokingly muse that I was disappointed that there was no statue celebrating Ezio Auditore da Firenze, but when I saw an Assassin's Creed case at the Uffizi Museum's bookshop, I let that make up for it...almost.
Sorry, old video game habits die hard. Anyhoo, after finally finding a place where I could get my Firenze card, I walked to the Uffizi Museum, which is probably one of the most extensive in the world. And the crowd definitely spoke to this. The general admission line wrapped around the corner, and about halfway through, it said, "Wait, 3 Hours". Whether it meant from that point or for the whole line, it seemed pretty absurd. Thankfully, my card got me into the registered ticket line. I still had to wait, but only for half an hour instead of 3+ hours. I liked this card already. So, the Uffizi was started by Lorenzo d' Medici (aka Lorenzo the Magnificent, aka a really rich guy), and...I really don't know what to say about it. It's unbelievable. There is so much there. Even the hallways between galleries are lined with artwork. Like, go on to Wikipedia right now and look up some pope from the 1400s. Chances are, the art that is used in that article was done by a guy named Paolo Giovio, and there were hundreds - hundreds! - of his pieces lining these hallways, showing everybody who was anybody - kings, queens, popes, opposing leaders. It was a history overload. And there were a good share of famous pieces, not the least of which being Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (though I was never the biggest fan of that one). I tried reading as many written descriptions as I could, and probably would have gotten a ton of value out of an audio tour, but had to keep a brisk pace. I had a schedule to keep.
It was lunchtime when I left the museum, and on a tip, I got a sandwich from this place which was pegged as the number one food place in all of Florence on TripAdvisor. There's a good reason for that. For five Euro (cash - apparently the cash economy is still alive and well in Italy as well), I got a huge sandwich with artichoke spread, spinach, tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and a really good thin-sliced ham. It put that Nuovo Focaccino to shame (as if there would be any doubt). It was then that I realized that the sky was clear. I didn't mention it before, but when I was lost earlier in the day, it was raining, substantially enough that I considered going back and getting my jacket. I decided against it, and thankfully so - the clouds cleared up, and it became at least 80 degrees and incredibly humid. This happened more than once in Italy - it seriously is like two to three separate days’ worth of weather in one. Unfortunately, what rain there was did spoil some of the museums that I did want to go to, like the scientifically oriented Galileo Museum. "Ah, well, next time."
I then went to the Palazzo Vecchio, which was basically the home of the Medici family. And oh. My. God. Imagine those lampposts and turn them up to eleven. Every single room in this house - well, palace - was like its own museum of art, decked out to an absurd degree. It really makes you wonder about wealth. The Medici was a very wealthy family. Hell, they invented banking. But I genuinely don't know just to what extent they were wealthy. How would Bill Gates compare to Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was the patron of Michelangelo and basically could have anything he wanted? Is it even possible to imagine. I'm sure there is some "wealthiest people in history" list somewhere online (I'm typing this offline at the moment), but I think that would be an interesting topic for some Nova episode. Anyway, after going through this house, I climbed the tower, which involved a few hundred steps. The view of the city was spectacular, but was only the start of tall I would stand. Also, I had lots of other stairs to climb.
Like in the Duomo, for example. I went into the Cathedral, which was plenty impressive (although I've since become almost callused to impressive churches, but not at the time). In some ways, you could easily say that this was why some people dislike the Church. But when you're inside, I dare you to not stare, jaw gaping. I then looked for where I should start climbing, because I was told the Duomo had the highest point in the city. So I walked around until I found something to climb. And I found the bell tower (the campanile, which I believe is the only one to beat the UC Berkeley one in height). And that was, if I recall correctly, 414 steps. If that doesn't sound like a lot to you...well, you're wrong. At least thrice, I found myself taking pictures from a viewpoint before realizing I still had at least one more flight of stairs to go. When I finally did get to the top, I saw a group of people on top of the Duomo's dome...and they were higher than us. I climbed the wrong building! At that moment, I hated all of those people on the other side of the church, and I swore I'd be on that side before the day was done.
Before that, though, I visited the Accademia di Belle Arti. This museum is weird in that it's exceptionally small. Unlike the Uffizi, it just has a couple different exhibits. You could read every written description (I did) and still be done in under a half-hour. There's really only one thing that makes it worth visiting. But when that thing is Michelangelo's David, it makes sense. I had done a report on Michelangelo in high school, so I was especially keen on seeing the statue, but to be honest, I was not expecting how captivating it would be. Seriously, for such a simple statue, this thing is amazing. I was staring...analyzing...it for at least fifteen minutes. I really don't know why - there have been people studying it far longer than I who could write an eloquent explanation - but if you have a chance to see this statue in person, do so.
After seeing that and blasting through the rest of the Accademia, I headed back for the Duomo and climbed it properly, through the dome. This was an incredibly long, tiring climb, made harder by the fact that some idiotic French high school kids behind me would not stop shouting. The devil on my left shoulder wanted me to turn and kick them back down the steps, but my angel had me grin and bear it. Either way, making it to the top was amazing. True, it was just slightly higher than what I had seen an hour or so earlier, but it was the principle of the matter, consarnit! And having another chance to see the city from the top was definitely welcome. All told, I probably walked up at least 1,100 stairs that day. And then back down each.
I had little time before the majority of the museums closed for the day (there are actually over 40 museums in Florence). I decided to head to a couple temporary exhibits at the Strozzi Museum. The first was an exhibit on the "springtime" of the Renaissance. There were a number of impressive, albeit not-really-famous pieces there, mostly by Raphael. What I actually liked most about this place was that they had a blindness awareness program revolving around touching, and had activity rooms where you were told to close your eyes and feel some replicas of statues, recreating them in your mind. It was actually a very soothing moving experience, one I was happy I took part in. The second temporary exhibit was a modern art one, which only strengthened my general indifference towards modern art.
After wandering around the streets for some time afterward (during which I chanced upon some performance art in the middle of a piazza), it was getting late, and so I decided to head back to the hostel area for dinner. There was a vegetarian place ("Il Vegetaranio", go figure) nearby that was recommended online, so I decided to try it out. When I got inside, I found myself completely intimidated by the atmosphere. I had no idea what anything was, and wasn't willing to spend money on a gamble (and the owner seemed too busy to be dealing with my questions). I just decided to head to the hostel, which had its own restaurant. I got some gnocchi and caprese salad, which turned out better than I ever thought possible. And the front desk was just one floor above. So I go up, and get my new room, so I walk up five floors and hope that I have an empty room again.
No dice. Not only is it not empty, but there are three girls in there, completely silent, lying in the beds, leaving me with a top bunk. I put my stuff out there, lied down, and was immediately sweltering, due to the heat and humidity. I also couldn't get a Wi-Fi signal worth a damn, and I wanted a gelato. In short, I wanted to get out of that room. I grabbed my laptop, hopped off the bed. "I don't mean to interrupt, but they can only turn on the air conditioning from the front desk. Do you mind if I go turn it on?" ...Nothing. Not a "yes", not a "no", not a movement of any of their three heads. Nothing to imply they were going to acknowledge my existence. I don't know if they all had really loud headphones in, if none of them spoke English, or what, but I just stood there for 45 seconds. "...Okay then." I went downstairs, got some work done, got some gelato, came back, saw that everyone in the room was asleep, and I wanted to bother these people as little as possible so I just crawled into bed and slept.
Everyone was still asleep when I woke up, so I just grabbed my stuff and left. I had breakfast in the restaurant, brushed my teeth in the public restroom (ironically, I felt more comfortable with this than with using the bathroom in my own room). I then walked over to the train station and took a train back to Naples. Nothing much to say about this, except that the trains in Italy may not be cheap, but they are admittedly nice. I guess they're comparable to taking a plane between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When I arrived in the Naples train station, I got in contact with my cousin, Kelly. After some difficulty with trying to find her car (due to the inability to park in the area), we finally met up. I hopped in her car, and we were on our way. Kelly apologized for the craziness of driving in Italy compared to the United States, but to be honest, it was actually pretty tame compared to the driving in Morocco; I never felt like I was going to be run over by anyone.
We - Kelly, her three children, and myself - decided we'd use this time to visit Mount Vesuvius, because why not? I wanted to climb it while I was here, we had the time, and it was as good a time as any. We got there and climbed - well, hiked - and it was a fine walk, and there was some good views of the surrounding area, but for the most part, it was a fairly underwhelming experience. You could see into the volcano caldera, but only partially. There were grayish-white specks in the air, and I was originally interested in them ("wow, it's amazing that there is still ash floating around"), but they turned out to just be insects flying around. All in all, I've had better hikes in more interesting hills and volcanos. Without the historical context, it's not a very interesting place. Almost more interesting were the souvenirs being sold at different points along the hike. Not because they were good, mind you. Nor relevant. My particular favorite was a skull wearing an American Civil War Confederate hat. Why? Who cares, apparently? Its only relation to the volcano was the fact that it was comprised of volcanic rock. Eric, Kelly's youngest child, was actually on a mission to get a souvenir from one of these shops. It was an eagle; wings spread, made of volcanic rock, and covered in the gaudiest blue glitter. It is the kind of thing only a kid could enjoy unironically (and boy, he did). I was tempted to get the skull, but realized I don't have the budget to buy items for the lulz.
We drove back to Kelly's house, which was an extremely nice home in the rural areas overlooking the Neapolitan countryside. I was thoroughly impressed, not least by the giant skeleton key which was used to open the front door. After taking a much-needed nap and setting up my effects, it was high time for dinner (like, 7pm, which is the standard dinner time in Italy). And there was no question on my mind what I wanted - pizza. After all, Naples is the birthplace of pizza. So naturally, I planned to try it several times on this trip. I went out with the whole of the family to a local pizza place, which was said to be one of the better ones in the area. We had to wait an unusually long time to get our food (as we were contending with what appeared to be a large group of American high school girls celebrating a birthday [loudly]), but it was worth the wait. Now, I have said many times before that I have very non-discerning taste buds (this is why I often go for cheaper menu items; they all taste "good" to me). So I'm definitely no foodie, and I cannot explain why their pizza is better than pizza you will get anywhere else. But I will say, their pizza is very good, definitely worth getting. I went with a veggie-ish pie, with peperoni (which, to my utter bafflement, was literally peppers) and some sort of greens, and something else. Delish! The only other pizza of note was one that my Eric, my eight-year-old cousin-once-removed (who I will call nephew for simplicity), ordered. It was a Neapolitan pizza with French Fries and sliced hot dogs as toppings. I have no idea why every college campus and Domino's has not adopted this idea yet, but it's brilliant. It also looked damn terrible. But that's irrelevant, because hot-dog-french-fry-pizza.
I had a good sleep that night, though this was despite the machinations of Dexter, the super-friendly and hyperactive family dog. I'm pretty sure if you put him in a giant hamster wheel, you could power a small city block. Anyway, at some point in the wee hours of the morning, Dexter pushed open the door (which means he's either really strong or I just suck at closing doors), walked over, and hopped into the bed, sniffing and nudging me. I tried to ignore him, because the more attention you give to Dexter, the more likely he is to literally jump all over you. But he eventually curled up and slept next to me in the bed, like adorable dogs are wont to do. This apparently gave the family a bit of a fright, as they thought that he was missing.
After getting up, I helped Kelly out with the laundry, and I must say, I don't think that air-drying clothes is better than using a machine (I love the feeling of clothing that has been dried with five-to-six dryer sheets), but there was something slightly therapeutic about hanging them up on a line. During this time, I had one of my many conversations with Kelly. Of everyone in my extended family, I feel we are probably the two biggest talkers of the lot, so we always have good, long conversations.
After helping out wherever I could, we went to pick up the kids from their school, which was in an effectively abandoned NATO base. (Well, it was abandoned, sans the school.) Thankfully, I was able to pass by their armed guards without showing any ID, and we grabbed the kids. While waiting for them, I was speaking with one of the teachers there, a nice older man who was apparently a retired Navy dude. When I explained my trip to him, he told me that my plan for working with the animal wildlife was something he'd never do. But oddly, it wasn't in an "I-envy-you" kind of way, but more of a "You-should-be-more-like-me" fashion. In any case, after picking up the kids, we decided to do some sightseeing in the area. So first we went to a local amphitheater, which was like a much smaller version of the Colosseum Unfortunately, despite being told everywhere that it closed at sundown, when we arrived, the sign said it closed at 1pm (incidentally, the sun doesn't set in Italy until several hours after that). We got there only about 20 minutes late, and the guard didn't give us a good reason for this new time, so we just walked on. We tried visiting the Temple of Neptune, and we could see the outside of it and take pictures, but all the signs pointed us into dead ends, so we walked on again. In fact, the only thing we did see was one that we couldn't actually enter into, called the Temple of Serapide, which was just some ruins (a market, not actually a temple) partially submerged in brackish, somewhat overgrown water. Having exhausted that spot, we went to a nearby beach, which was...decent. Nothing to write home about, that's for sure. But Kelly said that Neapolitans were exceptionally proud of their beaches, considering them the best in the world (legitimately), the same way they consider their city the greatest of all the Italian cities. When I heard this, I concluded that Neapolitans are idiots, too proud to see the bigger picture. Also, Kelly said that Naples was sometimes described as a "beautiful woman with dirty feet", which was true - if you keep your eyes at the horizon, it's great. When you look down, you see that there is literally trash everywhere, because their sanitation system is so messed up and corrupted by the Mafia. It's definitely a cool town, and has great food, but let's be realistic here; it's second fiddle compared to a place like Florence or Rome.
When we got back that night, we had some fajitas, which was such a welcome thing that I can't even describe it. I've said plenty that Mexican food would be the one thing I missed most on this trip, so Kelly managed to get some ingredients from the Navy commissary, and whipped up all sorts of goodness. Black beans, pinto beans, tortilla chips, the works. I made a huge salad worthy of Chipotle, and washed it down with an actual Diet Coke (and it was then that I realized that Coca-Cola Light doesn’t even compare). I knew this would be my last "home" meal for a while, so I made the most of it.
The next morning, I got up early (well, early for me), so that we could drop the kids off at their school, and then Kelly and I had a date in Naples proper. We took the local train into the city, which was filled with what I could only imagine were local high school kids (judging by the bad teenage mustaches). What struck me was the boys' hair. Kelly said that it was common in Italy (or maybe just Naples) that boys would spend more time and money fussing with their hair than the girls did. My only response to that is that it wasn't working. They looked like what you'd imagine 80s porn stars to look like. One kid even had a rat-tail mullet. And he paid money for it!
Our first stop of the day was at the Fontanelle cemetery. I don't know how to explain this except as a huge cavern of bones. Quite literally, it was a place where a bunch of (mostly poor) individuals had their remains thrown. I really don't know how to describe the place, except for morbidly interesting. When I asked, the guard/guide we were with said there were 8-9,000 people buried here. However, apparently some estimates have placed there at being about eight million bones within those caverns. Either way, there were a lot. But what was really creepy were the remnants of old alters, and an angel statue that was missing its head, and other signs of age that had taken over the place. It was a pretty short visit - maybe a half-hour or so, but it was a worthwhile one.
We then went around town, and just like in both Madrid and Florence, I was floored by just the level of ornate architecture that existed everywhere. Everywhere was a potential picture opportunity. We tried to go into the local theater house (I was somewhat hoping, and vainly so, that we might be able to catch an opera). Unfortunately, we had to wait some time to get a tour, and even then it would only be in Italian. So we moved on. We went to the main piazza, which was busily preparing for an upcoming cycling tour, and on a whim, we decided to enter the Royal Palace, which Kelly said she'd never been in before. I didn't blame her - it didn't look like much from the outside. But the moment we stepped in and saw the grand foyer, I said aloud, "Okay, I'm impressed." Like pretty much everywhere else, the room was made pretty much entirely of marble - statues, floors, walls, stairs. Hell, even the banisters were marble. While not quite as opulent at the Medici's palace, the place was plenty extravagant in its own right. The queen had about seven rooms meant for her - chambers, antechambers, a back room, and some other I forget about. That lady must have thrown one hell of a party.
As we continued through town, we stopped at what Kelly considered the best gelato place in the city. I couldn't really argue with her. First of all, I hadn't really tried enough to judge (although I've admittedly omitted quite a few of my gelato experiences). Second, it was really good! They had all sorts of exotic flavors, and all I really wanted to do was pay to have a spoonful of each. They weren't really down for that, but I did manage to get about nine or ten samples before deciding on a combination of fragola (strawberry) and a non-alcoholic mojito. I figured it would be a good combination, but the flavor exceeded my expectations tenfold. Still, in the great frozen treats debate, I still feel self-service frozen yogurt remains king, and I am honestly disappointed by the fact that I've yet to see one on my travels thus far.
I elaborate on gelato, as I'm going to contract when discussing churches. When going through Naples, we walked into half a dozen churches. Some of them were planned stops; others were on-a-whim step-ins. And every single one was awe-inspiring. Really, even having seen the Duomo, all of these could compare in their own ways. So I'll spare you the constant parade of "I walked into another church. It was really impressive." I'll just mention two in particular. The first is the Church of the Gesu Nuovo (New Jesus). I just liked the name. The second was Cappella Sansevero, which housed some of the most technically impressive statues I've ever seen. The first was one called "The Veiled Christ", which, as its name implied, was of a dead Jesus with a veil over it. The veil was also carved, but in a way to seem completely fabric-like, showing the features of the body and face beneath. The second was of some man escaping from a fisher's net. The thing is, the net was also completely carved out of a single piece of marble. It is such an unbelievable feat that the Nazis literally didn't believe it when they came to Italy, and chipped off a piece to check for internal support. Unfortunately, this place was apparently super strict about not allowing photography (more-so than almost anywhere else), and so I don't have any photos, but I recommend you look them up. There was also a display downstairs about these two bodies with a completely hardened and preserved circulatory system. You know that completely creepy "Body Worlds" exhibit? Imagine that being done a few hundred years ago, and that was this. They still have no clear idea how it was done. Combine that with the fact that it’s theorized that the fresco at the top of the chapel was painted in all "organic" paints (blood, bile, etc.), and it seems to show that the creator firmly straddled the line between "genius" and "bat$#!+ crazy".
It was getting close to when Kelly had to go pick up the kids, but before she left, we stopped at a cafe and enjoyed a slice of simple margherita pizza (which, being the classic dish, I knew I'd be remiss not to get). We then got some coffee. Kelly got a macchiato, while I got the emasculatingly named "Cafe du Nono" ("Grandpa’s Coffee"), which was really more like a miniature mocha shake than anything. Still, considering how strong and bitter their coffee is (though that is the "proper" way for it to be), I enjoyed my shake just fine, thankyouverymuch.
Kelly then had to leave, but dropped me off at the National Archaeology Museum first. This place had a bunch of artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and more statues than you can shake a stick at. I have to say that of all artistic mediums, I probably love classical statuary the most. There's just something about it that gets me going, especially if it's life-sized or larger. Maybe it's the smooth, cool texture of marble. Maybe it's the ability to appreciate it from different angles, with different senses. Or maybe it's as Michelangelo put it, because the figures always existed in the stone; they just needed to be exposed. In any case, if I'm ever rich enough to splurge on art, I plan to get at least one good statue. Anyway, the museum was cool, and I got an audio tour for the first time. I have to say, if you have the time, using an audio tour is absolutely the way to go, especially if you're on your own. It's like having a very knowledgeable British friend whispering in your ear. Also, exploring the "obscene art" section of the museum, I learned that oversized phallic drawings everywhere are not a recent phenomenon. And now you are forced to consider this fact, too. Sorry.
I then went to the Naples Duomo, which was yet another incredibly fancy, impressive church that deserves considerably more description than I will give it. I then had to get back to the train station to meet up with Kelly again. Unfortunately, I took the exact worst path possible, which took me to the station on pretty much the other side of town. This caused me to be a half-hour or so late, but I did have a chance to notice a couple things. First, there were a lot of old men standing in the doorways to stores and such. Not talking, not trying to convince me to come in or anything. Just standing and staring. Equally weird was the number of Simpsons shirts that people were wearing. It was a considerable amount, all of different designs. It's almost like Italy is unaware that the Simpsons hasn't been good for over a decade. Anyhoo, I finally got on the train, sat across from this couple that was making out like they were in a French film (that's another thing I noticed about Italy - much more PDA). Finally, I got to the meeting point, found Kelly, and we went home.
We had what I'd call a fairly American dinner - grilled chicken and salad - except for the little buffalo mozzarella balls, which were a nice treat (and which Neapolitans apparently eat with the same ease as one would eat popcorn balls, which seems a bit extreme to me). Then came the fireworks. It was explained to me that people set off fireworks for any number of reasons. Birthdays, weddings, Fridays. And these aren't just your typical spinners and carbon growing snakes that we may set off in US suburbs. These are bona-fide, shoot-100-feet-in-the-air fireworks. People apparently spend as much as a thousand bucks for a single set, because, well, they love celebrating bombastically. I don't know what this one was about (though it was a Friday), but it was not the first I heard/saw that week, and not the last one of that evening (there were several going late into the night). Being a lover of fireworks, and mourning the loss of many 4th of July celebrations, I can say that this is a cultural habit I can support.
That Saturday, we decided that the family and I would go on a hike. Brent, Kelly's husband, had spent the day before trying to convince me about the beauty of the Amalfi Coast, and that a lot of people who traveled to Italy said it was the highlight of their trip. I said to him, "If it involves hiking, you don't have to convince me." It was either that or go through Pompeii, but apparently the Archaeology Museum had more interesting artifacts than the actual site did, and it was less impressive than, say, Volubilis. So, the hike it was, on a path affectionately known as the "Trail of the Gods".
It was actually a fairly short hike overall (maybe about 3 hours, including a lunch break), but the trip lasted the full day. The walk itself was fairly easy, except for the last leg, which was a 1,600-stair descent into town. I know that doesn't sound too bad (I mean, at least it wasn't upstairs), but trust me, by the time you're half way down, you feel it. Kelly mentioned a term I really liked - sewing machine leg. Basically, that feeling when you use your legs so much that you can be standing still, but your leg (or legs) starts shaking up and down rapidly, like a sewing machine needle. But that really only happened when we stopped (which we had to do occasionally to give eight-year-old Eric some reprieve. I was impressed with his two older sisters, who not only went down the stairs, but counted each one on their way down (they counted 1,686). What particularly impressed me was the fact that all along this pathway were people's houses. They had a gorgeous view, no doubt, but I saw no other path to their house except this leviathan staircase. I shuddered to think what it must be like to bring a large amount of groceries or, worse, furniture to their house.
Aside from those stairs, the rest of the walk was your typical coastal hike, which worked perfectly fine for me. Beautiful vistas of the cliffs and the Mediterranean Sea, and a nice mix of being in the sun and shaded by trees. The sun was fairly warm, so I decided to disrobe somewhat. After zipping off my pant legs and turning them into shorts (which is a feature I don't think I'll ever tire of), I decided that I was tire of my damp shirt (well, mainly only damp where my backpack was covering it). So I took off my shirt, and we applied some more sunscreen. Unfortunately, we didn't apply it to all the necessary places, and so by the end of the day, I was left with some...rather localized burns. I had a small circle of red on each of my shoulders (as though they were wearing small yarmulkes), a patch on my left chest (except for a strip where the backpack strap was), and on my left calf. (The sun was on our left, in case you couldn't gather.) They weren't the worst burns I'd ever had, but they were a bit annoying, so I spent the rest of the day lathering them with after-sun lotion, hoping they'd transform into a nice bronze (as of right now, they seem to be doing okay).
When we got into the town at the end of the trail, we got some gelato. Kelly and Brent promised the kids that if they didn't complain (or, I suppose, complain to a significant degree), they'd be able to get a large cone, with three scoops instead of two. I followed their lead, and bought a three-scoop cone for myself (as I figured it'd be my last one of the trip). I got a peach/melon/coconut mix, which was okay - the peach was amazing (it even had little chunks inside), but this was the second time I was unimpressed with melon. So that's my take on that. I stayed with the kids while Kelly and Brent figured out a plan to get us back home. We ended up taking a ferry back to Amalfi (which was cool in its own right, since we saw the coast from the other side), though this actually overshot our original starting point, so we needed to take a bus back to where we parked our car. I was napping during most of this, but it seemed like there were some pretty good views along the way. Finally, we took the hour-plus drive back to Naples. Overall, we spent more time in commute home than we did actually hiking. But it was worth it, I think. (Plus, that's why it's a day trip.) We got home, got some takeout dinner (a margherita pizza, a chicken, and some potato pieces soaked in rotisserie chicken drippings). We figured out what our plans for the following day would be, I slathered another layer of lotion on my burns, and we all went to bed.
Because I was flying out of the Roman airport that evening, Kelly and I decided we'd have a day in Rome. We considered leaving pretty early in the morning (as it's, realistically, a three-hour drive to the big city), but I made it clear I was in no hurry, and we could have a leisurely morning if that worked out better. It did. We took things slowly, made sure everything was in order, had a nice breakfast (Kelly has become a Jamba Juice-level expert at making spinach smoothies), and generally made it so we had an enjoyable time instead of a stressful one. I also had a chance to sign their family guestbook, and it seemed like I was the first one to do so in nine years (not because I'm the first guest in nine years, but rather because, really, who can remember to keep a guestbook).
As I mentioned before, the drive out to Rome was a three-hour affair, and Kelly and I had a nice long conversation about anything and everything. When we finally got to the city proper, we found ourselves a good parking spot in one of the most strangely-designed parking structure I've seen. The ceiling was made up of large, fairly flat domes, with acoustics that produced echoes beyond anything you'd imagine. You'd hear a single footstep maybe 50 times in the course of a second or two. I don't know if it was designed for strength, or if they just wanted it to have this weird sound effect, but it was interesting either way. We made our way out of the parking structure and attached train station, and saw that we were at the Spanish Steps. To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of the Spanish Steps before, and even now am not 100% sure on their historical or cultural significance. In terms of appearance...they looked like a large public staircase. Honestly, nothing terribly interesting. I took a picture regardless, because hey, other people were doing so. We then continued on.
I soon learned that Rome was much like Florence in a particular regard - you can simply walk around streets, turn corners, and there's something extremely impressive and/or important looking back at you. Such happened twice. First, we rounded a corner, and there was the Trevi Fountain. Then, a little while later, we passed by some small telecom shop and a laundromat, and Kelly tells me to turn around, and there's the Pantheon! The concept that some guy can just go to work at a laundromat every day and see one of the most architecturally significant buildings in history out his window is such a crazy concept. I suppose one might compare it to a worker in San Francisco having a view of the Golden Gate Bridge outside his window - you just get used to it - but then again, I think there's no comparison between that bridge and something like the Pantheon (These Romans and Florentines are spoiled, though I suppose they have to suffer the endless parade of tourists, so it all comes out in the wash.) I also got fooled once, seeing some large building with huge columns. Oh, this must be something! Nope, just a bank designed to look like an ancient Roman building. Whoops! That does make me wonder, though - should that bank survive another two millennia, will it be treated with the same level of veneration that we treat the rest of the ruins?
We then kind of just meandered throughout the city, walking into building after random building. Surprise, surprise, they were pretty much all churches. I had joked to myself on my first day in Italy how many priests were just wandering round the streets, but after seeing the sheer number of churches - pretty much exclusively Catholic - it made sense. And every single one was awe-inspiring. "Just once," I said, "I'd like to walk into a church and have it be surprisingly small and humble." No such luck. Had I not been somewhat callused by every other church I'd seen, I'd have thousands of pictures of all the minute details of all these buildings; all the paintings, all the sculptures, all the money that was put into them. And here's the thing: a lot of these were not really built as public places of worship. That is made abundantly clear by the fact that they're all about as big as any typical American church, and yet probably have no more than dozen or so pews. These things were built by families, for use by their families. And so, as Kelly and I were discussing it, all of these glorious and ostentatious churches were just medieval pissing matches, with each family trying to outdo the others, trying to find the more holy relic, trying to get the better pope to give his consecration, trying to have the better looking artistic representation of Saint Sebastian (seriously, both in Spain and Italy, there were works of Sebastian all over the place; they must have loved him way back when). Anyway, I think we went into another five churches (not counting the Pantheon which had been converted into one long ago), so forgive me, again, for not listing each one individually.
It was some time after 4pm when Kelly and I decided to have an early dinner (as we hadn't eaten since breakfast and I probably wouldn't eat again until late that night). So, we went looking around. According to TripAdvisor, there is something along the line of 4,500 restaurants in Rome. We tried going to a place that was ranked #9 (that's the 99.8th percentile), but after getting lost in some of the streets, we found that it was closed until the more appropriate Roman dinner time. So we settled for a place that was ranked 98th, as they had freshly prepared, homemade pasta. It was only then that I realized that I had yet to have legit pasta in Italy, so I was down. I ended up getting a fettuccini with a "spicy" tomato sauce (quotations due to the fact that the spice was at the level of a Taco Bell mild sauce). It was...fine. Tasty, but definitely not the best pasta that I've ever had (especially at 11 Euro), and definitely not worth the place being ranked in the 97th percentile of all restaurants in the city. But whatever, homemade pasta in Italy - done! Nobody can ever put on my tombstone that I missed that.
After this meal, we took a walk to see some other attractions (at least from the outside), all along pretty much the same street. We first passed by this building that was the Italian equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Again, Italians are anything but subtle. This building was enormous, with probably a dozen different statues protruding from here and there. We move a little further on, and Kelly points down the street. Hell, there's the Colosseum in the distance, sitting there like it's a Wal-Mart. We began walking closer to it. Honestly, the thing that struck me most about the Colosseum was how...fake it looked. How artificial. And I don't actually mean that in a bad way. Maybe it was some combination of my Lasik-enhanced vision, plus a very clear day, plus the fact that it was just sitting against a blue sky, but the details of that building were so crisp, so clear, even from a kilometer or more away. Picturesque. It looked so good that it couldn't possibly be real. And yet, it was. I knew we didn't have the time to explore the inside (even if there wasn't a line), but that was fine: just seeing it was amazing in itself. We also passed by a couple other things of note - the Roman forum, the Arch of Titus, and the Arch of Constantine. They were all amazing as well, but I didn't get to see them much in detail, and even if I did, what justice could I do them here. Read an actual book about them, or at the very least, watch some Rick Steves' videos on them. (Kelly actually let me listen to his audio guide app, which was incredibly helpful and informative. Considering it's free, I may just download it to have some additional listening material later on.)
We also passed by a bunch of street performers; the only ones that really got my attention were two monks of indeterminate religion, one holding, with a single arm, a stick supporting the second one. Both were meditating with some beads. Their sleeves were long enough that they could have easily been concealing some support mechanism, but I didn't want to be "that guy" who ruined it for everyone. And of course, there were the souvenir stands, selling all manner of goods. I was particularly tickled with the fact that the Gladiator Maximus helmet is now a staple of all these stands, as it means my favorite movie, historically loose as it may be, is now a part of Roman culture. I considered getting one of the helmets, but honestly, you can get them online for a third the price. Besides, that thread from my regret rug was still burning a hole in my pocket (metaphorically).
We took the metro back to the parking structure, and then drove out to the Fiumicino Airport, which is also called the Leonardo da Vinci Airport, depending on whose sign you're reading. I said my goodbyes to Kelly, thanked her for being an absolutely fantastic host, and then headed into the airport. After having seen all these amazing sights, I was glad that we took the day to have a nice walk around. Not worrying about waiting in line to get into places meant that the way was, paradoxically enough, both leisurely and brutally efficient. Which is kind of how things were in Florence and Naples, too. In fact, this whole side trip to visit my cousin and her family was a great idea overall. But, oh, there's still more for me to do in Rome - and all of Italy - yet. Hell, I never even got wind of the Vatican (which, I guess, was on the opposite end of town or so). Rest assured, I plan to have a dedicated European trip at some point, but this was a nice preview.