Category Archives: Italy

Summary of Italy

Italy is the first country on my travels where I genuinely felt like I could happily settle and live a few very happy years.  Before someone jumps ahead of me this isn’t to say it’s my favorite- I don’t have a favorite, and while I’m very found of Laos for example I couldn’t live there a long stretch- but rather everything was pretty, my personal philosophy meshes well with an Italian lifestyle, and I was pretty good at Italian considering I’d never specifically studied it.

Highlights:

– To elaborate on the last point, I got to the point where I could order food and ask for directions in Italian.  It should be noted, however, that asking directions isn’t the difficult part so much as understanding the answer you’re given.

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– Aniko and Massimo’s kind hospitality to me while staying with them in Urbino.  Koszi megegyszer!

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– Due to the fact that I liked everywhere I went it seems silly to just list all the locations I visited, but the favorites are between Capri and Florence.  If I didn’t promise my Hungarian grandmother I would visit her for Easter, there is a good chance I would still be sitting in Florence.

– Shout out to the two microstates I visited that are completely enclosed by Italian soil, San Marino and Vatican City!

– I loved having all the Roman history right there.  There is something about thinking of how you are walking where Caesar and Brutus and Marcus Aurelius and whoever else did thousands of years past that never completely leaves you.

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– The food- Italy was, after all, the  first country where I could happily eat pizza without missing out on the local fare!   And then the pasta, the cutlets, the house wine, and desert at the end.   Particularly the gelato such as the type pictured above.   It was a tough job thoroughly investigating that facet of culinary culture, but someone has to do it.

– As a final point I want a Vespa, followed second by a three wheeled car and third by one of those smaller than a Smartcar cars.   Does anyone know of a good place to pick one up in the USA?

Lowlights:

– Dear Europeans, you do not need to always drink bottled water!  It’s usually 4 Euro for bottled water in a restaurant, and they never have tap water available.  And it’s not like the water is bad or anything- in Rome the water is from a spring, and is freely available in the streets- but rather everyone is snobbish about this point.  Why you want to spend nearly six bucks to cart water hundreds of miles and generate plastic waste after is just beyond my comprehension.

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– It sounds weird to complain about tourists as a tourist, but my goodness there are a lot of people here.  I don’t think I’d want to come in the summer… The picture above is from Pisa, one of the worst tourist spots around its famous tower.  Second  only to getting into the Uffizi museum in Florence, where you stand in line for several hours if you don’t have a prior reservation.

– It snowed when I first showed up in Italy.   What?  To be fair, it got nice and skirt-weathery afterwards.

Milan

The first sign that Milan is not quite like other places in Italy is that only Eurostar, the most posh and expensive type of train, goes there, and even second class is filled with businessmen a hell of a lot better dressed than I am (as opposed to  the rest of Italy, where everyone is just a lot better dressed).   The city itself is also twice as expensive as anywhere else in Italy as the business capital of the nation, which is why I only spent a day there before catching a budget flight.

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When looking for a hotel to stay at near the train station (there is no such thing as a hostel in ritzy Milan) my eye caught this place and immediately knew I needed to stay here.  If you don’t know why a place called the Hotel Monopole receives such a distinction, then you are obviously not geeky enough.

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The number one tourist attraction in Milan is the magnificent cathedral- I’ve seen more cathedrals in the past few weeks than most people do in a lifetime, but I still liked this one!   Just the outside alone was great, here is a close-up of the spires-image5391

The inside was worth a look as well, and frankly felt like a forest of stone columns was growing in there-image537

You can also  go down below the cathedral to view the tombs of various saints, including what are claimed to be their remaining body parts if you’re into that kind of voyeurism.   After I was done with that, though, it was time for a bit of walking about in the bright sunshine.image540

A typical view on Via Dante, one of the main shopping streets in Milan.   I could so happily spend the rest of my trip budget while in Italy on all the lovely clothes I see, until I remember I don’t have anyplace to wear them when I get back  home. (Too much distraction in a physics department; I’m not sure how Lisa Randall does it.)image541And because it was too nice a day to do much else I ended up getting a nice gelato (dark chocolate, mango, and tiramisu) and wandering through one of Milan’s parks to eat it.  Because if you’re lucky enough to spend a lovely spring afternoon walking in Milan eating a gelato, you’re lucky enough.

After cursory inspection, I’ve decided Milan is the sort of city that would probably be nice to live in if you were to stick around long enough to get under its skin.  Provided you had a nice job that brought in twice as many Euros as working elsewhere in the country, of course, as you’d be declaring bankruptcy pretty quickly if  you didn’t.

Pisa, with an inclined tower

I’ve had a few people tell me that going to Pisa isn’t quite worth it because all it is is a leaning tower.  Which seems a little silly to me- how many leaning towers have you ever seen in your life anyway?

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To be fair, yeah, it’s a  little touristy and I doubt Pisa would get half as many visitors if they didn’t have such a famous landmark.   The church behind the tower is quite nice though, for which the leaning tower is the bell tower-

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There is also a baptistery on the other side of the church which I stared at not quite believing my eyes, because it is leaning too! Is this the reward we give for bad engineering, that the town gets tourists flocking from all corners of the globe?  Great carrot and stick approach to get people to abide by building codes, people!

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And because Mark Twain said it better than I ever could, the following quote is from The Innocents Abroad

The Baptistry, which is a few years older than the Leaning Tower, is a stately rotunda, of huge dimensions, and was a costly structure.  In it hangs the lamp whose measured swing suggested to Galileo the pendulum.  It looked an insignificant thing to have conferred upon the world of science and mechanics such a mighty extension of their dominions as it has.  Pondering, in its suggestive presence, I seemed to see a crazy universe of swinging disks, the toiling children of this sedate parent.  He appeared to have an intelligent expression about him of knowing that he was not a lamp at all; that he was a Pendulum; a pendulum disguised, for prodigious and inscrutable purposes of his own deep devising, and not a common pendulum either, but the old original patriarchal Pendulum- the Abraham Pendulum of the world.

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Because there was little else to do in Pisa, I shelled out the 15 Euro to climb the tower.  I wouldn’t recommend it for people who are at all tall and/or claustrophobic though, because as you can see the steps are quite narrow… What is also interesting whilst climbing, of course, is how you can tell what side of the tower you are on based on what side of the steps you’re climbing on.  This is a bit interesting while climbing up but  a bit more unnerving while climbing down the stairs pitched forward- you can’t help but feel like you need to be careful lest you fall down…

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Chilling at the top of the tower with Pisa in the background.  It was fun to walk around the top and entertain yourself with the jarring sight of having a building angled wrong when you looked down, but the effect for me was wrecked by a kid brought up by his parents who freaked out and began screaming.  And was promptly teased by his siblings and ignored by his parents, which exasperated the situation further.  Sigh…

image5101For fun, a view down towards the church with the waiting crowds and trinket stalls.  In this picture  I would bet that 50% are killing time until they can climb the tower as they only let people up every twenty minutes, 20% are taking “leaning against the tower” pictures like the one I have above, 20% are in some stage of purchasing an overpriced trinket, and 10% are pretending to check out the church with interest even though they really belong in the fiirst category.

And that is Pisa.  If it wasn’t really close to Florence it wouldn’t have been worth checking out, but if you’re in the area and have a spare afternoon it’s worth checking out.  My two cents on the matter anyway.

Florence Part 2

When going around Florence you quickly learn to scan the horizon for the Duomo if you get lost.  The thing is enormous and can unexpectedly fall right in front of you when you’re not paying attention-

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The cathedral is even more impressive from the front-

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To be fair this marble facade did not actually exist until fairly recently in the grand scheme of things- the cathedral was built in the sixteenth century, the facade erected in the ninteenth century.  Doesn’t make it any less beautiful though.

You can of course go into the cathedral and throng with the never-ending mass of tourists you find there (where did all these tourists in Florence come from by the way? do you just not notice them in Rome because the city is so much bigger?), but the more fun thing to do is to climb the Duomo itself- that is, the giant dome of the cathedral.  It’s 8 Euro but definitely worth it- for starters you get a magnificent view of the dome’s frescos-kep-006

As this is Florence, home of Dante, this fresco is obviously depicting the Inferno.kep-007

Top of the Duomo!  It’s 460 or so steps up complete with warnings that you shouldn’t attempt it if you have heart problems, but I amazed myself by climbing up without getting winded at all- I guess walking around all day every day does that to a person.

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A close-up of the Florentine houses from above, which I will describe as a bunch of swallow’s nests to the appreciation of my European readers and the confusion of my American ones.kep-008

A broader view of the city- the view was so gorgeous that I confess I must have walked around four times, absorbing it from every angle!

See that church in the distance, by the way?  That’s called Santa Croce.  Let’s go closer to it shall we?kep-011

Santa Croce is the national cathedral of Italy, sort of like Westminster in England.  I say Westminster because if you go inside you can see the tombs of all the most famous Italians-

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Galileo’s grave, which had a “2009 International Year of Astronomy” wreath laid beside it.  I should also note somewhere that there was a really excellent Galileo exhibit in Florence this year, complete with his first telescopes and drawings and other astronomical artifacts of note, but you weren’t allowed any pictures there either so the blog must go without.

kep-012And this is why they shouldn’t let me out in public by the way- see the marker on the left wall?  It’s for the physicist Enrico Fermi meaning I gazed at it quite reverently for several minutes- only to realize after the fact that the reason the crowd was gathered at this spot was da Vinci’s marker on the wall at the right.  To make sure this wasn’t a fluke though I did the same thing upon finding the marker for Marconi- really, I was quite beside myself- only to realize that Michelangelo’s marker was right above it! Oh well, no one said I needed to always enjoy the same bits of culture as everyone else.

Florence Part 1

I spent six nights in Florence, meaning there is no singular good way to write about the city as it was all awesome.  So for lack of any better way to do it, Part 1 is everything not related to a church and Part 2 is everything else.

Getting to Florence was a bit exciting as I learned in the train station in Rome that my bank had decided to hold my card, as apparently when you get to ten countries they start to wonder if you’re really traveling the world.  Then to continue the strain of events that were entertaining but not in a way I prefer the train to Florence broke down, and it took a few more misadventures involving a helpful Italian student and a traveling Indian couple before I finally made it to my final destination.

Within five minutes of arriving in Florence, however, it became obvious to me that I would not leave the city until I absolutely had to.  I was enchanted by its beauty and history and culture, something to be expected when you consider yourself to be a Renaissance woman I guess but there you are-

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One of the reasons I liked Florence right off, it must be said, is because the Hostel Archi Rossi where I stayed was so nice- for 20 Euro in addition to the bed there was a breakfast (good breakfast mind, ie with omlettes on the menu), pizza or pasta for dinner, and free walking tours of the city each morning.  How they stay in business is beyond me… This is the guide on the walking tour I did the first day in the city, discussing the famous golden doors on the Duomo baptistry.

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The Medici palace, ie ruling family of Florence during their heyday and whom I decided I wouldn’t mind being a member of in the grand scheme of things (as you could casually refer to your favorite Boticelli when visiting your second-largest Tuscan villa or what not).  I also liked their palace because nowadays everyone just hangs out in the front of it chilling or sunning themselves, so I took a light nap here for two hours.  Quite nice indeed.

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The famous Ponte Veccio over the Arno River, connecting the Uffizi Gallery to the Medici palace (which is in turn connected to the Florentine town hall, lest the Medici rulers need to venture outside in bad weather).  You can’t really tell it’s a bridge while on it due to all the shops lining it, save in the very middle.

And a word about the Uffizi before I forget (and seeing the famous David statue whilst at the Academia)- you need to trust me that these are all incredibly lovely but you aren’t allowed to take pictures of any of them.  So I will just conclude by saying if you ever want to get tired of looking at Michelangelos and da Vincis and whatever else, come to Florence.kep-003

Back to the Ponte Veccio this is what you find all the stores are- jewelry shop after jewelry shop.  If you are a female you spend an inordinate amount of time crossing this bridge as a rule, meaning I always felt sorry for the gaggle of husbands waiting on either side for their wives to cross (though I suppose not as sorry as you feel for the ones being dragged into the stores to empty their wallets!).

The girl in this picture is Laura, one of two American students studying abroad in Spain who I became friends with.  Laura and Christina were a bit impressed by my travels (as I am a frood who always knows where her towel is) and I was doubly impressed with their close touch to what people in civilized society do.  I mean whoa, girls actually wear makeup and put on a different top when they go out at night?!kep-015

“Duff beer for me, Duff beer for you, I’ll have a Duff, you have one too!”

You’d think the wine would have clinched this spot but no, my greatest alcoholic discovery in Italy was the fact that they had Duff beer (a la The Simpsons) in Florence.  Turns out it’s Belgian.kep-016As a final thing, here is the City Hall of Florence lit up at night.  The reason I have this picture here is because this past weekend was a worldwide event called “100 Hours of Astronomy” urging as many people as possible to look into a telescope, and a few local astronomers set up here in the main square.  I went for a little while to help out and to get a few nice glances of the Moon and Saturn (too bright in the main square to see much else), which was fun because I haven’t done much astronomy while on the road obviously.

And then because this is Italy and because the astronomers vouched for him, I got a ride home from a long-haired Italian named Antonio on his Vespa.  Yes, this description could not have been more stereotypical but there are some stereotypes that are too good to mess with, and riding through the streets of Florence on a Vespa is one of them!

Ecce Romani!

Ecce Romani was the name of my first Latin textbook.   When they weren’t telling scintillating stories of Cornelia and Flavia reading under the tree at the country house and how happy Marcus and Sextus were playing ball (ie the Dick and Jane equivalents of the Latin textbook world), they told you things about ancient Rome too.   On the whole these sections were much more interesting, so needless to say I was happily looking forward to my day exploring the sights of ancient Rome.

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The Colosseum definitely steals the show so far as appearances go, but my first stop was the Roman Forum.  More history, and the line is a lot shorter for a ticket here!  I spent an inordinate amount of time wandering around the various buildings, sneaking close to tour groups to see if there was anything interesting said that I didn’t already know.  For any of those interested, it is kind of depressing how little one really needs to know in order to be a tour guide in Rome.

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Perhaps it doesn’t look like much, but this is one of my favorite spots in the Forum.   It  is the remains of the Temple of Caesar,  on the very spot where he was cremated and where Marc Anthony said his eulogy, and people still leave fresh flowers here for Caesar (this batch was left over from March 15, of course).   Mind the tradition of leaving flowers here can’t be more than 100 years old or so as this temple was buried for most of the past 2,000 years, but that’s not stopping them.

image5331Speaking of being buried, see that door in between the columns?   That’s where the ground level used to be up until a century and a half ago or so when they started digging- the Forum was in a valley that filled up with dirt and water over time when the Roman pumps went into decay.  For years and years no one thought there was anything to the field above the Forum except a few columns the shepard would eat lunch on while tending the flocks that grazed there.

That is one thing about Rome that few people think about by the way- the fact that frankly it was a tiny nondescript town for most of its recent history.   Sure it was big in the heyday of the Roman empire but most people left when the aqueducts were no longer maintained and the city had a population of no more than 20,000 for centuries, finally passing the one million mark again in the late eighteenth century.   In fact, I’ve been reading through Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad lately published in 1869 about his travels, and when he stops bitching about the church’s wealth he describes Rome as just a town there in tribute to the decay of the ancient Empire.

The reason I love this is because it is so delicious to imagine living in Rome in, say, A.D. 700 when the whole civilization is gone and there is nothing left but a few people living amongst the incredible ruins of a lost civilization.   I’m sure it would have been depressing overall, but somehow the thought hasn’t left me.

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Posing in the Curia, aka ancient Senate, with a statue of Titus.   The Curia is pretty well preserved actually because it was converted into a church once the pagans cleared out.

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A view towards the Forum from the top of the Palatine Hill, which fascinated me because it was something I remember doing twenty years ago.   This in particular is a close-up of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the ring of columns previously enclosing the space where the sacred flame was that symbolized the might of Rome.

By the way, to continue my previous thought, the last Vestal Virgin was a woman named Coelia Concordia, as the Emperor ordered the closing of the temple in the late fourth century once pretty much everyone was Christian.   Wouldn’t that be an interesting life story, to be a Vestal Virgin while Rome is collapsing and everyone else has been adopting this new religion instead?image5521

I loved the Palatine Hill too, by the way, not just for the view.  It used to be the site of several affluent villas and gardens and the gardens are still maintained, and this year it was an intoxicating combination of scents from the lilies, flowering trees, and everything else you can imagine this time of year (including more citrus!).

While the Roman Forum is up to its ears in history, though, I confess it was a little difficult to appreciate because so little of it is left- you really need to tax your imagination to think of what it was really like, and how Caesar and Brutus and all the Emperors of Rome had walked where you are.  When it came to the next place, though, luckily a lack of structure certainly wasn’t a problem-

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Mark Twain describes the Colosseum of the 18th century of being covered in grass and lizards sunning themselves.   Definitely not the case now with all the tourists, but I didn’t care.   Tourists are sometimes there for good reason, and the reason here is the Colosseum is just too cool.image561

Inside the Colosseum- to the left if you look close you can see a giant cross erected where the Emperor used to sit.  They didn’t actually kill Christians here by the way, that myth started up a few centuries later in the record as frankly the Christians weren’t fighters and hence particularly interesting to Romans wanting to see a good match.  Doesn’t stop the Pope from coming here every Good Friday to say Mass, however.

My other interesting note when it came to the inside of the Colosseum is I was always interested in seeing how big the thing was due to the rumor that they used to flood it and hold mock naval battles.  After inspection, however, I have personally concluded they didn’t.  It’s just not big enough for maneuvering ships, though for watching people and animals kill each other it’s just the right size.

The more I thought about it, actually, the more I couldn’t get over how similar the Colosseum was to any sports stadium I’ve been to elsewhere, except you’re not supposed to explicitly cheer for blood at our games with the exception of maybe ice hockey.  I concluded the reason we all like the Romans so much is because they reveal more about ourselves than we’d ever dare admit up front.

Safe

Before anyone worries, yes, all is well despite the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that hit Italy last night.  Although it was pretty close to my current location of Florence (ie in the hundred miles away range) we didn’t feel a thing over here, and in fact first learned about it by logging onto CNN.  I suppose this is another one I can add to my “never been in an earthquake but got close” file.