Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Italy – Impressions

We could easily have spent much more time in Italy.  But we wanted to move on to Switzerland and get to Africa – exploring Africa being a major reason for this trip.  We seem to travel slowly by nature – more my nature than T-‘s.

If we had stayed longer in Italy, we still would have stayed away from the main tourist attractions.  We also would have stayed in the north to avoid the heat as much as possible.  The main thing we noticed about Italy was summed up best by the Brazilian guy we met the night we watched Raising Arizona in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna.  He said, “Italy is an old country.”  He explained to us that he meant that there were not many young Italians.  Of course this doesn’t apply everywhere.  Bologna for instance has lots of college aged kids because of the University.

But, it is interesting that Italians generally do not want to have children.  Italy is after all a very Catholic country.  Still, many times we noticed machines on the street that sell condoms.  It struck me right away that this is a great way to let teenagers buy condoms without needing to go through the embarrassment of facing a cashier in a store.  (To illustrate the cultural difference, T- said that she thinks many teenage guys in Brazil would be happy to buy condoms in a store and make as much noise about it as possible. Hum, go figure another Catholic country.)  But, one might expect that the Pope wouldn’t condone sales of condoms in any form, especially a way that is so convenient.

We also noticed a television show one night.  Of course this and all of these observations are rather subjective.  It was a sort of game-show with grandmas dancing to Latin rhythms.  One of the oldest of the bunch, a perky 77 years old, won the show.  Of course there is TV programming for all ages in the US also, but I’m not sure women between 60-80 years old dancing lambada and samba would make it on prime air in the US.

While we didn’t see only “old” people in Italy, we did go away with the impression that it is indeed an old country, full of lively people, delicious food, taste gelatto and contradictions.


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We left Bologna right after E- got back from the cooking class.  There was a lot of road construction going on in Bologna.  Many of the buses were on altered and confusing routes and running at unreliable times, so we walked with our bags all the way to the train station.  We decided to go to Ferrara, a smaller town north of Bologna.  Of course we would have liked to go to Rome or Florence, but we wanted to get to Geneva and meet friends in Paris.

We stayed for one night in Ferrara at the Student’s Hostel Estense.  In the evening we rented bikes (5 EUR/bike/day) from the hostel – Netherlands style bikes – and rode around the town, which is packed with bikers.  Eventually we stopped to have dinner.  It was good food.  But I was soured on the restaurant and actually the whole town, by the ridiculous price gouging.  We had tortelloni and then sea bass.  They charged us 50 Euros for one kilogram of fish.  I understand that a whole fish weighs more than what you can eat, but the whole fish was not one kilo.  Combined, my guess is that we ate less than half a pound of fish which is maybe a quarter of a kilo.  (I’ve got credentials, I used to be a fish monger.)  Not to mention the fish was not nearly as good as what we ate in Diakofto – a similarly sized sea bass which was prepared masterfully, which they gave to us in its entirety.  (In Diakofto, they weighed the fish in front of me, it was half a kilo and the entire bill about half of what we paid in Ferrara.) (T- here, the food was fantastic, so was the fish, although I confess well over priced. For appetizer we had a type of suffle and for dessert an orange cream topped with chocolate, hummm)

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The next morning we woke up and packed our bags and checked the Internet (free at this hostel).  We found out that we had been accepted to couch surf in Zurich and Geneva.  (We’ll explain more about Couch Surfing in another post.) We ate breakfast in the hostel then walked back down to the Estense Castle in the middle of town.  We snapped some photos.

From Ferrara we took another short train ride to Abano Terme near Padua (Padova).  At the station in Ferrara we met a woman from Morocco.  She spoke a little Italian – more French – and we had a lot of fun trying to communicate.  We have much of our conversation on a page in one of our notebooks.  We even managed to tell Pipa’s story about being offered two camels for his girlfriend when he was in Morocco.

We changed trains in Padua in confusion and said goodbye to our new friend.  We got off the next train at the Abano Terme station which is actually quite far from where we wanted to stay.  Eventually, someone from the hotel came to get us after more laughable attempts at speaking Italian/Spanish/Portuguese.  The Terme in Abano Terme or Montegrotto Terme (practically the same town) means thermal springs, and these were the reason I wanted to stay there for a night.  We turned out to have a good deal in our hotel and the restaurant in the same building – the Isolabella Restaurant and Hotel.  Two course menu with drinks for 12 EUR per person, and the food was good.

When we woke up the next day we went to the Colombos Thermal Pool.  The experience was much different from what I expected.  I was thinking a natural hot springs in between some mountains with a romantic view.  Actually, this pool was more like a public pool and right in the middle of town.  There were locker rooms and showers.  We were required to shower before entering the pools and wear shower caps.  I found out later that the water was cooled by a large heat exchanger because, in the summer it wouldn’t be too pleasant to swim in 85 degrees C water.  The water in the pools was not chlorinated.

We spent about two hours in the water and most of our time was in a shallow pool with water showering down from water-spouts and jets and bubbles.  The water-spouts shot water down in streams six inches in diameter.  Staying under these was equivalent to getting a massage.  All you had to do was line yourself up so that the water hit your back or your legs or neck or the top of your head…  It was fantastic and way cheaper than a masseuse.  I could have stayed there all day.

From Montegrotto we got a train to Padua, from there to Milan, and from there to Lugano, Switzerland.

In Italy, the trains passed by Verona, Milano, and Lago Maggiore. The views were wonderful but the last stretch made us a bit sick.

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We have seen many interesting buildings and museums and ruins on this trip.  In Bologna, I started to get tired or overloaded or jaded with all the churches and cathedrals…  I really wanted to do something in the real sense.  Not the way you “do” a museum.  So I was interested when I read in our Italy guidebook that you can take cooking classes in Bologna – week-long or half day classes.  I decided to give it a shot.  I called up La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese and asked if I could take a class the next day.  They had to check because they already had a family taking a class.  The family apparently approved because I was able to go.  I was very happy to get up and go in the morning.  It was the day we were leaving Bologna to go to Ferrara so I had to speed it up to pack up, eat breakfast and walk to the school.  I didn’t find out until I arrived that we would be making pasta from scratch.

Making pasta reminded me of when I made macaroni with my Nana as a kid.  There were two little girls with their parents in the class.  They both had a good time and they seemed excited when I told them how, when I was a kid, my parents let me cook dinner one night a week.  My night was Monday so, every Sunday my Mom and I would think about what I would make and what she needed to buy at the supermarket to make it happen.  Believe it or not, I think I was spoiled in my way.  Now I’m grown up and I’m snobby about fast food and I always want “good” home cooked food.

Anyway, in the class we made Tagliatelle, Tortelloni, Tortellini and Farfalle.  The Tortelloni were filled with the standard mix of ricotta, Parmesan (young – aged 24 months), parsley (or was it spinach?) and fresh grated nutmeg.  The Tortellini were filled with ground mortadella and prosciutto mixed with Parmesan (old – aged 30 months).  Tagliatelle easy to make.  We rolled out the dough very thin.  Then we rolled it up and cut it to make the thin flat strips.

After all the cooking, we had lunch – our pasta that was cooked for us and served in four courses. By mid afternoon I left happy and full and T- caught me acting all proud with my diploma.

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Once we were settled a bit in Bologna we started to check out the city.  Our first stop was the Anatomy Theather (Teatro Anatomico) in the Palazzo dell ‘Archiginasio. As you walk through the halls, the walls of the Archiginasio are full of insignias of families of teachers and students.  T- looked for her family name with no luck.

The Anatomy Theater is the room where anatomy classes were held at the University of Bologna – which is said to be the first university in Europe.  There is still a marble table in the middle of the room where human bodies were dissected.  Inquisitors would watch the dissections to make sure no heretical discoveries were made.  The walls, the seating and the statues in the room are all made of wood.  One statue is a skinless man standing up and the Greek God Apollo is carved on the ceiling.

Another interesting spot is the San Petronio Basilica right on the Piazza Maggiore.  There is really long sundial on the floor which was used to determine that the Julian calendar needed to be revised to include a leap year.  This is not your typical sundial – not a round disk with a piece of metal sticking up from the middle.  I think it works with the sunlight coming in through the windows.  It seems neat but I was baffled as to how to read it.  In the same church they have a replica of Foucault’s Pendulum, which proved that the earth spins around.

Later in the day, as we passed by the San Petronio Basilica again, we heard a street musician playing inspired mandolini – the instrument was absolutely singing – in one of the covered walkways nearby.  I gave him some pocket change.  But, I told T- that we needed to leave before I dropped all the cash we had into the guitar case.

I went up one of the towers just east of Piazza Maggiore.  They make you pay a couple of Euros to climb the stairs.  The tower is leaning over and you can see all the work that has been done to try to make the tower structurally sound.  There has been a lot of study (forensic engineering) on this and the neighboring tower, which is also leaning over.

After walking around all day we picked up a cheap dinner – falafel sandwich and a tirakopita – and walked down to the main square to watch a movie.

On the next day, we visited the Basilica de Saint Dominic, where the founder of the Dominican Order is buried. The tomb has an angel that was sculptured by a teenager Michelangelo.  After that, we walk more around town and planned the next couple of days.

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I am not a consumerist but I would like to have bought something in every country we visited so far.  In Turkey I would have liked a nice set of tea cups and a large board of backgammon. In Greece, two/three pairs of sandals. In Italy it would be hard to pinpoint. Strolling around the nicely shaded colonnaded walkways of Bologna, I felt for the first time the urge to shop and wondered how nice it would be to not be traveling on a budget. So many nice stores: clothes, house items, lingerie, travel accessories.  We did not leave with empty hands as E- got his first Speedo after we ventured into many stores. We both got neck pillows in a store I loved. I even wanted to take a photo in there but they wouldn’t allow it.

After our debacle at the hostel, where we had microwaved frozen pasta (out of sheer desperation) and the “breakfast included” consisted of ONE! slice of bread per person, our breakfasts were better at Hotel Panorama.  They even had a nice cappuccino machine – just press this button here!  E- thought he was going to cut down on coffee on this trip but so far that has not happened.  Our first lunch was the only time we ordered the three-course menu as it was a good, all-inclusive, price and we could share it.  We had tortelloni with sauce of butter and some kind of herb.  Then we had steak and then a salad.  The three course thing is not for everyone and we only did that once.  In general we would each order a plate of pasta.  I even tried and liked the tortelloni with pumpkin filling.  Of course we had plenty of gelato.

In the evenings, we took advantage of the free movies at the Piazza Maggiore. Sabato: Sedotta e Abbandonata. E- identified some of my family traits (hand gestures and such) from their Italian origins and we discussed the role of the girl in all the problems generated.  Strangely, E- blamed the problems more on the behavior of the men while I thought the girl was also to blame – that she wasn’t just a victim.  Domenica: Arizona Jr. (Raising Arizona) Coen Brothers – the movie was funny and we met a Brazilian and Lunedi: Fargo Coen Brothers- strange, even more how people can complicate their lives for so little.

The city of Bologna also provides three hours per day of free Internet usage.  You can either use their wired computers or your own with the wireless network.  It came in pretty handy because our hotel did not have Internet at all.

Bologna was a great place to stay.  Italian lifestyle suits us.

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We arrived in Ancona, Italy and walked (in scorching sun) to the train station with a Mexican guy we met on the ferry.  He seemed to think that it was helpful to leave the ferry with us because they paid a lot less attention to his passport…  At the train station, we got so engrossed in playing backgammon that we missed the first train – by a very irritating split second.  When we arrived in Bologna it was a few minutes before the buses would stop running.

We selected without much thought to stay at a hostel listed in our guidebook and took off on a bus.  We asked the driver which stop to get out and he answered the last stop, which already did not sound that nice.  We waited on the bus, window watching, some nice neighborhoods, some not so nice and then empty spaces.  At some point we decided to go talk again with the driver who said that we had just passed the last stop (quite Greek even though we were in Italy).  So we got off what its seemed to be a road on the outskirt of town with our bags at around 12AM, not sure of where to go.

Travelers have a special angel and a woman who was in the bus got off at the same station as us and came to ask if we were going to the hostel.  She said that she was going there too and that she got distracted and missed the right stop.  We were first a bit weary but she was certainly a great help as it would be quite hard to find the place in the dark.  We got to the hostel exhausted and starving and our first meal in Bologna was microwaved frozen pasta.

Next morning, we decided that it made no sense to stay so far from the center of town and that we should move to another place.  We tried to pay our bill with a credit card but their machine was broken and we had no cash on us.  The guy in the reception told me that if I walked about 20-min I should be able to find an ATM.  So I went walking, while E- stayed behind.  The walk was not good as it was at the side of a road with no side-walk.  The sun was of course scalding hot and when I finally reached the mentioned ATM… well, it was out of service.

We ended up leaving my passport at the place to prove that eventually we would come back to pay and we went together to town.  A couple of hours later we were well installed at the Albergo Panorama, refreshed and ready to start living the La Doce Vitta.  In the late afternoon, E- went back to the hostel to pay our bill while I stayed around the Piazza Maggiore.

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Ferry to Italy

Neither of us have ever been on such a massive ship.  The ferry we took to Italy had ten stories.  We explored maybe one twentieth of the area of the ship.  Shortly after we got on I went out onto the top deck.  Massive!  Then I went to sleep…  The area where we slept had no windows and most of the lights were off and the room was mostly empty.

The next morning I woke up well rested.  Eventually, we went to get breakfast.  It was a shock see the sunlight and to see that we were moving quite fast.  Breakfast was served cafeteria style and we had to pay.  It was about 10 EUR total for the two of us.  We got there a few minutes before breakfast was over so the choices were slim.

We wanted to check the Internet and we knew we had to pay (3 EUR for 15 minutes).  The challenge was to find someone behind the desk who would take our money and give us the information we needed.  T- had started checking at the reception desk 20 minutes after we got on the boat at night.  After returning to the desk maybe five times we finally found an able body and paid up at about 1PM the following day.  By checking email, we got good news about seeing friends in Paris.  We had no real plans to go to Paris on this trip.  But, knowing that someone we knew would be there and wanted to see us, made us want to go, and made us expect to have a nice time there.  My experiences on this trip so far have taught me that it is my interactions with people who make me either love a place or dislike it.  Beautiful buildings, ancient ruins, fantastic landscapes, all of these are wonderful.  But the best memories I’ve had so far are of people.

Back to the ferry ride.  It was well worth and we highly recommend this mean of transportation that is more comfortable than plane and buses and cheaper than train.  One surprise although was the security check.  So far on this trip, we have been having such a smooth time on checking points.  After getting used with all the bureaucracy of getting in and around the US, Europe in general is a piece of cake.  After the European Union once you are in, you can almost freely move around.  It is true that now I am also traveling with an European passport, but this borders was just to easy.  Nobody even looked at our passports, they barely checked our tickets.  Well, well. The goods:  very quick and easy. The bad: not a single stamp to show on my passport of the places I have been so far ;-(

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