Semana Santa 2009

On the morning on April 9th, Andy, our roommate Stephen and I fly to Madrid and then to Rome to begin our epic adventure to Italy. We started in Rome, moved up to Florence and then over to the coastal villages Cinque Terre before flying back home again. Two things before I get started that apply to the following tales. Number One – I hate, hate pigeons. I think they are really gross and I get mad at them on a consistent basis. There were tons of them all over the place in Italy. Number Two – I had never been to Italy before and never really knew what to expect but the stereotypes proved themselves true. The food is divine and the men can be major creepers.

Day 1. Flying Madrid Flying
Our discount flights on both ends forced us to pack very light and deal with a six hour layover in Madrid. What a blessing both of these factors was for our trip. When we landed in Madrid, we hauled ourselves across the airport and onto the metro as quickly as possible to get into the city. And although Madrid can be extremely cold and miserable during the winter, we hit prime springtime sunshine. We wandered around the city and finally stopped at a cafe for tapas. I had fried eggs with carmelized onions and bread topped with sauteed mushrooms. The food was different from Mallorca just as the atmosphere seemed to be. So much more Spanish. We ordered gelato at a street side gelateria and then laid down in the park to soak up as much sun as possible before we headed back to the airport. We already agreed to get cab to get to our hostel in Rome because we were arriving pretty darn close to the closing of the public transportation system. So we paid the 50 euros and arrived at Plus Camping Fabulous outside of Rome at about 11:30ish. The room we had was very much like a trailer but it fit the bill and it was quiet.

Day 2. Life without a Map
We hit the streets of Rome about as quickly as we could after taking a bus and two metro lines. And since we had not purchased a guide book or a map for our trip, we walked. And Rome is a very walkable place but there is just so much to see that we were exhausted by mid-day. Every street had at least one gorgeous church that you could walk into. And we saw the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. We also discovered a hybrid cafe/candy shop that had cherry marmalade croissants and fantastic espresso. It was a pleasant break from the walking. The end of our day got a bit disappointing because the metro stop we trudged to was closed by the time we got there because the pope was about the arrive. Craziness. So we kept on trudging and finally ended up at home where we promptly drank a liter of Limoncello.

Day 3. Seeing the Old Stuff
We navigated our way to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman forums for a major overdose of really old, very impressive stuff. Inside the Roman forums, Stephen called me a pigeon and I pushed him in response which started a terrible series of events. At first he was in control and laughing but he continued flailing and then he slowly spiraled out of control as his shins hit a low guard rail and he ended up falling onto the forums! Luckily, he didn’t hit anything besides grass and a piece of gum and wasn’t really injured. I felt terrible about the whole thing but it made for a very humorous twist to our Roman Forum experience. We made our way to the Vatican but unfortunately tickets were required for the Easter vigil service. We did sit on the steps of the square and debate some points about Catholicism with Stephen which was an interesting way to spend our time. On the way back to camping fabulous I got stuck in the doors of the metro as they were closing and my shoe flew off. Andy pried the doors open and I made it on but I still have bruises on my legs from being struck by the damn thing.

Day 4. Easter
We woke up extra early to attend mass at the Anglican chuch “Saint Paul’s within-the-walls” partly because the service was in English and then we did a bit more walking. I suggested we check out the Vatican again since the mass with the pope was about over and then we could actually get inside St. Peters. And we did! We were walking against the crowds leaving and thus ended up in a somewhat short line to get into St. Peters. And it really does live up to its reputation. The church is the largest in the world filled with monumental artwork and a triumphant altar by Bernini. One of the wild things about seeing all the artwork in every place we went was that I had studied quite a lot of it in high school and there is a distinctly surreal feeling when you see something you’ve learned about from a textbook in person.

Day 5. Police Run-in and Florence in the Evening
So, the highlight of our trip. Haha. Just kidding. But in all honesty, we were pulled off of a train in Italy by the police. And here’s how it went down:

We bought our train tickets a couple days before leaving from the automated machine and apparently, the tickets are good for a couple months even though when we bought the ticket we selected the date and time of departure. So, for the train ticket checker man (ttcm) to know that you are using the ticket properly, you are supposed to validate the ticket before you get on the train. We had no idea. So when the ttcm came to check our tickets, he looked at the ticket, looked at us and told us we had to pay 50 euros each in fines for the mistake. We refused, obviously. It was totally ridiculous and everyone else on the train told us so. The ttcm clearly was on a corruption power trip and was trying to take advantage of us. The back of the ticket had small print about validation but it didn’t specify that you had to do it before getting on the train and we really had no clue that it would be a problem. Sitting across from us was a very loud and out spoken guy from New Jersey who also forgot to validate his ticket. And the ttcm requested to see his passport and he refused. So I think the ttcm called the police at the next stop and told the police we were all traveling without passports! Meanwhile, the ttcm starts changing his demands and tells us that we should just pay 50 euros between the four of us. And then he said we could pay 50 euros between another group that didn’t validate. It was crazy crazy.

So we ended up off the train in a police office and once we handed over the passports and the crazy ttcm left the office, everything got a lot easier. One of the police officers spoke some spanish and Andy clarified that we were not traveling with the loud and obnoxious New Jerseyite who was being particularly difficult. Then we were on much more solid ground. The police copied our passports and checked that we weren’t terrorists (which, funny story, apparently someone named Andy Holmes with a very similar birth date to Andy is a wanted person!!) So in the end, the police got us onto a later train and we didn’t have to pay anything. It was a bit crazy but we have had a great time in Florence. It is a truly beautiful city and it feels a whole bunch more manageable than the largeness of Rome.

Day 6. Florence
For our first full day in Florence we met Stephen outside his friend Kathy’s apartment where he was staying and headed to a cafe for some ultra-smooth cappucinos and lemon croissants. Then we took off and walked through the city. We stopped by the Uffizi gallery to check on the line and decided to make a reservation for the next day instead of deal with the wait. Since the gallery has a limit of 600 people at a time inside, the line can take hours to get through. So we wandered and met up with Kathy to eat at Mario’s, a trattoria that is a pillar of trendy Florence cuisine at the moment. We only waited about 15 minutes before we were seated in a crowded room stuffed with waitstaff and customers. The menu was posted on the glass separating the kitchen and included such things as a “steak” that was actually a giant slice of beef enough to feed at least four people. I got a traditional tuscan bean and cabbage soup and Andy got a beef stew. The dishes were hearty, simple and absolute divinity. After that, we strolled around a bit more before heading back to Kathy’s and passing out. We were tired. We bought some food and made a tasty meal of spinach, ravioli, salad, pototoe and lamb stew and cheesecake. It was a relief to have a kitchen to cook in and a great money saver.

Day 7. Uffizi Gallery of Everything important from the Italian Renaissance
We had a 12:15 appointment at the Uffizi Gallery so we decided to check out Michelangelo’s statue before hand. And I am glad we did. The statue was amazing. And although Kathy suggested we sneak pictures, a photo wouldn’t translate the beauty and perfection of David. So we grabbed some food on the way back to the Uffizi and spent the next several hours being blown away by the rooms filled with Italian Renaissance artwork. The musuem has the largest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and it was sensory overload. We had to take breaks in the hallways as we made our way through. It was exhausting. So when we finally made it out, we went back to Kathy’s to re-group and rest. That evening, we went to Kathy’s school’s restaurant for apertivo – a series of unlimited snacks available with the cost of a cocktail. We had a great time snacking and drinking and generally relaxing after a busy day.

Day 8. Cinque Terre
We made our way by train to Cinqu Terre, a series of five villages carved into the hillsides above the ocean. We stayed in the 5th in a tiny apartment that was accessible by five sets of stairs that wound into the hill. We were all in awe of the natural beauty and tranquility of Cinque Terre. It was overcast and raining but that didn’t really make a difference. And, Cinqu Terre is in the Ligure region of Italy known for pesto and foccacia. So we meandered about the little town devouring foccacia.

Day 9. Via D’elle Amore
All five of the Cinque Terre villages are united by a path that follows the ocean so we set out early in the morning to walk the paths and explore the villages. This day is best expressed in photos but we were very lucky to miss the one torrential downpour of the day inside of a church next to the ocean. We spent most of the day walking and taking the train when we got tired and when we got home, we took a little nap and then walked to the next town over for dinner. I had spaghetti and Andy had a lobster pasta dish.

Day 10. Back in Rome
We reluctantly made our way back to Rome on a four hour train ride that dragged on and on. We booked a hostel very close to the train station anticipating our early morning flight. Unfortunately, after we went to bed, I had to get up three separate times to try and force the receptionist to intervene in a very intense drinking/yelling session going on outside of our room. It didn’t do too much good. So, I was awake for several hours listening to belligerent Australians and Americans with terrible manners. But oh well. We made it through the night and finally the receptionist kicked them out of the hostel so I got some sleep.

Day 11. Delayed Flight, Madrid, Delayed Flight
Both of our flights we delayed for an hour which was a strange coincidence but we still managed to head into Madrid for a unique meal with another one of Stephen’s friends. Andy had spicy shrimp pasta and I had mushroom croquettes and asparagus risotto. After that, we went to an old chocolateria and ate chocolate and churros for dessert. The meal was the highlight of our long day of travel and finally we made it back home.

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