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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

When in Rome…

Paris one weekend, Rome the next! I’ve just arrived back in Cannes after a really fun and busy weekend in Rome! I apologize if this blog ends up being short – really tired and still have things to do!

After three very short busy days at the College, I headed off to Rome with Megan, Leah, and Regina. We were going to meet up with Andrew, Evans and Ryan who had left the night before. We left pretty soon after morning class on Friday, and we left early since the Chinese president was visiting in Nice and Sarkozy was going to be there, so we were expecting a lot of traffic from blocked roads and a lot of security. We had no problems and we were at the airport super early! Always better to be early with these sorts of things, I suppose. This was my first flight with EasyJet – a very popular cheap airline here, similar to Ryan Air. We didn’t realize that when they said one bag, they meant ONE bag. Purses count as one bag – ugh! Luckily, we had enough room inside our real bags to fit our purses.

We arrived in Rome just fine (less than an hour flight to get to Rome – how cool is that?) and had to take an express train to get into the city center – the airport is actually really far away from all the tourist sights. We made it onto the train just a few minutes before it left – and we arrived about 45 minutes later. We stepped out of the station and realized it was kind of a sketchy area – not the best well lit and tons of graffiti. Welcome to Rome. I wasn’t worried  – there were 4 of us, and if you walk confidently and are aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine. We had to find our new hotel – our reservation had changed. It was in a new location, but same owners. There was no reception area at the new hotel, so we had to call the owner to let us in. We found the hotel fairly quickly, but had to try several times before we reached the owner, Barbara, who only really spoke Italian. Luckily, she arrived within 15 minutes and the room was great – kind of apartment style without a kitchen. There was a big open entry room with a computer (free access!) and some things for breakfast. There were 2 huge bathrooms (both with a shower and bidet!) and we had a nice room with a double bed and 2 twin beds. Barbara was very helpful in telling us where we should go – she drew all over the map she gave me. We met up with the guys for dinner, and spent a calm evening enjoying bruschetta and pizza before deciding to call it an early night so we could get up early for a long day of sight seeing.

The next day, Saturday, Leah and I split off since we were going to see the Vatican in the afternoon, and the others weren’t too interested in that. All of the tourist sights in Rome are actually really close together and it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes of walking between the sights. It was funny to us that Rome only has 2 metro lines, after we had just been in Paris which has the best metro in the world! We each bought a day pass for the metro, which gave us unlimited rides on the metro until midnight. We actually didn’t use the metro too much since the stops are not always convenient. Anyway – we set off toward the Colosseum in the morning – it was great! So hard to believe that something that old is still standing today. It’s impressively huge, and surrounded by tourists and a bizillion street vendors selling things like scarves, bouncy putty, and other trinkets. Again, we had the impulse to respond in French and one vendor brusquely corrected our Merci with Grazie. The lines were really long, and we didn’t think we would have time to see all of the Colosseum and the Roman ruins before we had to go to the Vatican. We had bought our Vatican tickets online the day before, for 1pm and we weren’t sure how strict the Vatican was about showing up on time for your ticket.

We still had quite a bit of time before the Vatican, so we decided to go to the Trevi fountain. It was a bit of a walk, and we got turned around a few times (Roman streets are hard to follow! The name changes about every block, even though you’re on the same road). The fountain was beautiful, and mobbed by tourists. I can’t imagine how this place would be during high tourist season! We saw Regina, Andrew and Megan there and hung out with them a little bit. We each threw in a coin – if you throw a coin into the fountain, you’re destined to come back!

Leah and I continued to the Vatican, and had no problem getting our ticket. I didn’t see a long line to get in, but I was still happy that we had bought our ticket ahead of time. Everything in the Vatican was very decorated – kind of reminded me of Versailles. Every surface was covered in something – nearly always artwork – especially the ceilings! There are tons of museums there – we wandered through a couple before admitting to ourselves we weren’t interested and really just wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. We still had to walk through 10-15 more rooms of art before we made it there, and it was AMAZING. It’s overwhelming when you walk inside. Literally every surface is painted – and it’s all incredible. It was so much to take in all at once, and there are tons of tourists in there. The poor guys who have to work in there just wander around saying “No Photo” and “Silencio” (Leah and I did sneak a couple pictures…shhhh). We stayed in there for a while, reveling in the fact that we were in THE SISTINE CHAPEL…before hunger drove us onward. We grabbed a quick bite of pizza at the Vatican pizzeria, since it wasn’t outrageously priced and we still wanted to see St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Basilica was just as amazing as the Sistine Chapel – jaw dropping as you walk in just because everything is so decorated and ornate and it’s just SO BIG. Also got to see Michelangelo’s La Pieta there, and St. Peter’s tomb. We couldn’t actually see the tomb, just the area where it was, but it was surrounded by people and it’s difficult to see anyway. We didn’t really want to leave the Vatican, but we were so tired at that point that we had to keep moving to not fall asleep everytime we sat down!

We headed to the Spanish Steps to spend a little time there and ran into Regina, Andrew and Megan again! Kind of amazing we found each other since there were so many people there! There was a military brass band playing, so it was nice to have some music to accompany the gorgeous sunset. We all headed to the Trevi fountain to see it again at night (gorgeous!) and Leah and I went on a hunt for canolis. I had my first canoli (when better than in Italy?) and I liked it – though I think it’s too much filling for me. We headed back to the hotel to relax a little bit before dinner – which was amazing!! We went to a little place near the Colosseum called L’Archetto – a restaurant recommended to us by Megan’s friend. I had the lasagna – and it was so delicious!! and tiramisu for dessert – I figured I should have it now before I left Italy, since I don’t know when I’ll be back. It was so delicious – and so nice to have such a great meal!

Today, we woke up early because we were all going to go to the Colosseum before we had to leave to get on the train back to the airport. Only Megan and I ended up going, since the others thought it was too expensive. It was a bit more expensive than any other museums I’ve seen (it was 12 euro) but what’s 12 euro in the long run? How many times in my life will I have the chance to go into the Colosseum?? We did argue with the teller for a little while – he wouldn’t accept that we were E.U. students and therefore wouldn’t give us the student discount. Apparently a student visa and proof that we live here is not enough – to him, it had to be a European passport, not American. It’s things like this about Italy that make me prefer France. The Colosseum was great – so cool to see. We walked around the Colosseum for a while and then wandered around the Roman ruins nearby. Spending our Sunday morning wandering through thousands of years old Roman ruins, no big deal. I love study abroad.

We made it back to Cannes safely and without problems (no getting stranded this time!). It’s too bad I won’t be going back to Italy again, though I’ve decided I prefer France. Time is definitely flying by now (very bittersweet!!). Now, only 3 days until Lyon!

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Well. I’m not quite sure where to begin to try and describe my recent weekend in Cinque Terre, Italy.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Many of my friends have been to this wonderful place before – the Cinque Terre – and after hearing their stories and googling pictures, I decided I just had to go. The Cinque Terre is 5 towns along the Italian Riviera, and it is just absolutely gorgeous – you hike between the 5 towns: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. It’s not a place you go to see museums and monuments, but instead to be in nature and appreciate the natural beauty. And when better to go than when I’m already here in France with some open weekends? I started looking into it,  and Leah and Alejandra said they would come with me. I went last Tuesday to ask about train tickets from Cannes to the Cinque Terre – and it looked like it would work, especially since it only cost about 50 euro for there AND back! Things were looking good.

We started to get a little worried if we would even be able to go…because there is an ongoing strike (la grève) throughout France because the government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. France loves la bonne vie, and la grève is a national pastime. They strike for everything. And, more than 2/3 of the French agree with la grève – they do not want to work for 2 more years! It’s not just that it is 2 years, they believe it is a slippery slope…if it is 2 years this time, how much will it be next time? Younger generations and highschoolers are protesting as well. There are tons of protests every day and transportation has been on strike. It has not yet been a full strike where there are no buses or trains, but instead there may be one train for every three normally, so it is a little difficult to figure out which trains or buses are available when. Everything is very organized though – you can go online and see what is available when, and the strikes are planned in advance. The National Assembly has already voted on the reform and it has passed, so now it goes to the Senate which will vote (tomorrow night!) – if it passes, then it becomes law.So, I had checked on Tuesday with the train station but they told us to come back later because they weren’t sure if there was going to be a strike on Saturday, the day we wanted to go. Alejandra checked in again on Thursday, and they said they never know if they will be on strike until the day before, so we would have to come back tomorrow. So…Friday we all headed to the station, ready to buy our tickets if they said yes, but completely expecting a no. And we were pleasantly surprised! The trains we wanted would not be affected, and within minutes we had tickets to Italy!!! We were so excited – our first trip to Italy!

We got up bright and early Saturday morning for our long trip of train transfers – our first train left Cannes at 7:10am, so we had to leave the Collège at about 6:30am. We got there with about 10 minutes to spare, but Alejandra needed to use the ATM first to get some cash. For some reason, it didn’t work – and we figured the machine was broken, and didn’t have time to mess with it since our train was leaving in about 4 minutes. We made it just fine, and we were on our way! Our first layover was an hour in Monaco – so we headed out of la gare for a little petit dejeuner at a café – some tea and croissants :) Then we were back on the train, headed to Ventimiglia, one of the first stops over the France/Italy border. We noticed some differences right away once we crossed the border – the buildings are similar but have enough differences, and everything is in Italian! None of us speak any Italian, but between the 3 of us, we had three languages to work with – we all speak English and French, and Alejandra speaks Spanish as well. We were really excited when we got off in Ventimiglia for a 45-minute wait before our next train – we were in ITALY! We stepped off the train and heard all this Italian around us and thought, “this is definitely not French…and I have no idea what they are saying.” We headed down the stairs to use the toilet and were shoved down the stairs by a pack of nuns. Welcome to Italy. I was waiting in the excessively long line for the toilet, since there were only 3 stalls and no one was using the second one because there was poop on the floor…and then the woman ahead of me got stuck in the stall! The door wouldn’t open! She started banging on the door and yelling, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, and everyone was looking around with a look of I’m not sure what to do in this situation. Some guys arrived and started to try to ram down the door…it was my turn to use the bathroom then, so I didn’t see the victorious liberation from the bathroom stall, but I heard everyone cheering once she was released.

We're in ITALY! In Ventimiglia

We headed out into the town to explore a little bit, and Alejandra tried another ATM. The ATM said the transaction was terminated and returned her card. Crap. We tried again at another ATM…and realized that her card had been deactivated. Luckily, Leah and I had enough cash and money on our cards to pay for her throughout the weekend – no problem, but an inconvenience. We wandered through a market with some of the biggest mushrooms I have ever seen, stands selling just pasta, and a huge flower market (though later we realized all the flowers were fake!). We headed back to the station and got on the next train headed for Genova, which was fine, but a long ride – about 2 hours. We arrived in Genova and needed to buy a regional ticket to one of the towns in Cinque Terre – we had decided on Corniglia because it is the third town, and that way we could hike in either direction to 2 towns as we wished. We got to the counter and asked English? Français? Espangol? and the woman replied, “english…poquito.” The story of our trip – no one spoke French or Spanish, and the Italians we encountered spoke broken English. We managed to get our tickets for Corniglia, but the train didn’t leave for another hour and we would have to change trains yet again in Monterosso. But at that point – qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire? We took the tickets and grabbed a quick kebab before hopping on the train. We accidentally sat in first class to Monterosso (luckily didn’t get caught) but in our defense, it was not marked well at all (we saw as we were leaving that it was a piece of notebook paper taped to the side of the door that said first class).

The 5th and final train!!

We arrived in Monterosso….and it was raining. Damn. We were not prepared for this – I had quickly looked online for the weather and it had said 60 and mostly sunny for Saturday with only 20% chance of rain. None of us had rain jackets or umbrellas, and we had packed mostly shorts and t-shirts since we figured we would be hiking and would get hot. Alas. On the last train, (train #5 of the day) the 10 minute train to Corniglia…one of the workers came around to check tickets. He checked Alejandra’s, frowned, then started talking to her and pulled out his write-a-ticket book. Turns out we didn’t stamp our tickets – you’re supposed to stamp those tickets because you buy them without a specific date/time on them, so you have to stamp them so they know you’ve used it just for this one trip – but we didn’t see any stamp machines anywhere! Besides, on the French tickets it says quite clearly at the top of the ticket that you have to validate your ticket before you get on the train – and it said it no where on the Italian ticket! Even it was on there somewhere, we wouldn’t have been able to read it in Italian! In France, the stamp machines are right in front of you…turns out in Italy they are tiny and hidden in the corner. Ugh. So he said, “this time you pay 5…next time you pay 50!” Whatever…but we weren’t in a position to argue, especially with a language barrier, so we just paid the 15 euro. And after, he just left! Didn’t check any other tickets, and if he would have started at the other end of the car, we would have gotten away without the stupid fine. But, we were finally in Corniglia!! We stepped out into the rain and headed for the information booth. There was no one there…so we just started to walk up the hill figuring we would run into the town. We were right – and luckily it let up raining about halfway up the hill.

uhh...where is she taking us?

It was already about 5pm by then (the trains took way longer than I expected with all the time inbetween), so the first order of business was to get a hotel room. Since we had just gotten our tickets the night before, we hadn’t had time to book someplace to stay, and figured we could find some place once we arrived, especially since it’s the off-season. We started to look for rooms, and saw on the door next to us that it said “rooms”…and this old lady in the window above us who had been watching us called down to us and presumably told us to stay there. She met us – sweet old plump lady with glasses and thinning hair who didn’t speak a word of English. She asked us how many nights…we said one, and she smiled and started to walk in the other direction. We were expecting the rooms to be right there in that same building, so we were a bit surprised and unsure…but started to follow her anyway. Hmmm. She kept walking. And walking. And walking. Alejandra and I exchanged some bemused glances…thinking, “is she actually leading us to a room? where are we going? is she just crazy or something? She looks too sweet and old to try and harm us…?” After what seems like forever, she finally stopped and lead us inside a building, up some stairs, and into a room. The first thing I noticed is a big double bed and thought, but there are three of us…eh, we can all fit. I was so tired and we just needed a place to stay. She pointed to the closet in the corner and said something in Italian…we just exchanged unsure glances, and she pulled down a bed from inside the closet. Sweet. It took a little while to figure out the price – Alejandra was better at deciphering the Italian than Leah and I – but it was only 25 euros each, so we paid her and managed Si and Grazie until she smiled and hobbled away. Well, at least we had a place to stay – with a huge bathroom!

We dropped our stuff and headed out to explore the town – it was really cold out and it didn’t take very long since it’s a pretty small place. We stopped at an internet café so we could email our director our hotel information and for Alejandra to try and figure out why her card wasn’t working. This one balding and toothless man kept coming in to talk to us, and left with “Ciao. Good night. Sleep well. Think of me.” We stopped at a nearby open restaurant for dinner – I had some spaghetti with paprika, and we discovered that the couple at the table next to us was from New Brighton, MN!! It’s a small world after all. We headed back to the room, exhausted, and freezing – there didn’t seem to be any heat in the room despite the storm outside, and the covers were very thin! Leah and I took the double bed and agreed that it would be understood if we woke up spooning. We set an alarm for 7am so we could wake up early and get a full day of hiking in, hoping that the storm would blow over during the night.

Our alarm went off at 7am, but we could hear the howling wind and pouring rain outside. UGH. Leah actually went downstairs and looked outside and reported back that it was pretty ugly out…so we promptly went back to sleep and woke up again at 9:30am, since we had to be out of the room by 10am. Luckily by then, it was still really windy but not raining! Nothing was going to stop us from hiking, but we would prefer not to hike in the rain. We pulled out all the long sleeved layers we brought (which wasn’t much) and passed them around so everyone had at least something! I layered 4 shirts under my track jacket and was very happy I had brought a scarf. Poor Alejandra hadn’t even brought pants – she only had shorts and leggings. We headed out and met the old lady along the way, who was coming to collect the keys from us. We managed some more Buongiorno, Si, and Grazie before we continued to a little cafe for breakfast of bread and jam and yogurt – yum!

Leah!

We didn’t get on the trail until about 11am at this point, and had to buy a ticket before hiking…but we were on our way to Vernazza! The views made all the struggle worth it – it was absolutely gorgeous, despite the wind and rain. The path was a bit strenuous, mostly because all the stones were slippery from the rain, but nothing too bad. It  was so great to be out in nature and hiking, and we reachered Vernazza in about 90 minutes. We even managed to fool a couple people that we didn’t speak English, since we were speaking French at the time! I felt as if I needed to get credit that I speak another language…it just happened to not be the language of the country we were in! We took tons of pictures, and once we had reached Vernazza, we decided to just continue along to Monterosso to catch a train back to Genova.

Corniglia in the background

Looking back at Corniglia

Leah, me, Alejandra at Vernazza!

Vernazza

with Monterosso al Mare in the distance

The second hike was a bit more difficult, mostly because there were so.many.stairs. We probably climbed over a thousand stairs that day! Many times, the path was only wide enough for one person, and a substantial fall would be just on the other side over the ledge. Some people still insisted there was enough room to pass on a clearly one-person trail…and we came close to falling a couple times. We were tired by the time we reached Monterosso al Mare, about 1.5-2 hours later. We went straight to the station to check for tickets, and it’s a good thing we did because the teller first offered us tickets to Genova that arrived at 4:58pm…and our train left from Genova at 4:55pm. Not good – little panic moment there, until she said, “oh, a fast train…” and we got tickets for a train leaving in 15 minutes that would get us to Genova by 4:15pm. Sweet. We had just enough time to grab a sandwich and eat quickly, and we made it onto the train just fine.

We had a little problem once we got on the train though…Alejandra and I went to our seats and saw that our compartment had the curtains drawn. I opened the door and fumbled open the curtains to find 6 people about our age in there already seated, half of them asleep. We just stared at them for a minute and began to explain that they were in our seats, and one guy tried to tell us (in Italian, of course) to take their seats elsewhere…we were about to argue more, but then Leah called to us that there were open seats in her compartment. We threw them some annoyed looks before taking a seat in Leah’s compartment. This was fine until about 45 minutes into the ride, when other people came to tell us that we were in their seats. So Alejandra and I headed back to the other compartment, ready to get our seats back, and they were being really stupid and uncooperative, trying to make it seem like we were in the wrong. I was about to call the attendant over when they let us in – they put 4 people in a 3 person spot…so Alejandra and I had spots…but really?? Why can’t they just go sit where they are assigned? They are causing a chain of problems for everyone else. We sat in an awkward/annoyed silence for a little while, until luckily some more people came along and told them they were in the wrong seats, so they all got up and left. Did they not have a ticket? Probably – but it’s annoying that they tried to make it look like it was us who made the mistake and caused problems for everyone else.

The rest of the journey passed without problem. Our train from Genova to Ventimiglia left about 20 minutes late, but that ride was uneventful. So, we reached Ventimiglia at 7:35pm and according to our itinerary, the next train to Monaco should be at 7:43pm. The woman in the compartment with us asked if we were heading to France, and warned us that there was a grève going on and we might not be able to get trains. We smiled and said thank you, mentally blowing her off and thinking thanks lady, but that was yesterday. Since we only had 8 minutes before our train left, we hurried inside to find the platform number. We looked up on the screen and saw all the trains to Monaco are “sopresso.” Shit. No no no no no. We need to get back to France – we can’t be stuck in Italy! This was just the icing on the cake of our less than well planned weekend. We verified with the ticket counter…no more trains until 6am the next day! It was time to call Beth, our program director, to let her know we were stranded and to see if she could somehow help us. We had to go to the station café/store to buy a phone card first – all the while analyzing our options. Option 1 – find a place to stay and stay here until 6am for the next train. Option 2 – maybe someone from the Collège can somehow come get us? Option 3 – some guy nearby tells us there is a bus headed toward Nice/Cannes that leaves at 11:30pm.We liked option 2 the best. The guy, fairly young guy from Romania named John, tried to help us figure out the phone – and after about 300 tries, we got through to Beth. Apparently we had been dialing the phone number incorrectly since we didn’t put in the right international code first. We are so lucky we were stranded on a weekend that Beth had rented a car for sightseeing! She and her partner Ross said they would look up directions and leave right away to come get us – we were saved!! John made some small talk with us, and gave me his number “in case you want to have a drink or something some time” which I couldn’t refuse since he had just helped us, but really not wanting to be hit on as we had just been contemplating our strategy of surviving a night in the Ventimiglia train station.

no chairs...thanks Italy.

We still had some time to kill, and we were really hungry. We headed out into the town to find a restaurant, but everything was closed up (which is surprising since at least restaurants are open on Sundays in France), but we didn’t want to wander too far from the station late at night. We returned to the station and decided to eat in the café there – they had a decent selection, but it was so confusing trying to figure out how to select what you want and then pay for it. We first saw some tables, and sat down expecting a waiter to come, as it said on the nearby sign. A waitress did appear, but just spoke to us in Italian and left. Apparently we didn’t understand the system. We decided the tables were too confusing and there looked to be an easier “a la carte” section. We tried telling the guy we just wanted some pizza, but apparently you don’t just tell them what you want and they give it to you and you pay. No, it has to be much less efficient and more confusing – you have to go to the separate cashier away from the food, tell them exactly what you want, pay, and then you show your receipt to the guy serving food.

We hung out on the station floor next to a hobo-looking guy playing Sodoku until Beth arrived! We were saved!! It was a great trip, despite the problems, and a great story now! I think I’ve decided I prefer traveling with a little more planning, but would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY.

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