May 23, 2012 § 2 Comments
I gave myself four and a half days to enjoy the Cinque Terre. Meaning “five lands” in Italian, the centuries old cliff towns are quintessential Italy. The many other tourists seem to think so too, but they are the likeable kind (if a bit crunchy). They’re backpackers and hikers, pesto-lovers and wine-lovers. They also seem to be French, for the most part. People come here for the walking and the vistas. There is an exciting lack of Things To Do in these tiny coastal towns, and I came for the indulgent purpose of relaxation.
My hostel wasn’t a hostel as much as a very small apartment stuffed with beds. The owner, a friendly man named Luciano, exclaimed over my young age as he looked at my passport and handed me my keys. In the room already were two Quebecois girls and a few older guys from Chicago. Starving, I rushed off to lunch at the nearest restaurant I could find. I ate a regional specialty (which I can’t remember the name of) involving three circular, flat noodles. Each was slathered with a different sauce: pesto, ragu, and olive oil and Parmesan. The Johnny Depp lookalike in Florence had mentioned that Liguria is known for its pesto. It tasted different from any pesto I’d eaten: vivid green, so fresh, and delicious. According to Bon Appétit, Ligurian chefs blanch the basil quickly, which “heightens its color and mellows its flavor”. Then, they purée every ingredient but the olive oil before splashing the sauce with pasta water. That way, the pesto coats every piece of pasta. The May issue of the magazine has a good Ligurian pesto with spaghetti recipe.
I was staying in Riomaggiore, the first town. The town center was comprised of one street with a few co-ops, restaurants, specialty food stores, souvenir shops, and one bar (staffed by some very sassy middle-aged Italian men). Cats lounged lazily in the hot, midday sun. Church bells rang at an ear-splitting volume. Fat, butter-yellow lemons swayed from trees, one of the many reminders I was far, far way from England. Having investigated the entire town within an hour, I happily read on the rocks by the water. Apparently I didn’t “need” four and a half days for the Cinque Terre, but I certainly wanted them.
The next morning I walked the 15 minutes to Manarola, the next town over. The popular custom is to trek the entire Cinque Terre in one day. The sequence of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare takes around five hours in all. However, October flooding damaged much of the coast, so you couldn’t do it all by walking. Luckily, the most scenic path was open for tourists. The Via dell’ Amore stretches along a cliff face overlooking the Mediterranean, and it’s certainly a romantic walk. The walls, rocks, and even cacti are inscribed with couples’ names and grand proclamations of love. I saw backpacking couples holding hands along the way and had a vague vision on the future.
There was a bit more going on in Manarola, but it still took me little time to see the whole of it. The view of the town jutting out of the rock face is perhaps the most scenic of the five. After a stroll, I relaxed at Da Aristide, which sold the cheapest espresso at 70 cents a cup. I had just ordered a cappuccino when a woman brought from the kitchen a fresh batch of thick, warm focaccia smothered with olive oil, herbs, and roasted tomatoes. I couldn’t resist, and it was so, so good. That pairing quickly became my breakfast of choice in the Cinque Terre. Later on I ate a lunch of fresh swordfish and a light green salad. I opted for a locally made white wine, which they craft from the terraced vineyards marking the hills. Each town has its own unique wine. It was the best white I’ve ever tried. The wine was pale-colored, buttery, and tasted like distilled sunshine. After a languorous lunch, I realized that I’d settled into the rhythm of the Italian countryside. I spent all my time in the Cinque Terre reading good books, weaving good conversation, eating good food, and drinking good wine. I never knew what time it was, or what day. After a year of intense pressure to see everything, do everything, and go everywhere, it was absolutely marvelous to have all the time in the world to simply sit and savor.
I spent the rest of the late afternoon back in Riomaggiore with a new hostelmate, a French Canadian named Marilyn. We split a bottle of white on the rocky beach and talked about love and life. It’s amazing how much you can have in common with someone you’ve just met. The sun gradually turned dark gold. I admired the confidence of a darkly tanned, middle-aged man sitting with his wife nearby. He wore the tiniest pair of hot pink swimming briefs. Only in Europe. Marilyn and I decided to buy more provisions (including a pizza each) and return to watch the blood orange sunset. That night we met even more 20-something travelers and had a boisterous reunion with the Canadians I’d met my last night in Florence (who were staying in Riomaggiore as well).
On Wednesday morning I met the Canadians for breakfast along with a trio of 19-year-old guys from Ontario. The new Canadians and I ended up spending most of the day together. We took the train to Monterosso, the farthest town. It’s a bit more touristy and doesn’t have the same narrow streets and charm of the other towns. It does, however, have an actual sand beach. I wanted to keep up the “tan” (read: freckled burn) I’d acquired in Turkey.
On the beach, we spotted sea kayaks for rent and took some out right away. The water was tranquil and turquoise near the shore. I dove off my kayak at one point to cool off, only to see later the giant, pink jellyfish under the water. Not content to float, the boys suggested hitting the big waves farther out. So I found myself catching air on immense swells and working arm muscles I hadn’t used for ages. It was exhilarating to battle the waves and barely avoid capsizing. Every time I glanced back at the seaside view, I couldn’t believe how pretty it was. We eventually headed back to shore, completely exhausted from kayaking against the wind but happy. The four of us grabbed some gelato and a train to Manarola, where someone had heard there were good spots for cliff jumping. Unfortunately, the beach was fenced off, so we watched the waves for a while then parted ways.
Back at the hostel, I met an Australian girl named Mel, a young, professional show diver traveling solo for a few months. Inexplicably, swimming always makes me crave pizza, so she and I grabbed wine and pizzas to watch the sunset from the start of the Via dell’ Amore. We ended up back at the bar later with an even larger crowd of Canadians, old and new.
Thursday marked my last full day in the Cinque Terre. Mel and I walked to Manarola in the morning so I could introduce her to my focaccia and espresso cafe. We also bought little heart-shaped, custard-filled donuts. I’d long ago adopted a “why not, you’re in Italy” attitude, and they were scrumptious. From Manarola we trained to Corniglia, the next town over. Corniglia is definitely the most beautiful town to walk around in; the streets are tiny and colorful, offering random glimpses of the sea. There was an afternoon lull, with only the sound of laundry flapping in the breeze and the occasional shouts of children.
Mel and I followed the signs for Vernazza. We had suspicions the trail was closed due to storm damage, but plowed through anyway and no one stopped us. We panted up steep, rocky paths and scrambled over construction sites and abandoned rock slides. After a while, we established the path was definitely closed and under reconstruction, but we were too far along to go back and the views were too pretty. We were intrepid explorers, braving nature. The time passed quickly with conversation and soon we came upon Vernazza. We noticed on the way out a sign announcing the trail was closed. There wasn’t much to see in Vernazza. It had suffered the brunt of the damage in October and the whole town was under repair.
Mel and I grabbed a train to Monterosso for some much needed lunch. I had a bellini, spaghetti al pomodoro, and bruscetta with olive tapenade. Everything tasted pure and flavorful, especially as a reward to exercising more than I had in months (hey, I’m abroad okay?). I can’t get over how much truer the flavors are in Italy. You can see where the food on your plate grew, feel the same soil under your feet. There’s no plastic wrapped, frozen, or genetically modified anything. Just good food. We spotted a few of the Canadians and all caught some early evening sun on the beach. That night Mel and I hung out with an entirely new group of Canadians, some guys staying in our hostel. The two of us wolfed down a very late dinner of salty gnocchi al pomodoro and margarita pizza at the bar as we socialized with our new friends.
It was very, very hard to leave the next morning. The couple of days had felt like an unending vacation, as though the Cinque Terre is a place you’re never meant to leave. Mel and I took the train to La Spezia, where she left for Rome and I left for Milan. I could feel the approaching end to my trip and I did my best to ignore it on my long train ride. It wasn’t time to think of leaving, it was time for listening to Dawes and The Avett Brothers, for The Importance of Being Earnest and watching the landscape rush by.
May 21, 2012 § 2 Comments
Florence. The name itself inspires a sort of beautiful anticipation, as though slide after slide in a darkened art history lecture room will emerge, bright and glorious, in one city. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s David, Titian’s Venus of Urbino… But I hadn’t gotten to those yet. I arrived by train tired and ready to unload my increasingly heavy bags. At the hostel (by far the most impressive I’ve stayed in) I caught my breath and chatted with some hostelmates – an Australian travel writer and an American in Florence early for a food and wine summer program. It’s so easy to make friends traveling alone, especially because everyone has one thing in common already – a love of travel. It doesn’t hurt that we’re all for the most part in our twenties, fun loving, and thirsty for conversation.
As my first day in Florence waned I explored my area. I peered through the bars of a closed botanic garden then popped into a few shops. One smelled strongly of incense and cigarettes and sold of cool Indian and African looking jewelry. I bought an intricate little pendant that caught my eye. Continuing on, I heard Buddy Holly chirping from a vintage store and couldn’t resist ducking in. It was a great place, full of loud but wearable 50’s and 60’s dresses, oversized hats, handbags, and one fabulous pair of round, embellished, tortoiseshell Moschino sunglasses. I reluctantly left to take a few more turns around my neighborhood before returning to the hostel. That night I met a bunch of travelers at the outdoor hostel bar, and our circle of chairs grew to accommodate Australians, Americans, Brits, and plenty of heavily accented Canadians. Everyone was hilarious, and we spent hours telling stories, performing party tricks, and learning each other’s local slang (I have now quite a repertoire of Aussie colloquialisms).
I couldn’t bear the insane lines at the tourist attractions the next morning. Instead, I perused a map over some good Italian espresso standing at a bar counter. It was served with a small glass of seltzer water. Is that an Italian thing as well? Off I went to Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge. It was large and full of shops like Rialto in Venice. I pushed through the crowds to find salvation in the shaded alleyways curving off on the other side. What I love about London, about Paris, about Florence, about all European cities, is how they possess these alluring hidden surprises. It could be an old-fashioned hat shop, or a pungent cheese monger, or a light-dappled, musty used bookstore. Here it was Florence Art Factory, a little capsule of cool on a forgotten street. The creative space currently featured “Today-Tomorrow-Too Late”, an exhibit of paintings with verdant greens, Japanese influences, and binary code. I kept walking towards Piazzale Michelangelo, passing small cafes and Italian men with skinny ties on bicycles.
Sweating and dehydrated, I finally reached Piazzale Michelangelo at the top of the giant hill. The view was well worth the hike. You can see everything from there, and Florence is an excellent city to view from above. After a while of soaking in the view, I made my way downhill. I spotted another gallery, this time of interesting sculpture by an artist named Mario Lituani. The whole neighborhood was apparently stuffed with art, as I later came upon a little gallery of cool street-art looking pieces. I had spotted one of those altered street signs in Rome.
As I found out later, gelato was born in Florence. I’d consumed plenty of gelato on my trip already, but nothing could have prepared me for the culinary bliss that awaited me in Il Gelato di Filo. I got two scoops for €1.50: fruiti di bosco (fruit of the forest) and crema di marsala (cream of marsala). Oh my goodness. Not to discredit the cathedrals of Italy, but this gelato was a religious experience. Words cannot describe. It was the most delicious gelato I’d ever eaten, perhaps the most delicious food I’d ever eaten. I stood in the shade and tried to savor it slowly, already lamenting its impending conclusion.
I kept wandering, still anxious to avoid the city center and its throngs. I discovered an exquisite little flower shop bursting with pale pink peonies and exotic purple orchids. Up the street, overlooking the city was a rose garden so picturesque it hurt. The garden held smooth, contoured sculptures and the rosiest smelling roses I’ve ever smelt. And I know roses. My dad (who has a shirt that says “Real Men Grow Roses”) and I share of love of the flower. It’s also my middle name. Anyway, I sat for a long time in a shaded flowerbed and listened to the humming summer day. This perfect peace settled into me like a warm draught. Here I was in Italy, breathing in deep breaths of floral-scented air, listening to the gentle drone of bees and the soft brush of lemon trees in the breeze. I was young and alive, deliciously alone and deliriously lucky.
For lunch I sat outside at an enoteca nearby. Before coming to Italy I’d worried about eating alone. I was preemptively self-conscious. But actually, drinking a glass of prosecco and people watching behind sunglasses is delightful. My lunch looked like a Bon Appetit cover: burrata mozzarella, grilled vegetables, and crostini with fresh tomato and pecorino cheese. I order burrata whenever I spy it on a menu. It’s my all time favorite food. The lunch was good meal to enjoy with all five senses: hearing the crunch and snap of the crostini, seeing the vivid colors of the vegetables, feeling the fizz of the prosecco bubbles on the tongue, smelling the strong pecorino, and tasting all of it of course. I paced myself, relishing the meal in small bites and occasionally turning back to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (a bit grim, but fittingly set in Italy).
Next I headed to Gallerie Uffizi, whose line had diminished somewhat in the late afternoon. I took the gigantic place at my own pace. I think art museums are best visited alone. You can linger on your favorites and glance in passing at others. There’s no pressure to make an insightful comment (“Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro is meant to reference a shady religious leadership”) or a funny one (“That is one ugly baby.”) The strangest thing about the Uffizi is the blatant commercialism. I waded through the old masters only to pass through a ridiculous number of gift shops to find the exit. Eventually I made home, art-ed out for the day but content.
On Saturday I visited the Gallerie dell’ Accademia, or, where they charge €11 to see Michelangelo’s David and not much else. I prepared myself to be underwhelmed (let’s be honest, we all were with the Mona Lisa). But David is just so impressive. It’s 17 feet high, marble, and perfect in every respect. With its own alcove and its monumental size, the incredibly lifelike statue dwarfs everything else in the museum. I’d learned the history and the interpretation sophomore year, so I was happy to stand and appreciate the masterpiece from every angle. The museum featured other classical and renaissance art, as well as a few out of context contemporary pieces by Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, and Andy Warhol. Very bizarre additions.
Then, I popped into the Duomo (officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). The interior was austere and rather bare; I preferred the magnificent, detailed facade. By this time I was quite hungry, so I devoured ravioli al pomodoro and some very rich, overwhelming tiramisu at Osteria Al Gatto e la Volpe. Walking later on, I heard the strains of Dracula-sounding organ music resounding from a church. Inside I found a free afternoon organ concert, with music louder and throatier than any rock concert I’ve attended. The unseen musician poured out complicated patterns of thrilling notes. I sat for a while and thought of the organ of my family’s church in DC. I’ve always thought it was an impressive instrument.
Heading back towards the hostel, I weaved through the leather market. Every stall boasts high quality, vibrant bags absolutely reeking of new leather smell. I rarely let myself spend money on anything but travel and food, but I couldn’t resist one red bag. After I ambled through a medieval-themed festival in a nearby piazza before crashing by the hostel’s pool for the late afternoon. The next day would be an early one.
On Sunday morning I joined a few others in my hostel for a day tour of Tuscany. We visited San Gimignano, a vineyard in Chianti Classico, Monteriggioni, and Siena. In San Gimignano we snapped photos of the unbelievable panorama. To be honest, I’d wanted to see the Tuscan hillsides ever since watching “Under the Tuscan Sun” a few years back (a chick flick yes, but an irresistible one). The wine country reminded me a little of Oregon, with the green rolling hills and cypress trees. I ate tiramisu and caramel gelato from the World Gelato Champion, whose shop loudly proclaimed its three-year winning streak. It was tasty, of course, but not the same as what I’d experienced the day before.
Soon our van left for Pietraserena, a winery specializing in Vernaccia wine. Vernaccia is only grown in this part of Chianti (and therefore, in this part of the world). A cute guy named Michelangelo led us through three Pietraserena wines: Vernaccia, Tuscana Rosato, and Chianti Colli Senesi. We munched on toasted bread covered with fresh, locally made olive oil or porcini mushrooms and truffle oil to offset the large glasses of wine. My favorite was the rosé. It was ruby red and smelled like dessert. I bought a mini bottle as a souvenir (not that it would make it to the U.S.). A few Australians, a French-Canadian, and I had a great time chatting and taking in the view.
The next stop was a short one – lunch in Monteriggioni. We ate prosciutto and herby salami, bruscetta with tomatoes or mushroom pate, and ravioli and papparedelle pasta with creamy mushroom sauce and meat fillings. Our guide spent a good half an hour describing different pasta noodles, more varieties than I could remember. He was easy to listen to due to his remarkable resemblance to Johnny Depp and his interesting background. I’d never met anyone who grew up speaking five languages. His were Polish, Spanish, Italian, English, and French.
We then visited Siena, where we learned about the old rivalry of the 13 families and the greater rivalry with Florence. Twice a summer in the main square they host the Palio horse race, which seems utterly crazy and utterly Italian. We checked out Siena’s Duomo, which I liked for the intricate floor decorations. A parade of a Siena family randomly entered the cathedral and left soon after with the fanfare of drums and whirling, crest-emblazoned flags. Apparently all the main families have parades every week and it’s completely normal. Oh Italy.
Back at the hostel I hung out with a new group of Canadians. Despite giving me a very hard time about being a fan of the Boston Bruins (who beat out the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup last year) they were friendly and very fun. Most of them had met that evening at the hostel, banding together out of common nationality. They praised Canada in the most sweetly proud, idealistic way. I mentioned to one guy that he made Canada sound like a wonderland. He said simply, “It is.”
A late night turned into an early morning and I was soon on a train to Cinque Terre.
May 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
So I’ve run away to Italy. There really isn’t a better place to run away to, with all the little streets to get lost in and the Italian to attempt and the pasta to consume. My first stop was Venice.
Venice is straight out of a postcard – of the hundreds of postcards at the hundreds of stalls that line the colorful, narrow streets. It’s perhaps the most visually picturesque city I’ve ever been too; every bridge over every canal is a photo op. When I arrived on Monday evening I was too tired to attempt sightseeing. It had only just hit me that I was in Turkey, let alone Italy. My hostelmates were from faraway places: South Africa, Japan, Peru, and Brazil. I relished chatting with the Peruvian couple in Spanish. My Spanish was halting and rusty but workable, and oh my goodness how I miss it.
On Tuesday morning I took waterbus to Murano. Just the idea of catching a boat like one would a bus is brilliant. Murano is an island outside Venice specializing in glassblowing. There, they create glass masterpieces the same way they have for centuries, and I got to witness a little bit of the process in an open studio with a furnace. The entire land mass is devoted to glass: celebrating it and, of course, selling it. There were some really beautiful pieces so far outside my price range that I was content to window shop.
It was still early in the day, so I took another waterbus to Burano, a neighboring fishing island that makes lace. Burano is ludicrous in its loveliness. Every building in unabashedly vibrant and I couldn’t stop snapping photos. I ate a big spinach and ricotta pizza for lunch and listened to the older British couples around me remark on the presence of fish and chips on the menu.
On the way back to Venice I met a nice middle-aged couple from Tampa Bay, and we found our way to Rialto Bridge together before parting ways. All along the top of the bridge are little souvenir shops and fabulously expensive jewelry stores. I pushed through the throngs and edged down streets that would be labeled as alleys in Boston to emerge upon Piazza di San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). It is large and impressive, bordered by museums and the grand Basilica di San Marco. I had to save that for another day, as I was refused entry for wearing shorts. I checked out Museo Correr, a museum with plenty of royal artifacts and paintings of Italian landscapes. Unfortunately the library and big parts of the museum were closed, and I had to pass on the new Gustav Klimt exhibit (which cost an additional 11 euro). I took a stroll along the waterfront before heading back to the hostel. It is almost impossible to navigate Venice. It’s a small city, but it’s the most confusing one I’ve ever encountered. With all of the canals and curving streets, everything looks the same. Lacking in breadcrumbs or magic string, I used the signs pointing to the train station to find my way home.
On Wednesday I met up with a BU friend studying half an hour away in Padua. It was a delight to rendezvous with her in Italy after being apart for a school year. We visited the Palazzo Ducale, or the Doge’s Palace. Each room was bigger and more resplendent than the one before. The brocade-like ceilings bulged with the weight of gold embellishment and rich frescoes. One stunning, imposing room we entered was labeled as the largest room in Europe. All I could think was what a great location it would be for a huge costume party.
Now properly attired, we ducked into the Basilica. As cliché as it sounds, it took my breath away. Every surface was gilded and luminescent, as though the whole interior wore a halo. I could have sat in there for hours, drinking it in. Hunger drove us to a pizzeria. We devoured large, greasy pizzas before my friend caught her train back in time for class. I went off in search of the Gallerie d’ell Accademia, which proved very difficult to find. As it was mostly medieval art (important but not my period), it didn’t take long to see. Afterwards, I walked along the Zattere canal bank, where attractive art students flirted casually and Italians drank wine as sun set. I popped into a church, the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Rosario, and then people-watched with banana and amaretto flavored gelato. Ambling homeward through the Dorsoduro neighborhood was calming. There were almost no tourists at all, and the breeze smelled of flowers and summertime.
I was happy to escape the hordes. Venice was completely dominated by tourists, and though I obviously count myself as one of them, it still bothered me. I couldn’t imagine living there, and in fact, few Italians do. I was unable to find anything serving real life in the city, like a hardware store or a supermarket. Every shop catered to tourists. Some were quite special though, like the antique bookstore and a store with pressed and stamped handmade paper. Venice made me realize that take for granted my cities at home. Boston and DC both attract plenty of tourists, but nothing to the scale of Venice.
On my last day I checked out the Jewish quarter (as is my habit). The world’s first Ghetto, it was home to Venice’s Jewish community, fleeing the Inquisition across Europe, from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The area is full of little bakeries, kosher restaurants, and shops of prints and paintings. I ate a quick snack then I killed time in a pretty square near my hostel, the Campo San Giacomo Da L’orio. I sat back with the colorful concoction I’d seen on tables all over Venice. The Spritz is a drink that comes with either Aperol or Campari, in bright orange or red. I had the Aperol, which was sweet, a little bitter, and garnished with an orange slice and an olive. The Spritz reminded me of the sugary juice I drank as a kid; it was refreshing and delicious.
I grabbed my heavy bag and crossed over the Grand Canal for the train station. I drifted into sleep watching the green countryside speed by. Already I was loving traveling solo, and doing so by train felt mature and romantic. Florence awaited me.
May 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It has only been eleven days since the semester ended, but I’m already having trouble remembering the sharp, wet cold of my last day in London. I skipped spring altogether, luxuriating in the long days of sunshine and the ensuing sunburns. Last Saturday four friends and I made it to balmy Kalkan, Turkey in one piece. We’d booked the trip so long ago it felt strange to be pulling up in front of a pastel colored house that was all ours for a week.
Kalkan was lovely in quite a few ways. The stress of work, school, and leaving London melted away in the Mediterranean heat. It was one of those glorious times when I had literally no obligations or work at all. I actually read for pleasure, burning through The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood, on the lounge chair. My skin, unused to Vitamin E, blossomed patches of new freckles. The trip was also a salute to my 13-year-old self, who traveled to Istanbul and the coast of the Sea of Marmara with friends in the summer after 8th grade. On my first go round I drank peach juice by the carton, took a liking to the Turkish flag, mumbled a few Turkish words, and kept a look out for dolphins. Really, nothing has changed.
One day all of us went for a boat trip to Kokova, which offered snorkeling, a “sunken city” beneath the waves, lunch, and some good swimming spots. It was a wonderfully hot day and we made fast friends with our guide, who we arranged other trips with. The ruins were a bit difficult to see above the water (swimming there was prohibited) but it felt vaguely cultural so we were satisfied. At various stops we’d groggily lift our heads from sleep or books on the deck of the boat to plunge into frigid water. The shock left me gasping for a few seconds but the temperature was refreshing and the water my favorite shade of turquoise. We took a few plunges from the railing on the top deck of the boat – a good long drop with a satisfying, thumping splash.
We spent our time navigating the steep streets and perusing knickknacks. Kalkan wasn’t actually as foreign as it felt. Older British couples, the trickle of holiday goers before the deluge, flanked us at restaurants and in shops. The lack of Internet was a blessing as well. It was wonderful to feel unconnected for once. On Thursday, the local market offered Turkish delight (which is harder than you think to find in the States), colorful spices, produce, souvenirs, and stalls upon stalls of knockoffs. On our last night we ate a delicious meal on a restaurant terrace overlooking the bay before popping into a nearby café for WiFi and dessert. We tasted the best baklava ever, syrupy sweet and nutty, which was fitting, for baklava originated in Turkey.
On Saturday four of us went on to Istanbul. Our hostel sat right near the main sites around Sultanahmet. For the day and a half I was there, we mostly stuck around that area. We were almost too tired to go out on Saturday night, but the hostel’s pub crawl promised a shuttle and free entry to a few bars in the Taxim area. On the terrace we joined a huge group of Australians (with a few Americans, Canadians, and a Kiwi thrown in). Somehow, under the boisterous guidance of our hostel guides, we pushed our way from place to place. At midnight the streets were as crowded as those in Madrid, with hordes of Turkish twenty-somethings smoking and chatting outside crowded venues. At every place I liked the music and the style and the smiling DJs bobbing their heads.
The next day my friend Dani and I were sightseeing ninjas, hitting the mosques in the morning with a new friend from Kentucky. First we visited the Blue Mosque, which was stunning in its domed height, intricate designs, and blue hues. Spain had dulled the impact of a cathedral for me, but there’s something pure and refreshing about a mosque. As a language-inclined person and someone who took calligraphy classes way back when, I’m attracted to how a mosque incorporates lettering into the design itself. Clean of religious iconography, the Blue Mosque infuses swooping lines of Arabic calligraphy with delicate floral motifs and rich colors. The prayer and praise takes on a new level of beauty in golden writing.
Up next was the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sophia in Greek), which I remembered from my first visit to Istanbul and my AP World History textbook. The current building, an immense, domed structure, was constructed as a Byzantine cathedral in 532 AD. It operated as a Roman Catholic cathedral from 1261 until the Ottoman Turks converted it into a mosque in 1453 after conquering Constantinople. They added Islamic architectural features like the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets. Now a museum, the Ayasofya is enormous, breathtaking, and tranquil all at once. Only a few peeling, cracked symbols of its Christian past remain. The supporting pillars for the domes are concealed within the walls, giving the interior an appearance of weightlessness. It’s the kind of place you wander through with your eyes gazing perpetually upward, which is the point I imagine. What a perfect confluence of religion, history, and architecture.
Our stomachs rumbling, we connected with some more friends back at the hostel, including another post-grad American currently teaching English in Georgia (a country about which I went from knowing nothing to everything), and a New Zealander living in Edinborough. We wound down streets filled with shops, many of which seemed left over from the 80’s and others displaying some truly creepy mannequin children. We finally found the restaurant listed in a pilfered Lonely Planet guidebook – a beautiful, high-ceilinged place with rather simple Turkish food. Afterwards we checked out the Spice Market brimming with piles of spices, dried fruits, and foreign little pastries. Us girls only responded to vendors’ calls for attention when free samples of Turkish delight were involved.
Topkapi Palace was our last sightseeing stop. We ambled through cobalt rooms, lingered on ornate weaponry, peered at diamond-encrusted jewelry, and admired a decadent library. After walking in the unrelenting sun all day all we wanted was a beer by the Bosphorous, the river dividing Istanbul and Turkey into Europe and Asia. I didn’t have the time to set foot in Asia, but I figure that when I do, I’ll make a trip of it. That night we ate a cheap and filling dinner. My search for authentic Turkish food proved very difficult this trip, as I was staying in such touristy areas. Nevertheless, I adore any version of Turkish food, be it smoky kofte, shish kebabs, or pizza-like, boat-shaped pide.
On Monday morning we popped into the Grand Bazaar, a monster of an indoor market selling everything from Turkish tea to elegant chessboards to mandolins. Of course many stalls hawk the same things, like evil eye trinkets, hookah pipes, and patterned ceramic dishes. Dani and I had to grab late afternoon flights, so we lugged our impossibly heavy bags on the tram to the airport. She went through security while I sought out the UPS office in the Yeni Kargo terminal, which was parking lot-oceans away from International Departures. I arrived at what was clearly a loading area to find a tiny UPS office lacking in English speakers. Luckily, a helpful man who noticed my distress spent the next half an hour translating for me, as I tried to ship 20 pounds of extraneous clothes and belongings to DC. My large backpacking bag would be too heavy to carry around for the next two weeks. The office had no boxes, so the kind woman from UPS and another man started constructing a smaller box out of a large, used one. The Exacto knife cutting and taping process was more than a little ridiculous. Things were less funny when the credit card I planned on using didn’t go through and my flight was set to board in less than an hour. Finally, I was saying a rushed “thank-you-very-much!” and running through security. I arrived at my gate just as my flight was boarding.
I was sweaty and flustered but on a flight to Venice. Turkish Airlines compensated for our half hour delay on the tarmac with a better than average in-flight meal. I’ll confess to a certain fondness for airplane food. The little compartments are just so orderly and it feels like you’re eating for free. With my little bottle of Turkish white wine and my neat tray of food I was on my way to Italy. And so there I was, and so here I am.
April 28, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It’s the last day of my semester in London. Perhaps it’s the gray, rainy weather, but I feel calm at the moment. In the past two weeks an undercurrent of panic has jostled my daily proceedings. The semester passed at such an exhilarating, breakneck speed, and I’m catching myself on the day of departure, not wanting to leave. It’s hard for me to get a handle on the experience because I feel I’m still in the thick of it. What I have are the places I’m tied to, things that caught my eye and settled into my memory, people who I know from a gesture or an offhand comment. So I’ll post a few vignettes and memories still in formation.
* * *
Walking along the Thames River with no particular place to be, sucking down cold gulps of city air and watching the buzz along the famous waterway. There were always these brisk, windy days with the sun shoving to emerge, momentarily, from the clouds. And when it did, it was glorious.
* * *
* * *
I adore Westminster in all its tourist-clogged glory. The grand, gothic Houses of Parliament hugging a comforting Big Ben. Shopping on Carnaby Street, stopping in for a treat at a patisserie, entering the pulse of the West End, with its glittering neon signs for the newest show you have to see. I was rereading Mrs Dalloway at the time I was retracing Clarissa’s steps: Regent Street, Bond Street, St. James’ Park, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly… these areas are all old money and a contented sense of tradition.
* * *
At Borough Market you could eat lunch on the samples alone. Every time I visit the bustling, sprawling food market I get full from the little bites of creamy goat cheese, dark chocolate brownie, mushroom pate, and bread dipped in fresh olive oil. Borough is hands down my favorite market in the world. For a foodie, its heaven. The place sells everything from parisian macarons to ostrich steaks. Even on a rainy day like yesterday, there were still crowds shopping and lunching. It’s just a wonderful place.
* * *
After hours of attempts at dressing the part (we struggled so hard to look London Cool), my friends and I would hop on the Tube for the 30-45 minutes it took to get to East London from South Kensington. It was always worth it though. The grey, industrial streets hold marvellous clubs in old warehouses. Maybe the best part of every night in Shoreditch or Elephant & Castle was the exact moment we walked onto the dance floor, and the impossibly deep, heavy drum and base would flood our senses like an elixir. London loves its DJs, eschews Top 40, names genres like ‘bashment’ and ‘trip hop’ and ‘breakbeat’. Everyone’s just there to dance. There’s also cabaret, rockabilly parties, raves in secret locations, burlesque, speakeasies (dozens of varieties), themed club nights, live music, 80’s power ballad nights, members only bars – the list goes on. Clearly the Brits have a brilliant sense of fun.
* * *
* * *
London has the most international, exciting food scene I’ve ever encountered. If you want to try Eritrean or Nigerian, Afghan or Sri Lankan, Malaysian or Brazilian, Australian or Hungarian, it’s all here. I’ve had trouble finding a restaurant in Boston that’s Greek without ‘–American’ glued to the end. Here, I’ve had some mouth-watering Moroccan, Thai, and the most delicious Indian ever. London has a great assortment of upscale restaurants, and I’ve been lucky enough to review a few of them, but its real gift is the inexpensive, ethnic delights. I can’t count how many times I’ve eaten from Star Kebab, our nearby haunt that’s open until 5 am. All I can say is they know us very well there, and they’re practically assembling my Chicken Tikka as I walk through the door.
* * *
* * *
There have been times amidst a swirl of foreign languages when I’ve forgotten that I’m in England. Around me on the Tube I’ll hear Portuguese, Italian, Russian, and something that sounds roughly like Gaelic. A third of London’s population is foreign-born, and that’s really cool. Despite the fact that it makes tracking down an actual English-speaking Londoner for directions extremely difficult, I love how international this city is. I almost blend in because I don’t have a British accent; I’m a Londoner because I come from a different country.
* * *
* * *
I’ve been bad at posting, but there really is just too much to say. Of course, there’s always more to say. I wish I could stay in London for the summer, for a year, forever. But for now I’ve got three weeks of travel ahead of me and summer waiting in Boston.
April 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The first time I bought my own plane ticket was in June after my freshman year at BU. My friend Sarah and I had been sitting on the comfy white expanse of my bed for hours, sharing stories about our shiny new lives at university. She regaled me with tales of Southern California, where everyone was fun, happy, and perfectly tan all year. I resolved to visit her, so I took out my laptop and booked a flight, just like that. How exciting to spend my own money on my own trip, sans parental advice or approval! I didn’t think much of the fact that the weekend I chose was close to final exams, only that Boston would be freezing in December and I’d love to see some palm trees. $300 and six months later, I was developing terrible strep throat through a series of mishaps on the left coast, only to return to a frenzied week of schoolwork at BU before the crush of finals. It was a good trip, but it was definitely a learning experience.
Recently I’ve been thinking not about travel, but about all the work and reward involved in planning it. Planning a trip can be exhilarating or miserable, arduous or fun – or all of the above. My other friends studying abroad relate their horror stories; how a strike in Madrid derailed the first half of spring break or a stolen wallet ruined everything. There’s only so much you can plan for. Being kind of Type A, I try to plan for it all. It’s really about striking a balance between spontaneity and structure. A weekend jaunt to Valencia booked the day before proved a great decision, while a list of Time Out-recommended restaurants is always safe bet.
I’m currently in the throes of planning two weeks of solo travel in May. Until yesterday, only the first leg of my post-London journey was booked (my friends and I will be staying in a villa on the coast of Turkey for a week before a few days in Istanbul). Weeks passed and I didn’t have the rest figured out. I couldn’t let myself go back to the States too early, so I gave myself May to do with as I pleased. I was all about organic farming through WWOOF, but host farms in Italy weren’t responding to my emails. It was getting late and I was getting stressed, so yesterday I booked flights.
The first step is to just buy the tickets; then you’ll have to go. Like putting on your gym clothes and sneakers, you are now obligated to follow through with the idea (however intimidating it may be). You’ll spend the whole night hunched over your computer in bed, perusing Kayak for inexpensive flights. You’re used to the process by now, but it doesn’t get less frustrating when a price jumps £50 overnight or the only airport at which a flight lands is way outside the city.
You sit in the same position for hours, ignoring the impending cramp. The power chords of Jimi Hendrix resonate over iTunes shuffle, then the delicate vocal harmonies of Grizzly Bear. You’re overheated and tired but excited. You’re going to Italy and Belgium! By 3:30 am you’ve created the most gorgeous, detailed travel itinerary of your life, with every transportation cost accounted for and helpful arrows pointing to “London –> Kalkan –> Istanbul –> Venice –> Florence –> Cinque Terre –> Milan –> Brussels –> London –> DC”. You’re 20 and you’ve lived abroad for a year, but you still feel empowered every time you book a flight and plan a trip. It’s intoxicating, the feeling you can go anywhere you want and do whatever you like once you get there. You’ve got x money and x time and you’re invincible. Go.
April 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
Italy has always topped my ever-expanding list of countries to visit. It’s the Mecca for devout food lovers like myself. Carbs happen to be a serious weakness for me. It doesn’t hurt that the men are handsome and well dressed or that it’s a good deal sunnier than London. So Rome seemed like a good choice for Easter break.
After a Friday morning flight (with a layover in Milan) that felt like the whole day, I touched down on Italian soil. I could see the sun and feel its heat; it was marvellous. I met up with my friends, who are currently studying in Madrid, and we ate a late lunch of pizza at a nearby restaurant. The prices were very cheap in comparison to London (though everything is). They’d had a string of very bad luck during their previous week and a half in Italy thus far, so I let them rest while I explored a bit.
Rome is delightfully walk-able. There’s no need to worry about spending half the day riding the tube. Two guidebooks, a map, and my camera Penelope in hand, I sauntered out into the warm day. Our hostel, which was more like a hotel, sat a little outside the city centre, so it was a solid walk to the sites I had in mind. I stopped for sustenance in the form of chocolate and tiramisu gelato at a recommended pastry shop. I could tell communication was going to be difficult. I always arm myself with a few basic phrases in the language of the country I’m travelling in, but Italian is just similar enough to Spanish that I had to keep myself from falling back into Castellano. I soaked up the late afternoon sun and ambled through an outdoor shop selling old, broken stone statues and a large open circle of buildings called the Piazza della Republica. Once I made it to the Spanish Steps, I paced the edge of a Spanish tour group and eavesdropped on the guide. I had a great view of the streets below filled with the masses I would join on my way to Trevi Fountain. There are few historical European sites that truly take my breath away anymore. It’s a symptom of cathedral/palace/ruin overload this past year. Trevi Fountain, however, did just that. It’s magnificent. The whole structure just screams “Rome!” I elbowed through for photos then made my way through the winding, confusing streets with my map practically glued to my face. Rejoined with my travelling comrades, dinner was more pizza before heading out on the town for the evening.
Saturday morning found us devouring a cheap breakfast before exploring. We wandered to the Trastevere neighbourhood, bordered by the Tiber River. This was my favourite part of the city. A midday lull fell over the narrow cobblestone streets. Burnt orange and salmon coloured buildings floated in curtains of ivy and wisteria. It seemed almost like Valencia, and all at once I fell into September memories of warm, golden Spain. I watched a cantankerous orange cat hunched on a car yawn and young Italians flirt and promenade in the piazzas. I insisted we go to a guidebook-recommended restaurant. So we ate Neapolitan-style pizza at Dar Poeta, in a room that seemed to be designated for American tourists. It was so, so delicious though. I ordered tomato bruschetta then a “Superbufala” pizza topped with artichoke hearts, soft milk cheese, and bufala mozzarella. We savoured every bite slowly, knowing we wouldn’t eat pizza this good for some time. Full and content, we ambled to Campo de Fiori, which was hosting a weekend market. Crowded stalls displayed packages of pastel-coloured pasta, buckets of bright flowers, fine olive oil, and glass trinkets. I sampled a bit of “strong chardonnay grappa” from one vendor, and tried to keep from wincing as it went down. Oh, the fun surprises of a market.
Up next was Piazza Navona: huge, open, and home to fountains of writhing herculean men and animals. We drank rosé, listened to the street performers, and people-watched. The best people watching takes place in plazas (something I miss about Spain), where you can pretend you’re looking at the monuments or just throw on a pair of sunglasses. We took the city at a leisurely Italian pace. My friend Kate, Saturday’s Map Girl, would say, “Hey guys, this is an important building.” We’d stand there, look it up and down, nod our heads, and move on. In Rome, there are simply too many historical buildings of note to keep track of them all. Suddenly we came upon the Pantheon and the accompanying horde of tourists. It was grand and hallowed; the only (non-electric) source of light is the circular opening at the top of the dome, which brought worshippers closer to the gods. We continued walking through the old streets and stopped to stare at a gleaming white building crowned with chariot statues and flags –the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele I. But we were on a mission to find what my guidebook deemed “the best gelato in Rome” at Il Gelato di San Crispino. Caramel and dark chocolate in hand, the gelato and pizza adventure didn’t end there. I bet you can guess what we ate for dinner.
On Sunday we bypassed the Colosseum’s two-hour wait and strolled through a market near the Tiber River. It reminded me strongly of El Rastro in Madrid: bags, knickknacks, jewellery, and plenty of cheap, random junk. After what felt like hours of browsing and walking in the sun, we melted into patio seats at a bustling, inexpensive restaurant. All I wanted was spaghetti and white wine, and isn’t it wonderful when you can perfectly satisfy a craving? We made it back to the Roman Forum, a large complex of gardens and ruins of ancient government buildings next to the Colosseum. A combined ticket bought us entry to both. We walked right in and checked out the huddles of broken stone sprouting flowers, beheaded statues of military heroes, and names upon Roman names we’d never remember. The Forum was one of the greatest meeting places in the world and served as a place to gather, hold elections and speeches, and various other commercial affairs. For me, it was nice to just be outside, with friends, doing touristy things. By 4:30 there was no line outside the Colosseum. Feeling triumphant that our plan worked, we did the circular loop of the structure while reading about the hellish violence that went on inside the pit. Inside it’s rather smaller than you expect it to be. I suppose I need to finally sit down and watch “Gladiator.” Dinner was tasty gnocchi in a savoury tomato sauce at a nearby restaurant. My friends and I had a tough time communicating with the waiter and an even tougher time avoiding Spanish. This trip just made me want to go to another country where I actually knew the language.
Monday was a bit lazy. We’d misjudged our individual flight times, but by the time we looked them up it was too late to hit the Vatican. I was not pleased about missing out on the Sistine Chapel, but I see it as an excuse to pop into Rome the next time I’m in Italy, which may be sooner than I thought. We spent a long time on the terrace of our hostel, steeping in hot sunshine. All I wanted was a little colour so I wouldn’t look so ghostly pale anymore. Instead I received a few more freckles and a sunburn. After my friends left for their (earlier) flight, I walked to a big park brimming with skateboarders and couples lying entwined on the grass. Inside was the Giardini Piazza Vittorio, ruins of an old estate. Further along were the Colle Opio and Domus Aurea, green areas with more ruins near the Colosseum. I stumbled upon the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, a beautiful church and home to an Art History 112 find – Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, which forms part of the tomb of Pope Julius II.
As I left, I realized I’d be late for the express train to Fiumicino airport, so I took a packed metro to my hostel, grabbed my bag, and booked it to the station. After a long wait in customs at Heathrow, three Tubes, and a cab I sunk into bed at 1 am. Rome, you are lovely, but will hopefully be just a starter act for more Italy in May.