It feels like forever ago but it's been a little over a month now since I left France. I said my goodbyes to the family over the course of my last week with them and then the mom and youngest daughter dropped me of at the bus station where I met my friend, Olga, with whom I would be traveling for the next week and a half. It was cold and kind of rainy despite the fact that it was the middle of summer, but I guess Brittany, France is like that. It was something like eight hours from where we got on the bus to our destination of Paris. If you've ever heard that the French like to go on strike and do so frequently, it's true. Unlike in the U.S., however, it's a very planned-out thing and our flight happened to be the last day of a week-long strike on our airline, Air France, and we were so afraid it would be cancelled. My Google homepage even told me that it was cancelled, though I hadn't received an email or anything so even as we made our way to the airport we weren't sure if we would be flying out or not. Luckily, we were fine and as long as there were no delays we were scheduled to arrive in Venice just in time for the last bus... We arrived at the airport around 10:30 pm and figured out we needed to take the bus to Mestre station and then one more which would take us practically right to our Airbnb. When we got to Mestre it was completely dark, there was pretty much no one there, and we couldn't see any signs for buses. There was one unmarked mini-van taxi so we asked the driver where we could find the bus and he pointed us in the direction. We walked for a few minutes and tried asking at a restaurant but they only spoke Italian. As we would learn later on, we weren't far but it was late, we had no idea where we were, and we were a bit sketched-out so we decided to go back and take the taxi. Fortunately we didn't take the bus because I don't think we would ever have found the apartment from the station. Even the cab driver couldn't. He had no meter, much less a GPS, so he stopped twice to ask for directions. When we still couldn't find it, he pulled over to call the host of the Airbnb since neither of us had service. Turns out we were right in front of the apartment.
Our hosts were a wonderful retired couple who prepared meals for us whenever we were there and did everything they could to help us out and make us feel comfortable, even though they didn't speak any English and we didn't know enough to really communicate in Italian. Fortunately, Olga speaks Spanish and the two languages are similar enough that we could usually make each other understood. It was quite a nice appartement, too, even though her territorial chihuahua did pee on our floor and the metal fan blades did fly off the fan one night and land on my bed.
Venice is a beautiful city but you have to pay to do anything and there were soooo many people so after walking all over the first day we were exhausted and ready to see something else.
We decided to take the bus about an hour away to Verona, the site of Juliet's balcony. Verona is a small city with lots of ancient buildings and shady, stone-paved streets. We visited the balcony (but did not take a picture with a hand on Juliet-the-statue's breast like everyone else - apparently it's good luck...), we saw the market and an ancient Opera theater, visited a beautiful Roman cathedral, crossed the river to see the ruins of a Roman theater, walked through an old Roman fort, and ate pizza and gelato.
|The river around Verona|
The next day we took the bus to Florence. We stopped again in Verona but we only had about an hour before our next bus so we found the closest restaurant and ate very mediocre sandwiches from a kebab shop (a Turkish restaurant that is very popular in Europe) while being stared at by unsavory, non-Italians who seemed to be locals. Needless to say, we ate quickly and made our way back to the bus. We continued our streak of struggling with public transportation but somehow made it to the appartement with the help of kind locals on the bus and in town where we asked for directions multiple times, and the Google maps that I had downloaded on my phone. We arrived at exactly the same time as the host which saved us from wandering around for an indeterminate amount of time since the buildings were not clearly marked. The place was rather cold and unwelcoming and we could hear the neighbors talking and babies crying but it could've been worse and Florence the next day made up for it.
|We left for the bus stop way too early so we got beers and sat in the middle of weird little market|
I liked Florence even better than Venice and Verona. It's a bigger city but not so busy that you feel constantly surrounded by people and cars. We started at Michelangelo Square - the site of Michelangelo's "David" - which overlooks the entire city. What an incredible view!
|Me and David|
We started to descend the steps into the city and stopped to take pictures with the view in the background and we were talking to each other (in French, which we always spoke together) about asking someone to take our picture and a man, who must have been about 70, asked if we wanted our picture taken. He took our picture and we started talking. We asked him if he was French and he told, no, he was a local and he liked to just come up here and see the city and "tour guide" for people because he is a retired teacher (if I remember correctly) and his wife didn't like going on long walks with him. He asked if we wanted a tour of the old church on the hill behind us and we figured "why not". He told us that a lot of people missed the church altogether because they were too focused on the tourist highlights but that it was his favorite church in Florence. It really was a magnificent church and in a mix of French, Italian, and English, he told us all about its history and the architecture and artwork inside. After our tour he gave us some tips about seeing the city and then said goodbye.
|Inside the church|
|Florence from outside the church on the hill|
We descended from the hill into the city until we came to the river. The Arno River cuts right through Florence - large rivers seem to be a theme in major European cities - so there are a series of bridges all down the length of the river. The oldest of these bridges is Ponte Vecchio which is so crowed with shops and building, you almost don't realize it's a bridge at first! It was an interesting site, however, and I can see why it's a popular tourist attraction.
|The Arno River|
One of our first stops was food. We wandered a little to find a place off the main drag that would be less expensive and just all-around better. We found a little pizza place (shocking, I know), that I can't even remember the name of and ate the best pizza that I had the whole time in Italy. It may have tasted better since they made the pizzas heart-shaped just for us. Afterwards, we walked a lot. We went to the Duomo (a cathedral with a dome) where we were obligated to buy shawls from a nearby vendor and put on jackets or be refused entry because we were in shorts and tank tops and, as we found out, the dress code for most of the Italian churches is covered knees and shoulders. It was worth it, though, because it was incredible inside! In fact, every church we went to in Italy was beautiful on the outside but exquisite on the inside. The amount of time that must have gone into all the paintings on the ceilings and walls is unimaginable!
|The best pizza in Italy|
|Inside the Duomo|
|The Duomo in Florence|
|Carving by Michelangelo|
|Some statues at the museum...|
Yet again, we had misadventures getting to where we were staying in Rome. Supposedly all we had to do was take the metro to the train and then it would be a 15 minute walk from the train station to the hostel. We'd been told that the last train was at midnight and it was around 10:30 so we figured we'd be fine as long as we hurried. We found the metro and got off at Flaminio (the stop for the city center and also where we had to change to the train) and the train station was completely dark. Horrified, we asked a police officer outside the station when the last train was. He didn't quite understand but he told us the next train was at 5:30 in the morning. He tried to help us and gave someone a call to see about getting us a taxi or something but there was nothing he could do so we walked into the center - luckily it wasn't far - and found a taxi which was certainly easier than trying to find the hostel for the first time in the dark. We missed the train again the next night, too, and had to take a bus before we learned that the last train was actually at 10:30 and not midnight.
|The square at Flaminio during the day|
Over the next three days we did all the touristy things like the Colosseum, the Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica... We probably spent more time waiting in 95 degree-heat and blazing sun for everything then we did actually seeing it but it was worth it. I loved the Colosseum because you can almost imagine being there back in the day and it is really an amazing piece of architecture. You never see pictures of the inside but it's way more incredible and almost everything is still in place like it used to be. The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel were incredible and almost every surface was covered with some kind of painting or artwork but it was so much it was almost impossible to really appreciate it and it was impossible to stop to admire anything because we were being pushed through by the masses like a herd of cattle. The Basilica was equally adorned but less frenetic and we stopped occasionally just to take it in. We also went to see the Trevi Fountain at night and it is very beautiful and remarkably large - like everything in Rome - but, once again, there were so many people that it kind of took away from the overall experience. We did throw a coin in which apparently means we're going to fall in love with a Roman and come back to Rome...
|Inside the Colosseum|
|Paintings like these were on every surface in the Vatican|
|Inside the Vatican Museum|
|It was impossible to capture the splendor inside the Basilica|
|...but I tried|
|One of many painted domes|
Aside from the main highlights there were plenty of interesting streets and buildings to see and I was amazed at how many ancient ruins are still there. The old is completely mixed in with the new and is everywhere. There are ancient walls lining streets and pathways, Roman arches over and next to the main highway, and large tracts of land covered with ruins. It makes you feel so close to the history. It's unlike in Paris, for example, where you know the buildings are old but the majority of them are seamlessly blended into the modern city and often have a new purpose. I really loved Rome for that reason. The only thing I really didn't like were the crowds.
|Olga in front of some ruins|
By our third day in Rome, we were so exhausted from the countless miles of walking (I think it was 15-20 miles a day) and the heat and all the people that we didn't do a whole lot. We were also tired of spending money, often unintentionally, on everything (we once paid 20 euros each for a dry sandwich and some chips because we didn't know it was twice the price to eat-in and we had to pay for silverware, whether or not we were using it) so we decided just to buy a pizza and take it back to the hostel and drink the bottle of wine that my au pair dad had given me as a parting gift. Then we tried to go to bed early since we were taking the train at 6 am to catch the plane to Brussels and then to Denmark.
|Fitting meal for our last night in Italy|
We didn't actually sleep much at all but we got to our flight on time with no real difficulties. I'll write about Brussels, Denmark, and England later or I'll never get this posted!