November 1, 2007

La Bella Italia

I would like to start by apologizing for taking so long to write about Italy, because I know you have probably been dying to hear all about, and about the other developments of the past week. It is funny to be writing about last weekend right now, because tomorrow and Friday are holidays, so it is already the weekend for me again. You should probably get a comfortable chair and some snacks, because this is a ridiculously long entry. Ok, here goes:

Thursday, October 25

We woke up at 6:30 to finish getting ready, and then Rody picked us up at 7:00 in his tiny little turquoise Fiat. The adventurers included Rody, Hammer, Christian and me. We had a seven hour drive in front of us, but it was only about ten minutes after picking up Hammer that I got a sense of how the trip was going to be, when the boys starting talking about how many "Haertepunkte" (hard points) Hammer would get for drinking a beer. They decided on 5, and so began our trip.

I slept until just before the Italian border, which, I have to say, was a little bit anticlimactic. I was hoping that there would be signs to the effect of "BUON GIORNO BENVENUTO IN ITALIA!!!! SPAGHETTI SPAGETTI CANOLI". But, in reality, the sign just said "Italy", and the mountains looked pretty much the same on both sides of the border. Plus, because of the EU freedom of movement zone, they don't even look at your passport (or stop your car), so I wasn't able to collect a stamp on my passport. Despite this, driving farther in to Italy definitely satisfied the image I had in my mind. Even though we were pretty much only in the most Northern part, it started to look like "Italy".

The reason we had left so early was to get a chance to see Verona before making our way to Pavia, where we would stay with Christian's friend Philipp Mirtl. We got to Verona around 1 pm, parked the car, and spent the afternoon wandering around the city where Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet. We saw a really old Roman castle, the Arena, that is pretty much falling apart, and the foundations of an Roman building three meters below where the street now lies. Perhaps the most touristy thing we did was to go to the house known as "Villa Capuletti" which is marketed as the house of the city's most beloved fictional female character. There is an admission price to go inside and see the tombs where Romeo and Juliet died. I found the whole thing very strange, that people were willing to pay to see a random Veronese home, just because it has a very strategically placed balcony. The only part of the Capulet myth that we bought in to was to write our names on the walls of the entrance for good luck.

After smoking a Romeo y Julieta cigar on a bridge in front of a truly Italian vista, we said goodbye to Verona, and drove the rest of the way to Pavia. In Pavia we met up with Philipp, and were introduced to the very hard, cold stone floor that was to be our home for the next three nights. I had my first of many pizzas at a small restaurant, my first of many Bloody Mary's at the only bar in town, and my first realization of what it is like to travel alone with four boys.

Friday, October 26th

On Friday morning we took the train to Milan, which takes about half an hour from Pavia. The day was cold and wet, and I will say right away that I enjoyed most of it less than I should have due to the wardrobe miscalculation of wearing flats sans socks in the light but persistent rain. Nevertheless, Milan is a beautiful and impressive city, cold feet or no cold feet. Upon first arriving in Milan, we were on a mission to meet Rody's Italian girlfriend, Paola, which meant walking past boutiques like Prada and Vivienne Westwood without stopping. We met Paola in a square in the center of Milan, which, she explained, is where they host Milan Fashion Week. Armed with a veritable Italian guide, we walked into the square that hosts the Duomo.

The Duomo is without a doubt the most impressive piece of architecture that I have ever seen, especially considering that is was built in the fourteenth century. We saw the inside of the Duomo, and then followed Paola and Rody to a restaurant where we ate more pizza. After lunch we sought shelter from the rain in the form of the Vivienne Westwood exhibit that was going on near the Duomo. Though I may complain about traveling with boys, they were really obliging about seeing the exhibit, and I found it really amazing. It was a satisfying way to see some fashion in Milan without getting snotty looks from store clerks. After seeing the exhibit, Rody walked Paola to the train station, and Christian and Hammer and I went and bought me a pair of less ridiculous shoes. We wandered around a bit more, and then headed back to the train station. We spent Friday night in Pavia at the same bar as before, which Philipp claimed is pretty much the only bar in town. It is called the Black Dog, and in true Italian style, it's an Irish pub.

Note that we all wanted to see The Last Supper, but apparently you have to make an appointment to see it, and it was booked until December 8th, 2007.

Saturday, October 27th

Saturday morning was rough. The floor of Mirti's (as he is called by his Austrian friends) bedroom was so hard that it felt as if the floor was pushing up against you. Hipbones and ribs felt raw, and muscles felt stiffer than the night before. Thank god, we had the comfort of seating five people in Rody's Fiat to get some rest on the way to Bergamo.

I am pretty sure that the only reason we particularly chose Bergamo to visit is that it is close enough to Paola's village for her to meet us there, but I am really glad that we did. It was my favourite day of the whole weekend. Somehow the dreary weather of the day before was replaced with bright blue sky and warm sun, so that we spent most of the day walking around in t-shirts (though I had chosen this day to wear boots instead of flats). Bergamo has an old city and a modern city. The old city is situated on a mountain within the middle of the modern city, accessible only by six gates or Funicular. On top we saw beautiful old buildings, churches, amazing villas, and the view of the city below us from a look out point on the very top of the mountain. We drank coffee in a 700 year old cafe, ate the most delicious gelato I have ever had (even if it wasn't free). Sitting at a round table in the cafe, we made the decision to take the train to Milan for the night, which set the course for our second adventure of the day.

Back in Pavia, after the hour and a half drive from Bergamo, I got ready to go out in Milan in less than 20 minutes. Unbelievable, I know. The plan was to get to the train station quickly enough to follow the rest of the ERASMUS students to a dance party that they were attending in Milan. We got to the train station in time, only to find that they ticket machine wasn't working and none of the other people were there. As they eventually arrived we figured out that we could buy our tickets on the train, but also that our options for taking the train home were either at 1 am (about two and a half hours from then) and 6:30 in the morning. This prompted a serious discussion about whether or not it was even worth the trip, especially considering that Rody had 7 hours to drive the next day. Finally, the train came and we got on it.

When we got to Milan, with about twelve ERASMUS students (ERASMUS is a European university exchange program), we soon realized that none of them actually knew where to go. They were following an Italian friend named Mathias, who was pretty close to being shady. We got on the metro and stayed on for about half an hour, passing even a station called "Uruguay". That's how far away from Milan we were. When we got off the metro, "Mathias" directed everybody on to a bus. We had really only been planning to check out the party and then consider our options, having been under the impression that it was in the square in front of the Duomo, but at this point we decided that things were getting a bit ridiculous. We got off the bus, and went back to the metro station only to be told that we had in fact taken the last train. Fortunately, Rody's Italian is good enough that a bus driver was able to tell us which buses to take to get back downtown, and we ended up near the centre of Milan again.

Seemingly back on track, but now without definite plans, we realized that Italy, like Quebec, has a ridiculous can't-sell-alcohol-after law, but in Italy it applies to bars as well. You can't even by a glass of wine in a restaurant after 2 am. With this in mind, we made our way to the Castello of Milan, where we found a street vendor selling beer. Keeping in mind that we now had to entertain ourselves until our train home at 6:30, we settled in in front of the Castello and had a couple of beers each. It was still clear, and not warm, but not too cold. We sat on the benches outside the Castello for awhile, and then decided to walk through the Castello. While standing over what used to be a moat, I believe, we realized our outrageous fortune. Instead of having three and a half hours left until our train, we had chosen to explore Milan by night at the exact time when the clocks roll back an hour. I think it is the first time in my life that I have ever resented gaining an hour. After accepting our fate at the Castello, we walked through a National Geographic photography exhibit about equilibrium, which was really cool - and had a disproportionate number of photos from Canada.

The Castello at "3:00" in the morning, when we realized we had an extra hour to wait.

After the photo exhibit, around 4 am, Rody, Hammer, and Mirtl caved and decided to head back to the train station for some sleep. Christian and I decided to explore. First we went to the square in front of the Duomo. Seeing it on a clear night, from an empty square was much different than the day before, and much cooler. After taking in the Duomo, we walked through the Galleria, which is basically a semi-outdoor Victorian shopping mall. There is a huge Louis Vuitton next to a huge Prada, which are both across from a huge.. McDonalds. We had been here, too, during the day, but at 4:30 in the morning it was completely empty, and it had an echo. In an effort to relax and warm up a bit, we seated ourselves on a heating vent for awhile, and then finally walked down the fashion mile to meet the others at the train station. Until we got to the train station, I had been totally absorbed in the magic of spending a night wandering around Milan. I was caught up in the romance of the idea. But as soon as I sat down in the train, the romance was gone, and in its place was just exhaustion. I don't really remember anything else but getting in to a taxi in Pavia that took us home from the train station, and then waking up at 11:00 the next morning, once again on the cold stone floor, but with a really cool memory to take away from it.

The rest of Sunday, October 29th

After we finally all got dressed and ready to go, we said thanks and goodbye to Philipp, and drove to meet Paola in Rovetta, her village in the mountains North of Bergamo. From there we drove to Lovere, where we went for a walk through the village, and then stopped for our last Italian pizza of the trip. The pizza and the company ended up being so good that we only left Lovere around 7 pm, with the 7 hour drive left ahead of us.

The drive was, thankfully, uneventful. We stopped often for gas, which cost around 1.37 Euros per litre, and for espressos for Rody. Around 2 am I woke up to realize that we were only blocks away from the apartment. I don't think I have ever been so happy to see a bed in my life.

I really enjoyed our trip to Italy, and am happy to finally have been, but it was actually strange to be there. It almost felt as if the Italy that I had imagined was more real that the place that I was visiting, because I have seen it in so many different representations. We are planning to make a more extensive trip into the South some time in the Spring, and maybe the different region will be more what I expected. I am almost nervous about seeing Venice now, because I have imagined it for so long that I don't want to be disappointed. Although, I don't think it would be easy to be disappointed by Venice.

Right now it is 12:40 on Wednesday night, and I should be getting ready to go to Salzburg tomorrow for All Saint's Day. We didn't celebrate Halloween, mostly because the only Halloween celebrations here seem to be weak imitations of North American traditions, as they pretty much only adopted Halloween in the past few years. All Saints Day is a celebration of the dead, and tomorrow we are going to Salzburg so that Christian's family can visit the graves of his dad's parents and his mother's father. We are driving up tomorrow, and then taking the train back on Saturday for BJ's birthday.

When I come back, you can hear all about: my new apartment and how pretty it is, as well as our plans for moving in, the luxurious Austrian spa/fitness centre that I am now addicted to, the classes that I have been attending and enjoying, and the rides on my shiny new-to-me bicycle.

Happy Halloween and I hope that you miss me tonight, because I am definitely missing you.

Final Härtepunkte scores

Christian: 19
Rody: 14
Hammer: 13
Katie: 12
Philipp: 9