Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Italy Part IV: All roads lead to Rome


In a dimly lit underground metro station, my roommate and I waited as the train bound for the Colosseum jolted to a halt. The doors opened and the small crowd of people on the platform next to us began to fill the train car. All of a sudden, my roommate began to push the back of the woman ahead of us. I wanted to pull my roommate back when I realized the woman she had pushed was another of our flatmates also traveling through Italy with another friend. Baffled by the odds that we would run into one another in Rome on the metro train, we decided to tour the Colosseum and ancient ruins together.

We learned the brutal history of the gladiators in the Colosseum from our Fabio-look-alike tour guide. Smack in the middle of modern Rome, the giant structure offers an interesting juxtaposition to the surrounding traffic-filled streets. We also saw Palatine Hill (the start of Rome) and the ruins of the Roman Forum before stopping to grab a Roman pizza for lunch.

We met up with other friends in Piazza Navona for dinner and learned that on a slow night (it was a Wednesday), hosts will attempt to recruit diners. In all fairness, we were a group of nine people looking for a restaurant... We ended up in the cellar dining room of a restaurant with complimentary appetizers and champagne. I tried "trofie," a type of thin rolled pasta, with pesto and shrimp -- an excellent choice. After many laughs and about three hours, we started the trek back to our hotel.

We spent Thursday morning at the Vatican. We saw St. Peter's Cathedral, climbed to the top of it's dome, visited the Vatican museums, saw the Raphael rooms and saw the Sistine Chapel. I have never seen so much marble as in St. Peter's. Mosaics, sculpture and carvings filled every square inch of the place. But, the constant clicking of cameras made the building feel more like a museum than a Church.

To finish off our day of touring with a more relaxing moment, we walked to the Spanish Steps. Right in the middle of town, this grand staircase serves as a grown-up's playground for catching up with friends, people-watching or enjoying the always-tempting Roman cuisine (especially when the weather is as clear and dry as on that afternoon). The steps were packed.

After refreshing in our hotel, we found a Spaghetteria for dinner, which boasted a menu filled with more than six pages of spaghetti dishes. I narrowed my selection down to three and had to ask the waiter which to choose. I sampled one of the house specialities: al dente pasta with mushrooms, walnuts, garlic, parsley, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. The restaurant was just around the corner from the Trevvi Fountain, so we saw the white sculpted fountain glowing against the jet black sky. Even into the wee hours, people filled the piazza.

Basil, oregano, parsley and garlic wafted through Campo di Fiori, an outdoor food market in the heart of Rome. Supposedly where restaurant owners go each morning to find fresh fruits and vegetables, my friend and I picked up a few tempting edibles for ourselves: homemade pasta, a bruschetta herb mix and roasted hazelnuts. Afterwards we walked a few blocks to the Pantheon -- the building of perfect proportions. The hundreds-of-years-old structure pops up in the very center of Rome. We found fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil sandwiches for lunch and sat to eat them on the steps of a fountain in the Piazza, soaking up the sun's warm heat and historical icon in front of us.

A little later in the afternoon, my friend and I stopped for the best gelato of the trip. My winning combo included banana, stracciatella (vanilla chocolate chip) and nocciola (hazelnut). After a week of gelato-eating, I had found the perfect complements.

We spent our last night in Rome enjoying a long dinner with friends in the true Italian spirit. We met in the Trastevere (in southwest Rome), an area with many shops and way too many restaurants to try. We found a spot with outside tables under tiny lights (and heating lamps) where we relished our last plates of pasta, fresh bread, tiramisu and plenty of wine.

Italy Part III: A lot of famous art


En route to Florence, my roommate and I hopped off the train a few stops early in Pisa to see the city's namesake monument. Dragging our suitcases behind us, we caught a bus across town and snapped a few photos with the mysteriously tilted tower. We had just enough time to walk up the row of market stalls and grab gelato before we caught our train on to Florence.

The tiny lights and the glowing Duomo of Florence broke up the sheer darkness that evening from our view over the city from the top of Piazza Michelangelo, said to be one of the best views of the city (and home to a replica of Michelangelo's statue of David). We found a local restaurant serving a delicious seafood ravioli. The local dinner crowd seemed to pick up just as we finished our pasta around 10 o'clock.

Monday morning, my friend and I marched down the narrow crooked streets of Florence with our heads cocked up to find (sometimes non-existent) street signs. When we popped out in an open piazza and saw a mammoth of pink, green and white marble ahead, we knew we had found the Cattedrale di Santa Maria (a.k.a. the Duomo) -- the largest basilica in Florence, dating from the 13th century, with its grand elongated dome. Climbing to the top of the red-tiled dome to the open-air cupola remains one of my highlights of Florence. Just as we stepped out from a narrow dark stone spiral staircase, the sun broke free from the clouds and cast a warm glow over the city.

We also saw the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Cappelle Medicee (the Medici Chapels) and the Medici tombs. And after all the churches, we found the Piazza della Repubblica -- the perfect spot to kick back, people-watch and ride a feathered-carousel horse.

We set our alarms early Tuesday morning to get a head start to see the best of Florence's art galleries. We had booked reservations to see the Uffizi Gallery in the morning and the Galleria dell'Academia in the afternoon. We walked through rooms of medieval and gothic religious art in the Uffizi; think gold-leaf and bold paints. My favorites were Botticelli's Primavera (with its mystical feel) and Rembrandt's Self Portrait as an Old Man. I recognized both from textbooks, but seeing the masterpieces a foot in front of me gave me a new appreciation for the work. Michelangelo's David stole the show at the Galleria dell'Academia. According to the plaque at the museum, Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt the figure for the Duomo and was only given a leftover scrap of stone. Ticked at the lack of material, he set out to sculpt David in his most perfect form. Mission accomplished.

At our art-quota for the day, we found another piazza and big bowls of gelato. I picked one of my favorite combos: dark chocolate, stracciatella (vanilla chocolate chip) and coconut. We finished in just enough time to catch our evening train to Rome.

Italy Part II: The room with a view

The Cinque Terre

Suitcases in toe, my roommate and I stared at the departure board in Bologna's train station. Our tickets said Modena, Parma and La Spezia. We found trains bound for Parma on the board, but none for Modena. So, we chose the one going to Parma. The only seats were two fold-up ones in the aisle. So, we sat, wondering if we were on the right train.

After about 45 minutes, we pulled into the Modena Station. Relieved (and surprised) we had come to the station on our ticket, we hopped off the train, thinking we needed to transfer to a train bound for Parma. As soon as we lugged our suitcases down the flight of stairs, we found the departure board telling us we had just stepped off the train en route to Parma. I still have no idea why the man at the ticket counter told us we needed to transfer trains in Modena.

After the correct transfer in Parma (and a lot of lugging our suitcases up and down the steps of the platforms) we arrived in La Spezia -- not quite our destination. Another train whizzed through a dark tunnel for 10 minutes until a brilliant blue sky and gleaming ocean filled the train's windows. My roommate and I sat, jaws dropped and eyes wide open. The warm afternoon sun lifted our spirits as we stepped off the train in Corniglia and we boarded another bus that took us the final mile (completely uphill) to the tiny town where we had booked a room for the night.

Our pensione was a yellow house with green shutters. We looked around the deserted patio when all of a sudden a second-floor window popped open and a middle-aged balding man told us he would be right down. He greeted us with a quick "Ciao," threw my suitcase over his shoulder and led us up two more flights of stairs. I nearly fell over as I took a step in room -- the window opened right on the glistening blue ocean, the mid-afternoon sun gleamed over the town's colorful buildings (notice our window's green shutter framing the picture below). There was a reason it took four trains and a bus to get to that room.

Fifteen minutes, 20 pictures out the window and two giddy smiles later, my roommate and I hit the hiking trail linking Corniglia to the neighboring town of Vernazza. The path took us past oceanside fields, orange trees and ocean views straight from postcards. Although the guidebook said the path was an hour and a half hike, it was more than two hours and nearly dark when we rounded a corner and saw the glowing yellow clock tower of Vernazza's samll chapel.

Rather than a starlit cliff side hike back to our pensione, we opted for the 15-minute train ride. And when we finally found ourselves back in the dining room of our pensione sitting down to look at a menu at 8:30 (an early dinner hour in Italy) we ordered a full Italian dinner.

First, a basket of bread (no butter) and flat crunchy breadsticks disappeared. For the "prima piatti," we chose the gnocchi with a fresh green pesto sauce. For our "secunda piatti," we chose sea bass. The pensione owner (our waiter for the evening) brought out two plates with an entire fish atop each one -- fins, eyes and tails still attached. I was still staring at the fish on my plate, pondering how I was going to find the edible meat when the owner used the side of a tablespoon to sever the fish's head, pull back the skin and de-bone the the fish. I smiled at my friend and when I looked back down, I had a plate of steaming white fish with a lemon on the side. I ate every bite. To finish off our meal, we both picked a slice of homemade tart -- I sampled the lemon -- perfectly sweet and sour.

The only other diner that evening was a close friend of the pensione's owner. He ordered an espresso and a piece of cake and was very interested in the two wind-blown American girls. I told him I was from Chicago and he said one word to me with a wide grin on his face --Obama. He could not speak a bit of English. But, his thumbs up revealed his opinion of our new president.

Needless to say, my friend and I fell into bed that night.

Italy Part I: ...and everyone was speaking Italian


While London's more energetic pub crawlers found their way home in the early hours on Friday morning, my roommate and I hit the pavement for the airport via a train from Kings Cross Station. We wanted an early start. Given a week off of classes for Spring Break, we chose to go on an Italian holiday to soak in the culture, see the sights and taste the renowned cuisine: four cities, nine days, and two awestruck roommates.

Our plane landed in Bologna just before noon. I quickly memorized two Italian words: "parleh inglesia?" meaning "do you speak English?" But, it didn't help much when the questionee replied "no." Only a few missteps later, we managed to find our bus and a quick ride took us a few blocks from our hotel.

After dropping our bags, food became top priority (not a bad problem in Italy). Breakfast had been hours ago and gelaterias at every corner churned our stomachs. We found a small restaurant serving traditional Bolognese food and ordered the day's three-course special. I chose a mushroom risotto as my "prima piatti" (first course). I finished every bit of the piping hot rice dish. My roommate chose the "zuppa di ceci" -- with the help of our translation guide, we knew it was some type of soup. But, we were both surprised when the waitress brought a bowl of chickpea soup to the table. "La seconda piatti" (second course) was a spinach casserole. Finally, "il dolce" finished the meal -- I chose tiramisu -- a favorite.

With a little nourishment, we set out to see Bologna in an afternoon. We saw the Basilica di San Petronio (the interior seemed to be roughly the size of a football field), Santo Stefano and the University of Bologna. Santo Stefano blew me away, consisting of seven churches (although some experts argue only four) dating from the eighth century to the 14th. The eclectic architecture, centuries old stones and haphazard sprawling design, make the church feel more like a village hidden behind stone walls.

An elderly priest in the church's gift shop (almost any church in Italy that welcomes visitors has one), explained the entire history of the additions and reconstructions. Despite being completely in Italian, I understood the basics of the saga, until he started to try to sell me a tourist guide to Bologna.

By the time we wandered through the city's vaulted sidewalks and explored a few shops, our stomachs started to grumble again. We found another local spot with red checkered table cloths and delicious pizza -- I tried the grilled veggie. We stopped for a small glass of wine at an enocteca (wine bar) before calling it a night.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Meeting King Henry VIII

I turned down a red stone corridor, dimly lit by overhead lanterns. I thought I was walking through the 1500s when all at once, I recognized a figure from old history books. The robust King Henry VIII just entered the corridor from the opposite end, along with a lady of the court and a few camera men.

Family friends had adopted me for the day to see the Hampton Court Palace, just outside of the city of London. The original Tudor palace was Henry VIII's. We found the King as he was getting ready for a photo shoot. An enormous gold clock in one of the main courtyards and a grand chapel date from his time. A couple hundred years later, the palace underwent a makeover from the genius of Sir Christopher Wren when King William III and Queen Mary took the throne. Interesting for anyone who likes to spend time in the kitchen, this palace visit allows visitors to tour the royal kitchens used to feed the more than 700 people in Henry VIII's court. Forget three meals every day, the Tudors feasted twice at 10 and four. And the higher your rank, the more you were served -- in portions and variety of dishes. Almost anyone could find a supper of meat pie, but wild game was reserved for the best seats in the palace.

A pleasant walk through Bushy Park, the old royal hunting grounds, took us to the borough of Kingston, where we found a cup of tea and a bit of shopping. A relaxing dinner back in the hustle and bustle of central London ended the enjoyable day catching up with friends.

In the middle of writing midterm papers late Friday afternoon, I suddenly heard my phone chime. My friend text messaged me that she was on her way to Oxford Circus for a free U2 concert. I closed my notebook, jumped in and out of the shower as fast as I could and headed to catch a bus up Oxford Street.

Of course, the first bus stopped in the middle of its route, so I transferred to a second bus. That bus stopped one block too far down the street. By the time I walked back to Oxford Circus and turned down Regent Street, hundreds of people came swarming down the street. If only I had managed to get out the door a few minutes sooner...

I phoned my friend and managed to find she and her friends among the throng of people. She told me U2 played an almost-spontaneous concert on the roof of one of the BBC studios. I suspect it had something to do with the launch of their upcoming album. Her account of the short show made me even more mad that I had needed to shower and transfer buses. I could have seen U2!

But, much milder temperatures made it a perfect night to walk through town. We ended up in Leicester Square at an Italian cafe for heaping plates of pasta and gelato. Since the Italian ice cream was their specialty, we saved plenty of room. I indulged in the hazelnut special -- hazelnut gelato with whipped cream, hazelnut syrup and more hazelnuts -- words wouldn't do it justice.

I pulled myself out of bed early Saturday morning to catch a Central Line tube to the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill. Vintage jewelry sellers, rare book collectors and antique dealers jam every inch of the narrow winding street. Getting up early is well worth the sacrifice for this market -- by 10:30 a.m. I was bumping shoulders every step I walked. But, the crowd was well worth the treasures to be found. Plus, I found the Travel Bookshop (the one from the 1999 Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film). A must-see in London!