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Naples – Pompeii – Florence, Italy – Europe Day 28 – June 24

I woke up, refreshed and thankful I missed the reggae party and probable hangover that would have ensued. I said goodbye to Marianna and Stephanie, walked to the train station, checked my large backpack, and took the train to Pompeii.

An hour later, I was there. Pompeii was a Roman city completely eradicated of people by Mount Vesuvius, yet also very well preserved by the lava flows that entombed the town. Most of Pompeii has been unearthed and you can stroll down ancient Roman streets complete with ruts in the street from where ancient chariots rode by. The cities only inhabitants now are stray dogs, which gullible tourists can “adopt,” or pay for their medical care and food.

The city seemed really advanced for being over a thousand years old. There were shops, intersections, one and two-way roads, street signs, places to tie your horses along the streets, and an amphitheater for gladiator battles and plays. Check Wikipedia to find out more.

Around 1pm I took the train back to Naples and met a girl from Norway, named Ida. She was a 22-year-old gymnastics instructor and former gymnast, studying Psychology. Ida had been in Pompeii the same time as me but was traveling with her family. Her family stayed behind in Pompeii while she traveled to Sienna to meet up with friends. Ida had an hour before her bus left so we grabbed a coffee and talked about travel and Italy. Ida’s English was as good as mine, if not better. She offered to give me a place to stay if I ever went to Norway. I told her I might be there in July, and if I was, I would definitely take her up on that offer. I tried to pay for my coffee, but she said she’d already paid for it, and my company was payment enough for her. I was flattered and looked forward to visiting her near Oslo, Norway.

I walked her back to the train station and got some food while I waited for my train to Florence, or Firenze as my ticket said. I hope they’re the same place.

On my way to the train, I picked up a free sample deodorant. If I went to enough train stations, perhaps I wouldn’t have to buy anything on my trip. I got on the train and made myself at home, listening to my iPod and staring out the window I watched everything slowly disappear behind me. Twenty minutes later I watched everything quickly disappear behind me. I checked the monitor at the end of the aisle. We were going 300km/h or 186mph. We would be in Firenze, hopefully, Florence, in no time. I just checked my MacBook dictionary. Firenze is indeed Florence.

The train ride went well. Arrived in the city, wandered around for a bit looking for a hostel. I’d met two sisters in Rome, Katie, and Laura, and planned to stay in their hostel that night. No such luck. It was a holiday in Florence and a Friday night. In my wanderings, I met another American, Reid, who was also looking for a place to stay. His two friends had rented out a kitchen in Florence for 50 euro, but it was only big enough for two people. Reid and I, in our desperation, went to an internet cafe and started hunting down rooms. Everything was booked.

As we were about to give up our room search and sleep in the park, an Indian guy asked if we had a place to stay and recommended: “The Queens”. Reid called them from his phone, at what I imagine was an astronomical rate, but desperate times call for desperate measures. They had two beds available and we headed over. A guy in his mid-twenties with dreadlocks answered the door and led us upstairs. It was 20 euro a night and we could pay tomorrow. Our dreaded innkeeper didn’t have change so I opted to pay tomorrow. He led us up to our room but didn’t have the key. I was beginning to understand why this place was only 20 euro. Reid and I dropped our bags in the “lobby” and walked down to Florence’s city center.

The holiday was San Giovanni day which consists of a parade, a brutal and bloody no-rules soccer match, and a fireworks show. Reid and I had missed everything but the fireworks show, but from what I gathered, the fireworks show was the best. It lasted an entire hour and it was the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen. The show started out slow with a couple smaller fireworks at a time, but it kept building. By the end of the show, it was all out epic, someone must have been literally unloading dump trucks of fireworks into a bonfire. There was a constant stream of fireworks launching into the air, 4 or 5 at a time.

After the show, I went back to the hostel and called it a night.

Rome – Naples, Italy – Europe Day 27 – June 23

I woke up to Margaret and her friend packing their bags for the airport. We said goodbye again and they left. I rolled over and slept for another half hour before waking up and going downstairs. I looked for Chris at breakfast but he was nowhere to be found. Instead, Jerome and I made plans to visit the Vatican Museum that morning and wander through Rome.

We took the metro over to the museum and waited in line for about 30 minutes. Inside, the museum was packed. We spent the entire 1.5 hours in the museum standing shoulder to shoulder struggling to stay afloat amid a sea of tourists. I felt like a Sardine in heaven or at least a very nice Sardine church. The museum, like the Louvre, was impressive both for its architecture and for the many pieces of art inside it. There were whole rooms devoted to animal sculptures and other rooms with dozens of sculptures of people. In one room sat a giant purple marble bathtub that at one time had belonged to Nero. The world’s supply of this kind of purple marble has been entirely mined out and its valued at 10,000 euro a cubic centimeter.

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The Sistine Chapel was a couple of rooms away and very beautiful. We walked through and admired the many paintings and details on the ceiling and walls. It was neat.

We left the museum thankful to be out of the crowd. Down the road, Jerome and I stopped for pizza and gnocchi at a small shop before exploring a market and making our way across town. On our way, I stopped for water at a fountain. In front of me, several Russian students filled their water bottles as a corpulent Italian woman waited impatiently to fill hers. Finally, she snapped and yelled something in Italian that none of us understood and pushed the Russians out of the way to fill her water bottle. An argument began, one of the Russian guys yelled in English “don’t touch me” and put his finger in her face while trying to push his water bottle back under the faucet. The woman yelled back in Italian. Still, no one understood what she was saying. She pushed her bottle back under the faucet and the Russians resigned themselves to making fun of her in Russian while she made fun of them in Italian. No one understood each other and it didn’t make much sense to me.

With my water bottle full, Jerome and I walked back to the hostel and I collected my things to go to the train station. The ride to Naples was cathartic as usual. I listened to my iPod and stared out the window.

Bam, we reach Naples an hour later. Fast train ride. Naples is a shitshow. I regret using my Thunder Dome on meth comparison already as this is much better for Naples. In the station everything was good. It was big, modern, and clean by Italian standards. Outside was another story. There was trash everywhere. I’m not being figurative and saying the city was dirty. There were literally piles of trash in the streets every thirty feet or so. The roads made Rome seem like Switzerland. In Rome, people had heard of crosswalks and pedestrians, probably as a legend passed down from their grandparents, but still. In Naples, the few crosswalks that existed were interpreted as target practice for motorists. I held my breath and walked into traffic, trying to stick together with the other nervous pedestrians who had, moments before, said their final prayers on the sidewalk and kissed their loved ones goodbye. I could feel the wind rush past my head every time a motorist came within inches of using me as a speedbump.

Walking to Marianna’s apartment, I stuck to the sidewalk and avoided intersections like my life depended on it, and it probably did. By the time I reached Marianna’s street I was accustomed to this daredevil pedestrian lifestyle. I could slow down to bullet time and dodge cars, scooters, and overly aggressive bus drivers. I had become Neo and I was the One.

When I reached Marianna’s apartment, her name was not on the buzzer out front. This was unfortunate, very unfortunate. I decided to search the neighborhood for somewhere with wifi so I could contact Marianna. Stop number one was a video game store, where the Johnny Depp lookalike behind the counter said there was no wifi anywhere nearby. I was disappointed but also optimistic that I had met Johnny Depp researching the role of an Italian video game salesman. Dejectedly I returned to Marianna’s apartment building.

I looked at the list of tenants again, still no Marianna. I looked to the heavens, searching for an answer from a higher power or at least an upstairs neighbor. Luck was on my side and I saw the eyes and forehead of a brunette peering over the top floor balcony at me. I yelled to her.

“Marianna!”

She yelled back.

“Si!”

Then disappeared…rats. Things were going so well. What had I done? Perhaps I was too forward. Then I heard the buzzer at the front door. Marianna had let me in. I walked inside and she yelled down from the top of the stairwell.

“I am Marianna, but you are not looking for me. I think there is a Marianna on………zero floor.”

I said Gratzi, one of three Italian words I know, none of which I can spell.

Apparently, there were two Marianna’s in the building and luckily one of them had answered my prayers. I knocked on the only apartment door on the first floor and Marianna’s roommate, Stephanie, answered the door and let me in. Neither of them spoke much English, and I spoke no Italian, but fortunately for us, pantomime is universal. The three of us ate chips, cherries, olives, and coffee while listening to Reggae. Marianna explained in broken English that the Mafia had put trash everywhere in Naples because they wanted the Italian government to release some people from prison and everyone was afraid to clean the trash up…I think.

I took a shower and cleaned myself up. When I got out, Marianna’s friends, Frederico from Frankfurt and Irene, Frederico’s girlfriend, were sitting in the kitchen smoking. I introduced myself and we talked about the party we were going to that night. It was at a local university and Marianna’s brother’s reggae band would be playing there. After Frederico and Irene left, we ordered three Pizza Margherita for 9 euro total. Things were crazy in Naples, but at least they weren’t expensive. After dinner I took a nap in the room I would be staying in, and didn’t wake up until the next morning.

Rome, Italy – Europe Day 26 – June 22

I got up this morning and made friends with my Aussie roommate, Chris, who was sleeping in the bunk below mine. He’d done everything in Rome yesterday, quite literally everything. We talked a bit and he laid out a route for me to take. I said I’d take him up on it and jokingly asked if he wanted to do it again. He did. It was only 9am and I already had a free guided tour for the day. I was getting off to a great start. We ate breakfast downstairs in the bar/common area, I’m finding out this is common in hostels. The breakfast was the worst I’ve had in Europe so far. It was free and I still felt like I was being ripped off. Shrink wrapped croissants with shrink-wrapped bread, jam, butter, the world’s worst coffee and your choice of carrot/lime juice or grapefruit’s foul tasting cousin.

I ate what I could and we headed to the train station for our epic day. We got off at Colosseo, the Colosseum stop. Walking up the steps into the late morning light of Rome, the Colosseum rises before you crowd surfing atop a sea of tourists. This was by far the most tourists I had seen in one place so far. It’s unreal how many people come to Rome in summer to see the sights. I was Waldo, lost in a bird’s eye view of half the Midwest and every Sorority girl in America. The line was outrageous so we went across the street to Palatine Hill, a graveyard of Roman architecture. Twelve euro gets you admission to both the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, a fact we would later exploit.

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The hill was amazing. Walking around you’re surrounded by ruins of ancient Rome, still being uncovered to this day. It’s incredible to think we are still learning about a culture that lived 2000 years ago. Around the perimeter, there was scaffolding unearthing more ruins and revealing more of this ancient culture.

After the hill, Chris and I walked to the Colosseum and skipped the line to buy tickets as we already had ours. I swiped my ticket and went in, Chris’ ticket didn’t work so he hopped the turnstile and a security guard yelled “hey.” We both stopped and looked over. He didn’t do anything. We turned and walked in. I was reconsidering the 12 euro I’d spent on my ticket, apparently hopping the turnstile was a viable option.

The Colosseum is big, really big. Its the size of a modern stadium and it was built 2000 years ago. It was comfortingly similar to modern stadiums with a round corridor leading around outside of the arena and various stairways leading to the seats inside, with a second level upstairs. The stadium was a modern marvel, even today. It had a semi-retractable roof of canvas to provide shade to spectators, and an elaborate elevator system below the arena floor to raise and lower stage sets, gladiators, and animals from around the world. I could go on and on about the Colosseum, or you could Wikipedia it. I suggest the latter.

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After the Colosseum, we walked to the giant white marble monument in the center of Rome, whose name I forget. Beneath it there’s a naval museum, or a submarine museum, or a shipwreck museum. I don’t know because none of the signs were in English but the museum was free and it had submarines in it. Walking towards the back of the museum, we came to a metal gate, another tourist reached his hand through the gate and turned the key from the other side, letting us and the rest of his group through. From there we walked down a long empty corridor, closed to the public, and at the end was a large wooden door about 12 feet high. Our fellow tourist/explorer tried the knob and it was open. Apparently, this guy was just going to do whatever he wanted, and I was keen to see how far he would take this. We all followed him in, ducking under the velvet rope and blending into the crowd of tourists in the museum we had just snuck into. This was another military museum and led out onto a large balcony where you could see most of Rome from.

Like San Francisco and Lisbon, Rome is a seven hill city. It’s beautiful to look at from above the bustle of traffic and tourists below. Numerous rooftop gardens add some green to the mix of red roofs and white buildings that form the color palette of the Italian flag and Rome itself. Across the seven hills, the densely packed houses appear to surf on waves of rounded earth, stretching for miles.

Chris and I stayed on top of the monument taking pictures and drinking in the experience.

From the monument, we descended the many white steps and bought slices of pizza from a runaway carnival vendor, in a brightly painted cafeteria/trailer with dozens of colored lights. We walked and ate on our way to Trevi Fountain. A very large fountain where tourists take pictures and tweens make out. Given those two choices and our age, Chris and I decided to stick to taking pictures.

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After the fountain, we walked over to the Pantheon. It’s a round building and home to the largest dome made of brick. At the center of the ceiling is a skylight that casts a circle of light on the ground, illuminating the otherwise windowless building.

We moved from the Pantheon to Castle Angelo where we took pictures and I walked around the building admiring its unique architecture. Sitting on top of the castle, is a giant round tower. It was neat.

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Next stop, St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Chris and I snuck into the line near the front blending in between groups of cruise groups, one of which was the Disney Cruise Line that carried me to Barcelona. On our way into St. Peter’s, we had to pass through a metal detector, which seemed odd to me. It showed a lack of faith on the part of the Catholic church. One would think if God was on their side he wouldn’t let anything happen to the church, or if he did, then it was part of his greater purpose, and the Catholic church shouldn’t fight his divine will.

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Inside St. Peter’s was incredible. As great as Notre Dame was, St. Peter’s was ten times as great. Everything was marble and gold and ten stories tall. Chris and I took a good half hour wandering around inside the building looking at everything in awe.

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After St. Peter’s we walked out to the bus stop and caught the express bus back to Rome’s central train station. The bus was hot crowded and packed. I felt like a sardine in hell, marinating in a broth of Italian body odor.

Back at the hostel, I checked into my new room, showered, air dried, since I lost my towel, and napped for a bit. I went downstairs at a quarter to pizza o’clock (8:30pm) and met up with Chris and some other people downstairs, one of which was a former tight-end for the Tennessee Titans, he was tall and white and I never got his name, but he lives in Ohio now. If this rings any bells, let me know. After a bit of pizza and beer, I made friends with a Chinese-Canadian by the name of Jerome and two sisters, Laura and Katie. We moved to Yellow Bar, at Yellow Hostel, down the road and stayed out til around midnight, talking of our travels and making plans to rendezvous in Florence at the Plus Florence Hostel on Friday.

I went back to my bed and laid awake for a couple minutes contemplating going downstairs to check and see if I had a place to stay tomorrow night in Naples. I had decided last minute to visit Pompeii and Alexiane knew a friend in Naples who I could stay with.

Actually being organized seemed like a good idea so I forced myself to go down to the lobby and get on Facebook. Marianna had okayed me staying with her in Naples and sent me her address. I had a couple of other notifications as well. Margaret from the Tampa travel group in Gimmelwald, Switzerland had responded to my message and was staying in the same hostel as me. I wish I’d seen this sooner, but it was no big deal. On a whim I went into the bar and low and behold, the entire Tampa group was playing shithead in the bar. We laughed, we cried, we said “hey” and I sat down to play cards. Crazier yet, Margaret and her friend were staying in a different room than the rest of the group, more specifically, my room. Margaret was actually sleeping in the bunk above me. The world works in mysterious ways. After a couple hours of cards, I said goodbye to the Tampa group and we retired for the night to our bunks.

Gimmelwald, Switzerland – Rome, Italy – Europe Day 25 – June 21

I woke today and made cheese sandwiches with what remained of my food. I said goodbye to everyone I had met there and packed my bags to leave. If I stayed another day I would have liked to have explored the ice caves, but with the heavy snowmelt, it was probably for the best that I didn’t go into any ice caves. I left the hostel and made my way to Interlachen. A cable car ride, a bus ride, and a train ride later, I was at the train station to go to Spiez, Milano, and finally Rome. I had a layover in Spiez, a city that as far as I can tell had nothing but a train station. Unfortunately, the train station was under construction though so it didn’t even really have that. I restocked on meat, cheese, and bread at the Co-op, my lifeline in Switzerland Europe, and returned to the platform to charge my laptop and catch up on this blog.

The train for Milano arrived 20 minutes late and I boarded for the 3 hour trip to Milano. This was the loudest train I have been on so far, with a large Indian family next to me and an even louder group of giggly German girls behind me. With the 20-minute delay reaching Milano, I had about 5 minutes to catch my connecting train to Rome. I narrowly made it as the whistle sounded and the doors closed.

Stepping onto the train I did a double take thinking I was on the wrong train. This was by far the nicest train I had ever been on and it even said second class, the cheap seats. I asked the woman sitting across from me, who looked like a model if this was the right train. She looked at my ticket and confirmed I was in the right place. Lucky me. I settled in with my iPod and watched the world quickly disappear behind me as the train got up to speed. In three hours I would be in Rome, a city sitting on the fence separating ancient antiquity and modern Europe.

The ride was beautiful, we passed crystal clear water surrounded by little Italian houses and vineyards. As we neared Rome, the greenery became more scarce and the houses migrated closer and closer together. By the time we reached Rome there wasn’t a dot of green left. Only sunbaked houses and very tan people remained.

Stepping off the train in Rome’s main train station I was overwhelmed with people rushing amid the numerous name brand stores and fast food joints. Leaving the train station was like entering a whole other world. I was missing the train station already.

If Switzerland was a socialist utopia, Rome was Thunder Dome on meth. Cars raced through lights, intersections, and crosswalks. To leave the sanctuary of the sidewalk was to take your life into your own hands. People shoved past each other jockeying for sidewalk real estate and quarreled amongst themselves in the streets, slow roasting themselves in Rome’s intense heat.

As usual, I was completely unprepared for my next city and had to find a McDonald’s for their free wifi, to locate my hostel. Luckily the train station was surrounded by McDonald’s, there were literally 5 McDonald’s around the station. Unfortunately for me, none of them had working wifi. I hoped this wasn’t foreshadowing for my upcoming stay in Rome. I found an internet cafe and bought internet for a euro and located my hostel. It was one of Europe’s Famous Hostels, and lucky for me, it was a 5-minute walk away from the internet cafe.

I got back in my time machine and left the internet cafe to return to the present and walk to the hostel, checked in, dropped my bags off, and hit the bar. After a long day of travel, a beer was all I needed before I went back upstairs to recover from today and prepare for tomorrow.

Gimmelwald, Switzerland – Europe Day 24 – June 20

Being in Gimmelwald, without any attractions or specific sights I “had to see”, I thought this would be a good opportunity to sleep in. I woke several times but forced myself to roll over and go back to sleep. When I finally woke up, it was 9am, so much for sleeping in.

Bryant was sleeping in the bed next to mine, and we got up about the same time and met Alex, already up. The three of us got ready and made our way to Murren, the next town over, and the only town in the area with a grocery store, Coop. The three of us stocked up on food for the hike and set out. Leaving Gimmelwald at 1363m we traveled to Murren at 1638m then onto Spielbodenalp at 1793m. From there we hiked along a ridge until we reached our first peak Bryndli at 2025m. At the top of Bryndli was an iron cross and a stone bench, the sort you would kill Aslan on. Beneath the cross was a small box with a book in it for everyone who’d hiked the mountain to sign. I was the 5th Floridian to have climbed the peak, beat out only by the group from Tampa the day before. We stopped for lunch at the top of the peak, feasting on cheese, bread, cookies, and Nutella.

We were still 600m away from our goal of Birg, the second highest peak in the area you could hike to. Wasenegg was next at 2280m, at this point Alex went on ahead with the goal of reaching Schlithorn, the tallest peak. Bryant and I continued on towards Birg via Grauseeli at 2315m. Grauseeli, despite not being the highest place we hiked to, was my favorite stop. Grauseeli is a glacial lake formed from snow runoff from the two peaks it divides, Schlithorn and Birg. The water collects in Grauseeli then spills out through a waterfall and runs down the mountainside. Bryant and I filled our water bottles in the glacial lake with ice cold water straight from the glaciers above it. From there, we crossed the top of the waterfall and made our way up to Birg at 2677m. At the top of Birg on either side of the trail were large banks of snow 3-4ft deep. When we finally reached the peak, we could see for miles in all directions. I took pictures, but none of them will do justice to the vista that lay before us. A camera can only capture so much and I could only capture so much more than that myself. It’s truly breathtaking standing at the top of the world and being able to look down on everything you know. Bryant and I stayed at the peak for a half hour walking around it, taking pictures, and eating cookies with Nutella.

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We made out way back down via a cable car and stopped into Coop again for dinner supplies. Back at the hostel, we feasted on eggs and pasta. After dinner, Alex finally made it back. He had hiked up to Schlithorn and finally made it back. His trip took the better part of the day and led him through a lot of snow towards the peak. Neither Bryant nor I were equipped for walking through snow so it worked out well that we went to Birg. That night we played cards and exchanged hiking stories from that day, before turning in for bed around midnight.

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