From the moment we stepped off the plane in Palermo, it was total Déjà vu. We felt as if we were totally back in the Yucatan or somewhere “other-worldly”. The clean, orderly, and law enforced German and British atmospheres that we’d just left, had suddenly given way to a chaotic, borderline dirty, and care-free environment that prompted us to intuitively try and speak Spanish. But that didn’t work, and the Sicilians spoke little to no English, and certainly didn’t have patience to want to try. In fact, while we were in line to get bus tickets to Catania on the eastern shores of Sicily, two gentlemen had a full-on hands flying in the air argument that we thought might lead to punches and bloodshed. But it all turned out to be nothing more than the fact that we were in Italy, and that was how Italians have friendly conversation.
My cousin Rachel and her husband Jason were kind enough to put us up for a couple of nights in their house literally on the slopes of the (still smoking) Mt. Etna volcano in a lively Sicilian village called Belpasso. Jason is in the Navy and at the end of a three-year tour of duty there, and they both had command of their Italian language skills (of necessity). On a scenic drive we took through parched and almost desert dry terrain to go snorkeling and visit an ancient cliff top Greek Amphitheatre, Jason was constantly blowing his horn in approach to upcoming intersections, and pointed out through example to us, that faded painted road markings meant nothing, and that red lights were merely decorations. Their wonderful hospitality and unique insights into Italian lifestyle we greatly appreciated, and Rachel’s scrumptious pasta dinner turned out to be the best we ate during our entire time in Italy. And she also introduced us to all-u-can-eat amounts of Sicily’s top home-grown produce, ….green olives!
We eventually caught an overnight train from Catania, Sicily north to Naples, Italy, and slept through the fact that the whole train got on a ferry (somehow!) to cross the short distance over to the mainland. Our little sleeping compartment provided us a sheet, pillow, paper slippers, and a man from Switzerland wearing only his underwear that spoke Italian, German, French, and English.
We arrived in Naples at 6:30am, where we held tight to our money belts and strolled to what is known as the Spanish Quarter, well known for all the laundry hanging high across its cavernous and very narrow streets, and the hectic yet thriving pace of life of the city’s poorest neighborhood. One guy, whom we tried to avoid, insisted that we meet his family busy making food items for sale in their closet sized shop. The plump women wearing aprons around their wastes were loud and friendly and were busy chopping up all sorts of ingredients, while the men tended large boiling pots of tomatoes and handled the meat. Next we ventured across town to visit the Duomo, which was breathtakingly beautiful like all Cathedrals are in Europe. And like in all of them, picture taking is forbidden, so I leave the interiors to your imagination, but do consider lavish decoration in texture and color. And then of course, Naples is most famed for inventing pizza, and our guidebook sent us to a shop where we got a $1 pie almost a foot in diameter. Hand tossed dough spread with very fresh tomato sauce cooked in an open fire oven, with only a tiny piece of mozzarella right in the middle (the Original Pizza), and somehow just so tasty that way, that we went back for more.
After noon, we traveled a half hour to the nearby ruins of Pompeii, which also conveniently had a campground next it and a fruit stand that sold favorite local blood red oranges. We set up our tent and then fascinated ourselves while walking the streets of ancient Pompeii and witnessing artifacts preserved in ash and trapped in time thanks to the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius centuries ago. 2000-year-old wheel ruts in stone streets passing endless skeletal rock dwellings exposed a society long gone but still thought provoking. We saw original wall paintings, Roman bathhouses, theaters, forums, and countless marble pillars all in the shadow of the volcano that silenced it all.
The next morning, a miscalculation in our train departure time caused us to miss the early train to Rome. Then, the train we decided to take instead arrived late, … Italian trains aren’t known for their punctuality, unlike the rest of Europe! We arrived finally in Rome with 5 hours to spend there instead of the more than seven we’d planned on. But we discovered that the line at the train station for luggage storage, where we hoped to drop off our larger traveling backpacks, was seemingly miles long and perhaps over a two-hour wait. Well, … so much for Rome. We’ll just go back some other day when tourist season wasn’t in full swing. So, we hopped on the next train out of Rome with our train pass up to Pisa instead, and got in early enough to set up our tent in a shady corner of the campground just down the road from the Leaning Tower, and still had plenty of time to visit the nearby “walled” city of Lucca. We rented bicycles there, and rode about four miles around the top of the gigantic wall that was built hundreds of years ago in the town’s defense. When we arrived back to Pisa, the late evening sun was beautiful on the Leaning Tower, and we both tried to keep it from falling.
The next day, we trained a couple of hours to a section of the Italian Riviera called the Cinque Terre. These 5 tiny villages hug the cliffs that overlook the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. The only connection between them all (before the train tunnels) used to be steep up and down mountainside trails, which make their way through grape arbors and under fig trees and eventually back down to each secluded village. We fortified ourselves in the villages between hiking sections by eating pizza and ice cream (our daily diet in Italy!), and swimming in the clear blue warm ocean water.
After another night back at the Pisa campground, we were up and off to Firenze (Florence). The train ride through the heart of Tuscany was all about gently rolling hills and large fields of sunflowers. This city is supposed to have the best Gelato (Ice Cream) in Italy, and since we’d already been (heavily) sampling the Gelato in each city so far J, we had to try some more. Our favorite tastes from the trip turned out to be Pistacchio, Mint, Chocolate Chip, and Lemon, (and yes, Florence definitely had the best), but the city’s true flavour was its classy elegance and very tidy appearance (no laundry hanging here). The city is also home to Michealangelo’s statue of David, and many other famed sculptures including Medusa and Leonardo da Vinci. But the crown jewel of town is its’ cathedral; so large, that you could easily get lost inside.
By mid-afternoon, we were on our way to our next stop, …Venice. And by early evening we’d arrived at a campground just outside of town along the waters of a shipping lane that routed sea traffic to a nearby port. The campground was packed when we got there, but we found space for our tiny tent on a small grassy strip right next to the ocean, where we looked across the waves several miles to the night-lights of Venice. The next morning came early though, when we were awakened by the sounds of a dredge with crane removing (what looked like) goo out of the shipping channel that passed next to our tent. Then moments later, a gigantic ocean going freighter floated by, so close that we practically could’ve jumped aboard.
A ferry from the campground took us to Venice later in the morning, and it was the most enchanting city either of us have every seen, and testimony to the fact that Rob took 90 or more pictures there! We spent the whole day getting lost in narrow alleyways, walking from one side of the city to the other, going up and over all of the canal bridges, and taking a boat tour of the Grand Canal. Countless times, we would wander down deserted streets into secluded neighborhoods, only to find that they’d dead-end into the flowing waters of just another seemingly eternal canal. Often times, steps or slopes are found right at these edges or endings, that used to allow looks down the canal in either direction and even to enter into waiting boats. But, they were now covered in water as the result of a city slowly sinking, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. In fact, it’s Venice’s looming doom that seems to make it so interesting and appealing. The city is a rare chance to see a ruin in the making. People are reluctant to renovate deteriorating structures that may soon just sink and be lost to the sea, so the entire city is kept in a fascinating state of decline that has the untampered beauty of a priceless antique. Walls are crumbling and exposing centuries old brick. Paint is fading, chipping, and peeling, and creating random facades of art amidst a magical place already all about creativity and expression. And church steeples and bell towers all peacefully slightly lean.
On our last day of our Italian train system pass, we arrived by bus from our “marina” campground at the train station with a lot of time to spare before we were supposed to leave, but our train never came. So we found another train on the departure schedule that was to leave a half hour later, but that one did not arrive either. People waiting on the platform finally began to become a bit concerned, while Rob wandered over to the information office only to find a tiny notice taped to the front door that said, “Italian Train Strike!”. This is a fairly normal (if unwanted) occurrence that tends to happens at least once a month in Italy we’ve learned, but was unfortunately happening on a day that we were using the trains. Luckily, a train finally did arrive for no apparent reason, that was said to be passing exactly where we wanted to go. So of course we jumped on it, and skipped our plan to stop in Milan, afraid that if we got off the train, we may never get another to Lake Como an hour further up the track. Now, one would think, that if only scant random trains ran on strike days out of the normally 70 or 80 that run daily, that they would be completely stuffed with people desperately trying to get somewhere, ... anywhere. But our train was actually relatively empty, as was the train station in Milan. I guess when everyone learns there’s a strike, instead of getting angry, they just turn it into a day off.
Lake Como is located at the southern edge of the Italian Alps and within only several miles of Switzerland. Our campground, which was half way up the long and skinny resort lake in the small town of Menaggio, was sandwiched between the foot-crunching rounded stones of that serene lake, and the foothills of the Alps. The campground manager described the lake water as “refreshing”, as did Rob, …. but I changed that to “cold” when I tried swimming in it! The water WAS very soft and clean however, and a welcome relief from the beastly hot (95 degrees), hazy, humid weather. Then, after a peaceful morning spent just relaxing on the beach stones and keeping damp, we took a bus (avoiding trains), to get to the nearby Bergamo airport, from where we returned home again after an eleven-day odyssey, to another curious place, called Germany.