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Spring Break in Italy

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: April 2003

This is a continuation of Spring Break in France, also on this site. Check it out if you’re interested!

Italy was the second country an American friend and I visited during spring break from the University of Glasgow, where we were both studying for a year. We spent the first two weeks of break in France, and then took the train from Nice to Lucca, a small town in Tuscany. And that’s where I’ll pick things up…

We arrived in Lucca after four separate train rides (all on time, which we rarely experienced in France). We studied our map for a very long time before setting off for our hostel, and we still managed to get lost. At one point we were standing at the juncture of two narrow streets, wondering which way to go, when an old man on a bike came up and asked us where we were going. He didn’t speak any English, but he walked/biked with us all the way to our hostel — a free personal guide! He even pointed out a few of the local sights.

Our hostel was great! It’s the only HI one in Lucca, big and clean, with high ceilings, lots of lounges with sofas, firm beds and free showers. Breakfast is 3.70 euros, but it was reasonably filling and tasty.

Lucca itself is very small, at least the part within the old stone walls, and seems to have a church every couple of blocks. We wandered into one our first day, the San Frediano (right next to the hostel); after dinner I sat on its steps as the sun was going down and soaked up the atmosphere … a quiet, open square with a few little shops closing their doors and a few people walking or biking through on their way home.

One thing I noticed as I walked through town (and earlier, as we rode the train through Genoa) was these rainbow-colored flags that said “PACE” (peace) hanging from people’s windows. I assumed it had something to do with the war in Iraq, which had just started a few weeks before I took this trip.

The next day I took the train to Pisa. Touristy? Sure…but you can’t come this close and not do it, right? I paid the obscene 15 euros to climb the leaning tower, and then shelled out another two euros to go through the Duomo (cathedral). It was funny — I walked through Pisa from the train station, and it was just an ordinary town, with locals going about their business, road construction, etc., and then you round a corner and BOOM! Tourist central. The tower and the cathedral were neat though; I’m glad I went.

In the afternoon I went back to Lucca to explore some more — walked on the city’s amazingly thick stone walls for a while, poked my head into the botanic gardens, stopped in a few churches (the cathedral and San Michele and possibly one other one) and then went in circles for ages trying to find the Palazzo Pfanner. I was due to meet up with my friend in 20 minutes, so I just quickly went through the palace’s gardens — not my best idea ever since it was early April and nothing much was in bloom yet. Ah well. My friend and I met up and grabbed dinner at a grocery store — roasted chicken, mmm!

We then headed back to our luxurious hostel, meeting up with a few new arrivals in our dorm room and hanging out in one of the comfy lounges. We played cards and chatted for a while with an Italian guy, who knew as much English as we knew Italian; obviously our conversation consisted of sign language, slow talking and blank stares. Quite frustrating, actually!

The next morning my friend and I went first to the Torre Guinigi, this rather odd-looking tower with trees growing from the top. We got some nice views over the red roofs of Lucca. Then we went to the birthplace of Puccini, which has been converted into a small museum. After that we wandered, visited an Internet cafe and enjoyed a very nutritious lunch of gelato (yum). Then it was time for our train to…

After arriving at the train station in downtown Florence, we wandered around for a bit looking for the bus that would take us to our hostel, Il Poggetto. We knew it was a bit outside the city, but we hoped we’d be able to walk into town — so we tried to map our route as the bus began to move. Wrong. We quickly drove beyond the limits of our map and kept going, and going, and going … The countryside was beautiful, but as my traveling companion said, we didn’t come to Florence to see the countryside! At one point I went and asked the driver whether we’d missed it, but he assured me we weren’t there yet. And finally he did announce our stop, a good 45 minutes outside the city. Ugh.

We went in and attempted to cancel our next three nights, but they told us we’d have to pay anyway, so we were stuck. It was basically a combination hostel/campground way out in the boonies. Our room was pretty cruddy — thin mattresses, no sink, no windows to speak of, and a bathroom with communal showers, eek! Luckily another girl in our room had found another building that had private shower stalls, so we used that. It wasn’t much fun walking outside in the cold with wet hair, but that was infinitely preferable to showering in front of 10 other people.

Knowing how far outside the city we were, my friend and I woke up early the next morning to get in a full day of sightseeing in Florence. We started at the Uffizi Gallery, the most visited museum in the city. We stood in line for two hours waiting to get in; luckily there was a sweet English couple behind us that we chatted with for a while. The museum itself was impressive and worth the two-hour wait, but what sticks in my memory from Florence is what we saw next, after we’d grabbed sandwiches for lunch. I remember walking along the street, headed for the Duomo, and then suddenly turning a corner and being utterly unprepared for how enormous and magnificent it was. We went inside too, but my guidebook seemed to be right in saying that whoever built it had spent all the funds on the exterior and left the inside a bit on the spartan side … it was like a huge empty arena or something. I mean, there was some art and whatever, but really all the ornamentation was on the outside of the building. We made the requisite “climb 500 steps to a high place for a nice view” trip up into the dome.

The next day we went by train to Siena for the day. Unfortunately the weather was lousy — rainy nearly the entire time. We did get to see the campo (the main “square,” actually a huge fan shape) and the Palazzo Publico there, and take a tour through the Museo Civico. Then we saw the duomo, which was neat — the interior was striped with white and green marble (sounds weird, but it worked). By this point I’d seen so many cathedrals that they were starting to blend together. We also saw one other church and wandered a little bit around town until we were too soggy to enjoy it anymore.

The next day we stayed in Florence, and I had an all-church day. I started at Santa Croce, huge and white and pretty and featuring the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Then I moved across the Arno River to San Miniato al Monte, which was the highlight of my day despite the wet/rainy walk to get there. I paused on my way at the Piazzale Michelangelo, which had a replica of the famous David statue as well as a nice panoramic view over the city. Then I climbed up a hill to get to the church, which ended up being the only one all day that didn’t charge me an admission fee. It was practically empty, and actually felt like a church rather than a big fat tourist attraction. It was dim and quiet and absolutely gorgeous, situated on a green hill with lots of trees and flowers.

I crossed the Arno again via the famous Ponte Vecchio (it’s pretty much all jewelry stores, and clogged with tourists) en route to San Lorenzo (unremarkable) and Santa Maria Novella (lovely, with some neat frescoes). I topped off the day with a pasta dinner (quite a treat for someone who’s been living off sandwiches, and little munchies from grocery stores like nuts and fruit).

Our last stop in Florence was the Accademia, an art gallery that’s pretty much famous for housing Michelangelo’s David. I wasn’t sure what to expect — after all, I’d seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and was decidedly underwhelmed, so I figured David might be over-hyped as well. But we were quite pleasantly surprised; he was much larger than I thought he’d be, just absolute perfection. I must have circled him three or four times! It was a fitting last stop in Florence.

Our train ride from Florence to Cortona was uneventful until the time came to get off — and we couldn’t. I was tugging on the door handles, and my friend suggested pushing this random button beside the door, but no dice — and suddenly the train was moving again! Agh! After a brief period of cursing and hyperventilation, we managed to get off at the next stop (ahh, lift the door handle UP, as indicated on the diagram…). We asked the guy at the train station how to get to Cortona. He had very limited English, but directed us to the “autobus. Autobus.” But when the bus finally arrived, the driver told us, “Cortona, today, not possible.” Apparently this was the day of a major car race in Cortona, so certain roads were blocked off, etc. So we figured we’d have to catch the next train back to our intended stop, but the train station guy kept saying “Autobus. Autobus.” Back we went to the bus stop, where he and the bus driver and another local conferred and told us to take the bus to Carmucia (the original stop where we’d wanted to get off the train).

The bus dropped us off in Carmucia at the bottom of a big hill, upon which Cortona is perched. So up we walked — three kilometers with our enormous backpacks. (I was regretting every single tiny thing I’d ever packed by the end!) We stopped frequently to take pictures and/or catch our breath. The countryside around Cortona is beautiful, with mountains and a lake in the distance, flat green farmland, cypress trees, cute buildings and small gardens.

After our scenic hike we reached our hostel, which the guy at the desk claimed was full. “Oh, but we have a reservation,” I told him, whipping out my confirmation printout. He was saying stuff in Italian, looking a little worried, mumbling about moving people from different rooms and such. He told us to come back in an hour. So we did, killing a little time on the Piazza Garibaldi. But when we went back, the guy told us he had no room; guess our reservation didn’t count for much. He scribbled some stuff on a map and sent us to Betania, which he called a “monastery,” instead.

Well, okay. We followed his map for a while, but then got lost when we realized there was no X marking the spot where we needed to end up — just a line going off the map and a few random Italian words. We tried a little side street, went in a big circle, and finally asked two local ladies for help; turned out we were right in front of the driveway! We went up to the building and proceeded to knock on three or four different doors, circling the building aimlessly until we got lucky (must’ve been the Virgin Mary by the door) and were greeted by a young-ish guy, a 40-ish woman and a very elderly woman in a nun’s headgear. They didn’t speak much English, but we were finally ushered into a nice double room with soft, comfy beds. It ended up being quite a nice place to sleep…very quiet.

The next morning we went back to our original hostel to try to check in. We at least got to eat breakfast there (the most tasteless bread I’ve ever had, accompanied by some truly awful tea), but he again told us to “come back later.” We left our bags and headed out to the ruined fortress at the top of Cortona’s hill. It was a gorgeous sunny morning, and the view was incredible from the top of the hill, looking out over an old church whose bells were ringing for Sunday mass. Back in the main part of town, we visited the Etruscan Museum and explored the streets a little. We found a market where we bought lunch (this whole trip we pretty much lived out of supermarkets — lots of bread, yogurt, cookies, nuts, cheese, apples and oranges). That afternoon I checked out the town’s cathedral (pretty humble) and a large cemetery outside the city walls. I had it all to myself as I wandered among the tombstones, many of which had photos of the deceased affixed to them.

That night we were finally able to check into our original hostel — yay!

The next day we lucked out with absolutely marvelous weather for our trip to Assisi — sunny and warm. We got up early, hopped on a bus to the Carmucia train station (the driver told us exactly where to get off, thank goodness — people were so nice about that sort of thing here) and had a pleasant train ride to Assisi. Then we walked up another incline (who knew it was another hill town?) to get into the town, which was similar to a lot of the ones we’d seen before — narrow cobblestone streets, little churches, and lots of charming little corners that I wanted to explore. What was different was the high number of nuns and monks wandering around! The main draw is the big basilica where St. Francis is, so we started there. We also climbed up to the castle ruins to get an amazing panoramic view of the countryside. I also checked out a few other churches, met some American nuns and got some gelato (one of the best parts of this trip is trying the wide variety of gelato flavors available here).

On our bus ride back up to Cortona, we struck up a conversation with a Danish guy who was currently living in Italy. He was very enthusiastic about American movies and music (Eminem, Aerosmith, Mel Gibson) and spoke excellent English. I had realized the night before that I’d left my shower shoes (a $3 pair of plastic flip-flops) at the monastery, so I asked the guy if he knew how to say “sandals” in Italian. He wasn’t sure, but did give me the word “scarpi,” for shoes.

Armed with this knowledge, my friend and I made our journey to Betania to see if we could reclaim the lost shower shoes. The resulting conversation gave new meaning to the word “painful.” No one answered the door when we knocked, so we hit the intercom button and wound up talking two different languages with the two female voices on the other end. There was a lot of “Camera doppia? You want single room?” and “I forgot my scarpi…I don’t need a room…Can you aperto the porta? Open the door so I can point and talk to you? Mi scarpi?” and “Sorry…sorry…”

Finally I think they just wanted us to go away — we must have sounded like loons, with my friend giggling helplessly in the background and my own voice unnaturally high with suppressed laughter — so a nun came to the door. I was able to show her our receipt and point to my shoes, which seemed to get the message across. And then we heard our favorite message: “Come back tomorrow.”

I did so the next morning wihout much hope; we had a train to catch, and I had visions of spending so long spouting English/Italian gibberish at the nuns that I’d miss the train. But they buzzed me in right away and led me to my long-lost flip-flops! “Grazie, grazie!”

It was the end of our stint in Italy; at that point my traveling companion went to visit a friend for a few days, while I decided to spend the last of my spring break in Ireland. But that’s another trip report…

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