Tuesday 10 July 2007

Summer of 2005

Summer 2005 - I spent 2 weeks in Italy. I kept a travelogue which was updated daily to keep friends back home posted of my adventure. This is my longest post yet. So if you get fed-up of reading, just enjoy the pictures!

The journey began without any fanfare but soon the cracks started to show after I landed in Bangkok.

The flight to Rome was delayed due to technical glitches. Not a slight delay but an 8-hour delay that warranted a layover in Bangkok! So, there I was, marching around the vast airport that was bustling with action in the middle of the night, looking for that elusive man in a white coat who'd show us to the hotel. Walking around with a 20kg backpack and weaving through the crowd was no fun. Didn't help that no one could tell me exactly where the man in white coat was to be found. After walking around for a good few miles, my patience was wearing thin.

As it turned out, the man in white coat was a flustered chap in a white shirt. Overwhelmed by too many questioning looks and weary faces, all he could say was 'you wait here', pointing vaguely to a corner nearby. So, a bunch of us stood there waiting like sheep to be herded to the pen. Satisfied that he had gathered enough of a broody bunch, he led us (like a mother hen) to the immigration to further 'processing'.

The thing about airports, if you haven't already noticed, is the vast abyss of gates and counters that you have to walk endlessly through to get to where you should be. Unlike trekking where you have an idea of how far or where to go, distances in airports are never charted nor made known and passengers simply walk for miles and miles with many distractions, namely shops, to soothe their nerves. I always treat this as a good workout and hurry along, undistracted. What I've learned is never to carry Boston bags without shoulder straps, no matter how stylish they make you look. The key here is comfort and efficiency.

The truth is… the layover was quite a delight. Lovely big bed and a nice breakfast thrown in... typical Asian hospitality. Finally, after a good sleep and I was ready to catch the next morning's 8am flight. Alas, the flight was rescheduled to 10am. The gate number had been changed too. Now, everyone trekked to yet another corner of the airport. More waiting ensued. 2 hours of waiting is hardly considered long but waiting for 2 hours to board a plane seems miserably dreary. With no one to talk to, I watched a group of Italian men fall over themselves trying to impress the ladies in waiting. Finally, time to board.

The best thing so far was my good window seat. The one next to me was empty…just what I needed for a 10-hour journey. I watched Elektra and A series of unfortunate events on the plane and was enamored with Elektra's kickass body... those lean muscles and high kicks. The highlight was however, the most mesmerising view below. While the plane was flying over Athens and the Caspian sea, the view of rugged snow capped mountains, lakes and vegetation was just mindblowing. Then we flew over the clear blue seas of Greece, followed by the rolling hills and manicured farms of Italy. I was glued to this goggle box for a long while.

Landing was perfect. Then began another round of transportation madness. I grabbed a ticket to Florence at the train station. The man who issued the ticket said you must catch that train, pointing to one that was about to leave. No time to ask questions or get a map. I got up the train just in time. But where to change the next train? Didn't help that the tickets were all in Italian. So I asked the couple nearby but they couldn’t speak English. After comparing tickets, we concluded 'si si together!'. So we were all heading towards Roma, the central station.

Roma Station is a huge one with about 30 platforms. My train to Florence was about to leave in 15 minutes from platform 6. I was at no. 24. So I ran with my backpack and luggage to look for no. 6. The confusing signages misled me several times. I finally caught the train just as it was about to leave. Thank god! The journey to Florence was eye candy. Miles and miles of rolling hills and huge brick mansions amidst manicured farms. The sky was grey though, with intermittent rain and huge streaks of lightning.

I found Hotel Tina, which I booked through the Internet, quite easily. The entrance is on the 2nd level behind some small alley but the inside was nice and cosy. By the time I settled in, it was already 7pm! I went for a walk around the neighbourhood, with gelato in one hand and bruschetta in a bag. There were lots of tourists every where. I looked forward to escaping to the countryside early next morning.

Back in my room, I couldn't get the lights to work. So, I sat by the old wooden window and read my book, the ceiling fan whirling quietly above. Reading Arundhati Roy's stories about India, or Kerela to be exact, I couldn't help but imagine I was a character out of Somerset Maugham's stories written in the Raffles Hotel of long ago. As the room darkened, I ran downstairs to get the lady to check the lights. They came on miraculously! I swore I tried it a dozen times. I went to bed and woke up at 6.30am. Just nice for coffee and then a bus or train ride to Lucca for my next destination, and adventure.

Lucca… here I come!
The 90-minute train journey to Lucca was uneventful. Looking outside, the sun was blazing at 10am. All I could see were old buildings and small farms, some rather unkempt. I must have dozed off a little, due to lack of sleep the night before. The lady sitting across must be an artist of some sort. She was making beautiful sketches in her little note pad. I pretended to look afar but most of the time, I was stealing glances at her drawings.

At the station, I had to heave my heavy bags up the steps. They don't build escalators in these old towns. A short cab ride took me to the Intrepid apartments. Ding Dong, ding dong.... oops no one was answering. I must be too early. As I turned to walk away, I heard our tour leader Francesco calling my name, TING! How did he know I wonder? Well, it's not everyday you'd find a Chinese girl wandering around in an old Italian town called Lucca.

Lucca is a rather 'has been' kind of place. Tourists shun these old towns for the more glitzy ones in Rome and Pisa. Not me, I love places with character and heritage. I like this little walled city with quaint nooks and crannies. Wild flowers grew profusely, and beautifully too, alongside the insanely gorgeous roses and pertunias.

I found out from Francesco that the entire group was made up of all girls from Australia, USA and NZ. I had to go for a walk while the cleaning lady prepared the place. The first place I went to was the Internet cafe to send out some urgent emails. After a while, the owner told me they were closing for lunch. As it turned out, the internet cafe wasn't the only one that closed for siesta. Most shops in Lucca close for a good few hours for lunch break and resume business again at 4pm.

In Lucca, I discovered many drinking fountains sprinkled throughout the city. You get pure spring water which according to Luccans, is much better than the bottled mineral water in shops. You'd find people bringing bottles from home to fill for their personal consumption. Each city has its pride and joy and I guess in Lucca, it's their spring water. Another quirky discovery was their little canal round the block where we lived. I suspect the water's from the same source as the fountain. The clear, fast moving water inside hosts some fish that look like grey carps.
Lucca is called the walled city because the entire city is enclosed within a huge wall or fort. You can walk or cycle along the top of the wall, which is a shady, tree lined boulevard on elevated ground. The view is picturesque either side you look. Looking inwards toward the city, juxtaposed buildings in vibrant colours jostle for attention. If you look the other way, you are rewarded with an amazing view of the mountains afar. Along the walls, the ruins of yesteryears remain standing... crumbling forts and ragged structures that must have been useful at some point in time.
The sun continued to bake mercilessly. In summer, temperature soars to 35 degree celcius at its peak. For some respite from the heat, I turned and walked towards the city. Huge buses were unloading American tourists who were on a day trip to Lucca. I think they like Tuscany, thanks to the book and movie Under the Tuscan Sun. I must admit my interest in Tuscany is reinforced by Frances Mayes' (writer of the book) love for the region.
The shop windows displayed a curious mix of tempting merchandise. I made a mental note not to succumb to the temptations unless I intended to trudge through Italy lugging my excess baggage. That thought was enough to deter me from straying. I was content to stroll and admire the beautiful facades and window boxes that were overflowing with bright and cheerful posies and geraniums.
On the door of a house, a beautiful bunch of pink ribbons was hanging on the door knob. I learned later from Francesco that it announced the arrival of a new baby. Pink for girl or blue for boy. The name of the baby is usually proudly displayed on the card attached. It’s an Italian tradition.
The streets in Lucca are very narrow and only one vehicle can pass. Sometimes, it wasn’t even wide enough for me to continue walking while a car passed by. I had to stop constantly to avoid being run down. I would never drive in the city.... the roads are too narrow, signs too confusing, too little parking lots and too many pedestrians. Well, everywhere is within easy reach here, no need for cars really. Now weaving through the alleys is like walking through a maze. Even with a map in hand, I was constantly lost. Thankfully getting lost here is a pleasant experience. As long as you stay within the city walls, you'll never get horribly lost.
After walking for more than 2 hours, I finally made my way back to the apartment, now nice and clean. Francesco was so excited to show around. There's something about Italians.. they are always so expressive. I could constantly hear excited voices of the people below, always talking animatedly about something I believe is quite mundane. Even sweeping the walkway of their shopfront is a joyful occassion!

Other fellow travellers started streaming in one by one. There were 2 sisters from USA, followed by 2 from Canada. My room mate Megan the New Zealander who lived in Melbourne just got here from Greece. The night before, she and her friend were mugged by 6 men in Barcelona. Her friend's purse was taken but she hung on to hers and fought with the guys. She's a rather big girl and managed to fend them off but ended up with bruises around her neck and shoulders.
Francesco was responsible for our itinerary and recommending good places for food and drinks. He brought us to a nice bar for our little aperitif before dinner. We must open up our tastebuds first, according to him. So I had a proseco added with fruit liquer to polish the palette. The little cafes here are very authentic and cosy. Never dirty, gloomy or sleazy. They served a hot 'naan' with the drinks. Though void of any toppings, they were absolutely delicious. I could eat a bunch of them for dinner but NO, Francesco wanted us to try Luccan cuisine at a proper restaurant.
So we trooped over to the restaurant and lo and behold, it was a lovely one indeed. As usual, he explained the menu, the way Italians have their starters…and so forth. For starters, I had corn bread topped with fungi. Main course was little pasta pillows stuffed with minced meat. Delicious of course! Wine and more wine in between. Other men around our table were casting envious looks at Francesco. How to get themselves surrounded by 11 adoring women, they wondered?
An after dinner walk around the city gave us the much needed exercise. Summer nights in Tuscany is really pleasant as it never gets too cold when the sun sets. Finally, back to the apartment for a much needed rest.
Cycling in Lucca
We picked up some picnic chow at a delicatessen in the morning. A huge array of salads, cheeses, meats in their full glory was there for our picking. I chose a tomato salad and some fruits. The ride along the countryside was such a lovely experience. I was smiling like a Cheshire cat as I paddled at a leisurely pace along the river, enjoying the cool breeze, picturesque view... even the sound of tyres crunching on the gravel was music to my ears. Such an idyllic experience I wish would never end.
Indeed it was a rather long ride, on flat roads and undulating paths. We stopped at a picnic area and enjoyed our lunch under the trees. Wild flowers peeped out amongst the weeds, bringing splashes of colour to the lush landscape. The hills beyond, dotted with huge mansions beckoned me to consider settling down here.
Too soon, we are back in the city. We stopped for a cold glass of sparking soda with lemonade followed by some retail therapy. I splurged on an intricate necklace and a bag by the local designers before heading back to the apartment.
In the evening, Francesco brought us to a fascinating place for wine tasting. It's a really old wine bar that serves the best wines. For only 10 euros a head, you get to choose 3 types of wine and endless servings of bruschettas. The best thing about this place were the 3 beautiful ladies at the bar counter. Bewitching is the only word I can think of. Imagine 3 tall, tanned, sexy, mysterious looking gals in tight baby Ts and black jeans serving wine and food in a quiet manner. Really a sight for sore eyes! After endless glasses of wine, the girls looked even better than ever!
Dinner was at a pizza restaurant across our apartment. The pizzas have thin and crispy crust and nice toppings and they tasted so good, especially when I was a little tipsy.

Day trip to Pisa
We left early for Pisa which is a really touristy place, to avoid the crowd. If not for the leaning tower, there really is nothing spectacular about the town, which is famous for its mathematicians. A 15 minute ride on the train took us to Pisa.

I finally realised that the leaning tower is merely the bell tower that is part of the beautiful cathedral. Just because it leans so much, we are inclined to think that it is the main attraction. We bought tickets to see the leaning tower, the cathedral and cemetery. I asked myself if I really need to pay to see the cemetery but since we are all the way here, I guess why not do something out of the ordinary?
What intricate artistry and beautiful carvings greeted us! The walk up the leaning tower was quite an unusual experience. Because I was going round and round on a tilted building, I couldn’t help but felt disoriented and dizzy. The view on top was worth it. The cathedral and cemetery were really impressive. We are so done with this place within 2 hours and couldn’t wait to get away from the crowd. It almost looked like Disneyland with the organised rows of souvenir shops lining the road to serve the tourists that come by the bus loads.
We took the train back to Lucca. Francesco’s friend who’s a chef was about to show us how to make pasta.
The Big cookout
Our young Italian chef arrived at our apartment in a pair of surf shorts. He spent a good half an hour setting up the place, with the help of a very able translator who also doubled as an assistant cook. Suddenly, he changed into a pair of pants with extremely striking orangey-red fire graphics with an apron to match. We couldn’t stifle our giggles and were secretly commenting how ‘HOT’ our chef had become.
Looks aside, I must say he was a great cook. He didn’t speak much English but still managed to assign work to the ladies without much difficulty. I was tasked to knead the dough for pasta. It was a good workout for my arms. The other girls ran the dough through the pasta maker to flatten them into sheets which were then made into ravioli stuffed with spinach.
When we sat down for the meal, we had bruschetta topped with chopped fresh tomatoes, a very lovely salad made with Italian barley and vegetables, ravioli in tomato sauce and finally a sweet bread topped with fresh strawberries. Of course, the hearty meal was accompanied with bottles of white and red wine.

A day in Florence
A short train ride brought us to Florence, the ‘Athens of Italy’. Of course, the first thing that hit us was the crowd! Francesco took us on quick tour around the city to appreciate the enchanting ‘outdoor museum’ that Florence is best known for.

Indeed there is art in every street and vicolo (alley) and every piazza. The architecture is Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance; and there are statues and works of Michelangelo, Botticelli and a magnitude of artistic works in every corner. At the pinnacle of the city is the impressive 13th Century Duomo, Bapistry and Belltower and the Santa Croce Church. We paid 6 Euros to climb the 414 spiralling steps of the Giotto’s Bell tower. The stairs leading to the top is very narrow and often, we had to stop to let the ones descending pass first. The view at the top is breathtaking. We saw a panoramic view of the red rooftops of Florence and the green hills afar.

I found the view of Arno River which hugs the city very refreshing and enchanting. We spotted wild ducks leading their ducklings and even an otter on the river bank. Cool!

Randi and I decided to do some more climbing. This time, we went up to 'Piazzale Michelangelo' to see the statue of David at the top of the hill which provided a panoramic view of Florence. Later we met up with the group and went up the hill again, this time to catch the sunset.

But we had a dinner reservation at a popular Florentine restaurant and when the sun refused to set by 7pm, we decided that dinner couldn’t wait. So off we went to taste the papa pomodoro that Francesco had been raving about all day long. Trattoria 4 Leoni is a famous restaurant in Florence that serves great Italian food. There are lots of photos hanging on the wall showing visits by famous actors worldwide, including Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Rossilini.
Pomodoro is a dish made using tomato, bread and olive oil, cooked together into a soft mash. I am not really keen on mushy food, so I shared some with Randi. Megan ordered veal, which had been stewed until it literally melts in your mouth. We all tried some and found it really good. Incidentally, this restaurant is most famous for its meat and a typical portion is like 800g per serving!

To the Winery
The much awaited day finally arrived! We’ were going to the winery! We took a local bus to the country side where a mini coach was waiting to bring us to the Colle Verde winery to sample their olive oil and wine.
This winery is owned by the wealthiest family in Florence. They have 3,000 olive trees, some as old as 300 years. Each year, they produce 3,000 bottles of extra virgin olive oil (1 bottle per tree) using small green olives. The host showed us how oil is pressed in their own little facility. To ensure the best quality, the olives are pressed within 2 hours of picking. After sampling some oil, we moved on to taste their wine at their terrace which gives the most spectacular view of the sprawling hills.

We took a little walk around the farm to take in the view. Then it was time to jump into the pool. Why the fascination with the pool, you wonder? Firstly, it’s not easy to find a pool in Tuscany. There are no public pools, and the beach is quite a distance away. So you’ll find people sun tanning by the riverside. Anyway, how often do you get to swim in a pool that provides a stunning view from the hilltop? Finally, cool water on our hot skins.

Lunch was simple fresh food served by the winery. Fresh carrot/celery sticks dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil, bread (in Tuscany, their bread is always unsalted) and boiled white beans followed by sweet bread baked with raisins, a typical Tuscany dessert. All very simple but lovely.

Back to the apartment for a nap before our night at the opera. Lucca is where Puccini (picture below) was born. We went to watch Madame Butterfly, a one-hour performance in an old church that Puccini used to attend when he was a child. He was a wild child and got into quite a lot of trouble during his youth. He loved to indulge in food, alcohol and women and hence wasn’t very popular back then, even though he was very talented. Eventually he left for the bigger cities of Italy and until today, the people in Lucca do not know the magnitude of his success and popularity.

Francesco (picture below) decided to treat us to Sicilian cuisine tonight. He’s from the southern coast of Sicily and hence the cooking style is more Mediterranean. He made us pasta served in 3 types of sauce: anchovy/tuna/olive oil; chilli/garlic/olive oil and finally the prostitute sauce comprising tomato/onions/olive oil/capers. Why is called the prostitute pasta? There used to be quite a lot of prostitution in Italy and this meal is designed to give the prostitutes enough energy to replenish the calories they have burnt from their work and at the same time, give them enough energy to continue working after that without feeling lethargic. Got it?
The food was delicious. Dessert was fresh peach soaked in white wine, chilled in the fridge. Really refreshing! What a way to end a lovely day! In fact, that also marked the end of my trip with Intrepid. I left for Bologna early next morning.

An afternoon in Bologna
Bologna is famous for its Bologna sauce and sausage. It was an old communist town and hence you see lots of old buildings painted in red. I didn’t pre-book any hotels since it was an unscheduled stop on my way to Venice, so I checked myself into Sofitel Hotel by the railway station.
There was nothing much to do in Bologna except to walk around the city and the park nearby. I spent a couple of hours at a huge flea market and wandered around the city. From where I stayed, one side of the city had all the expensive shops and museums. The other side was where the people live. I found a restaurant called “Singapore Restaurant’ amongst a mix of Indian, Asian, Italian etc eating establishments. It was beginning to get dark and cold and I grabbed a slice of pizza and headed back to my room.

Next stop, Venice
Venice - the city with no cars but hell lot of people. That was my first impression of Venice when I got off the train! People, people everywhere. I walked towards the hotel that I had pre-booked. My room was on the 4th floor and I had to carry my luggage and knapsack (which was putting on weight day by day) up the steps!

Up north to Trieste
I traveled to Trieste by train. By now, I was quite good at taking trains. Trieste is a lovely port town, a small city with nice old buildings and lots of expensive villas dotting the hills facing the sea. Slovenia and Croatia lie behind the hills. I checked myself into a hotel near the train station. Finally, I was at a place with very little tourists around. I had a nice dinner in a cosy restaurant. Being a coastal town, most restaurants here serve very good seafood. Just across my hotel is the most famous gelataria in Trieste. There were people lining up to buy gelato even at midnight. I joined the line at 11pm. Of course I couldn't bear to leave Trieste without trying at least 1 scoop.
Finally, back to Rome
I arrived in Rome and was so lucky to find a small hotel opposite a plush one for only 60euros a night. After dumping my bags, I went for a long walk. I got so lost, it took me forever to find that hotel. So, I learned a very important lesson.... never assume that I can trust my memory.
Rome is just a total labyrinth. The funny thing is the place that I stayed in looked like a Chinatown. All the shops were run by Chinese, selling clothes. The moment I stepped out of the central train station, I saw nothing but Chinese, Indian and African fashion! There was a heavy storm that night. Huge downpour and lots of thunder…Rome's really different from the other places.
The next morning, I brought my maps (not one but 2!) out with me. I realized Rome is indeed a very magnificent city. I went to Vatican city and several places and was totally charmed by the beauty of it all. I met a German lady with fantastic knowledge of Rome and such great sense of direction. We traveled around on foot and even managed to lunch, taste wine and dine together. I doubt I would be able to achieve so much without her as my trusty guide.
Spanish Steps
Finally, my last day in Rome! One final stop to see Colosseo before my flight out. While I was using the internet service at the Cyber shop, the owner tried to ask me out for dinner! Ha Ha, very funny. I said “Too late, I’m leaving today. Ciao!”


Anonymous said...

It was indeed long. I will read it more carefully once back home! The photos were great tho! Looks like ya ate ur way thru Italy!

Blur Ting said...

I know, it's sooo long. I had wanted to break it up into parts but it'll be too draggy. Italy's another fantastic place for eating!

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