Europe, Italy

Road Trip: Italy

Our road trip continued on through Italy, where we met up with some old friends for a few days.
Original post 5/18/2014
We crossed into Italy a few miles after leaving Monaco. No border control here! I was bummed, I wanted an Italian stamp in my passport. As soon as we crossed over, the landscape stayed the same, but the style of the buildings and the language on them (obviously) changed immediately. We had some beautiful sights on the way to Romano di Lombardia, outside Milan (Jared and Rachel’s house) our first overnight stop in Italy.
We got the screaming and shouting and all the it’s so good to see you!s out of the way, grabbed some bottles of wine and sat on a balcony with friends we’ve not seen in many years. Teaching abroad allows people to meet friends from every corner of the planet, so there’s a good chance that you will know someone in a desirable vacation destination. This time: meet friends outside Milan, go to Rome together.
My camera, my nice new camera that I got specifically for this trip, broke (it’s actually still a mystery how exactly) right when we got to Jared and Rachel’s. It was working one minute and the next the lens was stuck and couldn’t be repaired. The previous picture was the last one taken with my good camera. Luckily, Jared had an extra camera and let me borrow it for the remainder of our vacation, then mail it to his mom in Wisconsin when we got back to the US. Although it was just a basic point-and-shoot and I missed the power and quality of mine, it was the nicest thing someone could’ve done and I was beyond grateful. I don’t know what I would’ve done had he not been so generous…used my phone I suppose!
We all went to Milan the next day. I’ll say this about Milan: I wasn’t impressed. Yeah, it’s Milan but it just wasn’t a beautiful city at all. Of course there were a few beautiful things to see, and the Duomo was actually one of the most beautiful churches I saw on my entire vacation, but the city itself just isn’t a pretty one.

Shopping
A castle in the city
Everyone knows “gelato”. Everyone knows it’s associated with Italy. I wasn’t exactly sure what “gelato” was, other than Italian style ice cream, but it turns out…that’s all it is. A fancy word for ice cream. BUT…it’s the greatest ice cream I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Throughout this entire vacation, I ate great food and saw amazing things, but sometimes because one is on vacation, the environment can make food taste better. I’m not negative, but I don’t think that that cup of coffee I had at a cute cafe in Paris actually tasted better than other coffee I’ve had, but my surroundings made it seem so. So when I went in to taste my first scoop of gelato, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, other than just some good ice cream. Well, results are in and gelato is like ice cream on crack. It isn’t just the environment that makes it taste fantastic; it actually is fantastic. It’s really, really dense, yet extremely soft and creamy at the same time. The flavors are so full and rich. It’s simply very, very high quality ice cream. My favorite was coconut. I also had banana, mint, tiramisu, more coconut…some others. A lot of others, as a matter of fact.
Gelato!
On the fashion side, truthfully, people in France are much more fashionable than Italians. I know it’s like a war of labels, French vs. Italian, but I just found that French people were a bit more chic. And Italian men seemed to still be stuck in 2005. Popped collars, Ed Hardy-esque shirts, shield sunglasses and wet head all around. It was really strange, actually, because I was expecting sleek suits and next level fashion. I saw well dressed people, of course, it just seemed to not be the norm, especially among younger men. Although I’m really glad I got to see Milan, I probably won’t be going back anytime soon.
The next day was a long one of driving to Rome. Since it was Easter weekend and millions of people also had the same idea, we decided to pay to use the highways instead of the free side roads. Using the faster roads cut a probably 9 hour drive into a 6 hour one. The four of us piled into our tiny rental and headed south to visit one of the holiest cities on Earth on one of the holiest holidays of the year.
As much as I didn’t like Milan, I really liked Rome! You want old? Go to Rome. Now THAT place is OLD! It was really busy because of the holiday weekend, but honestly not nearly as bad as what I was expecting. Our first Roman stop: St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Museums.
Totally illegal to take pictures of this.
Michelangelo was a boss.
Famous main staircase in the museum

The line to get into the museum wrapped clear around the walls of the Vatican and then some and we barely made it inside in time. We ended up having to pay many Euros extra to get a guided tour because we wouldn’t have made it just waiting in the line. And it was raining. So guided tour it is. And I say “tour” very loosely because, as mentioned, there were a billion people all squeezed into the Vatican for the holiday, the guide herded us through tightly packed halls very quickly, barely getting a glimpse at some things. It was kind of a downer, but maybe we will go back and be able to go a bit slower next time.

I found some Cardinals or something!
St. Peter’s Square
That evening, we went and had a thing called “aperitivo”. I guess it varies from restaurant to restaurant, but basically you buy a drink at about 6 euros and then you get lots of free food along with it. Usually it’s chips, fries, mini sandwiches, olives and even little pizzas, poppers and other finger foods. Pretty good deal!
Aperitivo
Poured the rain at our outside dinner!

Happy Easter! We weren’t coming all the way to Rome on Easter and not pushing and shoving our way to St. Peter’s Square on Sunday to get a glimpse of the Holy Man himself, the Pope. We were packed in as tightly as sardines and the Pope was merely a small white spec on his balcony, but we got to hear his (Italian) speech and got the experience overall.

A little tight
There’s the Pope! The little guy on the balcony!

We found a cute restaurant and got some pizzas for lunch. Italian pizza is, of course, delicious. I find that I’m sure I could get just as good of pizza around America somewhere, but American style is much different. Italian pizza is thin, not too crispy and very flavorful.

The rest of the day was spent hitting all the Roma hotspots like the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. Because millions of others all wanted to do the same thing, the Trevi Fountain was smothering. I don’t know if it’s always like that, but I imagine not since this was such a big holiday weekend. No matter, it’s easy to block out all the people for a few minutes and just appreciate the beauty of the fountain.
The Colosseum was one of the highlights of my entire month. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. A lot of famous monuments or attractions in Europe have had modernism build up around them, but the area around the Colosseum is (I think) the oldest area of Rome, and the surrounding locale and buildings reflect that. Despite all the tourists, I felt like I had stepped back in time walking toward this behemoth. I stepped into its shadows and reflected on the history and what went on behind its walls and I immediately felt very small. I felt I was in a very powerful place, even though now it’s nothing more than stone structure. So many people died in that arena, and I’m just staring down at it taking pictures.
Jared and Rachel accompanied us to our next Italian destination, San Quirico, smack dab in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, before they caught the train north back to their town.
We had a really nice drive out of Rome on Monday morning. We found a lake on the way! Just happened across it.
Al and I wanted a little R&R after all the go, go, go, so we were staying three nights at our agriturismo. An agriturismo is a working farm, usually olives, wine, etc. that also functions as a bed & breakfast. They seem to be a dime a dozen in Tuscany, it all came down to just choosing one. They range from super luxurious, large industrial type farms to small and basic. I think they are all family owned. My stipulations in choosing ours were that they produced wine, it had a lot of cypress trees, and that it was cliche looking. I got all my wishes plus one; ours also produced olive oil. It was called Bagnaia and I couldn’t have asked for anything more adorable.
Our room was the door on the right edge of the picture

Like all little towns (villages?) around Italy, San Quirico is walled. Our agriturismo was just outside the walls across a bridge, so we’d go into town to get food and walk around once we tired of looking at the vineyard.

And then we went on a drive and just lost ourselves down some gravel roads because why not. 
 
At one restaurant, I ate some kind of goat cheese and pear ravioli in a butter/olive oil sauce topped with pecans. It seems a weird combo, but it was incredible. We stuffed ourselves with bread, cheese, pasta and wine for nearly four days, then unfortunately it was time to leave and get on the road to our next destination: Pisa!
Church next to the tower
Inside the church. Nuts.
Pisa itself was a pretty town, just not much to do other than the tower. It was only a few hours drive from San Quirico so we only stopped for a little bit and got back on the road.
Pisa on the river

A few more hours of driving and we arrived in Cinque Terre! It means “five lands” and it’s because there are five small towns perched on cliffs along this area of the Mediterranean. It was a place I was looking forward to most, a place that I had only heard about from a friend in Korea maybe three months before departing. He showed me pictures and I was sold, so we added it to the itinerary deciding on the first town, Riomaggiore.

There are no cars. Everyone has to park at the top and then the town itself is pedestrian only. The road getting there winded along the side of a mountain hugging the sea. We soon discovered the labyrinth that is Riomaggiore. There is one main “street” up the middle from the water. Other than that, every other route throughout the entire town looks like this:
Claustrophobics: beware! Up and down ancient, death trap staircases and narrow alleyways are the only ways to get from place to place and building to building. We had only planned on one night there, but after laying eyes on it, we decided to stay another. I mean, look at this place!
The main street with shopping and restaurants
Told ya it’s blue! The pathway that you see along the cliff is how you walk to and from each of the five towns
View from the top where the cars are parked. You walk from here!
I learned that this place was built here in the early 13th century. Insane. This was our last official and planned stop before heading back to Paris. We had four days to get there before turning the car back in…where should we stop next? Al has a weird obsession with checking “Olympic cities” off his list, so we chose Turin as our next stop. I found the cutest little bed and breakfast up in the hills outside Turin for only 35 euros a night. Win!
View from our place
Balcony!
It rained the night before so we woke up to this foggy insanity

Another morning, another decision on how far we should go and where we should stay. We looked at the GPS and decided that the road going through some mountains wouldn’t be so bad. We were crossing back into France today and it looked like the most straightforward route without going on the paid toll highways. (1. Paid toll roads are really expensive 2. The side roads are slower, but where the scenery is. We only used highways if we absolutely had to.) We had our last Italian coffee and breakfast and hit the road again.

 We only had the GPS screen for a visual of what our route looks like, so we had no idea what was actually waiting for us. The previous day as we were approaching Turin, there were snow-capped mountains in the far distance. I’ve never seen mountains like that before! I have never been to Colorado or out west at all (other than California), so this was the first time I’ve seen rocky, pointy, snowy mountains. I feverishly snapped pictures, thinking it was as close as I’d get to them. Wrong. 
 
As the GPS took us closer to the “bumpy” area of the screen that I guessed were mountains, little did I know then that we were headed straight for those huge snow-capped peaks in the distance. The Alps. 
 
The further we ascended, the quicker the temperature dropped and the more the buildings and towns looked like ski lodges rather than typical Italian dwellings.
The mountains were also getting closer.
We passed what what we thought was a castle, but turns out it’s called “Fort of Exiles” and it’s where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. It was super creepy. Nothing else really around but the fortress and a small village in its shadows.
It was getting colder and snowier. The mountains were covered and we were soon officially “in the Alps”.
We left Turin and it was about 70 degrees, and soon it looked like this:
Flip flops. Def weren’t expecting snow!
A nice place to end up on accident!

We eventually weaved back and forth down the mountains and escaped the snow. We wanted some food so stopped at the first cute French town we ran across. I think we were outside Lyon. It’s all kind of a blur now!

Churches churches everywhere
Pretty French rooftops
Next overnight stop: Dijon. I thought it would be nice to stop in the land of mustard, even though mustard completely grosses me out. I hate the word, even. But Dijon mustard from Dijon would be a good souvenir for people back home, so stop there we did. We stayed a little outside the center, but naturally, everything was beautiful.
It was time to get our butts back to the airport and drop off the car. We arrived early in the morning so we’d have extra time in Paris. (Our flight wasn’t until the following day.) We checked into our hotel near Gare du Nord (the main train station) and enjoyed Paris again and for the last time.
Sipping coffee at a Parisian cafe is one of the most sexy things in the world, I think.
Unfortunately our last day in France was a rainy one.
One of my favorite pictures.
View from our room the morning we left. Not a shabby way to wake up!

I always find myself wanting to back to these areas. Now that I’ve gotten some touristy stuff out of the way, I can just sit at a cafe and drink coffee or meander in and out of shops at my leisure and not feel like I have stuff to see. Eventually!

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