Italy's Big Cities

Milan

Milan is in northern Italy, the capital of Lombardy Province. It was my first Italian city, but I was warned that it isn’t very ‘Italian.’ The couchsurf host I had there listed front page on his profile that he’s happy to host couchsurfers who want to see Milan, but hoped that traveler’s carried on to see the ‘real’ Italy.

Whatever the case, I tried to see the ‘real’ Milan, spending 3 days there living in the city center. I spent one day walking to the most beautiful parts of Milan, mainly the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, San Lorenzo Maggiore, and the Sforzesco Castle and surrounding gardens. There were other palazzo’s and museums I just glanced at, and at the Santa Maria delle Grazie I just checked out Leonardo’ da Vinci’s painting ‘The Last Supper.’

The shopping gallery, adorned with glass arches designed and built in a time when it was considered such an architectural marvel that the architect commited suicide before it was finished from fear that it would fail

San Lorenzo Maggiore is a beautiful church fronted by roman columns, rare for this part of Italy, and floods with a buzzing nightlife every weekend. Here was where my couchsurf host lived, so we ate pizza and crepes and drank chianti and pinot grigio whenever he came home from work. One evening I saw a ballet at the Teatro alla Scala, and sitting in the red velvet seats inside that glitzy theatre house made me feel like Italian royalty. During the day, I absorbed as much fashion and aesthetic beauty as I could, checking out every beautiful person that walked passed me and all the glamorous window shopping. The ‘real’ Milan definitely kept its expected reputation as one of the world’s fashion capitals.

Florence

Florence was smaller, quainter, without the cosmopolitan bustle of Milan. Yet it somehow felt more international, more touristy, and although it looked like a ‘more’ Italian city, it felt less like Italian life. Every third person I passed spoke American English, and a plethora of immigrants ran the tourist shops, pizza stands and café’s.

 

Ponte Vecchio, a bridge full of houses

The city is cramped but cosy, with narrow, pedestrian-only streets made of big cobble stones crookedly-winding around stone buildings. The whole city is made of stone, with not a patch of earth or dirt in sight, but the little windows poking out of buildings and tiny balconies are usually adorned in flower pots.

Tourists come here since it’s the capital of Tuscany (where they want to explore more of), and because they’re interested in visiting since its considered a culture capital and birthplace of the renaissance. I couchsurfed with 2 American brothers, and hung out with their extended American friends/colleagues, to get a glimpse of Florence that was not very Italian, but probably a more accurate experience of the touristy city.

Rome

The saying ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ never made sense to me because I don’t know what Romans do.Rome is huge, overwhelmingly big when compared to Florence or Milan, and has too much to do and see since the whole city is one big tourist attraction.

All of the Roman ruins compete with the still-standing Roman artifacts, which compete with the newer Roman buildings since they’re soon-to-be Roman ruins. Everything is big and grandiose, which made me think “how the heck did they build that 2000 years ago?” My Romanian-Italian friend explained “I think people used to be smarter, so there’s no way for us to know how they did it since we people have gotten stupider since then.”

 

Coliseo de Roma

Rome is so clustered with ancient artifacts and impressive buildings that you actually start to get numb from their awesomeness. Friends giving me some tour guiding just started to point at pretty things and explain ‘that’s also old and important’ but not sure what things actually were.

I think I took fifty pictures of the Trevi fountain, but I didn’t throw a coin in it since I can’t jinx my luck of going back since I’m just trying to make sure I can leave. The Roman Coliseum was one of my favourite places, along with the topless Pantheon. Vatican City was somewhere I really looked forward to going, but once I waited an hour to see St. Peters Basilica packed like a sardine can and shuffled 3km through the (inescapable) Vatican Museum like a herd of sheep, something was lost in my enjoyment of the experience.

Naples

Naples was my favourite. It was the most ‘in-your-face’ Italian, and had the best weather and the friendliest people. It was also the grungiest, dirty around the edges but shining in the middle, vibrant with energy and a colourful nightlife. It helped that I was there over a weekend, staying with a hip Napolitan guy and welcomed into his group of friends for my whole stay. He was a vintage-clothes dealer, and most of his friends worked in vintage fashion too, and none of them took life too seriously.

Adriano ordering drinks in the street from a blessed bar, from a bartender who could be my grandmother

I stayed in Portici, a suburb closer to Pompeii than Naples, but spent every night in Naples til the wee hours drinking wine and rum in crowd-filled piazzas. I ate the best pizza in Naples, which happens to house the best pizza in Italy, which is known for the inventing the pizza, so I guess I can say I ate the best pizza in the world. I went to a reggae/dub concert one night, and also spent one day in the historical city center. The rest of my time I wandered south, to Pompeii and the Amalfi coast, but ill have to write a separate blog post for each of them, since its impossible to give a paragraph summary of either.

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Tuscany's Little Towns

Pisa

Everyone has heard of the leaning tower of Pisa, and seen a picture of it, and that’s about as much as I knew. To be brutally honest, I remember thinking as a child it was some sort of Roman ruin, and I couldn’t wait to go to Rome to see it, because that’s where Roman things are. At some point in my teenage hood, I changed my mind and realized I had to go to Greece to see Roman stuff, so Im not really sure when I realized the leaning tower of Pisa was in Tuscany.

The leaning tower of Pisa

Pisa is the name of a small town in Tuscany, and its not much different to any other town except for the fact its tower is leaning. Most Italian towns have a duomo, accompanied by a baptismal room, and a tower, surrounded by a plaza in the city center, and Pisa would probably be off the mass-tourism radar if it wasn’t for its crooked tower.

If you walk around the tower, the degree to which it looks like its going to fall changes. There’s one angle you can look at it and it just looks really tall and looming, but actually its leaning right over you. From the angle where its most tipsy, hordes of tourist line up and put their hands up, to create the optical illusion that they’re holding the tower up. Im still not sure if I think this is totally ridiculous, childishly-funny, or a brilliant idea. Either way, I didn’t take such a photo of myself, so if it ever falls, I cant prove to my gullable grandkids I tried to stop it from tipping. But I can teach them where it is, and that its built in a Roman style, but not in Rome… or Greece.

Lucca

A lot of Italian towns were once walled, but few remain totally enclosed. Lucca is completely blockaded within a red-stone fortress, and you have to enter it through one of a few secret passages – narrow, hidden paths that go through or over the wall, invisible to the eye but marked with touristy direction signs.

Once you get inside, the dense, stone jungle has no straight roads, and only few wide enough for cars to drive. I never figured out how the cars got in there, but anyway. I walked around the passageways, getting lost every third turn I made, but every time I got out into an open piazza, could orient myself by one of the tall church towers scattered around the city.

One of many beautiful buildings in Lucca

It was a quiet place, without busloads of flash-happy tour groups, and the shops weren’t tailored to sell all the same souvenirs. Instead, I passed Italian couples dining at Italian run restaurants, young locals jogging, little old ladies walking their dogs, teenage girls shopping, and old men discussing who-knows-what on the plaza benches.

In travel books, its recommended as a day trip for tourists to take to get away from the hustle bustle of Florence, and that’s certainly what it is. Although it won’t be if everyone starts going there, a typical dilemma that charming tourist destinations like Lucca face.

Siena

Siena is another fortress city, perched on a couple hill tops, but slightly more accessible than Lucca. Its also marketed as a day trip destination, since its quite small and not much more to do after seeing it for an afternoon.
Its strange how these “daytrip” destinations develop to host “day” tourists – a lot of shops, selling the exact same things, over-priced vendors to supply bottled water and slices of pizza, but there are very few hotels. People cycle in and out daily, taking all the food and gelato icecream they need to make it through the day of photo taking, and then complete quietude returns after 6 pm when everyones left and the whole city reverts back to being a quiet Italian town.

Siena

The activities are similar in all the towns: walk to the duomo, usually also the central plaza, check out more churches and museums housed in old buildings, sit at other piazzas, maybe have a cigarette, eat some pasta and wine or have a cappuccino on a terrace, and then you’ve been to Siena. Its strange to see how I just get into it, like its my daily life rhythm. Sometimes I even notice I’m just following the person in front of me, since I assume they have a tourist map showing them how to walk through the city to see what you have to see. But, once in a while I snap out of it and try to wander somewhere else, stop hiding behind my camera, and stick around until after the shops close, til I feel like Im the only outsider left in the city walls.

Cinque Terre

On the northwest coast of Italy, only a 3 hr train ride from Florence, is the most amazing hike I’ve ever taken.

It’s a 12 km trail, connecting 5 sea-side villages perched on dramatic cliffs along the Ligurian coast. As you walk between them, tiered vineyards and olive groves cling to the steep mountains, and every few kilometers you reach a crowded, colourful village.

The view around our apartment

We arrived at the eastern-most town in Cinque Terre first, where the steep cobblestone street leads you from the train station either up into town or down to the sea where tiny boats bob around in a sheltered harbour, waiting to be used.

Riomaggiore

The first town is Riomaggiore, with less than 2000 inhabitants but hundreds of tourists renting sea-view apartments and tiny bedrooms with open-air terraces. Many of them have dozens of steep steps to maneuver, but the climb is always worth it as you stare out on the crystal-clear sea and hundreds of other little windows facing the sea.

I rented an apartment there, with 3 Americans from North-Eastern, one Brasilian and an ecclectic Russian that called me the ‘red-cheeks girl.’ We hiked all day, swimming between towns, and munching on a picnic of cheese, salami, bread, chocolate and wine.

 

Vernazza

The day was perfect, sunny but breezy, and less crowded with tourists than usual. I couldn’t get enough of the scenery, and the feeling of being lost in some remote forest every time you left a town. When you reached the next town, it looked like a cramped collection of concrete, clamped together like leggos, clinging to the cliffs to avoid falling into the sea. Houses seemed to be built ontop of eachother, buildings only as wide as one room, with clotheslines and balcones giving the facades a third dimension.

Lovers’ Lane

Lover's lane

We hiked from Riomaggiore to Manarola, through a famous stretch of path called Lovers’ lane. Here, hundreds of tourists ‘lock up their love,’ leaving a lock chained to another as they throw away the key. We arrived in Manarola next, and then had to take a train to Corniglia because of a landslide. We carried on to Vernazza, where we sunbathed on big boulders on the beach.

Between Vernazza and the last town, we looked back at the distance we had hiked and noticed the greenery above Riomaggiore was on fire. From 10kms away we could see orange flames, and grey smoke clouds drifted over the sea past us. Im not sure why, but noone really noticed or became alarmed, and we laughed about how all our passports were in the apartment that hopefully hadnt burnt down yet.

The tiered vineyards in the background

Monterosso

The last town is Monterosso, slightly smaller than Riomaggiore, but less hilly since it clings to a long stretch of sandy beach. We sat there for sunset, then took the train back to Riomaggiore, where we found out our apartment hadnt burnt down. We also found out noone was harmed, just a small section of farm land and one abandoned house.

Peeking out from the trail to the next town

All 5 towns are collectively referred to as ‘Cinque Terre,’ or ‘Five Lands,’ and is protected as a national park that requires a 5euro entry fee. In 1997, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Before then, few had even heard of the place, as it remained hidden from mass tourism and unknown to popular guidebooks. I can only imagine what a peaceful, magical place it used to be then, serene, sleepy, Italian coastal villages. But, I suppose I can’t be upset it was discovered and subsequently over-commercialized, since I otherwise might never have discovered it myself.

Photo Highlight: Milan's Duomo

Duomo at dusk

 

Milan’s city center revolves around the duomo, the 4th largest cathedral in the world. It took almost 600 years to finish, and is built in the gothic style.  Its external finishing, with exquisitely detailed scultpures, makes you dizzy to look at up close, and from far away, kind of looks like a 3d hologram.

God rays shining into the Duomo