40 days in Europe: Days 23-31

Thursday, November 1, 2012

This is a continuation of 40 days in Europe: Days 12-22, a blog post about the adventures of Heidi and me on our travels through Europe from October 1 to November 9, 2012. (Want to start from the beginning?)

Gruyères, Switzerland postcardTuesday, October 23: Lausanne/La Gruyère – Day 23

  • Train Took SBB trains from Lausanne to Palézieux to Gruyères
  • Gruyères is a stunning medieval village. We also walked through Pringy, a neighboring village
  • Toured Museum HR Giger, which happens to be in Gruyères
  • Ate lunch at HR Giger Bar, where we had pizza and I drank a flaming glass of absinthe
  • Castle of Gruyères
  • Villars Larmes d’Absinthe (absinthe liquor-filled dark chocolates made in Switzerland) are ridiculously delicious. We bought a few bars at a shop in Gruyères. I checked the Villars website and am sad to report that they do not ship to the United States
  • We decided not to bother visiting the Maison Cailler chocolate factory after all (even though we we’re quite close to Broc by train) since we’ve both been to chocolate factories before, and Nestlé owns this one
  • Train Took SBB trains from Gruyères to Montbovon to Montreux to Lausanne (which is part of the GoldenPass scenic train ride). Though we also rode the GoldenPass for a few extra stops in the wrong direction and saw additional views of the Alps
  • Back in Lausanne, Heidi rested while I visited the Gothic Cathedral de Lausanne and the forest of Sauvabelin, which has the panoramic Sauvabelin Tower. I may or may not have ascended the closed tower by shimmying underneath the locked revolving gate and dashing up the dangerous spiral staircase in the dark, thus continuing my apparent practice of trespassing every time Heidi stays behind to rest at our hotel. Lausanne might be my favorite city we’ve visited
  • Hotel Room 301 at Hôtel Résidence du Boulevard ($139), Lausanne, Switzerland

Villars Larmes d'Absinthe dark chocolateWednesday, October 24: Lausanne/Venice – Day 24

  • Train Departed Lausanne at 8:20 AM on EC 37 train and arrived in Venice, Italy at 2:40 PM (via Domodossola, Verona and Milan)
  • Our previously planned stop in Zurich was cut from the itinerary to give us more time in Italy
  • Upon arrival at the Venice S. Lucia train station, the first thing we saw was a pizza restaurant and some guy playing “That’s Amoré” on an accordion. As we stepped into the the sun outside the train station, we saw the Grand Canal with the Scalzi Bridge spanning it and fancy buildings all around. Off to the left were street vendors. It was like walking onto a movie set more than a real location. Our hotel is very near to the train station, just the way we like it
  • There are no cars allowed on the island, except in one designated parking lot on the far west side of Venice, which makes the city quiet and pretty clean. It’s a relief to be away from filthy automobile exhaust and noise pollution after having traveled through so many big cities. It’s just foot traffic and some boats in the canals, which feels peaceful, even with all the tourists
  • Hotel Room 8 at Hotel Stella Alpina Edelweiss ($111), Cannaregio, Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy postcardThursday, October 25: Venice – Day 25

  • Ate breakfast at the hotel’s complimentary buffet, which was decent: rolls, croissants, ham and salami, cereals, yogurts, juices, teas, espresso
  • Walked around a lot of Venice, including visits to Santa Maria della Salute, Piazzo San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Bell tower and the Accademia Bridge. We saw about a million canals and gondolas and so on. We watched the sunset over the island of Guidecca on the Mediterranean Sea
  • Italians love pistachio-flavored sweets, it seems; I’ve had a pistachio cookie (it was a pescatore/fisherman cookie) and pistachio gelato since arriving in Venice
  • As expected, the food in Italy suits me much better than the food in France, or anywhere else in Europe. This is the first country since Iceland where mayonnaise, thick salad dressings and/or stinky cheeses don’t get slathered onto sandwiches (and everything!) by default. Instead, it’s marinara and pesto everywhere and it’s great. One good thing about France is the wide availability of crepes, but Heidi and I are craving proper burritos, which we eat almost daily when home. Home seems like a distant past. I don’t think we’ve even eaten beans at all in Europe, maybe once. It seems that no one knows about the majesty of Mexican-style cuisine here. But they’ve got the bread thing down in Europe. Everything goes inside bread; I’ve even seen noodles jammed inside sliced baguettes. In Italy, lots of weird ingredients get tossed onto pizza dough rounds instead of being placed inside baguettes
  • Hotel Room 8 at Hotel Stella Alpina Edelweiss ($111), Cannaregio, Venice, Italy

Friday, October 26: Venice/La Spezia – Day 26

  • Ate breakfast at the hotel’s complimentary buffet again
  • We bought lunch and cookies from Heidi’s favorite little bakery in Venice, Soft Bread, to take with us on our train travels to La Spezia
  • Train Departed Venice at 11:32 AM on Frecciarge 9432/Regionale 23361 trains and arrived in La Spezia at 4:12 PM (via Florence and Pisa)
  • On almost every train we ride in Italy, we encounter female train-beggars, who walk through each train car handing out typed slips of paper, in both Italian and English, that describe how many kids they’ve birthed and how they have no jobs and are homeless. On multiple occasions, the sob-slips of paper different girls/women have handed out have been identical to each other. I want to be compassionate, but this is clearly a scam. Why it only happens in Italy is beyond me
  • Actually, maybe I do have a clue as to why train-begging happens in Italy. Because the Italian rail system sucks compared to the rest of Europe. That’s why. Getting a ticket out of Venice was a nightmare. Connection to the central train booking system was down for most of a day and the ticketing agents were not helpful. When the ticketing system came back up, the train we wanted was almost full and Heidi and I couldn’t reserve seats together, much less in first class as designated by our Eurail Passes
  • The train ride itself from Venice to Florence (that was bound for Rome) was the most hellish train experience I’ve had, unless you count subways in major metro areas during rush hour. But this ride lasted for over two hours. The thing was packed and there was no place to fit anyone’s bags or suitcases because the cars were designed so poorly. Just think of flying coach in an airplane in terms of legroom, but with much smaller overhead storage room – and then visualize everyone keeping their huge suitcases on the plane with them. What a claustrophobic nightmare of suitcases piled in aisles, on top of their owners and in the walkways between train cars. What kind of a system is this? How was every other train car in Europe nice and this one such a disaster of cramped seats and no baggage storage space? The situation in first class wasn’t much better; I checked. We were so glad to get off the train in Florence and transfer to the slower, more comfortable regional train that took us to La Spezia. And here I was thinking that all of Western Europe was competent, even brilliant, at train transportation. Grazie for nothing, Italian high-speed trains. Your cars were designed by a sadist
  • Walked to our hotel in La Spezia in the pouring rain and then took the hotel’s shuttle downtown, in the pouring rain, for dinner
  • Had a great dinner at MarineRei di Calcinotto Marinella followed by a nice swim in the river, I mean, the town, as we walked to the train station to catch the shuttle back to our hotel. We’re so soaked. I’m not sure how we’ll be able to get our shoes dry by tomorrow. There’s a lot of thunder and lightning outside, and winds over 30 MPH. It seems silly to have left beautiful, sunny Venice now
  • Hotel Room 101 at Ghironi Hotel ($94), La Spezia, Italy

CNN 2012 electoral mapSaturday, October 27: La Spezia – Day 27

  • We were planning to take a train to Cinque Terre in the morning, since we’re only 10 minutes away, but it wouldn’t stop raining (and our shoes still weren’t dry from yesterday, despite numerous drying attempts with the hotels room’s hairdryer), so we decided to not go anywhere in such miserable weather. Not sure if this means we’re skipping Cinque Terre altogether or not. But our hotel room is really nice, and the complimentary breakfast buffet was good
  • Today we just hung out in our hotel room all day and took naps and caught up on news, mostly about the U.S. election and the East Coast’s impending destruction by Frankenstorm. We left the hotel once during a break in the rain to buy dinner and groceries at Coop
  • Tonight in Italy at 3 AM, daylight saving time ends and we set our clocks back one hour (to 2 AM). The new time zone difference from Oregon is now -8 hours instead of -9 hours (until Nov. 4, when the U.S. falls back too). Unfortunately, now it will get dark at around 5 PM here
  • Not counting the medieval tourist towns of Bruges and Gruyères, my five favorite cities we’ve visited so far are Lausanne, Switzerland; Brussels, Belgium; Reykjavík, Iceland; Stuttgart, Germany and Venice, Italy. Heidi’s favorite is still Reykjavík and she also liked Stuttgart and Friedrichshafen, Germany a lot, plus Venice and all of Switzerland. We didn’t end up being huge fans of France or the Netherlands
  • Hotel Room 101 at Ghironi Hotel ($94), La Spezia, Italy

Sunday, October 28: La Spezia/Florence – Day 28

  • Ate breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet and took the shuttle to the rainy La Spezia train station at 9:30 AM
  • Train Departed La Spezia for Pisa at 10:07 AM on a Trenitalia regional train. Upon seeing that the weather was also miserable in Pisa (despite today’s forecast for no rain in Pisa until the afternoon), we boarded the next train to Florence. On my own, I would’ve checked my backpack at Pisa Central station and braved the rain to see their goddamn historical monument to the male erection, but Heidi looked like she might murder me if I tried such a thing. Departed Pisa at 11:32 AM and arrived in Florence an hour later
  • Will I ever get to see Cinque Terre or the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Western Italy is not giving us a break with the weather. It’s supposed to be better tomorrow though. Our Florence hotel is conveniently located near the train station again
  • I left Heidi in the room to walk around drizzling Florence. First I went to Hertz to try to reserve a car for tomorrow, but it was closed for the day. Then I tried to buy tickets for the Uffizi Gallery from the super-secret Uffizi ticket booth, since the Uffizi website said the museum was sold out for the next five days, but that window was closed too. And yet somehow I was able to get my hands on two tickets for Tuesday from the actual museum without having to wait in line, thanks to serendipitous timing and possibly magic
  • Hotel Room 103 at Porta Faenza Hotel ($85), Florence, Italy

Saint Michael, patron saint of Lucca, ItalyMonday, October 29: Florence/Lucca/Cinque Terre – Day 29

  • After additional research last night, we decided that renting a car to drive through Tuscany to Cinque Terre would be more trouble than it’s worth. The car rental places don’t open until 8 AM in Florence, and they also don’t keep their cars on site, so we probably wouldn’t have a car until after 9 or 10. And now that it gets dark at 5:15 PM, daylight hours are precious. Plus, every other road in Italy is a toll road, and there’s almost no parking anywhere. Instead of renting a car, we committed to ride about a dozen trains today using our Eurail Passes. In the end, it was actually cheaper and probably less stressful
  • Train We reluctantly awoke before 6 AM, grabbed a couple of items from our hotel’s free breakfast buffet (which technically wasn’t yet open) and hopped on the 7:10 train to Lucca, arriving at around 8:40 among hordes of teenagers (who didn’t seem to be going to school and were smoking like chimneys, as usual)
  • We passed through Capannori on the way to Lucca, thus visiting both cities from which my dad’s mother’s family emigrated in the early 1900s (which represents the northern half of my Italian ancestry and 25% of my genes)
  • Spent a couple of hours exploring the medieval center of Lucca and the amazing Renaissance-era walls that surround the city
  • Train We caught the 10:30 AM train to Viareggio, which connected us to La Spezia (our rainy old friend, now with blue skies and sun, at least for today)
  • Train We made it to La Spezia around noon and our Cinque Terre day began as we boarded the next train. We decided to take the train to the northernmost city of the five, Monterosso al Mare, and work our way back south toward La Spezia, one city at a time, until we ran out of daylight. Each of the cities is about a five-minute train ride from the next, so it was easy to skip along the coast
  • We spent the most time in Monterosso and Vernazza. Much like our impossibly picturesque day in Gruyères, the views in Cinque Terre were stunning. It seemed like we had been dropped into the Caribbean. I didn’t realize how similar the Italian Riviera would feel to parts of the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean. In Monterosso, we ate pesto pizza and hiked up one of the few walking paths currently open. At the top, we found a church and cemetery atop the hill that overlooks the city. In Vernazza, it was time for gelato on the rocky shore. I had pistachio (again, I can’t help myself) and persimmon, which I hadn’t seen before but was delicious. A few hours later, the sun went down on us in Manarola (beautifully, over the ocean). We explored Riomaggiore (the fifth city) a little in the dark and then returned to La Spezia via train
  • Train We took the 7:10 PM train from La Spezia back to Florence, arriving at 9:42 PM
  • It was a really long day, and I couldn’t be more grateful for how the weather cooperated. It’s supposed to go back to rain in the Cinque Terre area tomorrow. I’m glad we held out for the sun and were given perfect weather. Though I do believe these long days are gradually destroying Heidi’s will to live. I want to run around constantly, experience as much as I can and make the most of my time in these foreign lands. But Heidi would prefer to do just one thing per day, stay in one place for a long time and relax, perhaps in parks or coffee shops. I can also relate to this, but the philosophy behind this particular trip is that’s it’s a whirlwind Eurail sampler tour of a large region of Western Europe. If you can remember where you were last week, then you haven’t been to enough places this week! I feel like I now understand which parts of these countries I’d like to revisit someday. And by “revisit,” I mean sell the house and move into a flat in Lausanne, Switzerland
  • I love traveling so much. As usual, I have little interest in returning home and being forced to remember the facet of my identity that goes to work every morning. But I can see that Heidi is feeling homesick and starting to fall apart. I think it was in Paris, halfway through, that she started burning out on the pace I am eager to travel. In response, I’ve started doing more things on my own in the evenings and we’ve also taken some days off (partially due to rain, which I believe Heidi may have manifested through sorcery to create more downtime for herself). The short of it is that Heidi is definitely getting tired of traveling and there’s a good chance that she will soon murder me to make it stop. Any of these next updates could be my last
  • Hotel Room 103 at Porta Faenza Hotel ($85), Florence, Italy

An Allegory of Water by Jan BrueghelTuesday, October 30: Florence – Day 30

  • Note: I was unable to update this blog on Tuesday morning because my website was down (and not because I was murdered). There was a massive network outage on the East Coast caused by severe weather conditions. Since my site happens to be hosted in Boston, Hurricane Sandy was still able to get me, even though I live in Oregon and am currently in Italy. My web hosting company reported a connectivity issue to their Boston datacenter between 3 AM and 8:30 AM EDT (which was 8 AM to 1:30 PM today in Italy). Apparently the Boston datacenter that hosts my site had been isolated, due to power loss at multiple network exchange points in the New York area, caused by the Sandy storm
  • After breakfast at the hotel, we wandered through the outdoor San Lorenzo (leather) market in Florence
  • Visited the Basilica di Santa Croce, the Florence Duomo and the plaza of statues outside the Uffizi Gallery, which I had previously visited on Sunday afternoon/evening when Heidi remained at the hotel
  • Entered the Uffizi at 1:15 PM and explored it for about three hours. The highlight for me – aside from the amazing room of huge Boticelli paintings – was Bronzino’s hilarious, ingenious, double-sided nude from the 1540s, Portrait of Dwarf Morgante. Plus, we got to see works by all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rafael and Donatello). Michelangelo’s The Holy Family in its original round wooden frame was particularly impressive
  • Heidi and I were also happy to discover a great Flemish Baroque painter from the 1600s that we didn’t remember knowing about, Jan Brueghel the Younger. I really like the way he portrays groups of animals, such as species of fish and birds, in his The Four Elements and Allegories of the Elements series of paintings (especially An Allegory of Water)
  • At the Uffizi, I was stuck by how many poorly formed nude women and creepy baby Jesuses exist in the collection. Hey, Italian masters, I know you guys were mostly into young dudes and their penises, but please learn how to paint breasts and infants correctly! These malformed human proportions are killing me
  • Hotel Room 103 at Porta Faenza Hotel ($85), Florence, Italy

Wednesday, October 31: Florence/Pisa/Rome – Day 31

  • Happy Halloween! We ate breakfast in the hotel before checking out of our room. After checking our backpacks at reception, we headed to the train station for a quick visit to Pisa before leaving the Tuscany area
  • Train Departed Florence at 10:28 AM on a Trenitalia local train and arrived in Pisa about an hour later
  • After passing through Pisa five times in the past week, we finally stopped and saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the daylight. Of course, it started drizzling to help usher us back to Florence
  • Train Departed Pisa at 1:54 PM on a Trenitalia local train and arrived back in Florence about an hour later
  • On our short walk from the Florence SMN train station to our hotel, we returned to two little bakeries/bars we’d visited before: Antico Caffè Turismo for two pescatore di cioccolato (chocolate chip fisherman) cookies, which have been a habit since Venice; and Caffè Degl’ Innocenti for hot vegetarian sandwiches (spinach with eggplant) for dinner. Then we collected our checked backpacks from our hotel and walked back to the train station
  • Train Departed Florence at 5:05 PM (it was supposed to be 4:48, but almost all Italian trains are a little ritardo) on the Trenitalia 9435 train and arrived in Rome at 6:30 PM. A young Italian boy hummed/sang Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” in my ear for a not-insignificant portion of the journey. The Frecciargento line of high-speed Italian train are quite fancy and comfortable. The dramatic disparity in train quality in Italy across different Trenitalia routes/lines is confusing
  • It was raining in Rome, so we stayed in our room for the night
  • Hotel Room 401 at Hotel Contilia ($94), Rome, Italy

Continue to 40 days in Europe: Days 32-40 »

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