Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sorrento (7/31 - 8/4) : I Swear I'm Still Here Edition

Based on the last two depressing posts on this blog, you might think I got too tired writing about sad things to continue updating, and our travels in Europe ended in sadness and flea bites.

This would not be correct.

In fact, we had such a great time in Sorrento, I completely forgot to write a blog post about it and CONTINUED to forget until now, almost two weeks later. THAT's how much fun it was.

I feel like half this blog is me apologizing for updating late, and the other half is Sarah's pictures. No reason to change a formula that's working. Sorry for updating so late. America changes a person. Once I got muh freedoms back, I decided it would be best to use them doing non-essential things. That's my bad. I hope you enjoy these pictures from Sorrento.

***


Before we left Venice, we got one last dose of capitalist skulduggery - EasyJet had overbooked our flight, meaning we were not guaranteed seats on the plane, even though we showed up two hours early, were the first to the gate, and, you know, paid for tickets. We ended up on the plane, but we were not pleased. But that was the last touch of darkness--after that, Italy was sunshiney and beautiful and scenic.

Our last stop, Sorrento, is located on the Sorrentine peninsula, near Naples (and Mt. Vesuvius). It's a small town situated on the cliffs along the coast that feels as much like a beach town as it is possible to get while not having actual beaches, or at least very few.


The BnB we stayed at was situated in a citrus orchard, with lemon, orange, and lime trees growing everywhere, and a little stable and pen for this cute little pony. Sarah named him Pippin, and they became best friends almost impossibly fast. Every time we left our room, we would make sure to go visit Pippin for a bit.


We ate out every night in Sorrento. We had saved up as much money as possible during the rest of our trip for exactly this purpose, because we figured the food in Italy would be so good. It was delicious. We tried to get far off the beaten track and eat at restaurants where the patrons seemed to be mostly locals.


We also did a lot of exploring in Sorrento. All along the cliffs, hotels sit looking out over the water, and cool paths through caves and ledges lead down to the water. Some of them are concrete, but some are just carved out of the rock.


They're all lit by these dim lights, and surprisingly graffiti-free for its location. We found at least three cave passages that lead down to the beaches, but who knows how many there are down there... there are also lifts, but those cost money, and we were saving ours for Italian food.


The view at sunset was incredible. That ominous-looking lump over there on the right is Vesuvius, always ready to ruin someone's day... but it didn't, and this day was perfect.


Speaking of Vesuvius, we also headed over to Pompeii for a day to see the ruins. Sarah bought me sunglasses so my lil eyes wouldn't get strained or burned in the sun. If you look closely, you can see the means by which we took a selfie. If you do that, this picture becomes art.


After Pompeii, we took a train down to Herculaneum, a smaller town that also was buried by the Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD. Because it was much closer, it was buried under almost 10m of rock and was only re-discovered recently (well, in the past 300 years). Excavation is still ongoing, and they are still finding new artifacts and even human remains.


You had to pay to go on the real beaches with the black sand, since there were so few of them and they were all privately owned, but we figured it was worth it. On our last day in Sorrento, we paid up and spent the whole day on the beach.


I got Sarah a big floppy sun hat so she could shield her precious face from the Mediterranean sun.


The water was clear and cool, and the beach was hot and crowded. We alternated between two states of bliss, and I read an embarrassingly large chunk of LOTR. As beach days go, it was ideal.


The privately owned beaches had all kinds of infrastructure: docks, chairs, tanning docks, restaurants, changing rooms--but if all you did was chill on the beach all day, it was surprisingly affordable.


Each one of the hotels on the cliffside had its own set of tunnels through the rocks with frequent overlooks and foundations reaching down all the way to the water. It had the feel of an Age of Exploration fortress.


Except for, you know, the beaches and tourists.


Our last view of the Sorrento beaches before we left for home.


And our last selfie before home.


On our last night, we went to a little restaurant with the best food we'd had all trip.

For the past six weeks, no matter what I ordered at a restaurant, Sarah's food was always better than mine. And this wasn't a grass-is-greener situation--it was always true, and she agreed. Sarah always got food that was objectively better than mine. But not here. Here, I finally got lasagna that I thought was the best thing I'd had all trip, and I preferred it to Sarah's gnocchi (she still liked hers better). After dessert, the musicians passed out tambourines, and we all played and sang along, even though we had almost no idea what we were saying.

It was the perfect way to end our last couple days in Europe.


Goodbye, Sorrento!

***

Our three days of rest in relaxation in Sorrento were a perfect end to our two weeks traveling through Europe. We moved from place to place so quickly that we were worn out by the time we reached Italy, and Sorrento was just what we needed. When we hopped on our flight back to Dulles, we were tired and happy and ready to go home.







Monday, August 4, 2014

Venice, or what is left of it (7/29 - 8/1)

I won't lie to you--we were pretty excited to get out of Dusseldorf. Public transportation in Germany was pretty sweet, and the cathedral in Cologne was pretty amazing, but that was really it. We were excited to board our comfortable and spacious German plane (that was 25% quieter than every other plane we've been on) and get on to Italy.

There were two places on our schedule in Italy: the city of Venice and the town of Sorrento. We expected them to be very different: one is in a calm lagoon in Northern Italy, tourist capital of Italy, etc. and the other is in rocky Mediterranean Southern Italy, an almost entirely Italian beach town. And they were different. Very, very, different.


***
We arrived to Venice late, due to some thunderstorms on our route. It was almost 10:00pm when our plane landed and we found our way to the ticket counter. There, we got our first taste of what Venice would be like when we were charged 15 euro each for a one-way trip to the city by public boat (the other option was a speedboat, which cost 110 euro). The trip took about 40 mins, with over a hundred people packed onto our vaporetto (like a bus, but a boat), and we arrived at the dock very late. Our host, Maurilio, had been graciously waiting for us, late as we were, and greeted us warmly.


He led us to his house in the residential district of Venice, near the dock where we had landed. As we learned later, Venice has two districts: the residential district and the tourist district. It was late, so we crashed immediately and woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to see the city.


We looked out our window to see this in the morning, the sun already surprisingly high in the sky. Despite all the motorboats going past our window in the night, we had slept soundly. I'm not sure what about air travel makes me sleepy, since I sleep the whole time, but it really knocks me out.


In the daylight, we got to see Maurilio's home without looking through a lens of international-travel fogginess and grogginess. It was magnificent--a multi-room apartment in a converted "palace" from Venice's past. The ceilings were 15+ ft tall, and the dining room was so huge we felt almost lonely.


Maurilio took the "breakfast" part of "bed and breakfast" to a whole new level the next morning, with a full breakfast spread and classical music cranking through his stereo system.


It was hotter outside in the city than it had seemed standing on the balcony, so I was forced to improvise some capris to face the heat. I felt like I blended right in, but for some reason Sarah didn't seem to want to walk next to me.


And so we set off to see the city! The first place we headed was the Piazza di San Marco, but we wandered all over the city. This picture was taken at the edge of the Piazza looking south across the lagoon.


We had heard there were some canals in Venice. That was correct. There are a lot of canals in Venice. They have more canals than they have roads. And no cars, only boats.


But mostly what they have is tourists. Lots and lots of tourists.


And fancy gondolas for giving rides to tourists who are tired of walking around the hot city. You'd think 60 euros for a ten-minutes gondola ride would drive people away, but you would be wrong--these things were packed all day.


Every city has its signature item that they sell to tourists. In Venice, it's Carnival of Venice masks. These things were everywhere, in every shape and size and material, ranging from 5 euros to over 150.


We got to see pasta being made in a big hand-cranked machine. As the handle was turned, dough was squeezed through little slits and into a vaguely paste-like shape, then laid out on trays to dry and become REAL pasta.


The biggest attraction in the Piazza di San Marco is the Basilica di San Marco. It's a beautiful blend of Italian and Byzantine architecture, a combination that leads to lots of spires and ornate stonework...


And really detailed mosaic art. The columns were cut from at least seven different marbles (we didn't count), so there were no two alike columns standing next to each other. If you look behind me in the picture, you can see that the ground is shiny. That's because it's covered in several inches of water. The Basilica is so heavy that the actual stone around the Piazza has become concave, forming a shallow basin around the whole building. Due to rainfall and the fact that Venice is barely above sea level at the best of times, the basin is almost always full of water. There are permanent steel bridges leading to and inside the Basilica itself, so you don't have to get your feet wet to go in.


Also on the Piazza is this crazy clock, which tells the day and points to the astrological sign we are currently being governed by. Looks like it's Leo right now. Not sure what that means for us specifically, but I think it means "you're gonna get wet" to Venice in general. About now is when the Piazza started flooding.


Anyone who's played Assassin's Creed II has climbed and jumped out of this tower. Not the puddles in the background--those are forming around holes drilled in the ground that allows lagoon water to seep up into the Piazza during high tide. I have no idea why. Maybe it controls water flow somewhere else.


The edge of Piazza di San Marco, where the water level is pretty much at street level... and sometimes above it. Since artesian wells were banned in the Sixties, the aquifer is no longer being rapidly depleted and compressed, meaning the city is no longer sinking at an alarming rate, but once the city has sunken a little bit, it is hard to raise it again.


The palace of the Glorious and Illustrious Doge. No, not that cute little forced meme. The Grand Duke of Venice! Rulers of the Serene Republic of Venice for over a thousand years! Now a commercialized speed-tour of a sinking building.


A glued poster on one of the side streets of Venice. It depicts and overweight woman with a shirt that says "VENICE LAND" (we're thinking a comparison to Disneyland), hot pants, several designer bags, and a glazed-over facial expression. The perfect zombie of capitalism, descended on Venice to feast on its sweet flesh of neatly packaged and commercialized culture and beauty. It was some of the only graffiti we saw, and it looked like someone tried very hard to remove it--it was just glued on really well. In other places, we saw painted-over graffiti and posters like this. This was the first indication we had that something really was wrong in Venice, and it wasn't just a strange intuition we were having.


But it's so hard to keep in mind what you're doing to an ancient city when around every street corner is this view. Look how serene those wee boats are on the surface of the canal. I have no idea how the boater thinks he is going to get to them in order to pilot them, but they are serene nonetheless.


For all the water running through the city in the canals, it gets pretty hot. That might be a function of all the hot, sweaty, excited tourist-bodies pressed together in a frothing mass, taking the streets of Venice by storm. We sought shade and solitude often, but there was not much of either to be found.


The rapid subsiding that happened in Venice throughout the twentieth century flooded the staircases that led straight to the canals in many of the older houses, leaving the ground floors completely uninhabitable (unless you are a fish. Or maybe a mermaid).


As the day grew older, more and more water flooded Saint Mark's Square, leading tourists to take off their shoes and wade in their desperate attempt to consume Beauty. Some of the more savvy locals wore galoshes.


Here is the deepest water we found: almost six inches deep in this tunnel into Saint Mark's Square. I think it probably got deeper closer to high tide, but we didn't stick around to find out.


This waiter brought his wading boots to work. Smart man.


Trying to escape the frenzied tourists and the rising water, we ducked into a side alley.



We had no idea where it led, but we took the chance...


And stumbled onto some mercifully empty streets and canals.


We were hot and tired and thirsty, so we stayed there for a while in the shade and the quiet. Not many tourists were able to follow us through the alley, so we had some much-needed quiet time there in the shade and the beauty of non-commercialized Venice.


I know I keep alluding to Venice being commercialized, but I'm not providing any photographic evidence. That's bad form, I know, and I'm sorry. But you could not pay us enough to stand there and snap pictures, in that desolate and horrible place. We wanted out.


Venice has two districts, basically: residential and commercial. The commercial district consists of the street leading from Rialto to Piazza di San Marco (the two most famous and scenic spots in Venice) and a two-street radius around it (that's about as far as most tourists are willing to explore). The residential district consists of everything else.


The residential district has some pretty cool stuff in it, like this Renaissance-era arsenal. But they are not open to the public and indeed are not publicized.


But the commercial district (the left bank in the picture, populated with confused and lost tourists, wondering where the souvenir shops are) is not so nice. That street is lined, or packed, or even stuffed, with store after store: Gucci, Prada, Louis Vutton, Cartier, selling ridiculously overpriced items to sunstroked tourists who are confused about the euro exchange rate; rows of identical restaurants with 25 euro entrees, plus a cover charge and a service fee, if you want to be seated and waited on; hordes of street salesmen selling bottles of water for 4 euros; and every other building there is a souvenir shop selling masks and trinkets and expensive glassware. The tourist information office has a huge selection of maps of the city in many different languages, so everyone can experience the magic of Venice for themselves--for 5 euro each. You can't walk down the street without being pulled aside by a waiter trying to read you the menu of his restaurant, or a gondolier trying to pull you forcefully onto his boat.

It's a mass of sticky sunburned bodies clutching designer bags and shambling slowly through the close streets, stopping to snap pictures every few feet and moving, always, towards the edge of the city, where they gather in the Piazza di San Marco and swarm the Basilica in waves.

Tourists crawled over the corpse of the city, picking its bones clean and taking home the rotten flesh in shiny plastic bags.

If you think I'm being overly dramatic, you're probably right. The city was beautiful, truly unlike and beyond anything we had ever seen in our lives. But Venice was the only place we visited this trip where we felt like we were bad people for going there. It was a terrible feeling, and I hope to never feel it again.


This was one of the only places where we saw locals. It was full of old men reading newspapers and drinking tea, well off the beaten track and back in the labyrinth of canals and streets that we ran away to. It makes you wonder what they think of all this.

***

So that was Venice. We went back to the apartment in a daze and slept a troubled sleep. We agreed that we were glad we went, but we would never go back.

So we shelled out the 15 euro for the vaporetto back to the airport, hopped on, and left for Sorrento.