During one of my winter breaks in law school, I ditched my family for the holidays and spent two weeks in Italy.
Rome (Roma), Parte Uno
After flying into Fiumicino Airport, I hopped on the train to Termini Station in Rome. Having learned a few lessons in Tokyo and Seoul, I expertly made my way on Rome’s subway system and found my accommodations for my first night or so in Italy (that’s right—no wandering around with my luggage looking for my hotel this time!). I stayed in a private room at the B&B Night and Day.
Staying in a quiet corner
Nigh and Day was in a nice quiet area around the corner from a subway station and within easy walking distance of Trevi Fountain. I’m not sure I’d really call it a true bed and breakfast. It’s sort of an apartment suite that rents out the bedrooms and they don’t serve breakfast there. Rather, they give you a little coupon which you can use to redeem a pastry and drink at a nearby cafe (which, I think, is preferable to just sitting and eating in the apartment itself).
My first day in Rome, I spent a few hours walking around the city in a giant circle to the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the Spanish Steps before I got tired and returned to the Night and Day for a rest.
New country added to my mental library—hooray for learning
I met the folks staying in the other room of the Night and Day, folks from from Brunei (they were studying abroad in Scotland and traveling other parts of Europe during the break). Being awesomely American, I had no idea where Brunei was at the time. As soon as I got the chance, I Google’d the country and learned a bit about its history, its unique military situation, and other stuff (which I’ve since forgotten). There was at least one other person at the B&B we also talked to, but I’ve sort of forgotten. I’m going to assume it was an Australian guy (because anywhere you travel, at any time of the year, you will meet an Australian guy—it’s inevitable).
The five or however-many of us went out to dinner together and grabbed some dessert. I’m still in mild contact with some of the Bruneian folks (and met up with them when I went to Scotland on another trip). They’re very nice. Not as into drinking as I am (considering where they’re from, it makes sense), but nice.
One of these nights in Rome, I made my way down to The Yellow for the hostel bar. It wasn’t all that lively considering how close to Christmas it was, but I’d be back.
Christmas in the Vatican
The next day was actually Christmas Day, so I went to stand among the crowd out in the Plaza of Saint Peter (Piazza San Pietro). Having not reserved a ticket to get into the Basilica for Christmas Mass (sounded too hectic for me), I ended up just people watching for a minute before wandering down Via Ottaviano to a fairly lively area north of Vatican City.
Since I planned on meeting my brother in Rome a week later, I didn’t stay in the capital for long after my initial arrival. The day after Christmas, I got on a train and shot up to Venice where it was substantially colder (still no snow, though they did salt some of the walkways to melt ice that formed overnight).
Having done some proper research, I managed to avoid getting lost. The hostel wasn’t too hard to find—just had to cross the big bridge east of Santa Lucia Station, turn right, and look for a big red door for the Residenza Santa Croce (pretty good hostel in a good spot; it may be because it was right after Christmas, but it was also clean and not too crowded).
When I got to the six-person dorm room, there was no one in there. However, the luggage and clothing by the beds indicated that the room was nearly filled to capacity. As it was the middle of the day, obviously the other folks were out being touristy. After some solo-exploring, I came back to the hostel and met my dorm mates: a guy (from Hong Kong), and three young women (from Australia, South Korea, and a country in South America—I don’t remember which).
Cheap eats in Venice, and general touristy stuff with the guy from Hong Kong
We went down to a place called Brek, a sort of low-end cafeteria-style restaurant. The food wasn’t the greatest, but it was relatively cheap and conveniently located near the train station and our hostel—good enough for me to return a few times. An additional plus was that the restaurant had free wi-fi (the wi-fi in our hostel was basically non-existent).
On day two, being the only two Venice-noobs who haven’t walked to San Marco yet, the guy from Hong Kong and I spent half the day walking across the island to see the church and the plaza before it (it’s the biggest tourist destination on the main island). The walk itself was entertaining, seeing the canals, buildings, and people along the way, and the plaza itself was pretty cool (we didn’t opt to stand in line and pay to get into the church or the tower).
In another plaza near a bunch of schools and libraries there’s a place called Pizza al Volo which sold what I could call a New York style pizza by the slice for just two euros a piece. It was good, and I would assume it’s priced that way because it’s near the schools. I don’t think there’s a place to sit inside, but one of the awesome things with Italy is its many plazas. On my second visit to Pizza al Volo I sat outside and watched some kids kick a soccer ball around (er, a football—and in a non-creepy manner).
Something notable about Venice is that it pretty much has no night life. So, on night two, I rallied the Australian girl and Hong Kong guy to go pick up some alcoholic beverages from the supermarket and drink in our hostel. We didn’t get particularly wasted, but it was fun.
Boating to the other islands
On the third day, I think all my original hostel buddies left except for the girl from Australia who also ditched me for the the morning to go on a day trip to Verona. It was okay, though, as I sort of had other plans: taking the water bus to the other islands—Murano, known for blown glass, and Burano, known for its lace.
While on the water bus, I was recognized (purely from my clothing) as an American by a Californian woman traveling with her Italian husband and his friends—more Italian folks (including an adorable little girl of about five or so), and a nineteen-year-old German girl who interned at the husband’s work. Pretty random, but this led me to what was probably the best meal I had while in Italy. Eating with Italians while in Italy is a pretty good idea. That frutti di mare pasta was worth every cent.
I’m not sure why I remember this of all things, but the Italian husband (who had moved to the United States for work) was complaining about how it was really hard (or impossible) to get good bread in the States, and that he thought ketchup was kind of gross. He said something along the lines of ketchup being a weird sugared-up version of tomato sauce.
Oh, and one of the other Italian guys also pointed out a tilted church bell tower, saying that Italians can’t build straight (referencing the Tower of Pisa, of course).
Back at the hostel, the Australian girl and I returned to our beloved Brek.
Four days in Venice is two days too many—unless you have good company
Kind of dorky and adorable, the girl from Brisbane (which she affectionately referred to as Bris-boring) was a bit too young for me to really pursue romantically. She’s part of the generation that really grew up with Harry Potter. She confessed to me how disappointed she was when she turned eleven and didn’t get a letter from Hogwarts. Shortly after she found out she was a Muggle, her father introduced her to The Lord of the Rings, making her an adorable nerd for life. She also has a tendency to trip over things, and slip into puddles of mud.
On my fourth day in Venice, I felt I’d already done most of the normal touristy things I could there (at least for a person with a moderate budget). The girl and I walked down to the end of the main island, away from all the other tourists, to a little park at the end. On the way, there were a bunch of houses occupied by locals as opposed to abundance of hotels and restaurants you see on other parts of the island.
For dinner, we ventured away from the cafeteria-style Brek to a more proper restaurant. She laughed awkwardly when the waiter assumed I was going to order for her. I asked her why though it was obvious she was laughing ’cause the guy thought we were on a date.
That night, we were surprised with a new roommate when we got back to the hostel—a kid from Belgium who spoke English like an Englishman. He was perfectly nice, but he basically turned the lights off on us at some absurdly early hour (maybe 9 or 10 PM).
The last day in Venice, the girl and I went to some cafe in the morning for breakfast where she utilized more free wi-fi to book a weird set of train tickets to make her way up to Paris (a lot of the trains were already booked up).
I, on the other hand, already had my train tickets to go back to Rome and meetup with my brother.
We said our goodbyes and parted ways (well, I’m still facebook friends with five or so of the people I met in Venice).
Rome, Parte Seconda
My brother, not one for hostels, booked a regular hotel for us to stay at in Rome. For some odd reason (probably a lazy Google search showing the nearest dining establishments), the first meal he wanted to have in Italy was Chinese food, so we walked down the street a bit and had Chinese food (I guess the Italians did get noodles from China, so we were eating the origins of Italian pasta?).
Where being a video game nerd enriches your travel experience
With my brother, I walked back to a lot of places I’d previously been by myself (Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Vatican), but this time I actually went inside some of the places (the Colosseum, and Castel Sant’Angelo).
Notably, some of the places we visited were familiar to us because we had both played the Assassin’s Creed video games which were set in Renaissance Italy and revolved around the character Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
One of the cool things about the Assassin’s Creed games is that they feature virtual recreations of historical locations with considerable accuracy (definitely not exact, but close enough that things are immediately recognizeable). At Castel Sant’Angelo, there were more than a few spots that triggered distinct recollections of the game—spots where I had Ezio scale the walls and sneak up on unsuspecting guards. Good job, Ubisoft.
When keeping it real goes wrong
Alright, this story probably doesn’t merit a reference to that Dave Chappelle bit, but it’s mildly funny.
It was New Years’ Eve and I decided we should just go to The Yellow hostel bar as a starting point for the night.
After getting through our first beers, I noticed the group near us included the South American girl I had met in Venice. So, we hopped one table over and joined them. The plan was to kill some time before heading over to the Colosseum for the countdown.
We started playing some drinking game and—
Yeah, that was basically the entire night for me. The next thing I knew, I was on the subway heading back to the hotel (sadly, this wouldn’t be the last time I blacked out through New Years’ festivities in Europe, but we’ll get to that on another post).
The Vatican (Museum)
Yeah, I went back to the Vatican and actually went inside somewhere. Here’s a photo of some Minerva statue. They didn’t let us photograph anything in the Sistine Chapel, but I’m just going to say it: it’s really not all that impressive once you’re in there.
Now, I only tried a single steak in Florence, but if you ask me you don’t need to bother with the Florentine steak if you’re American. Beef is the dominion of America and steak anywhere else is pretty much a waste of time if you’re going to be back in States within a few weeks (except, perhaps, for Kobe beef).
And, yeah, my brother’s secondary motivation to come to Florence was because it’s Ezio Auditore’s hometown.
Monteriggioni is walled city in Tuscany, a town built on top of a little hill and surrounded by stone walls. According to Wikipedia, Monteriggioni is architecturally and culturally significant, and was referenced in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Guess why we went there?
That’s right, we took a train out to Castellina Scalo’s train station (aka the middle of nowhere) and hiked nearly 2 miles so we could see the location of the fictional Ezio Auditore’s Assassin headquarters.
To be honest, this was the most fun I had in Italy with my brother. Google Maps says the distance between the station and the walled town was only 1.67 miles, but we went off the main road for most of the way because we didn’t think it was safe or intended for pedestrians. The dirt roads made the trip all the more enjoyable (for me, anyway, my brother wasn’t quite as fond of hiking as I was).
We arrived about fifteen minutes too late to be allowed up onto the city walls, but it the place was still nice to walk through.
Naples (Napoli) and Pompeii
We weren’t really sure what to do one day and decided halfheartedly to try to get to Pompeii. Our long journey into southern Italy was sort of a waste. We arrived at Pompeii at about 3:15 PM or so, fifteen minutes after they stopped letting people in that day (yeah, this fifteen minutes late thing was getting annoying). The ticket guys simply refused to make any exceptions, which would have been totally fine with me if they had at least shown a little bit of sympathy—they didn’t even try to fake feeling sorry.
We didn’t see or do anything notable in Naples, either. We just noticed it was a bit grungier than other places we’d been to in Italy (I went back to Naples again a year later and got the same impression; on this second go at Italy, I actually got into Pompeii, though without my brother).
Game of Thrones — A Song of Ice and Fire
On the long plane and train rides, I kept myself entertained reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series for the first time. I brought book three with me, and a few days into my trip, I purchased book four at a little place near the Spanish Steps called Anglo American Book Co. My brother brought book one with him, and I took him to that same store so he could get the second (he has since given up reading the books and is just watching the HBO adaptation, which he says has been a bit tiresome lately).
Just thought this was worth mentioning since my blog is primarily about books and fiction.
My next travel-ly post will be about my semester abroad in London (which may or may not be written about separately from the smaller trips I took around Europe during and immediately after that time). The holidays and people getting married have been keeping me busy, but I’m hoping to post more often in the near future.