Sunday, August 29, 2010

Napoli, Pompeii and Perugia: Cruisin', Ruins, and Relaxin'

From Palermo we took the overnight ferry to Napoli. Originally when we boarded the ferry we were pretty excited, given that it was a gigantic cruise ship complete with a bar (with dance floor), several restaurants, arcade, and a cinema. But our excitement quickly dwindled as we realized the dance floor would be occupied by people sleeping on it, the movie had no English subtitles, and while the food was actually quite good in the restaurants, there is only so much pasta one can eat while on an overnight ferry. We tried our best to sleep in our uncomfortable sleeper chairs, wishing we had not paid for the chairs and had simply opted to bed down on one of the (free) lounge couches.

From Napoli, we took a day trip to the Pompeii ruins, which after a summer of visiting ruins in three different countries, were by far the most impressive.

On August 24, 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted and over the next two days began to blanket the city in hot pumice, ash, and volcanic gas, killing 2000 people who had not evacuated at the first troubling signs of the eruption (a giant column of smoke).

In addition to the great structures like teatros and amphitheaters many privates homes of Pompeii residents are well preserved. You can even see the disturbing plaster casts of people and animals in the position they were in at their deaths. These shapes were preserved when their bodies decomposed underneath the volcanic ash, leaving distinctive air pockets.

Homes were often named after things they found inside them, like “House of the Faun” (after a Faun statue) and “House of the Small Fountain” (named for a strikingly obvious reason). It makes me wonder if our apartment was suddenly covered in ash and pumice and then later excavated would it be called “Apartment of the Three Broken Ipods,” or “House of the Overflowing Recycling Bin”?

The ruins with Vesuvius looming in the background.

One of the murals inside the home of Menander.

Mammoth lemons!

The colorful Napoli metro.

Another Napoli highlight was the underground tour. A guided tour beneath the city shows you the aqueducts which were later used as garbage storage, bomb shelters/living quarters during WW II, and until recently, scooter parking. You can also see the underground remains of an old theatre as much of Napoli is actually built on top of old structures due to a law stating no new structures could be built outside the city walls, thus people built up instead of out.

Shane ready to get subterranean.

Ready for the candlelit part of our tour.

A new garden project in the underground.

Shane and I are fans of the small doors we see throughout Italy. Shane and I like to imagine hobbits, elves, or Alice after she was stoned on her shrinking potion using a door like this but moments after we took this photo the door opened to reveal a regular-sized, seemingly normal Italian.

From Napoli we headed north to the Umbria region (known for delicious truffles!) and spent a week outside of Perugia in the country. We booked ourselves into a farmhouse hostel for two nights but within an hour of arriving we extended our stay to a full week. It was here that we did practically nothing. We wedged ourselves into a couple of hammocks and only rolled out for the occasional swim, horseback ride, or bike ride.

The farmhouse.

Our bungalow.

This horse was just as hot and tired on the ride as I was. I think we understood each other's condition quite well but our instructor kept urging "us" to go faster. It took "us" almost a half an hour to convince him that a slow walking pace was all "we" cared to do.

Views of Umbrian countryside.

Diana, the charmingly skiddish farm dog.

It was a wonderful place to rest up and conserve our energy for the hectic pace of Rome, our final destination before returning home to Vancouver.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sicily: The Harvest and the Homecoming

Moments after we stepped off the plane in Sicily, we saw this:

Not only is it possible to get reasonable coffee from pods in Italy, but you can also get pizza from a vending machine in the airport. While we didn't actually try this machine out we were impressed with the windows that let you watch your "pizza" being made.

We began our Sicilian adventure in Palermo, and were instantly taken with the gritty beauty of this city.

We spent our first day wandering through the street market. I had been wanting to buy some new sandals and things were cheap. My sandal shopping was prompted by one of Shane's recent comments to me. In Venice one night Shane looked at my "admittedly-dorky- but-totally-comfortable-for-lots-and-lots-of-walking" sandals and said "Are you going to wear those sandals when we get home too?"

It's hard for a backpacker (errr...rolling suitcase/backpacker) to keep up with the fashionable Italians, but a pair of slightly less practical sandals was a good start.

We also happened upon this in an alley after the market closed.

Living in East Van I have seen many different things in alleys, but a severed swordfish head was a first for me.

Shane got practically giddy when we saw this:

We also sampled some amazing Sicilian food. We had Arancini balls (stuffed, fried rice balls), Pane e Panelle (chick pea fritters), and the delicious potato croquettes. What we did not try, but was fascinating to watch being prepared was the street vendor's beef spleen sandwiches.

Watching a vendor make one of these sandwiches was graceful affair - almost like a dance with beef spleen as the partner ( I wouldn't hold my breath for it to appear on Dancing with the Stars any time soon).

Our mission in our first days in Palermo was to secure a rental car as my old friend Jill (world-traveler extraordinaire) would be meeting up with us for the first week of our Sicilian travels and we had big plans to drive around the island.

Finding a car was hard. Most companies were completely sold out, or if they had any cars left they were horrendously expensive and/or the business itself seemed sketchy according to travel site reviews.

Luckily, when Shane went exploring he happened upon a independent car rental agency that was able to provide us with a car for a reasonable price. It took a few days longer than we had planned on to actually receive the car and the car rental agency tried to explain things to us via Google Translate. When you see the words "big MISHAP" show up in the translation you know things just aren't going smoothly.

But at last, we were off. Because we had a car we were able to drive around the countryside looking for B&Bs and farmstays to bed down in for the night.

The first night we stayed in a wonderful house on a olive/fig farm.

Beautiful pomegranates were also growing on the farm.

We also encountered this fantastic gas station created roadside attraction. Celebrity statues in plexiglass!

View from castle town Erice.

We visited the ruins of Selinunte.

I was nearly ready to rip up all the hardwood floor in our apartment and put down mosaics after we visited Villa Romana del Casale which features 3500 square metres of illustrative mosaics that were buried under mud for 700 years. The most famous mosaic features these ten bikini- clad babes.

Views from Mt. Etna, Europe's largest active Volcano.

And it was always time for a swim when you saw a beach like this.

Yet another beautiful farmstay.

And the highlight of our Sicilian trip was a town not found in any Lonely Planet or Rick Steve's Italian guidebook - a town called Marianopoli. Marianopoli is the hometown of my grandfather, and the location of my Sicilian family we were meeting for the first time.

We stayed with our hosts Rose and Rosario. They took us out to visit the historic churches, the local archaeological museum, and a cave that was lived in in prehistoric times. But the best part was visiting their farm. Here we saw almonds, figs, olives, tomatoes, pine nuts, and my personal favourite, prickly pears.

Almonds ready to harvest.

Rosario using a hammer to open the almond shells.

Picking figs.

Saying goodbye to everyone at the end of our visit was hard, but they sent us on our way with a huge care package of fresh almonds, figs, prickly pears, biscotti, and a new collection of family memories.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Venice: Look Ma! No Cars!

The moment you step out of the train station in Venice, you feel like you just stepped onto a movie set. Colorful, artfully decaying buildings, canals of murky water, and of course, gondolas and their gondoliers wearing classic striped shirts. It's all true. It's not just some fanciful fabrication as I had suspected. It's a city straight out of a coffee table photo book. And in August, high-season for vacationers, it was pure madness.

Instead of traffic jams, there were gondola jams. Instead of packed city buses, there were packed Vaporettis (the poor-man's gondola), and the narrow streets of Venice were engorged with camera-laden, guidebook-carrying tourists, just like us.

Vaporetti in the canals.

Navigating the streets of Venice to find our B&B was particularly hard. I had been forewarned about the difficulties of finding - well, just about anything - in Venice due to the bizarre street numbering style.

Venice is split into six districts, and each district contains the street numbers one through several thousand. However, numbers start at one end of the district and are assigned along streets and alleys as they are encountered. So it's a guessing game as to where your street number is on specific street, and you better make sure you're in the correct district or you could find yourself up a canal without a gondola oar. It's a baffling Venetian system designed to confound and confuse tourists who are endlessly lugging their suitcases up one crowded staircase and down another in the humid, hot conditions.

However, all the major attractions are well-signed throughout the city which means if you learn to navigate by landmarks instead of streets, you'll be much better off.

Did I mention it was pretty? Like really, really pretty? This is how pretty it was.

And while it was packed during the day, during the evening, after the mass exodus of day-trippers, it became even more picturesque.

There is very little green-space in Venice but we managed to find a small patch of it and met this local resident.

We spent a few days cruising around in the Vaporettis and took a trip over to Murano, the island known for (expensive, very, very expensive) hand-blown glass.

The Venetian equivalent of "Buck or Two" dollar stores.

The weird thing about Venice, I mean outside of the "no-cars-just-boats" thing is that there is a no-picnicing rule. There are signs everywhere reminding you of this. Want to sit down for moment while you're eating your pizza slice? Illegal. Want to sip your cappuccino while sitting on the steps at St. Mark's Plaza? Illegal. Even the locals seem to be in on the whole thing because we saw many handmade "NO PICNIC" signs alongside the official city ones. The fine for getting caught seated, mid-sandwich? 50 euros.

At first I thought it was something pushed by all the over-priced restaurants in Venice (which is most of them) in order to get people sitting down, paying the cover charge, service charge, and their inflated meal prices. But I read later that it might have something to do with tourist litter.

They say that on any given day the local population of historic Venice is outnumbered by the 12 million tourists that visit yearly. If they are in fact littering (bad, bad, tourists!), I can begin to see the point of the no-littering bylaw, as strange and cruel as it seemed at the outset of our visit.

The mailbox at Doge's Palace, where citizens of Venice could anonymously accuse their peers of wrongdoing. I'm reporting some people for picnicking, or better yet, just turning in the litter-ers.

Venice is an expensive city for tourists, but imagine living there. You pay more for most things, it's hard to get around, due to the heritage status of most buildings it's nearly to impossible to renovate your house if you can afford one, and to top it all off, there is that slow, sinking feeling you get because your city is actually, slowly sinking. Despite the city's efforts to bribe residents into staying with housing incentives, the population of Venice is declining as more and more people flee to cheaper, easier places to live on the mainland. For all these reasons, Venice left me feeling a bit melancholy.

Just after dawn on the morning of our departure. Our last views of Venice.