Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Eurotrip Top Sights

(Please check out the modified version of Alice's high-flying guest post from Monday.  The pictures did not upload properly the first time, but I was unable to fix it until today!  Thanks again for your great post, Alice!)

I'm back!  (For one day, before I leave again for a week and a half trip to LA and Vegas...but hey, I'm not complaining...)

Last night, I came back from an AMAZING three-week jaunt through Europe (half of which was spent traveling solo, and the other half was spent traveling with my adventurous BF).

I love the weird look I'm getting from the guy in the gray shirt on the right of the frame.

Here was my three-week itinerary:

August 2--4th:  Rome
August 4th--8th:  Sorrento (with day trips to Capri, Amalfi, Positano, Pompeii)
August 8th:  Naples (a few hours)
August 8th--12th:  Florence (with day trips to Chianti and Sienna)
August 12th:  Pisa (a few hours)
August 12--14th:  Cinque Terre (stayed in Vernazza)
August 14th--17th:  Venice
August 17th--22:  Paris
August 22:  Return to Rome
August 23:  Fly home from Rome

I kept the exact itinerary a little bit open, booking hotels and hostels a few days in advance.  This allowed me to adjust my plans based on the good or bad feedback I got from fellow travelers I met along the way.  Everything worked out swimmingly!  I relied heavily on Rick Steves' travel guides for Italy and France while putting everything together, and he was heaven-sent.

I had an absolutely mind-blowing time and I am just bursting with things I want to tell you about my trip.  I'm going to try to distill the information a bit and share highlights and pieces of the trip with you, rather than present a full play-by-play recap as I did for my Birthright Israel experience.

For now, I'll just share with you my list of top sightseeing highlights (in chronological order):


Climbing the dome at St. Peter's Basilica

One of my favorite things about the beautiful Italian Duomos is that the artwork on the walls, all of which look like stunning paintings, are actually incredibly intricate mosaics.  For a fee, you can climb the dome of St. Peter's Basilica and actually circle the interior of one of the huge domes of the church.  This brings you nose-to-tile with one of the mosaics that had looked like a painting from so far below.

From below.

Up-close.

View from the top.


Capri's Blue Grotto
The island of Capri is not only a vacation destination for the jet-set elite, but is also somewhat of an overpriced tourist trap (at least according to my travel guide).  However, one of my favorite sights on this entire trip was Capri's famous Blue Grotto.  The Blue Grotto is a natural wonder, once used as private swimming pool for Roman emperors.

The reason this cave is so special is that the walls of the cave don't extend all the way down to the bottom of the sea, which creates an incredible effect when the sunlight reflects off the water and the bottom of the sand.  The inside of this dark cave is an absolutely magnificent, other-worldly glowing blue:


The opening to the cave is so tiny that you can only enter it by small rowboat (what I did) or swimming in (technically illegal, but locals do it after the boats stop running at 6pm---which I would have done if there was a boat back to Sorrento after 6pm).

The cave opening.


The Erotic Section of the Naples Archaeological Museum

I almost skipped Naples altogether.  I spent four nights in Sorrento, which is quite close to Naples, and I kept running into girls who'd planned to stay in Naples overnight and were scared away by the sketch factor of the city.  Naples is a bit more run-down than its more picturesque Amalfi Coast neighbors (Sorrento, Positano, Capri) and the petty crime rate is notoriously higher.  I was resolved to make a quick train transfer at the Naples station from Sorrento and just hightail it immediately to Florence.

Then I went to Pompeii.  I kept seeing signs in Pompeii indicating that the original relics from the lost city were kept in the Naples Archaeological Museum (relics that were freakishly well-preserved, PS).  After reading my Rick Steves chapter on Naples more closely, I learned that this same archaeological museum has an erotic art section filled with ancient porn!  How could I skip this?!  I made plans to spent a few hours in Naples walking the city, seeing the museum, and capping things off with some of the best pizza I've ever had.

The erotic section did not disappoint:


The entrance to the section (secret!)

(and now I must use a cut, because these are NSFW, in a priceless archeological way...)


A toga with a boner!

A penis windchime!

An illustration above a prostitute's room in a brothel, illustrating her preferred sexual position!

Pan having sex with a goat!

There's something for every kink!  And while we're on the topic, allow me to wish a cheery hello to the new pervs who have found this site by searching for some horrible combination of Jewish girl porn, probably "Jewish Girl having sex with a goat."  You have been misled!  Please leave!


Michelangelo's David

Breathtaking.  Really.

Photos not allowed, but I snapped this one before I realized/got caught.


Bike Tour of Chianti

This was perhaps my favorite day of the entire trip.  Upon arriving in Florence, I found the urge to spend a day biking through the Tuscany wine region irresistible.  I shuffled around my plans and scrapped a half-day trip to Lucca and instead went on a bike tour with Bike Italy.  The tour was unforgettable.  We were blessed with incredible weather---sunny, clear skies, with a cool easy breeze---and spent the day biking around hilly lanes, occasionally pulling our bikes over to pluck grapes from vines that extended all the way up to the road.  The countryside rolled with vineyards and villas.


Our tour guide, Barbara (a displaced New Yorker!) picked some blackberries on the side of the road.


We stopped for lunch at a winery and olive press after a tour of their facilities.  Lunch included a sampling of wines and olive oils, of course.



After another hour or so of biking, we had incredible gelato at a little hole in the wall.  I had pine nut flavor and "super nutella" flavor.  Both were spectacular---the "super nutella" tasted like the store just gave up on making gelato and dumped a jar of nutella in the display case and called it a new flavor.

We shared our food stops with folks who were taking the same tour on Vespas.  The Vespa folks guiltily lamented the fact that we bike people had earned the calories we were eating :-D

While biking around and looking at the landscape, feeling my shirt flutter against my back in the cool breeze, I thought to myself how just two short weeks before I was sitting in a gray airplane hangar with six thousand other people taking the New York bar exam.  The wonder of life just overwhelmed me in that moment.  How lucky am I?


Sienna's Duomo

Anyone who has ever traveled through Europe can tell you that you see a LOT of churches.  A.  LOT.  So when you are more than a week into your trip and you are so captivated by a church that you spend an hour and a half inside just looking at things...well, that's saying something.

I loved the bright interior of Sienna's duomo (church), as well as the beautiful, simple star pattern on the ceilings.




Perhaps my favorite part was a little library off to the side of the church.  Thanks to favorable lighting conditions in this particular segment, the original fresco work on the walls and ceilings has not been degraded by sunlight and has not been retouched since it was painted hundreds of years ago.  The colors are strikingly vivid.



Sienna's Fountain of Joy

Okay, Sienna gets two slots in the top, despite the fact that it certainly was not my favorite (or least favorite) stop on the trip.  I couldn't resist lingering at the Fountain of Joy in Sienna's main square.  Hilariously, all of the town pigeons gather at this fountain for one reason:  they like to drink the water that squirts out of the mouths of the wolves lining the fountain.


It is so funny to watch them jockeying for a position on a wolf, then carefully making their way down to the snouts to catch the falling water.  They almost look like they are kissing the predators:



Baptistery at Pisa

Naturally I had to visit Pisa for all of two hours on my way from Florence to Cinque Terre.  I needed to get a few of these pictures or else people would not believe I actually visited Italy:

But I was intrigued by Rick Steves' description of the Baptistery behind the Tower.

Notice that the baptistery leans a bit too?  Its lean is less dramatic than the tower (6 feet to the south compared to fifteen feet), but still.  WHY DIDN'T THESE GUYS BUILD DEEPER FOUNDATIONS?

According to Rick Steves, the acoustics in this rotunda are so good that a single sound echoes for about ten seconds after it is spoken.  A priest singing three notes in "Ave Maria" would sound as if he was harmonizing with himself.

In a stroke of dumb luck, I lingered in the Baptistery just long enough to be locked in as I was about to walk out of the exit.  Before I could ask the guard to open the door to let me out, the guard called for silence and a woman who had been collecting tickets at the entrance stood in the center of the rotunda and began to sing just a few simple notes.  The effect was haunting and beautiful:

video

I kept looking around for the other person who was singing with her, only to realize that she was singing with her own echo.


Swimming in Manarola, Cinque Terre

BF met me in Cinque Terre, and we spent our first full day together getting hot and sweaty...on a hike through the five riviera villages.

(As always, BF prefers his anonymity)

After a long day of challenging hiking (we began the hike in reverse, at Monterosso, with the most strenuous hiking segments) we made our way down to Manarola, the second-to-last town on our hike.  Manarola doesn't have a sandy beach, but it does have a rocky inlet that people use as a base for swimming.  The water is very deep, so the locals jump off this huge rock formation (forty feet high?  higher?  not sure exactly) into the cool Ligurian sea below.

The people gathered on the top of this mountainous-looking rock formation are getting ready to jump off!

The water felt amazing.  My swimsuit coming off (apparently it is meant more for sunbathing than actual contact with water) felt less amazing.

The water was irresistible after spending a day climbing in the hot sun (fortunately I had on my suit already!) and once I was in the water, I couldn't resist climbing the rocks and jumping off.  It was a thrill!


Wandering around in Venice

The effect of the water creates a very bizarre and one-of-a-kind sense that this city is about to be swallowed up and lost forever.  Where you expect streets, there are canals.  Where you expect scooters or buses, there are pedestrians and commuter boats.  Back porches lead to nowhere.  The city is full of treasures.



In the Jewish ghetto, we saw this amazing figurine!  It's a mohel!

Finally, we had one hilarious moment at a modern art exhibition in one of Venice's parks.  You need to understand the backstory:  BF had been hunting for an ATM run by "BNL" for days in an attempt to avoid ATM fees (he uses Bank of America, which waives ATM fees for BNL banks in Italy).  We could not find a single BNL ATM anywhere, and BF was out of cash.  Cut to this modern art exhibition, which featured a different pavilion for each participating country.  The USA pavilion contained an installment consisting of an ATM hooked up to a pipe organ; the ATM was fully operational, and each transaction created a unique score that was then played by the organ.  Guess what bank operated the ATM?

Yes, BNL!

video


Picnicking in Paris

Our six days in Paris was filled with magical moments, of course, but one of my favorites was a nearly three-hour picnic behind the Eiffel tower at sunset.  After weeks of heavy-duty sightseeing, it was wonderful to take a break, sit on the lawn, and eat cheese, fresh bread, and rotisserie chicken while the night grew dark and the tower lit up.


Unfortunately, this appears to be the only picture I took of the tower at sunset.  Um, sorry.

At ten p.m., the tower came alive with sparkling lights.

Sparkling.

video


That's it for today!  In future entries, I'll share my culinary adventures, random snaps, and thoughts on traveling alone.

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