9/11/2008 – 11:56 AM
Yesterday evening, at around 10 PM, I said farewell to my good mate and trusted travel partner Brian in Messina, Italy, on the Northeast coast of Sicily. It was a quintessential train station goodbye with Brian standing and waving on the platform and me waving goodbye from the train window. “See you in Turkey,” I yelled, and my 22:02 train to Naples left the station. It is a strange feeling to begin traveling solo – I’m not sure I’ve traveled significantly without Brian since leaving home in September of 2007. The plan is to rendezvous someplace in Turkey in one or two weeks time.
I’m currently on a train headed to Bari on the East coast of Italy. At 8PM tonight, I’ll catch a ferry to Greece and arrive in Patras 16 potentially painful hours later. The trip to Bari proved to be much more difficult than the rail map I had implied: I left Messina at 22:02 last night and arrived in Naples at 4:30 this morning – from Naples, I caught the 5:03 train to Caserta, arriving at 6:00. The train station in Caserta is not someplace you want to be at six in the morning. To be fair, you probably wouldn’t want to be in any train station at six in the morning. When I arrived, I was going to have a look at the ticket machine to verify my next connection. I ended up waiting a bit as I didn’t want to disturb the stray dogs or homeless men blocking the way.
My connecting train to Bari didn’t leave until 11, so instead of hanging around the train station all morning I set off to explore the town of Caserta. As I wandered the streets of the small town, it became evident that I was up far earlier than most of the town’s residents – perhaps not surprising as today is a Sunday. Other than the odd clusters of old men reading their newspapers on park benches, street cleaners tidying up after a seemingly chaotic Saturday evening, or stray dogs wandering around aimlessly, there wasn’t much going on in Caserta. Eventually, the many street cafes and newspaper agents began to open up their shops and with this, I found a spot in the sun and enjoyed some café and a newspaper I’ve been meaning to read. It ended up being an enjoyable morning in a town I before knew nothing about – a town, I would venture to guess, that is largely overlooked and bypassed by tourists and travelers.
I think Italy will go down as one of my favorite countries in Europe. I haven’t seen even a fraction of what Italy has to offer, yet I’ve spent an enjoyable seven or eight days getting to know Italy’s people and their customs. If nothing else, I’ve fallen in love with their coffee and their café/bars. I knew I would enjoy Italy from the moment I stepped of the train in Venice. Upon walking into the train station’s café, I was greeted with a long, high-top bar just as you’d find in any US or UK bar or pub. However, instead of barmen pouring pints or mixing cocktails, you had baristas serving up Café Americanos, Espressos, Cappucino, Macchiato, and the like. These types of cafes aren’t unique to train stations but are instead found throughout Italy’s towns and cities. They are brilliant.
When I set off on this InterRail journey throughout the continent I didn’t really have much of a plan – that is, I hadn’t made a list with countries or cities I wanted to see. Brian and I just imagined we’d use or Lonely Planet and train timetable book and see where we ended up. The only place I knew wanted to see was Venice. I wasn’t at all disappointed.
Venice was everything I expected it to be. Venice is a city whose beauty quite literally takes your breath away …
9/11/2008 – 11:28 PM
So, at this point in my writing, my computer ran out of battery and I was conveniently forced to take a much needed nap. I had imagined myself to continue the post on the ferry en route to Greece. After getting off the train in Bari I was faced with the difficult task of finding a cash point and getting something to eat. The entire town seemed to be shut down. Today is Sunday, and I’ve since gathered that Bari is a deeply religious community. After getting off the train, getting some cash, and finding something to eat, I made my way to the Bari Ferry Port. I arrived to find the port ticket office relatively deserted; instantly, I knew something wasn’t right.
“Parla Ingles?” I asked the lone ticket agent. “A little,” she apprehensively said. “I would like to book a seat on the 8PM ferry to Patras,” I told her. Deep down, I knew what was inevitably coming. “Sorry,” she proclaimed, “there is no ferry until tomorrow night.”
Terrific. Bloody terrific. I was instantly shattered. Not only would I be stuck in a port town for the next 24 hours, my tentative schedule would be pushed back one entire day. If time wasn’t of the essence (my InterRail pass expires Wednesday and I still need to get across the Ionian Sea, all the way through Greece, and ideally into Istanbul), this wouldn’t be the end of the world. I was gutted. I was angry with myself and frustrated with the situation. A person stronger than myself would have gotten over it much quicker than I did – but, for the next three or four hours I was quite pessimistic about the entire scenario. With help from Brian via text messaging, I was able to find out where the one backpackers hostel in town was. Still frustrated. It took me a good hour to find the place, and when I did, I paid only slightly less than I did in Paris and Rome. Still frustrated. There is no internet, a 12AM curfew (first time I’ve ever seen this in a hostel), and sheets for the bed aren’t included in the price of the room (first time ever). Still frustrated. And, to top it off, I’m sharing my dorm with two lovebirds studying abroad from the States. As you might imagine, this only makes me miss Nicole more. Still frustrated.
Enough of the negativity. I just got back from a wee wander around my hostel. As I had taken the bus here, I hadn’t yet had the chance to check out the area where my hostel is located. Bari Backpackers is located on the edge of the ‘historical center’ of Bari. The entire area has a majestic feel to it tonight – essentially deserted with the exception of the lone couple out for a walk or the scooter navigating the winding, narrow, stone alleyways. It almost felt as though I was walking through a part of the city stuck in time fifteen years ago. Through windows and open doors you could see families sitting down to dinner or huddled around the television – some old men were seated on kitchen chairs which they had moved outside of their front doors – the days washing was hanging on clothes lines above the streets. I would turn a corner and come across shrine like windows with pictures of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. The streets reminded me very much of Southern Spain and Portugal. The white stone streets and buildings had a solemn yet majestic glow to them from the yellow lights illuminating the alleyways. It was unbelievable, and I slowly became glad I ended up spending the night in Bari.
Right. So, again, Venice was stunning. A beautiful and bizarre city where nearly all aspects of day to day life revolve in some way around the city’s canals. How can you not be impressed with a city built on 117 islands, with over 150 canals, and more than 400 bridges? Instead of delivery trucks, Venice has delivery boats. With 150 canals, Venice doesn’t have a public bus system, rather it has a public Vaporetti system – boats which serve as buses bringing people all around the city and the surrounding islands. Instead of your bus stop, you have a dock which the Vaporetto pulls up to, the deck hand ties it up, and the passengers jump on before it moves on to the next stop.
After spending three nights in the city, it was apparent I wasn’t the only traveler who wanted to experience the city. Venice sees upwards of 20 million visitors a year. While not a lot in comparison to say the 7o plus million that visit Paris, it becomes a headache when these 20 million visitors are crammed onto Venice’s narrow streets and walkways. I can’t imagine visiting the city in the high season. Nonetheless, it was shocking to be on one busy street one minute, shoulder to shoulder with your neighbor and then to move two streets in the other direction to find a residential part of the city completely void of tourists. A wonderful place which I would love to visit again.
From Venice, Brian and I traveled to Rome – a city full of 2.5 million people and 2,700 years of history. A lot to take in, as you can imagine. We were there for two days packed full of the sightseeing you would expect in Rome: Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s jaw dropping frescoes, St Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, and of course the Colessum and Rome’s many beautiful fountains. It was mind blowing to think of the time frame that many of the buildings were built. The Colosseum – rivaling Kinnick Stadium by holding 50,000 people – was finished in 80AD.
All of this was great, but the highlight of my time spent in Rome was watching the US Presidential election with hundreds of other expatriated Americans. Democrats Abroad, an organization which unites Democrats living overseas, was hosting an event which coincidentally was going on directly across the street from the hostel where I was staying. I spent the historic evening drinking Italian vino and watching CNN with study-abroad students, professors, businessmen, and many other Americans who in one way or another found themselves living in Rome. Yes we can! Goodbye George, you won’t be missed.
From Rome, we traveled to Sicily where we spent two relaxing evenings. For one of these, I was camped out on a small island off the coast of Taormina – an island only barely accessible at low tide. Sicily was great – in addition to the sun, the warm weather, the beaches, and Mt. Etna (Europe’s largest and most active volcano), the Sicilian people were very laid back and hospitable. I would have loved to spend more time exploring the island, but I cut my time there short to try and catch the ferry which didn’t leave tonight.
I’ll try and get some pictures posted soon. Hopefully, by this time tomorrow, I’ll be en route to Greece. cheers, mk