My previous backpacking trip through Europe presented a means of travel focused on large, metropolitan areas engorged in vibrant city life and abundant history. This time around, for the first 22 days of July, a very rough itinerary that strays off the beaten path in southern Europe opens up new doors, allowing for different perspective and more authentic insight into local culture. Further, such a trip also promises a new flavor of experiences, unique historical nuances, localized and rare cuisine, and isolated natural beauty. With two travel mates, Kaan and Burak, a few major destinations were marked on our mental maps. On the road, our only remaining responsibility would be to connect the dots, but in no particular order or path, while possibly erasing some and drawing new ones. Alas, equipped with a red Fiat Panda, three person tent and a trunk full of constantly changing groceries, Kaan and I began our journey in Bergamo, Italy, with three days to spare before picking up Burak. After signing our car rental forms in Bergamo and making ourselves at home in our comfortable Panda, we took a deep breath and enjoyed the uncertainty that laid before us. The feeling hit us simultaneously as we merged onto the narrow, rural Italian streets, realizing that the old city of Bergamo lying on a distant hilltop served as our sole point of direction and purpose. The freedom of spontaneity was exciting, and it showed on our faces as Kaan’s grin mirrored mine. As it was well into the afternoon, we made our way to the old city and spent a few hours exploring on foot and by car (footage pending a fast internet connection):
With no accommodation for the night, Milan seemed an appealing destination that would offer a selection of hostels to choose from and a fitting atmosphere to catch the USA – Belgium World Cup match. So we took off, lacking the slightest idea of how long the journey would take, how difficult it would be to find parking upon arrival, and whether there would be any hostels with availability. Road signs for Milan began to appear as we descended from Bergamo’s hills. The roads twisted and turned through small villages, industrial stretches, and various small farms that decorated the countryside. As we enjoyed the scenic drive, something quite strange caught our attention. The signs directing traffic towards Milan began displaying completely random distances. Exiting a roundabout with 19 km to go, we would come across another sign 200 meters down the road displaying “26 km to Milan,” which would drop to the low 20’s at the next intersection. Unable to free ourselves from this fluctuating mess, we succumbed to the backwards Italian traffic patterns for about 30 minutes until the bright green “autostrada” sign opened up a clear path to the city. Later, upon examining a map of Milan, we realized that these road signs direct traffic in a circle along the outskirts of the city, possibly without ever actually going in. Whether this is a product of poor city planning or an effort to filter traffic into the expensive autostrade, Italy’s national network of motorways, it certainly wouldn’t be the last time we would encounter such a mess. The streets of Milan were much easier to navigate, as directions for the city center led us straight to the base of the Duomo. Some brief sightseeing and subsequent wifi-scavenging culminated in success, and within the hour our beds welcomed us in Zebra Hostel.
A young businessman who assisted us with the limited street parking near our hostel turned out to be quite gregarious and helpful. Within a matter of minutes, he was kind enough to give us a comprehensive overview of the incoherent parking rules, as well as a quick guide to Navigli, a neighborhood nearby that he claimed would be the best spot to watch the match. Without much thought, our evening plans were set. With half an hour until kickoff, the streets of Navigli were teeming with locals, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s. The heart of the neighborhood begins at a fork in the road, which splits to follow two wide canals lined with restaurants, cafes and gelaterias. That night, the canals were filled with small boats that were projecting the footbal match onto several large screens, and everyone was in a rush to grab a table with a view. We managed to join the lucky few and snagged a spot near one of the larger screens. Over a bottle of red wine and decent pizza, we celebrated a successful end to our first day and enjoyed what would be one of the few large cities on our itinerary.