After the Hofbräuhaus festivities, we were all ready for a nice long rest on the 9 hour night train from Munich to Florence. Little did we know, however, that this was not going to be possible. The crowded and exceptionally hot cabins made it impossible to sleep, forcing us into the even more crowded and narrow corridors. In an effort to squeeze in a few minutes of sleep each hour, we rested on the corridor floor but were sporadically interrupted by someone trying to get by with a huge suitcase. For those more seasoned and global travelers, the worst experience on a European train journey might compete with the most ideal situation in the third world, but after hours of consistent beer consumption and feasting in Munich, the sleepless trip on the train floor seemed like an unbearable eternity.
Despite the journey, arriving in Florence marked the beginning of an unforgettable 12 days. This leg of the trip actually deserves more than one post, but in the interest of brevity, I will dedicate the below to the most memorable aspects of our time in Italy.
The stone steps decorating the entrance to the train station greeted us with a bright and humid welcome, as the early morning sun had already begun overpowering the city. Arriving approximately two hours prior to our check-in appointment, we laid our heavy bags down and sat on the front steps of an archaic church near our hostel. Waiting in the shade on that weekday morning presented a small yet very beautiful introductory taste of the local culture. At an hour before most tourists and visitors make their way out to the streets, locals, both old and young, were gracefully passing by on foot, bike and motorbike, on their way to work. What was even more eye-catching was the fact that everyone was incredibly well dressed. This would be a common theme throughout my travels in Italy, as I found that most took a great deal of meticulous care in choosing their attire. Looking back, I wish I had taken a video of that intersection between the church and the narrow alley leading to our hostel.
Paralleling the appearance and energy of the locals, the city itself was composed of a beautifully rich foundation. Every edifice, arch, pathway, bridge, practically any structure one can pick out presented some form of artistic, historical or aesthetic wealth, if not all in one. One almost feels out of place, or rather insignificant, when surrounded by such splendor.
Our proximity to Il Duomo di Firenze, the Florence Cathedral, put us near the heart of the city and made exploring quite convenient. Our three days were spent admiring the virtually ubiquitous gothic and renaissance architecture, frequenting our main gelateria, Grom, having our first tastes of unadulterated Italian cuisine, and embellishing all of these experiences with varied, pleasant street music throughout the city.
Being just over an hour away by train, a visit to the leaning tower was obligatory, as are the photos below.
As most know more or less about the “continuously falling” lean, I will include a fun fact we overheard while admiring the structure: if you look carefully, there is a very slight curve in the structure that starts just above the third story, almost resembling an attempt by the tower to straighten itself. It turns out that the tower’s construction was paused after the completion of the third story, and the new architect that took over when construction resumed about a century afterwards recognized the slant and intentionally built the remaining stories with an opposing slant. However, his efforts to fix the obvious problem were to little avail.
Greve in Chianti
On our last day in Florence, one of my travel mates, Chris’s parents picked us up and welcomed us for four days to their rental villa in the heart of the Chianti wine district. I am still very grateful for their hospitality and generosity that introduced a beautifully indelible experience to our journey.
Recuperating from weeks of traveling consisted of indulging in the pleasures of learning, tasting and familiarizing ourselves with a novel, foreign and delicate wine. As my developing palate at the time had primarily been exposed to Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck”, the colorful diversity of the wines that we were fortunate enough to discover over several days of tasting began to imprint a powerful and long-lasting impression. I fell in love with the robust character and depth that emerged across the diverse canvas of soils, vines and practices that breed the wines of this region. To this day, my preferences for choosing new wines is still guided by those initial distinctive flavors and resulting appetites.
The hilltops that dressed these delicate vineyards welcomed us each evening with long, delicious dinners accompanied by great conversation, more wine, and sunsets that draped a calm, radiant blanket over the land.
One of the greatest and most sought after cities throughout history, Rome was our final destination. Five days in Rome was quite a bit of time, so we dedicated one day to a trip to Pompeii and spent the remaining four days exploring the city. Apart from being told by a proud Italian waiter that ordering olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette with our bread was very “American,” watching the Netherlands-Spain World Cup final match, and revisiting a small restaurant that we discovered on the first day for the following two days (for their succulent lamb pappardelle and red pepper olive oil), our time was spent exploring the touristic attractions in Rome, of which there are a significant number.
During the first two years of middle school, my school required every student to take a Latin course. Apart from learning the language, there was a significant emphasis on history and Latin text from different periods in history. More specifically, the second year was comprised almost completely of an analysis of the events surrounding and descriptions of the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which resulted in the city of Pompeii being buried in ash for countless centuries. Whether it was due to the amount of time and detail that was dedicated to this part of the course or the sheer intensity of this historical event, a great deal of what I learned has interested and remained with me to this day. Our day trip to Pompeii proved to be a great fuel for my interest, as archaeologists have been able to successfully excavate and uncover a city frozen in time. Walking through the streets of Pompeii today, one finds incredibly well preserved remnants of homes, local business, street signs, mosaics and much more.
The excavation efforts have revealed incredibly well preserved structures, residences and features throughout the city. However, some of the most remarkable displays were those of human bodies frozen in their last living positions by the volcanic ash. During the eruption, the whole city of Pompeii was drowned in a blanket of superheated volcanic ash which killed the citizens instantly, leaving them in the exact positions they embodied at the time. As the bodies decomposed over the centuries, voids remained in the solidified ash that preserved the shapes of the bodies. These voids have been filled with plaster to create molds of the bodies, which are on display in the excavated city of Pompeii.
What struck me the most about the Vatican, apart from the egregiously long entrance queue under the boiling summer sun (and the equally endless queue for the Sistine Chapel) , was the endless wealth and reservoir of art and history. The most memorable part of my visit was the Gallery of Maps, a long corridor of huge, 16th century frescoes that display geographically organized maps with incredible artistic (not necessarily navigational) detail.
..And so ends a remarkable journey that has fueled my growing passion for travel, knowledge and adventure. Experiences that I have shared throughout this 4-part post hopefully convey the different beauties one can find in novelty. This is the driving force behind my insatiable craving to go. The result: embarking with no clear expectation or idea of how a journey will unfold, and living something exquisitely unique that becomes a part of your person.