Italia, ti amo: Part III

I’ve found it hard to start each post in this series about our trip to Italy a fortnight ago. I mean, it’s Italy. Where do you start?

My girlfriend and I began our Italian adventure in Follonica, spending two nights with some family of mine that I met for the first time. Then we headed south, spending four nights in Positano on the magical Amalfi coast.

Well, what do you know? I started.

Our last night in Italy was spent in Rome. I wish we had more time to spend there, even just to walk the streets.

Australia has only been settled for a little over two hundred years so the oldest thing of interest that you’re likely to see there is our ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, now in his eighties, sculling a schooner of beer in under three seconds. Understandably, I was frothing at the prospect of seeing ancient Roman ruins so first stop: the Colosseum.

That such a thing was built two thousand years ago and that it is still standing today is astonishing. I hope they didn’t waste any money on an extended warranty. This thing was built to last.

The arena floor is gone, revealing a network of chambers below. They were used in much the same way that people use basements nowadays: they held boxes of crap that they didn’t want to keep but couldn’t be bothered throwing out and guys pashed girls down there after school.

sfgsfdgIMG_4914The Colosseum reminded me that technology doesn’t say as much about a society as the imagination with which they harness it. Stonemasonry and brick making might not sound like technology to kids raised with tablets and touch phones but stonemasons were the Silicon Valley geeks of bygone eras, masters of a technology crucial to building castles, fortresses and places of worship. What they accomplished using the technology available to them is astounding.

Right next door is the Forum. We didn’t get many good pictures of it but in its time it was an impressive space. Also next door is the Arch of Constantine (what a neighbourhood). It was built to commemorate Constantine’s victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

The arch of Constantine was built to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

These letters used to be in bronze. They extol the virtues of the emperor Constantine.

The letters in the inscription above were originally in bronze. When new, this arch would’ve been a phenomenal sight. It still is.

The detail on the statues and reliefs is brilliant.

From here, we walked across town to get to the Trevi Fountain. A tip: forget taxis. There’s so much worth seeing and the atmosphere is the best thing about Rome. Soak it up as you walk. Stop and have a coffee and a cannoli. Take the chance to sit amongst the hustle and bustle.

En route to the fountain, we crossed the Altare della Patria, a monument built to honour Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy. Its erection stirred up some controversy as it destroyed much of Capitoline Hill. Its gaudiness hasn’t won everyone over, either. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive structure with sculptures all over it.IMG_5067test

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After winding our way through some cool little cobblestone lanes, we reached the Trevi Fountain. The crowd surrounding it was thick. I was instantly bothered by it but after working our way to the water’s edge, I was gob-smacked by this work of crazy frickin’ art (sorry, I’m writing about Italy and running out of decent adjectives).

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The Fontana di Trevi is a sprawling work of art. It’s hard to gauge its scale in the photo above but to me, the main figure of Oceanus in the centre looked to be nearly three metres tall.

The fountain is said to depict "a virgin shepherdess who showed the spring to soldiers seeking water" according to a 16th century writer.

The fountain is said to depict a virgin shepherdess who showed a spring to soldiers seeking water, according to a 16th century writer.

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Oceanus, the divine personification of the World Ocean which was said to encircle the world.

In the centre is Oceanus, the divine personification of the World Ocean which was said to encircle the world.

There’s a legend that says that throwing a coin into the fountain will ensure that you return to Rome one day. Around three thousand euros are thrown into the fountain every single day. Talk about a money spinner. Clement XII: my hat goes off to you and your remunerative vision. Well played, sir. Well played.

All jokes aside, the money is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy. Well played, Rome. Well played.

Call me cheesy but one thing that I really wanted to do in Italy was to sit at a cozy cafe or restaurant table in a cobblestone lane while sipping on an espresso (loafers optional). We visited a few in our short time there. Every one we entered had great coffee and cakes, fresh pasta, very affordable house wine good enough to make it onto any wine list in Australia and an atmosphere worth traveling to the other side of the globe for.

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Back alleys and lane ways in Sydney should be avoided. In Rome, they should be sought out. Cafes, restaurants and stores line these romantic little thoroughfares.

IMG_5075Something I haven’t mentioned but that deserves to be said is that Italians are cool people. My grandfather is Italian and I can pass for an Italian, so a quick “Scuzzi…” from me has most locals firing off a barrage of rapid-fire Italian at me but my girlfriend is an Australian of Indonesian descent so she looks like nasi goreng but sounds like a meat pie and she was treated well wherever we went, too. Italians are laid back with what Australians would call a “she’ll be right” attitude. Feel like chilling out? Too easy. Late bus? No problem. Worried about something? No worries, she’ll be right.

Even after only one night there, I could go on and on about Rome but, frankly, I’m running out of adjectives. Besides, I’m no travel writer. What I am is a lucky man who gets to travel and explore with his awesome woman, a guy who has been fortunate enough to visit Italy in his lifetime.

Italy. There’s no place like it. It’s romantic and full of style, it boasts amazing food, scenery and architecture, the people are warm and the place is drenched in history with modern buildings swarming around historical artifacts of immense significance, like a living city-museum. And the fact that I have roots and people that I can call family there makes the place beautiful in a way that I just can’t articulate.

L’Italia è un posto meraviglioso. Ti amo, Italia.

Well, what do you know? I articulated it.

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Italia, ti amo: Part II

“Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life.” –Anna Akhmatova

Positano

Positano. It’s like something out of a painting. We took over six hundred photos there. It’s just a point and shoot kind of place.

Everything about Italy is magic. The simplest combinations of ingredients produce its world-famous dishes. Its language has such vigour that it demands that your hands get involved when you speak but it is sweet enough to fill foreigners with pleasure when they speak it, even if they’re stumbling through it clumsily. Lord Byron described it as “…that soft bastard Latin, Which melts like kisses from a female mouth, And sounds as if it should be writ on satin With syllables which breathe of the sweet South.” Italy’s buildings and architecture are hopelessly in love with yesterday. And its rich history is as much a part of it today as this morning’s sunrise.

It is, in the Australian vernacular, a bloody rip-snorter of a place.

After spending two nights in Follonica with family, we headed south on a fast train to Salerno where we caught a bus onto Amalfi then another to Positano.

The bus ride is a test of nerves for those with a fear of heights. Narrow roads wind high along mountainsides that plunge steeply into the ocean. One wrong turn and the bus will be falling so far down a cliff that before it hits the ocean, you’ll have time to call home, finalize your will, pay out your credit card online, ring that one person you always wanted to tell to get stuffed but lacked the nerve to, ring your best mate to tell them that you finally told that idiot to get stuffed and smoke one last cigarette as you wear a satisfied smile because you finally told that person to get stuffed.

Abruptly, the bus stops and the driver says ‘Positano’.

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The prettiest bus stop in the world. The road to the right circles up around Positano and continues onto Sorrento. The road to the left leads down into Positano’s centre.

Positano. I can’t recall it without instantly picturing the Mediterranean and the sea breeze, crystal clear water, narrow streets snaking their way between colourful old buildings with small windows and balconies, cannoli after cannoli, espressos, narrow cobblestoned laneways lined with shops that beg you to stroll down them, food so good that we ate four or five times a day and kilometres of coastline too gorgeous for words. Positano is an Italian microcosm sans the Roman ruins.

The view from the breakfast buffet area

The view from the breakfast buffet area of the hotel.

It is impossible to look anywhere in Positano without experiencing awe. From nearly anywhere in the town, you can see the rest of Positano because the town bends around on itself like a horseshoe and cascades spectacularly down steep slopes to a stretch of gorgeous black-pebble beach resting at the bottom of its valley.

Beach

The beach at Positano. Sure, it doesn’t have any sand and is lined with black pebbles that get wedged between your toes and are hard on your feet. Go on, just try to complain about it.

We stayed for four nights and spent our days walking through Positano’s streets, browsing its art galleries, wandering in and out of its shops and eating at different restaurants. We even partook of a few uber-Italian activities that you just can’t miss the chance to try, like trying on loafers. I bought two pairs. When in Positano…

The streets of Positano.

The streets of Positano. Even its laneways are charming.

The roads are so narrows that there are rarely sidewalks, just painted sections where pedestrians can walk.

The roads are so narrow that there are rarely sidewalks, just painted sections for pedestrians.

The food at every restaurant sat somewhere between good and “OH MY GOD, I WANT TO FILL A TUB WITH THIS AND BATHE IN IT!” We didn’t have a bad meal except for the pizza at our favourite cafe. We loved its location, halfway down to the beach from our hotel. The service was good, the coffee was great, their cannolis where addictive (we ate at least two a day) and their orange granite, which is a kind of fancy slurpee in a bowl, was  zesty and refreshing. But their pizza was rubbish, especially when you consider that pretty much every other place offered wood-fired goodness. Aside from that, all the food in Positano was good: locally caught seafood, proper pizzas, fresh pasta, Nastro Azzuros, the second and third best gnocchi I’ve ever had (nothing beats my grandmother’s), the best coffee I’ve ever had and cakes and pastries that were richer than Bill Gates.

Cannolis!!

Cannolis at our favourite cafe. Even their tables were cool.

Espresso number three for the day and granite number two. Granite is so refreshing and tasty.

Espresso number three for the day and granite number two. Granite is so refreshing and tasty. And it won’t make your hands shake the way that three espressos will. I made the mistake of having three espressos in an hour on my first day in Italy. I won’t be repeating that mistake any time soon.

We took a trip to Amalfi on our third day. Personally, I preferred Positano. Warmer, cozier, more scenic and not as busy. But the ferry ride alone, from Positano to Amalfi and back, was worth the trip. There is no piece of coastline that I’ve ever seen anywhere, either with my own eyes or in photographs, that matches the Amalfi coast’s beauty. It was simply breath taking.

Positano from the sea

Positano from the sea. You could stay anchored out there all day just taking in the views.

Positano from the ocean

The view of Positano’s beach from the ferry. I wanted to jump off the ferry and swim to shore.

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The Amalfi Coast’s rugged and stunning beauty. Only people as resourceful as Italians would look at mountains jutting from the sea at such rude angles and think “I might just build a three storey house there…”

View from the ferry as you motor past the town of Amalfi

The town of Amalfi as we pulled away on the ferry.

Rome was our next stop. We would’ve caught the ferry back to Salerno for the views and to save time but the sea was a little restless that day. All boat trips were cancelled so we had to catch the bus. Leaving this town was beyond depressing. It was like being kicked out of heaven. After reaching Salerno, two hours on a comfortable fast train (the Frecciabianci, worth the forty-ish euros) had us back in Rome for the last night of our trip.

Oh, I forgot to mention: the flu hit us both like a snotty sledgehammer on the second day of our trip. I’m talking sore throats and noses that ran like Kenyan track stars. But we didn’t care. Not one bit. We were in Positano. The place is a remedy for whatever ails you, physical or otherwise.

As for Rome, well, it deserves its own post simply because Rome is Rome. It was the centre of our world for centuries, the seat of one of the world’s greatest empires, it’s a living museum of antiquities and is a gorgeous, romantic city in its own right, so I’ll save Rome for the third and last installment in the ‘Italia, ti amo’ series.

Arrivederci!

Italia, ti amo: Part I

Here’s a great way to gauge how good a trip really was: when you finally get home and realize that you have to work the next day, you want nothing more than to run a hot bath, to lie back in it, to breathe in deeply and smile as you take stock of the amazing time you’ve just had. And then slit your wrists as the deep depression of a holiday hangover grips you. You know the feeling: “It’s over. I wish I was back there. I wish I didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow. I feel so utterly, desperately depressed.” A holiday is like a big night on the turps: the better it is, the worse the hangover is.

Our holiday was – as the ‘cool’ kids say these days *cough* – totes amazeballs.

Italy is a brilliant, amazing, beautiful, multiple-positive-adjective-deserving country.

My girlfriend lived in London for two years and has traveled extensively throughout Europe. I, on the other hand, had never been to Europe. The most European thing I’d ever done prior to this trip was drink an espresso while wearing loafers. But this wasn’t just a getaway for us. It was a chance to meet some of my family for the first time. Having few relatives in Australia (fifteen individuals including second cousins once removed) made that an experience that I was really looking forward to.

I met with my grandad’s sister’s kids, which is to say my first cousins once removed, and I met their kids who are my second cousins. I even met one of my second cousin’s daughters who is my second cousin once removed. I had to check Wikipedia to make sure what to call them. I once had a first cousin who was twice removed from our local pub for being too rowdy but he didn’t make it into Wikipedia. Unless someone decides to write an article for Wikipedia entitled ‘Unpleasant events in pubs in Fairfield, NSW in 2002’. Keep an eye out for that one…

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Franco at the head of the table surrounded by my other cousins. Everyone in this photo is smiling because that’s pretty much how we spent our time together.

My cousins live in Follonica, a sleepy seaside town in the Tuscany region. It gets busy with regional tourists in the summer but is quiet the rest of the year. It was the tail end of spring so the weather was nice and it wasn’t crowded.

My cousins offered us a beach house to stay in. One step out the front door and we had sand between our toes. Two steps and we would’ve been sitting out the back waiting for a set to roll through. That last part was an exaggeration that would only make sense to surfers. The first part was true, though. Well, it was actually two steps. But this last part clarifying the first part is truly true.

Dinner

After dinner drinks at the beach house on our first night. They loved my girlfriend.

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Out the front door and onto the sand. This little house was perfect: cozy and on the beach.

This photo of Follonica was taken just a few steps out the front door of our beach house.

Follonica. This photo was taken just a few steps out the front door of our little beach shack. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.

After arriving at the beach house, we dropped our bags and tucked into the feast they had prepared for us. Pasta, salads, anchovies with garlic and parsley (don’t knock ’em till a no-foolin’ Italian has prepared them for you because they are delicious), prosciutto and salamis, cheeses and espressos with tasty pastries for dessert. We covered the table with food and bottles of homemade wine. I don’t normally drink wine but the red, white and sparkling white wine they served us flowed freely all night, mostly into my cup. They threw a party for us the next day, too. Nearly twenty of us ate, drank and rocked out on my uncle Enzo’s home-made karaoke system. He even hooked up his Fender Strat and shredded it up.

Enzo & Graziana rocking out!

Enzo & Graziana rocking out on Enzo’s improvised karaoke system.

I learned a little Italian that day. Turns out that the word ‘hospitality’ in Italian translates roughly into ‘feed ’em till they need a new wardrobe’. Forget splitting a meal into courses. This delicious meal was easier to split into hours. We laughed, we joked and we got to know each other. I speak fluent Spanish – albeit with a funny Aussie twang, so my dad used to tell me – so it took only a little effort to speak some Italian with them. When in Rome (or Follonica)…

Enzo proudly showed off his Fiat 500 to my girlfriend. He described it as "The symbol of Italy".

Enzo proudly showed off his Fiat 500 to my girlfriend and I, lovingly describing it as “The symbol of Italy”. It’s nearly fifty years old, in its original condition and runs.

Later in the afternoon my lovely cousin Thaila and her boyfriend Yuri took us on a tour of the local area. We checked out Scarlino, a nearly two thousand year old town boasting a one thousand year old castle perched nearly two hundred and fifty metres up the side of a mountain (those crazy Italians will build anywhere and do it well). A apt description of the views from Scarlino is beyond my writing skills, suffice it to say that the town and the Tuscan countryside are magnificent.

Scarlino

Scarlino, a charming little town with an interesting history that stretches back over nearly two millennia.

We had a fantastic time with my new-found family. My father passed away eight years ago and I miss him terribly so I was quietly hoping to find something of him in his cousins. Perhaps it was a lofty dream but while it didn’t quite eventuate, I did find family there. I feel immeasurably richer for it.

After two unforgettable days, it was time to move onto Positano, our next destination. A teary farewell at the train station and we were off.

My newly acquired family are deserving of their own post so I will write about the rest of the trip separately.

To my family in Italy: Grazie per averci fatto sentire i benvenuti e per aver accettato la mia ragazza e io come la tua famiglia. Avete reso il nostro viaggio indimenticabile. Mi sento come se la mia famiglia è ora più grande, come se avessi le persone che posso chiamare mio proprio dall’altra parte del pianeta. Vi amo tutti.

Voi ragazzi siete amazeballs!

Arrivederci, Singapore!

We leave for Italy tonight! It’s the first time I’ve ever been there so I have a short list of things that I must do when I’m there, things that I’ve been wanting to do for years:

1. Meet Mario & Luigi

They’re plumbers, they have moustaches and they share nearly identical names to my dad and his twin brother, Mario & Luis. What’s not to love? My girlfriend told me some nonsensical crap about them actually being Japanese. Yeah, and Mel Gibson is actually from New York…

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2. Have a conversation with someone in Italian.

My grandad is Italian and while I don’t speak Italian, I speak fluent Spanish and the two are not too far apart from each other so I’m going to strike up conversation wherever possible. If I start to get lost, I’ll rely on the Peter Griffin method…

3. Visit the colosseum.

I’m Australian so the oldest things I ever get to see are the ever-repeating story lines on Neighbours (boom tish!) so it’ll be pretty cool to see something that’s been around for two thousand years. I hope they still have gladiator fights there on the weekends…

"Are you not entertained? No? How about if I sing for you? I can sing, you know. Oh, wait, Les Mis, that's right... I can't sing."

“Are you not entertained?! No? What if I sing for you? I can sing, you know. Oh, wait, Les Mis. You’re right, I’m crap. Show’s over, ladies and gentlemen.”

I can’t wait to leave although I wish we didn’t have to fly to get there (see my previous post about my phobia). Pictures and words to come when I get back. My apologies to my awesome followers if I don’t post anything for another week (all 18 of you! I love you guys!) but I’ll be stuffing my face full of pizza and drinking good coffee for the next few days and might not have time to post anything.

Arrivederci!