Needless to say, everyone was pretty disappointed to be leaving the Austrian resort for more small, city hotels. We were looking forward to Italy though, so we loaded onto the bus for another (very) early departure. Several hours of driving got us to the mainland outside of Venice where we took a transport boat to the island of Murano to see glass being blown at a glassblowing workshop. We had a short tour of the workshop and saw one of the glass blowers making a vase and also a horse. He formed the horse by pulling on the hot glass with metal clamps and the whole horse was finished in less than five minutes. Really fun to watch. We were then herded into the showroom and given an explanation of some of the items for sale, how the glass colors are formed, and how to assure you are getting real Murano glass if you buy it outside the island. The prices were a little steep for me, so I wandered around for a bit and then went outside with the other non-purchasers to wait for our boat to the island of Venice.
We took another transport boat from Murano to Venice (the Venice area is actually made up of many, many islands and there are all sorts of transport boats from private boats to taxi boats and bus boats) where we were dropped at a dock a couple blocks down from St. Mark’s Square, the most famous tourist destination in Venice. We walked as a group through the crowded street along the waterfront, shoulder-to-shoulder with the mass of tourists and street sellers in the blazing sun to St. Mark’s Square. I’m going to just admit right here, before I get any farther, that I didn’t love Italy. I’ll wait while you finish gasping and cursing me under your breath.
It might have just been travel fatigue. I had been traveling at a very fast pace for a long time and maybe I was just tired of walking through cities with a group of 45 people, but once we got to Italy we were walking down very crowded streets with more street vendors than any other place we’d visited, all under the blistering 90-degree sun.
So that’s my preface for Venice. I expected to love Venice, and it was a cool city with all the canals and bridges, but there were so many people. Those beautiful pictures you see of Venice with a few people wandering here and there among cobblestones and little foot bridges? So staged. Thankfully once Anna, Janelle, Leena and I went off on our own and crossed to the less-crowded side of the Grand Canal, we were able to find some quiet areas. We had lunch in a small café and wandered around the streets taking pictures of each other on the little bridges. We had all signed up for a gondola ride with a few others from our group, so we made our way back to St. Mark’s Square, the meeting spot, for our 5 p.m. ride. The gondola ride was pleasant. Our gondolier didn’t sing to us, which was completely fine with me, but he did wear the striped black and white shirt and seemed pretty authentic. We snaked through the canals and then out into open water before floating through a few more canals to end the ride. That night we made our way back to the mainland of Venice to our hotel and walked to a nearby pizza place. We enjoyed our first Italian pizzas (yum!) and then went to a brewery next door for beers where we stayed until midnight to celebrate one of our trip-mates birthdays. Tomorrow – Florence!
We arrived in Florence and headed out on our guided group walking tour. Florence is actually quite a compact city and it is easy to walk to just about anywhere in a reasonable amount of time. For that reason we were able to see most of the city’s highlights on the tour. Unfortunately, like Italy, it was quite crowded and very, very hot. The tour was largely hopping from shady spot to shady spot while trying to pay attention to what our tour guide was saying. We did see some pretty buildings and outdoor sculptures, but all anyone could think about once we were sent off for free time was water and gelato. I wandered through the streets for a while with Anna, Janelle and Leena before we found our way back to the hotel to relax.
That night was the optional Tuscan Feast (endless food, bottomless wine) with the group. I had been planning to do the feast from the beginning of the trip and only changed my mind at the last minute. After too many nights in a row of being overstuffed with food, I decided I didn’t want to spend 60 euros for another night of being over-full. So Anna, Leena, Janelle and I found a little restaurant near our hotel with good reviews on Yelp that was offering a multi-course Italian meal for only 14 euros. It was small, friendly and delicious. I had one of the best meals of the trip (the others being my breakfast in Paris and the dinner in Austria). The pasta course was homemade noodles with black truffles and mushrooms. It doesn’t look special in the photo, but it was incredibly delicious. We had salad, a pasta dish, a meat dish, a few glasses of wine and an iced lemon desert. Overstuffed? No. Satisfied? Yes.
After dinner all of the non-feast-goers were getting ready to meet the rest of the group out at a dance club. I had decided not to go (me? at a dance club? no) so I was just watching everyone else get ready. They were all pre-gaming (drinking) while they were getting dressed and I was drinking along with them. Apparently I pre-gamed a little too much because by the time they were ready to leave I had talked myself into going. The club was well known as a destination for American tourists. It was dark, loud, and played American dance music with lyrics on television screens so you could sing along. Because who wouldn’t sing along after enough drinks? I ordered a long island iced tea and I mostly remember dancing on a raised platform with my friends. I don’t recall how I got up there, or really, how I got down, but that is my memory of the dance club.
Aftermath: I stayed in bed until almost noon the next day, the cleaning lady tried to come in and clean twice before I actually left the room. Sigh. Not feeling much up for eating or sightseeing, I wandered Florence by myself for a few hours, mostly walking up and down shady streets and people watching. I ended up back in my (clean, thankfully she hadn’t given up) room around 3 for a nap. We had a group dinner around the corner from our hotel and then mostly hung out in each other’s rooms that night before leaving for Rome the next morning.
And now for the most exciting part of Italy! We stopped in Tuscany on our way to Rome for a tour of the Verrazzano Castle winery along with a wine tasting. The drive up to the castle was as beautiful as you would expect and the views once there were equally lovely. We toured the winery with an enthusiastic and friendly guide and learned about the Tuscany region, Chianti wine and the history of the winery. After the tour we were led into a large dining room with tablecloths, linen napkins, full place settings and a set of wine glasses. This was no Michigan wine tasting (don’t get me wrong – I still love those!) They filled our four tasting glasses and then passed around plates of meat, salad and cheese. It was really a whole meal. The wine was amazing, the food was amazing, the company was amazing. I bought a bottle and a wine opener. The tasting ended with some semi-drunk trip-mates playing songs on the tasting room piano. Pure joy.
I’m running short on words so I’ll try to zip through Rome. We arrived in Rome in the evening and checked into our rooms. Claudia took us on a mini tour of the city in the evening where we saw the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain (which was tragically under restoration at the time) and several other monuments and squares. After a drink in one of the bars lining Piazza Navona we took a bus back to our hotel since the Metro had closed early due to construction. The bus ride was long, the wait at the bus station for our transfer was even longer, and it’s shocking how Roman busses don’t just tear themselves apart rumbling down those cobblestone streets. I would think they’d need to replace them every six months.
The next morning we had a tour of Vatican City (namely St. Peter’s Basilica, the most beautiful church of the trip by far), the Roman Forum and the outside of the Colosseum. Afterward we went back to Vatican City to see the Sistine Chapel. Let me tell you, you have to really want to see that chapel. You have to buy a ticket to the Vatican museum, take a winding ramp up to seemingly heaven itself, then walk through what feels like an endless IKEA of room after room after room of Vatican history and art (which we didn’t want to see) before you finally end up in the Sistine Chapel. I, along with a few friends, were literally were running through the museum trying to get to the Chapel so we could see it and then head back to the Colosseum by the end of the day to go inside. In retrospect it was funny, but rather exasperating at the time. We finally got to the Chapel, which I have to say, while the ceiling was large and impressive, the overall chapel was pretty underwhelming. It was quiet, as some kind of service was going on, dim, rectangular, and filled with people milling around not allowed to take pictures. We showed up and a whole crowd of other trip-mates were already there having somehow found a shortcut. Damn them.
At this point me and Cory and Nick just wanted to get to the Colosseum, see it, and get back to the hotel where we could buy some cheap wine and drink it in the lobby before dinner (everyone else we were with had slowly dropped off and ended up behind us with others). So we made a mad dash for the Metro, which, while very crowded, was surprisingly quick and efficient (Rome only has two Metro lines because it takes years to build one. Every time they dig into the ground they come upon some historical treasure and the archeologists have to be called in. They’re working on a third Metro line, maybe to be done sometime this century). We made it to the Colosseum, walked around inside, and got back to the hotel all in about an hour and a half (thanks to our Roma passes that let us skip the Colosseum line).
Cheap wine was purchased, much was consumed, and then we were off to our (my) last dinner in Europe. About 2/3 of the group continued on to Greece for four more days of travel excitement, but I was heading home in the morning.
I was up until 2 a.m. packing and sitting in the lobby talking to people. When I decided so many months ago to forego the Greece part of the trip, I was thinking logically about money and saving time to move to my new apartment and all that good stuff, but it feels different after you’ve spent three weeks with people and have made good friends and they’re almost all going off to Greece without you. I was tired and really, really ready to go home, but I was definitely sad to be leaving everyone behind. I got about four hours of sleep before getting up for my shuttle to the airport with several other trip-mates. Some friends got up to say good bye and give hugs. It’s strange to be excited and sad at the same time. I spent another 24 hours traveling and arrived back home, exhausted, around 11 p.m. EST, or 5 a.m. Rome time, and fell asleep immediately.
And that concludes the blow-by-blow of my trip. Join me in my next, and final, Europe post for thoughts, opinions, nuggets and tidbits about my trip and Europe in general. Topics will include but will not be limited to: toilets, hotel rooms, cigarettes and street vendors.