Archive for December, 1996

6 Weeks in Britain & Italy (first time in Europe)

Europe was sure a lot of fun! OK, maybe I shouldn’t use the term
‘Europe’ since I only visited two countries this time. Still, I guess I
have to admit that I have underestimated Europe all these years. I have done most of my traveling in Asia and always avoided Europe mainly because "everyone goes there" and, well, I like to be different.

This isn’t to discount Asia as a travel destination. It also has much
to offer. Each has its advantages. Anyway, on to my most recent adventure…

Having been born and bred in Sunny Southern California, I have low tolerance for temperatures below 15 C. So I planned my flight schedule accordingly. I booked a flight in to London on 1996-10-10 and a return flight from Rome on 1996-11-26. I figured that as the weather got colder I would just head south. All details were left to the spur of the moment.

This plan worked out rather well. I arrived in London and spent almost two weeks there, exploring the city and surrounding neighborhoods. I attended several concerts, including one by Sophie Zelmani and Brian Kennedy. I had not heard of either of these people, but I read a favorable review in Time Out magazine and decided to give them a try. And I wasn’t disappointed! Both were excellent, though it seems much of the (female) audience had come more to see Brian (“Let down your hair!” they shouted until he did) than to hear him.

My original plan was to head over to Wales and on to Ireland by ferry. However, while staying at Curzon House (a hostel-type accommodation, like almost all the places I stayed) in London, several people commented to me on what a beautiful city Edinburgh is. So when it was time to leave London, I just hopped a train for Scotland and didn’t look back (well, it’s hard to look back because the train doesn’t have a rear window). I arrived at night, took a wrong turn out of the train station, and one of my first views of the city was the beautiful Edinburgh Castle and surroundings, all lit up. I was happy to have made the trip.

I hung out in Edinburgh for several days, and checked my e-mail for the first time, by using computers at the library of the University of Edinburgh. Although I do like cities, I also wanted to visit the highlands of northern Scotland, so I signed up on Haggis Tours‘ Jump-On-Jump-Off service, a great hostel-to-hostel shuttle service with entertaining drivers and some stops along the way. This was a great way to go, especially for someone traveling alone. I met lots of people on the (24-passenger) buses (mostly Aussies) and we would hang out together at night in the pubs (there’s not much else to do in small Scottish towns at night). I took ten days to complete the circuit, with stops in Pitlochry, Loch Ness, Kylackin (isle of Skye), Fort William, Oban, and Glasgow. Then I spent a final few relaxing days in Edinburgh before heading back to the London area with a 2-night stop in York (great Cathedral) along the way.

I detoured to the city of Reading, an hour or so outside London, to
hear a concert by one of my favorite musicians, Dar Williams, who just happened to be in the UK at the same time as I. I didn’t want to have to worry about getting back to London after the show so I booked a room in a B&B, my first non-hostel of the trip. It wasn’t bad, though I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Fawlty Towers. There was also the taxi driver who refused any money for the long ride to the B&B because all I had was Scottish money. It’s worth the same as English, but "I don’t like going to banks." Hmm…

A few days later I left the UK and flew to Venezia, Italy. I was real
worried about surviving in a country in which I didn’t know the language, but I needn’t have worried. I was able to pick up enough Italian to get by, helped by the fact that it is very similar to Spanish. I almost never had to resort to using English. It has raised my confidence level, though I expect it to be punctured when I go to Eastern Europe.

Venezia (Venice) was awesome. I’m sure that’s not news to most people, but I really hadn’t paid much attention to it in the past. I probably pictured it as similar to the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, where there are some canals and a lot more roads. I didn’t realize there are no roads at all! And me being a car-hating, public-transportation-loving kind of guy, I thought this was wonderful. Imagine a city with no car noise. Ahhh…

My first night in the city and the country I, along with an Australian farm girl I met on the bus from the airport, headed over to San Marco and started looking for a place to eat. We saw lots of touristy places that were charging £20,000 to reheat some old food in a microwave, but we vowed to keep going until we found a real place to eat. Actually, I walked in to one of those tourist places and spotted two Japanese women eating there, so I asked them in Japanese how the food was. And they ignored me. Pretended like I wasn’t even there. I don’t know what they thought, but I was a bit peeved that they would do this. After wandering for close to an hour, we happened upon a little restaurant buried away somewhere in the maze of walkways and decided to give it a try. We shared a pizza and two pasta dishes. It was wonderful and cost about the same as those microwave places. What a wonderful way to start off my adventures in Italia.

I loved just wandering among the many small alleys that make up
Venezia. On one such tiny street I peered into an open door to discover a small Internet Service Provider with a computer or two and about ten modems on the shelf. I also did a tour of Venezia’s (little remaining) Jewish community.

After a few days in Venezia, I left the carless paradise, hopping a
train for Verona, home of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and spent two nights at the youth hostel there. In my room were two obnoxious Italian football players, but it was fun trying to communicate with them. In fact, at one point I was acting as interpreter between the Italian guys and an American who was also in my room. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at the absurdity of the situation of me, someone who doesn’t speak Italian, providing interpretation between Italian and English, based only on my knowledge of a few other romance languages.

Next, it was on to Vicenza for a few hours to check out the Teatro
Olimpico and other great buildings by Palladio, and then to Padova. I
dumped my backpack at the hostel and spent the rest of the day and
evening checking out the town. Around 18:00, I decided it was time to check my e-mail and wandered over to the University of Padova and walked up and down hallways until I spotted a computer lab in the chemistry department. I was reading my e-mail for about twenty minutes when a woman asked me what the hell I was doing there. I told her, “I’m reading my e-mail.” We started talking and she was very nice and let me stay a while. When I was done there, I was lucky enough to run into a mensa (student dining hall) across the street with a really good full-course meal for only £6000 (it would have been double or triple that if they had known I wasn’t a student there). I also spoke with a PhD student seated at my table.

The next morning I saw a bit more of the town, accompanied by an
Australian woman I had first met in Verona. She said she wanted to get drunk with me on fine wine that evening, but I was on a tight schedule and needed to move on. My plane back to the U.S. was leaving from Roma in just over a week and I still had many places to go. So we parted and I headed to Bologna for one night (staying at a youth hostel way out in the boonies and eating dinner at a nearby bar/card club), and then took the train the next day to Firenze (Florence). One of my highlights there was an exhibit on Rennaisance Science. I stayed in Firenze for a few days (another wonderful city), and then took a bus to Siena.

The only hostel in Siena is out of town and I wanted to stay in the old city, so I stayed at a small pensione type place that is run by nuns. The view from my room was great; looking up at the Duomo on the hill. Siena is a nice town, and I even checked out an Irish pub there, complete with a live musician playing Beatles and other pop tunes.

Then it was on to Montepulciano, a mountaintop town. Why? Oh, I just liked the sound of it. And I was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s All Men Are Mortal at the time and it takes place in an Italian mountaintop town. It was definitely out of season, being too late for the summer crowds and too early for the winter holidaymakers, and most of the lodgings were closed. I did get a cold, non-heated room (well, I only realized this fact later) at a place called Bellavista. OK, so the vista was bella, but I can’t really say that about anything else at this pensione. Still, I’m glad I stopped there for the night. For dinner, I did my usual of ordering a few small dishes and using the free bread to really fill up my stomach. On my way out, I ran into probably the only other tourists in town, two sisters from Kansas City and a couple, so we all headed to a caffe for a while, where I discovered that their idea of a “hot chocolate” is a melted chocolate bar. I certainly wasn’t going to pass the evening at the Bellavista.

I spent the next day in Asissi and was planning to spend the night
there, but I was getting a bit frustrated at all the time I was losing
by doing most of my traveling during the day. So I decided to hop the next express train to Roma (Rome). I arrived about 21:00 claiming the last bed at the Ostello Ottaviano, and had interesting conversations with the varied clientele. I spent the next several days exploring Roma, including a tour of some catacombs, and then with a French woman (married to an Italian) I met there and two nuns from India she was guiding around, to a local famous church.

If I could have, I would have extended the trip and headed into southern Italia, but I had agreed to meet my family in New York City
for Thanksgiving, and my attempts to weasel out of it had failed. But, I shall return.