March 20, 2013

Backpacking Europe Part IV: Italy

Part 4 of 6 of my Onsite Chronicles: Europe Edition.

  • Backpacking Europe Part I: Warsaw
  • Backpacking Europe Part II: Krakow
  • Backpacking Europe Part III: Paris
  • Backpacking Europe Part IV: Italy
  • Backpacking Europe Part V: Tromso, Norway
  • Backpacking Europe Part VI: More Warsaw 

  • Of all the countries in Europe that I was able to visit, my ultimate favorite would have to be Italy.  If there's one word that could best describe the country, it would be BEAUTIFUL. Everything in Italy is utterly beautiful: the places, the people, the food, the language, the culture, the history... even in the most gruesome tale behind an Italian landmark, you will be able to see a glimpse of beauty.  I had a blast getting lost in this country.  Twice.


    For the November 1 long weekend of 2011, I planned a trip to go backpacking across two of the most famous countries in Europe: France and Italy.  My first country to visit from Warsaw was France, where I was able to go to the various landmarks in Paris.  My transportation of choice from France to Italy was the train; when in Europe, you always take the train.

    Trenitalia: the national railway transport of Italy. 

    From the Paris Bercy Station, I took the overnight train to Italy.  Overnight trains differ from regular trains by the seating arrangements.  AFAIK, overnight trains have cabins where seats get converted to beds (couchettes for the second-class passengers and sleepers for first-class passengers).  This makes the long journey more comfortable, as you will be able to actually lie down to sleep as opposed to sitting down or reclining your seat.

    The journey from Paris to Italy took around 11 hours for me, as there were stops along the way.  My point of entry was in Florence, where I took a local train ride of a couple more hours to the first city in my itinerary, Pisa.



    I only had two days to spend going around Italy, but I absolutely would not leave out the Leaning Tower of Pisa in my list.  Pisa is really far from Rome, about 380 kilometers to the northwest if you check out Google Maps.  It's actually a small town; there's nothing else to see except the tower.  But despite the short amount of time where I had to squeeze in a long amount of distance, I was really glad that I considered going to that tower and exploring the town on my own.  Cliché as it may sound; the journey was definitely worth the sacrifice.  And I've barely even started going around Italy.

    Seriously, who wouldn't want to see this?? 

    The train ride from Florence to Pisa was an Amazing Race-esque experience.  Firenze S. M. N. was huge and foreign to me; the only people I could rely on for English assistance were the station staff and no one else.  Yes, there were a lot of tourists and some can speak English, but I would bet that they're just as lost as I was.  No matter how prepared I was, with my Eurail pass and my knowledge of train schedules, I still had to know which train goes to what station, and what would be the most efficient schedule.  I gave myself half a day to explore Pisa, which I figured was more than enough because it's just one tower... but getting there was another story.

    The One When I Was Italian Per Un Momento


    From Florence, I decided to take a train to Pisa Centrale, the main station of Pisa.  Pisa Centrale is actually one station away from the tower; the train station nearest to the tower is Pisa S. Rossore.  That was my first mistake for the day, because I was unfortunate to be travelling on the same day as the annual Comic-Con event in the nearby town of Lido.  ALL trains from Pisa Centrale to Pisa S. Rossore also go to Lido, so naturally the trains that morning were jam-packed with people going to the event.  I was literally squeezed into a cabin with people wearing costumes of vampires and anime characters, every one of us standing and pressed together.  Most of the people were in their youths, probably in their teens or in college.  Locals.  I remember them all excited for the event, talking and shouting and making these hand gestures that Italians are famous for.  Yes, Italians are a loud bunch of folks.

    Despite my predicament, I really had fun during that train ride.  I was listening to the other passengers talking, not really understanding a thing that they're saying, but just the same enthralled by the natural musicality of their language. Dear Lord, the men... They're GORGEOUS.  The long slender nose, the high cheekbones, the prominent brows, the lashes and their deep-set eyes...  imagine this: I was crowded into a cabin with a bunch of people whose likeness are of the ancient gods... at mga bata pa sila, ha.  Thinking about the experience always puts a smile to my face.  I remember staring at this particular dude, he was wearing a vampire outfit (the Dracula one with the cape, NOT the Edward one) and he had brown, chin-length hair.  He was leaning on his back against the carriage walls, looking out the window with a brooding look.  He had piercing brown eyes.  Wala lang hehe.  I think I was staring at him throughout the duration of the ride.

    When the train stopped at Pisa S. Rossore, there was around 5 minutes of waiting time, but no one in my carriage was getting off.  I asked one of the people near the door (they were kids, so they know English quite well) to open the door so I can get out, but they said that the door wouldn't budge.  Those who seem to be regulars of the Comic-Con were apologetic to me; they said that these mishaps happen every year.  Some expressed their wonder, why on earth I took the train when I should've taken the bus (of course that time I didn't know).  Some gave me tips, that maybe I can get off on the next station and just take a bus or train back to the tower.  The train began to depart the station; alas, we weren't able to get the door open.  I remember EVERYONE (including me) giving out a collective Italian "AAAAWWW!!" with hand gestures (for those who had enough space to do it), and I didn't even notice that I was doing it as well.  Thankfully, they were able to get the door open at the next station, where I managed to wiggle out (backpack and all), and even got to receive an applause-cheer-and-hoot from my Italian train buddies.  I even bowed (complete with hand twirly wave) at them... HAHA that was hilarious.  I had fun.


    After the Pisa experience, I was already a couple of hours behind schedule.  I had a 2 o'clock PM reservation for the train that goes from Florence to Venice, but I wasn't able to make it on time.  Thankfully, there are self-service ticket machines in Firenze S. M. N. where you can rebook your ticket without additional charge.  I got rescheduled to a departure time that was around an hour later than my original schedule.  The travel time from Florence to Venice took around three hours.

    Venice ALWAYS reminds me of Tomb Raider 2. 

    Europe in autumn meant shorter daylight hours, so when I got to Venice the sun was almost setting.  This means that I had to hurry and get around as quick as I can so I can take decent images of the place.

    My itinerary of Venice. Goal: To visit all the major bridges. 

    Scalzi Bridge

    As you see in the map above, most of Venice is built around the Grand Canal, with lots of little canals going through the city.  This is why the major mode of transportation is by water, followed by foot or by scooter (that's why Italians have the Vespa).  Scalzi Bridge (point B in the map) is the major bridge nearest the Venezia Santa Lucia station.

    IMG_8764 IMG_8767
    Left: Scalzi Bridge.  There are a LOT of bridges in Venice.
    Right: There are a LOT of Gondola services as well.

    Rialto Bridge

    Of all the major bridges in Venice, I think the Rialto Bridge (point C in the map) is the most famous.  This is the largest bridge as well.  To get to this bridge, I had to cross the island to the other side.  One way is to traverse the Grand Canal via gondola, but I was on a budget that time and didn't want to spend extra Euros on a gondola ride when I can just walk.  Plus, I would look really pathetic riding a gondola all alone.

    IMG_8776 IMG_8782
    Left: Rialto Bridge.
    Right: View from the top of the bridge.  It was getting dark really fast that time

    Basilica di San Marco

    At the south part of Venice stands a famous cathedral, Saint Mark's Basilica (point D in the map).  Churches in Italy are built to grandeur, and this church is of no exception.  Even as the night settles, the white facade of the church stands out amidst the crowd of tourists clamoring to take pictures of it.

    During that time, I was already hurrying up a bit because I wasn't too keen about going around a strange city in the dark.  One thing I wasn't too fond of in Italy is the streets; they're too narrow and crowded, and the fact that most of the eskinitas are towered over by the tall houses doesn't help me with my claustrophobia.  But I have to say, even in small pathways like the ones in Venice, the brand shops lined up across the street are impressive.

    IMG_8796 IMG_8805
    Left: To the left is a HUGE plaza that would've looked better in pictures during daylight.
    Right: Italian local brands: Versace, Prada, Armani, Gucci. To name a few.

    Accademia Bridge

    By the time I was on my last major bridge, it was getting REALLY dark already.  I think the time was around 7 o'clock in the evening.  After a few futile attempts to take a decent picture of the bridge, I decided that it was time to head back to the station and spend the rest of my waiting time there.   Accademia Bridge (point E in the map) is still in the south side of Venice, and the station is on the north.  I had a hard time finding a way back.

    Venice is not a fun place to get lost in, I tell you.  Most of the streets look the same, and you can't really cut across the paths because chances are, you'll end up blocked by a canal with the bridge being on the far side of the street.  I took a LOT of wrong turns, and there were times when I ended up right back at the Accademia Bridge.  After a few frustrating turns (thank God of Google Maps Mobile), I was able to find my way back to the Scalzi Bridge and back to the station.

    IMG_8813 IMG_8838
    Left: Accademia Bridge is the oldest major bridge in Venice.
    Right: Another impressive church, Church of St. Mary of the Salutation

    Another nice thing about Italy is that the language isn't as difficult, compared to the language of other countries such as Poland or France.  Maybe it's because most of the English words originated in Latin or pwede rin because Spanish and Latin share similar words.  Since Filipino is somewhat a bastardized form of Spanish, it followed that I was able to adapt to the Italian language more quickly to some degree.  I remember buying a souvenir magnet from one of the stalls in Venice, and that time I wanted to ask if there were any other designs similar to the one I was holding.  The merchant didn't understand me at first, as I was asking in English.  Then, as if by inspiration, I muttered disegno because I was thinking about the word "design" but in Filipino.  Turns out, the word was Italian as well, so the merchant understood me.  She replied something about no, solo disegno and I understood that the design I was holding was the only one.  That was a nice moment for me, being able to communicate despite the language barrier.

    Vatican City

    Vatican City is an independent city state, set inside Rome, and is also the smallest country in the world.  I don't fully understand the politics between Vatican City and Italy, and how a separate country works inside another country.  All I know is that I can go to Vatican City with my Schengen Visa, and that's all I needed to know.

    Vatican City is around 544 kilometers southwest of Venice; this means I took another overnight train to get there.  Another good thing about overnight trains is that instead of spending money on a night's stay in a hotel, you can just sleep during the travel.  For this trip, I was booked to the InterCity Night train, where the second-class passengers get seats instead of couchettes.  This meant that I was seated for the duration of the travel.  I think, I still was able to sleep decently, though.

    Rome to the Vatican City

    The overnight train took me to Roma Termini, the central station in Rome.  There are actually only two lines of Metro in Rome, one going towards the west (Metro B) and another one going towards the south (Metro A).  Taking the Metro from Rome Termini, you would have to take the Metro B line and alight at the Ciprio Station.  From there, it would only take a short walk to follow the signs to the walls of the Vatican City.

    Vatican Museum

    Most of the city is closed off to the public, this being the residence and office of the Pope and other important people of the Roman Catholic Church.  So actually, the only tourist-y thing to do in the Vatican City is to visit the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter's Basilica, and walk around Saint Peter's Square.

    The challenge in getting into the Vatican Museum is that there are only a limited number of slots per day.  This means that you have to compete with the tourist groups, the devotees, those doing a pilgrimage, and the other solo tourists for a slot.  Mind you, for a place as famous as the Vatican City, expect that there are a LOT of people wanting to go in, especially during the holiday.

    What I did is that I purchased my ticket online (15 EU + 4 EU online reservation fee), and got the earliest possible slot of the day (9 o'clock AM).  I guess, it was another good thing that my overnight journey coincided with the adjustment of the time zone due to DST.  That way, I got to the museum entrance an hour earlier than expected.

    Entrance to the Vatican Museum. 

    The Vatican Museum has a HUGE collection of art and artifacts, dating from the years way before Christ.  The museum starts off​ as an art gallery, showcasing paintings and sculptures of famous artists like Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo (...wait did I just do a roll call of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles??) then goes further back in time to show the sculptures of the different Roman emperors of ancient times.  At the end of the museum is the Sistine Chapel, with its fresco painted ceilings restored in all its glory.  Truly a breathtaking sight.

    IMG_8853 IMG_8855
    Left: Model layout of the Vatican City.  This is the view seen from Rome.
    Right:  The spiral staircase that exits the Vatican Museum.

    You have to follow a certain path within the Vatican Museum; this means that you have to go through the other exhibits before seeing the Sistine Chapel.  From the Sistine Chapel, you would then have to go back more or less the same way you came from, in order to get to the spiral staircase that exits the museum.  However, there are a few tips to make the viewing a bit shorter:
    • From the ticket entrance, go to the restroom before entering the actual museum.  There is a gift shop nearby, and beside it is the spiral staircase.  You can take a picture of it beforehand, so you can exit the *other* way without losing a photo opportunity.
    • Before entering the museum (entrance to the left of the courtyard), consider going to the Pinacoteca art gallery (entrance to the right of the courtyard).  This is where you can find impressive art works by famous Italian painters.
    • Guards are lax in the morning, so you can easily "steal" some shots when in the Sistine Chapel.  Nippon TV funded the cleaning and restoration of the chapel, so the copyright belongs to them.  Guards are more forgiving in the earlier hours, where tourists aren't that many, so ninja shots of the ceiling are easier taken at these times.
    • Exit on the right, to get to the St. Peter's Basilica from the Sistine Chapel.  This is a bit tricky, since this exit is usually for group tours.  But this exit saves a lot of time compared to going back to where you came from, so if you are in a hurry, try to exit at this door.
    One of the viewing rooms in the Pinacoteca wing, featuring Raphael's last painting: The Transfiguration of Christ. 

    Left: Samples of fresco paintings, probably used in churches before.
    Right: A close up of Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ.  See that attention to detail. Wow.

    IMG_8883 IMG_8948 IMG_9006
    Left: Rafael's Transfiguration.
    Middle: One of the marble sculptures from the ancient Roman period.
    Right: Hallway with painted ceiling.  No, this isn't the Sistine Chapel.  Not yet.

    I also enjoyed the museum's section for ancient Rome.  Since watching the Starz' series Spartacus, I've always wondered how it is to actually live during that time.  Was it that violent?  Were the people that vulgar?  Now that I've seen some of the relics from that time, I can somehow say that I now have a personal connection to ancient Rome and all its wonders.

    IMG_8940 IMG_8970
    Left:  This area holds the busts of Roman officials and other important people during the ancient times.
    Right: I'm really impressed with how they were able to master the human form.

    Sistine Chapel

    This is, hands down, my favorite part of my backpacking trip in Italy.  The chapel itself is small; it really is only the size of a small town chapel.  But the paintings!  The paintings will blow your mind.  The frescoes on the wall and on the ceiling... AND when you are able to finally see THE iconic frescoes of Michelangelo: the Creation, the Downfall of Adam and Eve, and the Last Judgement... you'd feel as if you've seen everything.  I could stare at that ceiling for a whole day.

    IMG_9064 IMG_9067
    Such splendor cannot be justified by pictures alone. 

    Saint Peter's Square

    I wasn't able to view inside Saint Peter's Basilica, because there was already a long line of people waiting to get into the basilica by the time I got out of the Vatican Museum.  Saint Peter's Square actually reminded me of a scene from Angels & Demons, but nothing as sinister.  That place is HUGE, yet filled to the brim with tourists.

    I can't imagine how some people are able to get a tourist-free shot of the square. 


    My itinerary of Rome.  Goal: to see all the landmarks in a span of 4 hours. 

    It was almost noon when I got out of the Vatican City and into Rome.  The train back to Paris leaves at around 7 o'clock in the evening, and I still have a lot of ground to cover.  Rome is a bit similar to Venice in such a way that there aren't a lot of roads wide enough for vehicular transportation, but the city area is a lot bigger.  A LOT bigger.  So the pressure was on for me to see as many landmarks that I can, without missing the overnight train back to Paris.  And thus, another leg of the Amazing Race begins.

    Getting Around Rome

    Similar to Paris, there are day passes that tourists can buy to have unlimited travel via Metro, bus, tram or trains within the city.  I got the B. I. G. ticket, which costs 4 EU for one day unlimited travel.  These tickets can be bought at self-service ticket machines in the Metro stations, or in major bus stops.  I also used this ticket when I took the Metro from Rome to the Vatican City.


    The good thing about the Metro--not just in Rome, but in other countries as well--is that most of the stops are conveniently placed near a landmark.  My initial plan was to do some hardcore walking to visit the different landmarks, but I soon discovered that they aren't really that close to each other.  Since I have a transportation day pass, I shouldn't worry about overspending on commuting.  So eventually, I adjusted my itinerary so that instead of choosing the most efficient walking path, I took the most efficient commuting path.

    Fortunately for me, I was able to go to all the landmarks that I feel were most significant:

    Tiber River, which I had to cross to get to the city center.  Europe is full of scenic rivers and bridges.

    Piazza Navona, one of the plazas in Rome with beautiful fountains.

    La Bocca della Veritas.  You might remember this from Audrey Hepburn's A Roman Holiday.

    This, I think, is part of the ruins of the Forum. What's cool about Rome is that the modern city was built on top of the ancient city. 

    Colosseo.  An iconic landmark of ancient Rome.

    Aqueduct Park, on the outskirts of the city center. 

    Most of the landmarks I went to were just within the city center. The only landmark that was a bit far was the Aqueduct Park. While most landmarks were situated near Metro B stations, the Aqueduct Park was situated at the Metro A line, at the Giulio Agricola Station. The ruins were actually hidden from plain sight; you really have to do some research in order to know which way to go. It was a long trek, but most definitely worth it.

    Piazza Republica.  I think this area looks better at night.

    IMG_9141 IMG_9143
    Fontana di Trevi.  This landmark was teeming with tourists; it's hard to get a decent shot.

    The Pantheon.  I don't know what exactly is the purpose of this building, but it sure looks ancient Roman to me. 

    And just like that, I had to go back to Paris to catch my flight back to Warsaw... well, there's still a story in there, but I'll save it for next time.


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