Megan’s Roman Holiday

We checked in at the Yellow Hostel and were greeted with free drink tickets for the hostel bar.  I ended up playing beer pong in the basement with the hostel staff late into the night.  An international game of beer pong, with people from every end of the world was a warm welcome to the international community in Rome.  

Beer Pong at the Yellow Hostel

I made friends with a bartender from Pennsylvania.  He gave me his life story in a nutshell.  He came to Rome while backpacking and never left.  He ended up marrying a Roman and they had 2 kids and 2 dogs.  I asked if he had learned much Italian and he laughed.  He had given up trying to become fluent in Italian and his wife knew English perfectly, so they just spoke English at home.  Everyone speaks English in Rome!  For the most part…

I woke up early and headed straight for the Colosseum.  I had a gypsy insist on helping me purchase my metro ticket.  I offered her a Euro penny but she declined… Immediately after I walked away a cop yelled at the gypsies to get away from the ticket machines.

Colosseum in the morning

The Colosseum in the morning light was gorgeous!  The sun kept peaking through the columns in different angles and it looked so peaceful and serene.  In the morning light I could see a sort of light mist or smog in the air.  I’m leaning towards it being smog, but who knows.

I decided to buy a ticket to go into the Colosseum, because then you can also go into the Roman Forum across the street.  The size and deteriorated condition of the Colosseum are very apparent as you walk around.  But also, as I stood at the end of the oval, looking down into the rooms that would be below the sandy fighting area, I had tears come to my eyes.  I stood there imaging the hundreds of people, tigers, bears, and other creatures that had been forced to fight for their lives here. 

How many living creatures died in the sandy center stage of this arena?  We will never know.
There are a bunch of black cats living at the Colosseum.
I walked over to the Roman Forum and tried to figure out the cryptic map they provide you with when you walk in.  It’s useless…  So I just started walking. 
Turns out the Roman Forum is very big!  I covered a third of it before I gave up and exited to go search out some lunch and take a siesta. 
Arena inside the Roman Forum
The Pines of Rome with the Colosseum in the distance.
After my siesta, I got back on the metro and went up to the Trevi Fountain.  I was very excited to see this fountain.  It looks so beautiful in all the pictures I’d seen.  I walked around a corner and heard the sound of a lot of people talking… Turns out Trevi Fountain is a hot spot!
Square near metro stop for Trevi Fountain
Trattoria on my way to Trevi.  Scooter parking only!
It was so crowded.  I tried to get up close and take pictures without anyone’s head in my way.  I had to fight the crowd to the front…  What a circus?!
Me and the Trevi Fountain
I quickly headed on my way to the Pantheon.  This building is very old and the dome is bigger than the one at the Vatican.  The outside of the building looks very dirty and worn out with little dents and holes in the stone. 
Pantheon
But the inside is beautiful, with a big hole in the center of the dome to let light in.  It also lets water in, so there are cones around the center of the floor where there are little holes in the marble to let the water drain. 
 
Birds flying past the hole in the dome of the Pantheon
I rested on the front steps of the Pantheon and stared at one of the many Egyptian obelisks in Rome.  I thought about Cleopatra for a while and then headed off to the Piazza Navona.
The Piazza Navona is a very large square… but it’s actually shaped like a rectangle.  There was a sort of Christmas festival setup with retail stalls everywhere.  Off to one side is a bright carasel, busy with happy children.  In the center is a beautiful fountain with another obelisk in the center.  There’s a lot to do and see at this square, but I was running out of steam and the sun was setting.
Piazza Navona
I headed down a busy main street towards the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.  This monument is quite impressive in size and at night they have it lit up beautifully.  I walked around taking pictures, but feeling the energy drain from my legs.
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
So I continued towards the Colisseum which was the closest metro stop at that point.  Of course, I had to take some night shots of the Colisseum and then I headed back to the hostel. 
Roman ruins
Colosseum and the moon
I ran into Nicole at the hostel bar.  It was almost dinner time and she wanted to go eat somewhere later.  I explained that my legs were jelly and I needed to rest.  I passed out in my top bunk for two hours.  I finally threw myself out of bed, but I felt like crap.
So luckily Nicole agreed that we could just go to the restaurant across the street where my beer pong partner from the night before worked.  We got him as our waiter and we were able to get to know him a bit better.  He was from the Ukraine, but had lived in Rome with his parents most of his life.  At the moment he was studying at a university in Rome and working and partying all at the same time. 
After dinner, Nicole headed out to find nightlife in Rome and I headed back to my bunk to pass out.  Nicole ended up getting her dance on and I got a very deserved good night sleep in preparation for our journey to France the next day. 

Pit-stop in Florence, Italy


                After our late night in Venice, Nicole and I woke up and scadoodled over to the train station to check out tickets for Rome.  Nicole had an idea of going to Florence on the way to Rome, just to walk around a bit.  People had told both of us not to skip Florence, but it didn’t really work into our fast paced agenda. 
Lots of  ties!
                We figured out that we could stop in Florence for two hours and hop back on a train to Rome and not extra expense than going directly.  So we purchased our tickets, and went back to the hostel to pull our stuff together.  We had one last Venetian pasta meal at a café on our way back to the train station and we were off across the Italian countryside again via train.
                The train was cutting through beautiful foggy valleys the whole way to Florence.  Often the fields were full of rows of grapes.  It was a beautiful ride.  We had to switch onto a local train to get to the central train station for Florence, where we checked our backpacks at the station.
                It was dark out by the time we got to Florence and we really weren’t sure where to go.  But the first thing we saw when we walked out of the station was a cathedral.  It was huge and right there in front of us.  We walked around the first big brown cathedral and came upon a big white marble cathedral.  So we walked around that one as well. 
Pretty Bright Cathedral
                All along the streets in Florence there are tons of street vendors selling leather goods, clothing, and scarves.  Behind the street vendors are stores selling the same items, one after another.  The sales men are using broken English lines to get our attention.  “You look like you need new jacket.” 
                “Really?  No thanks…” Rolling my eyes, I keep walking.
Fancy Coffee & Candy Shop
                Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the train station.  I was turned around, but luckily a shop keeper sent us in the right direction.  We hopped onto our empty cheap night train to Rome and started the second leg of our journey to Rome. 
                The cheap night train was very empty and very quiet.  At one point it stopped at a station and didn’t move for at least twenty minutes.  I began to think we were on the wrong train and at the end of the line in a random town… but then the train lurched silently forward all of a sudden… Sigh…

A Very Full Day in Venice, Part 2: Bar Crawling

I woke up from my nap to see my Canadian roommate adjusting things in his pack.  I gruffly asked, with a sleepy voice, how was the church?
 
He went on to explain that the view from the tower at the church was amazing… and I expressed my regret for missing it, but really I wouldn’t have made it up the stairs. This wouldn’t be the first day on this trip that I overexerted myself.
The hostel we were staying in had a community dinner for 4 euros, but it didn’t start until late, European dinner time, 8pm or so.  We had 2 hours to kill, so I asked if he wanted to grab a drink.  We headed out into the alleys of Venice with no particular destination in mind.
We turned a corner and ran into my friend Nicole from the US crossing the bridge.  Nicole was travelling with me for the first week of my trip, but we had different styles of touring so we spent our days apart.
Nicole! I screamed, laughing at how excited I was to run into someone I knew in Venice.
She joined our hunt for a drink and we found a popular bar, with my favorite, Venetian Spritzers.  We threw back a couple drinks while sitting at a table.  We were talking in English in a room full of Italian conversation.  A girl walked by with a handful of drinks, turned her head, and said, “Americans? That’s odd.”  Then she just walked away.
I thought it was a bit rude the way she said it, so I mumbled to my friends, “You’re odd..”
But later she stopped by and we talked for a minute, she was a bit too eager to brag about her journey of couch surfing through all of Europe.  She told me she hated Croatia and loved Bosnia.  I began to get annoyed with her, but luckily her Italian host decided it was time to go.
We headed back to our family dinner at the hostel.  It was a yummy creamy pasta with veggies and olives mixed in.  They made it vegetarian just for me!
During dinner, there is all the red wine you can drink!  So we all got toasted and made new friends with a girl from Mexico and a guy from Columbia (both solo travelers).  Nicole wanted to play pool in Venice, so we talked to the hostel manager and he sent us off towards the train station in search of a billiards hall.
We walked down a main street past the train station in very jolly moods from the wine.  The wine was keeping the bite of the cold night air subdued.  As we were walking, Jose was going on and on about how much gelato he had eaten that day.  Then, as we passed a gelato stand, he made me get some with him, because I had told him I hadn’t had any in Italy yet.
It was cold out, but I ate the gelato and I had to admit I enjoyed it.

 

Me and Veronica from Mexico with the Italian bartender.
We kept walking and Nicole started asking people in broken Italian where the billiards hall was.  She used the hand motion of shooting a pool stick to help.  One person made us turn around and told us we passed it.  Another person said there were no billiards clubs… Eventually we went into a tiny little bar to have a drink and warm up.  The bartender was very friendly and posed in a picture with us.  But still no billiards.
He sent us towards the Rialto Bridge, in search of at least some lively night life.  We found our way to the fish market by the bridge and low and behold there were drunk people singing and dancing in front of a little open bar on a plaza.  The bar looked like a walk-up snack bar, but  they served alcohol and played loud music.  They had free peanuts scattered on top of barrels for customers to pick at.  The stone sidewalk was covered in shells.

 

Bar Crawl Group on Rialto Bridge
We enjoyed our new-found hot spot and proceeded to have a few more drinks.  We met people from France and Italy that spoke English.  I definitely have a bunch of blurry pictures from this bar with all the new friends.

 

Very nice couple from France!
A very large, but cute black dog wandered up to us, begging for peanuts.  He was so cute!  We gave him a couple.  There was no sign of his owner, but hey it’s Venice.  Dogs do whatever they want here.
After hanging there for a while, I popped my head around a corner and discovered another bar, with even more people hanging out all over the sidewalk.  So I yelled at my group from the hostel and we headed over.  This bar was crowded with Venetian university students.  Luckily, they all knew English well enough from school.
We finally decided it was time to go when a young drunk college kid started talking about Castro and Cuba and honestly he lost me…  I wasn’t sure what he was saying, but he wanted me to pass a message to Obama.  I explained I wasn’t on speaking terms with the President and we decided to leave.

Please give me a peanut!





It was a brisk walk through the quiet alleys of Venice on the way back.  It truly is a beautiful city to walk around at night.  Also, it seems quite safe to do so.  We snuck into the hostel and all slipped quietly into our beds.

A Very Full Day in Venice, Part 1

I woke up to the noise of the water bus shifting gears outside my window.  My bed was gently shaking from the loud boat activity outside.  I popped out of bed and ran to the window to take in my view again.  Ahhh, Venice!
 
Please note the pretty graffiti flower.

I met two of my roommates while eating a quick brekky and we decided to find our way to St. Mark’s together.  I was delighted to follow the auzzie guy with a map, while the girl from Quebec, Eve and I took pictures as we walked down the sunny yet crisp Venetian alleyways. 

 
We were following signs for the Rialto at first and it turned into a bit of a game to find the signs and the correct direction to take at every turn.  Sometimes the sign is a plaque high up on the wall of a building and sometimes the word Rialto is spray-painted on the ground with an arrow.  It’s not uncommon for scaffolding to be covering up the sign you’re looking for, as a lot of these ancient buildings are being renovated. 
 
We turned a corner into a small square and I smelled fish.  Lots and lots of fish!  We had arrived at the fish market, which is right next to the Rialto Bridge.  We wandered through the fish market and then the veggie market, which are right on the Grand Canal. 
 
Mercado de Pescado

As we walked by a fishing boat, a fisherman threw out a box of small fish on the sidewalk and the seagulls came from every direction for a feeding frenzy!  Those fish were gone in 60 seconds.  The fisherman was entertained that my new friend and I were taking pictures of the scene, so he threw out another box of fish for our entertainment.   We smiled and waved to him and headed up and over the famous Rialto Bridge.

 
The bridge is not very pretty because of the stores built on the middle of it.  The bridge is iconic and a landmark in the city, but it’s not my favorite bridge.  It provides a nice view of the canal, and it’s one of the only ways to cross the Grand Canal when you’re in that section of Venice, so I guess it’s important, but ugly just the same.
Me on top of the Rialto Bridge

 

We began our hunt for S. Marco signs after the bridge and found ourselves in the sunny Piazza San Marco in no time.  We were in awe of the size of the square and the buildings around the square compared to everything we had just walked past in the rest of the city.  Venice is not a city for the claustrophobic, but Piazza San Marco can provide relief from the small alleys and squares in the rest of the city.
 
Venetian Masks – for masquerading.

Eve finished up her sandwich before we could go into St. Mark’s basilica.  As a joke she threw bread crumbs at our feet so the pigeons would jump at us!  Very funny!

 
At this point, there is a gap in my camera pictures, because inside the basilica you are not allowed to take pictures, which we respected.  It’s a very beautiful church with beautifully patterned marble on the wall, which almost had a psychedelic appearance.   The floors are extremely worn out marble mosaic, with tiles sinking in.  In fact, the floor is very uneven, so keep your eye on where you’re going.  This is good advice if you’re as clumsy as me…

 

Next stop was the Doge’s Palace.  I skipped paying to go up the Campanile tower and walked towards the beautiful opening of the piazza looking out on the beautiful Venetian Lagoon.  It was a beautiful sight with blue skies and lots of sunshine.  Across the lagoon you can see St. Maria’s Basilica to the right and the Abbazia Benedettina church off to the left on Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore.  There are usually lots of gondolas lined up here to take you around under the Bridge of Sighs, which is a covered bridge that takes you from the Doge’s Palace to the prison, which I was on my way to see.
 
I walked in and paid to get into the Doge’s Palace.  I decided this was my one touristy thing for the day that I would pay for.  Coming from Washington, DC where almost everything touristy is free, I was having trouble adjusting to all the fees in Europe to see the sites. 
 
I won’t walk through the palace step by step, because it’s huge, it’s beautiful, and you have to see it for yourself.  Also, it would be boring to hear me talk about it all, but I’ll tell you about my two favorite rooms.
 
Me and the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile Tower.

First, was a room with maps of the world all over the walls and two gigantic 5 foot globes in the middle.  I stood and stared at these centuries old maps of the world and took note of the ancient interpretations of the shapes of the continents and the former designations and territorial lines for the Americas.  I would love to have copies of some of the maps in this room.  Not to mention, a 5 foot leather hand painted globe of the ancient world?  How cool is that?

 
Second favorite room, was the The Sala del Maggior Consiglio, which is a very large hall, with beautiful paintings on every wall and the ceiling.  It’s just gorgeous and you can imagine it full of Venetians doing important things back in the day.  For a 360 degree view of the room, try this link:
 
After going through the entire Doge’s Palace and prison, I was tired, but I didn’t feel like stopping and resting.  I wanted to see the Santa Maria basilica, partially because it’s free and also because it’s on a peninsula with a beautiful view of the water on all sides.  So I grabbed a spinach calzone with sesames on top and ate it while I walked all the way to the bridge I needed to cross to the other side of the canal.
Saint Maria’s Basilica

 

I walked by Peggy Guggenheim’s museum and then found myself at the basilica on the peninsula.  I was exhausted!  I looked at my map and realized that I couldn’t have walked any further away from my hostel at this point.  So I tried to pick the most efficient route back to my hostel, but in Venice there is no most efficient route, unless you have a boat.  I guess I could have sprung for a 10 euro boat bus ride, but I wasn’t sure which boat to get on… I found the map of the boat bus system to be very confusing.
 
A girl at my hostel had told me she doesn’t even pay for the bus, because no one checks your ticket.  She just hops off and on, but I didn’t even know which boat to hop on and didn’t want to end up in Morano or something.  So I hoofed it back towards my hostel.  As I passed through a churchyard I ran into a Canadian dude from my hostel.
 
Boy with a Frog, at the tip of the peninsula.

I smiled and said hello and he asked what I was doing.  I explained that my legs were turning to jello and I needed to find the hostel and rest.  He walked with me a bit of the way, helping me with his map, but we split up when he go near a church he wanted to see.  He tried to convince me to come in and go up the tower for the best view of Venice, but I couldn’t muster the energy to consider it.  I trudged on towards my hostel and eventually collapsed on my bed.

 
Me and the view of Doge’s Palace from Saint Maria’s
It was late afternoon and I knew I needed to rest for some Venetian bar hopping I wanted to do that night.  So I rested with little thoughts of Venetian spritzers in my head.  Olives, Aperol… zzz…

Ciao Venezia

All of a sudden there’s water on both sides of the train.  Tiny islands here and there in the open water.  I’m only a few minutes from the last stop on the train, Venice!
 
I step out from the train station with an instant view of the Grand Canal with a beautiful arching bridge and Venetian architecture in every direction.  I inhale the fresh, crisp waterfront air as I slowly step down the sweeping steps of the train station.
 
My hostel was just over the bridge in front of the station and to the left on the Grand Canal.  Of course, like all routes in Venice, you have to walk a twisted route to get there.  The Grand Canal does not have a sidewalk along its sides the whole way…. only on sections, so you have to walk away and zig zag back to the canal sometimes… But it’s kind of charming for that reason.
 
I found my hostel and was super excited when I saw the view from my dorm room, overlooking the Grand Canal!  I had the perfect view of a three way canal intersection that was constantly bustling with boat traffic.  Directly across at the canal corner was a church, with a statue of the Virgin facing towards the water, for the boat traffic to admire. 
 
View from my room
Unfortunately, not far from my window was a water bus stop and water bus-boats make a lot of noise when they switch gears into reverse when docking.  The bus starts running at 5 AM every morning and the rumble of the boat engines would shake my bed at times.  But again, it’s part of the charm!
 
My view of canal intersection
I stowed my stuff away and headed out to explore and find food and coffee.  When I first started walking, I realized as I made one turn and then another, that I could easily get lost in this maze of ancient alley-ways.  The only landmarks are graffiti, architectural features, bridges, and flower boxes. 
 
I begin to wish I had sidewalk chalk so I could draw arrows for myself to get back home.  All I need are some bread crumbs!  I try to make my route simple, but nothings simple in Venice.
 
I discover a fairly large square with a church and a couple cafes.  It’s bustling with children playing and adults chatting over coffee and cigarettes.  There are dogs running freely playing with each other.  It strikes me that Venice is a pedestrian only city, so the dogs and children are safe to play as they please.  How pleasant to not have to worry about cars?!
 
Churchyard square – Venetian gathering place
I grab a seat at a café and enjoy my sandwich and cappuccino.  At the shop across from my table, a small dog stands in the doorway watching the world go by while its owner sits inside reading her newspaper.  Life feels simple and relaxed here.  I wished at that moment more than ever that I could speak Italian so I could get an even richer Venetian experience. 
 
After dinner, I decided I needed to try the Venetian spritz drink I’d wanted to try ever since I saw Anthony Bourdain get blitz in Venice on the Travel Channel.  I take a turn down an alley and see a crowd of smokers outside a bar… BINGO!
 
The bar has free potato chips set out as the appertivo.  I get an explanation from the bartender in mostly English about the two different spritzes I can have.  Sweet or Bitter, Aperol or Campari.  I go for the Aperol spritz first.  It’s red and spritzy, garnished with an olive and a slice of orange.  Yum!
 
Me and my bitter spritz
Next, I try the bitter spritz made with Campari.  Well the bitter spritz tastes awful!  Maybe if you like liquorice you would like it.  I held my nose and tried to gulp it down. Ugh! 
 
Of course, I got another sweet spritz to fix the flavor in my mouth.  Yum again!  Cutest thing about this bar was the spittoon on the floor by the bar for people to spit their olive pits into.  It’s genius.  I held onto my first olive pit for a minute until I saw someone else spit their pit into the brass spittoon.  How convenient?
 
After my spritzes, I decided I had accomplished enough for my first night in Venice, so I wandered back to my hostel the long way… but I found it.  Walking the streets of Venice at night is a beautiful and peaceful experience.  Even getting lost in Venice is a pleasure!
Venice at night

Milan, Not Just a Fashion Runway

When I arrived in Milan, I had no idea what to expect.  I kept seeing fashion runways in my head. Turns out, there’s more to the city than fashion.
 
               I only stayed in Milan one night, with plans to take the train to Venice first thing the next day.  I was really excited to see Venice!
 
 
               My hotel told me to take the metro to the Duomo.  The duomo is the cathedral and it was beautiful.  The cathedral faces a big square where there’s lot of people and pigeons.  It was a Saturday, so it was super crowded.  Then as you walk away from the square there are several pedestrian only roads with lots of shopping and coffee shops. 
 
 
               The coffee shops in Milan are beautiful, with an array of perfectly designed pastries and bustling espresso counters.  Luckily, I walked into one where a waiter spoke English.  The waiter was the head waiter and he was wearing a very fancy suit for just serving coffee and cookies, but hey it’s Milan!  He brought hot chocolate syrup with my cappuccino.  It tasted amazing!
 
               I wandered through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which is an immense ancient indoor mall basically.  It’s a street covered with a lovely arching glass ceiling.  I walked past Gucci and Louis Vutton and went on my way to the Sforzesco Castle.
 
               This castle is very large and looks like it’s been through some battles.  You can walk freely from courtyard to courtyard and you realize how big the compound is.  I can imagine a large army bustling about the courtyards in the past, but of course I have no idea what the real history is.
 
               At the back of the castle, I came upon a beautiful view of the Parco Sempione.  This park is very green with walkways going every which way.  At the far end of the park I could see the Arco Della Pace, a beautiful archway with the statue of a man in a chariot with four horses on top.  It was a beautiful view from the back of the castle, but I was hitting my maximum of walking for my feet. 
 
               I headed back to the hotel to rest and refresh.  I was hitting a wall, because I had taken the red eye from JFK to Milan and I hadn’t really gone to sleep yet.  I took a nap and got up in time to go out for a late dinner and drinks.
 
               I asked the hotel where to go and I ended up in the Navigli District.  It’s a cute strip of restaurants and bars with apperativos along a canal.  I found a crowded bar with loads of apperativos on the bar.  I bellied up to the bar and took in the atmosphere.
 
               The bartenders were amazing, shaking and dancing as they made every cocktail.  I stared for I don’t know how long as they made beautiful cocktails, with all fresh squeezed juices as their mixers.  After finishing my beer, I asked for a fancy cocktail.  The bartender laughed and asked what kind of liquor I like.  I said Vodka, but he said he was going to make me a gin cocktail.  He said by the time I finished my drink I’d be a gin fan.  I laughed and agreed to give it a shot.
 
               He mashed up some mint, squeezed some fresh citrus and I missed a couple ingredients, but next thing I knew I had a big cognac glass with a very tasty gin drink in it.  After I finished the drink, I told him that gin is good when he makes it for me.  Next, I asked for a red drink, so he made me something kind of pink and served it in a champagne flute.  It was frothy and it had a beautiful twist of lemon peel on top.  I savored it to the last drop. 
 
               Overall, I enjoyed my day in Milan a lot more than I expected.  I was very impressed with the cathedral and the nightlife I found.  But Venice was calling to me!