Monday, June 27, 2011

Italia: The Motherland

           As we walked down the RyanAir stairs and onto the runway, we were hit by a gust of hot, sticky, humid air…and I’ve never felt better. It suddenly occurred to me that it was summer and I was so used to being in muggy, rainy weather in France, England or Germany that I forgot what real, sunny summers are like. I was more than thankful to be in my homeland, Italia. We got on the train and headed towards what I knew would be one of the most gorgeous sights yet, Cinque Terre.
            We arrived in the first of the five cities, Riomaggiore, where we had booked our hostel. Little did we know our room would be on top of 240 steep stairs up a 90-degree angled cliff. We carried (lazily dragged) our suitcases up and discussed the plan for the rest of the day. We had wanted to do the Cinque Terre hike the next day, but we found out we had to check out at 10am and we’d have no where to store our luggage. We changed into “athletic gear” which accidently turned out to be matching twin outfits for the 4 of us girls and got on our way. I haven’t mentioned the fiasco that happened the night before but basically we had to take a train at 11pm in order to get to our 9am flight…but we arrived a tad early at 1am and found we had to take a taxi to the airport at 6am only to find that it was not even open. All in all we were exhausted by the time we got to our real hostel, but we knew the hike would be worth it.
            We made our way through the narrow paths along the cliffs from Riomaggiore, to BLANK, to Corniglia where we had to take the train because a landslide caused the path to be blocked off the hikers. From Vernazza we went through the toughest and longest hike to Monterosso. A total of 4 hours got us to our destination, where I was so sweaty all I wanted to do was skinny dip into the water…but there were people eating at beachside restaurants and I knew that wouldn’t fly. The people eating in front of us also reminded us how we were close to starving, so we made our way off the beach and into town to look for a cheap restaurant. We found an outdoor Italian patio that had a tourist discount of 2 plates, salad, water, a glass of wine and coffee for 18 euro. When most of the pasta dishes were already 16 euros we decided to go for it. I ordered gnocchi with pesto (because I read earlier that pesto originated in Cinque Terre) and what I thought was scallops with lemon juice (lemons are also grown in the hills of CT) scallopini. Little did we Americans know, scallopini in Italy (also translated onto the English menu as SCALLOPS) was NOT in fact scallops like the ones from the sea. Instead, I was served a big road-kill looking meat slab covered in a pasty yellow sauce. Mmmm, all dreams of fresh seafood killed in a 3 second glance at my plate. All complaints aside, however, my gnocchi was DA BOMB- freshly made little pasta dumplings in a deliciously light, green pesto.
            The next day we decided we’d spend our time at our little rocky beach at Riomaggiore. We got a pizza at the corner pizzeria with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and arugula, and I’m pretty sure they drizzled fresh olive oil on top. NEVER BEEN BETTER. I think I had a total of 3 slices in 3 minutes. Then, as the beached whale that I now looked like, I hobbled my way over to my homeland on the beach. There Italians turned and pointed “Looka Mama, itsa biga beluga!” Just kidding. But if it were true I’d simply respond that the pizza was still completely worth looking this way. One thing my parents will never have to worry about- anorexia J.
            After our short time at the beach we had to take the train back to Pisa and then over to Florence, where we were vacationing another 2 nights. Unfortunately for me, as soon as we got there we discovered that the cast of Jersey Shore had left just 6 days earlier. My dreams of fame were shattered on the spot. I picked up my bags and headed to the train station; I was going back to home to Germany. SIKE- I’m not that obsessed. But the thought of telling my dad that did cross my mind, just to see his Italian, jersey-shore-despising, easily-over reactive response. Now THAT would’ve been a blog post in itself.
            Anyway, we found our hostel and lucky for us fit 6 people in a 5 bed hostel room, lowering our extremely expensive costs from 35 euros for 2 nights down to a whopping 30 euros including towels! Bongiorno, bargains. The place was actually really clean too and in a perfect location near the Duomo. Once we put our luggage down (including the 70 pound suitcase and 30 pound backpack Will brought) we went off to explore Firenze! We immediately found a big market that had everything from hand-painted pottery to hand-sewn leather. Next we made our way over to the Duomo. On our way home we found a cute little restaurant with decent prices listed on the door so we decided to mangia! The boys got bruschetta with a really tasty homemade spicy sausage and mozzarella on top, while Char and I split a smoked duck salad with our favorite, a glass of Montepulciano! This one was a bit more tannic than the last we had in France, but it satisfied our craving fine.
            The next day we slept in a bit (long night) and when we finally did wake up, we walked around the corner from our hostel and to our surprise found an American diner! Now usually I’m the one saying we need to eat the original food from the country we are in, but I haven’t had eggs in months and the first thing I saw was Bacon, Egg and Cheese on a Bagel of your choice for 2 euros. The heavens opened up and shined a light onto the everything bagel in the deli case, and I seized with excitement. Finally, I would have a real breakfast. I didn’t take a picture or anything because it really wasn’t that special but at this point you could’ve given me roadkill, egg and cheese on a bagel and I would’ve inhaled it. It’s the little things in life.
            We made our way over to the Ponte Vecchio where the spending began. One little painting of the city turned into 2, to 3, to “oh I need this one, it has flowers on it” to “shoot I should’ve bought this one instead of the other one” to “I need to have that painting and I won’t leave until I get it”. The last one took about 20 minutes but I haggled the guy from 50 euros to a “student discount” of 25. TAKE THAT. It’s probably my favorite painting I’ve ever bought…but then again I don’t think I’ve bought many real paintings. Anyway, we ended up talking to this artist for so long that we got to know him. Alfredo studied art in Prague and Milan, dated a girl from Virginia (that’s how he knew where we were from), and told us a restaurant where we could be treated VIP style like the locals. He said to go in, tell them Alfredo sent us, and that we wanted to be seated in the “2nd sala”. When we got there, we did just that. I felt like I was in the part of Goodfellas where Henry takes his girlfriend through the back of the kitchen to get to the restaurant (looove that movie). Once we got seated, we were literally treated like VIP. Instead of normally waiting 10 minutes just to be asked what we want to drink (because we look and act like stupid Americans) we were immediately greeted by an Italian woman: “OK so what do you want!?” We looked at her blankly and asked, “What can we have?” Looking back on it, it was actually really awkward and funny. She listed the pasta plates we could have and I ordered the vegetable sauce with spaghetti. When it came out, I asked for red pepper flakes, was given some type of pepperoncini sauce, and blindly dumped it onto the pasta. I made it so hot I was blowing my nose at dinner. The vegetable sauce ended up being a mixture of cooked cauliflower, tomato sauce, garlic and peppers and although I’m used to eating cauliflower and garlic just in olive oil, the tomato sauce was heavenly. The best part was that the meal had just begun. The waitress came back to take our plates and replaced them with plates of soppresata, parmigiano and bruschetta that was so good I had to ignore the fact that I was too full to breathe already. Walking around the Duomo the next day we ran into Alfredo and we praised him for sending us there. The entire dinner came to 10 euros each and was one of my most memorable meals on this trip.
            In the words of Alfredo, “Have a Good Life! Chao!”

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