A week in Italy: Venice, Florence, Rome

Justine and I recently spent a week travelling around beautiful Italy; we did the classic trio, Venice, Florence and Rome. When I told my dad about this trip, he asked me: “Do you ever go to university?”  Well, Justine had holidays, but we aren’t given a mid-semester break in my course… so I opted to give myself one. A ‘mental-health-week.’ Besides, trekking around Italy eating pizza, pasta and gelato every day and drinking (good!) Italian coffee counts as ‘cultural education’, right?

To be honest it was really nice to have a little break from France; with all the striking going on, university in full swing, winter settling in, Justine and I were both feeling a little homesick. It’s like how I mentioned in my first blog post – the honeymoon period of ‘ahh it’s a real pain au chocolat!!’ was long gone and replaced instead by ‘ahhhhhh there’s an angry mob of youths coming at us and one guy has a hammer!’ (true story, we stumbled across a riot group, but I’ll save that for another day…) So in short, it was good to get away from the somewhat depressing reality of French unemployment issues and instead be a tourist around Italy for a week.

And tourists we were! Teamed with matching backpacks and Justine with her head constantly in a map, you’d think we’d stand out against all those leather-jacket-wearing-smooth-looking-Italians… uh, no. Unfortunately I didn’t really see any ‘locals’ just mooching around Venice, Florence or Rome, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes and looking all dashing as they jet off on their motorbikes. I’m sure they exist. I hope. But we were literally just two of thousands of tourists that poured into each city everyday. Its nuts! Everywhere we went we were surrounded by English speakers (lots of old couples kitted out in Sneans, and obnoxious tour groups). At all restaurants we ate in, the menu usually had an English translation. The waiters spoke English (which was often humorous… “Pretty ladies you eat for free tonight…” was one line to remember). This was handy, because we literally knew no Italian. I attempted to learn a few lines much to Justine’s amusement – as you can imagine, I just sounded stupid.

It was actually really strange for us to be travelling in a country where we couldn’t speak the language. We can speak French, so in France we get by fine – even if our French isn’t perfect, we can always make ourselves understood. And because my initial reaction is to speak French when I know someone doesn’t speak English, that’s what I ended up speaking to the Italians a lot of the time. It was a weird reflex, and I’m sure it confused a few of the waiters; two English-speaking girls replying in French to Italians. I was so happy to hear French again and be able to communicate with people normally once I got home. Not knowing a language – being unequipped with words to express yourself, or even to be polite – was one of the most frustrating feelings!

Venice

You’ve got to see it to believe it; it really is such a surreal city! I’m not sure of all the science behind it but it’s basically built on water. I mean the sea literally laps at people’s doorsteps. And because we arrived on a drizzly, overcast day, the whole city felt damp. I’m sure there is some logic to how it floats, but my brain is not very well-adapted to science so I was just in perpetual awe.

It’s quite hard to describe Venice after only spending a day there. It’s all you need to get around the city and soak up the atmosphere, but you’d need a lot more time to really get under its skin. I found myself asking questions like who lives here? It would be the strangest place to call home. The best word I can find to describe it is quirky. Every corner you turn down you find something different; a wacky mix of cute bakeries, bad-taste tourist stalls and Gucci. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…


Water right on your doorstep.. literally


Pigeon Obsession


Wacko markets


Sunset


Cheers to our first Italian meal!


Which was.. lasagne!

Florence

I think this was my favourite city! It’s hard to beat Rome, but Florence has this sass to it that’s impossible to resist… It was the centre of the Italian Renaissance, so all the buildings are bold colours or soft pastels… deep reds alongside burnt yellows… greens and corals… it’s gorgeous and the people of Florence know it. Everything was trimmed and tidy; the colourful brick almost beams with pride. It’s the sort of place that makes you want to strut down the street in Italian heels; it inspires confidence, pride, beauty, yet somehow it is not pretentious. I think this is because Florence is rightfully proud; this is the city of Michelangelo and his David! It houses some of the most famous art galleries in the world, such as the Uffizi. And at the same time, it’s nestled in the region of beautiful, sunny Tuscany. They know they’ve got it good and their not afraid to show that off to the rest of the world.

The hostel in Florence was also amazing. Nestled on the outskirts of the central city, it’s not ideal if you’re there to party, but on a Wednesday night it was bliss to be away from the hubbub of downtown and instead surrounded by trees, vineyards, mountains – all this only a 20 minute bus ride away! That’s one great thing about European cities; they are so intensely concentrated that you don’t have to drive far before they start to disperse.

I gasped and squealed and admired the hostel on arrival; we got there mid-morning, made our way up a long, winding, leafy gravel driveway and saw that the hostel was a huge, big old yellow and green Renaissance building that must have once been a huge big farmstead or something of the like. It was so picturesque – the sort of thing you see on postcards – yet here we were, able to stay in it for twenty euros a night. Poor Justine got an insight to what I’m like when surrounded by beautiful scenery… oh the excitement! Made me think twice about whether I really am a city girl…


Hanging out with some sculptures


Outside an amazing church – can’t capture it’s beauty on camera, it was simply stunning


View from our gorgeous hostel nestled away in nature


Miss you Florence! I’ll be back!

Rome

We spent four nights in Rome; so three busy days! Rome isn’t a small city; there’s a heck of a lot to see! But I think Justine and I have superpower skills, because we managed to cover pretty much all of it. We’d spend twelve hour days on our feet charging from one place to the next, so at the time everything was all pretty overwhelming – but it was awesome, and I’m so glad we didn’t waste anytime hanging around the hostel or sleeping in.

So Rome… where to even begin? It’s such a famous city! It’s literally seeping with history. Every where you look you stumble across some ancient ruin. And I’m talking ancient. But it’s funny how fast you adjust; when we first arrived we kept gaping in awe at all the old ruins, but after a day or two we were like ‘Huh, just another massively-old-probably-famous-huge-building.’

It was quite cool to see the old meeting the new. You can sit in MacDonalds across the road from the Pantheon. Churches are no longer a place of serenity but the perfect spot for photo-ops. On the Spanish Steps, men offer women roses only to demand money if someone is stupid enough to accept.

The place where I felt the most faraway from all that inner-city hustle was the Coliseum and the gardens surrounding, which – although obviously overrun with tourists and therefore tourist stalls – still feels really eerie. I think maybe it’s because I’ve seen Gladiator too many times and it’s just creepy to think of the men and animals that died within that stadium, or lived in the weird-dungeon-like-rooms below. I’m a sucker for gory history!


Coliseum!


Justine and I – Vatican City

It’s kind of hard to try and make concise judgements about a city when each day we soaked up so many new sights. My brain was working overtime just to keep up. I’m a thinker – mum would probably say I’m an over-thinker – which means it felt like with every new sight, with every new city, my brain was about ready to burst with all the new observations going on. I did send mum one ranty email – after a few wines, I confess – going on about the number of beggars you see hustling for money in the streets – and how this makes me so, so grateful for my life.

In New Zealand I never feel ‘upper class,’ but heck, in the streets of these big cities here in Europe I’m prancing around, whipping out my wallet left, right and centre to pay for meals at restaurants, a rose gold chain around my neck, brand-spanking new Italian-leather boots… to these hustlers on the street, whether they are the annoying tourist-vendors, the waiters wanting to prance on you outside every eatery or the people begging on skate-boards because they have club foot, I’m wealthy. REALLY wealthy! And I’m not just talking about money; about life as well. I have been bought up with the attitude that ‘nothing is impossible’ ‘live your dream’ ‘do what you want’ ‘do what you love.’ Do you think the girl on the skateboard with club foot ever had that choice? Maybe.

It’s easy to say, as a rich, wealthy, white person living in a world that’s dominated by rich, wealthy, white people that ‘of course she had equal opportunity! Everyone’s equal! You’ve just got to put your mind to it.’ Well there’s a small chance that might be true, but there’s a bigger chance that she’s been born into a life of poverty, disease, sadness – into a system she might never escape. I’m still working through how I feel about seeing beggars on the street, how I feel about the poverty, racism and inequalities that I see everyday that I never saw in New Zealand. I have enough to say about that for a whole other blog – something I’m slowly working up the energy to write.

But what I will say now is travelling, for me, above anything else, is always a very humbling experience. Us mobs of tourists are the lucky minority who have the money and the means to see the rest of the world, as we trample through these ancient cities dodging beggars on the footpath. It’s all thought provoking stuff. There’s a lot of nasty things going on in the world, on the one hand I’m grateful I don’t have to deal with any of it, but on the other hand it’s hard not to feel a bit guilty or ashamed of how good we’ve got it compared to what others are living through.

So when I wasn’t eating gelato, or taking copious amounts of photos, or enjoying the sun in a beautiful square, that is where my thoughts were going! But I’ll save the deep stuff for another day … I’ll instead leave you with a song from Xavier Rudd that is really ringing true with me at the moment:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gy0S82aPsLk

“So go but be kind
you have luck on your side
born into a family with food in their bellies
and a car for them to drive
People sleeping on the concrete
still smile behind their signs
So go now be happy and be free
you, you have so much time.”

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