25 April 2011

The Land of Oil, Wine, and Delayed Trains

View from a monastery in Monterosso -
Italians love the Lord almost as much as
they love smoking cigarettes while riding
I've just returned from two full weeks in Italy and, although I enjoyed myself thorougly, I think that I'll be taking a long break from pizza, gelato, and Catholicism.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that I really recommend visiting urban Italy.  I thought that Rome and Florence, though full of sites, lacked the charm and culinary delights that they are known for internationally (Pisa, which thankfully I visited for just one afternoon, has roughly zero redeeming qualities).  Rome, where I spent the most time, is certainly the place for grandiose fountains, archaeological treasures, and very wide steps.  However, outside of the city's many UNESCO sites and other tourist hellholes, it looks and feels a lot like New Jersey, but with fewer Italians.  I actually prefered Genoa, a city I visited right before Christmas, perhaps because it is relatively removed from the tourism radar, perhaps because I was staying with a real-live Italian at the time.  
The rocks were no match for me in Riomaggiore
I'd say that the best thing about my trip to Rome actually had nothing to do with Italy at all.  The highlight of the trip was really practicing German and celebrating my birthday with my students and teachers from Austria.

After a jam-packed week in Rome, I destressed for four days in the Cinque Terre, an increasingly-popular-but-not-quite-yet-dominated-by-tourists slice of the Ligurian Coast with my friends Katie, Taylor, and Jenni, as well as a New Zealander named Simon.

We hiked between the five small villages that compose the Cinque Terre, relaxed on the beach, rented bicycles, sampled every different combination of gelato flavors, and religiously followed the Rick Steves guided tour of each town (whose passionately-written guide is often held responsible for the increasing prominence of tourism here).  We stayed at an atypically clean and uncharming hostel in Corniglia, the smallest of the five towns.  The village was a good place to stay because of its strategic location and the 382 steps between the town center and the train station, which helped us in the daily struggle to burn off the oily and over-priced focaccia bread that sustained us.  Leaving our village behind was a real tragedy, although it's good to be back in Austria for the tail end of my travels.
Taylor and I searching for the train station

A anecdote and fun fact about the Italian work ethic: One time I needed to wait 19 minutes (I clocked it) to buy two stamps at an Italian post office even though I was the only customer in line and there were approximately five employees behind the counter.  It's really no surprise that Italy has the world's sixth largest gov't budget for the world's twenty-third largest population.   

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