Spring Break: Nice to Sorrento

24 Jul

Ok, I know this happened like a million years ago (well, about 13 weeks ago), but I need to finish recounting my trans-European adventures.

The big “detour” in my Spring Break was our side-trip to the French Riviera, where we met up with LB, our high school French teacher, and the Newfound kids who were doing the same trip that we had done 5 years prior.

The trains along the coast from Cinque Terre towards France were quite slow and had to make stops at pretty much every station. Fortunately, at some point along the Italian coast, we finally emerged out of the clouds and rain that had dominated the previous two days. We changed trains in Genova, where our brief attempt to see some of the city led us only to a statue of Christopher Columbus.

It was a relief when we got to Ventimiglia and boarded an SNCF train. Madeline was particularly excited to hear French instead of Italian, but we also realized how much nicer French trains are than, well, pretty much any other trains in the world. As the train crossed the border into upscale Menton, the cityscape seemed a sharp contrast to the graffiti-plagued Italian cities we had seen in the past week. Even Monaco’s underground train station was incredibly immaculate. But that’s not really a surprise, considering it’s Monaco.

It was nice to be in Nice again (no pun intended). Our hostel was in the less glamourous area near the train station, but that was fine. It wasn’t a long walk to the beach or the Place Masséna.

Although we had planned to meet up with LB the following day in Nice, we decided to surprise him. We had the address of the hotel in Cannes where the Newfounders were staying, so we hopped on a train to Cannes and began our stake-out. We didn’t know whether they were still inside the hotel, but we figured they had to drop by at some point before dinner. We set up an observation point on a bench in a plaza near the hotel entrance, and Madeline and I took turns making surveillance passes in front of the hotel lobby to see if we could see any Newfounders. We thought we saw Albert, the group’s tour guide (the same tour guide for our trip back in 2004), but we weren’t sure.

Finally, we spotted the entire tour group departing the hotel, presumably heading to dinner. At this point, we were already quite giddy with excitement, but suddenly our adrenaline jumped tenfold. It was a challenge to follow the group without being seen — we had to be careful to keep our distance and blend in with the locals. It was wicked fun. Although the group took a scenic route through Cannes that made our stalking an even longer adventure, they finally entered into a restaurant. Unfortunately, they filled up the entire interior of it.

Madeline and I decided to eat at the single table outside, and wait for an opportune moment to go in and surprise LB. But the waiters were quite busy and the space inside the restaurant was limited, so we decided not to get in their way. We ordered our own meals (which were absolutely delicious, although we had made the mistake of eating lunch rather late) and waited until after we’d finished to go in. Upon seeing us, LB’s reaction was, “Oh my ****ing Lord.” Mission accomplished.

We spent the evening looking (unsuccessfully) for a geocache in Cannes with LB, Mrs. Mills, and the entire Newfound crew. But it was fun nonetheless. We returned to Nice that evening and spent the next morning lounging on the beach.

After a few bad directions given by Albert, we eventually established a rendezvous point with LB and then went out to lunch in the old city along with a chaperone and a student on the trip. I tried the local specialty, daube niçoise, which was very wine-y. After lunch, we got gelato at Finocchio, renowned for its variety of flavours — I got cinnamon and white chocolate. We concluded our time with LB by (successfully) finding a cache in Nice.

That evening, Madeline headed to the train station to return to Paris. I had only completed one half of my spring break, and it already felt like an eternity. I felt so exhausted that I could have gone back to Paris right then and there, but I was committed to my plans to see more of Italy. First, I needed to do laundry.

I left before sunrise the next day to get the train to Ventimiglia. Once in Italy, I had to retrace my route along the painfully slow coastal railway. Even worse — the weather was cold and rainy, and for some reason our train car had no heat or electricity. Since the coastal railway is comprised largely of tunnels, this meant long stretches of pitch blackness. Oh, and there was nearly an hour delay at one station. Announcements were being made about the delay which I couldn’t make out, but even the Italians had no idea what was going on. I was afraid I needed to change trains, but in the end things seemed to work out.

The next stop in my journey was Siena, an attractive Tuscan city near Florence. Still dominated somewhat by tourists, but less crowded than the bigger cities. The Piazza del Campo was nothing short of impressive, and I managed to climb the Torre del Mangia shortly before it closed. The views of the city and the surrounding countryside were amazing in the late afternoon light. When I reached the top of the tower, I was greeted by two French children who said, “Bonjour,” to me, not expecting me to respond in French. They giggled when I told them I was American. I don’t think they believed me.

The kids, their family and I all got a shock when the bells on top of the tower decided to ring deafeningly loud.

It was funny being with a French family on vacation in Italy — they suddenly felt like my compatriots. It was strangely comforting. As much as the French get a bad rap, I felt more uncomfortable interacting with Italians — not because of my language skills, but because it seemed like the Italians were less likely to conceal their “attitude” and often communicated rather bluntly. I hate to make generalizations, because the bad apples are few and far between (just like in any other culture in the world), but overall my personal interactions weren’t quite as “warm” as I expected in Italy.

Anyway, my experience in Siena was sadly limited due to my timeframe. It seemed like it would’ve been a cool place to spend the night (that’s what Rick Steves says, anyway), but at this point in the trip I was pretty tired of super-touristy cities anyway. I enjoyed the train rides through the green Tuscan countryside, however, weaving in and out of forested thickets and fields covered by golden flowers, with the occasional castle or villa around the corner. On the departing train from Siena, I sat near a couple of Belgian girls who kept code-switching between Dutch and French…pretty cool.

After a very long travel day, I had completely retraced my steps back to Florence, where I arrived rather late in the evening. I stayed at a different hostel this time — it seemed good on paper, but the reality was quite different. It was the epitome of a party hostel, almost all the patrons were obnoxious American college students, and the noise level from their collective squawking was deafening. They all seemed to know each other already, which made things more awkward, and I had to politely decline their invitations to go party at some bar because I needed to get up around 5am the following morning. Of course, I was awoken early when they all came back from a night on the town at 4am.

The manager of the hostel had tricked me into paying extra for Internet access and breakfast by making it sound as if they were included in the basic price. Upon realizing this, I thought I would take advantage of these extra features, but the one computer with Internet access was powered down and password-protected (no one was around to give me the code) and breakfast didn’t start until 8 or 9am (well after I had to leave). However, there was a large bowl of cookies on the front desk, so I helped myself to a generous portion of them for breakfast.

My much-needed respite from the big city came in the form of San Gimignano, a small hilltop village adorned with some impressively huge Medieval stone towers — kind of like 12th Century skyscrapers. I left Florence at the crack of dawn and alighted in Poggibonsi, where I almost missed the bus to San Gimignano (in Italy you can’t seem to buy tickets on the bus, you have to go to a newsstand).

In a bizarre flashback to my time on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, my bus was full of loud Italian teenagers being brought to school. So much for a relaxing morning ride through the Tuscan countryside. That said, my first glimpse of San Gimignano was breathtaking, and it was even greater once I got there. It was early, so the Medieval streets were virtually empty and I felt like I had the whole village to myself.

Whilst waiting for the “Big Tower” (Torre Grossa) to open to visitors, I explored some Medieval wells on the edge of the village. Now they have fish swimming in them. When I headed up the tower, I was the only person at the top. It was a glorious moment of solitude, with the wind blowing across the endless green fields and the rolling hills in the distance.

San Gimignano was beautiful, and it made me regret that I had not explored more of the Italian countryside. But there will always be other trips to Italy, right?

I returned to Florence for one final time, bought a cheap Italian travel magazine to keep me occupied on my next train ride, and hopped on a high-speed train for Naples. Despite all the stress and fatigue of my journey, something happened to me during this train ride, and I just felt intensely happy for a brief, fleeting moment. I haven’t felt that way in years.

I think it was the recognition that all my dreams about places on a map were being realized in front of my eyes. I was in Italy, for crying out loud.

After passing by some incredible scenery — towering Apennines, ancient fortified hilltop cities, awesome rock formations — I arrived in the massive ghetto of a city known as Naples, in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.

That’s the view of Vesuvius from Sorrento — to get there, I had to take the Naples commuter rail system for what seemed like an eternity. I had to stand for most of the ride, and all the while I was very aware of where my backpack was. The constant reminders about pickpocketers didn’t help my paranoia.

I could tell that the people in Naples were of a different breed. These were the stereotypical Italians that we Americans think of, with the exaggerated hand gestures, Fonzie-esque speech patterns, and generally “gritty” appearance. One particularly outgoing Italian man decided to strike up a conversation with everyone in his general vicinity, even if they didn’t want to talk. He also began to sing.

When I finally got to Sorrento, it was raining pretty hard. I couldn’t find a map, either, so I had no idea where my hostel was. I trekked back and forth down the length of the city’s narrow pedestrian lanes with my heavy backpack on. Despite being totally lost, there was something soothing about being in the evening rain, with the warm lights from all the tourist shops shimmering on the wet cobblestones.

After finding my hostel, I realized I had no cash so I couldn’t check in. I then had to search for an ATM — specifically, one that accepted American Express. I literally spent hours that evening criss-crossing the city. Finding an ATM was hard enough; I came across three of them before finding one that took my card. Boy was I relieved.

My hard work was rewarded. My hostel in Sorrento was one of the least expensive hostels I’ve stayed in, but it was also by far the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It was called a “deluxe hostel” and looked a lot more like a hotel, with a huge lobby, well-dressed reception workers, magnetic room keys, huge bathrooms, and marble flooring everywhere. To make things even better, I had an entire 6-person room to myself.

I delighted in Sorrento’s incredible values, getting an extremely filling one-person pizza with plenty of toppings for only 4 Euros that night. I slept like a baby.

Photos:

The Riviera

Siena

San Gimignano

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One Response to “Spring Break: Nice to Sorrento”

  1. Megan 30 July 2009 at 16:23 #

    Even though this was months ago, I’m jealous just reading about it!!! Now I need to go back to Italy myself… tell me which hostel this is!!

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