Thursday, December 10, 2015

Italian Trail

I jolted awake. The train had stopped and it was dark outside. The Swiss Alps loomed around like the build up to a movie suspense scene. With my passport in the hands of a conductor somewhere (hopefully!) on the train, I tossed nervously in my bunk as we waited to chug into Italy.
The next few days opened my eyes to a peculiar similarity between Italy and India. Not everything went like clock-work, people were a bit loud and strangely familiar, and things weren’t really meant for dummies like in many popular European tourist-oriented places.
The destination was Pisa, but the train delay in Milan meant hopping onto a double-change route and an unfortunately invalid ticket that incurred a fine. I wasn’t off to a very good start here, and one generally hopes any vacation ends in a reverberating climax. But who knew the events to come?

Leaning Towers & Walking Bridges
Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa
With my schedule thrown off by train delays, I had half a day to explore Pisa. Taking it easy, I walked across to a nearby café for a shot of espresso and a snack. It isn’t my cup of tea, this Italian espresso. Warm, swirling dark liquid in a cup the size of a play set, it came across as more of a shocking eye-opener than a beverage to be savoured.
The place was filled with the chatter of locals, and my rudimentary sign language was getting better by the minute. A small tuck later, I headed off to the Piazza del Duomo nearby. Also called the Piazza dei Miracoli, or Miracle Square, the cathedral, baptistry and tower that take centre stage here shine brilliantly in the sun.
The cathedral itself appeared more majestic than its renowned counterpart, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Again, the square felt like India – the mill of tourists around an ancient structure, the threat of pickpockets, hawkers selling everything from postcards to selfie sticks.
Built over a span of 200 years starting in the 12th century, the monument was constructed as a free-standing bell tower for the adjacent Pisa Cathedral. It is the most famous site in the city, nearly four metres off centre at the summit, with around 300 uneven steps to the top. Visitors line up for hours to climb to the balcony for a view of the square.
The cathedral is imposing, as is the round baptistery nearby, with beautiful frescoes, sculptures and carved bronze doors. Beyond the ancient walls of the square lies a daily market that is both vibrant and chaotic, filled with vendors from around the world selling cheap remakes and souvenirs. It is evident that a large number of Indian tourists pass through, as you will find one shopkeeper or other intermittently shouting ‘namaste’.
Cafés and restaurants nearby sell the ubiquitous pizza and doner kebabs, a Turkish sandwich filled with meat and pickles reminiscent of shawarma. The city - which has many universities and therefore by default dozens of pubs - is also famous for its very crunchy biscuits called biscotti.
The following day, I took the train to Florence an hour and a half away. It was cold and rainy, and the trip unplanned. After wasting money on a Hop On Hop Off bus ticket, I ended up walking around the city, discovering medieval architecture, contemporary fashion and delicious treats.
Exiting the station, I found myself looking upon the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella of the 13th century, filled with Gothic and Renaissance frescoes. As I traipsed aimlessly around the city’s cobbled streets, I passed dozens of tempting gelato stores. With less fat than regular ice cream, and a mind-boggling array of flavours, a double dollop of bacio – chocolate hazelnut –was definitely the new travel companion.
Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Even though nearby Milan is highly rated as a fashion capital, Florentines are not far behind in street fashion. The city presents tourists with a great blend of architecture and retail therapy. Luxury goods – bags, gloves, shoes, clothes, accessories – line shop shelves of renowned brands around the Ponte Vecchio, an arched stone bridge over the River Arno.  
Since its construction in Medieval times, the bridge has always been a bustling passageway of shops, initially a stinking mélange of butchers, fishmongers and tanners to the fancy displays of goldsmiths and jewellers in the late 1500s who continue to dominate the trade today.
After a spot of window shopping, I went by Giotto’s Bell Tower in the Piazza del Duomo on my way back. The free-standing tower is another elegant example of Gothic architecture, featuring hexagonal panels tracing the history of mankind beginning with the Bible’s Creation and on to various industries.
A short walk later, out of a cluster of buildings, rose a colourful monument at odds with its surroundings. The Russian Orthodox Church with its green onion-shaped domes provides a rock solid legacy left behind by Eastern influence. Florence has played host to a great many Russians, including author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and film director Andrei Tarkovsky.

Pizza & The Pope
Too soon, I was on a train to Rome, fined once more by the same conductor over not having validated the ticket before getting onto the train. My inattentiveness was starting to cost me.
I was staying on Via Cavour in the heart of the city, offering opportunity to put Rome’s fame as a ‘Walking City’ into practice. In the country’s capital, the full scale of Italy’s resemblance with India emerged – persistent hawking, hard bargaining and unsettling passes by men of certain cultural origin.
Eating arancino in Trastevere, Rome
Checking in with New Rome Free Tours, our sizeable group was offered wonderful insights into ancient Rome as Max peeled away the layers of the city, exposing everything from its ancient communal toilets and propensity to throw garbage into the streets, to the fight for power between two of its architects Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini.
Starting from the Spanish Steps, we braved sporadic rain and shine to hear a Roman’s story about his city as he led us to not-so-famous buildings such as the Church of St Ignatius of Loyola with its trompe l’oeil ‘dome’ and the Basilica of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte housing Bernini’s Angels sculptures, as well as world renowned landmarks like the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain.
The Coliseum, Rome
In the night, lighting effects bring a new dimension to the ancient structures. There’s a hue of secrecy as you imagine the political shenanigans cooked up in the Forum, a touch of danger as the Coliseum rears up before you, a sense of awe as the National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II throws perspective askew.
There are things to ponder as you enjoy a family’s delicious recipe of spinach-filled cannelloni and lasagne, alongside a glass of white wine. In the fun-filled, young district of Trastevere, pubs and cafés play music and offer happy hours, less-persuasive vendors sell boho items in a street market display, and the atmosphere is festive and bright. I picked a local store filled with navy men for my Roman pizza experience, enjoying the first but absolutely horrified by the saltiness of the anchovies in the second. To wash it down, I bought a ricotta cheese and chocolate chip slice, and a slab of homemade Parmesan to carry back with me.
Pope Francis I enters the Basilica of St Peter, Rome
Early on Sunday morning, pass in hand, I ran five kilometres to catch my place in an already snaking queue to enter the Basilica of St Peter for mass with Pope Francis. Inside, the basilica is awe-striking, rising high into an eternity painted prominently on its arched ceiling. Right on time, the head of the Catholic Church strode in, as sprightly as a rabbit, leading the thousands in the congregation into service.

The experience was singular, and even though I couldn’t understand a word he said – the sermon was in Italian – it left me feeling blessed in a way. Blessed particularly with the good fortune of being able to travel.

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