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Walking, biking through Italy

Ian Cropp
Vail, CO, Colorado
Ian Cropp/icropp@vaildaily.comDavid, from a different perspective.
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I love getting lost on vacation.

OK, not totally lost, but misdirected for short periods of time.

After my past traveling experiences, I’ve found the best way to enjoy a place is by foot with a map in your pocket and a pseudo-plan.

When I went to northern Italy late last month, I took my backpack, my crazy mantra and some basic knowledge of Italian. With about 100 pictures, gustatory memories and some blisters that still haven’t healed, I can say I executed whatever plan it was that I had.

Before leaving for Italy, I knew which three cities I was going to visit ” Florence, Siena and Venice ” and that was about it.

The first step in any overseas vacation is to acclimate to the new time zone. After the overnight flight, during which I slept for about two of the eight hours, I was on a mission to stay awake until the sun went down. There are a few ways to stay awake when tired, and the best way to legally do so is by walking. So for the first day of my trip, I wandered around the streets of Florence (more on the wandering Florence later), blatantly staring at people and buildings.

After meeting up with my brother and his friend, who arrived together one day later than I did, I scanned the pages of their guidebook. As much as exploring a city on your own can be fun, having a vague idea as to what’s going on is advisable. A guidebook not only advises you as to the best places to eat and visit, it also gives you some basic language to use in typical circumstances (our guidebook had the Italian translation for “Do you mind if I breastfeed here,” which we surprisingly never used).

During my second day in Florence, we went museum hunting. It’s always good to visit museums, and not just so you can name drop when you get back (You know, I strolled through the Uffizi). There’s plenty of history in Italian museums, and most of the sights really are jaw-dropping. And air conditioned buildings in June are second-to-none.

Some of the museums in Florence are family collections in a family palace that have more art than small countries.

A must-see for anyone in Florence, whether it be from outside or inside, is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and its dome. Built in the early 1400’s, the dome is nothing short of an architectural miracle. And it’s well worth laboring up the stairs hunched over to get to the cupola and soak in the Tuscan countryside.

It didn’t take long for me to notice the number of two-wheeled vehicles in Florence. Just about everyone has a bike or scooter, and often, two wheels were quicker transportation than four. I decided a bike would be a great way to check out the city, so without much of a destination in mind, I shelled out about seven euros for a half-day cruiser rental and started riding.

Only two blocks into my ride, after watching an old lady pass me by and then waiting at a blind intersection for two minutes, I knew obeying traffic laws wasn’t going to cut it. The transportation rules are a type of organized chaos. There are sidewalks and bike lanes, but bikers use the road, and not just the small shoulders (the middle of the street is fair game).

So when I saw some biker go the wrong way down a one-way street, by golly, I did the same. When a bus came at me, I held my line, one inch from the curb, and cleared the sideview mirror of the bus by two inches ” plenty of space by Italian standards.

Two hours into my ride, I told myself that Florence was a great bike city. The streets are organized in a somewhat logical fashion, there tends to always be small spaces for bikers, by design or not, and drivers sort of give you the right of way when you pull out in front of them.

Another great thing about bikes is that you can get lost without even realizing it. When I couldn’t remotely figure out where I was, I stopped to ask for directions. Now because I kind of look Italian and have a halfway decent accent, I passed for Italian most of the time. This can be a good thing, like when potential muggers dismiss you as “non touristy.” But it can make for some difficult moments, like my “Where am I?” moments.

Here is one exchange, translated from Italian (to the best of my knowledge):

Me: Excuse me Madam, could you please point out where I am on this map?

Older woman: Well, my eyes are bad, so I can’t see … (100 words I kind of understood)

Me: OK. Can you tell me where the river is?

Older woman: (200-plus words I somewhat recognize while she points towards the river), OK?

Me: Yea, thanks a bunch.

The tour de Church is inevitable when traveling in Western Europe. Even after having visited plenty of churches in Spain, southern Italy and Portugal, I still found the cathedrals of northern Italy pretty impressive. And every city or small town has either its historical church or a giant bell tower from which you can see the identical light brown tiles on all the roofs below. Much like climbing to the top of mountains and peering off miles into the distance, the view from above never got old.

Everyone raves about the food in Italy, and I couldn’t have agreed more. I won’t delve into too much detail, but if there had been the Roman vomitoriums around, I would have used them. One afternoon following a big lunch, I walked by a shop that had delicious looking panini. With a full stomach, I walked a few more blocks, but had the taste of prosciutto on the tip of my tongue, and couldn’t talk myself out of waiting another hour to eat again. On the walk back, I waged a propaganda battle with my stomach, and convinced it that I wasn’t indeed full.

Even when I ate out of spite, I loved it. What exactly is eating out of spite? Well, one night, I dined on a dish of pigeon and fettuccine. Only a few hours into the trip, I had already become annoyed with Italy’s unofficial bird, the pigeon. My annoyance grew into hatred when the winged rats kept me up all night, flapping their wings and making those insufferable “cooing” noises. So it was partially out of curiosity, and mostly out of retribution that I chewed the succulent pigeon meat. It would have tasted good without my full ire.

My sense of direction is such that I have trouble navigating Interstate 70, so you can only imagine how the needle-thin alleyways and endless canals of Venice made my head spin. During the two days I was in Venice, I think set foot on just about every stone in the city trying to find one restaurant.

All those things people say about Venice are true. But nothing really prepares you for the complexity of the city of canals that once serves as a naval superpower. I kept asking myself how did they build that island? How do they get fresh water to the houses that are surrounded by water that is the furthest from non-potable as can be? Where do they throw away the trash? (OK, I just kind of let that question pass, and tried not to look in the water).

While I nearly went insane trying to figure out how to get a water taxi to the island of Murano, exploring the island sufficed as double the dose of Xanax I needed at the time. The island’s economy centered around glassblowing for centuries, and you can still watch the locals practice their aesthetically alluring craft. Everything caught my eye on Murano, from the produce being sold from a gondola to the cemetery, which, with its bright flowers and impeccable groundskeeping, seemed ironically full of life.

It may sound like the trip was one great time after another. And for the most part it was. Like any vacation, however, there were some stressful parts. The key to having a great vacation, wherever you go, is to laugh off the bad parts. Sure, we could have let the one-star hostels (I don’t know how they even earned one star) ” where the shower and toilet occupied the same 10-square feet, and the walls seemed to amplify outside noise and limit our sleep to about two hours a night ” put us in a sour mood, but that’s just silly. And when I bought train tickets to go from Florence to Venice that ended up leaving from another station 30 minutes prior to the time of purchase, we all had a good chuckle (and I got a nice smack on the back of the head).

Five years from now, when someone mentions Florence to me, I’ll surely remember the beauty of the dome, but I’ll be able to recount all the details of my sleepless night at our negative two-start all-inclusive, Soggiorio Pitti. And if I look at a map, I’ll be able to trace the routes I took when I nearly found my way around the city.

Staff Writer Ian Cropp is still lost, but can be reached at 748-2935 or icropp@vaildaily.com.


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