The next phase in my amazing journey was spring break! Because of the lucky alignment of Easter week with some local festivals in Alicante, it ended up being 2 and a half weeks long. So I planned for a few months beforehand, packed up a backpack, and spent it with my mom, touring through Italy, Switzerland, France, and Spain.
So far, my trips had been limited to 4 days, and I think 18 days and 4 countries is a little much to cover in a single blog post, so I’m going to shoot for a timeline-style review of the most noteworthy parts.
Thursday, April 18: I go to the airport in Alicante to catch the first of my two flights. I am there 2 hours early. They delay our flight 3 hours. We get on the plane. We sit there for 2 hours, during which they tell us the plane is broken and cannot fly and that they have no idea what the airline will do, then that they found the piece to fix it, then that we cannot leave because some people have revolted and are insisting on getting off the plane and we have to wait for their luggage to be unloaded. We finally leave for Rome.
Lesson 1: Every form of transportation on which I embark will arrive late. Especially in Italy.
Through experience, we learn that late transportation is normal in Italy. In fact, nearly all modes of transportation that we board, including trains, buses of various companies, ferries, and boats, will run substantially late. But this time, I am late before I’ve even left Spain.
I can now check off my bucket list, “stay the night stranded in a random airport, not knowing when or how you’ll leave”. In total, my flight from Alicante is delayed five hours, so I miss my connection to Sicily, where I was supposed to have met my mom around midnight. Instead, I pass the early morning hours once we finally arrive in Rome trying to catch a wink while laying on top of my backpack in the very populated tiny lounge area outside of security at the Leonardo da Vinci airport. At least I get to see the nice fountain outside. Afterward, I also feel empowered for having handled the ordeal.
Friday, April 19: I fly into Catania, Sicily under-rested, but with a the bright, late morning sun shining on Mount Etna. Seeing this particular dormant volcano is very exciting because I had only ever read about it in mythology books. I meet my mom at her hotel and we grab lunch in an open-air covered patio and take a nice walk through Catania.
Catania has heavy architecture, but more just impressive rather than gilded. The buildings are old and strong looking. They are dirt-stained, but surprisingly it’s rather attractive; it gives the place an old-world feel. It has its own distinct identity from the rest of Italy, probably mostly due to the remnants of Greek influence. We decide we both need some rest, so we catch an afternoon bus to Syracuse and sleep on the way there.
Saturday, April 20: We see Syracuse, specifically the old island of Ortigia. We eat possibly the most delicious pizza I have ever had, a fluffy-crusted white pizza with salmon, on an outdoor balcony patio overlooking the sea.
In the evening, we take the bus back to Catania. Then we take the bus to Agrigento. We wanted to go straight to Agrigento from Syracuse, but turns out that, in the ever-applicable words of my aunt, Mary, “You can’t get there from here.”
Sunday, April 21 (Easter!): We stop in a beautiful tiny yellow church to find a marble-encrusted interior full of people praying together before the Easter mass. Unfortunately, we can’t understand what they’re saying or exactly what is going on, so we quietly step out after a few minutes.
We grab a delicious melted cheese and prosciutto sandwich on a pretzel roll for breakfast before heading to the Valley of the Temples.
We spend the holy day exploring and learning about the fascinating history of the many Greek-style temples there. We sleep in Agrigento, because there are no more trains to our next stop, Cefalù, until tomorrow.
Monday, April 22: We try to take the train to Cefalù. We get stranded in Roccapalumba (also known as the middle of nowhere tiny train station) by a fallen tree and have to wait to be picked up by 3 buses that are being dispatched “immediately” (bold-faced lie). A whole train-load of people wait in a tiny deserted train station for nearly 3 hours, in the lightly spritzing rain. One bus arrives. My mom and I are two of those who get on it. We take the bus to a seaside town called Imerese with a train station that connects to Cefalù and while waiting for the train, we meet new friends. First, we talk to an Italian couple, who I can kind of understand if I use Spanish and they speak slowly in Italian with a lot of hand gestures. Then we meet two men from Germany, Andreas and Klaus, who are also traveling to Cefalù for the day. They, however, are totally used to Italian transportation delays, and bear the wait in high spirits. We go with them and enjoy Cefalù together.
When it begins to rain again, Andreas says, “You know what that means… Time for a drink!” We go into a tiny cafe and get some food while they sample the wine. We all go back to the station together; they are heading to Palermo, but we go the other direction to Messina. Although it has been pretty, we are ready to get off this island of poor intercity transportation and spotty cell service.
Tuesday, April 23: We take a train from Messina to Italy. The train does not depart until shortly after noon, so we spend some time walking around the harbor area.
How is a locomotive to get across the water, you may ask? They drive it onto a ferry, of course!
It is very cool. We stand on the top deck of the ferry and watch Sicily fade from view into the mist, and almost immediately mainland Italy begins to emerge on the far side.
Around dinner time, we find ourselves in Salerno, a city on the south side of the Amalfi coast.
After dinner, we take a nighttime walk around the pretty beach, and we try authentic Italian gelato for the first time. We like it 😉
Wednesday, April 24: We spend an insane day on the Amalfi coast: the twisty roads, the insane amount of tourists, and a huge traffic jam.
We end up in Sorrento, on the north side of the Amalfi coast.
Lesson 2: Google maps doesn’t account for vertical feet.
The Amalfi Coast is nice, but it is very touristy, full of expensive artisan shops. More importantly, is so packed this particular day (apparently it is a national holiday?) that it is less pleasant than it could have been. The road down the coast is impressive with a sheer drop off on one side and a cliff face on the other, but you can see miles of turquoise water and green hills. I’ll agree with Andreas, who encouraged us to take the bus because, in his words, “The bus drivers are artists.” However, I would not for anything drive a car (or any other vehicle) there. It’s perilous: buses fly around blind turns by swinging out into the opposite side of the road, passing cars and other buses by literally less than an inch. Motorcycles swerve and weave every which way down the middle of the road and through impossibly tiny spaces far too quickly to be safe in those conditions. When tourist cars don’t stop for the bus horn that signals that it is coming around a hairpin blind turn, the two vehicles stop short, and the car has to back up (sometimes lines of cars have to back up) until the bus can pass, or vice versa.
We spend 3 hours of our day on what should have been a 30 minute bus ride from Salerno to Ravello because of a huge traffic jam. It sports a pretty view, but when the view hasn’t changed at all in 2 hours, we start to get a little antsy. We finally get out of the bus and walk the last hundred yards to the connecting bus stop, stepping carefully in the tiny space between the sitting cars and the sheer, rising cliff. We wait another half hour and finally catch a bus up the hill.
On top it is peaceful with no public vehicles allowed. We walk around in the town, step into artisan ceramic shops, and pay to enter in one of the beautiful cliff-top villas there.
Unfortunately, due to that whole traffic situation, no bus comes up to the mountaintop where Ravello sits to take us to the next town, Amalfi. After finding out that the people waiting at the stop have been there for over 3 hours with no sign of a bus, we decide to just walk. Google said it was only 40 minutes, and it is downhill at that. How hard could it be?
Well, midway through our 1.5-2 hour hike down 1,950 vertical feet of uneven and sometimes crumbling stone steps, we realized that Google does not account for vertical feet in its distance or time calculations. By 20 minutes in, at a pause for a photo op, my ankles are shaking so hard the phone camera is vibrating as well. Nevertheless, the view is beautiful. The path comes down through neighborhoods built into the rock, accessible only by these stairs. If you have the stamina, I would actually recommend this path.
Ironically, although we miss a lot of the touristy areas, we get a unique sneak peak into what the Amalfi coast looks and feels like in the winding hillside villages. It is undeniably very pretty, and different from other places I’ve seen. On one set of steps through a village, we even come upon a donkey burdened with containers full of landscaping supplies at a courtyard under repair; there is no other way to get supplies to the house. Near the bottom of the hill, in one of the more developed areas, we make another Spanish friend. I mention how hard it would be just to go to the grocery store, and he quips, “Can you imagine if you forgot the salt? I’d eat the food sweet.”
Lo and behold, eventually we come around a bend and see Amalfi itself shining in the late afternoon sun. And we have way earned the heavenly gelato we buy there.
We stand in line for an hour to get on a bus (standing room only) going to the other side of Amalfi.
We absorb the view as we go, knowing that we’re probably not coming back for a day two with crowds this big.
We take an adventurous risk and rent a “two person tent” online at a campground in Sorrento for the night. When we arrive, we are shown instead to an adorable, tiny green bungalow with a nightscape view over the bay to the glittering city lights on the far side with Mt. Vesuvius rising behind.
Thursday, April 25: Instead of going for another day at Amalfi, we go to Pompeii! We come back to Sorrento for the night, to stay in another bungalow!
Lesson 4: Pompeii is awesome.
Even I must admit that Spain does not have Pompeii, and Pompeii is a credit to Italy. Of course, everyone knows the famous part of the story: when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Pompeii was close enough for everyone in it to die a very painful death suffocated by sulfuric acid and buried by ash. However, what I didn’t realize is that it was too far away to be steamrolled by lava. As a result, it was preserved for nearly two thousand years until it was discovered in 1748. As the ash was excavated away, a Roman city emerged (minus most of the roofs, which collapsed under the weight of the ash, dragging some of the tops of some walls with them).
As we walk through Pompeii, what is so inspiring is not the cataclysm, but the feeling of walking through two thousand years of history, stepping on the same roads where toga-clad men in sandals have ridden chariots and slaves were once busy shopping for grand dinners. There remain temples, Greek theaters, thermal baths, and an arena. It has neighborhoods full of houses with intricate mosaic floors, courtyards and gardens and painted murals on the walls, bedrooms where rich women once laid.
Its stone-paved streets bear deep ruts where years of chariot wheels cut into the rock, and high stepping stones stride across; the Romans built their crosswalks in relief so that pedestrians didn’t have to get their feet dirty when crossing the road. There are public fountains in the streets that have been repaired so that potable water once again flows from a spicket in the carved mouths.
There are even Roman fast food restaurants. Apparently, Romans would eat dinner at home but lunch in these restaurants. They would come in and pick the hot meal that they preferred from one of the four or five large ceramic pots inlaid in the stone counter, which insulated the food.
There is even a two-floor brothel where Roman men would go habitually to get service from people of either gender, usually slaves. The very wealthy could get private rooms on the top floor but the rest just used the open downstairs floor. The brothel’s road is marked by a phallic symbol at the nearest intersection, but in Rome phallic symbols were common and stood for good luck, so they were also found in the entryways of homes.
Although of course the town is amazing, there was a great cost to preserving this window into the past. In a few places there are plaster casts on display of the people who died in the eruption at Pompeii. I thought there might be, but I still I didn’t expect how my stomach would twist when I saw them. It didn’t occur to me that when the ash fell their exact positions would have been preserved. There were desperate attempts to cover faces with cloths or hands, and three-dimensional silhouettes lying face down, their legs slightly bent, trying to crawl away. Of course, there was nowhere to go by then. There are children, families, dogs, and chained slaves among them, living things who could not escape. It was not a peaceful death.
Nevertheless, most of the visit focused on Roman life and innovation rather than tragedy. I would highly recommend taking the guided tour, because it helps you imagine everything as it was back then.
If you do go, just remember to be careful with Pompeii; stone slowly breaks if we jump on it, paint peels off walls when we touch it or lean on it, and we’ve removed the ash that was protecting it. It’s an archaeological site and we won’t get another Roman city to explore if this one is destroyed. I fervently hope my kids to will be able to visit and be amazed by Pompeii like I was.
Friday, April 26: We go to the Isle of Capri, a little gem off the peninsula on which Sorrento sits. Its main claim to fame is that it has traditionally been the playground of the rich and famous.
We walk around the coastal village and take a boat ride all the way around the island. If you go there, go to the blue grotto. We didn’t but we wish we did; the others that you see in the trip around the island are not the same, and not nearly as unique from other places in the world. Nonetheless, the coast is very pretty.
Afterwards, we take the train to Rome!
Saturday, April 27: We spend the day walking around Rome.
The eternal city is dressed to impress. Inside of churches, (of which there are many) it is marble of various colors or it’s gilded, or gilded marble, or overwhelming intensely-colored paintings surrounded by gilded frames and marble. It is amazing, but after a whole day I felt exhausted and ready for some neutral colors.
That being said, the architecture outside is absolutely stunning. I would have to say that Saint Peter’s square is one of the most architecturally satisfying places I’ve ever been. Something about the geometric shape of it is very clean and feels good on the brain. In general, the Greco-Roman buildings are lovely, and walking through the city streets is a visual pleasure. You can tell that the Romans took the best innovations from whoever they conquered by the variation in architecture throughout the city. Egyptian obelisks give way to a Greek pantheon and Catholic cathedrals.
Sunday, April 28: We see the Vatican in the morning and the Colisseum in the afternoon. It’s like walking through history, seeing things I’ve looked at only in pictures and history classes, but now in three dimensions. They’re always different than how I imagined them to be.
I wonder how many feet have stepped on the same stones that mine traverse. It’s amazing to think that each of those feet had a body and each of those bodies had a life and emotions and made decisions good or bad. It’s mind-boggling to realize the scope of human civilization: how much has changed (no more gladiators) and how much has not (still the same human species). My mom isn’t feeling well by the end, so we find a hotel and turn in relatively early.
Monday, April 29: We see the Roman Forum in the morning. It’s very cool, and entrance is included with a timed ticket to the Colosseum. Side note, don’t buy skip the line tickets through a third party, as they’re almost always a scam. The people advertising it to the people in line say the wait is longer than it actually is, and from what I’ve heard, the tours that they want you to pay for are rushed. The audio guides are a better option here.
It’s rainy, so rather than spend the rest of the day wet, we catch a train to Florence. Along the way, I nap, then gaze at the stunning Tuscany countryside. It does deserve its reputation of loveliness for its sweeping green hills and pretty villages and verdant vineyards.
Tuesday, April 30: We walk all over Florence. We see the marketplaces, the famous bridge, the outside of the beautiful cathedral, but the line is really long to go in, so unfortunately, we skip it. On the upside, we share gelato… twice! We go to the Leonardo Da Vinci museum in the evening, then walk back to our hotel. In total, we walk 12.5 miles over the course of this day.
Wednesday, May 1: We go to the Uffizi Gallery. It is worth two hours in line and 3+ inside, because suddenly works of art I’ve studied in pictures in World History freshman year of high school are spread out on canvas in front of me. It is strange but entrancing to gaze on the brush strokes and colors that are different than they seemed in pictures. The canvas seems to hold the memory of hundreds of years of eyes that were just as enchanted as mine.
I had wanted to see my old favorite the Birth of Venus, which was lovely, but I ended up also loving Botticelli’s other work, Primavera, which I think is much prettier and more interesting in person than in pictures. Where The Birth of Venus exudes a demure, modest light in faded pastel colors, Primavera is wreathed in darkness and energy. Both have that renaissance balance and an entrancing sense of motion, which I realized is mostly the beautifully captured breeze billowing the fabrics and lifting the ladies’ hair.
When we come out, there is a medieval-themed marching band competition taking place in the square outside.
In Florence it occurs to me that, whereas the French are in love with naked women in their art, the Italians favor naked men. Not only that, but they tend to put their statues on high pedestals, so when you look up at them, the first thing you see is… well, it’s not the pretty face. Also, it seems to me that for going into battle, completely naked is an irrational outfit choice. Italian sculptors seem to disagree.
Among the many nude statues we witnessed in Florence, we saw the most famous naked man, Michelangelo’s David, which is a surprisingly large statue. Look at the person sitting in the background of the picture below for scale. Also in that gallery is an amazing room of plaster casts with a focus on how statues were made, from modeling to completion, which is fascinating.
When that’s done, it’s time to move on from Florence. We grab our bags and get Asian fusion kebabs on the way to the bus station to catch a bus to Geneva, Switzerland.
Aforementioned bus comes, eventually… On that bucket list I mentioned, I can also check off, “stay most of the night stranded in a random, slightly isolated bus stop” from when our midnight FlixBus was delayed 3 hours. We napped in the bathroom, which was the only open area with heat. It was freezing outside, but we kept running out to the stop every time a bus entered the lot, hoping in vain that ours had made up two or one or half an hour of the delay and terrified that if we didn’t go and check, that could be it and it would leave without us.
On the upside, we did get to see the lovely French alps in the morning, when we were awake enough to keep our eyes open, which for me was not very long. Maybe 30 seconds, total. Those flashes seemed very pretty though.
Thursday, May 2: We arrive around noon in Annemasse, France, across the border from Geneva. We grab a bagel and spend the rest of the day in Geneva. We head to the UN headquarters and get a tour (it was very cool and informative: 10/10 would do again), then walk around the rest of the city.
We go back to Annemasse because that’s where our Airbnb is supposed to be. It was less expensive then Geneva, but we didn’t realize the transportation was 5 euro per ticket to cross the border and wasted time as well. For future experiences, I would recommend just staying in Geneva. And not using an Airbnb from Aysan, because it fell through and we were stuck in an unknown city at 10 pm without anywhere to stay, not speaking the language. Luckily, some good Samaritan walked us to a hotel.
Lesson 3: Finding a new hotel every night for 2+ weeks is really stressful.
We hadn’t made any hotel reservations for the whole trip, which was good because we would have missed all of them due to the transportation issues, but bad for other reasons.
Pros to not booking hotels in advance: Unheard of flexibility. If you’re planning to move cities every night or two, reasonable, because otherwise you will frequently miss reservations due to Italy’s dilapidated (in some places) or at best disorganized public transportation system. Plus, if you don’t know how long you’ll want to stay in each place, it helps.
Cons: Hotels, hostels, and other forms of lodging will always try to get you. There will be extra fees hidden in the fine print. You learn your lesson one night, and the next you find there was another tab you didn’t see that included a 30 euro cleaning fee due in cash at arrival. Last minute, no cancellations are allowed, so girl, you’re eating those 30 euro. Also, last minute Airbnb’s may go disastrously wrong (still haven’t gotten my money back for the disaster in Annemasse . . . Just the other day before this blog was published 9 months later, I did get refunded 0.26 euro, which did nothing but remind me about the occasion and make me feel insulted at their poor customer service).
Despite the stress, it makes my mom and me stronger together. We find that we are excellently compatible traveling companions, and naturally boost each other up when things go wrong.
Friday, May 3: We sleep in, pull ourselves together from the stress of the night before, and go to CERN, which boasts the biggest particle accelerator in the world, and is a kind of heaven for any physics enthusiast. It is amazing. I wish we had spent the whole day there, which we probably would have if not for the ordeal in Annemasse the night before. More details about CERN in the next post to come.
Then we catch a night bus to Barcelona. It’s on time, for once. Unfortunately, this one allows me to check off of my bucket list, “stay most of the night stranded on a bus on the side of the highway, not knowing what happened or when you will get off, or why the driver keeps revving up the engine, driving 3 meters, and braking hard so you can’t sleep.” Our eventful overnight trip from Switzerland to Barcelona was brought to a halt when we ran over something that punctured a tire, although the driver didn’t tell us that. Instead, we drove about 100 meters with a sound like going over loud cobblestones. Then, without communicating anything to us, the driver got out, I assume to take a look, came back a few minutes later, and began a peculiar progression of short spurts down the shoulder of the highway. He would rev up the engine, then there would be an air hissing noise, then he would let go of the break and we would go about 3 meters. Then he would hit the break hard and there would be a sloshing noise. Without ever explaining anything, he tried this for 20-minute intervals spread out over the course of the 3 hours that we were sitting on the side of the highway. Months later, I learned that he may have been trying to use a hole-plugging fluid and re-inflation mechanism to repair the tire. However, I fail to see why, when it didn’t work in the first 20 minutes, we had to keep trying instead of just waiting for the repair truck. On the upside, I got to get to know some of my neighbors at 4 am. They were speaking Spanish, and we got to make jokes like, “At this rate we’ll arrive next year,” or “We might as well get out and walk now. Or push.”
Finally, he mercifully decides to stop trying to re-inflate the tire, and I fall back to sleep before the team finally arrives to change the tire. Another silver lining: I get to sleep in, because we don’t arrive until at least noon.
Saturday, May 4: We arrive in Barcelona with rattled nerves and getting pretty tired of the whole hotel/transportation thing. Nevertheless, we spend the day traipsing about the city, seeing as much as we can. Unfortunately the Sagrada Familia is sold out for the day, and most of the Gaudí houses are under restoration, so we can’t see the outsides. Nevertheless, we have a great day, and my mom tries paella! She loves it, of course. We stay at a lovely hotel 40 minutes from the city center by public transport where we have no extra charges or problems of any type. Just one more reason why Spain is better. 😉
Sunday, May 5: The Sagrada Familia and Parque Guell are sold out again. We are exhausted and want to get to Alicante, but we decide to go to the public part of Parque Guell before heading out. Once again, Google does not understand vertical feet, though, and it turns out Parque Guell is on top of a small mountain. We’re used to it right now and just enjoy the climb. We climb the mountain to Park Guell and see the view (It’s beautiful), but don’t enter into the paid part of the park. It doesn’t really matter, it is beautiful, a great way to close out our wanderings.
We book it back to the train station and catch a noontime train to Alicante. By late afternoon, I’m ecstatically striding through the streets of my second home, leading my mom toward my apartment with sparkling eyes in a burst of energy and high spirits. I am so excited to show her everything. At first I am impatient when she wants to stop to take pictures all the time, but then it occurs to me that I was never really a full blown tourist in Alicante, and this is my chance to get photos of a place I’m going to leave fairly soon.
Soon after, we’re at my host family’s house, and my mom meets my host parents! My mom speaks virtually no Spanish and they speak no English, so I spend the evening translating over dinner. I am proud of how quickly I can switch between languages, although occasionally I turn to translate and accidentally just repeat what the last person said in the original language. At a blank stare, I realize the mistake, we laugh, and translate it right. Another host student has just arrived from the US, so we meet her, too.
Over the next four days, I take my mom to all my favorite places in Alicante, and we even spend a day at the colored village of Villajoyosa. It makes the whole semester feel complete somehown when I introduce her to all the people I have come to love in Alicante: my host parents, Marisa and Pepa, and some of my friends, including Christine and Brianna. To have her know them, and them know her feels right. I suppose I want the people I love to be able to know and enjoy all the other people I love. They’re all so great, I don’t want them to miss out on each other!
Lesson 5: Traveling with my mom was absolutely priceless.
Despite all the things that went wrong, I wouldn’t trade those 18 days of just me and my mom for anything. We weathered every storm, picking each other up through blisters, surprise restaurant table fees, and uncertainty. We delighted in every little thing from seashells to afternoon gelato to the sunset illuminating the Florence Cathedral to just finally seeing each other after 4 months of being separated by an ocean. We laughed over the things we learned; for example, did you know that “Firenze” is the Italian name for “Florence”? I didn’t until over a day into being there.
We saw a lot of amazing things. Rome was stately and beautiful, lovely to walk through, with millennia of world-class architecture. From the Colosseum to the Roman Forum to St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican museums to the Spanish steps to sculptures in plazas, it was a pleasure to explore.
Sorrento and Salerno, lesser-known cities on either side of the Amalfi coast were great: pretty, vibrant atmosphere, fun to walk around.
We saw beaches and mountains, places of legend, the birthplace of my mom’s grandfather’s family. We saw gardens and art and castles and Greek theaters and so many cathedrals. We felt history and made our own memories. We were at times sick or excessively tired, at others healthy and happy. One night we washed our laundry at a campground before finding that the dryer was broken, so we hung our clothes all over the bungalow to dry, then had the things that didn’t dry hanging off our backpacks the next day like living drying racks. Together, we decided to cut our stay at certain places short or extend it. We walked around in postcard pictures and my history teacher’s slideshow images and Percy Jackson books.
I am so blessed for the mother that I have and for the amazing opportunity and privilege that allowed me to share this adventure with her. Love you, Mommy. ❤