Napoli-Rome-Pisa: A peek at Italy

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January 2nd 2009
Published: July 2nd 2011
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The chance to visit Italy came by quite luckily. I was planning a visit to Switzerland in Dec 2008. Searching information for the visa I came to know that Switzerland will start issuing Schengen visa from now on. I knew that I will have to use this opportunity to make a stop another European country. It did not take too long to plan a trip to Italy, which is really an hours ride from Lugano in Switzerland, where I was planning to spend the week of Christmas.

A day after Christmas Maya and I sat down together to plan the trip. We would leave from Lugano on the morning of Jan 2, and planned to spend about 7 days in Italy covering mainly Napoli and Rome. The train tickets were easily available online, but a bit of careful search helped us get quite a bit of discounts. We also managed to book a bed-n-breakfast place at Napoli at 20 euros per person per day.

Jan 2, 2009: 11:00 AM: Lugano

The New Years party had lasted quite long and before we could pack our bags it was evening of Jan 1st. We were to start next day morning. In Switzerland, everything works with clockwork precision. No matter what might seem on Jan 1 evening, we were right there at Lugano station at 10:45 am all set to board the train for Milano. This train is operated by the Swiss rail and sharp at 11:00 am we were off on our journey. The train timing would cause us harrowing experience as we enter Italy. Hence this particular moment has remained nicely etched in my memory, specially when I recollect the train experiences that were to follow.

Jan 2, 2009: 1:00 PM : Milan

Within 2 hours we reached Milano. On the way, we crossed Como which was the first station in Italy that I remember. Como and its suburbs are inhabited by the rich and famous of the world. George Clooney has a villa there. These were interesting information for me.

First thing I remember about Milan was that it was quite freezing. Coming from Swiss, I think I was expecting a warmer weather a little too early. We secured our luggage at the lockers in the station, checked the timing for our train to Napoli, and found out that we have plenty of time to take a quick tour of the city. The interesting bit of information in the train time display in Italy was the column showing “train delays”. After Swiss, where Swiss precision timing has invaded every walk of life, the sight of train delay was really amusing. I felt so at home. It is such a familiar sight at all railway stations in India, where the first question one asks is how late the train is running. Our train showed that it was on time.

Off to Castello Sforzesco at the center of Milan. As we walked down the streets, I realized looking at all the names of the shops that we crossed, I am walking through one of the fashion capitals of the world. Not that I know much of fashion anyway, but it was interesting to window shop, and I was curious enough to peek and check if I can find the price of things at this Mecca of fashion.
Castello Sforzeso was quite big. But it takes quite a bit to surprise an Indian traveler who have visited quite a few forts in Rajasthan. I liked the look and feel of the Castello, a quick walk through the museums inside the castle, took a few customary pictures. However, I did not get any awe-inspiring feeling. I am not sure whether it was the cold which had numbed my senses. We also took a look at the Duomo. As I was explained, a Cathedral where the Bishop is resident is called a Duomo. As one might expect, a Duomo should be bigger and more gorgeous than the usual cathedral. Milan’s Duomo was beautiful but what I saw later in Rome was so mindblowing that Milan’s Duomo has paled in its comparison.

All in all the time spent in Milan was not a bad start to the Italian adventure. Specially, after the walks in the cold streets when we sat down at a pizza restaurant, I felt Milan is really nice. This was my first taste of pizza in Italy, and it did taste quite different and quite good. The pizza place owner was from southern Italy. When he learnt that we are headed for Napoli, like all good Samaritans we meet in India, he started explaining the dos and donts to follow in a city like Napoli. For the uninitiated, Napoli happens to be the city of the Godfathers. The mafia had a good grip of the city not too long ago, and petty crimes are not so uncommon in Napoli. Looking at my big camera case, he warned me that I must make sure that I keep it as close to me as possible always. There are scooter gangs who will swish past you and next thing you will see is that your shoulder strapped bag will be flying away with the person on the scooter. So I got my word of caution and advice, along with a very good pizza. It was time to go to the station and rest ourselves in the train, which would be taking close to 12 hours to reach Napoli.

Jan 2, 2009: 10:00 PM : Milano Centrale

The Italian train looked quite good. It is not like the Indian train where you find a bunk to sleep through the night, rather it is like the AC chair cars. There are 3 seats on either side facing each other. Luckily for us, we were the only two in the 6 seats, and managed to get a good night sleep. The train started only 5 minutes late. In my definition this is not even a delay.

Jan 3, 2009: 10:00 AM: Napoli Centrale

The biggest fun in a train ride is to look outside the window and see the scenaries run past you. I was awake quite early and staring out of the window with a kids enthusiasm. The landscape changed quite a bit overnite. The cold that we felt at night has reduced. We were approaching warmer weather of Southern Italy – at least that’s what I presumed. There were rolling farmlands outside. There were different shades of green, and I was loving every bit of the view. Only thing that was bothering a bit was that the sky was quite overcast. As we came closer to the suburbs of Napoli, I was surprised to see a striking similarity of the houses with any suburb of Indian cities. I could see the television antennas, the ones we used to have before the cable TV phenomenon invaded the cities, on top of the houses. There were clotheslines with clothes hanging on them. I was feeling a strange similarity.

Without much delay, we rolled into Napoli Centrale. Napoli Centrale is quite a big station. The commotion all around again reminded me of the stations in India. The only thing missing probably are the touts and taxi drivers that accost you once you come out of the stations in India.

Jan 3, 2009: 12:00 PM: Soggiorno Paradiso

We were out on the streets of Napoli. We had printed a map of the city with directions to our Bed-n-Breakfast place, called Soggiorno Paradiso. It looked only a short walk from the station. We hit the streets with our luggage in tow. First it was a big wide road, then the road became narrower, then it became still narrower, and then it was like a bylane in central Kolkata. We had walked for almost an hour when we finally found our place. I thought cheaper price always comes at a cost, but the place was quite nice.

Soggiorno Paradiso was an apartment at the fourth floor of a building where few rooms are converted to guest rooms. The housing complex looked like some old mansion in Kolkata with a huge iron gate. Once you enter the gate, there is a big porch. Entering through the iron gate was an experience in itself. Fortunately, a resident of the complex came by and we piggybacked.

The guy at Soggiorno Paradiso was a quintessential Italian in my opinion. Quite talkative, quite helpful, and spoke only in Italian. I left the burden of conversation to Maya, and started browsing through the maps and guide maps on the counter. Later got a summary of the conversation from Maya that we took a really long route to reach the place, and there is a metro station within a few minutes walk. Good heavens! Who would have walked like 30 mins every time we had to go anywhere.

He had also pointed us to a nearby café where we could grab a bite, and the street where there are lots of restaurants. We were not aware at that point in time that this is the old city of Napoli and actually has some of very best and cheap restaurants in the city. Our choice was not so bad after all.

Jan 3, 2009: 2:00 PM: Napoli City Walk

When you reach a new place, there is absolutely no point sitting inside a room. We were out on the streets with a map in hand very soon. But in no time I gathered that map reading should be left to Maya, and I should concentrate more on capturing the glimpses of the city. It was an interesting walk. Maya busy reading maps, explaining me where to head, and I am following without knowing where I am headed. But I was quite satisfied with my camera.

Right in the middle of the city, we reached a castle. If I remember the name correctly, it was castello Nuovo. Not as spectacular from inside as from outside. Every castle has some museum which would lighten your coffers quite a bit, and although it is recommended that one visits some of them, but choosing the right ones by doing a bit of research beforehand would save time and money.

There was one castle in the map which looked really fascinating because of its location. It was right on the bay. We decided that it is worth a try if we can visit it the same day. The walk was right by the bay, along the stretch called Santa Lucia. It was a fantastic view and we could see the castle in the distance. But the walk and the view was so beautiful that we skipped the idea of reaching the castle that day, and stopped to enjoy the sight. We got an important bit of information on the way. There is a ferry to an island, which we had planned to visit, the next day morning.

On our way back, it started drizzling, and my dreams of a warm vacation in winter in Europe was soon quite shattered. By the time we were back at Soggiorno Paradiso after our dinner, I was chilled to my bones. I was praying to all the Gods of travel that the clouds be dispelled.

Jan 4, 2009: 8:00 AM: Headed for Ischia

The island we had planned was Capri, but in the end we settled for going to Ischia. If some day I go to Capri, I will be able to compare if I missed anything, but Ischia was absolutely stunning.

The ferry took around 2 hours making its way first along the coast of Napoli, and then made its way through a string of islands, one of which was Capri, to reach Ischia. This is a small island only connected by ferry. We had about 5 hours to stroll around the place. We were soon staring at an information map at the ferry at Ischia, and narrowed down on a castle at the other end of Ischia -- Castello Argonese d’Ischia.

Castello Argonese d’Ischia is an old castle at the edge of the sea. Approached through a natural causeway, this castle transports one to the old times. Views from the castle were fanstastic. At the same time, some of the relics were worth remembering, like the seat of stones at the cemetery of Poor Clares. As the story goes, the nuns of Poor Clares would sit on the stone benches while they were dying, and finally the body would be left to decompose there. It is a bit of a chilling site to visit when you are aware of the story. The crypt and the cathedrals were also very different in look and feel from the more opulent churches that we visited later in Rome.

Being in Ischia, and not enjoying a peaceful evening by the sea is a missed opportunity. We had little time left for ourselves to enjoy an evening watching the sunset because the last ferry back to Napoli was leaving. We could only enjoy a quick coffee sitting in a café by the coast.

Jan 5, 2009: 8:00 AM: Headed for Vesuvio and Pompei

A train from the Napoli Centrale takes you to Ercolano, which is the gateway for the trek to Vesuvio. Ercolano is bit of a seedy place from the look of it. The shared-cab driver who drove us to the foot of the Vesuvio trail looked like a person right out of a Godfather movie. Specially his style and accent was really entertaining.

The walk up to the mouth of the Vesuvio, which by the way is an active volcano, takes around 2 hours. It is not a difficult walk. The path is nicely maintained because of the stream of tourists. As we approached near the mouth we could see smoke coming out from the volcano. The volcano is always steaming. As long as it does not get too angry and spews out fire, everyone is safe. It had spewed fire not so long ago, and along the trail you can see a channel through which the fire stream has gone down. It is all ashen compared to the relatively greener neighborhood. The scary thing to look down from the top of the volcano is the Napoli city which starts almost at the base of the volcano. If ever this giant comes alive, only God can save the city. As the guide said, everyone is aware of this, but then again a volcano hardly erupts every few hundred years. Hence the typical Italian nonchalance has taken over, and the city has grown peacefully around the volcano.

For me, this was the first time that I saw a volcanic mountain, and that too live one. I was mesmerized staring at the crater, and trying to fathom the depths. There were some crevices from which smoke billowed out quite vigorously.

Next stop -- Pompei. This is the place, etched deep in history, and standing as a witness to the devastation that Vesuvius can cause. The story of Pompei is well-known. A flourishing city which suddenly faced the wrath of Vesuvius and was wiped out overnite. The city has been excavated and the way it has been preserved is really admirable. You can see the entire city layout, the houses, amphitheatres, palaces. But the one thing that will leave an indelible mark on you are the “mummies”. These are people who were buried and burnt alive when the volcanic lava hit the city. The bodies were mummified and after excavation has been preserved. A truly unnerving sight.

Jan 6, 2009: 4:00 PM: Headed for Rome

Vacation was over at Napoli. But we were headed for another city of dreams – Rome. It takes around 4 hours by train to reach Rome from Napoli. But Italian train service can give Indian Railways a good competition in terms of delays. We were lucky to reach on time. Thanks to our friend, Antonella, we landed in Rome and were whisked away to a bar. It was birthday party. What better way to start your travel in Rome.

Jan 7, 2009: 9:00 AM: visiting Rome

In Rome, our luck started betraying us because it started drizzling. But undaunted, we headed for the Collesseum. One can go inside the Colleseum, but the sight from outside is breathtaking enough. And we had several other places to hop into, therefore, decided against going inside.

Right next to the Collesum is the Fori Romani, or the ruins of ancient Rome. It can take you a whole day to walk around this place. There are hundreds of archaelogical wonders to view. Never should one visit Rome with a time constraint. We whisked through Fori Romani. Next stop was Altare alla patria – monument to the Italian nation. A relatively modern structure to visit compared to the rest of Rome.

We did not waste much time. It was raining. Walking in the rains was not quite pleasant. So we decided to reach the Pantheon, and spend the time indoors for a while. I will not belabor on the grandeur of these famous architectures. It just suffices to say that one can sit there a whole day wondering about the grandeur of such constructions. Closeby was the famous Trevi Fountain, made famous by so many movies. This is another must-see place for tourists. Despite the rains, the place was throbbing with tourists who were shoving each other to get a spot for a picture and perform the customary tossing of coin into the fountain. As Maya explained to me, this ritual ensures that you will be back to Rome again. I really wish that it works.

Jan 8, 2009: 9:00 AM: Rome Continued ...

Been to Rome, and not piad your homage to the Pope – just not possible. Though it was raining, we headed for Vatican – a city within a city. First thing you will notice as you get close to Vatican are the guards. They are not the Italian police, they are Vatican guards. On a sunny day, they will be dressed in bright colors, but as luck had it, due to the rain they were all covered in black overalls. Missed the sight. But roamed around Vatican and despite the rains saw a long winding queue for the entry into the Sistine chapel. Maya managed to persuade me that it is not worth standing in a queue for hours to get into the Sistine chapel to see an artwork from Michaelangelo. I am sure if the Trevi fountain ritual works for me, and I am back in Rome again on a nice sunny day, this will be one thing I will be back to see.

A long tour down to Santa Maria Maggiore. The dazzle of the golden ceiling in this chapel was all I could see. All the chapels in Rome seem to beat each other in proportion and grandeur. Each one I saw, and I did visit quite a few, especially on a rainy day, and what better place to take shelter than the abode of God, I kept wondering that this cannot be outdone in its magnificience, only to be surprised at the next one. A little less in grandeur, but significant in terms of its influence, was the Jesuit church. This is the headquarters of the Jesuit order. Finally, there was San Giovanni in Laterno. So amny churches – can one call Rome to be the City of Cathedrals. Then again, there are so many other things that keeps flooding in.

One such fantastic thing was the Roman food. Antonella took us to some authentic Roman restaurant, not the touristy ones. It is like having Mughali food at Chandni Chowk in Delhi. It was a big group of friends. Each one ordered different dishes, and I being the uninitiated to these tastes got the privilege to try each dish. It was a culinary blast, and I had a tough choosing mine. Finally what I was recommended without being told what it was turned out to be a fantastic feast of eastern spicy food combined with Mediterranean subtlety. The waiter turned out to be a Pakistani guy, and he was amused to see my state. He told me that if I should visit Lahore or Karachi to taste these dishes, which he claims has reached true perfection as it travelled to South Asia. Alas, I wish someday the political squabbles are tamed, and we commoners, who would love to know the better part of our Islamic cuisine, will get a chance to visit our neighbors.

Just two days in Rome is sacrilege. Anyone planning to visit Rome, do plan for at least 3-4 days. Rome cannot be conquered by blazing through it as we tried to do and left craving for more.

Jan 9, 2009: 10 AM: To Pisa and homeward bound

We reached Pisa before midday. The weather gods finally decided to smile on us. Pisa is a small town. You are mainly here to visit the leaning tower of Pisa. But you will be pleasantly surprised when you reach the tower. There is a beautiful cathedral adjacent to the tower, and that by no means is a thing to miss.
We spent the night at Francesca’s place. Having friends in different cities is really nice !!

Jan 9, 2009: Midnight – We are almost home

Next day, we are supposed to be back in Swiss via Milan. All the tickets are booked therefore, it should have been a straightforward journey. But Italian Railways managed to throw in a few surprises. We missed our connecting train from Milan to Lugano. After long discussions at the train station, we were handed a ticket for another train which stops at Genoa and from there we were to get another train to Lugano. It was finally past midnight when we were back in Mezzovico. A memorable trip coming to an end. But surely this will not be the last of Italy I have seen. Trevi Fountain promises me that I will be back in Rome !!

The pictures from this trip will be coming soon.


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