Sunday, August 10, 2008

Brussels and notes on the trip to Southern Italy

In the wee hours Friday morning, back in the room, we packed, caught up on email, checked flight status updates, and headed to the aeroporto. Because I started the trip in the US and Olga started hers in Russia, we were on separate itineraries and had separate parallel flights: we both flew from Palermo at 6am, shared a layover in Rome at 8am, had separate layovers, then both were to arrive in San Francisco at 8pm. Except I had scheduled only 1 hour layover for myself in Brussels - and my Alitalia flight was 1 hour late! No amount of OJ Simpson-like running from one end of the huge Brussels airport to the other could get me there on time. And United had no more flights until the identical flight on Saturday -- which means my vacation was extended by 24 hours in Belgium!!!

Not many people stay at inexpensive hotels near airports - it caters to a very specific niche. After missing my flight, while waiting for the shuttle bus to a hotel, I befriended a lady who was on her way to visit family in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. Her flight from New York JFK to Brussels was two hours late, she missed the connection, and the next flight wouldn't be until 4 days later on Tuesday. After I helped get her bags into the hotel (which, for anyone playing along with the home game, is how I originally met Olga!), I checked in, dropped off my bags, and ran back to the waiting shuttle bus that was just getting ready to leave to go back to the airport. On the shuttle, I met a very friendly couple from Lima Peru that was visiting Brussels as a home base and taking trips out to smaller towns in Belgium and France. They had a very early flight out on Sunday and wanted to stay close to the airport. They guided me towards the bus to downtown and advised me on city travel options. Then later in the evening I met an Israeli (Russian emigrant) Paulina who was staying in Brussels for 2 weeks for a Yiddish language class to improve her Jewish folk singing. The 2 week program had just ended and she spent her first (and last) day visiting the town. We were both taking the subway to the same station (where I was to pick up a bus back to the airport - and where she was staying in the program) and together struggled to figure out how to get on the right metro line.

Brussels is sooooo cute - the tourist-filled squares have fun little shops with the best chocolates - every corner has a pub with an unbelievable selection of trappist monk-made and fruity beers - used CD stores abound (I popped into a few and ended up buying a still-warm used Art Blakey Bluenote jazz CD straight out of the store CD player) - and of course the pommes frites and waffles - all signs/ads/marquees are in the national languages of French and Flemish as well as English (they could teach Americans a few things about multilingualism) - and of course the Manneken Pis statue that was a scene in itself because that corner was SO packed with gawkers.
Saturday, take two, I was rebooked on the same flights and I actually made it in time! I am amazed at how many friendly people we met on this trip - tourists of all kinds and pretty much everyone in Brussels.

Some additional notes on the trip:

* My Italian SCUBA instructor was introduced himself to me as "Jean Pierre from Sicily." I asked "are you French?" and he was a bit offended. "NO! It's spelled Gianpiero!"
* We heard the song "Eye of the Tiger" more than I have since 1976 - including the marching band in Cefalu and on the radio at Michele's Trattoria in Palermo. And "Aquarius" from Hair was running on a seemingly endless loop of commercials.

* One new development is the prevalence of Russian tourists throughout Europe - they seem to outnumber the American tourists in the towns we visited this trip.


Wednesday morning, we had a lovely breakfast in the Cefalu hotel, checked out, and walked through the town with determination to find last-minute souvenirs, check email/blog, mail packages, and get foodstuffs for the train trip to Palermo. Internet was no problem, we found a kiosk inside a video rental place (they kicked us out after 2 hours). Mailing packages was more difficult as the post offices were closed for Cefalu Patron Saint day (the reason for nonstop marching band the night before). Mail Boxes etc wanted over $100 to mail a small package because they aren't an authorized stamp seller and have to use 3rd party carriers. So with luggage, gifts, and lunchings in tow, we took the train to Palermo.

When we got off the train, we asked around and learned that our hotel was not as close to the train station as we had hoped. We decided it would be best to try again to mail the packages ASAP as it was not a holiday in Palermo (but these holidays do seem to pop up without warning!) We go to the post office in every country we visit - either to buy postcard stamps (or in the case of Ukraine, the postcards themselves), to mail souvenirs/gifts, etc. As tourists, it is the single best way we found to get a feeling for the realities of everyday life in a country. In Germany, the post office lines move swiftly and they have automated stamp machines, but there and many different lines depending on what you want to do, and we can never figure out which one to be in. In Spain, there is one line, but it is longer than the post office itself, and it's a game just trying to figure out what order people are in - and if you are travelling with enough people in your party, you can send them out to buy tape and envelopes because it's impossible to get any supplies in the post office itself. In Greece, the lines are short and the staff is super friendly. In Italy, there are way too many lines and it's impossible to determine which ticket to take. Most people seem to take one of each kind of ticket, so when the current number being called is 87 and your ticket says 129, you're only a few people away from the front of the line because most people are actually looking for different services. They sell all the supplies you might need (although there is definitely a shortage of rolls of tape - the box we bought came with exactly enough little squares of tape to satisfy the minimal adhesive requirements for this box - and there was no tape anywhere to be found in the posteitaliane other than the proverbial red tape), the bureaucracy is high (they don't say this when in the box-buying-department, but apparently the medium yellow box can be mailed with no problems, but the infinitesimally-larger-than-medium blue boxes require an Italian citizen ID card number to be mailed due to their size -- and they require a return address based in Italy), and the postal workers are the exact opposite of what you would except in a government-run organization (the agent was helpful and skillfully maneuvered around the issues of the blue box / ID number, printed stamps that were too large for postcards, return address that was out of the country, etc).

After offloading the packages, we rolled our suitcases all the way across town to the hotel room, unloaded our gear, and proceeded to engage in seeing the sights. Palermo is an amazing place, it has been mostly neglected since WWII, and so you can see it as it was in the mid 20th century. It has been ruled by many distinct civilizations through the years - Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Norman, Arab, Spanish, and Italian. You can see the impact of those influences as you walk through the 4 quarters of the city which are like taking a time machine to each of the ancient civilizations. Some of the iconic structures such as the Cappella Palatina and Palermo Cathedral have all influences within one structure as they were built and augmented by each ruling group. In the Arab quarter, there are markets/bazaars and ancient mosques-turned-churches galore. We snacked on street food and, by the end of the evening, made it down to Piazza Marina for drinks and a Sicilian hors d'oeuvres sampler platter.

Wednesday night and Thursday morning we caught up on emails/blogging and switched to serious sightseeing mode at noon. First was the Royal Palace and Cathedral. The church had the most amazing wall mosaics depicting various scenes from the old and New Testament - also I noticed Jewish stars and multiple kinds of 10-pointed stars throughout. In the basement, you can view the ancient-ancient history of the palace as they have recently unearthed the Byzantine and Punic walls from the 8th century BC.

Then we took the bus to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini - our guidebooks list it as being in the suburbs and requiring a bus ride. After waiting about 20 minutes in the scorching heat, we hopped on the bus and were shocked when in only 2 minutes the bus driver told us we were there! In the underground catacombs, former residents of Palermo are housed, some lying down and some standing, most just hanging out in the corridors. SPOOKY!

We walked back towards the Palace at Independence piazza and when we were a block away, we stopped by a friendly-looking little trattoria. That was when we got sucked into the world of Michele Marchese, the super-friendly trattoria owner. He had a fruit stand on this spot for many years and remodeled it as a restaurant after getting shaken down by the police one too many times. Now in the restaurant business for 8 years, he loves posing for pictures, telling visitors his story (in mixed Italian, American tv show references, and gestures), and most of all receiving letters and photos from his new "Friends" after they return home. We ordered panini’s but Michele insists on bringing his specialty eggplant dishes and spaghetti con carne. This is by far the most authentic and original food we have had on this trip -- YUM!

We did a bit of window shopping and browsing through clothing stores, rested in the room with some mindless watching of Fox on SkyB, then headed out into the night. Since our flight was scheduled for 6am Friday morning and we had to leave the hotel at 4am, we decided to stay up all night. We walked around the Marina area and enjoyed ice cream and drinks in packed outdoor cafes into the wee hours.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Arrivederci Naples, Buongiorno Cefalu

For our last day in Naples, we tried to see all of the city sites we didn't get to this week. First we tried to go to the Castel Nuovo (the 13th century "New Castle"), but it is closed on Sundays. Then we walked over to the old Castel Dell'Ovo (the 12th century castle with a mystical history that Olga is fascinated with), but it had the same fate. We also wanted to ride the funiculars, but ran out of time. So we'll need another day in Naples some time!

Thankfully, the Royal Palace and San Carlos Theatre were open, so we perused them. We took lots of silly pictures, including me making the face of an old clock, and a self-portrait taken through an old mirror on a royal dining table. We stopped by our the only known working internet cafe, but of course it was closed for Sunday. Luckily we had our laptops and they left the WiFi equipment on :)

We headed back towards the Centrale Stazione to collect our bags and get ready for the train trip to Sicily, but first we had to have our last authentic Neapolitan pizza. We have been finding the service decreasing in quality throughout the trip, but apparently that has no relation to the quality of the pizza as my Tomato, Mozzarella, Mushroom pizza with Ricotta cheese stuffed in the crust was out of this world!!

We boarded the overnight train around 10pm. It was not a very pleasant part of the trip, but it was interesting. It was hot, stuffy, loud (people were talking all night, some people were playing music), and just generally uncomfortable. However there was one really neat part when the train was loaded onto a ferry and scurried across the Adriatic Sea. The entire train could not fit contiguously in the boat, so it would shimmy into the boat, drop off 4 cars, pull out the remaining 12 cars, go back in another track, drop off 4 cars, pull out the remaining 8, etc.

Monday at 8am, we arrived in the beautiful beach resort town of Cefalu in Sicily. It is truly a wonderful town with friendly folks, not too touristy. We spent the entire day napping, swimming, eating, and reading on the beach. In the evening, we ventured into the medievel part of town to investigate the restaurants and shops. Highlight: gelato in a brioche (French dinner roll), rinsing up in a medievel foot bath, and a 3-hour 6-course dinner (shared by the two of us) at a local Trattoria.

Tuesday in Cefalu was a bit more adventurous. We woke up early in order to not miss the Italian buffet breakfast provided by the hotel. I was still tired from not sleeping the night before and ended up taking a nice long nap in the room before heading out for lots of fun in the beach - yay! In the afternoon Olga had to finish writing a story and I looked through some brochures for possible excursions, deciding to go on a snorkeling trip. They picked me up at the hotel and we rode on a very scenic drive Eastward along the coast for about 25 mins.

Along the way, he managed to convince me to upgrade from snorkeling to SCUBA. Having done snorkeling in Mexico and in Hawaii, it seemed the natural progression. One pool dive and one sea dive later, I am a PADI Discover Scuba level diver. We were swimming in a reef on the Mediterranean Sea and there were schools of fish swimming around us. We were only 7 meters below the surface, but there were so many different kinds of beautiful fish just an arm's length away, it was really amazing. The next level is super expensive, so I think I'll continue doing just these introductory dives.

Then we went out to dinner in a Michelin-guide rated restaurant. I enjoyed it more than last night's - the service was peppier and I enjoyed today's carne courses more than yesterday's pesce courses - although nothing even tops the Caprese insalate. We at dinner at the bottom of the steps of the 12th century year Cefalu Duomo (cathedral) and a marching band kept marching back and forth through dinner to celebrate the Patron Saint holiday (each time giving the piano player at the restaurant a break in the middle of each tune).

The first time they went by, they were followed by the local cardinal, priests, a monk, town elders, local congregation members, the mayor, and other political delegations. The second they passed through, the priests and the cardinal had disappeared. The time, everybody except the band and its parade of new followers passed by. We were finished up dinner and followed the band long enough to catch a couple of tunes.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Naples, Vesuvius, and Sorrento

Saturday: We started this morning off by heading back to the town of Pompeii and took a bus from there up the summit of Mt. Vesuvius. But before the bus arrives at the top, they take a 30 minute break at a stand run by a very charismatic 80 year old gentleman who was hired by Italy 15 years ago to run the most recent funicular that was being built then, but it was never completed and he's still waiting to start :) We enjoyed listening to his stories of the former funiculars, life with British soldiers after WWII during an eruption, and more. We couldn't stop ourselves from buying a few postcards to support the guy. Then the bus took us to the visitor center that was close to the top of the mountain - close but we still had a lot of switchback trail climbing to do. And the bus comes at funny intervals so we had to either be back on the bus in 1 hour or 2.5 hours. The climb to the top took about 25 mins, then about 15 mins of taking pictures, then we raced back down to catch the bus that was getting ready to pull away.

After the bus dropped us off at the bottom of the mountain, we took a train out to Sorrento, a scenic town on the Amalfi coast. We wandered around a bit and saw the center of town in about 30 minutes. Then we headed down the cliffside path from Piazza Tasso and went for a swim in the Bay of Naples then back up the hill (these stairs are a lot easier to climb than Vesuvius' switchback trails the air isn't as thin either). We had dinner at a nice local restaurant catering to the tourists who overrun the town. The local musician Fernando entertained us with famous Neapolitan songs. Then we took the train back to Naples and that was a long day. Whoo!

Friday, August 1, 2008


I arrived in Naples Wednesday night a few hours before Olga and passed out before she arrived. I had some trouble finding the hotel -- imagine my surprise when I was happily awoken by a phone call - it was Olga saying she was waiting in the lobby! yay! We wandered randomly through the city at night, without a map or any idea of the city layout. It later turned out that we had covered about 60% of the city - almost all of the medieval sector.

The next morning some member of the hotel staff (I hope) barged their way into the room, said some expletive, and ran out. No matter, we were up and enjoyed an early morning breakfast and walk through the city (this time with a map). We stumbled upon two fascinating underground sites within a block from each other. First was the San Lorenzo Maggiore (Church) - underneath it was discovered an ancient lost Greco-Roman civilization that was preserved better than any ruins I have seen in Rome. It's also neat because it has been preserved in chronological order.

Then across the street is Subterranean Naples, an 80-Km-long labyrinth (we didn't walk the whole thing) that was originally a Greek quarry for building Naples, then an ancient Roman aqueduct bringing water into the city, then in WWII was used as a bomb shelter that could have fit the entire city's population. At the end, they took us to an apartment building they are continually (for the past 8 years) acquiring and recovering - it was formerly Nero's theatre in ancient times. The parts they have acquired and peeled back are fascinating - including an ancient Roman road that, a few years ago, was the apartment building's motorcycle garage.

Later on the same street, we had our first Napoli pizza - amazing!!! I don't know how they made it so quickly (about 5 minutes) and so tasty (the crust was so soft and perfectly baked).
Then we headed to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. It is entirely comprised of artifacts dug up from Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum - the 3 cities that were destroyed by lava flow in 79 AD.

After 3 floors of Vesuvian artifacts and several Cafe Freddo and Limone Granita breaks, we were ready for a light dinner. We walked through some more of the city, down to the harbor. Birthday dinner comprised of super yummy gelato, then wine at a vino bar on Santa Lucia street. Then we walked along the water back to the hotel.

Friday the archaeology theme continued. We took the train to Pompeii in the morning. I have to say the place would be so much more moving if they still had the original artifacts. A few structures had replicas of the artifacts, but most of them had nothing (even the frescas had been peeled off the walls and put in the Napoli museum. My favorite sites here were the brothel (the beds look so hard - the frescos are still there listing a menu of services rendered), the bakery (there's a cute picture somewhere of me popping out of an oven), the amphitheatre (hasn't changed a bit since the 1972 Pink Floyd film), and the plaster dead people (as the archaeologists were digging, when they would come across a hollow area, they would fill it with plaster and wait for it to dry. Then they would keep digging, and the plaster cast would come out into the shapes of humans and animals - they were 'buried alive' and left cavities in the pumice after their bodies decomposed).

In the evening, we decided to take it easy. We went for another pizza (good but not as good as the first day). Spent the rest of the night at a cool internet bar (the only working one we have seen on this trip - the previous 3 were broken) - it's a used bookstore, used cd store, free wifi point, and bar w/ DJ that has really been rocking the last couple of hours. Unlike an internet cafe were you get more wired and focused as you are there, here we are all getting nice and toasted - a good quality for blogging. In Vino Veritas.