Saturday, October 3, 2009


Warning: This is a long post!

We arrived in Bologna unsure of what to expect. As we walked down one of the main streets and felt the vibes we all agreed that it had a nice feel - it sort of reminded me of the authenticity of Granada mixed with the city-life of Madrid. And of course, throw in some Italians. We found our apartment really easily and I was secretly excited to see that it was a real apartment! The entrance was a giant door that doesn't actually open - what opens is a little door cut out of the giant door. After meeting our cute Italian apartment manager he led us upstairs through a tiny hallway to our awesome, spacious two-bedroom apartment. It had a big TV, a full kitchen, a big bathroom, air conditioning, internet, etc. It has got to be one of the nicest places we've stayed so far - and really cheap for it being a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of a big city. We were briefed about the apartment in broken English mixed with fluent Italian and after settling in we went out for some food. Chuck took us along the scenic route where we saw Bologna's set of leaning towers: the Due Tori. I suppose leaning towers aren't just for Pisa! These weren't all that pretty though. They were just 4-sided, brick towers that rose straight up with little embellishment. We headed through one of the food-market areas trying to find a butcher. Most things were closed by that time in the afternoon though, so we didn't manage to get what we were hoping to: a duck and a rabbit. We got a few veggies instead. Chuck next took us to Piazza Maggiore which is home to the Fontana del Nettuno and the fifth largest church in the world: the San Petronio. We just glanced around as we passed through on our way to the supermarket. After buying a big load a groceries we trudged our haul back to the apartment. We sat in for the rest of the evening just watching TV or sitting on the computer. Robyn made us a yummy pizza for dinner and we all split a bottle of wine.

The morning of the 3rd Chuck cooked us omelets stuffed with chopped ham and soft cheese. We headed out again to try and find a butcher, and this time had much more success. We actually found numerous butchers as well as a bunch of fruit and veggie stalls, cheese shops, and delis. I managed to find a duck (although it was a bit sad looking) and Robyn got some nice, thick sausages. Chuck and I finished up some more grocery shopping at the big supermarket and Robyn went off to do some person shopping for herself. She ended up with a shirt or two and some pants among a couple of other things. Meanwhile I prepared the duck. The duck came still attached to its head and feet, which I have no experience with removing. I got out the biggest knife I could find (which wasn't all that big, really) and stretched out the poor little neck. I looked at it for a few moments, staring into those beady little eyes as I held the knife poised near my shoulder. I had a few small false starts before I steeled myself to the task, counted to three and gave it my best whack. The head was, of course, still attached. I barely made it through the bone for all my effort. But after hacking away a few more times I had the deed done and finished. The feet involved a bit snapping which I won't get into, but that wasn't pretty either. I made my mashed potato and onion mixture, stuffed it up his butt, ringed him with carrots and potatoes and shoved him in the oven. All was looking good! I sat back and relaxed while the duck baked. Every once in a while I would baste the veggies in the bubbling fat that was melting off the bird. About halfway through I noticed something odd. The mashed potatoes that were oozing out of the cavity (as they are supposed to do) had a green tinge to them right around the edge of the duck. It looked like green food coloring had seeped into the potatoes! Try as I might, I couldn't find anything at all about "green stuff on my duck." The duck was still pretty tasty though. If we just avoided the weird green bits then everything was fine. The potatoes were especially good, if I do say so myself. Not too long after dinner we got dressed in our finest clothes (which for us is about the equivalent of getting dressed to go to the movies or something) and headed out to find a fun looking hookah bar Robyn and Chuck had researched online. A few wrong streets later we had made it to find the place was closed down for renovations. What a bummer! So no hookah for us.

The 4th was to be our day in Pisa. I forgot to set my alarm clock so we woke up late. I have to admit, I'm not sure that we would have gotten up in time even if the alarm clock had been set. We tend to ignore alarm clocks these days. Perhaps that's what extended "vacation" does to you? Although come to think of it, I ignore my alarm clock whenever possible, vacation or not. We decided we could still go if we took the 1:15 train so I cooked up a pasta lunch to take with us and Chuck cooked us a quick breakfast. We got to the station, ready to go by 1:15 and waited. And waited and waited. The train ended up being almost an hour late! This totally threw off our schedule for the rest of the day, but what could we do? After finally making it to Pisa and figuring out their bus system we found ourselves in front of the front gate to the Pisa Cathedral. We mingled into the crowd with all the other tourists to take in the sights. On the left is the baptistry with the cathedral across from it. Fun fact: apparently the Pisa baptistry is where Galileo Gallilei was baptized! It's also a unique building because of its echo-y properties. We didn't go in ourselves (would have been €5 a person and we're cheap) but you can find videos on YouTube of people kind of singing with themselves because the echo lasts so long. It's pretty cool. The cathedral is big and beautiful, but really just another of the many cathedrals around Italy. And then there's the famous tower of Pisa right out behind the cathedral. It's not the only tower in Italy that's leaning, but it is one of the prettier ones. And it does have quite a lean to it! We had to do the obligatory "optical illusion" photos of us holding up the leaning tower as well any other sorts of things we could think to do to it. I have to say, I think we were some of the more original tourists there. We not only held up the tower, but pushed and kicked it over, picked it up, and even ate it! It was funny to just stand and watch the other tourists doing the same thing. People everywhere, young and old, holding their hands in the air, pushing against some invisible object. After getting our fill of the tower we made a quick stop at the Arno River that runs through Pisa. Robyn wanted to see it because it's mentioned as the river Lauretta threatens to throw herself into in the song O Mio Babbino Caro from the opera Gianni Schicchi. We arrived back in Bologna at about 10:00 PM, all feeling a bit cranky. It was nothing that some steaming pizzas and freezing granite couldn't fix though. The granite (like a sorbet kind of) were soooo good! We got them from the little gelato place right near our apartment and I think they're made fresh everyday. They taste fresh and natural - like there were real peaches in the peach granita and real grapefruit in the grapefruit one. They made us feel instantly better about getting home so late.

The next morning we slept in. Just as I woke up Robyn was heading out to the big market that's held down the road on main street each day. When she got back she told us that they had absolutely everything there and that it was huge. She got a few woven leather bracelets herself. We were getting hungry so headed downstairs to to the restaurant right below us called Bel Fiore. We each decided to simply go with the "menu del giorno," or menu of the day. The waiter (I think he was the owner or manager at least, too) was a rotund cheery fellow who was very nice and chatty. He didn't really speak English - he could just manage to slip in a few English words here and there when we looked completely confused by what he was saying. But he loved to chat with us about how things are in Italy, and how Italians do such-and-such. He was great. And the food was divine! Our first course was a simple plate of spaghetti with olive oil and some lemon juice and spicy red pepper bits. Next was a filet of breaded pork doused in a tomato sauce with a salad. We also got a tiramisu for dessert. It was all to die for. After lunch we just had to get a granite again - they're that good. We got some wine from the nearby wine shop (everything is nearby, it's awesome) and finished it off while waiting for dinner time. Robyn prepared for dinner those giant sausages she had gotten the other day with sauteed peppers and onions. We went and got more wine... The sausages ended up being great. We had our wine and all just hung out talking late into the night. Somewhere near midnight we all decided we wanted some more food so I cooked up the mushrooms we had on hand and just tossed them in some pasta. Nothing like mushroom pasta at midnight when you're somewhat intoxicated... Good stuff.

I have to say, we've become good at sleeping in by now. We woke up some where between 10:00 and 11:00 and didn't actually get out the door until 1:30 or so. But when we did we went to the train station and hopped the train to Firenze. Firenze is a popular city for tourists, but still has its charm if you can manage to ignore that fact. We saw a number of churches from the outside only: Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo (with the Medici Chapel Museum in the back), and Santa Croce. I would have liked to have gone into Santa Croce but by the time we finally got to the church it was closed. It's home to the tombs of Dante, Michelangelo, and a couple of other famous old dudes. We managed to go inside two other churches, one of which was the huge Santa Maria del Fiore. It is an absolutely stunning church from the outside. It looks like it's made completely of white, cream, pale green and pale pink marble and is just gorgeous. Inside is another story though. It's plain. I guess that's probably why it's free to go inside maybe? It seems that if the church is gorgeous on the outside it usually isn't special inside, and if it's boring outside it's probably incredible once you go in. Maybe inside-beauty is inversely proportional to outside-beauty for European churches. The Duomo also had it's own baptistry and bell tower, just like Pisa's cathedral. Unlike Pisa though, the bell tower isn't leaning. It was just as pretty as the church and for a small, exorbitant fee you could climb all the way to the top. Can you guess whether or not we decided to do it? Yeah, no. We stayed on the ground. We also went into a small, boring-looking-from-the-outside church that was actually rather beautiful inside. They had a large monument-like structure by the altar with a picture of the Virgin Mary in it that looked much to big to be in there. And lucky us, we got to hear a trio practicing. It was two violins and an organ which, as far as I know, is not a very common combination. I always love it when we go into a church and find that there is music being performed. We also wandered through the thoroughly crowded Piazza Signoria where the Accademia Gallery is located. The gallery is home to Michelangelo's David statue, so out front they have an oversized replica that we all got a picture with. We passed by the Uffizi Gallery (apparently a pretty famous art gallery and home to the Birth of Venus painting) and came to the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is pretty cool. It's a bridge that was built in the 1300's that is lined with shops along each side, with the road running down the middle. It was originally occupied by butchers, but when the royalty moved into their new palace nearby they decided goldsmiths would much better suit the place. It still has it's old feel to it with small windows, tiny doors, and small rows of potted plants hanging off a few second story windows. It has a small feel to it and is rather quaint. Our last major sight was the Palazzo Pitti. This is that "new palace" that the royalty moved into. It's rather plain looking from the outside consisting of huge, undecorated slabs of rock. I can't say what it look like inside or around the gardens because we decided not to buy the tickets to go in. I'm sure it's much prettier inside though, and I was kind of sad we had to pass it up. We made it back to the train station just in time to catch our train. In fact, we were so close to the departure time that we didn't have time to buy tickets at the counter. I made sure to ask the conductor before getting on if we could buy them on the train and she said yes. Not too long into the ride a man from the compartment next to us was laying on the ground with a worried wife or girlfriend hovering over him. He seemed lucid and was talking, but something had obviously happened. His wife doused his forehead with water and the conductors came around discussing what they should do. He managed to get back up within 5-10 minutes though and we all thought the excitement was over. About 10 minutes later he's back on the ground again. This time they called the ambulance and the train backed up the station and we all waited. Eventually the ambulance arrived and they brought a stretcher on board, loaded him up and took him away. We never figured out what had happened. The best we could figure is that he kept having moments where he would black out briefly, or perhaps his legs kept giving out on him. Hope he ended up being okay! And we got a free ride on the train due to all the excitement. Once back in Bologna we had dinner at the little restaurant downstairs. The owner was, once again, very cheerful and talkative. And the food was, once again, absolutely delicious.

We all woke up very early on the 7th in order to catch the 6:30 AM train to Cinqueterre where we were going to do a nice long hike through some beautiful scenery. We made it to the station and bought tickets in a sleepy haze. They were more expensive than we had expected, but we got them anyways. We waited at the platform for a few minutes before realizing we were at the wrong spot. We were supposed to be on 6 West, not 6 East. It was very close to the time our train was due to arrive so we backtracked in a run, following the signs to the West platform. We emerged onto the platform in a huff and wondered where the train was. The arrival screen showed that it was already here, but we didn't see it anywhere. And the track we were on looked suspiciously like the same one we had just run from. Long story short: we completely missed the train because it was on a track that is not adequately signposted. But luckily we were able to get our refund put towards our tickets to Rome. We couldn't take a later train to Cinqueterre because it would get us there too late to do the hike. Robyn was pretty disappointed I think, but accepted it as the way things were for now. She said that she still wanted to go and that perhaps we could try again after Rome. So we ended up with our tickets to Rome and a bit of disappointment at the end of the morning. Or really, the start of the morning as it was only about 8:00 AM by this point. On the way back to the hotel I took the opportunity to drag us through a park I'd been wanting to see since we got to Bologna. It ended up being more than a let-down seeing as it was covered in graffiti and not taken care of. Oh well. Robyn went back to bed after we got back to the hotel, but Chuck and I went back out again to the food market to arm ourselves with ingredients for a spaghetti carbonara dinner. We found the biggest onion of our lives at one stall and had to buy it. I managed to get a little practice with my Italian in as well. I find I don't remember much, sadly. The carbonara ended up being pretty good, but I'm always wierded out by the fact that the egg is technically raw when you eat it. So nothing exciting ended up happening that day because or plans were spoiled by bad signage.

On our train out of Bologna to Rome a guy had a kitty in a carrier that he put on a seat in our compartment for a few stops. We all "awwed" a lot and poked our fingers through the cage when we were sure the guy wasn't watching. The cat was really friendly and would rub up against our finger tips, making us "awwww" even more. Luckily, that was the only eventful part of the trip. Next stop: Rome!

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