Category Archives: Italy

The Snow in Turin Falls Mainly On the Alps

ehhh tried a little too hard on that title…

Anyway, this is a continuation of Cena a Torino.

It was snowing when we woke up the next morning.

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Cena a Torino (Dinner in Turin)

a continuation of All Roads Do Not Lead to Rome

After sloshing through the sleet and slush among the stalls, we were hungry.  Our handy-dandy tourist map indicated a few spots (indicated as Aperitivo) that might offer some choice amuse-bouches if not a square meal, but as it was too early for Italian dinner (7-ish), we had some difficulty locating an establishment that was indicated on the map AND already open to welcome us.   Instead, we plonked down in a cafeteria for 1€50 marocchinos and a regrouping session over a few of the pastries we’d just bought .  Mmmmm.

Back to the hotel, still drenched and cold and a little worse for wear–but nothing a glass of wine and half an hour of warming our tootsies by the heater couldn’t fix.  We were considerably more cheerful and definitely warmer when we ventured out again for dinner at 9:30.  Guiseppe (?) at the front desk directed us to just down the block, a place called Rossopomodoro on the Via 20 Settembre, which somehow we had missed on our miserable trek back.  It turned out to be just about the classiest chain restaurant I have ever visited serving some equally marvelous pizza.

potato, basil, bacon, and cheese + a glass of the house white wine = unghh

The pizza was crackly, aromatic, and lusciously gooey.  Maybe it was just the wine talking, but it seemed like we had arrived at something authentic– not the kind of pizza that might harden to plastic in the morning, but the kind that leaves your fingertips dusted with flour and your eyelids heavy with indulgent bliss.  The crust was hot, though not cooked through in the center of the pie, so we were obliged to engage with the strings of mozzarella that tangled and stretched between our fingers.   I lost myself for a moment between the basil and the bacon, until I remembered I was still in public.  Aaand scene.

All of us being bloggers (Lauren’s site–An American in Menton, Ciera’s site–Aventures D’Une Petite Fille) we broke out the cameras and went snap-happy for a little, garnering perturbed stares from a few other diners.  But if that wasn’t enough, our matchy-matchy blondish hair, solid-color sweaters, scarves, and obvious giggling à l’américaine gathered a little more attention than we intended: when gathering his things to leave, a man at a table near us told us his company had a bet going to see where we are from.  He thought Connecticut.  Still don’t know what to make of that one…

Happy and full, we walked back to the good ol’ Napoleon.

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All Roads Do Not Lead to Rome

When you’re planning to city-hop and photo-op in a stopover to The City of the Seven Hills, don’t count on everything going to plan.  As I found out this weekend, Italian train strikes are terribly fickle creatures.

The original plan, circa Thursday the 26th, had been that a group of 6 of us exchange girls would head to the Italian capital city for the weekend, but since 3–me included– had class on Friday, we split the group in two.  The first 3 would set out on Thursday evening and my trio would follow a day later.  Little did we know, the entire Italian rail system would go on strike for 24 hours between 9 PM Thursday and 9 PM Friday, shifting our entire schedule back by 8 hours and eating an entire day out of our planned Latin gallivanting.

Ever the gung-ho and quick-thinking trailblazers (admittedly with the help of brief panic, wine, and too many sandwiches in the Menton train station’s lounge), we regrouped and looked for a city we might reach easily enough in the morning that still offered the break from small-town living we were hoping for.  Florence?  Geneva? Aix-en-Provence?  We settled on Turin, a measly 4-hour train ride compared to the 10 we’d have taken to Roma, and one place none of the three of us had visited yet.

At just past 7 AM we headed out to Ventimiglia, then hopped tracks to Cuneo, Cuneo to Fossano, and Fossano to Turin.

The vistas were gray and commanding through the Alps in the early morning, as we rode through craggy ravines and stark passes veiled in mist in our one-car train.  Here and there villages poked out through rock, many with the same orange and red-tiled roofs that we see along the coast.  At Breil-Sur-Roya, a station between Ventimiglia and Cuneo when our route dipped back into France, I watched groggy sweatered men drink their coffee in the station bar until the mousy signalman (such jobs still exist!) waved us off.  

We arrived just past 1 PM in Porta Nuova train station.  Since the other two girls wouldn’t be using their Rome train tickets (I have a Eurail pass, so I only needed reservations, not a full ticket) we went directly to the Trenitalia desk.   None of us speak Italian, but the Trenitalia officials waved us off when we asked if anyone spoke English, French, Spanish, even laughing at us when I suggested German.  Not out of the question, we thought, but we were directed to Paciano (something like that?) at the next desk who understood enough French to immediately print out all six of the tickets that Ciera and Lauren had booked online.  Errr… with a look of horror or her face, the girls realized the trio already in Rome were now without tickets, since you can’t exactly print the same tickets twice. Paciano waved his hands when we objected, asking us over and over how we were going to send the tickets to the Rome group and became immediately ornery when we tried to explain that, no, we wanted to change two tickets and leave the rest alone.  He called over a manager, who spoke even less English/French/Arabic/German/Spanish/Dutch, who called over another manager, who called a lady who finally did speak enough French to be patient with us.  Reexplaining the predicament, it became clear that the only possible solution was to claim a refund on all of the tickets and then rebook, including the tickets for the girls in Rome.   Ah.

Frustrated, but with the refund form filled out, we looked for a hotel.  The two available hostels in Turin are well outside the city center, so we took a look around the vicinity of the train station just for kicks.  After a few, we found the Hotel Napoleon, where the gregarious manager (we named him Guiseppe, I have no idea of his actual name) invited us in and gave us a deal, including breakfast and a warm, clean room– more convenient and just about the same price as either of the hostels: finally something in our favor.

After a photo session on our little balcony, we ventured out into the city.  Despite the cold and the rain, the place is beautiful.

My first food in Turin: a steaming cup of Caffe D’Orzo.  Seeing the name on the menu and finding no other association but Orzo pasta, I had to investigate.  It turns out that this is a beverage often served to children as a substitute to coffee (imagine training-wheels for espresso) because it is made with roasted barley and is therefore caffeine-free.   I was instantly smitten with its dark and smoky taste, while still getting that the jolt of bitterness without the actual jitters from caffeine.   Mmmmm… healthy

There was some sort of protest going on in the Piazza Madama to free what appeared to be an Italian socialist party leader.  A short woman with a very prominent lip-ring came over and shouted at us not to take pictures but wouldn’t say anything else as to what was going on.  I still want to know what they were protesting exactly.

Especially when they leave hooks like this one:

It began to snow just as we entered the promenade to the residence of the Royal House of Savoy.

…which was closed.   Following our noses, we came to the 15th century Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, where the sacred Shroud of Turin is kept.  Even as a nonbeliever, this is still a site to see.  There was a copy of the Last Supper on the back wall, shrines to various saints decked in gold and ornate frescos, beautiful light grey marble floors, vaulted ceilings… There was a children’s sermon going on, and I was reminded a lot of the Hanging Church in Cairo, with the shape of the nave in relation to the two aisles, the abundance of decorations on the shrines, and the white arches separating the two being relatively low to other cathedrals I have visited.

Back in the winter air, we headed toward the Porta Palazzo Market on the Piazza della Republica.  Ordinarily it is one of, if not the biggest open-air markets in Europe.  We arrived late in the afternoon, so most of the stalls were already shut down, but we got a great view of the fruit and vegetable stalls that themselves covered more than a city block.

Hearing French, Italian, English, even Arabic among the apples and peppers and rutabagas, I felt very much at home.

We went inside to the meat market, where things were equally expansive.

one of these things is not like the others

We fetched assorted pastries from a bakewares stall and warmed up by walking around a kitschy mall off the main square that was built on top of the 17th century icehouse complex of the Royal House of Savoy.

After a stretch of shoe stores, trinket shops along the lines of Hallmark, and an “American style” barbecue grill… the Virgin Mary in her glass box.


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Milan to Nice by train

I took a bus from Milano Linate Airport to Milano Centrale Train Station, as planned.  I knew I had to get my Eurail pass validated, so I followed the signs to the main ticket office.  A tubby guy with a fantastic moustache stood behind a little information kiosk and stamped my pass.  When I said I wanted to go to Paris he pointed me toward a long line for tickets.  Ok, I thought, if I get the 4 pm train as planned I won’t have any issues with a little waiting.  Half an hour later, when I stood in front of the ticket desk, the ticket woman gave me an incredulous look: “Toodaii Sahnday. No train for four!” She told me I would have to take a series of trains to get to my destination, but I could still make it in time, even early.  She gave me my ticket to Ventimiglia, the first stop, and said, “Yuh goh godda rahn ees een two meenuss!”  I bolted out of the room, almost knocking over an entire family of Japanese tourists, and I fled up the rolling sidewalk to the main train hall.  Somehow, the little Italian I know showed up when I needed it most, though my panicked expression and running probably spoke for themselves.  For two flights I yelped “Scusi!” and “Permesso?!” as befuddled travelers stepped out of my way.  I arrived in the nick of time and the conductor gave me a scolding (at least I assume that’s why he was so emphatic), but I settled myself into a car.  I must really have been a real sight to the two men and one woman who were already in the compartment.  I was wheezing and talking in English and with these big heavy bags that I sort of perched next to me to avoid sticking them above my head.  One of the men was reading a German newspaper and the other looked out the window with a sculptural sort of gloom on his Romanesque face.  The woman, the very definition of MILF (dyed blonde hair, obvious signs of plastic surgery, bright blue eyes, a deep tan, tight brown knit dress, fur trimmed coat, sheer black stockings, knee-high high-heeled leather boots, and crazy makeup), eyed me for a second and then went back to reading her newspaper.  So we hurtled through the Italian countryside, me trying not to go all fuddy-duddy while admiring the scenery and they going about business as usual.  When the men got off at Savona station, I got out the croissant I had saved from our Cairo-Frankfurt flight.  I guess I haven’t eaten croissants in a while and forgot how crumbly they are, but I tried my best to maintain some poise.  My nose started running in the middle of the whole thing and I felt like I was reliving my toddling years but with myself as a babysitter—struggling to multitask the damage-control to de-crumb my fingertips and stifle a sneeze and keep at bay the snot that threatened to drip down my face, which was already covered in crumbs, as was my scarf, my bag, and my shirt.  The milfy lady just kept reading her newspaper, thankfully.

For a while, we passed through flat farmland with the Alps a commanding backdrop, then we crossed into mountains and went through a few tunnels.  We stopped at a few towns and Genova, which looks almost identical to Alexandria architecturally (late 19th century apartment buildings with balconies and painted shutters over the windows) and location-wise except for Alex’s dust.  There were even a few stray cats wandering around the train station, though they looked a lot cleaner than those back in Egypt.   We went along for a few stops with the sea on one side, a restful gray-blue and so clear you could see the sand billowing up under the surf. I was reminded on this first leg of the journey of why I like train travel so much.  It’s usually pretty relaxed and you get a rare chance to peek into people’s backyards and livelihoods for a second as they whip by, unlike the view from a car on the highway (please tell me where you’re driving if you find yourself in disagreement—I want to know!): a dog digging gleefully in the back yard of an apartment complex, gulls swirling over a man tossing crumbs like they were seeds he was sowing, three sailboats in a tight circle around a man with a megaphone in a dinghy (I’m assuming it was a sailing school), an old woman putting out the wash, a street fair with twinkly lights, an endless greenhouse filled with nothing but (what looked like) broccoli, an older woman who typified the elegant image that I think of when I think of Italian women—bold but flattering makeup, a pristine white mink coat, and a scarlet beret, an Armani bag over her arm—clearly making no excuses for her age, but celebrating it in a way other cultures, my own, especially, have difficulty doing.

The train headed southwest from Milan to Genoa, then west along the Mediterranean coast to Ventimiglia.

I switched trains (and from the Italian national train service to France’s) there to head to Nice, which went right through Menton, where I will be studying.  Let’s just say I am even more excited to head back in that direction now that I know what it looks like!

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Eine Gute Fahrt: Cairo-Frankfurt-Milan

Once we boarded the flight from Cairo, I zonked out pretty quickly.  When I woke up it was time for breakfast.

The meal straddled the divide between Europe and Egypt, serving stewed vegetables with chicken, yoghurt with Arabic on it (see Clowny), along with croissants and jam, a roll, actual cheese, roast beef, and a slice of tomato.  For whatever reason, the flight attendant addressed me in German, while the sunburned Danes next to me got English.  I was tickled and broke out my scraggly German in response.  We landed in Frankfurt just past 6 AM.

Captain Günther thanked us for choosing Lufthansa and I unpeeled myself from my seat.  Out on the ramp, it was not as cold as I expected, but the Egyptians from the flight shivered around me.  Part of me had hoped for driving blizzards, half knowing how ludicrous that would be and half hoping for a grand wintry European welcome.  No matter.  I amused myself by practicing dragon breathing in the cold on the shuttle to the central terminal. The first thing that hit me when entering was CHRISTMAS because of the tinseled displays everywhere and Christmas-themed advertisements.  The next thing was WEST: a 20-something sleeping on a bench in the middle of the terminal in only sheer stockings and a brown Northface jacket, a man drinking a cup of beer while strolling around the shops, the clean bathrooms with plenty of toilet paper that I didn’t have to throw in a separate trashcan that were without sneaky bidet functions and didn’t require coughing up a tip for the attendant.  I was giddy!

After the flight attendant thought I was German, I decided to see if I could pull it off and speak only German for the remaining hour in Frankfurt.  I approached the information desk to ask about a simcard, but hadn’t accounted for language gridlock resulting from the switch away from speaking mostly Arabic for so long.  I started out alright, “Bitte!” but then caught my tongue and stood there for a dumb second.  I stuttered out, “Bitte, wo kann ich ein Simkarte kaufen?” but my pause and my expression gave me away: the attendant said, in English, “Right over there, ma’am.” and pointed to an electronics store. *Sigh*

New European simcard installed and in working order, I headed to my gate.  An ad for Colombia flashed on the way: “The only risk is wanting to stay!” “Colombia, experience diversity!” What does that say about the travelers the company expects?  No risk? No previous experience with diversity?  Hmm… I perused the other ads, many that wouldn’t fly in the Middle East. 

I was definitely back in the west! People formed lines without prompting! People drank beer!  Nobody shouted “Welcome to Germany!”

A redheaded Spanish man cursed into his cellphone next to me.  The family across from me were Italian and the teenage daughter looked like she walked straight out of a Renaissance painting: slightly curly brown hair that fell to her lower back, a porcelain face, a bored stare, and a huge forehead.  

A report on the demonstrations in Cairo began on TV: 10 confirmed dead, a top Al-Azhar official killed.  It’s clear now why so many people in the west thought I was nuts for coming there since by all available reports it was on fire and covered in rubble.   Watching protesters hurl rocks, I got the strangest sense of nostalgia I have ever experienced.

I boarded the flight to Milan.

…which proceeded without incident.  I delighted in watching the snow-capped Alps rising out of the horizon, lit up in early-morning fog.

Arriving in Milan Linate, I saw signs in Italian– “Vigili del Fuoco” and laughed because I have no idea what that means.  This time, it was clear that I wouldn’t attempt more language crossovers.  At baggage claim, a lady tried to ask me something in Italian, but I smiled and said (for the first time in a long long long time) “Sorry, ma’am, I just speak English.”

It’s my first time in Italy and stereotypes abounded to my surprise.  While boarding the shuttle from the airport to the train station, I watched a corpulent but stylish lady yak away on a cellphone while her little frilly lapdog ran circles around her, peeing wherever its leash would allow it to go.  An adorable Italian guy helped me lift my bag into the bus. There were a great deal of motorcyles, smartcars, and scooters on the streets and every park we passed had at least one soccer game going.   “Let it snow” and Bruce Springsteen played on the radio and I sat back to listen to my fellow bus-mates lilt away in musical Italian, including one guy who was speaking tenderly (I think) with his mother.

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