A quick detour to Pisa on our way to Florence turned into a really fun memory. The place was packed with people in ridiculous poses, pushing, holding or supporting the leaning bell tower. It took some teamwork and a few dozen tries, but we got a few shots in too.
When we ascended the tower, I could tell it was leaning. It only takes a few degrees to throw off your equilibrium. I had to stop for a break midway up. The marble steps were also worn from all those who came before me. I liked this, like I was on a pilgrimage to finally see the famous tower I learned about in my sixth grade social studies class, a tower that I had long forgotten but suddenly remembered with urgency.
From the top, we had an extensive view of the area. The town of Pisa, the mountains, the top of the Pisa Cathedral. There was a lot more to see and do than I anticipated and we didn’t make it in time to tour the cathedral. We stayed until dark, bought a leaning tower trinket and then took the train to Florence.
Ultimately, I’m glad I took the detour and ignored my suspicion that Pisa would be a cheesy tourist trap. Besides being fun, it was really beautiful, a perfect little green lawn with a bell tower and churches and some of the most lovely architecture I’ve ever seen.
When we arrived in Naples, it was late and raining. Taxis lined the street and the homeless huddled against the train station walls. Only a mile from our hotel and facing a high taxi fare, we chose to walk.
As we headed down Galileo Ferraris, I wondered if we had made a mistake. It was an industrial area with few street lights and little traffic except for the ladies of the night and their johns. The sidewalks were littered with condoms, needles, feces. I was uneasy until I saw the sign for our hotel in the distance.
The next morning when we entered the metro station nearby, we wondered whether the train would actually stop there. The stairs were soaked in urine, the walls were graffitied and the ticket machine had long been broken. A handful of teens loitered on the platform and we asked them if we needed to buy tickets. They were confused at first and then laughed. Clearly, no one actually bought tickets, nor was it even possible.
This was Gianturco, a station we were later told to avoid by a woman who sat next to us on the train. Pericoloso, pericoloso! she repeated. Dangerous. In addition to her warning, she wrote down the name of a pizza place we should visit while in Naples to give us a better impression of the place: Sorbillo.
Later on, after visiting the National Archaeological Museum to see artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, we walked around the city to see what constituted “gritty” and “edgy”—the guide books’ favorite way of describing Naples.
I’m tempted to call these descriptions euphemisms, a nice way of overlooking the obvious decline of the city, the overflowing garbage and the ever-present graffiti marking city walls, statues, historical placards—anything within reach. But I can also see Naples’ charm, the tiny streets and rows of shops, the freakish amount of miniature nativity sets on Via San Gregorio Armeno, and of course, the food.
While walking, and completely by accident, we stumbled across Sorbillo. It wasn’t open yet so we waited outside where we met an American couple on their honeymoon. They were at the end of their trip and ready to go home. Naples had given them the same sense of uneasiness—and they were from Detroit, America’s own broken city.
As we talked, a large crowd had gathered, and when the doors finally opened, it was chaos. The staff called out party numbers (Party of 3? Party of 5?) and then pointed to groups in the crowd. We held up 2 fingers and were one of the first groups to be seated. When our waiter came, we told him to bring us 2 pies—whatever he recommended.
Soon after, we were given a traditional Neapolitan pizza, the crowd favorite, and the waiter’s favorite which had bacon and ricotta cheese. It was fresh and non-greasy with simple flavors and a soft, chewy crust. It was simply amazing—the best pizza I’ve ever eaten—and pretty cheap too. We ordered a bottle of red to accompany, which was equally good, cheap and served with small plastic cups. Then we finished our meal and continued exploring the city with a small bottle of limoncello.
National Archaeological Museum
Venice blew me away, which was surprising. I feared that a place with so much hype could never live up to its reputation. In fact, I almost didn’t go at all. But I am so glad I did!
Venice is just as beautiful and romantic as everyone says it is. It is not, however, hot and smelly and full of rats (as some people say as well). Perhaps that was just my luck as I went in April before it got too hot and crowded. Bottom line: seeing Venice is a must!
- Take a water taxi on the Grand Canal. If you can, get a seat at the front—you’ll get some amazing photos.
- Get lost. Walking around Venice is the best way to see it. There’s beauty around every corner from an unexpected statue to a windowsill garden.
- Buy a glass bead necklace. They are lovely and it’s a souvenir you can wear instead of just sticking on a shelf.
- Expect great food without a hunt. Venice is notorious for peddling sub-par cuisine to tourists. The pizza I ordered from a street cafe was barely edible and the pasta I ordered in a sit-down was just average. Even the famed Aperol Spritz was a no for me; it looks and tastes like DayQuil. (Sorry spritz lovers!)
- Ride a gondola. They’re expensive and the waterways are crowded. I didn’t ride one and I don’t feel like I missed out on my Venetian experience. (If you’re not on a budget, go ahead and splurge. It must be popular for a reason, right?)
- Accept a free rose. If you do, you’ll be hassled for money afterward. Though I said no thank you, one man was so persistent that he tried to shove the flower in my hands even after I backed all the way up against a wall to get away from him.
There are public restrooms in Venice but I never came across one. The easiest thing to do is to stop by a café and buy a drink. You’ll want a water or soda throughout the day anyway.