Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Cadillac of Bikes

(This is the second post in a series of two blogs. Enjoy!)

Friday, February 27 to Sunday, March 1:      

This weekend, like many others, started in the train station of Santa Maria Novella (a mere stones throw away from my flat) and the place where trains can transport a traveler just about anywhere in the region of, oh, say, all of Italy. So, deciding to go to Verona earlier in the week (this you may recall from my last passage) I went to the area where tickets are sold and information can be obtained. Stepping up to the bigliterria (or ‘ticket window’ for all you English speaking folk) I inquired after when the next train to Romeo and Juliet’s iconic setting was due to depart. However, after speaking in some broken Italian and learning that the next train wasn’t for two hours, myself, Traci and Lauren (comrades in all my escapades throughout Europe) settled on a destination a little closer to home and quite frankly more suitable for a day trip starting out at around 2 p.m. (hey, don’t judge us, we went out the night before!)

Deciding on the small city of Lucca, we jumped a train for a mere five euro and headed, once again, through the rolling hills if Tuscany. However, after arriving some two hours later, we departed the station and quite frankly were clueless as to what to expect of the day (because let’s remember, we picked this place on a complete and utter whim and had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to). I’ll be honest, my first impressions, though limited, were dismal, mainly because there appeared to be one single street, framed by quaint houses and leading, well, to no where. We walked for a bit and entered a rounded archway, which of course meant we were now actually entering the city through the old “city walls.” Yet once again, we encountered a single street, in addition some sad little house hanging laundry from the windows (it haunts me everywhere I go!) and a few people strolling about. Not much excitement to be seen here, seeing as how I view these things on a daily basis here in Florence. Nevertheless, we persisted, but it was at this point I began to regret coming to Lucca in the first place, because while I don’t need some thrilling experience everywhere I go, It would nice to have some entertainment to fill up the day. So, in asking some locals where the best place to eat was, us vagabonds made our way around a corner and there, we finally saw what Lucca was all about.

Met at first by a large piazza, complete with merry-go-round and gigantic statuary, we soon took in all the sights and sounds as we chose a place to stay for lunch. Settling on a small pizzeria and trattoria, we sat and relaxed for a good hour, conversing over calzones, pizza and Coca Cola light, all things Italians seem to obsess over. And upon referencing a map hanging on the wall for some direction, we made our way back out into the city to explore. However, we soon find out we had been strolling on the outskirts of town and in reality only had to jump over two streets and a roadway to actually get at the city. Silly, silly tourists we are.

Ok, so after heading to some gorgeous churches (St. Michele most notably) and peeking through gates and hidden doorways, we decided to get some dessert. Rummaging around a bit and getting sidetracked by nearly every new window display I met, we settled on a sweet little escape offering nearly everything under the sun. What was my poison you ask? 

Well, I chose a coffee and cream filled pastry topped with a single coffee bean, so delicious. However, after gorging ourselves on beauty and Italian delicacies, we departed the main area of Lucca, which was bustling with people and activity, to head towards the sprawling green park that lay just beyond the city center. Once there, we took refuge on a stone wall and could quite literally see into the distance for miles. Rolling green hills, warm sun, people chatting and a wonderful panoramic view of the entire city of Lucca. “Perfetto,” as the Italians say. Perfect. However, it wasn’t until after some sun bathing and a light stroll that I spotted how we could spend the duration of our day in Lucca. Bicycles.

Taking note of the various visitors and city-dwellers all on bikes, it seemed like a good idea to explore via and alternate mode of transportation.

So, descending our precipice, Lauren, Traci and myself headed for the nearest rental spot and made our selections. For less then three euro, we had an entire hour to use and abuse these bad boys and let me tell you, mine was definitely the Cadillac as far as bikes go. Cream and brown, it came complete with a leather seat AND working bell. I was in heaven. Traci and Lauren? Not so lucky. This was due to the fact that they initially chose a two-seater (hilarious to witness, let me tell you) but not quite so practical. And after only riding nearly a foot, they toppled to the ground, prompting them to give in to choosing two individual bikes for our jaunt. Now, we were ready to hit the road. Circling the city by way of a giant, two mile-long path, the three of us passed historic edifices, beautiful city views and picturesque countryside’s spotted with homes; all scenes which made riding a bike totally worth the little money we had paid. Although the trip was not entirely smooth, because Traci and Lauren almost crashed several times (they claim to have forgotten how to ride bikes!) but aside from this, we had a blast and made the loop twice before returning with some beautiful memories and what’s more, a refreshing day. Following the retreat, we of course had to get gelato and snap several more pictures before catching a train back to Florence and preparing ourselves for Saturday’s festivities, which included a ballet in Milan. Thrilling, I know.

Waking up at the crack of down, I headed to Santa Maria Novella at 6:30 a.m. in order to meet the group of local university students who were also attending the trip. Once there, I met Angela, a sweet Italian woman from Pisa who said she would be joining us for the day. Excited and a bit shy, she and I waited for the rest of the students who arrived dressed to impress and ready for a day at the ballet. However, little did Angela know, she would not only be a guest, but also lead the entire day, due to both Francesca and Cristiano (organizers for the excursion) having to take a ‘personal day.’ Almost missing the train because we didn’t have tickets, Angela hurriedly made some calls and met Cristiano in order to obtain some details pertinent to our plan. I knew it was going to be a long day after this. From the station, we made the nearly three and a half hour trek to Milan for a day sure to be full of excitement. 

 Resting on the train and preparing mentally for the chaos that was about to ensue (it was fashion week AND carnevale in Milan) I anticipated a fun-filled time, even though the morning had already proved to be a bit crazy. Ready to escape Florence, I knew everything would be just fine. Boy, was I wrong. Exiting the train, we were immediately swarmed by people and had to rush to the metro in order to actually make our way to the theater. Traveling with a group of nearly 15, it was rather difficult to all remain together, but somehow we managed the feat. Crammed on the subway, we held on for dear life as we continued on to the main piazza in Milan, one crowned by the main cathedral in the city, a stunning beaut bathed in gothic architecture. Rushing off the subway and up several flights of stairs, I was met head on by the giant beast, stretching nearly an entire city block and gleaming after an extensive renovation project that wrapped recently in earlier years. The square, jam packed with people in costume and with confetti hanging in the air, seemed to me, insanity personified. I took one picture before a man grabbed my hand, slapped some kernels of corn in my fist and held my wrist to the sky. What the hell was happening here? Suddenly, I was swarmed by pigeons all eating out of my hand. Flying rats I say.

Disgusting. And if that wasn’t enough, he wanted money following the act, thinking me lucky to have gotten the chance to partake in such an activity. The nerve. After him came a street seller who grabbed my other arm and proceeded to tie a bracelet on around my wrist. He had an arm covered in them and though I persisted, he wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. And yes, if you are following along with the main theme here, he too wanted a little something. I declined, and after he got huffy and pleaded a bit more, he left to try and pursue some other naïve tourist for their spare change. Che stress. After battling through the crowds, we entered the huge open-air shopping district and stopped to spin on a spot in the floor that was supposed to bring good luck. From there, we headed towards the theater and waited in will call for our tickets. After receiving our stubs, we were given some free time for lunch and general wandering (which is something I have become quite good at!). Sitting down for a quick lunch, my friends and I met with a rather rude wait staff that informed us Coke was six euro and water was five.

I was parched and just ate a sandwich. But this is Milan they said. Our main waitress also tried to steal money from us, but I guess this is Milan too? Hm. After leaving, I walked around and did some window-shopping, which proved distressful because I am poor and having money is an integral part of living in this city, but that’s besides the point I guess. Now, to answer the all-important questions: yes, people in Milan are all beautiful (young and old) and yes, they all dress impeccably, but they have absolutely no manners. Bumping in to me and throwing glares, I felt totally unwelcome and the several stores I did enter, I felt as if I was being measured by the amount of status I seemed to possess. This whole scene was not to my liking. Besides, Milan is a very industrial city that is much bigger than Florence and quite frankly doesn’t employ that quaintness which captivates me so much here. Oh well, I suppose.

 Returning to the theater, the group of us found our seats (nosebleed section and behind giant columns) and decided to stand for the duration of the performance.

On a side not however, the ballet was a beautiful piece of work. Acted out in the Scala Theatre, we enjoyed the spectacle of Coppelia by Leo Delibes. The story, quite fanciful and full of drama, was split in to three acts, with two twenty-minute intermissions breaking up the length of the score. Yet, in picking my favorite scene, this would definitely have to be when all the puppets in the doll maker’s house came to life and began dancing together with the central ballerina. The whole show was just magical (think Tim Burton, with composition by Danny Elfman a.k.a. Edward Scissorhands).

Following a standing ovation, we had to book it to the metro in order to catch our train back home, so running once again through the crowds of people, I stopped to take several pictures before I was shooed into the subway by Angela. From there, we boarded the train and had a very lengthy and somber ride home. I was thankful, to say the least, to return to Florence.

The whole experience I must say was quite enjoyable, but looking back, the day was a hectic mess of occurrences which make living abroad all the more stressful and frankly, more real. Angela handled everything like a pro, however the chaos read on her face all day long. I think she needs a good glass of wine and some down time to recuperate fully.

 As for me, I am planning to head to Paris this Wednesday, so no rest in the coming days. But I suppose I wouldn’t have this any other way. It just makes me wonder at times,  ‘is my life real right now?’ And then, I just look around.



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