As I mentioned in my last post, we were saved by Erin’s friends Caitlin and Julian and were on our way to Lausanne, Switzerland. Because the train we needed to take from Dijon to Lausanne was so full, there were only seats left in first class. This wasn’t ideal since we are Peace Corps Volunteers after all, but we didn’t really have any other options. So after a short train from Besançon to Dijon, we boarded our swanky first class compartment, fully-equipped with automatically reclining armchairs and free soda. When we arrived in Lausanne, we parted ways with Caitlin and Julian and bought our tickets to Milan. The morning train was sold out so we bought tickets for the afternoon train, which was actually better since it gave us more time to check out the city.
Caitlin had found us a hostel near the train station, so once we had our tickets we made our way there and were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful building that was much more hotel than hostel. We booked a double room with a balcony overlooking Lake Geneva and the most comfortable bed I had slept in in years.
Since it was Sunday and pretty late by the time we went out for dinner, there wasn’t much open. Eventually, though, we found a burger-bar joint and I got a salad with more bacon than lettuce and Nick got the big American style cheese burger he’d been craving.
The next day we went out and explored the city. We started down by Lake Geneva, travelling for free on the city’s pristine metro system, and walked over to the Olympic Park. From there, we went back into the center of town and visited the Lausanne Cathedral. The city was beautiful even with overcast weather, but I wish we could have gotten a better view of the Alps.
After some great Chinese food, we picked our bags up from the hostel and caught our direct train to Milan. The trip through the Alps was stunning and our short time in Lausanne really made me want to return to Switzerland and see more of the country.
When we arrived in Milan, it was raining and pretty cold. We walked to our hotel and realized that it was about as dumpy as we had been afraid it would be. Wanting to spend as little time as possible in the room, we went out for Korean food–a first for Nick. We both got bibimbap and some kimchee and calamari pancakes. Nick really liked it but it was a much-needed taste of home for me. All I can think about as I write this is what I’m going to order at Willow Tree (our local Korean restaurant) once I get home. It will be the lunch special with spicy BBQ chicken, spicy chicken katsu, and fish jun, in case you were wondering. Oh, and all the kimchee they have.
After dinner, we walked into the center of town, passing designer boutique after designer boutique along with some very well dressed Italians. We didn’t spend too much time out that night but the next morning we came back in order to admire the Duomo di Milano by daylight. The cathedral is one of the largest in the world and is topped by the Madonnina, or Madonna spire, the tallest point in Milan. The interior was also impressive but it’s the sheer magnitude of the building and all of the detailed sculpting that really take your breath away.
We walked around the city for awhile and then stopped to get calzones for lunch. We felt like we were really in Italy once we had taken our first bites of caprese salad with fresh mozzarella. Bellies full, we went to the Hertz office to rent the car we would be driving down the peninsula for the rest of the week.
With a free Italian maps app (that kept telling us we were in Switzerland) in hand, we were off on our drive south to Tuscany. It’s clear in hindsight that we should have gotten a GPS system along with the car. It was stressful at points, but we worked together and figured our way out of the city. As we drove south, the clouds started clearing up and the weather got warmer. By the time we arrived in Siena, we were able to ditch our jackets and enjoy some long overdue sunshine.
Once we found our bed and breakfast, we made ourselves at home in our gorgeous room overlooking Siena and the beautiful valleys and vineyards of Toscana. The lovely people at the B&B gave us a restaurant recommendation for dinner nearby and we feasted on homemade pasta.
The next day, we woke up to an email from Hertz, asking us to check the car’s registration because they believed it to be expired. It was. We called the office in Milan and they told us we needed to find a Hertz office and go deal with the registration issue ourselves. They told us to check in Florence. (Insert shocked expression here). After Nick reminded them (in the nicest way possible) that this was their mistake and not ours and told them that he had already found a Hertz office in Siena, they agreed to call and make sure they knew we were coming. So before we began our day of sightseeing, we made a detour to the local Hertz agency. After waiting and talking to the agent there, we were told that the registration couldn’t be updated then and we would have to come back the next day.
So, in slight disbelief, we began our next adventure: finding parking in Siena. Luckily, our Fiat Panda is laughably small and we were eventually able to find a spot that most drivers wouldn’t have even considered. We then walked into the city, visiting the Duomo di Siena first.
The cathedral is amazing. The exterior is black and white striped marble with pink marble detailing and the interior is similarly striped but with elaborate carved murals on the floor. The art within the cathedral and the stained glass windows were equally impressive.
By the time we finished touring the Duomo, we were ready for lunch. We found a nice restaurant off the major tourist path and Nick had fried lamb and artichoke hearts and I had artichokes stuffed with seafood. Delicious. We chased down our hearty lunch with gelatto and then headed into the main square. Piazza del Campo goes back to the 13th century and according to Wikipedia, is “regarded as one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares.” It was a beautiful day and there were people sitting and enjoying the warm weather all throughout the piazza.
That evening we decided to buy some good Italian meat and cheese and have a picnic at the B&B. We got some fresh Italian bread, prosciutto, a variety of cheeses, olive topenade, and pears at the grocery store in town and were gifted a bottle of the proprietor’s own wine made on the premises. Our hosts, Gianni and his wife, Eliza, make natural wine from the grapes on their property. They don’t add any chemicals or do any extra processing and then let the wine age in oak barrels in their cellar. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the cellar and their wine making equipment. Gianni also told us that the house itself was more than 1,000 years old but that below the cellar there was an Etruscan tomb, which we were able to peek into through a grate. Pretty incredible.
The next day, after a beautiful walk, we went back into Siena and were successful in updating the car’s insurance. With a now legal Fiat, we were headed south towards Amalfi.
This was our longest drive but also our most successful in terms of navigating. We didn’t run into any real issues and the drive was beautiful. The last hour or so on the road was spent on the winding cliffside roads of the Amalfi coast. Nick was an incredible driver on a very difficult road with some insane motorists. It was all the more impressive because he was driving stick shift, something he had barely done before the trip, and because our little Panda was definitely not the right vehicle for the road.
When we finally arrived at the hotel, we were happy to have a little break from driving. Our room had a balcony overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and from certain angles, we could fool ourselves into thinking we were on a cruise ship. That night we walked into town and got dinner at a great restaurant. Nick ordered the linguini with clams and a local fish and I had homemade pasta and seafood. We drank wine from Ravello, another town along the Amalfi coast we had passed through, and limoncello made in Amalfi.
The next day, we walked back into town to explore. The weather was perfect and the smell of fresh flowers and citrus filled the air. First, we went to the Duomo di Amalfi, a 9th century cathedral in the main piazza. The cathedral was massive and incredibly ornate. We kept thinking we had seen all of it when we would enter a new part of the cathedral more impressive than the last.
After visiting the church, we started walking along little paths further and further into the valley, until we had fully escaped the tourists and were exchanging “buon giorno”s with the locals. There were citrus trees tiered along the cliffs to maximize their amount of arable land and it seemed like everyone was growing lemons. The nature and architecture we saw on our walk resembled how we imagined Brazil to be more so than Italy.
When we finally turned around and got back into town, we went back over by the Duomo and had pizza for lunch. From there, we attempted to make our way up to the cemetery at the top of the hill but just ended up walking along narrow streets not finding what we were looking for. We eventually gave up and decided to go down to the beach to dip our toes in the Tyrrhenian.
After lounging in the sun for a bit, we went back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. Nick found us a great restaurant and after dinner, we met a nice Canadian couple who had some very interesting stories of (way) up north. On the walk home, Nick decided he was going to pick us some oranges from a tree growing by a set of stairs. After some acrobatics, he managed to pick a few. We tried all of them but as Nick put it, “they tasted like vomit.”
The next day we drove into Positano and got some lunch. I was nauseous on the way there and nervous about the winding roads ahead, but luckily, some rib-sticking gnocchi made me feel all better. After lunch, we were on the road again, headed east to Bari.
Except, we soon realized, we were not headed east, but instead headed south. We missed our exit to Bari early on and without GPS, had no way of knowing how far we had gone until it was too far to turn around. Using the free iPod app, we tried to find a new route to Bari but neither the streets on the map nor the highway exits were well marked. We pulled over on the highway to figure out our next move when a police car pulled over to see if we needed any help. The kindly officers pointed us in the right direction and we headed east towards Bari via Potenza.
The road we took to Potenza was similar to many we have encountered in Romania: two-lane pot-holed roads winding over hills and down valleys. We were definitely taking the scenic route.
Eventually, we made it to Bari and figured out how to get to the Ikea, where we were scheduled to drop off our rental car at the Hertz office there. Only it wasn’t there. When we went into the Ikea to figure out where this Hertz agency could be, we were told that it had closed more than a year ago. Once we picked our jaws up off the ground, we called Hertz and were instructed to drop our car off at the airport. It all worked out alright in the end–we were able to drop off the car and catch a cheap bus into Bari–but the car definitely added some stress.
We checked into our hotel, which had a serious 70′s feel to it, and were directed to the restaurant across the street for dinner. We were really hungry by the time we got there and decided to get the appetizer sampler, expecting a plate with a little bit of everything we could share. Oh, no. The appetizer sampler meant free range at the appetizer buffet station. There was baked eggplant, potatoes au gratin, ceviche, marinated vegetables, stuffed mushrooms, squid, and more. It took so much self restraint to not load up on the first course, but we had already ordered pasta and sausages. It was even harder once we realized how delicious everything at the buffet was. It was a great first meal in Bari and dining on such good Italian comfort food helped us forget all the stress of that afternoon.
The next morning, we went out to see the sights in Bari. We started with stuffed focacia and fried polenta for breakfast and then ordered the special cappuccino from the menu, which we were surprised to find out was not actually a cappuccino but coffee and ice-cream. We weren’t mad about it.
We walked around by the marina and then over to the Basilica di San Nicola, or the Basilica of Saint Nicholas. The church holds St. Nicholas’s remains and some important relics and is a pilgrimage destination for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The interior reflects the importance of both faiths to the church with its mix of Catholic and Orthodox art. The most impressive aspect of the church for me, was the completely gilded ceiling.
After visiting the basilica, we wandered around the old part of the city. It was exactly how I would imagine Italy if all I had ever known about it came from visiting the North End in Boston. We walked through little alleyways full of children playing and old men gambling, and past open doorways where we could see and smell women cooking.
In the afternoon, we visited Swabian Castle, which is now a gallery, and where ancient stone and marble sculptures were on display. We went out for lunch and then continued walking around the city before heading back to the hotel to get ready for dinner and pack our bags. We had an early morning flight back to Romania the next day and didn’t want to have to worry about packing when we came home from dinner.
Since we only rarely get any sort of Asian food in Romania, and only ever Chinese when we do, we decided to go out for sushi on our last night of vacation. We had a nice dinner and were apparently good enough tippers to merit some free sake before we left. We walked around town a bit and then ended up splitting a pizza over beer at another restaurant later on in the evening. Neither of us wanted the vacation to end. This was our last big trip in the Peace Corps and it had been an amazing one. But, against our wishes, our vacation did end and we flew back to Romania the next morning.
I have had some incredible travels during my Peace Corps service. I realize that this isn’t the norm and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to see as much as I have during my time here. I feel equally grateful to have had such a wonderful companion in Nick on all of these trips.