Cortona, Italy - Tuscan Hill Town - Saturday, October 25, 2003

We are now a couple of hours north of Rome in the hill-town of Cortona in Tuscany. We are actually staying at the place where the crew of the new movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” stayed last year. Some of the movie was filmed here too. We look forward to seeing the movie because it was filmed when it was sunny. The town has been socked in since we got here…. We plan to rent a scooter when the rain goes away to check out the nearby towns. No such luck as it's still raining, and we are heading for another hill town near Siena. We did manage to catch one beautiful sunset.

 Rome – Noise Pollution - Friday, October 24, 2003

Well it’s fall. The weather has taken a turn to be a bit cold and quite rainy. We spent about 5 days here sightseeing, uploading tons of photos from our camera, ingesting car, bus and scooter fumes, and eating Chinese food. Yes, Chinese food. Believe it or not, a diet of incredible pizza and pasta gets old after eating the same thing for almost 2 weeks straight.

Also, the internet and phone are MUCH cheaper in Rome than anywhere else we’ve been in Europe. Surfing the internet has been a good diversion to sightseeing during the frequent downpours of rain.

Rome is a noisy place from the throngs of scooters with bad mufflers zipping through red lights, to enraged pedestrians, along with honking cars and trucks. It seems as if every Italian driver or pedestrian is doing his best to impersonate Mario Andretti -very aggressive walking and driving. Honking is obligatory. Scooters are not required to stop at red lights!!!!! They just zoom up to the front of intersections or come on the sidewalk to get where they need to. Think of the disorganization. This is probably the reason for all the honking. All of this takes place under the “watchful” eye of the intersection/traffic police. Watching is about all they seem to do. It fun to watch rush hour traffic with a bottle of wine from our hotel room.

 Rome - Sightseeing - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

As far as sightseeing, Rome is one hell of a place to be a tourist. We can’t imagine being in Rome during prime tourist season in the summer. Even now, some of the most famous sights – the Colosseum, Pantheon, Forum, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps – were jam packed with tour groups. Touring these sights was pretty overwhelming for two reasons:

The hundreds of buildings, monuments, and fountains were in decent enough shape to paint a picture in our minds of the sheer magnitude, extravagance, and rich history of the Roman Empire. It really brought to life what we learned in school and stuff that we had no clue about!
The stifling crowds made it difficult to stay at any one place for too long. Our fight or flight instinct kicked in during our trip to Vatican Museum(~ 4 miles of museum!) during a particularly rainy and steamy day. Flight won out for a few reasons: No air flow, bad ventilation, bodies packed into each room like sardines, and people throwing elbows!

Overall, the sightseeing was pretty cool. The good news is that we didn’t get robbed as all of our guidebooks warned. Maybe we have just learned how to not look so touristy. Nah, our quick-dry pants and backpacks give us away!

We spent quite a bit of time in the Sistine Chapel (the personal chapel of the Pope) with a great book to help us decipher Michael Angelo’s fine artwork. The guy was a sculptor, not a painter and was resistant to actually working on the project. After negotiating the condition that he could paint the chapel his own way (except for the inclusion of the 12 Apostles), Michael Angelo spent four years lying on scaffolding with paint dripping in his eyes painting the 600 sq. meter ceiling in its entirety. The Sistine Chapel, which depicts the story of creation, is considered the single greatest work of art completed by any one human being.

The 2,000 year old Colosseum, which could hold over 50,000 people, was even more interesting at night because there weren’t as many tourists around.

The Forum was the heart of the Roman Empire. The size of a few modern city blocks, the Forum was the center of the Western civilized world in its time filled with the most important temples and halls of justice. Speeches, parades, and religious processions were commonplace. Much of the Forum is now rubble but we could really imagine the chariots, white marble-faced buildings, columns, and fountains.

The Arch of Titus located in the Forum commemorates the Roman victory over the province of Judea (Israel) in C.E. 70. This was quite a significant battle for both Jews and Romans. The Romans were known as tolerant of local customs of the territories it conquered, as long as the these peoples pledged allegiance to the Empire by worshipping the current emperor as a god. Most conquered territories worshipping many different gods, so adding the Roman emperor to the list was no big deal. Alternatively, the Israelites revolted against this Roman requirement since Jews are monotheistic. The revolt was crushed; the Romans sacked the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and conquered Judea. Without a center of center of religion, the Jews scattered throughout the world. One of the reliefs on the Arch depicts the sacking of the temple – soldiers carrying a Jewish candelabrum and other plunder.

 Amalfi Coast – Eating like Italians - Monday, October 20, 2003

After a few days in the picturesque town of Positano, we took a boat south to the touristy town of Amalfi. From there we hiked to a nearby fishing village called Atrani. We enjoyed a few days of without another tourist in sight with plenty of rocky beach time, clear blue water, and hiking. We hiked up the steep canyon (1.5 hrs.), through the olive groves and lemon trees to the town of Ravello. The views of the coast were just incredible. The hike down dead ended on the main coastal road about 2 miles from Atrani. We had to compete with buses, scooters, and cars for space on the winding, sometimes one-lane road. Fun!

We had some amazing food on the Amalfi Coast. The seafood, pasta, and veggies were incredibly fresh and tasty. Most of farmers use organic methods without pesticides. Veggies aren’t genetically engineered. Perhaps that is why they taste so good??

First of all bread is served with every sit down meal and you are charged about $1/pp for it. Italians eat in several courses: House wine, 1st plate is typically pasta or soup, 2nd plate is meat or fish, followed by salad and/or veggies, then café and dolce (coffee and sweets). Restaurants also serve a digestif drink after the entire meal. This is usually in the form of a cold shot glass of limoncella liquor or another citrus flavored liquor. Pretty big meals! It sure is fun eating slowly for almost 1- 2 hours every night.

Salad/Veggies are served at the end of the meal because greens aid digestion (duh!!). Good idea, no?

We wonder how some of the Italian folks we met stay so skinny when we’ve seen them eat platters, upon platters of food. Possibly, they don’t snack between meals. Also, the individual portions of both pasta and meet aren’t as overwhelmingly large as they are in America.

The pizza is also VERY tasty - thin crust, fresh tomatoes, some pizza has no tomato sauce. A pie is about $5 and is about the size of a medium pizza in the USA. We’ve been eating way too much pizza.

 Paestum – Cool Ruins & Buffalo di Mozzarella - Sunday, October 12, 2003

The weather was perfect on our first day in Paestum and turned rainy for the rest of our visit. Luckily we chose to visit the ruins on our 1st day and were able to get some pretty nice photos of “the best preserved collection of Greek ruins anywhere,” as the guidebook says. Paestum (originally Poseidonia) was founded by Greeks in ~ 600 B.C. and remain so well-preserved because malaria-carrying mosquitoes kept the site deserted for 1000 years!

The key ruins at the site are three temples: Temple of Hera, Temple of Neptune (better preserved than the Parthenon in Athens), and Temple of Ceres. Pretty impressive. We spent about two hours at the site just wandering around this ancient city. It was crazy to see remnants of in-tact tile floors from someone’s home. Eerie!! Also, lizards were EVERYWHERE both at the site and on the farm. You take a step, and 4-5 of them scurry out of the pathway.

After wandering the ruins, we visited the nearby museum which contained prehistoric Greek and Roman artifacts.
Especially interesting were the ancient Greek tombs. The four interior walls were painted in a distinct style. These are some of the best-preserved examples of Greek paintings, which are very rare, in the world.

We hiked a few miles with backpacks (it seemed like 10 miles) to the Seliano Estate for Agriturismo where the owners raise horses and water buffalo. This area of Italy is renowned for producing the best buffalo mozzarella and butter in the country. Dating from the 12th Century, mozzarella di buffalo tasted so good because it’s made from full cream buffalo milk. This is not the pizza cheese from Pizza Hut or Kraft shredded cheese from the grocery store.

The Agriturismo is owned by a baroness and she is considered a world-renowned Napolean chef. She and Arthur Schwartz, food critic, radio personality, and cookbook author, gives cooking classes 4X/year at the farm. Missed out on that one, but we did enjoy tasty, cheap, 4-course dinners for a few nights at the farm.

For dinner, there were usually between 15-20 people at the table each night and conversation was most interesting. First course consisted of smoked or fried buffalo mozzarella (Marisa's new favorite food). Next course was pasta or risotto, then meat, then dessert with café. The excellent, local, organic wine bottles were refilled as quickly as they were emptied. One evening we befriended Linnea and her son Angus. They live in NYC but are shacking up in Rome for a few months while Linnea’s husband Sandy (head of props) works on a film about Jacques Cousteau’s life (directed by Wes Anderson, starring Bill Murray and Luke Wilson). Our not-so-close brush with Hollywood… How fun to hang out in Rome for a few months!

 Positano, Italy - Tuesday, October 07, 2003

After a few harrowing bus and train rides, we made it to the Amalfi Coast of Italy. Specifically, we are in the town of Positano. It is as beautiful as it looks!!

The food we've eaten in the past 48 hours has been incredible. The pasta, veggies, soups...everything is so fresh. Hopefully we'll fit into our clothes by the end of the month. If not, it'll be worth it. The wine is delicious as well as cheap.

We had thought Positano would be more of a sleepy town than it is. We've encountered more middle-age, American tourists than anywhere in Europe. We'll be staying here for a few days and then hit a very small, not touristy town a bit further down the coast and visit some ruins recommended by my Aunt Janie.

 Gimmelwald, Switzerland - Saturday, October 04, 2003

We headed south again toward Switzerland for more hiking time in the Alps. We made a pitstop in the capital - Bern - to see one of Dave's friends from his GMAT crash course in NYC this summer. Mario was a good tour guide and showed us some great views of the Alps. We ate at a fabulous brewery and had some typical Swiss food. Mmmmm..

The next day we headed toward a small, mountain town called Gimmelwald (population 130) which is situated on a cliff about an hour's train, bus, and gondola ride from touristy Interlaken. From the cable car, we walked straight uphill 10 minutes to our hotel where we arrived just in time for our hot dinner.

Walter, the 85 year old proprietor, prepares breakfast and dinner daily with help from Rosemary, a woman from up the hill. There were about 12 Americans sitting around the big dinner table, all of whom heard of this special place from the same guidebook. 99% of Walter's business if from readers of this guidebook... This rustic hotel perched on the hillside was a bit creaky yet comfortable. It was nice sitting around chatting/having beers with the part-time British resident Tim and the other Americans.

We spent a beautiful day hiking down from ~9000 ft~. back to the ~4500 ft. Gimmelwald. The day began with a cable car ride up to the top of Schilthorn, where the James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was filmed during the late 60's. We were treated to a bunch of clips of the movie which featured a big battle between Bond and Telly Savalas...who looks suspiciously like Dr. Evil... The clips were very over the top..

Our hike took us down a steep grade, along a mountain ridge, down through the cow-filled pasture land and back into Gimmelwald. Fabulous views...we are sore today for sure. There's not much going on in Gimmelwald. It's a great place for hiking, skiing, and soaking up the beautiful mountain views of the Eiger, Jungfrau, and the Monk. Our rooms looks directly out at these peaks. We keep adding a day to our stay b/c it is so peaceful, relatively cheap, good food, and not so crowded..

Tomorrow we head for somewhere in Italy. Our plans are going to hell in a handbasket b/c we are trying to avoid the beginning of the Fall rainy season. We mostly want to just drink wine and eat pasta, so the weather shouldn't matter much...

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