Saturday, April 23, 2016

Mamma Mia Italia

I arrived in Lisbon on a cold rainy morning. Lisbon appeared to be well past it's prime with paint peeling of facades, streets probably unwashed since Goa's liberation and people walking around with glum looks. Maybe it was the weather that made everything appear so dreary. As I looked around, I scoped a stall with postcards. I browsed through and noticed that most contained pictures of old school trams against a backdrop of rickety buildings. Not a good sign if that's the highlight of the city.

As I wandered the streets, I got the vibe of a homely neighborhood. People on the streets seem to know each other and there was a lot of tiny mom and pop cafes. I finally spotted my first batch of tourists sliding up on their segways. It was oddly comforting to see tourists as it meant that the place had something worth visiting and that there might be a little bit of English spoken. Though I must add that there was significantly more English spoken in Lisbon than any of the cities I'd visited in Spain.

Talking about English, I realized that Google maps and similar apps has definitely democratized travel. You may not understand signs or know what you are eating, but at least you can find your way around town. I wondered why cities known for tourism don't have maps and time tables in English? I understand not having English speakers at help desks because of the expense. But maps and instructions would be a one time investment and be very useful for independent travelers.

Next stop was Italy! I had heard of Italy's legendary chaotic lifestyle and had thought that it was one of those over hyped stereotypes. But the Italians were enthusiastic in proving me wrong. I landed in Pisa and headed to the baggage claim. The belt started moving and bags came through. For about 5 minutes, not a single bag was lifted off the carousel. Then there was an announcement in Italian and everyone rushed to another belt where the bags actually were. A British guy summed it up succinctly, "If there was any doubt, we are in Italy." I headed to the Leaning Tower, to do my bit of holding it up or pushing it down, depending on which side you stand for the picture. There I had to store my backpack at the visitor center. I was charged 4 euros to keep my bag in someone's office. No lock, no bag tag, nothing. I decided that I had no option and walked out hoping to see my bag again. As I crossed the street, on a crosswalk, I assumed that the city bus barreling towards me would slow down to let me cross. Apparently I had forgotten about Italian drivers. When the
bus was seconds away, I realized he wasn't going to slow down, and I had to sprint across, narrowly avoiding a Fiat that appeared out of nowhere.

All this chaos made me a tad hungry, so I stepped into a nice cafe and placed an order. After about 20 minutes, nothing showed up and I went inquire. In typical Italian nonchalance, she told me it should be right out. About 10 min later, only half my order came. Finally it was time to take the train to Cinque Terre for which I had to change the train in La Spezia. I read the time table and went to the designated platform. But there was no train in sight. While waiting, I spotted a guy who looked like he was in a uniform. I inquired about the train and he told me the platform was changed and I had 2 minutes to get to the other side. How was I supposed to know that? Eventually I made it to the hostel and got my room assigned. I was idly setting up my bed when a girl stepped into the room and had a shocked look on a face. She spoke no English. But the terrified look made me suspicious. So I went back to desk and asked to check the room number again. Turns out I was assigned to a ladies' dorm. Whew, that was an overdose of Italian chaos! I hope I have paid my dues.

Cinque Terre is spectacular. It's like Big Sur, but with a few tiny historical towns scattered along the coast. Though, I wish someone had taught them the concept of switchbacks on trails. Need to climb that hill? Not a problem. You just go straight up. But every climb was worth it. Gorgeous views of the rugged coast against the azure sea interspersed by a few colorful cluster of buildings. Sitting on a terrace high above the sea, sipping on Limoncello while reading some Bill Bryson comedy made for a blissful afternoon and I fell in love with Italy again. The first time I fell in love in Italy was when I had three desserts for lunch earlier that afternoon. I had tiramisu, cannoli and gelato. It was delicious and addictive. I had to tell the lady to send me away if I came back.

In the evening, I wandered around the town and came upon a spot that twenty tripods lined up. It was gratifying to know that I was at place with a 20 tripod rating. I love the camaraderie shared on such occasions. People talk about the cameras, the best settings, the places they've been, they places they want to go, etc. It's that common desire to click a picture already on the internet that brings us together. In between a couple wanted their picture taken on an iPhone in this hallowed photo studio. Everyone chipped in. I provided the lighting as I had my headlamp, someone coached them with the pose, a few commented on the camera angle, someone even suggested props. All in all a perfect evening in this slice of paradise.

Until next time, ciao


  1. At least she didn't scream .... dark temptation! :-)

    1. Maybe she secretly hoped I'd be in her room.