Archive for April 2009

Renaissance Italy!

April 24, 2009

Crowded and touristy although it may be, Florence remains one of the most entertaining cities to visit in Italy and indeed the entire world. There’s just a lingering mythos about the city which remains present to this very day, a unique vibe I’ve only really encountered in Florence.

Of all the city in Italy Florence was easily my personal favorite, let me just put it that way.

The city is stunning in so many ways, whether it be the detailed and well maintained architecture or the sheer volume of history and the abundance of ‘stories’ that have in the past and continue to flow from the glorious city to this very day.

However that wasn’t always how I felt. Upon first entering the city and finding a place to spend the night my overall view was rather dreary. One quickly becomes used to the unique styles of Italy so much that they alone cease to impress, and the city I’d been to before Florence, Pisa, had been a complete disappointment which no doubt overshadowed any initial goodwill Florence presented…

Perhaps I should actually touch on that a bit before I continue with my little mini-review of Florence. Pisa is above all else a strange sort of tourist city that both thrives on visitors and at the same time resents them with all the hatred and disgust one would normally reserve for invaders and pests. The city just doesn’t like you, that’s the vibe I got, Pisa wants you to get over there, spend yer damned filthy money, see the bloody tower, and get out as quick as you can so you can make room for the next batch of babbling fools from afar. It’s a one trick pony that thrives on the simple novelty of a tower which happens to be leaning and which has somehow become a global symbol towards Italy in general. And it is, I confess, a pretty neat tower. The problem lies in that really that the tower is pretty much all there is of note within an otherwise somewhat surly old city. Everything else is simply a sideshow to this one tower, which leans, and that’s about it! There are some neat Cathedral, a couple cool looking buildings, an old wall, and really that’s about it. It’s also worth noting the city stinks, it really does. I can only presume it still uses the old Roman sewer system in places which sounds neat right up until you have to deal with the overwhelming stench of crap and piss which floods certain parts of the city.

That’s all fine if you’re making a quick day trip out of seeing the Tower. Hell, if you’re in and out quick enough you’ll probably love Pisa! That one tower and its accompanying church and walls are really well preserved and prettied up considerably for us bloody tourists. It’s only when you stray from the path and have to wander the parts of the city you’re not really supposed to see in order to return to a dank cheap little hotel you’re spending the night in that the cities luster not only fades but peels with such drama it’s remarkable.

And so understandably I was in a bit of a darker mood when wandering Florence. Add to that some massive indigestion or stomach cramps or whatever the blazes it was tormenting me throughout the early morning and I was all but determined to hate the ever lovin crap outta Florence. This place was going down! And at first Florence did an admirable job of making me dislike it with its massive crowds and overwhelming heat (I *am* Canadian. I’m better in snow! Hell, my ideal temperature meanders between 10 and -10 depending on my mood. Italy’s weather and I don’t get along well at all really.) , plus every here and there in Florence you’ll get a foul whiff of something unpleasant not unlike Pisa but to a lesser degree. So I saw the Florence Cathedral, or The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore if you wanna be fancy about it, and if you look in Google Maps you’ll find a tiny little dot in a white shirt going ‘Alright, that’s pretty cool, but I’ve seen better!’ which is me. Go ahead and look! I’m the one to the right amid the giant seething mass of tourists that besiege the Cathedral daily in an attempt to re-enact the fall of Rome to foreign barbarians or somesuch witty retort.

So funky smells (The least of which was no doubt me, have I mentioned I don’t do well in heart?), massive crowds, feelin terrible and still resenting Italy for earlier experience? Everything was right on track towards me loathing Florence with a passion in ways which I normally reserve only for Manchester, which is my most disliked city in the world and which with any luck will someday collapse into itself in an epic implosion of self-loathing.

Fortunately Florence had other plans. You see, Florence doesn’t just end with one neat attraction like certain other cities who’s name I’ve already mentioned enough in one day. No, Florence continues to thrive the more you go out and explore it! The people while still not especially nice at least don’t hate your guts and are willing to toss a smile in the direction of a kindly traveler. The city itself is gorgeous in all the ways you’ve been told Florence is supposed to be gorgeous. The parks are clean, the streets crowded but well taken care of, and there is always something to look at and enjoy. Everywhere, everywhere you look painting and statue, historic monument and quaint streets. All well maintained with that certain touch of a people who take pride in their city!

Now despite all the flattery if you spent a day in Florence eventually you will begin to get sick of the crowds and tourists. I did, so here I did what I normally do on such occasions with often mixed results. I wander off in a certain direction to see the little spots and the corners where we backpackers aren’t meant to be wandering so freely and locations in which your average tourist will never see. For me this involved a roundabout walk through some tight streets and eventually up numerous picturesque but not all that easily climbed stairs to eventually find myself at the Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous and plaza with a beautiful overall view of Florence. However again, crowds! Not as many as in the historic city below, but still crowds. So I continued onwards and soon found myself at the San Miniato al Monte Basilica (I know, it’s a mouthful!), a much smaller structure than the cities grand Cathedral, but one in which I found much more enjoyable. San Miniato not only rests atop one of the highest points in the city and offers another majestic view of the city of Florence but is also itself one of the most dramatic sights possible within the city, with its ascending stairs upwards and old walls which themselves help create a flat plateau in which numerous old graves and tombs have been built. It is humbling. The interior is dignified and, finally, much less crowded than most other sights in Florence.  It is not as showy or ‘fancy’ as many other Cathedral, but instead presents itself through smooth surface and numerous colourful artworks which cover the walls and pillars in a tasteful manner.

From there I would go on to wander parks and walk down simple but scenic streets, eventually finding my way to ‘Piazza della Calza’, which itself contained the old ‘Porta Romana’ (Why yes I am looking the city up right now on Google Maps and researching names through wikipedia, however did you guess?) which as far as I can figure was an old probably Roman gatehouse judging by the name built as part of the cities old wall. Whatever the case may be I wandered down a smaller more trendy street back towards the more central part of town, and found myself stumbling across ‘Palazzo Pitti’ the local renaissance palace and… You know what? I’m going to stop this now, trying to look up the names of everything I stumbled across that was noteworthy in Florence is exhausting. As I mentioned earlier, Florence is absolutely packed full of history and things to see and experience. Packed! That’s part of the reason I so love the city, it was one of those places I want to revisit and spend a week, a month even just wandering and seeing fully, paying special attention to the things which deserve it and soaking up the abundance of local history.

If you’ve gotta visit one city in Italy, and only one, I’d probably still say Venice because it’s so unique (Betcha weren’t expecting that huh? Go read my writeup on Venice.) but if you could see two I’d add Florence as the other city. Yes, even ahead of Rome. Although above any of those I’d say go see Pompeii… Gah! Italy is just such an incredible little boot shaped country, there’s so much to see there. Hell, even Pisa for all the crap I give it was a pretty neat city at times. Italy as a whole was just so incredible.

Oh, I know how to praise Florence best: If there was one city in which I’d want to ‘live’ in Italy, it would be Florence. My favorite city in Italy.

(By the way I’d post these more often but I’ve actually begun planning my next trip and so have been rather busy lately. On that note Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost is a fantastic travel book, go read it! Not sure if I myself will be going to China, but it’ll be somewhere in that area methinks, more reading and research will determine exactly where. )

The most beautiful city in France.

April 11, 2009

I’m going to be honest here: France was not my favorite country by a long-shot. While some cities were nicer than others and it’s obviously not fair to be judging an entire country on the basis of my own personal experience, I can’t help the fact that France simply failed to impress as a whole. There was however one major exception, one location in France which stood out above the rest and which not only impressed me but which I consider one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve ever visited: Nice. No, not the adjective, the location; Nice, France. It’s a city. Really!  I believe it’s pronounced ‘niece’ actually, but written as Nice. Whatever the case it really is a grand place.

Located on the very tip of South Eastern France near the border with Italy, Nice is the leading resort on the French Riviera with its vast beautiful Mediterranean beaches and crystal blue water all bordering on a lively leading resort town. It’s more or less the relaxing vacation ideal in many many ways, the very image of  the classic vacation package which you’ll find on every pamphlet. How can you not love that? Easy. You’re like me and you’re honestly not much intrigued by pretty beaches and local nightlife. Just not my thing. Here’s the kicker however; regardless of its status as a resort city, Nice easily stands on its own as a city of beauty and intrigue.

Allow me to explain more fully. Oftentimes it seems the ‘resort town’ locations tend to be a facade, an illusion carefully crafted in order to appeal towards tourists and in so doing to make some decent money. These ‘fake’ towns in truth are often rather boring and even sometimes dismal places where the resort area exists in its own little bubble of reality kept separate from the city or town proper where the average grunts live their average lives and not everyone is a bronzed beach god and the vendors sell more mundane things like food and groceries rather than exotic overpriced charms and supposedly local specialties which, again, more often than not are little traditions the locals will either shrug their shoulders about and dismiss with a casual “I guess…” or dislike outright, hating you for bringing up the foul old tradition and loathing you to your very core for so daring to stereotype them if you should have the nerve to talk about the subject.

That’s your typical travel brochure resort town. It really is!

Nice is not a thing like that. For one it’s actually an extremely pleasant place to visit even if you never once go anywhere near the beaches or the tourist trap areas. As a city standing alone and any mention of resorts or fame or even location tossed aside, Nice stands pretty damn tall amidst its competition. The streets are clean, the buildings are pleasant to look at, the people are surprisingly pleasant, there’s a good historical backing behind the city and there almost always is something interesting to search out and explore. Most importantly for me at least it also have a good vibe to it, that indescribable inner judgement where all the above melds together into one grand image to which I hold the city up to. The vibe, the pulse, the je ne sais quoi, the… I can’t think of any other  appropriate words at the moment but whatever it is Nice has a good one.

For me the moment when I realized I was really enjoying myself in this humorously named city was when I was walking up a slight incline along an average city street, the sun shinning downward brightly but an enjoyable breeze keeping things from getting stiflingly hot. I was snacking on a brownie I’d picked up from a small local bakery and sipping a cool drink while talking with my friend and enjoying the simple local scenery. The picturesque houses and small gardens with their abundance of plants and flowers of all sorts, most in bloom at the time so that the gardens were grand explosions of colour and fragrances that wafted by slowly in the light wind. It was then I thought to myself “Wow, I am really impressed by this city!”. Why? Because I wasn’t doing anything special, I was just walking to the attraction I’d wanted to see and yet still despite being ‘in-between’ sights I was enjoying myself and the locale around me immensely. Anywhere given enough time and money can create sights and experience you’re bound to enjoy, that’s easy! But to make it so that you enjoy the simple process of getting from point A to B and that you’re continually seeing and finding things of interest even just while travelling between planned sights and sounds, that’s the hallmark of a genuinely fine place to be.

Of touristy things I actually did little during my stay in Nice. I saw the ancient roman ruins the city boasts, an active archaeological dig site open to the public with a small museum and walking path to wander along. Not particularly big nor was there much to actually do there, but it was certainly worth the money to visit if only because of just how damned scenic it is. I saw and walked along the winding upwards paths of the hill where once a castle used to sit, now converted into a large park with an absolutely mesmerizing view towards the peak where the entire landscape of the city around you is left open to the eyes and your worries just tend to drift away amidst the Mediterranean foliage and gentle warm breeze. And I wandered the old cities twisted narrow streets, my senses assaulted by the fragrances of the restaurants and food vendors, my eyes dazzled by the curiosity and volume of small details to note and enjoy as I walked. I would eventually eat a fine bowl of Gnocchi for dinner in that district served by a friendly older lady while listening to the pleasant sounds of local music before heading back to where I was staying at the time and off the next day to another location.

Not really much seen when it comes down to it. Some old ruins, a nice park (Which also contained its own slightly less old ruins), and an older local market area. Not much. But the simple act of walking from place to place, to see and enjoy the city around me and soak in the ambiance was something I found so pleasant that it pushed Nice into my list of favourite cities I’ve been to. Looking up the various details on Wikipedia now and reading about Nice to refresh my memory, there’s so much I haven’t seen and so many things I never even knew while I was there. That I still loved the city so much having seen so little just stands as a testament to how great of a place Nice really is, and I desperately want to re-visit and to search and explore it more thoroughly in the future.

Other cities in France boast their own sights and sounds and I do not try to lessen their grandeur with my adoration towards this one place, but few come close to so tying everything together and making the city such a cohesive and enjoyable whole as Nice does and for that I praise it.

What’s funny is that I label Nice the most beautiful city in France when, looking the city up now, I find that historically it’s much more of an Italian city than anything else if I were to label the city as ‘belonging’ to a certain way of life. But that aside the city is French now and has been for a very long time, so I call it the most beautiful city in France.