Tuesday, 10 August 2010

It's always better on holiday part I: Italia!

Watch out, this one is going to be long!

Every summer for the past few years, I have spent a good chunk of my time doing some archaeology somewhere and that has counted as my holiday in the summer. Three years in a row (2007, 2008, and 2009) I did those things in some cold, wet, and windy North Atlantic locales: Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland. To compound the cold, I did archaeology in the furthest north points of two out of three of those (Northern Ireland and the West Fjords) -- and in Scotland, I was off the northern tip of the mainland if not in the actual northernmost point (in Orkney rather than Shetland). This summer, since I am working on finishing my PhD, I decided not to do fieldwork (this would have meant a return to either Iceland or Orkney) and instead to stay in Oxford for most of the time and focus on work.

I was really sad that I wasn't going to do fieldwork this year, but I got to do something better instead -- spend two weeks with N, not to mention various friends, travelling to European countries beginning with the letter "I" that have volcanoes.* These two countries also had the dubious distinction of being part of the infamous "PIIIGS" nations who have been bringing down the European economy. First stop: Italia!, where N had invited me to be his date at a wedding at a villa in Umbria.

In the week leading up to the trip, I absolutely lost all ability to focus. I was so incredibly excited that I was going to get to spend so much time with N, as well as travel to these places with him, that in a fit of nervous energy I wound up making a huge spreadsheet of all published geochemical data and then plotting all of my geochemical data on it and solving a huge mystery about my research. That was on Friday. He arrived on Saturday afternoon, looking fantastic despite having been travelling for many hours (it took him four flights to get from Denver to London!). We spent a very enjoyable evening at a bbq at A and R's, and then early the next morning trekked across Oxford to the train station to begin the lengthy journey to London Stansted.

Several hours later, we managed to get onto a Ryanair flight to Rome Ciampino. It was N's first Ryanair flight and he was impressed by how crafty and flinty the discount airline really is. Our flight in was uneventful for the most part, with gorgeous views as we flew over the Alps and then northern Italy. The best view came as we were landing: we circled over a blue lake in a big volcanic crater. Our landing was quite rough but the entire plane erupted in cheers as the Ryanair "Charge" music played to announce "Another on time landing!". I wonder who makes the decision to put that one on, and just how close they can cut it... if they are about to be late, does someone tell the pilot and he speeds up?

We took a bus into Rome, where sadly we wound up sitting a few rows apart and I got to sit next to a couple who were groping each other and making out complete with actual "smacking" noises for the duration of the the ride. We pulled up outside of the Roma Termini (train station) and then sat for a half hour as the bus attempted to turn around the side of the Termini and park. With about an hour to go before our train to Perugia, we had our first taste of Italian cooking at a pizza place across from the station. It was great. The best part of the meal experience was that N had brought along a Rick Steves' phrasebook and we were able -- albeit quite shyly -- to start saying some Italian. Following that we took a train journey to Perugia. It was quite long and started off with an Italian woman talking to N in Italian while he nodded and smiled; it ended with us listening to some awesome music on his headphone splitter, and then being stranded in Perugia for quite a while waiting to be picked up. Eventually J and C arrived in their Fiat Punto and we took an exciting drive through Perugia, got lost, got found again, and arrived at the gorgeous villa in the Umbrian countryside where we would be staying.

Our first full day there, we went to a market and then to a walled town by a large lake called Castiglione del Lago. The market was unremarkable, and highly reminiscent of the markets in Oxford, but N found a hat -- a trilby -- that made him look incredibly dashing and managed to get it for only 10 euro. The walled town was on a promontory that jutted out into the lake, and was punctuated by a castle on that tip. I read in the guidebook that the entire region was built up by warring city states in the medieval period, and that the wars between them were so devastating that they became easy targets for the Papal States to take over later on. It was easy to see how important fortifications were when the town was built as we walked through the two narrow streets and up to the castle walls to overlook the lake. We climbed to the top of a few towers and then wound up having to escape down a long wall and out into a palace that had become a museum. We very casually exited said museum and then made our escape from the town.

That night there was the wedding rehearsal and then a delicious rehearsal dinner. Although I had not met many of the people involved in the wedding beforehand, N looked after me beautifully and everyone was incredibly welcoming. We wound up sitting around a fire talking until very late.

The next day was the wedding day. I hung out with the groom's group and we spent the morning/early afternoon lying in the sun next to the fabled infinity pool. A few attempts were made to get into the water but it was absolutely freezing and the day wasn't hot enough to stay in. Instead, we amused ourselves by N reading various quizzes in a Cosmo aloud, talking about Leonard Nimoy/horse fanfic, and alienating other tourists staying at the villa. The groom and his brother spent a lot of time coming up with a fantastic playlist for the wedding. Then it poured rain until about an hour before the wedding itself, cleaning out the air perfectly. Steam and mist rose off the hillsides as the sun came back out and the scenery was incredibly beautiful as the wedding started on the lawn in front of the villa. N was taking photos for the wedding so I did my best to keep busy, doing little tasks for everyone and helping look after the music system. I was super proud of N for taking the photos and I knew they were going to turn out well. The wedding was one of the best I've ever been to, I think because it was so small and not in one of those typical wedding places; part of it being small meant that it felt like everyone who was there really loved the two people getting married and made it seem that much more special. After the ceremony, we had a delicious meal, a lot of wine, some grappa (*shudder*), some whisky, and some more wine, while dancing until something like 3am. We danced ourselves off the playlist and onto someone's Iphone playlist. I was also complimented on my dancing -- and on how N and I dance together -- a few times, which made my day, as I tend to think of myself as being of the Thom Yorke school of awkward dancers.

The next morning we got up late, staggered around, took some of the Motrin thoughtfully provided by the bride and groom in the welcome package, and then took a trip to the gorgeous city of Assisi. It's a difficult place to describe; it's full of hidden corners, side passages, steep staircases and little unexpected carvings, painted windows, and gorgeous doors. It also is full of churches where I had to wrap something around my legs because apparently my shorts were immodest. The first time that a security person told me to do this and handed me a scarf I felt incredibly weird about it, and uncomfortable -- I had worn a shirt with sleeves and close-toed shoes specifically not to be disrespectful, and then felt so... interpolated, in the gender studies sense for lack of a better word, when someone could judge me like that and deny me entry to someplace. I guess I should never visit the Middle East, right? I almost didn't go into the cathedral as a result, but decided to to avoid awkward questions. I'm glad that I went in, though still felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation.

Anyway, the cathedral! St Francis of Assisi's shrine was in the basement, and very intense: people had pushed pictures through the bars around it of people who they were praying for, and it was dark, and subterranean. Assisi was my first introduction to Italian churches and I found it to be incredibly strange, having previously only visited churches in the northern parts of Europe (the UK, France, and the Netherlands). The church is built on two levels and seems to have altars everywhere -- the notion of small ante-chapels off of a simple cross/nave shape that is prevalent in Gothic cathedrals was not present. Instead the structure of the church felt incredibly chaotic. We got a chance to see some Giotto paintings in one area that were being restored and to take "one generic photo" of them, which was illuminating. This was another big difference between other cathedrals I had been in, and contributed to the sense of chaos -- the walls were entirely covered in paintings! I loved looking at them -- they really highlighted the sense that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" especially as it relates to the medieval period. Although it is one of the times I have read the most about, I simply cannot fathom what they could have been thinking when they were illustrating some of those scenes of hell. Did these people really concretely believe in a literal notion of hell, complete with satyrs? Or was it like the idea of post-apocalypse is today, something in popular culture that people liked to speculate upon but only half-believed in their darkest moments? It really made me think about the medieval mind, and brought me back to my favorite history book, "A World Lit Only by Fire", a book that I disagree with in many ways... anyway, the cathedral was quite an experience, end of story.

After that we had the joys of herding about 20 cats worth of people around the streets of Assisi in search of food, as everything seemed to be closed for the infamous siesta. I tried out my terrible Italian with a few people to ask the location of a restaurant that had been recommended to us, only to discover that the restaurant was only open three hours a day. It was somewhat surreal travelling around Europe in a pack of mostly-Coloradan Americans -- my people! -- when I'd been living in Europe as the only Coloradan, or Western American for that matter, that I knew for several years. Everyone seemed so shocked that the restaurant was only open those hours whereas I have come to expect things like that and was not surprised at all. At the point where one of our party had negotiated us a deal on a restaurant elsewhere, we received urgent communications that the bride and groom were left in the villa, sans car or food, and needed to be rescued. Five of us set off for the villa to sweep them away to a land with food, but wound up hideously lost in Perugia. I was at the point of turning on google navigation on my phone and incurring 1.25/MB charges (pounds) when we took a random roundabout and wound up on the correct road. Hooray! We can never, ever, ever go back to Perugia. That night we ate in a lovely restaurant in another walled hill town.

The next day was our best day in Italy, at least to me. We left early in the morning and took a train ride to Florence, or, as they call it there (and as I learned after asking a particularly dumb question), Firenze. N was wearing his trilby and an Arctic Monkeys t-shirt, pretty much the most attractive look this indie-loving girl could imagine, so I knew the day was going to be good. As we pulled into Firenze, the clouds had become apocalyptic, and then the skies opened and it POURED, and thundered, and lightninged, for about an hour. We ran off the train and then from sheltered doorway to sheltered doorway. We then ate an incredibly delicious lunch in a restaurant that we just happened to duck into to keep out of the rain. From there we set off to find out how to see the David -- which I ultimately did not see -- and then darted around from the rain a bit more before beating the queue to climb the Duomo.

The Duomo is the most impressive thing I saw in Italy aside from the Colisseum (more on that in a minute). The dome itself is enormous and peeks out from various angles down the city streets. I'm always impressed by monumental architecture that finds its way into crowded spaces and still manages to dominate. Climbing to the top was extremely damp but the views of the city and surrounding hillsides were definitely worth it! I'm glad that I don't have any fear of heights because there wasn't much of a guard rail and the drop looked steep.

After descending the Duomo we headed off across the famous bridge to find a place that had been promised to us as the best gnocchi ever. The bridge was gorgeous and made me wish that London Bridge hadn't burned down -- I'd love to have seen that one. Anyway, the restaurant was all that it had promised to be and more. The gnocchi came in a cheese sauce with truffle oil and damn if it wasn't one of the greatest things I've ever eaten. By the end I was completely stuffed but could not imagine leaving any on the plate so I managed to eat it all. Then I ate some of the steak Florentine that two of the others had gotten and that was incredible too. Oh man. I really loved eating my way through Italy.

We then took a train ride back to Perugia. To alleviate boredom, N and I bought two bottles of wine to share and succeeded in getting ourselves "a little bit tipsy" and playing various card games. It was an incredibly enjoyable way to end the day.

The next day was our last in Italy. We went to Rome early in the morning and had an hour to kill there before heading back to the UK. We used it to make a humid, hot dash to the Colisseum, which turned out to be incredibly impressive in person despite all the millions of pictures I've seen of it. I've never been particularly (ok, at all) into the classical period -- choosing instead to focus on people who lived in turf houses in marginal climates -- but looking at the Colisseum I could certainly see the appeal of studying people who built enormous monuments in sunny spots. After seeing it, we headed back on the Rome subway system, the perfect way to complete the journey.

I had a fabulous time in Italy. The company really made it; not just N but his friends as well who were uniformly awesome and who I had a great time hanging out with. Hopefully they liked me too!

Standing outside the airport, I bid sunny, warm summer weather adieu until 2011 and then we boarded our Ryanair flight back to the Great British Climate.

*Sorry Ireland, but I already visited you in June!

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