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Saturday, December 27, 2003

Here's a synopsis of my trip to Italy, of what I can remember. Went for 9 days to clear my head, take a break, and do something NOT related to medicine.

p.s. btw, thanks to YW's pics on the web (and my memory, of course), i'm able to remember the sequence of events more clearly. =)
p.p.s it’s longggg, btw, as I’ve added in snippets of history together with it.

Sunday, 14 December 2003 - Milan, Lombardy
Went over to MN's friend's place at Camden late on Sat night, around 10pm. Have not met YW before, but recognized him at the tube station thru the Hwa Chong PE T-shirt. =p It was YW's 21st birthday. He didn't have any celebration apart from a Harrod's cake from 2 of his friends in the halls. =) The 3 of us stayed at the hall till abt 2am, after which we took a night bus to Victoria, to catch the coach to Stansted airport, for our flight at 6.40am.

Arrived at Mian Bergamo airport at 940am (Italian time 1 hr faster than London), and took a 1+ hr coach ride to Milan city, where we alighted at the Stazione Centrale. On the plane, we met 2 of their friends (Wenlong & shu hua), so we spent the day roaming Milan after putting our stuff in the hotel.

First off was the train station, where we tried to figure out how to buy tickets to Florence the next day. What we found out from the counter is different from what it costs from the machine!! So much more, somemore...while playing with the bigletteria or ticket machines, a guy was kind enough to help us with the tickets. Realise that the Italian people are so proud of their language, that ifyou don't know Italian, you will be lost!

After that, we just walked around, stopping at Spizzico for lunch first, then walked along Corso Venezia passing Porta Venezia (the park), in which there was a Natural Science History Museum. then onto Via Monte Napoleone, which is the high-class shopping streets, which Milan is famous for! We then headed for Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the more affordable shopping area. We passed the Teatro alla Scala along the way, but didn't go in as part of it had construction going on. It is one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world and has one of the largest stages in Europe.

Coming next to the Duomo, it's the first we've seen in Italy, and we paid abt 4 Euros just to climb up the stairs to see what's on top, and see what's the view like. =p Apparently, it is one of the largest Gothic churches in the world. At the roof, it has 135 spres and innumerable statues and gargoyles. Coming down that, we headed north towards Castello Sforzesco, a castle based on a series of courtyards. However, by the time we got there at around 4pm, they had closed admissions, and therefore we just walked the perimetry, before heading off for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Little did we know that there is a service charge of 2 Euros per head.

All in all, it was a slow start to the trip, perhaps, as we had gone as a grp of 5. However, I felt slightly impatient, as we were just walking along aimlessly, led by the 2 older people. Maybe it's just me. Heh...

but anyway, there wasn't much to see anyway, as Milan is a place of shopping. The next morning, we had a gd breakfast, and made our way to Florence by train.

Milan - Centre of fashion, business and finance, Milan has a bustling, businesslike feel about it. To the Goths, who took it over from the Romans, it was called "Mailand", the land of May, a place of warmth and inspiration. It has long been an important trading centre at the junction of transalpine routes and a prize for powerful dynasties. Today, it is the best place to see Italy at its most cosmopolitan and stylish.

Monday 15/16 December 2003 – Florence/Firenze, Tuscany

We took the train from Milan into Santa Maria Novella Stazione Centrale in Firenze, arriving in the afternoon. We spent about 2 hours trying to find the accommodation which we booked, apparently going to wrong one, as there is Proconsole Rooms 2 and 1, of which we were booked in the latter. In the end, we telephoned the person to pick us up as there wasn’t any distinct address given. She met us in front of the Duomo, and brought us to the place, where she was also kind enough to give us a triple room, for the price of a double room. =) By that time, it was already evening, and everything was closed. Besides, we were hungry, so we had a good meal of spaghetti vongole (crabmeat + clam sauce), and a dessert, after which we took a walk across the river Arno to walk past Palazzo Pitti, then back to our hostel for a gd nite’s rest.

The next morning, we decided to start from far, and work our way back to near our hostel. First, we had a 2.80E worth of breakfast, comprising of 2 croissants and a cappuccino. Then we headed off to Piazzale Michelangelo, where it’s supposed to offer a magnificent panoramic view of the Florentine city. It is dotted with copies of Michelangelo’s statues. In the various views, there are distant Tuscan hills, as well as the Arno and various bridges, the most famous of which is Ponte Vecchio.

Next was the Boboli Gardens in Palazzo Pitti, which costs us 6E for entry, and there was practically nothing to see there! The Palazzo Pitti was originally built for the banker Luca Pitti in 1457, illustrating Pitti’s determination to outrival the Medici family through its display of wealth and power. Ironically, the Medici later purchased the palazzo when building costs bankrupted Pitti’s heirs. In 1550, it became the main residence of the Medici, and subsequently all the rulers of the city lived here. Today the richly decorated rooms exhibit countless treasures from the Medici collections.

After that, we bought a few slices of pizza, and made our way along Ponte Vecchio. it is the oldest surviving bridge in the city, built in 1345, the last in a succession of bridges and fords on the site that dated back to Roman times. It was originally the doman of blacksmiths, butchers and tanners (who used the river for disposing of waste). They were reviled for their noise and stench, and were replaced by jewellers and goldsmiths. This was the city’s only bridge to escape destruction during WWII .

We then headed to Piazza della Signoria (the heart of Florence’s political and social life for centuries), where there are loads of statues, amongst which a copy of Michelangelo’s David, symbolizing triumph over tyranny. The area also has Palazzo Vecchio, and the world-famous Uffizi art gallery. That costs us a hefty 8.50E. It was actually designed for the Magistrates of the Florentine State, as well as a gallery to display the Medici art treasures. Appreciated many beautiful and exquisite paintings, a pity I’m no art critic though, and therefore can’t understand much from it.

Our last stop for the day was the Piazza del Duomo, where we could see the Duomo and Santa Maria del Fiore (Baptistry), together with the Campanile. This cathedral is Europe’s 4th largest church. The doors of the Baptistry was dubbed the “Gate of Paradise”, showing scriptural subjects.

Wednesday 17/18 December 2003 – Rome, Rome and Lazio

We took a 2 hr train ride down to Rome Terminii, where we found our hostel (Pop Inn Hostel) just mins away from the train station. After checking in, we made one of the mistakes of having too long a lunch (2 hrs!). Not to say the food wasn’t gd, it was excellent, and I got to practise a bit of my Spanish, trying to order and explain the different bits of wine and food, however miniscule it might be. =P As a result of the long lunch, we just missed admissions to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine Gardens by half an hour. And that was only around 3 plus! As such, we walked around instead, passing the Victor Emmanuel Monument on Capitoline Hill, built in honour of the first king of unified Italy. Then we headed down to the Pantheon (that was around 5pm), which is a temple built in 1st century AD, to “all the gods”, and is the best well-preserved ancient building in Rome. The streets around the Pantheon is the city’s financial and political district, home to Parliament, government offices and the stock exchange. Had gelato at this place in Piazza della Palma, which has 100 flavours of gelato, Italy’s version of ice cream! After that, we walked to the famous Trevi Fountain, and took pictures there, after which we had a good 8E dinner, of which there was no service charge. =P Going back to the hostel room, we met this Taiwanese guy, whom we had met earlier in the same accom in Florence! Such coincidence!

The next day, we achieved an amazing feat of covering the WHOLE of Rome in a day! Wonder of wonders, we were pretty discerning in what we saw though. Not wanting to miss anything, we woke early, and made our way down to the Colosseum by 8.30am, only to find out that admissions only started at 9am! In any case, we were the first ones into the gate! There was also an exhibition on the grounds, where I learnt that Nike is actually the Goddess of Victory for the Romans, and that this huge amphitheatre was constructed on the site of Nero’s Palace (to dissociate himself from the hated tyrant), in AD80 by Emperor Vespasian to fain popularity by staging deadly gladiatorial combats and wild animal fights for public viewing. However, the exhibition focuses more on the Roman games, which is similar to the Olympics, where people competed for victory in various sports to compare their prowess. To be a victor is a great feat and honour, and a statue will be made of them to be on display.

Next up was the Roman Forum. In the early Republic, the forum was a chaotic place, with food stalls and brothels as well as temples and the Senate House. Gradually, it evolved such that the Forum remained the ceremonial centre of the city under the Empire, with emperors renovating old buildings and erecting new temples and monuments. There were so many ruins that all the buildings were a blur in the end. It ranged from the Arch of Constantine, to Atch of Septimius Severus, the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Castor and Pollux, then the Temple of Vesta, which was one of ancient Rome’s most sacred shrines and was dedicated to the goddess of the hearth. The flame, kept alive by the Vestal Virgins, symbolized the perpetuity of the state and its extinction prophesied doom for the city.

the cult of Vesta, the goddess of fire, dates back to at least the 8th century BC. Romulus and Remus were allegedly born of the Vestal priestess Rhea and the god Mars. 6 virgins kept the sacred flame of Vesta burning in her circular temple. The girls, who came from noble families, were selected when they were between 6 and 10 yrs old, and served for 30 years. They had high status and financial security, but were buried alive if they lost their virginity and whipped by the high priest if the sacred flame died out. Although they were permitted to marry after finishing their service, few did so.

It continued to the Forum of Caesar and the Forum of Augustus, which ended at the Temple of Mars, I think, after which we headed down to the Palatine, once the residence of emperors and aristocrats. All in all, we finished Ancient Rome, and headed towards the Vatican and Trastevere before lunch. I can’t believe we did it, but we WALKED all the way there. We went to see the world-famous St Peter’s Basilica, and climbed all the way to the top to see the amazing view of Piazza San Pietro. We didn’t go into the Vatican museums, but wanted to go to the Sistine Chapel, of which we found out that we were just slightly late with the admission, it closing half an hr before at 1pm. =(

A little history of the Vatican. Vatican City, the world capital of Catholicism, is the world’s smallest state. It was the site where St Peter was martyred and buried, and it became the residence of the popes who succeeded him. The state is ruled by the pope, Europe’s only absolute monarch, and the city has its own post office, banks, currency, judicial system, radio station, shops and a daily newspaper.

Moving swiftly along, we passed Castel Sant’ Angelo, where a corridor links it with the Vatican Palace, providing an escape route for the pope during times of political unrest. Then we passed through Piazza Navona, where the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Bernini) awaits us. It has statues of the 4 great rivers of the world at that time (the Nile, the Plate, the Ganges, and the Danube). Our last stop for the day was the Spanish Steps at Piazza di Spagna, which is the haunt of foreign visitors and expatriates.

We went back to the hostel, exhausted and tired. It’s been a long day, but I thoroughly enjoyed walking the whole stretch of it, however tiring it may be, as you can see and appreciate many more things, than when in the train/metro. In a way, it’s gd that the weather there is cold now. =) For that night’s dinner, we had MacDonald’s meals!!

Friday 19 November 2003 – Naples and Pompeii, Naples & Campania

This morning is the earliest we’ve ever had to wake up, 5.30am!! That’s coz we had booked a day tour to neighbouring Naples and Pompeii, and the coach was supposed to pick us up at 7am. The trip was the most expensive, costing 98 Euros, but I feel that it was well worth it, as everything was included, transport to and from the hostel, a 3-course lunch, and a guided tour of Naples and Pompeii.

We started off with a 2 hr coach ride to Naples, the most chaotic, noisy, and more dangerous area of Italy. Met a pair of girls from Edinburgh, and we exchanged contacts! =P We went around the Santa Lucia district, and saw Castel Nuovo, once the main royal residence, stopped for lunch, and then on to Pompeii. Only half of Pompeii has been excavated, and Western Pompeii still await excavation and restoration. Then we headed back to Rome, where YW and I shared a pizza meal from (yet again!) Spizzico, as MN wanted to go back earlier to shower and rest. When I got back, there was this guy, no doubt with a gd-looking bod, who was sleeping in my bed! (I took the lower bunk for the past 2 days). Argh….

History of Pompeii
Nearly 2000 years after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, the Roman towns in its shadow are still being released from the petrification that engulfed them. Both Pompeii and Stabiae, to SE of Naples and the volcano, were smothered by hot ash and pumice-stone blown there by the wind. The roofs of the buildings collapsed under the weight of the volcanic debris. To the west, Herculaneum (Ercolano) vanished under a sea of mud.

Saturday 20 December 2003 – Venice, Veneto & Friuli
Once again, we woke up early at 5.30am, for our train to Venice at 6.42am. Arriving at Santa Lucia train station after a 4 hr journey, we were anxious to get to our accom, and wanted to take the waterbus. However, we didn’t have a choice, as all transport was on strike for the weekend! =( Thanks to YW’s navigational prowess, we found our accom in one piece. =) Hehe…

Venice is the most unique places I’ve seen so far. Built on a series of low mud banks amid the tidal waters of the Adriatic (that is why it floods at least 250 times a year!!), the only engines are those of barges delivering supplies or waterbuses ferrying passengers between shops. There are numerous bridges across rios as well as the Grand Canal. The presence of so many steps makes me think abt the rarity of elderly people. This is the age group that is most affected by arthritis, and thus will have great difficulty climbing up and down stairs. We basically walked the whole of Venice on the 2nd day, which we thought was impossible.

Our hostel is located on Calle dei Botteri, which is next to the Rialto markets containing the colourful stalls of the Erberia (fruit and vegetable market) and Pescheria (fish market). After which , we then headed to the museums of St Mark’s Square, which comprises of Palazzo Ducale (Doges’ Palace), Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. We spent the afternoon in the museums, which proved too much for MN, as we did 4 at 1 go Little did we know that 3 of them were linked together, and each ticket only allows for 1 admission.

The most interesting I found was the Doges’ Palace, the official residence of each Venetian ruler/doge, founded in the 9th century. This palace had 2 gigantic globes, one of the world, the other of the celestial spheres, in the room Sala dello Scudo. The walls of each room was also adorned with lots of paintings, up to the ceilings, which I think were the most magnificent. We also went though the Bridge of Sighs, which joined the palace to the dark world of the prisons. It was said that sighs of prisoners could be heard from this link when they were led to trial.

On Sunday, we woke late and wanted to go to the islands of Burano and Murano. Alas, the trip was hampered by the rainy weather, not to mention the fact that it was a Sunday, and some of the shops were closed. Nevertheless, we bravely stepped out of the hostel after breakfast, and headed for Fondamente Nuove to take a boat across. Alas yet again, there was only 1 destination to Murano, and no other islands. So we bought tickets and travelled there. On the way, we met this nice couple Ita and Mike, from Miami. However, upon reaching there, not many shops were open. =( We walked around pretty much the whole island in an hr, and didn’t want to go into any more museums, so we went back to the main island. After that, we pretty much walked the whole of the mainland too, covering Dorsoduro (where Accademia is at), Santa Croce, San Polo, San Marco, just missing out on 2 areas of Cannaregio and Castello. As we were fast running out of money, I changed 50 pds, and didn’t think that there would be a commission rate as high as 16%, thus losing ard 12 Euros in the process! =_(

Monday morning was a beautiful sunny morning. How I wish that it was like that the day before. But anyway, the first thing we did was to go to St Mark’s Square. We went in and saw the interior, and it was amazing architecture. Then again, what we have see in Italy is simply breathtaking as well. After that, to while away the time before we leave Venice, we walked along the whole of the riverfront along St Mark’s, passing Arsenale and Giardini/Biennale, then we walked back, and just sat for an hour in the hostel, before heaeding off to Piazzale Roma, the place where we board the coach to take us to Treviso airport.

On the coach, we met this California guy who was trying to change his flight to 2 days earlier. He seemed a bit slimy, yet not that bad. Then we were on the plane, and here we are, landing in Stansted airport, ran and made it just in time for the coach back to Victoria, where YW and I waited more than 30 mins for the damn night bus in the dark cold road next to the coach station. I don’t know if I would have actually waited if I didn’t have someone with me. =) There, we took a nightbus N11 to Trafalgar Square, and thankfully I made it home safely via another nightbus N155, reaching at 3am.

All in all, I wouldn’t say that this is a fun noisy trip, but it is a fun quiet trip. It was pretty reflective and quiet and relaxing for me, something which I didn’t realise I would like. Before the trip, I was wondering how I would get along with both my companions, one of whom I know for more than a year but not well, and the other whom I didn’t know at all. During the first few nights, MN initiated the talks before bedtime, asking about how we felt about certain issues, etc, and it’s been pretty informative. The trip was quite enjoyable though, just venturing out and seeing the sights, and reading up about the history or the significance of them later on at night. It is so interesting that I ended up reading about the whole of Italy, and not just the sights we have seen!