EuroTrip 2007: Cinque Terre (or More Accurately, Una Terra)

Having heard good things about Cinque Terre, and feeling that I needed more Italian food in my life (despite having stuffed myself stupid on the first go-round), I found myself a hostel in Riomaggiore (one of the five villages that make up this area on Italy’s Ligurian coast) and got the shuttle from my hostel in Nice to board the train that I had of course booked in advance, being an old hat at this Interrailing thing by now. In the shuttle to the station, I encountered a pair of American twins who I immediately began referring to in my head as the Bob Sagets (Bob Saget in his nerdily wholesome Danny Tanner from Full House incarnation, not the actual Bob Saget, who is a fairly raunchy albeit still kind of lame comedian). They had not booked a train, and were also hoping to go to Cinque Terre, so I advised them they needed to book a ticket right away, and went up to the ticket window to show them how to do so; essentially, they would have missed the train without me, but the jerks didn’t even thank me. Fortunately, they had seats in another compartment, as I was dreading having to sit with them and listen to them fangirling over Rick Steves (they had money belts, zip-off trousers, and even walking sticks, even though they were only in their 20s!), but as it turned out, I might have preferred the Bob Sagets over my experience.

I’ve really struggled with how to write about this incident without sounding like an awful person, and debated leaving it out altogether, but it did happen, and I’m all about honesty, so here we are. I was sharing a compartment with a French woman and her severely mentally disabled daughter, who was probably in her 20s or 30s, which is of course not a problem in and of itself – I’m not that terrible of a person – but unfortunately the daughter kept flailing her arms around and hitting me with them. To make matters worse, she very obviously soiled herself early on in the journey, and though it was a hot day on an un-air-conditioned train, which meant the smell got progressively worse, her mother didn’t go help her clean up or anything, just left her sitting in it (and believe me, after my experience in Paris, I’m certainly not going to judge someone for losing control of their bowels, but I know it’s not nice to be left in your own filth). All this was perfectly forgivable (even though I felt bad for the daughter, who was visibly distressed), because of course this woman was entitled to travel with her daughter, and I’m sure her life must have been difficult, but what I couldn’t forgive was this woman having the nerve to yell at me when my fruit salad leaked a bit on the floor. I had bought a fruit salad for lunch which was just in a plastic container with a bit of plastic vacuum sealed over the top, and the seal must have sprung a leak, because some of the juice started dripping out on the floor. It was already sitting in a plastic bag, so I picked it up and wrapped it completely in the bag, and did my best to wipe up the juice with a napkin, but obviously the floor under the seat was still a little sticky. This wasn’t good enough for the mother, who started screaming in my face in French for making a mess, which, given the circumstances, was just a bridge too far. Fortunately, we weren’t too far from my stop at this point, so I pretended like I was leaving to get supplies to clean up the mess, and just hid in the corridor until my stop, when I rushed back, grabbed my bags, and ran off the train, where I ran right into the Bob Sagets, who were also changing at Genoa to get to Cinque Terre. For some inexplicable reason, they wanted to show me the lunch they had bought – initially I had thought it was because they were going to offer me something in thanks for getting them on the damn train, but of course they didn’t offer me anything, not even a bottle of water (of which they had extra), even though I specifically mentioned how thirsty I was. As predicted, they did proceed to tell me about the merits of Rick Steves on the next train – fortunately, Rick Steves recommended staying in Monterosso, the first of the five villages by train, so that’s of course what they did, and I happily found myself free of them.

Arriving in Riomaggiore, I crossed under the tunnel from the station into one of the most charming towns I’d ever seen, and checked into my hostel, which was just an apartment on a back street crammed entirely full of beds. Not plush at all (it was actually kind of grody, as a couple would loudly have sex during the day even with other people sitting in the room trying desperately to ignore them), but I was so enchanted with the town that I didn’t care. Since Liguria is the home of pesto and focaccia, which are two of my favourite foods, I immediately ventured up the hill to one of three focaccerias for a giant piece of pesto focaccia, which remains to date probably the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.

After an uneventful night, the next day I got to know some of my hostelmates a bit better (I already knew the randy couple far too well), and immediately hit it off with a guy from Canada named Mike. Mike and I would be best buds for the remainder of our time in Cinque Terre, mainly because we were both hella lazy and loved to eat. Now, the reason most people go to Cinque Terre, especially back then, is to do this coastal hike that leads between all five towns, and is meant to be gorgeous. Everyone else in our hostel was doing the hike, and they couldn’t believe that neither Mike nor myself had any interest in it whatsoever. Rather, we hung around on the terrace reading books all day, and saying “ciao” to everyone who passed by, including the Bob Sagets! (I think I was in the process of telling Mike about them when they suddenly appeared out of nowhere, which made it even funnier!) We found that only the Italians were polite enough to say “ciao” back; the tourists just ignored us, so we took to swearing at them in Italian instead. Since I had limited space in my backpack, I was making ample use of the book exchange shelves that were set up at most hostels, and I kept encountering Discworld books (a series I already knew and loved), so spent most of the trip exchanging one Discworld book for another (which would lead to an interesting experience when I got to Amsterdam). I had focaccia again for lunch, but I was more ambitious for dinner. Mike and I had spent the day eyeing up the giant pesto pizza advertised at a pizzeria up the hill as a pizza that could easily feed five people, and we took that as a personal challenge. We managed to polish off one between the two of us, much to the amazement of our hostelmates (I was pretty slim back then, and Mike was a bit smaller than I was, so it looked impressive). It remains one of my proudest accomplishments (which maybe doesn’t say much about my life, but whatever), and I even got gelato after!

The next day, though we were both still firmly opposed to doing the hike (we’d come to relax, not to bloody exert ourselves!), we decided we should probably do something other than sit around the hostel all day, so we went to the beach. This consisted of a small strip of pebbles surrounded by boulders, with aggressive looking waves (those waves are no joke – a tourist got sucked off the cliffs whilst posing for a picture a few months after we were there, and died as a result), and though it looked pretty, it was definitely not ideal for swimming, not that I would have done so anyway, so we basically just watched leathery nude old people sunbathe for a bit before deciding to head up to La Spezia, the nearest city, to see if there was anything worth doing there. There really, really wasn’t. We walked around for an hour, and it was really dirty and industrial, so we decided to come right on back to Riomaggiore and continue sitting around guilt-free, since at least we’d made an attempt to explore. That night, we opted for spinach cannelloni instead, which was much more delicious than the stuff in Florence, and had more gelato, including a special Cinque Terre flavour that had too much dried fruit in it for my tastes, but I ate it anyway because it was still ice cream.

I had to sadly leave the next day for a very long trek up to Liege, but stopped by my favourite focacceria before I went to stock up on a few more slices of pesto heaven. It was good I did, because I had originally planned on spending the afternoon in Milan, from which I was taking a night train to Cologne, and gave myself hours between trains as a result. Unfortunately, when I got to Milan, I realised there was not a single locker or anywhere to leave my bag in the station, and since my bag had gotten progressively heavier throughout the trip, there was absolutely no way I was going to be exploring Milan to any significant extent with that thing on my back. So I was limited to basically the half mile or so around the station, which is typically the shadiest part of town. I did manage to find a subpar gelateria before just giving up and resigning myself to sitting in the station for hours, though I at least had my beloved pesto focaccia for comfort. I also got some emergency Happy Hippos and red orange Fanta for the train, but this experience soured me on Milan, even though I never actually saw the city. What kind of a station doesn’t have lockers?! Fortunately, for once I had managed to book a train with a couchette, and even better, they were single sex couchettes, so I didn’t have to worry about creepy pervert men! I ended up sharing a four person couchette with only one German woman around my age, so I actually managed to get some sleep on a train, which was a miracle in itself, before disembarking in Cologne extremely early in the morning to catch a train to Aachen, and then from Aachen to Liege, which was memorable mainly because I tried to use the toilet at one point and was strongly dissuaded from it by the German man who emerged, who somehow managed to convey with hand gestures that he had absolutely destroyed that toilet, and I should under no circumstances go in until it had aired out, which I found absolutely hilarious (and kind of thoughtful in a way).

So once again, except for the train journey to Riomaggiore, and the afternoon in Milan, I had an absolutely lovely time. In fact, Cinque Terre was my favourite place that I visited on this trip (or more accurately, Riomaggiore, since that was the only one of the five villages I ended up seeing, hence the title of this post), and I came back again the next year, and had a similarly nice time, that time making friends with an Australian guy. I actually kept in touch with Mike for ages via Facebook, and we’re still Facebook friends, though I’ve not spoken to him in years. He was the perfect companion to enjoy doing absolutely nothing but eating with for a few days, and I’ll always remember that time fondly. However, I did try to go back to Riomaggiore for my 30th birthday five years ago, and that place has been destroyed. It is insanely busy and crowded, and most disappointingly of all, the perfect focacceria is no longer there, having been replaced by a fish’n’chips in a cone establishment, which seemed to be all anyone was eating when we were there. It was such a disappointment to see it completely wrecked by the tourism that had in small numbers allowed it to flourish, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone now.

I loved this sign on the door of my hostel reception in Riomaggiore, though I would have been seriously annoyed if I had actually been waiting to check in when I saw this sign, with no indication of when anyone would be back. For the record, Mike and I spotted this when we were sitting in the street eating pasta, and no one came back for at least an hour. We saw multiple groups of travellers getting increasingly frustrated!

EuroTrip 2007: Florence and Innsbruck

It’s really hard to know how many posts to divide this trip into, since obviously I have no idea how long museums will remain shut for – I fear the museum I work for will try to open sooner rather than later unless the government explicitly forbids it (much to my chagrin, since I’m enjoying working from home on comms much more than constantly dealing with people coming in my office to complain about the public toilet at work), but my friend who works at the V&A was told that as of now, their plan is to reopen in September, so I’m thinking I probably don’t need to rush through this trip! My last post saw my aunt about to leave my mother and I alone to carry on exploring Italy and Austria, which was not ideal as we’d pretty much done nothing but fight the whole trip. We got a train from Sorrento back to Rome so my aunt could catch her plane, and then my mother and I carried on up to Florence. We shared a compartment on the train there with a hairy German man who was a bit too talkative and was wearing sandals that exposed his big hairy toes and yellow thickened toenails that were reminiscent of Fritos corn chips (I say this as someone who has fairly disgusting toenails on my little toes, which have been deformed by years of wearing shoes that don’t fit properly thanks to my wide toe bed/narrow heels issue). I don’t know if his feet actually smelled, or if I just imagined I could smell them, but I was already feeling pretty queasy by the time we exited the train.

And then I walked right into the stench that was Florence. Since I’ve never returned to the city, I still haven’t figured out if it was a result of a garbage strike, like in Naples; the effect of the heat on the river, or if it just always smells like that, but whatever it was, there was this horrific rancid onion smell in the air. We managed to find a very cheap and very grim hotel/pensione (recommended by Rick Steves, natch) that was basically just two cots in a bare room with a toilet that smelled of rotting cabbage. The combination of the smells of the day and perhaps some lingering motion sickness from the train (though I don’t usually get nauseated on trains. Cars and buses, absolutely; trains, no) completely did me in at this point, and I spent the rest of the day in the depressing cabbage toilet violently vomiting. When it became clear I wasn’t going to stop any time soon, my mother was forced to venture out alone to try to find me medicine and liquids with which to rehydrate, as well as dinner for herself, and I guess she got lost and ended up wandering for ages trying to find the hotel again. As a result, she was quite shaken and upset by the time she got back, which resulted in her screaming at me for being sick, since, as I said earlier, when she gets nervous or upset, it usually manifests itself in the form of anger. I was already miserable, and that just made everything worse.

Fortunately, by the next morning I felt much better, and was ready to head out to explore the city. Unfortunately, this was slightly impeded by the owner of said pensione who accosted us on our way out and yelled at us for trying to open the shutters in our room, as apparently someone could have broken in (we were on the second or third floor of a building), and then refused to let us go out until we had crossed our bags across our chests, as she was convinced we would be robbed otherwise. She spent about half an hour lecturing us about how we were going to either be robbed or ripped off in Florence – she was not a good advertisement for her city, to say the least. I believe it was this experience that put my mother off Rick Steves as well, since he had specifically mentioned how nice this woman was in his guidebook.

As you can see from my photos, when we were eventually permitted to leave, we did wander over to see the Duomo and all the other sites I’d heard so much about in all the Renaissance history classes I’d taken, but because they were extremely crowded, even back then, we opted not to go inside and instead went to Palazzo Pitti, which was virtually empty compared to the main tourist sites. So although we did not see David, I got to see many entertaining paintings depicting horribly martyred saints, and particularly enjoyed the images of St. Agatha calmly holding her severed breasts on a plate. Since I’d eaten virtually nothing the day before, I couldn’t wait for dinner, and I don’t know if we just picked poorly, or if the cuisine of Florence is not up to the standards of most of the rest of Italy, but even with being starving, I found the food quite gross. I described my spinach cannelloni as being “worse than Olive Garden’s,” and I was no fan of Olive Garden, even back then (except the breadsticks, of course. Everybody likes those breadsticks). Since the pensione lady had a strict curfew (of course she did), we headed back not long after dinner to spend another night on our depressing and uncomfortable cots.

We left for Innsbruck the next morning, and I was just thrilled to be getting out of Florence (I feel bad to be so hard on Florence, since one of my good friends is from there, but I really did not enjoy myself back then. I should probably give it another try, especially now that I have someone to consult about the best places to go, but obviously that’s not going to be happening anytime soon!), but before we left, we stopped at a bakery to get a bag of pastries for breakfast, which helped Florence redeem itself somewhat food-wise. In addition to a really delicious olive oil flatbread and some nutella pastries, we had these fried crispy dough things coated in sugar that tasted very much like chrusciki (you may know them as angel wings, if indeed you know them at all, and if you don’t, I’m sad for you), which were my absolute favourite dessert as a child. Arriving in Innsbruck, we found it significantly colder and cleaner than Italy, which was a relief, though much more boring, which was not. Even though we arrived on a Friday afternoon, barely anything seemed to be open, so I managed to talk my mother into getting Indian food for dinner, since the traditional Austrian restaurants that were open were not at all vegetarian friendly. I was thrilled to have a paneer curry and naan after the disappointing dinner of the night before, and because there was nothing else open, we headed back to the hotel afterwards (which was at least nice for once – I think we were treating ourselves after the place in Florence) where I watched The Simpsons in German for the rest of the night.

The following day, we headed out for our tour of Swarovski Crystal Worlds, which was the whole reason my mother wanted to go to Innsbruck in the first place. She has long been obsessed with Swarovski jewellery (which I guess is good since it’s always a safe bet for birthday presents, as she is otherwise really difficult to shop for since she never tells you what she wants, but she already has so much of it that it’s hard to avoid getting her something she already owns), and was dying to see a whole land of Swarovski. I was predictably much less thrilled about the whole thing, and described it as being “like Disney World but more boring and full of crystals,” though I did like the giant head with the waterfall that you can see in the photo above. After spending what felt like ages there (to be fair, I think you had to wait for a bus back to Innsbruck, so we couldn’t have just left any old time), we headed back into Innsbruck to collect our bags and head onward to Salzburg. Whilst waiting for the train, we got some cake at a cafe, and it clearly didn’t agree with me (I thought it might be because of the unadvertised gelatinous topping, because I hadn’t eaten gelatin for years at that point, but who knows) because it was back to a horrendous stomachache and a very bad time indeed on the train to Salzburg (if you ever have to spend the whole of a train journey in the train’s toilet, you know that is going to be a bad time), where I’ll pick up with the trip again next time (Salzburg that is, not the train’s toilet. You don’t need to hear any more about that!).

EuroTrip 2007: Rome and Sorrento

I made it safely to Rome and braced myself to meet up with my mom and aunt. It’s hard for me to describe this experience without sounding like a total jerk, but if my relationship with my mother wasn’t the best under normal circumstances, it was only logical that it was going to be even worse in a stressful circumstance like foreign travel. My mother is not a good traveller – I think it makes her nervous, and being nervous makes her irritable, and even though I’d only been travelling myself for about a week at that point, I felt like quite a seasoned traveller compared to her, so my know-it-all attitude was bound to cause some friction. On top of this, I didn’t actually want to meet up with them at all – they booked a trip despite my objections and insisted I meet them, so I was angry at being told what to do on what was meant to be my backpacking holiday of a lifetime, and I didn’t make it any easier for myself by acting like a brat.

Needless to say, it wasn’t surprising that we got into an argument on our first evening in Rome. We’d just had dinner, which I had to pay for because they hadn’t yet figured out how to change over money, had a gelato (of course), and visited the Trevi Fountain, where some Italian guy started stroking my leg and going, “bella, bella,” in a really creepy manner, and were discussing the best way back to the hotel. Despite my general lack of directional skills, I was positive I knew how to get there in this case, but my mother kept telling me I was wrong, and insisted we go another way that was entirely uphill and took three times as long as the right way would have. When we finally got back and I unwisely (and let’s face it, probably gloatingly) pointed this out, she completely flipped out at me. I was not a happy camper.

The next day, we got up bright and early to head to the Vatican, where you can see me standing in front of a fountain with my aunt in the very crooked picture above. Having read about the dress code in great detail in my guidebook, I told my mother and aunt to make sure their shoulders and knees were covered, and did the same myself, even though I was sweltering in that half-cardigan. My aunt listened, my mother did not, and kept insisting that her mid-thigh length skirt was fine because she was wearing pantyhose underneath, and got angry at me when I tried to tell her it wasn’t. Well, guess what happened when we got up to the entrance of St. Peter’s, after waiting in a queue for about an hour? I got in, my aunt got in, and my mother…did not. Undaunted, she made repeated attempts to sneak past the Swiss Guard that I probably would have found hilarious if I’d been in a better mood, but eventually had to admit defeat and wait for us to come out. Did I ever get credit for being right? No, of course I did not. And since we’re clearly both stubborn people, you can probably see why we have difficulties!

Apart from this constant conflict, I actually quite enjoyed Rome. The food was fabulous, even eating in many Rick Steves-recommended places, and I liked all the ancient bits, which have proved much less exciting to me on subsequent visits. I should say that this trip was also the beginning of a terrible relationship between me and Rick Steves. My mother insisted on bringing one of his guidebooks and only staying in Rick Steves-recommended establishments, most of which were terrible and full of die-hard Rick Steves acolytes, or Steve-ites, as I began to call them, the sort of people with zip-off trousers and money belts, as recommended by Rick Steves. Fortunately, my mother, aunt, and I could all eventually agree on this matter after too many run-ins with horrible accommodation listed in his guidebooks, and at least we could bond over mocking the Steve-ites.

After this, we headed down to Sorrento via Naples, which was not a great journey. Naples was boiling hot and in the middle of a garbage strike, and the smell was horrific. We took a baking bus from the train station down to the docks to wait for a ferry, which couldn’t come fast enough. Whilst waiting, I had my first (and only) experience with Chinotto, which I selected because it was a flavour of Fanta I’d never had before. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the misfortune of trying this stuff, but if they made a soda out of Jagermeister and cough syrup and added more bitterness to it, Chinotto is what it would taste like. I don’t know how citrus can go so wrong, but I never want to taste it again! On arriving in Sorrento, we tried to stay in another Rick Steves special, but it was booked up, so we ended up in the most delightful B&B instead. Most importantly to me, it had a loft with an extra bed in it so I could have my own private sleeping area for once (since I was either staying in hostel dormitories or sharing a hotel room with my mom and aunt for the rest of the trip). The picture above of me in my loft is probably the happiest you’ll see me looking on this portion of the trip.

The next day, we headed to Pompeii on the Circumvesuviana (which I have been calling the Circumvenesuvia in my head for all these years until I Googled it for this post, since that’s how we were all referring to it), which was an experience in itself. I’ve never seen so many different beggars on one train. I was really excited about Pompeii on account of thinking I was going to get to see all these preserved bodies, but the experience definitely didn’t match the hype. It was one of the hottest places I’ve ever been in my life, and on looking back at the pictures, I don’t know how the hell I was able to wear jeans without melting. There’s no way you’d catch me dead in jeans these days in anything above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and even that’s pushing it!

Anyway, I was excited for bodies, but then I found out that they only have about three of them, all in glass cases in one area. The rest of Pompeii is basically just miles of buildings and roads that all look the same, with maybe an erotic mural every tenth house to break things up a bit, but mainly it was hot and horrible and boring, and quickly started to feel like a death march.

After seeing the above mural, which was the highlight, I couldn’t wait to leave, and we headed back to Sorrento where we had to move back to the Rick Steves special we’d tried to book the night before, since the nice B&B with the loft only had the room available for one night. It was better than a lot of other Rick Steves places, but nowhere near as nice as the first place, though it did overlook an orangery, and my aunt and mother wasted no time in making me stand on a chair to steal oranges off the tree overhanging our patio. I did at least find a crackin’ gelateria in town where I discovered the magic of wild strawberry gelato. Those tiny strawberries are just so damn delicious!

The next day was my aunt’s birthday, and even though she gets seasick, she wanted to go to Capri, which is of course an island only accessible by boat, so that’s what we did. Because of the seasickness thing, we weren’t allowed to visit the Blue Grotto, so we just spent the day climbing the giant hill that makes up the island and going in and out of churches. We did get to take a chairlift and a funicular at least (it was all of our first experience with a funicular, and we totally thought the name was Italian for something else, since we didn’t know what the thing was actually called. It is just a funicular though, and I have enjoyed them many times since!), and I got a lemon granita with fresh orange juice in it, which was pretty much the best thing ever in million degree temperatures.

The next day was my aunt’s last one in Italy before she flew back home and we spent it mainly in Sorrento. I was thrilled to get some time to myself in the morning when they went on a bus tour of the Amalfi Coast, so I wandered the town helping myself to free samples of limoncello (pretending I’d never had it before at each place) and buying an extra large gelato, and retreated back to the hotel to watch TV in peace. Since my aunt was leaving soon, I was on my best behaviour, and we all enjoyed a delicious dinner of zucchini and provolone pasta, which was apparently so good I specifically mentioned it in my journal (I was eating a lot of zucchini and eggplant, which is out of character for me, since I’m not a veg person, but Italians can cook both things well!), and more gelato. And then my aunt left in the morning, leaving just me and my mother together. As my aunt managed to act as a buffer between us, things were about to get even more fraught.

EuroTrip 2007: Venice

I caught the Eurostar to Paris with no problems, and after stashing my bag in a locker (I had bought a massive black backpack for the trip from the Army/Navy store in Twinsburg, Ohio, and it was almost as big as I was when extended to its full length!), headed out to enjoy a day in Paris as I had nothing more to do until my night train to Venice…or so I thought… Regular readers will know that I actively dislike Paris, but I didn’t have anything against the city at this point – in fact, I had a lovely day of wandering around and stuffing myself full of pain au chocolat, and I headed back to the train station with what I thought was over an hour to spare. This was to be my first experience with Interrailing and I had a lot to learn! I had my Eurail pass, so I assumed all I had to do was turn up and board the train. I didn’t realise that you had to reserve a spot on most services, particularly overnight ones, and an hour before the train departed was too late to do so. To add to this complication, I also didn’t realise I was at the wrong damn station until I noticed my train was nowhere to be found on the boards, so went to the ticket window to enquire, which took ages because everyone kept pushing in front of me until my mounting panic meant I started pushing and shoving right back, only to discover that I was at Gare du Nord and I needed to be at Gare de Lyon, all the way on the other side of Paris, as the ticket desk woman pointed out with a little too much obvious relish.

So I had to fight my way through rush hour traffic on the unnecessarily confusing Metro, and somehow made it there just in time to catch the train, though I still didn’t have a seat! In retrospect, I’m sure I could have just sat in a normal seat for a long uncomfortable night that would have at least gotten me where I wanted to go, but at the time, I thought I couldn’t board at all without a place in a couchette and since I didn’t have a room booked for the night anywhere, I was having visions of myself stuck on the streets of Paris all night (again, I’m quite sure I could have found a hostel room somewhere, but I was not at all a seasoned traveller at this point!). So I ran up to a guard and basically begged him in broken French to let me on the train – I think I was almost in tears. Fortunately, he took pity on me, and with the help of what I’m convinced was a 25 euro bribe (since I wasn’t issued with a ticket or receipt of any kind, he just pocketed the cash), he let me have an empty bunk in a couchette with what turned out to be a nice group of French teenagers who shared their champagne with me, which was very welcome as I needed a drink after that ordeal!

Having survived the first real trial of the trip (other than jet lag), I made it to Venice in one piece. However, I hadn’t booked a hostel, and Venice’s labyrinthine streets got the better of me as I spent a whopping three hours wandering with the aforementioned massive backpack in search of a room for the night. At the point of collapse, Domus Civica, one of the hostels recommended in my guidebook, appeared before me, which felt almost miraculous. This is perhaps a fitting description, because the place was a former convent that rented out rooms to travellers who didn’t mind the curfew and religious decor – I sort of did, but at least it was a clean and safe, albeit spartan place to spend the night, and I was not about to carry that backpack for a second longer. With that accomplished, it was time for gelato! I scoffed at paying 13 euros for a boat pass, so I found myself wandering again to the other side of the city for the famous gianduiotto de passeggio from La Gelati Nico – a block of ultra dense chocolate hazelnut gelato dropped into a cup of whipped cream. That was worth the walk!

Thus fortified, I did a bit of touristy stuff, then wandered into a mask shop, because as cheesy as it was, I really wanted a plague doctor mask for myself. And thus I unwittingly walked into my first experience with a creepy man on this trip (certainly not overall – I’ve already mentioned my former pervert boss). The mask maker took a keen interest in me as soon as I walked in, what with me being the only customer (and I guess young and therefore easy prey), and though I spoke no Italian and he very little English, we managed to communicate via our joint limited knowledge of French and a lot of pervy hand gestures on his part. Though my thigh tattoo was covered by a skirt, he somehow managed to catch a glimpse of the edge of it, and asked to see it. I obligingly (and foolishly) lifted up my skirt a bit, and he whipped out a camera and took a picture of my thigh, telling me he would make a mask of my tattoo! Then the following exchange happened:

Mask maker, making twisting gestures around his nipples, “Percé, percé, oui?”

Me, horrified, “Non!”

Him, “You come ma chambre dans moi, [gestures towards the plague mask I liked] for free, oui?”

Me, even more creeped out and edging desperately towards the door, “Non! Je n’aime pas ta chambre!”

Whilst this was happening, an old lady came in and started piling euro coin after euro coin on the counter, until it was overflowing. He looked at me and said, “for protection,” implying that he was in the Mafia. I was basically panicking at this point, but I grabbed a smaller, cheaper version of the plague doctor mask, and offered to pay for it in the hopes he would let me leave. Fortunately, some other customers came in just then, so I completed my transaction (and the mask was heavily discounted, presumably because I flashed him my thigh and let him photograph it. I shudder to think what he did with that photo), and I got the hell out of there immediately after and didn’t walk that way again for the rest of my stay. I’m still not sure why I actually bought something from him instead of just running out of the shop, but that mask still lives in my old room at my parents’ house as a memory of the unsettling experience I haven’t shared with many people until now.

After that, I was more than ready to hide myself away for the night, so I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza from an excellent by the slice place I found on my way back to the convent, and called it an early night. The next morning, I headed to the train station bright and early to catch a train to Rome, where I was reluctantly meeting my mother and aunt (I had learned my lesson from Paris, and reserved myself a seat immediately after arriving in Venice the day before). As I was sitting on the steps of the station eating a Nutella croissant (probably with chocolate smeared all over my face), an older man in his 60s or 70s approached me and said hi. He seemed harmless enough (in the eyes of young, guileless Midwestern Jessica who didn’t like being rude to strangers), so I returned his greeting. He was Canadian, and apparently living in Venice. However, a friendly chat soon turned into him asking me to stay with him for a while. “You and me could have some fun, girly,” he kept saying (even if he wasn’t old and gross, the “girly” would have been enough of a turn-off). Fortunately, I at least had the valid excuse this time of a train to catch, so I declined his offers of both a cappuccino and a sex romp, and went to wait on the platform instead. Having escaped the clutches of numerous horny old men in Venice, I boarded the train, where I was at least lucky enough to share a compartment with some nice Canadian girls my own age (no connection to the train station lech) who played cards with me and helped take my mind off the week ahead of me. Next time: exploring Italy with my mother and aunt. Was it as bad as I thought it would be?


Roma, Ancora

I was back in Rome for a short trip a couple of weeks ago for the second time since I started blogging, hence the post title. Because this was my fourth trip to Rome overall, I’d already seen most of the major sites (though I still haven’t actually been inside the Colosseum…), so I was quite happy to just eat, stroll around, take in a bit of culture, and then eat some more. We also only really had less than two full days there, so we just didn’t have time to do very much (not even eat as much gelato as I’d hoped). So rather than break up the trip into multiple posts, I’ll just do this one big one.


We arrived quite late in Rome on the first day (due to our decision to take a bus from the airport. It’s cheap for a reason), when all the museums were already shut, so we just went to grab a pizza and gelato (gelato pic from second day, as I looked too hideous in the ones from day one), which wasn’t really a problem as those were my top concerns anyway. Roman pizza is super thin and pretty much the best (except for maybe New York pizza), though I am the sort of person who likes to eat dinner promptly at 5, so got very impatient and hungry waiting for the pizzerias to open for dinner at 7.


Day two was meant to be the nicest weather of our trip by far (though still quite windy; Italy was going through an unseasonable cold spell whilst we were there), so we took advantage by heading out to see the Non-Catholic Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, which is located right by the Piramide Cestia (built in 18-12 BC for a Roman magistrate, and based on the pyramids in Egypt, albeit on a much smaller scale). The grounds of the pyramid are only open a couple Saturdays a month, so we couldn’t go in, but we could enter the cemetery, which is free with a recommended €3 donation.


I would have happily paid that anyway for upkeep, but even more happily paid when I realised the cemetery also cares for at least four delightfully grumpy feral cats, who freely wander doing their cat thing. The cemetery is often thought of as the Protestant Cemetery, but actually people from all non-Catholic religions (or no religion at all) are interred here. There are some vague arrows pointing to Keats’ and Shelley’s graves, but what you need to know is that Keats is in the grassy annex next to the main cemetery, right by a bench on the left wall with a plaque of Keats’s head above it, and Shelley is in the main part of the cemetery – from where you enter, go straight up to the top, and proceed left along the back wall. He’s quite near to Goethe’s son, who is also here.

Shelley is buried next to Edward Trelawney, who paid for his grave, and who I’ve always thought of as kind of a hanger-on (he basically fanboyed around with all the Romantic poets), and Keats is similarly buried next to Joseph Severn, who arranged this well after Keats’ death and without consulting him, though I don’t think quite as poorly of Severn, maybe because he drew some great portraits and nursed Keats in his final hours. And the non-famous graves in here are pretty great too – I may have changed my mind about looking sassy on my grave like Ady, and instead go for reclining with a favourite book and beloved pet, like the excellently named Devereux Plantagenet Cockburn, above right. I just need to acquire a pet at some point before I die. It’s a wonderful cemetery, and much bigger than it looks at first glance – go, you’ll enjoy it!

We subsequently headed over to see the Mouth of Truth, to test whether it deemed us liars and bit our hands off (I wasn’t actually worried, since if anything, I’m too honest). I had never actually been here before, and was a bit dismayed about the line, but it moved very quickly, thanks in large part to a man working there who hustled everyone along. He’d grab your camera, take a couple of photos of you, and then BOOM, move you along out the side door so the next person could step up. A good system that more popular attractions could benefit from! It’s next to a church that contains the alleged head of St. Valentine – make sure your knees and shoulders are covered if you want to come here, since they do enforce “modesty standards”.

After having a delicious lunch of a whole fried artichoke and cacio e pepe served in a bowl made of cheese, we headed over to see the Medical History Museum at Sapienza University, which I had skipped on previous visits since it didn’t look like anything special, but given my love of medical history, I thought it was probably time I checked it out anyway. Also, I was intrigued by the re-construction of an alchemist’s lab that was meant to be in the basement. This turned out to be less exciting than hoped-for, as you can see above (I had to find light switches to even see anything, as all the lights were turned off down there. I suspect we were the only visitors that day), but the museum did have some fantastic stained glass windows depicting medieval medicine (I love the panel with the dog, but knowing what I know about medieval medical practices, I suspect no good can come of it for either the dog or the patient).


The rest of the museum was bigger than I was expecting (on three floors counting the basement), but I was correct in initially thinking it wasn’t really anything special. It contained a very generic overview of the history of medicine, with a few specimens and medical instruments, but nothing terribly unique or interesting outside of Garibaldi’s crutch. Also, the main signage in each room was in English, but none of the object labels were; apparently there are audio guides available, but I didn’t see anyone working there during my visit who I could have asked for one. I think I would have preferred the Anatomical Museum, also on campus, but that was open by appointment only, and I feel a bit weird about being shown around somewhere, especially if I don’t speak the language. It was free, so I didn’t lose anything by going, but there are definitely lots and lots of attractions to see in Rome before trying this one. At least it was quiet!

Our last day in Rome dawned cold and rainy, just really unpleasant weather (I was not a happy camper, as you can see, and my mood was not improved by street vendors constantly trying to stick umbrellas in my face. Couldn’t they see I already had one?), but we braved it to head over to the Capuchin Crypt, which I had first visited about 9 years before. Needless to say, things have changed a lot since my first visit. I remember just walking into the crypt, after dropping a few euro into a donation basket, and it only took maybe ten minutes to see. They have now turned it into a whole little complex with a museum about the Capuchin Order, which costs €8.50 to enter (including crypt and museum). Unfortunately, you weren’t allowed to take pictures anywhere inside, not even the museum, but there were a lot of gems here, and just about everything had an English translation (and they even had a public toilet, though it was one of those horrible seatless ones). I learned an awful lot about famous Capuchin monks, and there were a lot of relics, creepy dolls, and even a wooden statue of a dog with a bread roll in his mouth, which I am sorry I can’t show you. The crypts themselves seem more or less unchanged, and involve fabulous tableaux of bones and mummified monks in a series of rooms (like a whole room lined with pelvises, and chandeliers made from human bones that hang inches from your head) that were started in the 17th century and added to up until the 19th century (the Marquis de Sade visited here and helped to popularise it). It is all excellently gothic, and I love it. Definitely visit if you’re anything like me, though again, be sure you are clad “modestly” (not a challenge on a day as cold as the one we visited on).


Unfortunately, because I wasn’t expecting there to be a museum, the visit took much longer than anticipated, and we had to head for the airport right after (a fiasco that involved missing a train because the platform was seriously like a mile away from the barriers and having to take the same bus back to the airport that we were trying to avoid after the journey there, but at least we made our flight in the end), so I didn’t even get to eat any gelato that day! Fewer than 48 hours is certainly not enough time to do Rome properly, but if I’d been able to get some food on the last day, I think I’d have been satisfied enough with what we did considering it was my fourth time there. The weather was disappointing, and we didn’t get to see the Galleria Borghese, which a friend had recommended, because it was booked up, but it was overall a decent trip, if not quite as fruitful in terms of gelato as my last one.


Turin: National Cinema Museum

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On our last day in Italy, we only had time to visit one museum in Turin (it was a long drive back to Geneva), and like any normal person, I was having a difficult time deciding between the enormous and renowned National Cinema Museum or some smelly old gunpowder tunnels (ok, the fact that I was strongly leaning towards the tunnels means that I am NOT normal, but regular readers already knew that anyway).  Fortunately, the voice of reason (aka my boyfriend) prevailed, and the Cinema Museum it was (the glowing review on Misadventures with Michael also helped).

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The museum offers a number of different ticket combinations, mostly based on whether you want to go up to the roof or not.  It’s 10 euros just to see the museum, or 14 if you want to see the museum and access the roof by either lift or stairs.  Now, the museum is housed in a beautiful 19th century building with a cupola, and is probably about ten stories high, so I’m not sure how many hundreds of stairs are involved, but if the scenic glass elevator is the same price, why wouldn’t you take it?  Admittedly, there was a bit of a queue, but we only waited about 15 minutes to go up, so it wasn’t too terrible.  And yes, the views of Turin are pretty good, but the coolest part was getting to see the interior of the museum via lift, because the main floor has a lot of cool features and the other floors are made up of walkways that wrap around the building, so there’s a lot to look at.

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Once we’d left the lift and made our way over to the museum proper, our experience began with a look through the beginnings of cinema, before the advent of cameras, when things relied on shadowboxes, puppets, or silhouettes (which I always want to pronounce sil-you-ettes a la Bert in Mary Poppins).  There were any number of interactive things here showing you how light and lenses worked, and (my favourite part) little peepshows of stereoscope type cards you could flip through (there was a sexy red lit “adults only” room of Victorian pornography, but I was partial to the devil and skeleton themed set).

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Actually, I just lied, my absolute favourite favourite part was a phantasmagoria magic lantern show that we stumbled upon by chance when we peeked under a curtain (ok, there was a clearly marked entrance, but we hadn’t gotten to that part of the museum yet).  This began with creepy creaking door sounds, and progressed to a veritable cornucopia of ghosts and demons, and a man who got beheaded but calmly carried on rolling his head along in a wheelbarrow.  It was like a combination of the best bits of laff-in-the-dark rides and old fashioned haunted house effects, and I think I want a set of slides for my own house to project this shit on the walls and freak people out (not that I have ever visitors, probably because of reasons like this).  It was that good.

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The gallery progressed on to cover early films, with a viewing room where you could watch some of them (I should mention that everything in the museum had an English translation).  I tend to love anything Victoriany, so you can see why this whole section, titled the Archaeology of Film, was so appealing.

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However, the main floor also had its moments.  As near as I could work out, it was made up of composites of different film sets; or at least, sets that represented different genres of film.  So there was a kind of mad scientist room, a Western room, a musical room, a cartoon room, and many more.

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And a “poo room” with toilets.  I’m not even sure what the deal is with that one.  I don’t think we looked around this floor correctly, as we entered the first set, and then just kept crossing from set to set, rather than going out the entrances and exits, so I think we missed the descriptions of what some of the rooms were.

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The most awesome thing about this floor, without a doubt, is that golden demon looking thing you see me standing with on the right.  His name is Moloch, and he is a Phoenician god featured in the 1914 silent Italian film Cabiria; not being any kind of film buff I had never heard of this, but apparently people got sacrificed to him, so perhaps I shouldn’t have gotten so close.

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The upper floors, despite there being about 4 of them, were unfortunately not very interesting, as they were all about Italian cinema, and I genuinely don’t think I have ever watched an Italian film in my life (French, sure, because we used to have to watch them in French class in school, but I’ve never taken Italian).  You access them via that aforementioned sloped walkway that wraps around the building, so it is a lot of walking for not very much useful content.

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However, there was a whole section we very nearly missed seeing.  At the top of the stairs, before we entered the walkway, there was a curtain with a bunch of security staff standing in front of it, so we initially ignored it.  On the way back down we noticed some people going in, so we braved the guards and followed them through.  Turns out there was a whole floor of movie memorabilia and film posters hidden back there, which just goes to show you should ALWAYS pay attention to what’s behind the curtain.

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I’m not a Star Wars fan, at all (except for Halloween themed Jabba the Hut dolls, if you’ve been looking at my Instagram) but even I can see that poster is hilariously inaccurate.  Other than that, the highlights were probably Christopher Reeve’s cape from Superman, some of Marilyn Monroe’s clothes, an original mock-up of one of the T Rex scenes in Jurassic Park, and Robocop himself.  I’m not really that into movies, other than ’80s comedies, a handful of musicals (starring either Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews, or, erm, Whoopie Goldberg (yeah, I love Sister Act. Deal with it)), cheesy campy horror films like Evil Dead (the original version only), and Indiana Jones (my god I love Indiana Jones), so most of this didn’t do much for me, but I can see how other people would think it was cool.

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Considering they didn’t have anything from Dead/Alive or Hocus Pocus and I still enjoyed it as much as I did, the National Cinema Museum must have really been pretty decent.  Since I am the exact opposite of a film buff, all the ghost-type stuff in the Archaeology of Film section was my favourite by far, but I think most people who appreciate movies not starring Chevy Chase or Bruce Campbell would love this place.  It was superbly put together, and the building itself is attractive.  There is also a large shopping complex thing on the ground floor, with a gift shop (they have Moloch postcards and magnets, so we stocked up on both), a small branch of Eataly (the very expensive Italian gourmet food store; I’d recommend visiting the main store just outside the centre of Turin, not so much to buy things as to just admire all the types of pasta, but their gelato is reasonably priced and very tasty), and free wifi, so you could probably kill quite a lot of time in here if you were so inclined.  I’m going to give it 4.5/5, because I’m not that interested in cinema and I liked it regardless, so most people will probably love it.

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Turin: Museum of Human Anatomy (Museo di Anatomia Umana)

I am sad for your sake that this will have to be a picture-less post (the no photo rule was especially strictly enforced in the museum); there were so many excellent anatomical specimens in this museum, it seems a shame not to show you any.  If you read my last post, you will know that the Anatomy Museum is one of three museums within the University of Turin that you can visit with a 10 euro pass (or 5 euro for one, though if you like anatomy, you’ll probably want to visit the Cesare Lombroso Museum too.  Just sayin’).  The Anatomy Museum is located in the same general complex as the Lombroso and Fruit Museums, just on the opposite side of it, so you’ll have to exit and walk around the block, but again, the museum itself is clearly signposted, so you’ll know it when you’re there.

Like the Lombroso Museum, most of the written content of the museum was conveyed through big sturdy wooden boards waiting in holders next to each display case.  I was initially dismayed to see that the signs only appeared to be in Italian; luckily, I flipped one over and realised that English was on the other side.  Huzzah!  Let me tell you, these were pretty excellent signs/captions/illustrated descriptions/factsheets (I’m not sure what they’re actually called, but you know what I mean). There were cute little drawings of the museum’s choice specimens on each one (insofar as pickled body parts can be cute), with diagrams directing you to the highlights, and detailed descriptions of all the wax anatomical models.  There was also information about the workings of the human body, so it was kind of like a crash anatomy lesson (Canvas actually offers a free online course called Mini Medical School; I took it last spring for something to do.  Not to brag, but I totally aced the infectious disease unit.  Well, actually all of it, because you can retake the tests, but I got 100% on infectious diseases on the first try).

The main gallery is quite long, with cases alongside both walls, arranged (for the most part) in anatomical order.  Each section includes a beautiful old wax model or interesting skeleton (or both), like the skeletons of a giant and dwarf.  There are also paintings of famous anatomists adorning the walls; my favourite was of course Vesalius (since Ruysch or Paré weren’t represented.  Coincidentally, I was reading The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons at the time, which I definitely recommend if you’re into anatomy or the workings of the brain.  There’s a whole chapter on Vesalius and Paré.  Actually, I like all of Sam Kean’s books, as I am also “keen” (get it?) on the history of science).  I got to look at an early edition of De humani corporis fabrica when I was doing my MA, and the memory of those gorgeous drawings has stayed with me.  Highlights of this section, other than the wax models, include a couple of South American mummies, an eighteenth century plaster cast of a pregnant woman, with belly opened; and a large amount of dry anatomical preparations (as opposed to wet ones aka “stuff in jars”) which really allow you to admire the muscular and circulatory systems.

The back room is all about the head, and contains an impressive amount of preserved brains just casually hanging out on shelves (in that neurology book I just mentioned, Kean kept compared sliced brains to foccaccia, which I thought particularly apt here since we were in Italy.  I did eat a lot of focaccia on the trip, so clearly I wasn’t grossed out by this).  There was a huge wood and ivory model of the brain, a few skulls (like the Lombroso Museum), and, also like the Lombroso Museum, the skeleton of its 19th century curator, Carlo Giacomini.  He too decided he wanted to become a part of the museum upon his death, so his skeleton is here, along with his brain, preserved using his own technique.  (Can I just say that I think this is an excellent idea?  One of my goals in life is to amass enough interesting crap whilst I’m alive to have my own Wunderkammern, and if that happens, I wouldn’t mind being stuck in there myself after I die.  Though maybe Jeremy Bentham style, where everything gets preserved, because I think that would creep people out more.)

The brain collection is largely from the 19th century, thanks to the work of Giacomini, there was of course also a phrenology case, including the plaster casts of heads of some famous/notorious individuals.  Aside from Napoleon, most of them were probably famous only in Italy, but I was intrigued by the story of the “Hyena of San Giorgio,” whose (plaster) head is on display here.  If you’ve read my Danish Police Museum post, you’ll know that a mysterious photo of a murder scene featuring a bloodied sausage grinder, with no English translation, has triggered my fascination with finding “sausage murderers.”  Well, it sounds like this Hyena fellow was probably one of those, as he brutally raped and killed a number of girls, and allegedly turned some of them into sausages.  I mean, awful stuff, obviously, but I do feel somewhat vindicated every time I discover proof that sausage murderers are a thing (if I’m getting technical, this may have started with one of those stories in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books (those of the terrifying illustrations that traumatised every child who grew up in the 1990s) in which an evil butcher was making children into sausages).

Anyway, moving on from that grisly interlude, because the Anatomical Museum really isn’t all that grisly itself.  Sure, there’s a lot of body parts, but they’re more about displaying the intricacies of the human body than deformities or abnormalities (to be sure, there are some of those, but not to the extent I’ve seen at other medical museums).  And the galleries that the museum is housed in are truly beautiful, very classically museumy, so even if medical stuff isn’t normally your bag, you may be able to appreciate this place for its historic value.  I really loved it; even the signboards were witty and charming, and the wax anatomical models were stunning.  If you’re in Turin on any day but a Sunday (the museums are closed then), I highly recommend taking an hour or two out of your day to check both the Anatomy and Lombroso Museums out…if you love medical museums as much as I do, you definitely won’t be disappointed.  4/5.


Turin, Italy: Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology (and the Fruit Museum)

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I recently turned thirty, and rather than sit at home eating a cake of sadness and mourning the loss of my youth (not sure what a cake of sadness would even involve.  Probably raisins, because I hate them), I thought it would be better to go on a short trip somewhere, especially as my birthday tends to fall right around the August Bank Holiday weekend.  Italy is not normally high on my list when it comes to museums (aside from the few I visited in Rome last year), since I’m not a big fan of religious art or architecture, but I’m always in the mood to eat some gelato and focaccia, so my stomach overpowered my mind this time.  In the end, we managed to plan a driving holiday that would take us to some less-than-culturally-exciting destinations on the Ligurian Coast, because focaccia, but would also give us a couple days in Turin, which fortunately did have quite a few museums I was interested in seeing.  On the top of my list was the Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology, located on the University of Turin campus.

I think it’s been well-established that I love both crime and medical museums, so combining the two was sure to be a winner.  Especially when the collection was primarily from the 19th century, and Cesare Lombroso himself was still residing in the museum (in a way).  Finding the museum wasn’t too tricky, since it was well sign-posted, for all that we had to go up a couple floors inside an old university building, and unusually for Italy, it was not only open on time, it was even open a bit early (it opens at 10, but we got there about five minutes before and there was already someone at the admissions desk).  There are currently three museums that are part of the university (they also have a normal anthropology museum that looks pretty cool, but it’s closed for renovation): criminal anthropology, an anatomy museum (which I was also keen to visit), and a fruit museum, which came as a surprise to me, as I’d only noticed the first two on their website.  Admission is 5 euros for one museum, or 10 euros for all three, which we went with as I knew I would definitely want to see the museum of anatomy as well.

The museum did not allow photography (most likely because of the human remains and all), but I was relieved to see that there were large boards throughout the museum providing English translations of each gallery description, as well as translations of most of the item captions.  Obviously, this greatly enhanced the experience.

On walking in, we were greeted with a mock-up of a court room, and a dialogue between a young man and an old man debating all the changes that took place during the Victorian era (or Italian equivalent, which I guess would include Garibaldi), followed by a room showcasing some of Lombroso’s equipment, and a description of his work.  Basically, Lombroso was the Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Turin from the 1870s onward, and he had a special fascination with criminals and mental illness that led to him combining forensics, anthropology, medicine, and a hefty dose of pseudoscience into a discipline known as criminal anthropology.  It relied heavily on phrenology and physiognomy, so has essentially been proven to be complete nonsense, but nonetheless, Lombroso was seen as producing some revolutionary work in his time, and he also had an influence on introducing more humane treatment of prisoners and asylum inmates.  And he left this amazing museum behind, so he clearly wasn’t all bad.

The main gallery, Lombroso’s original museum, was probably the most interesting part.  It’s here that his skeleton resides, along with an impressive collection of criminal skulls and wax death masks taken of prisoners (people who died in prison, mind, they weren’t specially killed for this or anything).  There is also some wooden furniture  featuring human figures with elongated heads made by an asylum inmate called Eugenio Lenzi; his stuff was really awesome, and I’d love to get my hands on a piece.

There were actually quite a few things created by prisoners and people suffering from mental illness, including a costume made from clothing fibres that weighed forty kilos, which a certain psychiatric patient insisted on wearing every day (and considering how damn hot it was when we were there, I have no idea how he didn’t just pass out or die of heat exhaustion).  I also loved the collection of water jugs made by prisoners, including one featuring a mustachioed man and cat motif.

Speaking of prisoners, another room contained little wooden models of cells from four different prisons, as well as a larger model of the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania (which is supposed to have an amazing haunted house in it for Halloween…part of me really wants to go, and part of me is kind of glad I don’t live anywhere near there so I don’t have to).  Eastern State specialised in the silent treatment, where prisoners even had their own private exercise yards built at the ends of their cells so they never came into contact with the other prisoners.  Little wonder many of them were driven insane.

The museum closed with a re-creation of Lombroso’s study (very cosy, with a couch and some plush chairs, I’d have it) and a hallway explaining some of his theories in more detail, and refuting them with modern science.  Like most people back then, he had some racist ideas based around physiognomy, though a bit unusually, because he was Jewish, believed that “Semitic peoples” were the highest race.  He also didn’t seem too keen on women, which is again not surprising given the time period he lived in, but didn’t do much as far as winning me over.  However, I can’t knock the museum, which is delightful, especially all the wax masks and inmate-made artefacts, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you’re passing through Turin.  4/5.

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I also mentioned that there was a fruit museum.  I love fruit, but I probably wouldn’t have bothered going in if we hadn’t got the museum pass that meant it was essentially free.  Also, it was right across the hall from the Lombroso Museum, so I really had no excuse not to venture inside.  Disappointingly, unlike the other museums, nothing here was translated into English, but that didn’t stop me from appreciating the many, many beautiful models of fruit that adorned cabinets around the museum.  Seriously, there were hundreds of different apples alone.  I never knew there were so many varieties!  There were also tonnes of pears, and assorted cherries, plums, and melons…even a few root vegetables. (I just found out, via the brochure, that it is predominantly a pomological museum, which explains why it was mostly apples and pears.  Which I am admittedly not big on unless they are baked into a crumble or covered in caramel or smashed into cider (or perry), but I ate a lot of plums when I was in Italy (since I missed cherry season), and they were fantastic).

The other item of note was a small display about caterpillars.  Longtime readers will know that I am absolutely terrified of butterflies, but I was fairly indifferent towards caterpillars until I saw these paintings.  A caterpillar when enlarged is a hideous creature, and especially when cut in half in giant 3D model form.  Ick.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the fruit museum, but if you’ve gone for the multi-pass, it’s worth popping in just to marvel at those plastic fruits.  It might well be better if you can read Italian, because it seemed like there was quite a lot in there about the science of agriculture, and the history of fruit growing in Italy.  And Francesco Garnier Valletti, who started the museum.  So I’ll only give it a 1.5/5, but you might be able to bump it up a couple of points if you can understand Italian.  By the way, I didn’t forget about the anatomical museum…more on that in the next post!

Rome, Italy: The Vatican Museums

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This post is not going to really be a detailed insight into the many museums of the Vatican, because I only had about two hours to spend there, so the whole thing was pretty rushed.  However, there were a few things about my visit I wanted to share, so I’m writing a half-assed post about it anyway.  First of all, if you’re going to see St. Peter’s, I don’t think there’s any means of skipping the queue (unless maybe you go with one of those shady and extremely annoying tour guides that hang about the place), but the queue moves fairly quickly – just make sure you have obeyed the dress code!   Basically, you must be covered down to your knees, and over your shoulders, and don’t think that wearing a short skirt with tights will do the trick, because my mother got refused entry wearing such a combo a few years back (which was pretty amusing to me, but she was pissed off about it).  Really, you can look like a complete slob as long as you’re covered up, which seems kind of wack, but this is the Vatican we’re talking about.  However, if you’re planning on visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums, there is a very easy way to skip the massive queue.  You can book online at this website (which looks a little sketchy, but it is an official website. I used it and didn’t get scammed) and stroll right inside the complex whilst looking down your nose at the plebs lined up outside.  It costs an extra 4 euros to use this method, but you’re already paying 16 euros just to get inside, and I think the extra charge was well worth the sense of smug satisfaction I got from bypassing the queue.

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I was slightly worried about my outfit, due to the aforementioned dress code, as my skirt just barely covered my knees, and rode well above them when I walked up steps, but there’s no Swiss Guards at the Vatican Museums, and the regular guards didn’t seem that bothered, as I saw a couple women with skirts a few inches shorter than mine.  There is still ostensibly an enforced dress code though, so I wouldn’t push your luck by rocking up in a mini skirt or tank top or anything (I do hate that uncomfortable feeling of having men scrutinise your outfit though.  I don’t need to be stared at like a piece of meat by men trying to catch a glimpse of my defrauding knees).  Anyway, the experience once you’ve entered the complex is ironically, fairly hellish.  Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we decided to head straight for the Sistine Chapel.  Unfortunately, to get to it, you need to walk through about 50 rooms, each more elaborately decorated than the last, all whilst following signs that promise the Sistine Chapel is right ahead.  It felt like being in a some lame comedy sketch.

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Because you’re crammed in with a herd of people (and tour groups, my god the tour groups!  I really think they should have set hours when tour groups are allowed in, and then ban them the rest of the time), you can’t linger and look at stuff, so I got no more than a fleeting glance of most of these apartments as I was being shoved along in the crush.  The Map Room was notably cool though.

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I seriously reckon we must have walked through a set of rooms belonging to every pope ever before even getting close to the Sistine Chapel.  It’s like the Church felt the need to impress everybody with how much money they have by making us walk through the maze of rooms before getting to the one thing everybody comes to see.  I dunno if Papa Francesco approves of that kind of ostentatiousness.

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So, when most of the elderly and infirm had been weeded out through the endless trips up and down staircases, we finally made it to the Sistine Chapel.  No photographs are allowed in there, and you have to be silent, which is maintained by a cast of professional “shushers” (what a job!  Maybe I should move to Italy!).  I hate to say it, but after walking through a gazillion rooms with elaborate paintings on their ceilings, it was pretty anticlimactic. It was neat seeing God and Adam in the centre, but the whole thing was a little underwhelming in light of the splendour I’d already been forced to admire.

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After that, you have to walk through a crapload more rooms, most of them with convenient gift shops built in the middle, before you get back to the central area that holds a cafe and large gift shop.  The only other thing I felt I NEEDED to see before we left was the Carriage Pavilion, which is home to the former Pope Mobiles.  I mean, Renaissance art is all well and good, but I feel kitsch is the modern legacy of the papacy, and it doesn’t get better than the Pope Mobile.

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The Carriage Pavilion was pretty good.  For starters, you had to walk through a big garden to get there, and it was kind of hidden underground, so I don’t think many people even knew it was there, making it blissfully empty.  In addition, they had plenty of signs in English, and the carriages themselves were fabulous.

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I hesitate to use the expression “pimped out” to describe a papal carriage, but that’s essentially what they were.  There was a level of ostentation that went well beyond what was necessary, which was what I loved about them.  I also loved the busts of the popes, with a little description of each one.  You hear a lot about medieval and modern popes, but 18th and 19th century ones normally kind of get lost in the shuffle.

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And then there were the Pope Mobiles themselves, which is what I really wanted to see.  The bubble style Pope Mobile didn’t come into being until after the assassination attempt on John Paul II, so they had the uncovered model he was shot in, as well as a few covered ones from later in his papacy.

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Honestly, I prefer the older models, which were “proper lush,” as Tom Kerridge would say, but I guess I can see why they don’t use them anymore. I wouldn’t want to have my face blown off either, but I would probably just modify the cars to have thicker doors and bulletproof glass and such, as some popes have done to more modern cars.

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Seeing the Pope Mobiles was probably the highlight of my visit (which again, probably says something about my lack of culture), but I still made a point to stop by the Stamp Museum on the way out.  They had a little post office right after it so you could mail a postcard from the Vatican, with several Papa Francesco-based postcard designs to choose from, so I’m sure you can guess that I took full advantage.  There were probably about 10 more museums I didn’t even get to peek at, so I’ve no doubt I could have easily spent the entire day there if I didn’t have a flight to catch.

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To sum up, I’d say that you should definitely pre-book online if you’re visiting the Vatican Museums, and then laugh in the face of the obnoxious jerks trying to sell you overpriced tours to skip the line, as you’ll have beaten them to it.  Seriously, the Vatican is one of the worst places I’ve visited in my life in terms of being pestered to buy crap.  Worse than Tijuana even.  It really put a damper on the whole experience, as well as the stupidly convoluted route you have to take through the place.  Still, it is a piece of history, and they’ve got some cool stuff in there, so it is definitely worth seeing to complete the “Rome experience.”  At the very least, it gives you a chance to easily tick another country off the list.


Rome, Italy: Museo Delle Cere (Wax Museum) and the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary

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Oh my, have I got a treat for you today!  Rome isn’t all high culture and ruins.  Fortunately for people like me, it is also home to an extremely terrible wax museum.  And I mean terrible in the best possible way.  Trip Advisor reviews indicated how cheesy it was, and I’m pleased to report it lived up to the hype!  At 9 euros, it’s not exactly a cheap way to get a laugh, but it was blissfully free of crowds and beggars, so I think it was money well spent.  We’ll begin our tour, appropriately enough, in ancient Rome.  Above, that’s Julius Caesar on the left, and Cassius and Brutus on the right.

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This was followed by a trip through Italy’s history.  I have absolutely no clue who any of the people of the left are, the dude on the right is Alberto Sordi, but I’m only going off the sign next to him, as I don’t actually know who that is.  This was a common occurrence throughout the museum, as many of them were obscure Italian figures, and even ones who weren’t had been given Italianicised names (would you have known Giuseppe Vissarionovic is Stalin?).

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The hall of music was impressively lame.  Michael Jackson was the biggest name there, but they also had Zucchero (I’ve only heard of the man because one of his songs was number 1 in Italy when I was taking a road trip there a few years ago, so I heard it played about a million times on the radio).

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Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and judging by the drum kit, the drummer from Pooh(?).  Good stuff.

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The hall of heads was my particular favourite.  I think they had information about how the wax figures are made in here, but it was all in Italian, so I just walked around laughing at the terrible looking heads.  Why is the guy in the middle so happy?

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The head on the right is meant to be Pope John Paul II.  Or Papa Giovanni Paolo II, as he’s known in Italy.  He seriously looks like the crypt keeper or something.  Terrifying.

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I feel like Mussolini was a reasonable effort, Oscar Wilde, not so much.  He was definitely outshone by his counterpart in the Wax Museum Plus in Dublin.  (Still pissed off about being cheated out of Jedward there, by the way).

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The guy who looks like a prisoner is actually Pablo Picasso.  Robey Magee over there is Dante Alighieri; after looking up his portrait, I see that this waxwork actually bears some resemblance to him.  Well done, Museo Delle Cere!

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And now, Soviet Russia, which was surprisingly well represented.  In addition to Stalin’s head (shown earlier), that thing that looks like a cartoon character on the left is meant to be Khrushchev; Lenin and Putin are probably more recognisable, though still quite crap.

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You know how I love getting my photo with anything FDR themed, so I snatched a pic with the vampiric looking specimen on the left.  He was shoved in a corner with Churchill, whilst Mussolini and Hitler were given a relatively primo spot.  Papa Francesco is a recent addition, and he looks rather cheery about it.

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Hall of Popes.  Poor John XXIII had the biggest head I’ve ever seen, he practically looked deformed.  It looked like it was a bit big in real life, but not that comically huge, so I don’t know what he did to deserve the honour.  Benedict had clearly just been shifted from pride of place by Papa Francesco, and was left to hang out with a monk and some Italian footballer.

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And, saving the best for last, Brad Pitt, Obama, and Einstein!  Brad Pitt was by far the worst waxwork in the museum.  He was really just awful, especially that wig.  Obama is definitely a bit off-looking, but he looks great compared to Brad Pitt.  And Einstein is inexplicably saucy – I like it!  There were a couple more popes and such rotating in the museum’s windows outside to try to draw people in, but be forewarned – if you try to take pictures of them or any of the ones in the entrance hall without paying admission, the cranky old guys who work there will come out and scream at you in Italian.  It is by far the worst wax museum I’ve been to, so I loved it, but if you want realistic waxworks, I’d skip it.  4/5 for being splendidly awful.

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And now, something free that I can’t mock; the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.  If you wander around Rome enough, you’ll probably pass it at some point – it’s not terribly far from Campo de Fiori, (and the excellent pizza bianca at Il Forno Campo De Fiori), and is just off Vittorio Emanuele II.  It appears, at first glance, to be an ordinary square surrounding some ruins, like you’ll see many places elsewhere in Rome, but if you look closer, you’ll spot loads of cats lounging around in the ruins.

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These are the stray and abandoned cats of Rome, who have been taken in by the sanctuary, and thus get to sunbathe amongst the crumbling stones (they also have indoor housing!).  Although visitors are strongly discouraged from feeding the cats, some of them might come out to say hello regardless.  (Pet at your own discretion – the one I stroked seemed friendly enough, but I later saw her bite some guy).

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It was really nice to see abandoned animals being taken in and cared for, and there’s a pretty cracking gelateria just round the corner (Vice Gelato on Vittorio Emanuele 2, the pistachio and semifreddo flavours rocked), so you might enjoy stopping by if you have a free minute in Rome, and want to see something else not very touristy.   Or if, like me, you like cats but are allergic to them, you can enjoy them in an outdoor setting that is less likely to trigger an allergic reaction. Next post will be on tourist central – the Vatican Museums!