It’s midnight in Rome; the cacophony of the day has subsided into faint shouts and hollers echoing through the back alleys of one of the world’s most ancient cities. As I amble down a wavy street in Italy’s metropolis, the glow from the shadowy and hollow Coliseum gleams over the city’s worn architecture. Younger types spill out of 24-hour cafés, sipping cocktails and wine, while thumping music pumps out the doors of raucous bars nearby. The distinct sound of high heels clacking in unison rings out as a group of women decorated in fancy threads strut past me, assuredly on their way for a night on the town. Outside a gelato bar, a swath of designer outfits and Prada shoes adorn twenty-somethings while they stand in the foreground of the imposing, white-stoned Piazza Venezia, which unofficially marks the center of Rome. That’s the majesty of the Eternal City, on one block you may wisp by a throng of chic, designer boutiques and then turn the corner and be confronted with a cluster of dilapidated ruins. It’s truly striking.
Anyone who’s been to Rome can attest to the fact that the drivers are ridiculous at best and borderline psychotic at worst — on the roads, it’s no holds barred. So you can imagine my angst as I popped on a Vespa and set out to solve Rome’s maze (maze may be too soft a description of Rome, it’s more a labyrinth). I finally navigated my way to Vatican City, after three near-death experiences, to scope St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Standing among the magnificence in St. Peter’s, I felt shrunken and humbled. Basking in the presence of such dazzling architecture and art made me feel insignificant among such a regal display; what have I accomplished? I found the Sistine Chapel even more riveting. After a 45-minute trek through the Vatican Museum — it feels like it never ends — I finally reached the signature attraction. Wow! Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is the star of the breathtaking room. With Christ dominating the center of the scene, angels and demons battle over damned souls, angels trying to rip the damned from the devils’ grasps and bring them to salvation. It’s a surreal experience after years of learning about the famed chapel through lectures and textbooks.
After a few hours of trundling around Rome’s neighborhoods lost and confused, I find the Coliseum. I must have uttered “scusi, parla inglese?” two dozen times by that point, but I managed to find the crumbling bowl while receiving an impromptu tour of Rome on the way. The Coliseum was fascinating, but it’s eerie to know that so many gladiators battled to the death inside its circular walls. My imagination took hold of me as I envisioned the disorderly crowd chanting while these warriors bloodied one another until someone’s corpse lay motionless on the dirt stage.
Afterwards, in the shadow of the Coliseum, I indulged in some savory rigatoni alla vodka at one of the many restaurants across the road, on a second-story outdoor patio as the sun set on the day and my stay in Rome. While disappointed I didn’t get to explore all of Rome’s sites in my short stay, it was still sweet and I knew this was only the first leg of a long trek through Europe’s history and culture.
As I trudged my way up the steep pathways that lead to the Acropolis, I took solace in the fact that, while hot, it was May and still weeks away from the heart of the sweltering European summer. Athens is a smudgy and littered city dressed in graffiti and gunk, but it’s easy to look past its grime when standing before the gargantuan Acropolis. Although the city is fraught with urban decay, viewing it from the Acropolis is spectacular and makes the hike worth it. The Parthenon is an absolute titan, an enduring symbol of classical Greece and the prize of the Acropolis. Perched on the highest hill in Athens, it lends stunning 360-degree views of the robust city. During my visit, the towering, cloud-white pillars were covered with metal rods in order to restore and repair the fractures; still, the iron didn’t detract from the Parthenon’s greatness. On the southwest part of the Acropolis plateau lies the Temple of Athena Nike, used as a place of worship for deities associated with wars. To my annoyance, I couldn’t stop the Olympic tune from invading my mind repeatedly — Da Dada Da na na na na.
At the bottom of the Acropolis lie a few streets lined with clothing and jewelry shops. It was there I found a dainty gyro hut, serving up the most delicious gyros I’ve ever had. After meandering in and out of few stores, my group decided we were obligated to try some ouzo, the signature Greek liquor. Ouzo leaves a sting on the back of the throat and taste of black liquorish on the tongue. It’s quite strong, while pretty manageable. For anyone who’s tried pastis or sambuca, ouzo is quite similar. While Athens is the capital city in Greece, it’s not the best attraction. That distinction falls to the Greek Islands.
Mykonos, Katakolon and Corfu
Mykonos is a bright, upscale island most recognized by the slew of white houses with blue shutters that dominate its coastlines. The ivory-stoned houses, placed against the light blue back drop of the sky and ocean, create a vivid contrast. Mykonos is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, Greek island. It’s not uncommon to see a celebrity dining in one of the little outdoor cafés or shuttling through one of the posh clothing stores. Walking around Mykonos’s hand-painted streets, I was struck by a couple of locals enjoying some attention. Right before me stood two of the largest pelicans I’ve ever seen. No joke, they matched my 5-foot, 9-inch frame. Both pelicans had this incredible zinfandel-pink coating and seemed quite satisfied with themselves as they soaked in all the interest from the bevy of camera-flashing visitors.
Mykonos’s has a reputation as an island with a gaudy nightlife. Champagne bars and chic clubs are the staple of its status as the Mediterranean’s premier party spot. The island boasts a large gay population as well, giving way to complaints from single women about the dearth of available men. But the thing I enjoyed most about the flamboyant island was the extensive choice of beaches to relax on. Europeans and exhibitionists flock to the au naturel Paradise and Paraga beaches to show it all. I, on the other hand, prefer a wall protecting my castle so I decided the petite Agios Stefanos beach in the north would suffice just fine. A recliner lounge chair, cold Mythos lager and my iPod were all I needed to slip into a near-vegetative state and enjoy the rocky coastline and dark, transparent water views.
It’s a bright and breezy day in the seaside town of Katakolon as I venture to the mountains, and Olympia to see the ruins of the ancient Olympic Games. The drive is a pleasant one, through hilly olive mountains and green pastures; it takes roughly 45 minutes from the coast. Nestled against Mount Kronos, Olympia is the launch pad of the modern-day games, where the Olympic torch is lit, starting its journey to the host city.
The Historical Museum of Olympic Games leads visitors through rooms of sculptures and memorabilia from games past. The old rustic helmets and battered body armor were fascinating artifacts that pre-date Christ. Hermes by Praxiteles is the most famous piece in the museum. In the sculpture, Hermes holds baby Dionysus, whom he is charged with transporting to Mt. Nysa.
Outside, I wandered through some of the tattered and eroded ruins. A mix of worn statues, cracked churches and deteriorated temples were scattered throughout the garden. The oval track was the most intact of anything left and sightseers took advantage by lining up for one-on-one races. I personally found Zeus’s shattered temple to be the most captivating among the collection. Gigantic pieces of fallen pillars hugged the sides, displaced by earthquakes and bad weather. It wasn’t in too bad condition however, considering its age.
Arriving in Corfu, I was struck by the similarities to the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. Corfu is blanketed in lush vegetation that spreads up and down the protruding mountains. It was a damp day; low clouds covered the mountain tops and a clammy breeze wafted along the coast. Our effervescent tour guide didn’t let the soggy weather dilute her excitement and was all smiles as she led us to our first stop at a beach in the village of Paleokastritsa. Here, locals in small taxi boats docked at a rickety pier, loading their boats with our apprehensive bunch for a 30-minute cave tour. We were apprehensive because at this point the ocean looked more like a rollercoaster ride than a cruise. Nonetheless, against better judgment, everyone boarded for the exploration. The caves were intriguing, but nauseous and woozy, I immediately regretted the decision. Every rock and rise of the frenetic sea brought me to the edge of disaster. Because I really didn’t want to erupt into a violent heave in front of 15 strangers, I garnered every inch of will power and managed to suppress my queasiness.
Back on the bus, we began our ascension to the top of a mountain and the little village of Strinilas. After enduring the vomit-inducing boat ride I wasn’t exactly stoked for the topsy-turvy trip up the narrow road that snakes all the way to the old town. It’s safe to say I wasn’t in the best shape, however, along the way I was treated to astonishing views of the misty island. Strinilas is the highest village in Corfu, thus affording us the opportunity to relish the most spectacular sights. Once we arrived to Strinilas, a welcoming local treated us to a scrumptious Greek meal of baguette-like local bread, salami and feta cheese along with a glass of the local wine. The lifestyle of the villagers that inhabit this tiny, mountainous town intrigued me. The difference from my life in Manhattan was palpable.
Here, at the top of some island in the Mediterranean, people went about their business, living their basic lives and seeming unapologetically complacent about their simple existence. I sure didn’t see any iPods or Blackberrys. In a way I was jealous; it seemed like a much less stressful way to go about your day-to-day.
A smattering of rain drops began to fall and we all knew it was time to load up and get back to home base. In particular, I wanted to rest up knowing the last stop on the trip was possibly going to be the most fun, as well as the most physically exerting.
On a cloudy morning in Split, Croatia, I drearily stagger my way onto a bus going to the Cetrina River, about an hour away. Split is Croatia’s second largest city and is marked by rolling blue mountains and royal blue water. Hugging the Adriatic Sea, the quiet coastal town is deep-rooted in Croatian history. The colossal Diocletian’s Palace — Emperor Diocletian’s city within a city that served as his retirement fortress — dominates the landscape. The open-aired, palm tree-laced promenades reinforce Spit’s mellow feel.
Arriving to Cetrina, our gang put on some wetsuits and pushed into the river on our kayaks. The wetsuits were a necessity to protect against the frigid water and on-again, off-again rain. There were eight kayaks with teams of two to three people manning each. Three guides were scattered on different kayaks, but not mine. I was stuck with a couple of my dingbat friends, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, who had the directional instincts of a blindfolded and dizzy piñata smasher. There was no time to acclimate as we immediately came to our first rapid, a double-decker with a narrow entrance. We managed to emerge from that one unscathed; however our luck would soon run out. On the third rapid we shot left when we should have banked right, running smack into a large boulder. With all the pressure from the water flowing behind us, our kayak capsized and I found myself grasping for air at the surface. After briefly being trapped under the kayak, I found air and my friends, and we floated down the river trying to catch the kayak. I glanced over at my two co-captains and we couldn’t help but burst into laughter considering the change of fortune.
The Cetrina River oscillates between wide, vast shore banks and skinny shoots with verdant overhangs. The narrow stretches get a little dicey and call for precise navigation. Because of the aforementioned directional shortcomings, I found myself in a limbo position, leaning back and covering my face with both arms as I was pricked and scratched by one of the thickets. After four hours and about nine miles of paddling we finally reached our destination. To everyone’s delight, we were treated to a Croatian lunch at a nearby restaurant as part of the excursion. A medley of sausages and grilled vegetables awaited us when we arrived and our inflated appetites ensured there would be no leftovers.