Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer

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Italy

15 June 2002

 

Welcome to the land of dazzling ancient architecture married harmoniously to the spectacular scenery, illuminated under blue skies and brimming with culture, art and fine food. Welcome to the land of copious amounts of paper receipts, road-rule shunning locals, numerous cats and marble genitalia. Welcome to Italy!

 

My beloved mother had left the old man at home and was in Italy for a month with her sister, auntie Marg, on a bus full of other antipodeans zigzagging across the shoe-shaped land on an old people's version of a Contiki Tour. The last leg of her broad itinerary was Roma, the Eternal City, where she was to spend the good part of four glorious days with her youngest son.

 

It had been a year and a half since I last said goodbye to mum at the modern terminal of Wellington Airport so I was looking well forward to seeing her smiling face again. A lack of communication on my part had left her thinking that I would be arriving a couple of days later, so it was a bit of surprise for her to see me arriving through the door, bag on back and hungry for whatever meal our hotel had on offer. It was Mum's last supper with the tour so it was good opportunity to meet some of the others that had just spent the last month with her eating pasta and visiting ruins. I had expected the conversation to be based around bowling, bingo and knitting, but instead the topic of discussion was about having to pay for a pee and how a courteous bus driver had carried mum around after slipping on slippery steps and hurting her ankle.

 

We were up bright and early the next morning ready to explore the great city on a well planned route by auntie Marg. Our tour took us along the character-filled cobblestone alleys and through many of the fine piazzas (squares) all of which were surrounded by gorgeous buildings and featuring beautiful fountains and statues. It was easy to see that this city once ruled over Western Europe based on the scale and standard of the magnificent buildings we saw, but what blew me away were the ancient ruins such as the Forum and Colosseum, dotted throughout the city with people just walking through and around them going about their day to day business.

 

It was a day that saw me develop a devilish addiction to gelato (the divine melt-in-your-mouth ice cream that you'll find all over Italy). It was a day where I saw more priests and nuns than the rest of my life put together and it was a day that saw me buy some new sandals which gave me a nice set of blisters.

 

The day ended with a few beers with Brian, an old mate from varsity, who is living in Rome in an apartment right by the Pantheon, a church that was originally built before Christ was born, back in the day when they put holes in middle of the domed roofs.

 

It was just mum and me the next day as Marg's son,cousin Mike, and his wife had arrived and they took the opportunity to catch up. Our journey started off at the Trevi fountain and Spanish Steps before we lost a few hours in the massive Villa Borghese Gardens which hosted us to a fabulous lunch in the sunshine then rental of a rowing boat in the pretty lagoon and racing a youthful local pair in a heated and loud competition across the body of water. For the rest of the afternoon we enjoyed the impressive pieces at the uncrowded National Gallery of Modern Art before meandering our way through the city shopping and taking in the warm atmosphere followed by some fine dining in Piazza Della Rotonda.

 

Another early morning was upon us as we beat the crowds to the Vatican. The richness of the art and architecture blew me away, with every inch of the city crafted intricately and tastefully. The Sistine Chapel, as crowded as it had become, was spectacular with Michelangelo working magic with a brush to tell the some of the stories of Catholicism, almost as if they were alive, vividly coloured upside down on the ceiling. It would be a shame to go to the Vatican without seeing the man himself, Pope John Paul II. Although he was showing signs of not being as healthy as he once was, he still sat in traditional gear and made a speech to an elated crowd from the steps of St. Peter's Cathedral.

Roma, the Eternal City

As the maxim has it, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. So I made a few calls and within a couple of hours was cruising the cobblestone streets on a scooter. It was a sleek machine, grey in colour, sporting 100cc of sheer grunt and built for pace. With mum clinging onto the back, we weaved our way through the streets of Rome, through tunnels, on the wrong side of roads dodging traffic. It was a good mother-son bonding exercise and also offered a new perspective of Rome that we didn't get walking.

 

It was a sad day, but after a joyous journey on the moped, I had to say goodbye to mum, and after one last gelato together, I strapped my backpack onto the vehicle and followed a hand-drawn map and some vague directions south.

 

The road drew its way out to the coast and the sun slowly sank into the Tirreno Sea casting a golden glow onto the rugged hills framing the coast. As the chill was starting to set into my T-shirt clad self I decided Sperlonga would be a good place to stop. I stayed at the campsite on one of the beaches that were separated by a headland cluttered with old concrete homes and a maze of alleys and steps. The beach in the morning was beautiful, with a number of bars opening up and playing tunes to cater for the onslaught of Romans who took the short trip to escape the big city and enjoy the sand.

 

After a refreshing swim - the first in almost a year, I again mounted the mighty scooter and continued the journey south. Many ugly and indistinct towns I passed before reaching the spectacular setting of the Bay of Naples, a huge natural harbour, surrounded by lush mountains and cliffs with the mighty conical-shaped volcano Mt. Vesuvius dominating the eastern end of the inlet.

 

Naples City was a chaotic place, palpitating with a lively buzz. Although the old town had some stunning old buildings, the city had an exciting third-world air about it. Narrow uneven one-way streets made their way up and down the hilly landscape leading out to the breathtaking waterfront.

 

Apparently the home to the best pizza in Italy, a pizza fan as dedicated as myself would be ignorant not to stop to sample the local delicacy. I took the recommendation of the solidly built waiter in the outdoor pizzeria and ended up with a thick-based tomatoey feast – pretty good, but by no means anywhere near the best pizza I had eaten (although I didn't tell him that).

 

After the satisfying stop, I motored around the busy disordered streets of the city weaving between many lanes of fiats at high speeds often in the wrong direction exploring the city's sites. The journey continued in the general direction of the other side of the bay until I reached the scenic coastal road to Sorrento. The route passed through some adorable little towns and by many busloads of tourists and foreigners in rental cars. It was my wildest dream come true, a real version of a ritzy car racing computer game as I darted in and out of traffic, passing through tunnels and winding around the scenic coast.

that racey, grey machine

I used Sorrento as a base for the next few days to see the renowned attractions close by including the Isle of Capri, Pompei and the Amalfi Coast.

 

One of my best friends, Les, who I met in Canada, had not stopped talking about Capri since I first met him. He was well travelled, but of all the places he had been, Capri seemed to be the one he talked about the most. He had gone to the extent of recommending a book, The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe about a Swedish Doctor who had fallen in love with Capri. I read the book on my bike trek in 2000, which had made me even more intrigued and eager to get to the place for a squiz.

 

My day finally came, when Deirdre, an American also staying in the hostel, and myself took the early morning ferry out to the magical isle. I was spellbound as we approached the white towering cliffs that dropped dramatically to the royal blue sea below.

 

Capri had some charming little towns huddled in flat areas amongst the steep cliffs, buzzing with gelato consuming tourists all equally in awe of their spectacular surroundings. Deirdre and I left the crowds in favour of the network of tracks around the island, that took us to even more spectacular natural land formations and secluded grottos where we swum in the warm blue sea.

 

One of the celebrated attractions on the Isle is Grotto Azzurra (or the Blue Grotto), a cave chiseled into the cliffs on an isolated side of the island, where hundreds of tourists are rowed in small boats through the small entry to the cavern and are spoilt with the bluest, richest sea water illuminated by the sun radiating through the entry. I caught the small bus from the Grotto up the steep winding road to Anacapri, another precious village overlooking the town of Capri.

 

At the edge of the settlement, clinging to the side of the abrupt cliff was Villa San Michele, the former Roman ruins of a villa that Axel Munthe (The Swedish Doctor from above) had lovingly restored into a spectacular residence and garden in one of the most commanding spots on the island. I concluded my trip to the magical island in the sun with the 800-step decline to the Marina Grande, to catch the ferry back to the mainland.

The Isle of Capri

I was back on the scooter early the next morning en route for Pompei, a town that was buried in an eruption in 79AD. The lava had preserved everything the way it was almost two millennia ago and intricately restored by Archeologists. Walking around the town that boasted a population of 20,000 at the time of the disaster, it was not hard to get an eerie feeling for the way they had lived. Even the advertising billboards were preserved on the sides of shops, with many fredo and mosaic art pieces still intact. By far the creepiest part of the town was the 'plaster people', who were locals who had been preserved as they were when they died with plaster, whether they were asleep or hundled into a corner. Even the expressions on the faces could be captured.

Pompei, the ancient ruins

Possibly the most enchanting place I have ever visited is the Amalfi Coast, a 50km stretch of breathtakingly dramatic white marble cliffs (similar to that of Capri) towering above the sparkling blue sea. A winding road carved into the mountain face connects the string of delightful towns etched into the side of the precipice dotted with orange trees clinging to the cliffs. There wouldn't have been a better way to see it than a scooter, with the wind in my face, the ability to stop anywhere to explore a town or take a pic (which I took many) or to pass the queues of traffic that would convene around many of the towns. I was spellbound with the sheer beauty of coast and the character of the towns which was even more entrancing on the way home at the balmy twilight hour.

The enchanting Amalfi Coast

After b-lining it North back to Rome, in a much less casual journey than the way down, I returned the beloved scooter and boarded the Florence-bound rail car. Florence is the home of the Renaissance and is rife with museums and public monuments to reflect this. I was staying in what my guidebook described as 'one of the most beautiful hostels in Europe', and that it was, set amongst lush plantings on the hills above Florence. When I arrived, I was greeted with a beautiful courtyard surrounded with pillars and vines and filled with guests sketching, playing musical instruments and having kum-bi-yah sing-a-longs. It reminded me remarkably of some type band camp, and was bordering on a little odd for my liking. I found sanity and a few beers with a couple of Aussies, Nick and Chris, who were also having the same reservations about the place.

 

Florence seemed to be more touristy than anywhere else I had been as its many attractions were concentrated in a small area around the majestic duomo (cathedral). The aussies and myself wandered around the numerous poignant sculptures and other masterpieces from local lads such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Medici decorating the streetscape just as trees would in other cities. We took in the science museum which housed some of Galileo's tools and inventions, and the Galleria dell'Accademia which didn't have much other than the original of David himself. Michelangelo's work of art would have been reason enough on its own to visit Florence, with the bulking marble statue captivating all in its presence. To top off the Florence excursion we with viewed the city from one of the towers and from the olive grove covered hills that surrounded the valley dissected by the river Arno.

Florence in the quaint Tuscany region

Just up the train line from Florence, still in the romantic region of Tuscany is Pisa. The tower that leans would be one of those places that would be up there with the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben as one of the most recognisable landmarks in Europe. I'd eaten the Leaning Tower Pizzas back home, and even dried the dishes with a tea towel sporting its distinct design, so it would be a crime not to visit the monument and see it for real and get the cheesy-cliché photo of pushing it over. Seeing it in the flesh was even more impressive than I had expected, with the tower itself being a beautiful and intricate design and the surrounding park and buildings being pretty in their own right. It had recently been reopened after some delicate reengineering to keep it from leaning too far, so I waited the 3-hours to hike to the top. The stairway up was a bizarre experience, when I was climbing with the lean, it was almost like walking on the flat, and then stepping against the lean and up the stairs, with the combination of the circular route, played funny tricks with one's mind.

 

Although Pisa seemed like a nice quaint town, I decided it was best to press on and continue the power tourist buzz and head North to reach the coast again in a charming town called Lavento at the northern end of Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre consists of five historic fishing villages, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, dotting a rugged coastal mountain range and protected as part of a national park, remaining as they always were and not allowing cars within village limits. A rugged path links the five villages, lined with terraced vineyards and Mediterranean flowers and shrubbery. The walk is a great way to take in the coastal scenery and the approach to each picturesque village and also a good softener for one's conscience when trying to justify a serving of gelato and pizza at each village.

 

Further north on the Italian Riveria is another seaside Village called Portofino, apparently home to anyone who's anyone and the mega-rich (if they're not the same thing). The town was smaller than I thought it would be, and there wasn't too much going on, but it was pretty, and by the look of the berthed super yachts and some of the shops around the waterfront, you could see the town wasn't catering for budget backpackers.

Pisa and the scenic Cinque Terra

An overnight train to Venice followed and then after a couple more hours kip at the station, I rose with the earliest of them to explore the mysterious city before it became overrun with tourists. I started my day with a short vaporetto (ferry) trip up the spectacular Canal Grande in awe of the magnificent gothic styled waterfront mansions. I weaved my way through the network of winding alleys crossing canals on ornate bridges to Piazza San Marco, possibly the most spectacular square I had seen, fill of pigeons, bordered with gorgeous buildings and completed with Basilica di San Marco, an absolutely beautiful cathedral complete with intricate gold mosaic artwork and rare maroon marble. By the time hordes of tourists were out in full force, I had done most of the 'must-see' attractions and spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly around the tangle of enigmatic alleys spellbound and meeting many others in the same predicament.

Magical Venice

It was to the country's commercial capital Milan whereI would be flying out of in a couple of days. You don't hear too many good things about Milan, compared to the rest of Italy and after being spoilt for places in the holiday leading up to it, I didn't wonder why. The Duomo was built on a great scale with 135 spires and apparently more than 3,000 statues and situated on a commanding spot at the foot of the buzzing Piazza del Duomo. There happened to be a Football World Cup game on the big screen in the square, so it was a good time to really take in the atmosphere. I took in some of the extravagantly priced and extremely stylish fashion stores before ending up drinking a 5 euro 5 litre bottle of wine (vinegar) with Annika the American, Cowper the Canadian and a drunken Irish girl who rose to the challenge of consuming 2 litres in as many minutes (and almost succeeded).

 

My last full day in the foreign land was fabulous with a short train trip up to Lake Maggiore to visit Raffiella, an Italian girl I knew from Ireland. It was great to see her beautiful town and surrounding lakes and mountains and see things the way Italians see them, rather than as an ignorant tourist as I had been before.

 

Everyone I know that has been to Italy can't say enough good things about it and I am no exception. I was most impressed with the majestic Rome and the magic of the Amalfi Coast and Capri, but every area of the country was different from the last and simply great.

Milan & Lake Maggiore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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