Food. Fresh, delicious, simple food. Meals that I wanted never to end, but that I knew must, because that was the only way to get to a new meal. Little restaurants that I knew must have a little grandma hidden in the kitchen cooking the only way grandmas know how - slow, with experience and love. I loved so many meals during my time in the Mediterranean countries of Italy, France, and Spain. This eight day long road trip from Switzerland through Milan down to Florence and then along the northern coast of the sea through southern France and all the way to Barcelona will always be remembered by the amazing cuisine along the way. There was art and architecture and history and scenic views and nice walks and stuff too.
My journey down from the mountains and to the sea began with a train ride through mountain tunnels and around lake shores from the Swiss Alps to the Italian foothills. The first stop and my first taste of Italy was in Domodossola, a small town on the Italian side of the Alps. I had a couple of hours between trains to see what there was to see. When I walked out of the train station I could immediately tell I was in a very different place, and I loved it. The architecture was not so big and so straight, the roofs were tiled, there were clothes hanging on lines, windows were all open, people were sitting in cafes out on the street. The language was a little smoother, people weren't in any rush, and everyone seemed happy. But how could you not with pizza and gelato on every corner. It took me about ten minutes from the time I arrived in Italy to the time I was sitting at a table in the sun eating a fresh margarita pizza and enjoying a cold birra. Apparently I should have been drinking prosecco and eating potato chips though, as all the locals around me were. You live and you learn I guess. A couple hours and a couple scoops of gelato later I hopped on a train to Milan.
I got to my hostel in Milan, dropped my stuff, and went walking - the best way to explore. Milan is a very modern looking city, especially compared to other Italian and Euro cities, and is a fashion center of the world. Unfortunately this was somewhat disappointing and uninteresting to me since I'm not Derek Zoolander. Which is another unfortunate fact.
I did visit some cool sites in the city though. The Duomo di Milano is an incredible gothic cathedral. Tall and pointy. There is a 15th century castle/fort equipped with a moat, although presently it is more of a ditch, just outside the city center. It now is used as a museum and houses amazing da Vinci and Michelangelo exhibits. The Arco della Pace is a great spot to enjoy lunch on a beautiful day. I sat outside a cafe under the shade of the arch and watched people take selfies for hours.
My favorite place in Milan was the Monumental Cemetery. This cemetery was full of amazing sculptures. Incredible pieces of art in an emotional place. It was serene to walk around in this place without many people around and take my time to appreciate some of these pieces that must have taken a lifetime to complete.
Overall, Milan was my least favorite of all the cities I visited on this road trip. It had less character than the rest. Or maybe it's character is sleek, fashionable, and modern, and it just went over my head. I still enjoyed my time there, and it was a good appetizer for the rest of the trip. Speaking of appetizers, I did manage to find some good pesto, chips, and wine!
The bus from Milan to Florence went through the rolling hills of Tuscany passing fields of grapes and olives along the way. This is the Italy you want to see. And arriving in Florence was not a let down either. The city is as beautiful as the scenery surrounding it. Narrow streets divide rows of buildings in classic Tuscan architecture - tan buildings and orange brown tiled roofs. The cathedrals here had the most beautiful style. Domes and towers, intricate paintings and patterns, white and green with orange brown roofs. I loved the buildings and the look of the city.
There is a river splitting the city into north and south. The north side has the museums, large cathedrals, big markets, street artists, and pricey food. The south side has the parks, cemeteries, local neighborhoods, casual restaurants, and people enjoying life just hanging out in the squares at all times of the day and night. Everything is walkable in Florence. Although people tend to not trust me when I tell them places are walkable.
I stayed on the south side in a big open hostel. When I finally found the hostel on the fourth floor of a building that looked like every other building I could hear opera music bellowing from inside one of the bunk rooms. After a minute I could tell it was actually someone singing and not a recording. I finished checking in and headed for the mystery door. I don't know what I was expecting. A fat Italian with an impressive mustache maybe. But I was surprised to meet a thin, short, Argentine guy with wavy brown hair and the lungs of an opera singing whale. I was surprised again when his speaking voice sounded like that of a thin, short, Argentine guy with wavy brown hair and the lungs of a normal person. The hostel was open, crowded, and diverse as Florence is a popular attraction for people all over the world. I met many other interesting people over the free pasta they provided every night at 8pm. BYOW and share with everyone.
I packed a lot into my one and a half days in Florence. The usual delicious food, gelato, and wine filled my days, but in between I saw some incredible art and history. It's almost impossible to go to Florence and not leave feeling cultured. Florence is the birthplace of the renaissance and home of Dante, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. There are many centuries old sculptures in the street plazas depicting ancient Greek and Roman gods and tales. There are churches with beautiful paintings and bell towers ringing. Go to the Uffizi Gallery and see original works of art from the greatest artists of the renaissance 500 years ago, still perfectly preserved and incredibly beautiful. I don't seek out or know much about art, but in Florence the stunning pieces and the history behind it all kind of overpowers you. You gain a sense of appreciation that you didn't know you could have. Amazing city.
My next destination was France, but I couldn't leave Italy without one more meal. I took a bus from Florence to Nice with a couple hour stop in Genoa, Italy. I had never heard of Genoa, but now I remember it as the place of the best meal I had in Italy, and that's something to be proud of. Genoa is a city on the Mediterranean coast in northwestern Italy. I found a little restaurant in a little alley near the water. The meal included bread, mussels in a white wine sauce, and the most unbelievably superb pesto gnocchi I have ever tasted. I'm never going to have gnocchi again unless it's in Italy and hopefully at that restaurant. I promise.
I followed the same pattern throughout this road trip of traveling one day, exploring the next, then traveling again, explore, travel, explore, travel, every other day. So I arrived in Nice late one evening and only had one full day to eat all of the cheese and mussels in France. I failed. They still have cheese in France.
I woke up early to see the sunrise over the Mediterranean from the pebble beach of Nice. They call this area the bright blue coast but in French so it sounds fancy. I hiked to the top of the hill right on the coast where there used to be a fort that protected this old port city. Now it has great views and no fort. I strolled through Old Town and the Cours Saleya Flower Market where they had much more than flowers. I relaxed with coffee and bread at the cafes. I tried cheese and olives and socca on the street. I savored the mussels and fries. I walked along the Promenade des Anglais and saw the location of the terrorist attack just a few months earlier covered in flowers and other offerings from all around the world. You see a lot of wonderful things while traveling. You see some shitty things too. But out of the bad stuff always comes good stuff again.
I hit the road one more time down the coast to Barcelona to see the last country on this Mediterranean trip. For the first time in months I was in a place where I could speak the local language, although I refused to do the weird lispy Spanish accent. For the first time in months I was with someone I knew from my non-world-traveling life, and it was great to get the local tour. Usually I have to walk blindly through the city searching for less crowded, cool looking spots. That doesn't always work out. Thanks for the hospitality, Emily.
Barcelona is probably the coolest city I visited on this road trip. The city is different and proud of the fact that is different. Different than the rest of Europe, and different than the rest of Spain. There are Catalonia independence flags hung from balconies all over the city. The architecture is different. La Sagrada Familia is a cathedral in the heart of the city and looks like no other cathedral on earth. Originally designed by Antoni Gaudí, it is still under construction. Like Gaudí's other building around this city, it is interestingly beautiful. The people are different. Barcelona is home to some of the best skaters, bikers, and bladers in the world. And those who are not the best are trying to be. There are skate parks all around the city, but many prefer to use the streets anyway. As opposed to Florence, most of the art is on the street and people love it.
As different as Barcelona is, it does have one thing in common with my previous Mediterranean destinations: amazing food. But they retain their uniqueness by how people eat. Tapas everywhere. It's such a great way to eat. You get to try so many things! My favorite was the patatas bravas. I had them at maybe three different places, and each was different and delicious. Potatoes are good and all, but Barcelona is on the sea. The best thing I ate in Spain was the octopus. I'm not sure that I have had octopus before, but if I have, it was nothing like this because this was a dish you couldn't forget.
Thank you to the Mediterranean Sea, but now I must get back to the mountains.