"Yeah," he mumbles, already attacking the bottle caps, "the worst".
Tyler had wandered off half an earlier to find a quiet phone booth--not an easy task amid the raucous, pachinko-machine traffic of Florence. Cash-strapped after over two years of vagabonding across Europe and Africa, he had scrounged enough for a call home to his family in California, only to be informed that his best friend was dead. Unknown assailants, brandishing shotguns, had pulled alongside him as he stood outside his suburban home and fired twice at his back.
"Man, that's terrible. I'm so sorry." I wince at my trite response. "Is there anything I can do?"
Tyler answers me with a plastic cup filled with rum. "Don't let me drink alone."
I'm not quite sure how Tyler and I have come to be travelling together, as the only things we seem to have in common are our ages and a love of unfamiliar countries. While he's a patriotic ex-Marine, I'm a cynical pacifist. Whereas his ideal afternoons involve cheap beer and chasing after local skirt, mine revolve around sunshine and the perfect café macchiato. And although my modest budget allows the occasional, sophisticated night out in a trendy bar, Tyler's empty pockets and love of hard liquor have driven us to downing supermarket grappa in deserted piazzas. By any calculation it shouldn't work, but ever since uniting to search for budget accommodation in Venice over a week ago, we've been pretty much inseparable; the backpacking Odd Couple, if you will.
Ripping off lovestruck tourists can be hard work, which is why these gondola pilots spend so much of their time on breaks. Enlarge »
But what of Venice itself, the first stop on my post-Geneva travels? I'd have to say: cheesy.
The original settlers of Venice, perhaps convinced by a collective of masochistic engineers, thought that a cluster of over one hundred islands about four kilometres off the Italian coast would offer the best protection from the invading armies of the north. But having admirably protected its residents for over one thousand years, the city's unique design has also proven its greatest liability. Waves of modern tourism have made the cost of living in the city unbearable, forcing many Venetians to flee to the mainland and leave their homes as nothing more than an Italian theme park for gawking foreigners. In only fifty years, camera-toting holidaymakers have conquered a city that had eluded murderous, axe-wielding armies for over a millennium.
But thankfully, you only have to scratch the surface of Venice's pre-packaged, gondola pastiche to discover an effortless, self-assured charm glowing beneath. Losing yourself in the city's labyrinth of backstreets, you inevitably stumble across a small shop offering delicious slabs of freshly baked pizza a taglio, or tempting you with the siren song aroma of roasting coffee. You might spot two young children crossing one of the city's countless bridges, and laugh as they argue fervently and wave their small arms to stress their point, just like Papa. Meanwhile a group of ageing men eye you distractedly from a nearby trattoria, savouring the remaining crumbs of their lunch and the last few drops of their wine.
I guess this passes as a highway in Venice's waterlogged world. Enlarge »
But more than the city itself, it's the Italians that surprised me. Sure, the arm-flailing expressionism and designer clothing are there, but beneath it all you pick up on a energy reflected in their flamboyant mannerisms, their manic driving, and their produce-centred, hearty cuisine. It's a simple lust for life; a desire to enjoy their days to the fullest extent possible and savour every morsel of food as if it were their last. To laugh like it's the eve of the apocalypse, and love each other accordingly. And the best of all for the visiting tourist, the feeling seems to be infectious.
Tyler and I divided out Venetian days between looking for that night's accommodation in the fully-booked city, strolling through the postcard perfect Saint Marco's Square and hunting down cheap pizza in the city's alleyways and side streets. When the sun disappeared over the horizon, we would recruit an army of fellow travellers and locals to indulge in free-flowing liquor and somewhat rowdy behaviour. Sure I wasn't acting the part of a Sensitive New Age Traveller, but I figured months of financially coerced self-control in Geneva had to be paid off at some stage.
Italians possess a simple lust for life; a desire to enjoy their days to the fullest extent possible ... and laugh like it's the eve of the apocolypse.
I awoke after my third night of Venetian excess with a parched throat and a heaving stomach, momentarily disoriented and not quite sure where I was. Through a stabbing headache I recalled Tyler and I deciding--actually Tyler deciding, and me reluctantly acquiescing--to 'party til sunrise', since we'd been unable to find any cheap accommodation for the night.
Struggling to recall fragments of the evening's festivities, I realised that my memory past three a.m. was nothing more than a slurry of bars, clubs and shouted conversation. Hang on, why was I swaying? What was that smell? And why was there a rod in my back and blue tarpaulin over my head?
I stuck my head out between the plastic sheets and moaned: I was at sea-level, bobbing up and down on one of Venice's canals ... in a gondola. Shit. Not very smart, Ally. What if the pilot is just around the corner, getting ready to start work for the day? Even worse, what if he finds you? Suddenly petrified, I dragged myself out and onto the pavement, blinking in the daylight. With only one confused local giving me a strange look, I stumbled to the train station, flipped a coin and booked a ticket south.
Oh well, at least I'd have something to confess when I got to the Vatican.
But Venice seems a lifetime away now. I'm in Florence, night has fallen and Tyler's nearly finished his bottle of rum as he ignores my banal attempts at condolence.
Since meeting Tyler I've been effectively subjecting my liver to daily torture of Abu Gharib proportions, and I've promised it a respite. We have a deal signed in bile. Mine.
"Screw it," he interrupts me halfway through a parable on the inevitably of death I once heard the Dalai Lama recount during an interview ... or was it Madonna? "Let's hit some bars."
Oh no, this is the last thing I need. Since meeting Tyler I've been effectively subjecting my liver to daily torture of Abu Gharib proportions, and I've promised it a respite--just one alcohol-free night--in exchange for one headache-free morning. We have a deal, signed in bile. Mine.
But somehow I know that if Tyler heads out alone with his sorrow and bottle of rum, he'll end up in a fight, in a ditch, or in a pool of his own vomit. On reflection, none of these options seem particularly fair.
I put Stephen Hawking's quantum babbling back in my pack and pick up my jacket. 'If you insist,' I sigh.
Ten minutes later we're strolling beneath the imposing dome of Florence's most famous landmark, the Duomo cathedral. Like most landmarks in Florence, its intricate design bears the hallmarks of the city's greatest contribution to Western civilisation: the Renaissance. Simply put, during the 15th and 16th centuries, the wealthy families of Florence-led by the revered Medici clan-harvested the fruits of a successful economy to employ artists with the sole mandate of creating beautiful art and expanding the sphere of human knowledge. The Renaissance that ensued fuelled over a century of unprecedented freedom and experimentation in art and science, giving geniuses such as Gallileo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci the support and autonomy they needed to revolutionise the way we perceive our world.
Florence's skyline is dominated by the imposing Renaissance dome of the Duomo cathedral... the fourth largest in the world. Enlarge »
As the focal point of this movement, Florence's streets boast some jaw-dropping examples of Renaissance art. On a stroll through one of the city's many piazzas you may discover Michelangelo's David, while a quick glance around a derelict church is bound to reveal a Da Vinci or Raphael masterpiece hanging humbly in a dimly-lit corner. Standing awe-struck in front of a passionate Boticelli canvass earlier today, it occurred to me that this city didn't just stoke the furnace of modern culture, it lit the first flames of its fire.
And so I sigh a silent apology to the ghosts of geniuses that have walked these roads before, as I stumble home unceremoniously drunk five hours later, steadying Tyler on his feet and desperately wishing someone would do the same for me. The night seems to have provided a welcome distraction for the man, who is busy chatting up some equally inebriated Swedes headed in our direction, while I spent the best part of the evening posing as Florentine local (my name? Franco Cozzo) only to be caught out when the barman asked me for our orders in Italian. We eventually stagger into our hostel and Tyler collapses in front of the payphone, pawing the keypad and then closing his eyes. When he finally connects through to his dead friend's family in the US and begins sobbing uncontrollably, I linger awkwardly for a few minutes, but then head upstairs to bed. I need the rest, for tomorrow I'm parting ways with Tyler and jumping on a train to Rome.
With so many churches, cathedrals and plain holiness, Italy is something of a Catholic Mecca for nuns the world over. Enlarge »
'Hello, Rome! I love this city! I loooove Roooomaa! All right!'
If there is one thing I haven't prepared myself for during my Italian travels, it's the sight of Oprah Winfrey's head bobbing up and down on a JumboVision Screen in the middle of an ancient Roman ruin, as she desperately tries to win favour with half a million noticeably unimpressed locals. But here I am, and there she is.
I'd changed my original plans and rushed past the lush vineyards and rolling hills of Tuscany to make it to Rome ahead of a free concert that I'd heard rumours of in Venice. Apparently, Quincy Jones, the Mowtown producer extraordinaire, has assembled a musical and showbiz cast including Alicia Keys, Baba Maal, Santana, Angelique Kidjo, Angelina Jolie, and of course Oprah, in a follow up to his We Are the World effort two decades ago. So when I arrived in the city, I dumped my bags at a hostel and headed to Circus Maximus-the arena in which ancient Romans held their chariot races-with a couple of other backpackers and a Bulgarian expat-come-tour guide named Dimitri.
Thousands flock to the We are the Future concert in the Ruins of the Circus Maximus. Enlarge »
As we casually strolled through the streets of Rome towards the concert, Dimitri would point out the occasional monument of interest. "There's the Trevi Fountain."
And there it was.
"There's the Piazza del Camidoglio, designed by Michelangelo."
"And there's the Colosseum."
Whoah! I'd almost passed beneath its imposing, floodlit walls without realising it. I looked up and grinned. I was in Rome all right!
Although the modern day ruins of the Colosseum deserve their reputation as Italy's most recognisable icon, I've always found the story of its creation a little more interesting. Having endured the reign of four terrible leaders around the start of the First Century AD, the citizens of Rome were pissed. After all, one of these emperors--a dribbling, brain-damaged teenager--had done nothing when floods devastated the city, while another, Caligula, was renowned for his wild orgies and frequently bedding his own horse. In fact Caligula was so infatuated with his equine lover that he gave him a permanent seat on the Senate, and presumably all the sugar cubes he could eat. So when Emperor Vespasian took control of the Roman Empire, he knew he had some hearts and minds to win. Vespasian astutely reckoned that even if the Romans had nothing, if he gave them the odd bit of gore and free grog, they'd be blissfully happy. He was right.
Caligula was so infatuated with his equine lover that he gave him a permanent seat on the Senate, and presumably all the sugar cubes he could eat.
Upon its completion, the Colosseum hosted one hundred days of free entertainment, food and wine for those lucky enough to win a ticket in a city-wide lottery. During its years of service, the Colosseum's bloody battles were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Christians and slaves, while its staged animal hunts drove half a dozen rare species of wildlife to extinction. It all makes the WWF look a little tame by comparison, doesn't it?
As a tourist with less than a week in Rome, I've been forced to bolt from historical ruin, to museum, to the Vatican, hoping to cram three thousand years of stratified history into a handful of days. To unwind at night, I head down to the Spanish Steps with a few newfound friends and Amir, an old family friend I'd bumped into at my hostel, and listen to young Romans attempt covers of rock classics under the influence of cheap beer.
Deciding where to go next with my trusty guidebook is always helped by an espresso, or three. Enlarge »
But now I'm on my last balmy night in Rome, I'm sitting on the edge of the striking Trevi Fountain, debating what to do next. I've fallen for this city head over heels, but the country's prices have beaten my budget to a bloody pulp. I have to leave.
I recall a few words of Tyler's wisdom: "If you're looking for fun on a tight budget," he had insisted, "head East."
So I give myself two options--fly to Prague or catch a ferry to Croatia--and pull a coin from my pocket. I'm tempted to perform the long-practiced ritual of tossing a coin over my shoulder into the fountain to ensure my return to the city, but it doesn't seem necessary. I know I'll be back, if only to marry myself off to a saucy barrista.
Flip, catch, look. Heads.
Croatia, here I come.