I knew I needed to get away for a few days in January. It’s not just the cold and the lack of sun, but they don’t help. I needed a routine break. At the end of September Monika had done a ten day train trip and something like that sounded good. I also wanted to go to Malta or a Greek island would have been nice. I also wasn’t sure if I’d be going alone or with Rasa, since she had her own work to do. There was talk of going to India with Jennica, but timing on that didn’t quite work out (and the cost was a bit prohibitive as well). So I was in a bit of a quandary.
Then Monika called to let me know RyanAir was offering a special: They had €9.99 one-way flights on selected days to selected cities – Rome, Milan and Paris. Now, if you’ve never flown RyanAir, this video sums it up nicely. It’s not the best or most convenient of airlines, but it is cheap and gets you, if not exactly to your destination, at least close. In this case, since Rasa and I had discussed it and decided on Milan, close was actually Bergamo, about 60 minutes by shuttle bus from Milan central. When it came time to buy the tickets, though, Rasa still wasn’t sure she could go, but €19.98 round trip, it was worth buying the ticket regardless, which I did.
As things got closer to go time, it seemed that, yes, Rasa would be able to go, which was nice. We started planning our adventure. It seemed a tour of Northern Italy was in order. Not wanting to stay in any one place for too long, we were going to move about. Taking Monika’s advice we researched train schedules and booked hotels. We were looking at roughly 10 cities in 8 days, a round trip total of almost 1000km. It was going to start early, too, since the flights were out of Vilnius airport, and that required an early morning train or bus ride from Kaunas.
The day before we were to start, though, we caught an interesting break. As I was checking out from the Comfort Hotel in Vilnius, where I had stayed during my Aga-Boom work, the clerk asked if I really wanted to check out. It seems they had me booked through until the next day, which is when we were to leave for Italy. I immediately called Rasa and made arrangements with the dog sitter to come a night early and we were able to stay the night about a 10 minute walk from the train station. Made for a much more pleasant way to start the first leg of what would most likely be a long day. And let me say, if you need a hotel in Vilnius for any reason, the Comfort is amazing! It’s an American Pop Culture themed oasis with an incredibly friendly staff (and 24 hour free coffee/tea in the lobby). Really a first rate and fun place!
So on Tuesday morning we started off. The only memorable thing about the airport was that for some reason, we had been bumped to priority seating, which meant we didn’t have to wait in the common people line and had first dibs at the soon to be overcrowded overhead bins, which was nice. Also, in showing how small the country is, we ran into a friend from our Riga trip while waiting (she was going to Rome).
While planning our itinerary, one of the things Rasa wanted to see was mountains. It’s always a surprise to me when I realize the cultural differences. Since she’s never done much traveling, mountains were not in her experience check box. Of course, our finalized plan, didn’t actually include a trip to the mountains (concessions were made) but it worked out since the flight south went over the Alps. She was able to see her mountains, covered with snow (she’d see others later, but this was a good start).
Landing in Bergamo, we immediately grabbed a shuttle bus (from one of several companies offering the service). See, RyanAir isn’t the only low cost airline (there are a few) and part of their low cost business plan is they land in out of the way airports at out of the way times (remember Disneyland Paris?). But since our flight was relatively early in the day (and Ryan over estimates their flight times considerably so they can claim an excessively high “on-time” percentage) we got into Italy around noon and were in the center around 1. Perfect.
We had made plans to meet up with my cousins Thom and Jerilyn, who lived in Vicenza (about 2 hours by train). They had never been to Milan so we were going to meet at DaVinci’s Last Supper (not the infamous Milanese restaurant but the actual painting). We had some time to kill so we took a metro to the Duomo, which is Italian for Big Church, and were completely gobsmacked by its beauty. We also got our first taste of the scourge of modern day tourist sites, the guys selling selfie-sticks, rainbow “good luck” bracelets and food for the pigeons so they’ll land on you. It’s so annoying to have the guys harassing you as you walk anywhere and they won’t quit. We adopted a stare straight ahead and keep walking attitude and made our way into the church.
We wandered the square for a few minutes before deciding to head off to the Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of The Last Supper. The way it works is you need a reservation since they only allow 30 people in every 15 minutes and you have to have a guide. Thom had made our reservations so we were all set. On our way there, we stopped at the Castello Sforzesco, a 15th century castle now a museum. We didn’t go in, no time, but the grounds were amazing. We also discovered there’s an Expo coming to Milan later this year. Have no idea what it’s exposing but the signs are everywhere!
Finally, we met up with my cousins. It was good to see them! Last time was in Heidelberg back in ’10 and they’d been in Italy for a couple of years. Of course, it was good we got to see them now as they’re moving back to the States for good in the middle of February so our timing was spot on. Anyway, we got our tickets and when they called for our group, in we went. Our guide was an artist herself and spoke English with an accent no one could really quite grasp. She tried to ask us questions but when she did, everyone in the group just kinda looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders wondering what she had asked (you could tell it was a question by the inflection, but that was about it). She might have been drunk. In fact, at the end, she was about to tell us something when a colleague came in and made a movement and the guide stopped suddenly, remembering she had another tour, and she was gone. Weird.
However, she was able to illuminate the artwork itself, which is well worth the visit. This prompted me to think, and not for the last time this trip, that I would love to take more art history classes. I would have liked to spend more time looking at the wall and really taking it in, but they’re not kidding about the 15 minute rule. After the allotted time, we were ushered out and into, you guessed it, an overpriced gift shop. Nothing there was anything not available from a well stocked gift shop anywhere else in the city, though, so we didn’t get anything.
As it was getting late, we decided to check in to our hotel and then meet back up with Thom and Jerri for dinner. Ah yes… the Hotel Valley, located just 5 minutes from the train station and a world away from quality. We found the place easily enough and were buzzed in. Our reservations confirmed but were told the Internet was out – this meant no wifi and their ability to take credit cards was compromised. Not a place I would recommend. They charged us for sheets and towels (which was NOT stated on the booking confirmation) and put us in an incredibly cold room. It had a bathroom but the toilet was broken and taped shut. The toilet we coulduse was down the hall with a door that didn’t exactly close. Frankly, the whole place was a bit scary. So we hid our bags, took the important stuff with us, and met the cousins for dinner.
The food was good, the conversation was better and we left with hugs and kisses and plans to possibly meet up again later in the itinerary in Vicenza (I’ll save you the suspense, didn’t happen as they had too much going on with movers and such). Even though the sun had gone down, it was still relatively early (and we really didn’t want to go back to the hotel and spend any more time there than necessary) so we decided to walk the route we hadn’t walked earlier in the day and check out the Duomo at night.
It was a loooong walk. Not terribly confusing or complicated, as everything seems to be in relatively straight lines so we never got lost. On the way, we found Leonardo 3, a museum dedicated to DaVinci’s inventions and designs, where scholars had built models (some working, some proving design flaws) from the great man’s notebooks. There were some incredibly cool things in here, perpetual motion machines and flying contraptions.
Now, you may know Milan is a fashion paradise and as such, there is a street with all the flag ships of all the top designers in the world. The museum was on the end of that street and the other end opened onto the piazza of the Duomo. We had made it! The church was even more impressive than during the day (this could have had something to do with the lack of other tourists).
We decided to walk back to our “hotel” from there a different way and after a few missteps found ourselves on the straight path. Of course, one of those missteps involved trying to locate our position on the Tourist Information free map. We saw a building and I (quite smartly I thought) identified it as a church from the map. Of course, when I did, other things on the map didn’t make much sense. Rasa was questioning my Amazing Race honed navigational skills so I stopped a member of the polizia and asked for conformation.
Yeah, I was wrong.
The actual church on the map was about 200m away and when we saw it, sure enough everything else on the map lined up. Not my proudest moment, certainly. But at least now we knew where we were. We headed up the street, stopping to look at the interesting architecture of the natural history museum building and then for tea and tiramisu at a small cafe. By that point, we figured we had put it off long enough and headed back to the hotel. Wednesday was going to be a long day and it was going to start early (earlier than even we knew).