Sometimes it’s not about where you travel, but who you travel with. For spring break this past week, I decided to stick around close to Bologna (a combination of financial restraint and lack of planning). Although most of the students in my program seized the opportunity to travel outside of Italy, a few friends also found themselves on a Budget Break. I convinced three of these friends to go with me to Genoa, a port city on the North-West coast of Italy.
When we got on the train at six in the morning on the Monday after Easter, one of my travel buddies asked me why I had picked this city over better-known destinations in Northern Italy. I answered (truthfully) that I didn’t know anything about it other than that it’s Christopher Columbus’ hometown and a rapper I interviewed for an article back in September recommended that I check it out.
Looking a little nervous, my friend cracked his guidebook and read aloud. “Genoa: city of squalor and sophistication.” He read a long list of cautionary advice against walking in most neighborhoods after dark and the importance of keeping a protective grip on your wallet. The guidebook spoke highly of Genoa’s aquarium and Maritime History Museum, both closed on Mondays.
When the train pulled into the station, we disembarked with sub-minimal expectations. My goals were to not get mugged, sample some Genovese pesto, and maybe learn something about Christopher Columbus. My friends didn’t articulate their objectives, but I suspect that in the long-term they involved never letting me plan a trip again.
Italian travel tip: Don’t travel the day after Easter. Everything is closed. Genoa felt like an architecturally imposing ghost town. We spent roughly an hour and a half trying to find a restaurant recommended by our guide book, only to find that it was closed and the “piazza” it was located near was actually a parking lot. But we did find Christopher Columbus’ house, packed full of Chinese tourists.
In desperation, we took a lot of pictures of each other taking pictures and looking hungry and then collapsed into an open restaurant located in a basement. One of my friends cracked the guidebook open again, looked at a regional map, and remarked that we were close to France. Since everything in Italy was closed for another twenty-four hours, it was only logical to see if we could extend our day trip a bit further north after we’d finished our meal.
It turns out that France is not that close to Genoa. It would cost us 20 Euros and four hours to take a regional train to Nice. In ordinary circumstances, I would have taken a train back to Bologna and resolved to make the trek to Nice when I’d had a chance to plan (and pack a toothbrush). But this brings me back to my original point: sometimes all that matters is who you travel with. And I was traveling with people who saw a glint of “why-not” in my eye and went with it.
Ten minutes later, we were on our way to France. Miles of generic Italian countryside gave way to the French Riviera, pastel houses with Olympic-sized pools and tennis courts. We rolled past Monaco and into Nice, where all the restaurants were, indeed, open. For dinner, I had the best seafood salad ten Euros could buy. We collapsed in a budget hotel and spent the next day wandering around streets without any context, just enjoying being near the ocean and trying to speak French.
When my friends told me they wanted to stay for an extra day, I took the afternoon train home by myself, got on the wrong connection to Genoa, ended up in a mountain village in southern France, spent twelve hours trying to retrace my steps, missed the last train out of Genoa and back to Bologna, frantically texted friends for hotel addresses, and spent the night back in the City of Squalor and Sophistication.
I limped back into Bologna two and half days after I left, probably more than a little bit in need of a shower and definitely hungry for lunch. A lot of my time in Italy has been spent traveling from Meal A to Meal B. There are worse ways to experience a country.
The moral of my spring break story: with the right people, every trip works out the way it’s supposed to. It’s best to be friends with people who are just as crazy, if not a little bit crazier, than you are.