Welcome to my journal. These are the details of my one month adventure through nine countries in Europe during my Easter break from classes at the University of Birmingham in the spring of 2011. I’ll warn you, this is a big’n. Over 25,000 words, for which I apologize. I got a little carried away, but this guarantees that I won’t forget anything from my adventure. That said, enjoy!
I was a bit anxious about the Eurobrum trip to Edinburgh, put off by the knowledge that I would have to make new friends or be a loner all weekend. I boarded the double decker bus and climbed to the top, moving to the very front for the unobstructed view afforded by these questionably safe monolithic vehicles. Miraculously, the couple across the aisle struck up a conversation with me and I managed to keep it going. We ended up rooming together at the hostel and wandering around together both evenings. Because of a handy safety bar in front of my seat I was able to attach my knock-off gorilla pod and use my fancy CHDK scripts to create time lapses of the English and Scottish countryside.
After some time spent wandering through the architecturally fantastic city wondering what I would do for 48 hours here, I found my way to Calton Hill, a park with several magnificent structures including neo-classical columns, that had spectacular views of everything Edinburgh had to offer: The highlands, ocean, city, and castle. I decided to shoot the first of my landmark stop motions here, though I would revisit Calton Hill the next day to enjoy the warm air and blue skies, in contrast to the dank gray of my first afternoon in Scotland. Upon my second visit, Edinburgh landed a spot on my list of favorite views in the world. After the third visit, it rose to near the top of that list.
Other randomness from the trip:
While in Edinburgh I convinced myself to partake of the haggis, the traditional Scottish dish consisting of “all the parts of a sheep you wouldn’t normally eat.” It tasted like spicy meatloaf. I would eat it again. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Beggars seem to be really well off here (as far as beggars go). People stop and talk to them, give them food, most have dogs, and/or blankets, one was rolling a cigarette and even had bowls for his dog and several bags full of…something. Maybe that’s because there are so many of them; I don’t know.
We went on a three hour walking tour of the city, led by Izzy, a musicology master’s graduate from Chicago! Here are some tidbits I learned: Outside St. Giles church there’s a heart shape in the bricks. It used to be on the church (I think) and it’s the only place in Edinburgh where it’s legal to spit. It’s a tradition, the details of which I can’t remember.
The guillotine was actually invented by resident James Douglas. He was later killed with it. It took four chops.
George Heriot’s school was founded philanthropically to teach orphans and is said to be JK Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts. Today the school is the third most expensive primary school in Edinburgh, at 8000-10000 pounds per year, and reserves spots for just two orphans per year.
Edinburgh lasagna in graveyards
Churches are called kirks.
“Simple names for simple things.” As Izzy pointed out, most of the places here have self-explanatory names (like closes, short for enclosure, the tiny alleys).
There’s a wall in Edinburgh, the mortar for which was partially made from the ashes of burnt witches because the ran out of trees! The last witch in the UK was tried in 1944.
There’s a movie based on Burke and Hare, two graverobbers/serial killers.
The term shitfaced originated here. The tenements didn’t have plumbing, so they emptied their chamber pots out their windows into the streets at 10 PM, shouting “gardeloo!” for “look out below!” as they did so. Naturally, this waste washed into the lake from which Edinburgh’s drinking water came, making it unsafe to drink. So everyone would head to the bar after work and drink alcoholic (and thus sterile) beverages to get their liquid intake for the day. The bars closed at 10, so they all headed home then, drunk. When walking through the alleys, they would hear someone shouting above them, and look up to see what it was. Unable to fully process the situation, inebriated as they were, they would get a face full of shit. Thus, the term.
Presbyterianism was founded here by John Knox. He was a nasty man. He requested to be buried within 10 feet of Giles Cathedral (not really a cathedral), which he was. The cemetery was turned into a car park, though. He’s still buried there under spot 23, marked by a yellow square.
There used to be 240 pennies per pound, and it was one penny per pint of beer.
Calton Hill looks incredible just before sunset (though early morning is a close second). If you want to get the best pictures of Edinburgh castle, go early in the morning, at eight or nine. After that the side of the castle that faces the green space below will be in shadow. The inside of the castle was less spectacular than its ominous position atop the cliff would lead you to believe, but it’s still worth going.
There are free NewEurope tours that at the Starbucks on High Street at 11 and 1. The tour lasts three hours, and the tour guides can recommend some good places to go afterwards. We got haggis at the end. Then they just ask for a donation. Give them a few pounds. There are also lots of ghost tours. Most of them are ten pounds or so and include a beer or shot of whisky. I really don’t know why, except for the fact that it’s in Scotland. If you don’t fancy paying that much, there was a free one run three times a night. Look for the sign just down the street across from the same Starbucks or outside the Last Drop pub in the Grassmarket.
By happy accident the Eurolines coach timetables allowed me a one day trip to Middelburg, the Netherlands before continuing on to meet Lisa in Paris. I left my room in Birmingham for the last time for four weeks and caught the train to New Street to head to the coach station. After a few minutes spent lost in Birmingham city center (how do I keep doing that?) I found my coach, bought a .25p pack of Haribo, and set on my way. I switched at Victoria Coach Station in London and buckled down for a 15 hour ride across England, the English Chanel, France, Belgium, and half of the Netherlands. I wasn’t lucky enough to get my own seat for this leg of the journey; somehow I always choose the odd strangers to talk to. Oh well. Fast forward. I got to Rotterdam at 05:30, still a 90 minute train ride from Middelburg. Doug met me at the station in Middelburg, riding up on his one-speed bike in true Dutch fashion and we walked back to his room to drop off my junk and catch a bus to Vlissingen, a coastal city at the tip of the peninsula in which Middelburg is central. We took a bus to Vlissingen and walked the path along the man-made earthen dam along the North Sea for a few miles. The colors of the beach and sea were magnificent. We played around with some stop motion on one of the many rows of posts extended into the sea. Neither Doug nor I know what they are; they appear to be remnants of docks, but there are far too many of them and they are in too identical of a condition to be dilapidated docks. We headed back to Middelburg so Doug could go to Dutch class I could catch up on some internet time. Afterwards we cooked a bland dinner of vegetables that I dislike plus rice and bacon. I would have stopped with the rice and bacon. But Martje dictated the meal, we just prepared it. We borrowed Paul’s bike and rode of into the Dutch night to find a picturesque location for some long exposures. Somehow we managed to bike along the perfectly flat canal the three miles to Vlissingen, back to the same beach we visited earlier. It’s a real treat to bike for so long without any hills, considering such a spot is nonexistent in Iowa. The beach was near pitch black, so naturally we headed past an eerily lit cafe, all the while discussing how terrifying it would be to see a person standing inside the shack, and onto a platform containing a sound installation. The piece in question was a series of vertical tubes with baffles that caught the wind and emitted pitches. They did nothing to relax us. We got some decent shots of Vlissingen over the beach as huge ships moved surprisingly quickly across the water. Dark as it was, there was one woman that walked past us and onto the beach, presumably to one of the many small summer homes in the distance. Doug and I recounted further horrific hypotheses, like “what if we turned around and our bikes were gone?” and “what if we looked back at our cameras and they were facing us, with pictures of people we hadn’t seen on them?” Needless to say, we finished up and biked back to Middelburg. We finished off another episode of the Big Band Theory (Doug has started them playing when he went to class and I proceeded to watch seven or so) and got to sleep so we could walk to the train station in five hours, laden with my thirty suickerwaffels and thirty stroopwaffels I had nabbed at Albert Hein the day before. The next day, my brief Parisian journey would begin!
After nearly missing my coach to Paris (hint: only chip and pin cards are accepted at Dutch railway stations. I reserved our tickets from Barcelona to Milan and had to run to cash point to retrieve the money for it. Also, French bus drivers apparently leave early) I napped the majority of the six hours to the Eurolines station in Paris. Since Lisa and her friends were at Versailles still, I headed to the Louvre immediately after arrival. This was more of an adventure than it would seem. I bought my first metro ticket and inferred from the map on the wall how to get to the Louvre. Not having a map of Paris with me, I naturally turned the wrong way out of the station, found another metro map, and headed the correct way to the Louvre. I took two stop motions on either side of the Louvre, marveling at the beauty of the architecture in the afternoon sunlight. I checked my bags (bag check at museums is awesome!) and paid the ten Euros to enter the massive museum. I spent probably two hours in one of the three wings of Napoleon’s former palace, somehow running into the Big Three (Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo) in near succession. The last time I was at the Louvre, two years prior, I had enough time to see these three and not much else. I snapped a self portrait of myself with Mona, just like the picture from my last visit. It was frustrating to see how many people insisted on using flash in the exhibit. If I make it back to the Louvre some day I plan on starting in the wing that houses Mona (though I’ve forgotten the name of it) as it has some of the best exhibits. There was a great sculpture garden of sorts in the wing in which I began, though, and Napoleon’s Apartments were ludicrously lavish as well. Having heard that Lisa and Co were on their way to the hostel and noting that the sunlight was waning, I powered my way through the remaining two wings and left the museum for a wander to the metro. The gardens outside the Louvre were fantastic at dusk. I lingered there, reveling in the music played by a euphonium quartet nearby before trundling my way to the metro. I met them atop the sixth floor balcony of our hostel, rested briefly, and Lisa and I made our way back to the Eiffel Tower to see the hourly light show and get some long exposures. The next day I ate too many croissants for breakfast and squirreled away too many croissants in my bag for the rest of the day (not to mention waffels). We went to the Catacombs first thing. Before that morning I hadn’t heard of the Catacombs, much less known what was inside. We walked down dozens of stairs and what must have been a kilometer of uneventful tunnels before we got to the main attraction. I knew that the Catacombs were some sort of burial place, so I entered imagining caskets or perhaps sarcophagi of sorts, ceremonially place in slots in the walls. Instead, I found piles of surprisingly artistically stacked bones. Apparently 6-7 million people worth of bones. The dimly lit tunnels, formerly mined for their minerals, were used to relieve the overcrowded Parisian cemeteries. In one of my many attempts to take pictures of the piles of bones, Canon ironically informed me that one of the perpetually wide-eyed skulls was blinking. Alas. From there Lisa and Jess got some banana-Nutella crepes and I downed three croissants. We parted ways, as most of the gang headed to Disneyland, Lisa back to Notre Dame, and myself to the Eiffel Tower. I got some great pictures of the tower with flowers in the foreground. If nothing else had made the trip to Paris worth it, those pictures did. I met Lisa back at the hostel and we headed to Charles de Gaulle airport, repacked our bags three times to make sure our carry-ons fit the requirements, and got on the plane from which I am typing this to meet Rob “Corn Cob” Hanson in Madrid.
Lisa and I seem to have trouble locating train stops and whatnot the first time. After that, we’re golden, but we had some trouble finding the metro at the airport in Madrid. We bought three day passes for just 13 Euro and hopped on to head to our hostel. My first impression of Madrid was a very good one; the metro was immaculate, not to mention quieter. After stepping out of Anton Martin and onto the street we found ourselves in a bustling Thursday evening in Madrid. I really liked the atmosphere, which was only enhanced by the 20 degree weather. We found our hostel nearby and checked in. Cat’s Hostel uses RFID wristbands instead of keys, which are super neato. They allow us into the building as well as our respective rooms and lockers. We were staying in a room of 12, but there was nobody in, and we didn’t see anyone else in the room until we went to bed at 12:30. Cat’s also has a very neat patio with couches and cushions where we can get wifi. It looks incredible, but sadly there are no outlets there. It requires a fine balance between charging and using, let me tell you. We headed out for dinner after stowing our luggage in our lockers. We wandered for a bit until we found a nice bar-type-place and ordered el numero seis, jamon, huevos, y frites (#6, ham, eggs, and fries). This is apparently a very common Spanish dish. Because none of the staff spoke English, we navigated the entire transaction in Spanish. Full and quite proud of ourselves, we headed back to the hostel and turned in for the night.
The next day we looked over our list of Madrid attractions and headed out to explore for a bit near la Plaza Mayor, where we were to meet fellow Cyclone Rob Hanson at 11. As we wandered through the near-deserted street of Madrid at 9 AM, I was struck by the amount of public sanitation taking place. There were trucks with pressure washers washing streets, plazas, and sidewalks throughout our journey. With this discovery, the schism between Paris and Madrid widened. We found Rob wandering in la Plaza Mayor just as planned. It was great to see another familiar face. Rob is a double major in mechanical engineering and Spanish, and he’s taking exclusively Spanish classes this semester, plus an engineering internship. We headed off to the Prado, Madrid’s premier museum. Luckily, Rob is taking a Spanish art class, so he walked us through the VelÃ¡squez, Goyas, and …. Goya’s black pictures, from his descent into insanity/death were very striking, particularly “Saturn,” an image of the Titan Saturn consuming one of his sons. From the Prado we wandered until we found a place for lunch where I had a perrito gigante (jumbo hot dog) after passing up a chicken shack and the opportunity to split a whole chicken. Yes, a whole chicken. We then meandered through the botanical gardens, planned the rest of our weekend, and made our way slowly to a metro stop in order to go to el Lago, a circular lake overlooked by el Palacio Real. On our way we went through el Parque Retiro, full of buskers and costumed fools. We relaxed at el Lago for quite a while before deciding to find some groceries and cook dinner. Rob headed off to his hostel to check in and locate a supermarket and Lisa and I headed to Renfe (the Spanish railway) to reserve our tickets to Sevilla for the next day. Once we found a station, we talked to the gentleman at the ticket desk (in Spanish!) and discovered that we would have to return the next day with our passes. We headed back to la Plaza Mayor to meet Rob. Once there, we saw a completely different side to la Puerta del Sol and la Plaza Mayor than we had that morning. It was full of people, musicians, and more costumes. I saw a half-dressed Barney, who looked more than a little perturbed. It kind of ruins the illusions when the walk around without their heads. Rob led us to el Corte Ingles, a department store rivaling the size and diversity of Selfridge’s in Birmingham. We walked in to find ourselves surrounded by shelves of books. Apparent that this was not the place to get food, we notice an identically named building across the street. We headed in and navigated through three floors of different departments to find the supermarket. Needless to say, the place was gigantic. We went back to Rob’s hostel to cook our authentic Spanish dinner of pork, fried eggs, fried peppers, and bread. Rob had learned well from his host family, and deftly maneuvered his way through the tiny kitchen until he had prepared a marvelous dinner for three. I can now say that Robissimo is welcome in my kitchen any day. Surprised to see that it was already 23:00, Lisa and I headed back to Cat’s for the night. Up to this point I had been simultaneously worried that we wouldn’t be able to see enough in the cities we visited and that we wouldn’t have enough time to relax. The pace of the day had convinced me that this was going to be a good trip. We had seen enough and had plenty of downtime. Que bueno.
The next morning we rose at seven to head to Renfe with our Eurail passes and hop on a train to Sevilla. The high speed AVE train was fantastic, better than any I had ridden in Birmingham. It came with an in-ride movie and plenty of legroom. Now, here we sit, both journaling our way to Sevilla for a too-short day of exploring before returning for dinner with Rob in Madrid.
In Sevilla we hit up a couple of the major spots and did some wandering. The first place we went was la Plaza de Espana, a semicircular set of buildings surrounding a pond of sorts. All along the wall there are mosaics for dozens of major cities in Spain. Here, as all over Sevilla, blue painted porcelain abounds. Lisa bought some hand painted fans and I made a stop motion of the area before we headed off to locate the cathedral. The cathedral in Sevilla definitely has the most massive interior of all the holy places I’ve been. There is a gigantic pipe organ along with the ludicrously ornate alter. Luckily, this gilded sight was only two Euro for students. We could also climb one of the towers in the cathedral, from which we located the one thing in town that I really wanted to see: …. We headed that way along a busy street, rife with peddlers and shops. We finally stumbled upon the contemporary canopy and discovered that it was actually Sevilla’s plaza mayor. We got some pictures there and wandered back to the park past a multitude of nearly identical tourist shops, paused at an heladeria (ice cream shop) and took the bus back to the train station to meet Robissimo in Madrid for paella!
We met Rob in la Plaza Mayor, again filled with sketchy costumed children’s figures and men peddling their trinkets. He took us to a restaurant he had scoped out that served Spanish dishes. We had (if I remember correctly) patatas bravas (potatoes with a spicy sauce), black pudding (yeah, rice and blood [cooked], it wasn’t bad, but the image kept them from being too appetizing), tortilla espanola (omelette with onion and something), and paella de pollo (a chicken rice dish). The patatas bravas were my favorite, followed by the paella. I wasn’t a huge fan of either the tortilla or black pudding. We wandered through el Puerto de Sol for a while, observing the street performers, human statues, and men illegally selling bootleg DVDs, handbags, and belts. We said “hasta luego” and agreed to meet at Cat’s Hostel the next morning to head to the flea market.
We got a bit of a late start but headed off to the flea market with just our metro passes and a bit of cash in hand. The flea market is rife with pick pockets, so we took no chances. I had a mission to find a new knapsack-type bag as my IFMC drawstring bag had split the day before. Rob and I also had a dream of finding matching red man-pris, in true Spanish fashion. We walked for quite a while down the endless rows of peddlers and stands. I noticed that the deeper we got into the market, the lower the prices got. After a certain point they started dropping below my buying threshold, luckily just as I found the moccasins of my dreams. They’re not quite the mocs you see around, as the opening is shaped as more of a tear drop. They were just eight Euros, which is cheaper than any I’ve seen anywhere, much less for authentic Spanish ones. Not long after that Rob’s and my dream came true: We found our red man-pris for just three Euro each! Overjoyed, we bought them and continued on. Towards the end of the row we happened upon a seller of bags, seemingly fashioned out of shirts. They were surprisingly sturdy and pleasantly cheap, so I left with a new bag to replace my broken one. We headed back towards el Puerto de Sol to get groceries for dinner, pausing only for Lisa to buy a purse, for me to solve a Rubik’s cube and replace it on the seller’s blanket, and for Rob and I to gawk briefly at a gentleman selling only juggling equipment.
We returned to Cat’s, where Rob checked in for the night, only to learn that the place had no kitchen. Ever-ingenious, Rob suggested trying at his first of three hostels for the weekend (that’s what happens when you don’t book early, kids) to see if they would let us cook our dinner there that night. They declined, but we paid for the cheapest room available (just 14 Euro) in order to use the kitchen. Even after that, we saved money over what we would have paid at any restaurant for Cuban rice and bread with pate. Not to mention that no restaurant had yet hired chef Robissimo, so we had him all to ourselves. After this shuffling of belongings, we went in search of la Plaza de Colon to pick up our tickets for the bullfight that night. We found the place easily enough, but it took us a walk around the block (or two) and the suggestions of several locals before we found the ticket office. Tickets in hand, we hopped on the metro to head to la Plaza de Toros!
The bullfight was quite the spectacle, and I learned a lot about how the sport takes place. I’m still not sure about the motivations involved, but I’m glad I’ve seen it in action. The event has several stages that are designed to weaken and ultimately kill the bull (six per event). First, the bull enters, already stabbed once, and four or so matadors(?) run him around the arena. After a bit of this, two spearsmen on horseback enter, and one of them stabs the bull twice. The horses wear padding and the spearsmen wear armor, as the bull straight-up attacks the horse. I am incredibly impressed by how calm the horses are, seeing as a rather large and angry bull is attempting to gore it. It just pushes back, calm as anything. Then the matadors(?) run the bull around some more as three or four men with pairs of short spears stab the bull, lodging the spears in its back. Then the main matador enters. He proceeds to run the bull around in traditional fashion while quite some time, presumably to tire the bull, allow it to bleed, and show off for the crowd. After a while, he switches his small sword, with which he does nothing but display the curtain he uses to taunt the bull, for a larger, curved one. With this he stabs the bull between the shoulder blades, embedding the sword all the way to the hilt. Three of the four matadors managed this on their first try. The other guy must have been new (he did look young) because it took him an agonized several tries to get the job done. After this the matadors(?) enter at close range to run the bull until it collapses. If the animal is more resolute than this the matador is given another sword with a stop several inches from the tip with which he stabs the bull in the head and neck until it does collapse. Then a man takes a dagger and ensures that the job is sufficiently done while the matador prances about and a team of burros enters to drag the bull away. It was quite the experience. I can’t say that I find it a terribly appealing sport, as it’s a rather inefficient and cruel way to do away with an animal. I also wonder what motivation the matadors have to do this. In American bull riding and fighting, there are scores, leader boards, and cash payouts. I have no idea what compensation Spanish matadors receive. It’s hard for me to understand how it’s sustainable without a winner in the end. But I’m sure that’s the American in me speaking.
We went back to the hostel to cook Cuban rice under the guidance of master chef Robissimo. During dinner we managed to meet people from four countries: America, England, Australia, and Russia. That was fun. That’s one of the great things about hostels. When you’re cooking your dinner or sitting in the common room you can meet other people (almost all youth) who are traveling just like we are. So far we haven’t befriended anyone (other than Katherine, who ran the Liverpool half with us after meeting her at the hostel), just talked for a while, but it’s great to talk with random people from other countries and cross some cultural boundaries. At the moment, Lisa and I are chilling in the Madrid airport, waiting to cross a continental boundary. We just used up the majority of my Vodafone credit to tell Stephen happy birthday, and in the morning we’ll be in Morocco!
I must admit, I’m a bit nervous about Morocco, but I’m pumped to add a third continent to my passport. The country is entirely Muslim, which will be new for me. We’re going to Marrakech, the tourist capital, so they’ll be welcoming (or tolerant, and at the very least, knowledgeable) of foreigners. Morocco is a very popular vacation spot for people here, so there should be nothing to worry about. It’s going to be a good cultural experience for both of us and I’m excited to be going.
My first impression of Morocco was not a good one. We landed in Marrakech at 6 AM, paid 20 Durham (about 2 Euro) for a bus to take us to the square near our hostel. We proceeded to attempt to locate our hostel, without much success. We probably wandered for an hour before we finally found it. There are children and men alike who will see lost tourists, offer to give directions or lead them somewhere, and then demand money. We encountered one briefly, but managed to escape. Hint: If someone is following you with a cart, step up on the curb so the can’t follow you. We found the hostel after we asked a tour bus ticket seller for directions. The hostel was good, maybe my favorite since beginning. The staff were fantastically helpful, they had free wifi, the shower was good, and the lockers were massive and under our beds. Lisa and I unpacked and headed back to the tour bus guide to buy tickets. We thought it would be a good way to get around the city, since we would have more trouble communicating here than in Spain. Morocco is a former French colony, sadly not English or Spanish, so most people speak French here. All signage is in French, so we can use cognates to figure some things out. The tour bus took us around to various sites, like the palace, some gardens, a pond, and luckily a grocery store. The palace was vastly different than any I had seen in Europe. As far as what I saw in Marrakech, it was definitely extravagant, but it mainly amounted to some fountains and lots of colorful tile with some engraving. Still, it was a nice place. The gardens were very nice, on par with what we had seen in Madrid and elsewhere. The pond-type-thing was a square pool, ridiculously muddy and filled with huge fish. The “gardens” surround it were rows of unattractive trees over dirt. It was here that I bought a hat (which I had been wanting since Sevilla) to keep the sun off of me a bit more. For 20 Durham I got a wide-brimmed straw hat, perfect for my needs. I thought it was a deal at the time, but I’m sure I could have gotten it for 5-10 if I had bartered at the market. I was more than okay with it though: 2 Euro for constant shade was worth it. We bought our food for the weekend at the grocery store. We found bread for 2.5 Durhams per small loaf ($.30) so we bought four, plus three liters of water, jam, and some biscuits. This was more than enough for the rest of our time in Morocco, though we got more water the next evening at the market. We explored the market when we got back to the main square. Lisa ended up getting a shirt first thing that I’m not sure she intended to buy–the peddlers are very pushy, but that’s how we figured out how to barter. When she said she didn’t want it when he named his price he asked what price she wanted. So we accidentally entered our first haggle, though we didn’t know at the time how low we had to start. We bought some bracelets for friends from another shop and kept wandering through the labyrinthine market. Random interjection: People on mopeds in Marrakech drive wherever they please. It’s really annoying when you find someone cruising through the narrow paths of the market past you. You can find a multitude of things here, though not everything. Marrakech has lots of trinkets, as it’s so touristy. We saw items ranging from all manner of jewelry to wallets, scarves, traditional clothes, shoes, football jerseys, cigarettes, carvings, goats’ feet, fruit, and baskets. It’s hard to find souvenirs for men here for low prices. Women, however, are a different story. Scarves and jewelry are everywhere and can be bartered down quite a bit. We called it a night early and went back to the hostel to use the wifi and get some sleep. We decided that night to go on a day trip the next day to a waterfall for less than 25 Euro. I managed to wake up my entire room of ten the next morning with my alarm (oops) and we headed to the lobby to leave for the trip. The van stopped at a bridge over a river first where we got some pictures. It was just a teaser of the beauty that was to come. Unexpectedly, we also stopped at a small village where we got a tour of a Moroccan home and some free (which I declined). As soon as we stopped a bunch of children ran up, looking pitiful and extended open palms. The house through which they led us was tiny, and shared with animals. It’s hard to describe, so have a look at my pictures from there. We got back on the road and kept driving up the mountain. I was impressed by how good the highway was. For the majority of it there were no flaws in the road, though it narrowed a lot as we got into the village at the top where we stopped to hike to the waterfall. I didn’t expect the “lot of walking” we were supposed to have done on the trip to be climbing, but it definitely was. We crossed over the stream a number of times, climbing over rocks all the way. It was lots of fun, and I was impressed by the number of trinket shops that were along the trail, definitely only accessible by walking. It would be a nice place to work. The temperature was great, and the scenery fantastic. The waterfall itself was awesome. As far as waterfalls go, I’m sure it was a small one, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it at all. We got a ton of pictures there, most people standing barefoot in the pool, as one Spaniard jumped all the way in. The water was ice cold, and the mist was quite refreshing. The hike back down went a lot quicker than the way up, and we paused for lunch (remember that bread and jam?) and drove back to the main square in Marrakesh. Here we said goodbye to two girls with whom we had inadvertently spent much of the last two days. They apparently had tickets to the same tour bus the day before (it’s a hop-on hop-off dealio, so you just go where you want and see the sights at your own pace) and we ended up seeing them at almost every place in town, even if we didn’t get there the same way. We were surprised to see them in our van for the trip the next day, but we finally got to talk to them. More coincidentally, they were from Southampton, UK. Lisa and I went to the hostel to rest for a bit and upload some pictures before heading back to the market to finish off our souvenir shopping.
We explored a different part of the market, navigating past the women proffering their books of patterns they would paint on your arms and men selling presumably-bootleg cigarettes into the shops and peddlers. We had the goal of completing some of our gift shopping among the unique trinkets. I say unique because we can’t get them in Europe–throughout the market they were replicated many times. If nothing else pointed it out, this made it clear how touristy Marrakech was. We were the target audience here, not the locals. We started with one shop, gift in mind. I managed to pick a shop with a man that spoke three or so languages, none of them English. Undaunted, I began to barter for what I wanted, starting at 50 Durham for for a supposed value of 150 Durham. It was a struggle to come to terms on how many items I was buying and what I wanted my price for each to be. With the help of a calculator, we came to understand each other finally. He refused to go lower than a begrudged 90 Durham for the purchase. By this time, Lisa had begun suggesting that we just try another store so I walked out. At that point he stopped me and became a bit more helpful. The transaction ended at 80 Durham. Not bad. I think that half of the original price is a decent conquest. We walked on for a bit, looking for gifts for my flatmates in the fall. I had the bright idea of getting four matching things for all of us. I got roped into looking at some scarves with a gentleman, starting at 90 Durham for one. He ended up offering four for 100, but I declined, moving on to hopefully find something slightly more usable by four strapping young men. Shortly thereafter I knew I had found what I needed. I asked the price for one and laughed a little when he told me it would be 150 Durham. Knowing that I wanted to spend 200 Durham at the very most, I told him that I needed to find four of /something/ and I couldn’t spend very much. He offered 400 for the four, which I declined. I was reluctant throughout, not expecting to get them at all. As is standard, he asked what my price would be. Still not completely serious I said “150.” Incredulous, and perhaps a bit insulted, he asked if I was serious. I replied that I really didn’t have very much to spend and had to get four of something. It didn’t have to be this, but I needed four of /something./ He lowered his price to 300, then 250, and held around there for a bit. Already not bad for an initial price of 600 Durham. We maneuvered our way down to my offer of 165 below his of 200. With this he said “180 for the four, my best offer.” I replied that we had 200 left and needed 30 to get to the airport. Not a complete truth, but I went in with the presumption that if I dropped below the actual price of the item that any reasonable person would refuse. Luckily, he agreed and I walked away with our matching souvenirs at a 72% price reduction. Proud of my conquest, we retired for the night.
It was perhaps an hour after this at 10:30 that I remembered that Ryanair had switched our return flight time to two hours later. We had planned on this by this point, but realized that our boarding passes were no longer valid. Knowing that Ryanair would charge us 40 pounds each for not having the correct pass, I asked the nice gentleman at the hostel if I could print them there. He replied “not here, but outside.” He meant at a cyber cafe around the corner. Not completely relaxed at this point, I headed to the cyber cafe, knowing that it may not be open. Murphy prevailed: It was closed. I returned and asked if there was any other option. He drew me a path to Hotel Adi on a business card-sized map, telling me to try there and inquire for further options if denied. They sent me on my way to another cyber cafe which was luckily open. For 4 Durham I bought two pieces of paper, a bit of ink, and the privilege of explaining to the attendant the difference between “print current view” and “print current page.” I walked out with 80 pounds worth of boarding passes. Not bad for the equivalent of less than 40 Euro cents. I wrapped up some internet business for the night, showered, packed up, and hit the sack before our 5:30 AM alarm to catch the airport bus at 6:15.
The flight was blessedly uneventful. I spent the hour and forty-five minutes organizing my Marrakech pictures and preparing them for upload. I stayed awake on this flight, as during the last ascension someone had apparently placed great balls of fire inside my inner ears whilst I slumbered. When I fly I adjust to the pressure changes manually, so I figure I just never adjust the last time, ending with some irritated aural cavities. After landing in Madrid we navigated the now-familiar metro to a Renfe station where we bought our tickets to Barcelona. It was wonderful to be back in Spain. I felt cleaner and each breath was thankfully devoid of the smell of the main square (and everywhere else, really) in Marrakech. I’m really glad I had the chance to see Morocco and experience a new culture, not to mention heading up into the Atlas Mountains to see the waterfall, but it’s safe to say that I liked Spain a whole lot more.
We made our way to the Atocha Renfe station and boarded another AVE train to head out. I was disheartened to find that this AVE did not have electrical outlets, unlike our last one. My netbook was dead by this point, so I listened to my iPod and alternatively watched a movie in Spanish for the duration of the trip. The movie was bizarre in itself, but the subtitles (Spanish) didn’t match the audio (also Spanish). Both had the same meaning, but used different phrases throughout. Lisa and I hypothesize that one or the other was in a local dialect. It seems trivial to bother with alternate subtitles when they’re both Spanish, but I can live with it. It just gave me the chance to read a similar phrase to help translate what the actors said. About the time the movie ended we realized that we had no idea where the hostel was or, indeed, what its name was. I checked my email on my iPod, but I had made the booking long enough ago that the confirmation email was not cached locally. This wasn’t a huge problem, we would just have to find wifi once we were in Barcelona. Luckily the station was huge, and had a McDonald’s, which comes with free wifi. We got food there mostly for kicks, got the necessary information, let our families know we were out of Africa and back in Spain, and took the metro to our hostel. We stepped out of the metro onto Passeig de Gracia and promptly fell in love with Barcelona. The architecture was incredible throughout and we stumbled upon a Gaudi almost immediately. The directions provided were less than perfect, but we found our hostel none-the-less. When given the grand tour of the place I became even more disappointed that we wouldn’t be spending several days in Barcelona. The hostel had free wifi, several awesome dens, tons of bathrooms, great showers, two kitchens, good lockers, and nice beds with plenty of headroom. It was by far the best hostel I had entered, and by this point in my life I had stayed at a decent number of hostels. Undaunted by our minimal time left in Barcelona (about 24 hours by this point) we locked up our stuff and headed out to explore and get some pictures. We managed to cross off several of the must-sees that night, half by accident and half on purpose. That’s the way these things tend to go when you start meandering through the center of a new city. We wandered all the way down Passeig de Gracia through the dozens of street performers (mostly human statues, three of which we saw on break at McDonald’s) to the docks. There were dozens (at the low end) of boats moored next to the mall, some off shore statues, and an Imax theater. We cruised along the waterfront, realized how cold we were getting, and headed back to the hostel for jackets. On the way back we saw some interesting statues, one of which I believe was an homage to pop art in the form a face, and the other of which was definitely a smiling lobster. We saw the cathedral on our way back, complete with a large bicycle tour in front of it. We got our jackets and stopped at the supermarket across the road (awesome location!) so I could get shampoo and a razor, both of which I had lost in Madrid. My face was quite scraggly by that point, as evidenced by my pictures from the last few days. We continued on to the Gaudi we had seen after first leaving the metro. We moved onto some fountains we had seen earlier. I was excited to get some long exposures of the surely lit fountains after dark. I took perhaps a few too many pictures and we headed back to the hostel to get some rest before a full day of conquering Barcelona.
When checking my email I realized the Google talk calling was enabled in Spain and attempted to call home. The call connected and I could hear Grandma, but it was apparent that I could not be heard. I test called a friend and tried several ways to get it to work. I deduced that the problem was not my mic, but a software bug with VoIP and pulse audio in Ubuntu. I purged pulse in favor of Alsa after a brief flirt with trying Windows for the call (ha) and made a couple calls successfully, albeit with the sound of a helicopter in the background. After this I booked the rest of our hostels for the trip in Crete, Athens, and London, and crashed perhaps a bit late. In the morning I took the happiest shower of the last few weeks at least, shaved(!), packed and headed out to see la Segrada Familia. This incredible building is a cathedral designed by Gaudi, started in the 19th century and slated to be complete in 2026. The line was very long, but moved quickly, so we got inside to see the contemporary take on an age-old holy structure. I really like the architecture and symbolism embedded everywhere in the facade. Sadly, the sky was gray for the first time since beginning the European adventure, but I got some decent picture nonetheless. I was floored by the interior of the building. The stained glass windows were undoubtedly the best I have ever seen, and the contemporary designs matched or bested any other structure I had ever seen. As we waited for our chance to ascend the tower, I got incredibly distracted by the pipe organ. The organ itself was utilitarian in comparison to the rear facade of the cathedral, but the reflection of the stained glass in its silver was striking. I managed to take 50 pictures in ten minutes and get to the line for the elevator to the top three minutes late. Lisa was already near the front, but came to the back with me when I arrived. After riding up we began our walk through the surprisingly bare towers. The staircases and passages were incredibly narrow, just two fists or so wider than my shoulders. I had thought that the clocktower in Brugge had narrow staircases, but that was nothing in comparison to these. At one point we had to pass people on the stairs, and it was a bit of an ordeal. There’s a reason the sign recommended that claustrophobics stay on the ground. We wrapped up at la Segrada Familia and moved on to Park Guel, another Gaudi masterpiece. The only knowledge of the park that I had prior to visiting was that there was a serpentine mosaic bench and a chameleon/iguana fountain that both looked really neat. We hopped off the metro at the foot of a gigantic hill that let to the park. When I say gigantic, I’m really not exaggerating. The road itself was so steep that the sidewalks were stairs in places. I really don’t know how people could park their cars there in sound mind or confidence that they would be there when they returned. After the initial hill we rode up five sets of escalators until reaching yet more stairs and then a winding path. That’s a lot of climbing (or riding, luckily). The first things we saw were pretty standard parkish things but with a Gaudi twist. The columns weren’t vertical, the paths wound broadly down a slope, and the buildings had few straight lines. We made our way to the staircase with the fountain to see large throngs of people (and peddlers, naturally; for where there are tourists, there are men trying to sell them things) pushing their way around trying to get pictures with the colorful beast. We joined in, got our snapshots, and moved on to the benches. I was hoping to get a stop motion of the benches like I had see done before, but this would not be possible. They were entirely covered by people. People were waiting in crowds just to get the chance to take a picture sitting on the bench. Like the hundreds of other people, we got our pictures and then began wandering the serpentine trails of the park past the buskers and peddlers. There was a great band playing, featuring a Bari sax (whew!) and many solo guitarists. Spain tends to have plenty of guitar buskers around, though generally not on the metro like Paris. We did see two on our last journey in Madrid, though. We managed to walk in a couple of circles through the hills before finding ourselves on top of a tall hill with two-cross monument of some sort. I don’t know what it was, but it must have been important, based on the number of people trying to sell us trinkets at the top. We got our snapshots there, too, overlooking the city, and headed back down to search for churros on the Passeig de Gracia. It took us a while to locate any, but after wandering through some type of Easter basket market we stopped and asked if a cafe had any churros. Indeed they did, xurros for 2.75. In the local dialect, an ‘x’ is pronounced like a ‘ch.’ It’s slightly confusing. The first place we say it was at Starbuck’s, and I thought they were just trying to be clever with another standard word. We still had two hours or so before we had to catch our overnight train to Milan, so we headed back to the hostel where they agreed to let us hang out and use the wifi until we had to go. I made another call home while I knew it would work, uploaded some pictures, and we headed out to the train station, stopping for groceries and snacks for our next 2-3 meals. At the train station Lisa and I bought a postcard to write jointly to KKY/TBS in order to hopefully reach them before their last meeting in about a week. I remembered then, two weeks into our adventure, that I had packed a deck of cards in my bag, so we played Speed on the train stop bench for a few rounds before boarding the Elipsos train. We were riding first class because of a quirk in pricing in overnight trains, so our seats were nice and wide, reclined wonderfully, and had individual desks. They steward went around handing out parcels to everyone, which contained a blanket, water, a cup, toothpaste/toothbrush, a sleeping mask, and a bag dealio. The sleeping mask proved to be amazing, and I definitely saved it to use on future trains/planes/automobiles. I think Lisa managed to sleep for most of 12 hours, myself for 9 as I stayed up to organize my Barcelona pictures and journal. It was definitely my longest night of sleep since beginning the journey, and hopefully my most restful. We now have half a day of Milan in front of us before catching a train to Pisa for a night and some cliche pictures with the good ol’ leaning tower. Barcelona was fantastic, and I would definitely go back (and hope for blue skies whilst there). If Gaudi isn’t reason enough to visit, then the Sant Jordi hostel sure is.
Lisa and I seem to be able to satisfy ourselves with that a city has to offer fairly quickly. We had six-seven hours in Milan before our train to Pisa tonight in which to see all we could. The line to reserve our tickets with our Eurail passes for tonight was formidable and took quite a while. The left luggage line was equally as long, so we opted to head to the Duomo (cathedral) laden with our junk. We took advantage of the blessedly sunny skies to get pictures around the Duomo and visited inside, though photography isn’t allowed within. That doesn’t stop most people, but I guess Lisa and I aren’t most people. This did give me license, however, to stand right in front of any photographer I chose, guilt free. By the time we finished wandering around the fourth largest cathedral in the world (we had seen the second largest in Sevilla!) our back were quite sore, so we headed back to the central station, hopeful that the line would be shorter or gone. Indeed it was, so we checked our bags in and hopped back on the metro to visit the local castle. The place (like everywhere else in Milan) was rife with pushy black men (without exception, black men) trying to give us “free” bracelets and sell us junk. They have a fun strategy here of walking up to you as you’re taking a picture, asking where you’re from, and putting the “free” bracelet (really a piece of colored string) on your wrist, then getting money out of you. I’m not sure what they say to get the money because we never let them get that far. I did let one go so far as to guess seven different places from where I might have come. The castle was largely unimpressive and quite utilitarian. It had a large moat, though empty, and tall plain brick walls, though with holes, perhaps for scaffolding, all along its face. Inside, we ate our remaining baguette from the day before as children in a class group threw too-large chunks of bread at the ubiquitous pigeons. A large arch in the distance reminiscent of the Arc d’Triumph caught our eye, so we headed out through a rather large park towards it. The paths in the park were wide enough to fit three or four cars across, remarkably juxtaposed from the lion’s share of European streets. The park was largely green space, and pleasantly barren, especially in comparison to Park Guel from the day before. We took our pictures and headed back to the castle. It began to rain a bit during our excursion, and the trinket peddlers made lemons from lemonade and magically produced dozens of umbrellas that were subsequently proffered without cessation until the clouds cleared later in the day. After we’d had our fill of the castle we took the metro back to the Duomo to check out the rest of the nearby sights that Frommer’s promised the area held in store. Most prominent was a 19th century shopping mall, now filled with such posh stores as Louie Vitton, Prada, Mercedes Benz, and McDonald’s. The place itself was relatively small, but still very impressive architecturally. There was a statue of Galileo on the side opposite the Duomo, from where I would later start a stop motion. It was fun walking around with a camera up to my face for about ten minutes, because I had almost as many men with strings approach me and ask me where I was from. I bantered with them a little, and one even put a string on my arm as I moved past. I didn’t notice at first and kept walking, so it was slightly unnerving when he followed me for several meters, still saying things. Then he grabbed his 5 Euro pittance of string and walked away. It was fun. I snapped several more pictures of the Plaza del Duomo, interesting on all sides, and we headed back to the station to get some food, mail some postcards, and catch our train to Pisa. It took me a good, long time to find that stupid mailbox, but I found it just in time to nab some food from the disproportionately large supermarket (for being in a train station) and get on the 18:05 train with Lisa. Based on this journey, I was not impressed with Italian trains. The train had many compartments of six seats each, three facing the other three. This is my least favorite train seat arrangement. For those of us with long legs, there’s no where to put them but on the floor directly in front of us. This sounds obvious, but it’s quite limiting as far as comfort goes. We had the center two seats, facing each other, but found our seats already occupied. Confused, we kept moving, and asked the gentlemen in the next car if seats on the train were indeed reserved. They were, and they confirmed for us that we were reading our tickets correctly (in Italian). We were. So we had to ask the squatters to vacate the premises, unfortunately. They don’t seem to properly limit the number of people per train, as there were definitely people standing in the aisle for the first part of the journey until the cars started clearing out. One girl with whom we shared the compartment noticed that we were reading information about Pisa and talked to us for a bit about the town. She lived not far from there, apparently. We had just been planning on seeing the tower and moving on, but she recommended the Baptistery and a gelato/chocolate shop nearby, as well as a street in Rome that is supposed to be beautiful. We’ll see about that when we get there in a few days. We mentioned that we were going to Florence next, and learned that it was just half an hour by car (by car, as she didn’t think much of the Italian rail system–at least my opinion was confirmed by an Italian).
Pisa is quite a small town, and thrives on the tourist draw of the tower. It makes for a quaint place to spend a day, much more likable than huge Milan. The peddlers here are just as prominent, but much less pushy, thankfully. We got to our hostel at about 22:30. We ended up in a room for four, with just one other guy, who was already asleep. We had our internet time, I uploaded another album or two and addressed the 41 emails I had accumulated in the last day somehow, and slept till 9. We packed up and headed to the tower first thing the next morning. The majority of the grass near the tower is fenced off, but thankfully there is one portion that was situated almost perfectly with respect to the sun and the lean of the tower that is still open to tourists. We spent probably an hour taking a few dozens attempts at “Pisa Pushing,” kicking, leaning, and jumping. It’s really not very easy to do, just a heads up. If you want the best light (assuming the grass areas are fenced identically, get there at about 9. We cruised around the duomo and baptistery, in the same lot as the tower, after buying our tickets for the next available slot to climb the tower, 90 minutes from then. I got a stop motion of the marvelous buildings, with plenty of shots of Pisa Pushers, ending on Lisa posing with my passport in front of the tower. We still had time to kill, so we set out to find some gelato and an ATM. Mission accomplished, we put our bags in a locker and got in line for the climb. Inside the tower itself, the lean is just as evident as outside. The stairs are worn quite a lot, mostly on the downhill side. The deep basins made by millions of footsteps make the steps more walkable, as they correct the tilt somewhat. The view from the top of the Tuscan hills was great. From there we headed back to the hostel to collect our luggage and move on to Florence.
Apparently the ride from Pisa to Florence is short enough that you don’t even need a reservation with your Eurail pass–you just get on the train. I learned in Florence that it’s only for the fast trains that you need a reservation in Italy with Eurail passes. The rest are fair game. The ride ended up being about an hour, longer than by car, which would explain why it’s called the slow train. We disembarked at Firenze SMN and started reviewing the directions to our hostel. They directed us to the SITA bus station next to the rail station and to a bus headed for Tavarnelle VP. The directions indicated that it would be a rather long ride (40-60 minutes), which seemed a long way to drive to reach a hostel in the same city. Nevertheless, we asked the man at the ticket counter which bus it would be. We had an hour to wait, but once it arrived we hopped on and were on our way once again.
The next day we rented bikes from the hostel, picked a path that went through some scenic areas, and headed off into the hills. We started by heading to Barbarino with the intention heading around a 10k loop through Togniano. The path starting off was great, all downhill with a good view of the valley to the right and the mountains beyond. As we got into Barbarino, just two kilometers down the path, we had to choose between sidewalks that were often just a foot wide and the road. We opted for the road in the end, narrow and shared with cars as it was. We went through the town, past the church (it was Palm Sunday morning so we saw plenty of people with palms) and out on a road through some vineyards. We started down a hill that promised high speeds and a long climb up at some point later. Part way down we stopped and decided that this probably wasn’t the way to go, given that it seemed to descend forever. We retraced our path back to the town, camped out at a scenic overview for a while, and continued on our way back to the hostel to ask more specific directions. We talked to the nice (tri-lingual!) lady at the front desk, found a path that was a bit longer but took us through some nice areas and a town called San Donato. Armed with a more detailed and extensive map, we set off in the other direction. We cruised along the highway for a while, nearly taking a wrong turn through Tigniano. We continued on past some beautiful views, pausing for a few minutes to look out over the plains at the mountains beyond whenever we felt the urge. We hit a fork in the road and paused for lunch to decide which way we should head as perhaps the fiftieth road biker went passed us. As we were headed for San Donato, we checked out the map to see which way would get us there. We biked on a bit more in our chosen direction and found the sign for San Donato not twenty meters down the road. As the hill into town proved to be far too steep to bike (this would become a common theme for the day) we hiked up and enjoyed the charm of the small town in the mountains. The town seemed deserted at first until we ran into a market. We sat on a wall that overlooked a vineyard descending into a valley. We walked our bikes through the rest of the market and rode out of town before realizing that we didn’t know which way to go next. We headed back into town, attempting twice to follow the signs to the tourist information place. Once we finally found it, it had closed just 15 minutes before. A man told us in broken English how to continue, remarking that it would be tough riding with all the ups and downs. We assumed that it would be similar to what we had experienced already that day, but the roads ahead were more rural and definitely steeper. Armed with this excited new information, we continued on, quickly reaching the end of the highway and turning onto a still paved but obviously lower use road. The views quickly became more scenic as the traffic decreased into virtually nothing. We paused for a while along a vineyard near a small town where a stray cat payed us a visit. After we worked up the motivation to leave the panorama behind we quickly passed through the town and came to a huge hill that tested our brakes and bravery. I made it to the bottom well before Lisa, due in no small part to the difference in our brakes (I had the rear brake held down for the whole descent). I noticed at the bottom of the hill that I could feel the pressure difference in my ears caused by the change in altitude–it was that far down. I adjusted the pressure manually and took a couple pictures of two horses standing in a paddock as Lisa rolled up. It was then that I had the brilliant idea of mountain my camera via tripod to my handlebars to get a stop motion of the journey. I was surprised at how well this worked, so I started the script and we rolled on. We quickly realized that we would have to make up the altitude we had lost on the huge hill by walking instead of riding. The ascent was not nearly as steep as the way down had been, but it was going to be no easy feat either way. After pausing at a couple more panoramic views we seemed to have made it up the last hill as we entered another small town. Here we filled up our water bottles at a public fountain and began coasting back towards Tavarnelle. We road the rest of the route fairly quickly, stopping for pictures when we deemed it beautiful enough (that was several times) and pulled into the hostel. Just before arriving, though, we ran across a gentleman walking down the street that commented with his few words of English that my mounted camera was an “excellent idea.” Proud of this comment, I wrapped up the stop motion and called it a success. We spent the rest of the day journaling, doing laundry, and relaxing before heading to bed for some rest before our trip to Florence. It was an incredible day, and a wonderful vacation from our vacation. It made me want to bike and run more in the countryside of Iowa when I returned home, not to mention have more picnics. Tavarnelle had been a fantastic accident.
We set out for Florence bright and early, leaving the hostel a bit after 8 to catch the bus. We verified this time that we were actually on a bus to where we needed to go. The bus headed back to the same station from which we had left Florence, right next to Firenze SMN. Luckily, the directions to our hostel were very specific, and we walked down Nazionale, past a green square to Plus Florence, less than a kilometer away. The hostel was impressive from the outside. It was quite large, had a nice arch over the entrance, and had sliding doors over a red carpet leading us inside. The establishment was set up very much like a hotel, and had a restaurant, pool, sauna, and exercise room. The place also had wifi, but was set up horribly and didn’t work most of the time. As we had arrived quite early, at about 10:30 AM, we set out to explore the sights. Florence had a lot in store in the way of art and churches, so lines were a given. We started off with the church of Santa Maria Novella, as it was right next to the train station (SMN, yeah?). The place itself wasn’t very impressive, but had some fun things inside. Namely, the first painting to use perfect linear mathematical perspective and Brunelleschi’s crucifix that supposedly put Donatello to shame. Without those, I probably wouldn’t have bothered going inside. We moved on to the Ponte Vecchio, a very old bridge. The history of the bridge is what makes it famous. It’s been around for centuries, and was the only Florentine bridge spared by the Nazi bombing raids during their retreat in 1944. The bridge was once covered with butchers and wool shops, but the royalty were so offput by the smell that they ordered them to vacate and had gold and silversmiths set up shop there. That’s more or less the case today, as it’s now completely covered by jewelry stores. We moved on to la Piazzola de Michaelangiolo, a park of sorts on top of a hill. On our way there we ran into a supermarket and picked up baguettes and salami, which was becoming a welcome part of our diet by this point. We climbed the massive hill leading to the Piazzola to eat our lunch in the shade and take in the great view of Florence. After lunch we went back down into town to see the Duomo, a massive church distinctly visible from the hill. We had seen enough churches by this point, so we didn’t bother waiting in the massive line to get in, but checked it out from the outside, as well as the Baptistery that was adjacent. The doors of the Baptistery were the main attraction, as their carver spent a large chunk of his life working on the inset panels. One set of doors took him 27 years to complete. That’s a lot. After we had taken in our fill of the Duomo and Baptistery we headed back towards the hostel for food and a break. On the way we ran into a market, so we wandered its stalls for a while, seeing a plethora of leather products for “almost free” (just 100 Euro). This market was distinctly pricier than Morocco and less open to bartering. Thus, I bought nothing. I knew at this point that it was going to be a pain (in the wallet) finishing out the rest of my gift shopping. We had some great pasta at the hostel restaurant and dropped in to the local supermarket for dessert. We ended up with a six pack of gelato-filled ice cream bars and 1.5 liters of Fanta. Yes, we finished it all (We didn’t have a fridge, what else could we do?!). After our siesta we decided that we had had enough for one day and turned in early so we could get up early the next morning and stake out a spot in line at the Academic Galleries to see Michaelangelo’s David. We had asked at the desk about the best way to see the masterpiece and sadly learned that we could have gotten reserved tickets at the desk during business hours. Instead of sticking around in Florence for longer we opted to get in line like the hardy tourists we were.
We ended up being the first people in line, making it there just before a family from California. Apparently 7:45 is early enough for an 8:15 admission. The cold minutes ticked by and we finally made it in, sad to learn that photography was not allowed. Nevertheless, we made a bee line for the statue for an unobstructed view. Several daring people had snapped photos from behind pillars, away from the disapproving eyes of the museum staff. I decided that it was necessary, just this once, and followed suit. David was massive, towering above us. I had expected him to be life size, but he was much larger, perhaps even twice that. As the tour groups began crowding around we finished up gawking and moved on to take in the rest of the small and unremarkable museum, including a small section of musical instruments (including a Stradivarius violin). We headed in the direction of the Uffuzi and Museo Galileo, opting to see the geekier option, and spent some time looking over the collections of scientific instruments and apparata. The title of the museum was a bit of a misnomer, as it didn’t contain much of Galileo’s stuff, but the kinematics testing equipment, telescopes, and slide rules were still fun to see. Wanted to be done with art and get to Rome, we skipped the Uffuzi and headed back to Firenze SMN to reserve our tickets to Rome. I waited in line for an hour to get to the desk just to reserve our tickets. At this point my opinion of the Italian rail system was going nowhere but down. We got on the high speed train and were on our way. It was during this journey that we learned how unforgiving the rail staff can be. We had neglected to write the date on our passes for this travel day, so naturally the attendant thought we were trying to cheat the system and charged us both 50 Euro. Fail.
We arrived in Rome and looked at the simple but annoying directions to our hostel. Annoying because we had to take both the metro and a bus to get there. The metro ride took nearly an hour, delivering us to Ostia, a suburb of the metropolis. We were happily surprise to find, however, that our hostel was situated on a beach of the Adriatic Sea. I had not been expecting that at all. We checked in and headed out to walk along the beach a bit and find some food. We ended up eating at another pizzeria (it’s the cheapest and best thing you can get, for so much food). We turned in relatively early after arranging a meeting point with two of Lisa’s friends from Swansea that also happened to be in Rome then.
We met up with Zach and Cory at 9 and the Colosseum, handily located next to a metro stop. One quirk of Italian scammers is that they’ll help you out with a menial task like using a ticket machine at the metro or giving directions, usually to an obvious place, then ask for or expect money. It’s quite annoying, and off-putting. We saw a few of these outside the Colosseum, as well as in the metro. Some official people, however, don’t dress in what I would call a recognizable uniform. It was for this reason that I believe I snubbed a Colosseum official upon exiting the station. He was dressed less formally than me, but I noticed that he had an official name tag upon second glance. Oops. Undaunted, we continued into the Colosseum and for some reason decided to get tickets to a guided tour that started about an hour from our entry into the attraction. We meandered, staying close to the entrance, mostly talking. Zach was an electrical engineer and Cory a mechanical, though aspiring aero. They had both gone to U Mass, both studied at Swansea, but didn’t meet until at Swansea. They had just come from Naples, and had started their April adventure by kite boarding in Turkey. We met at the spot for the guided tour, where we were handed a walkie talkie each, through which we would hear the wonders of the Colosseum. It soon became clear from our quiet tour guide that I would be getting very little information out of this five Euros. Expecting to at least walk around and see the sights in the massive structure, I figured it would still be alright. Nope. We just stood in two places and called it a wrap. So the four of us ventured out to see the rest of it ourselves. The stairs up to the top level were extremely steep. I’m assuming that time has contributed to this incline, as I doubt any engineer, even in ancient Rome would build steps quite like that. From the top we got a good view of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, where we headed next. We stood in line for tickets for quite a while before we realized that the tickets we had from the Colosseum also granted us admission to the rest of the ruins. Feeling slightly silly, but glad that our 12 Euro spent at the Colosseum would stretch a bit further, we entered. We didn’t have a map of the place, so we didn’t know what we were seeing the majority of the time, but it was really neat to see what remained of ancient Rome nonetheless. One fun thing I learned: The emperor Nero made himself out to be the embodiment of a God, and has been portrayed in film many times. I’ll have to check that out. It was on this tour of the ruins that Cory’s camera broke, the lens sticking in a state of half retraction. We put finding a camera shop on our todo list for the day. Once finished, we set to wandering in search of cheap food. We walked past one lady yelling at us about a great deal at a pizzeria with no table charge. She trapped us briefly and I ended up with a flier for the place. We moved on, as Zach and Cory had just been the Naples and thus had their fill of pizza. We stopped in a market that had 10 kilo jars of Nutella, decided that we were too hungry to keep searching (it was nearly 3 by this point, I was surprised to learn) and went back to the place about which yelling lady had told us. It had very enlarged thumb print patterns on the walls which we had originally taken to be zebra stripes. This incredible class was only enhanced by the American rap and pop videos playing on the flat screen in the corner. I got a pesto pizza (no cheese. Yeah, I know.) because I deemed their extortionate prices for further toppings too…extortionate. We moved on down the list of ancient Roman attractions, heading next to the Pantheon. The Pantheon has a place in my memory mainly because of Mr. Baier’s high school physics class. He really liked to talk about Italian architecture. The place is now a Catholic church (basilica? chapel? cathedral? who knows?). I believe the whole in the perfect hemispherical roof acts as a sun dial, but we couldn’t figure out how, so maybe not. We finished up there, went through a few famous piazzas, and ended up on one of the many bridges through Rome, where we paused to rest near a man selling cheap tripods. He approached us, sure that we needed a more stable base for our photographic experience. I showed him my own knockoff gorilla pod, identical to one he had on his blanket. Seeing as mine was held together with tape at the moment, I held it up and asked how much one would be. Apparently he thought I was trying to sell it to him (ironic), looked at it briefly, and informed me that “this is no good.” Thanks, Mr. Sir, you have confirmed my suspicions. We moved on through more peddlers as we approached the Vatican on the other side of the river. We walked past one man selling tons of old license plates. One in particular caught my eye–from Pott County, Iowa! I want to know how it got all the way to Rome. After this, Cory gave directions for the Vatican (which was a few meters away by this point) to a gentleman, and we walked across another bridge at which point Lisa noticed a spot on her camera. We determined that it was dust inside the lens, and we set of with further resolve to locate a camera shop. Cory asked a policeman where we could find one. He misunderstood, however, thinking that Cory wanted to take a picture with him (which he seemed more than happy to do). Upon further attempt Cory managed to make himself understood and we headed in the direction the cop pointed. We did find a photo place, but he told us in no uncertain terms that there was nowhere around that would fix cameras. By this point we just had two attractions left to see in Rome that weren’t in the Vatican: the Spanish steps and the Trevi Fountain. We headed towards the Spanish steps of fabled floweriffic glory. We found them, packed with people and peddlers. We sat for a while, as seemed appropriate. I felt like I was in Spain then, mainly because we were on the Spanish steps, but partly because we sat behind a boy playing guitar, much like we found all over Spain. He didn’t seem to be playing for money, just for enjoyment, which I appreciated. It soon became apparent that the girl singing along with him was not with him, but a tourist that had joined in for a song. She had quite a good voice (which he was sure to tell her when she finished and headed off) and he did a good job of accompanying her and filling in the gaps when she forgot the words. It was fun. He noodled around on the guitar as the men trying to sell roses and stupid squishy toys to people became more and more annoying. Rose peddlers are the most pushy that you’ll find. They’ll spot a couple, and straight-up shove the rose in the woman’s face or hand, making it almost impossible not to take it, or at least have the instinct to. Once you do, though, they want money. It’s hard to just walk around in a touristy place without these guys becoming a real pain. Despite them, and the man that really thought Cory needed a rubber toy, we enjoyed our time on the steps. The random tourist girl came back for a few more songs with the Italian guitarist, then we headed off for a wander further beyond the steps before heading to the fountain. The fountain was equally crowded with people, unfortunately. We stuck around for the little while it would take for the sun to set and the lights to come on at the fountain. I took the opportunity to get some long exposures of the water before we got our pictures of us tossing coins into the fountain, which is apparently a big deal. The legend goes that if you toss in one coin you’ll have a speedy return to Rome, and two will make you fall in love in Rome. I opted for one. We wandered a bit more after this (we’re really good at that) and decided to call it a night at about nine because we had an early morning ahead of us. Lisa had to get up for a chat-interview at 5 for KKY officer elections, and we had decided to just leave for the Vatican and get in line as soon as that was done. Lisa had heard from her friend that visited Rome that the metro stopped at nine. Our information from the hostel disagreed, but we figured out from the signage at the metro stop that line A stopped at nine while B and Lido continued. Naturally, it was 8:55 and we need to take the A line to get to B. The sign said another train would be there in five minutes, so we waited with the ever-increasing crowd at the stop to board. When the train did come, it was empty and didn’t stop. Awesome. The sign told us it would be just another five minutes, so we waited around, even though the line was supposed to have stopped already. Another train did come, but when it pulled in I could see that we wouldn’t be getting on. It was as packed with people as the previous train had been empty. There was no room for new passengers. That didn’t keep people from trying, however. I saw one old lady shaking her head with distress and shouting things in Italian as people tried to cram onto the car. We decided to walk (as if we had a choice). Lisa’s map reading skills got us to the nearest B line stop where we caught the net train, switched to the Lido line, and tried to stay awake for the half hour ride home.
The next morning came far too quickly, but I rose at 4:50 with Lisa to use the internet while she had her (successful!) chat interview and then leave. Shortly after 6 the new secretaries of KKY and TBS hopped on the Lido line for a surprisingly crowded ride to the Vatican. We got there at 7:30, an hour later than we may or may not have agreed to meet Cory and Zach there. I couldn’t quite remember. Not to worry, though, because the ended up at the wrong metro stop (S. Paulo Basilica, which is not Saint Peter’s Basilica). Lisa and I hopped into the already daunting line that wrapped half way around the large piazza. The doors didn’t open for another 45 minutes, so we sat down in the stationary queue and waited with the throngs of nuns, monks, and other laypeople. The line moved sooner than we expected, just before 8 AM, with still no sign of Zach and Cory. Once it started, it chugged right along, pouring the masses into several security lines with metal detectors. We quickly reached the point of no return, with still no sign or further word from the guys. We decided to head in, rather than risk not getting in again. We made it through security and were sent to another line for those without tickets as hundreds clutching blue coupons rushed past us. We waited for quite a while with no change before we got a call from Cory saying that they had gotten to the security lines and been turned away, saying that no tickets were available and that they couldn’t get in until two. With that, his phone ran out of minutes, before we could arrange a meeting point. Soon after that the line of non-ticket holders was led forward. Our rising hopes fell, however, when the gentleman led our confused queue back into the piazza where we were dismissed. I heard several disparate explanations by officials at this point: That we could get in in five minutes, at 12, 1, or 2. We opted for the most optimistic one, and turned to look for Zach and Cory. We found them near the line, told them the news, and we waited again, expecting to be turned away. Zach had realized that he had a Swiss army knife in his bag, which is not allowed in the Vatican. He headed off to find a post office and mail it to Swansea while we waited before the security entrance. While we stood there, a monk (presumably) came up to us and asked if we needed tickets. He had apparently gotten a stack of them from a nun and was handing them out to the ticketless in the piazza. He was kind enough to give us an extra for Zach, and even offered another in case another friend showed up. Examining the tickets, we realized that we had not been waiting just to get into St. Peter’s Basilica, but for a special mass there, led by the pope himself! Tickets in hand, we headed into the basilica where we stood at the back with the dozens of other seatless spectators. When the bishops started filing down the aisle to the alter the cameras emerged with a fury. It felt blasphemous to be so touristy in that setting, but I joined in, not wanting to miss my opportunity to get my photo of the pope. The procession was quite long, ending with the pope and security guards. The mass lasted two and half hours, which felt quite long, given that we were standing, and the service was in Latin. The bulletin they gave us was a 78 page booklet with Italian translations next to the Latin. Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot out of the service. The papal paparazzi popped out once again as Benedict retreated down the aisle and we headed out of the basilica, hoping to find food and chairs. We walked for perhaps a bit too far before finding a nice cafe at which to give our tired legs a rest and eat a burger (yes, I got a burger). Here Cory noticed an ad for a computer store nearby where we dropped off his camera, hoping that it could be fixed for the next day. We had accidentally conquered one of the two attractions at the Vatican that morning, so we moved on the to Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel next. The museum had a reduced rate for EU students, so we flashed our UK IDs and began our journey. We got one audio guide for the four of us, electing Tour Guide Lisa to tell us what we were seeing as she listened. We went through plenty of Raphael frescoes, Italian maps painted by a pope, hoarded treasures from Egypt and Greece, Michaelangelo architecture, and even modern art before arriving at the Sistine Chapel. The place was packed with people, as expected, all ignoring the no photography signs. The guards didn’t seem to mind, as long as traffic continued, so we joined in the fray. It was quite a lot to take in, and our necks were already a bit tired of craning up to see all the frescoes and high wall art. We went quickly through the remaining exhibits (I had seen soooo many museums by this point). We left the tiny country and set our minds to food again. They got pastries or gelato at a shop while I opted for a nearby supermarket. I ended up with some hot dog buns, chips, 100 grams of salami, and a liter of milk. It was a bit much for one time, but it was a fantasaic meal. We walked briefly until we found a nice spot to rest, overlooking a castle. We sat there and talked as I ate my food, lingering for at least a couple of hours as children played football, Cory tried to catch a pigeon, the sun set, and the same man jogged past us six times. Knowing that the A line would stop running at nine, we headed back to our hostel in Portici at 8:15 where we rested before packing up for our journey to Naples.
We decided to check out the beach for a while before leaving for Roma Termini as we hadn’t been in Portici at the same time as the sun since our original arrival. I found it odd that there was one girl in a parka napping on a beach towel there, but I ignored that and sat on a log to watch the tide and skip some rocks. I managed to drop my camera in the sand (it hadn’t been a good 48 hours for cameras in our group) and brushed it off hopefully. When I turned it on I heard a sickening grinding sound as the lens emerged. Further brushing, blowing, and shaking yielded no better sound as I shut it off, not that I expected it to. I couldn’t bring myself to take my usual collection of random pictures as we took the metro to Termini. We found another massive line waiting for us at the station (man, the Italian rail system really fails) so Lisa ran to an ATM while I stood in line to reserve our tickets. After 45 minutes or so I had our tickets, we marked the day as a travel day on our passes, and we headed for the train. We walked down the platform, becoming increasingly alarmed as we saw lines at teach of the coaches. We didn’t have reserved seats for this train, so we didn’t have the right to claim a seat, unfortunately. We made it to the last few cars with no difference in passenger density, so we got in line anxiously. It was a tight fit to get on and not much better once we made it into the car. There were definitely no seats left, and the aisles were packed with standing people. We staked out some floor space and got ready for the ride. One annoying lady ended up shifting around several times, possibly in an attempt to make me as uncomfortable as possible. It may or may not have worked. After perhaps 45 minutes a gentleman leaving the train offered Lisa his seat. After another 45 minutes or so the train cleared out quite a bit, leaving several open seats, at which time I was able to sit down, pull out my netbook, and begin journaling. That trip added one more strike to the Italian rail system. What is it now, ten strikes and you’re out? We connected with the metro out the station in Naples to get to our hostel, again in a suburb, called Ostia. Zach and Cory had been to Naples before us, and commented that they had felt like they were in Colombia. I had no experience with Colombia (not that they had, either) but I felt like I was back in Morocco. There were piles of trash at street corners (possibly because it was a weekend?), smelly alleys on the way to our hostel (which was great once inside), and mopeds zipping about the streets. I was reminded of how awesome Madrid had been. Nevertheless, we checked into our room and set out to find a pizzeria marked on the map provided by the hostel. Mostly because it was closed, we couldn’t find it. We realized that we had walked too far and headed back to find another. The next two were also closed. Apparently you can’t get pizza between 3 and 7 PM in Naples. Not in the suburbs, anyway. We went back to the hostel to use the wifi and wait for it to open. Walking the streets of Naples, I had noticed several men exchanging kisses on the cheek in greeting, many of whom were obviously straight. As in Spain and France (and other places, I’m sure) it’s common to greet people in this way, though I’ve never seen or heard of it done between men, just mixed pairs and women. Apparently Naples is the exception to that rule. We went back, opting for Pizzeria del Centro. I was happily surprised by the prices, and got a margherita (I still don’t know how to spell that) pizza for just 4 Euro. It was amazing. After we were finished and had paid, we saw an amazing sight on our way out. Where they were preparing the pizzas in the front one man was dumping a bowl of French fries onto a pizza. Awed by this discovery, we resolved to return the next night to partake of this obviously authentic Italian delicacy.
We went into Naples the next day to explore what sights we could find. From my research I had found nothing but a ton of churches (though there were three castles–it’s surprising that a sad little place like Naples could sustain three royal buildings), of which we had seen more than enough, so we avoided them. The metro was less than awesome, especially considering there was nowhere to buy our tickets at the station in Ostia. We got on the train, hoping it would work out. A gentleman came through to check tickets (indicating that we were on a train, not the metro). Ironically luckily, he spoke no English, which caused him to dismiss us in frustration or apathy and let us off at our stop without bothering trying to figure out the fare. We had a bit of a walk to a cluster of attractions (I should find a new word for them, because Naples is anything but attractive) that was lined with mountains of garbage. I really didn’t understand why. We made it to the first on our list, Castle Nuovo, paid the five Euro, and gave it 30 minutes more of our attention than its unimpressive interior (I saw that like the exterior was anything good) deserved. The best part, aside from mimicking statues in the displays, was seeing the port from the deck where I saw what I imagined to be crowds of people attempting to escape Naples for a life in the promised land. Or anywhere else, because anywhere else would beat Naples. We trudged onward towards an opera house, hoping for a change of pace from the never ending ranks of castles, museums, and churches. We had an hour to kill before the next tour in English, so we decided to take on a challenge posed by the map guidebook provided by the hostel. There was a nearby piazza featuring to horse statues and a lot of open space. The challenge was to walk blindfolded across the square from the palace to the steps beyond, passing through the distant statures. Figuring it couldn’t really be that hard, I gave it the first shot. I ended up just outside of the right statue–so close! Lisa tried next. I’m not sure how it was possible, but she managed to walk in a large circle, getting over half way to the steps and arcing back to end not ten feet from where she had started. I was quite impressed by the feat. We both tried two or three more times as Lisa improved and I got progressively worse. After giving up we heard a commotion in the distance that we decided was supposed to be Stars and Stripes Forever. Eager to find the source, we headed in the direction of the sound. We found a very small parade of sorts with children dressed in white martial arts uniforms, a few instruments, and one float of indesernbable contents. Fun. This escapade had spent enough time that we were ready for the tour. The opera house proved to be impressive. The great architecture paled in comparison to its gilded and velveteen decoration. The ceiling sported a beautiful and massive painting (see my pictures). There was no photography allowed, but our tour guide “closed her eyes” at the end so we could get a couple shots. If you do get stranded in Naples, you should check this place out. We went from there along the coast to another castle, Castel dell’Uovo–literally, Castle of the Egg, as it was supposed to have been built over a magic egg (all part of the Naples charm). We didn’t spend much time there and moved on to a park, where I amused myself by running through a bunch of the millions of pidgeons offered by the stanky city and mimicked some more statues. We headed from there to a place marked on the map as Pizzeria Street, supposedly containing Naples’ best pizza (we’re not just insanely American, Naples is the birthplace of pizza–we were gastronimcally obligated to do it. Not that I minded). We got a tad lost and had walked too much by the time we made it to the area. We’re really not sure if we found the street, because what the map marked turned out to be an alley, crowded with mopeds (go figure) and people. Tired of looking, we settled for a restaurant simply marked “Pizzeria,” were delighted to find that pizza was cheap there (3 Euro!!) and dug in. Nearly finished with our meal (awesome), something akin to a small war began outside. Fireworks went off for a few minutes before a loud band replaced them. We rushed out (I love that kind of thing) to find it. It turned out to be another parade like the one we had found near the opera house, but with a larger band. They had moved past the pizzeria so I followed the sound of drums and saxes around several corners in the tiny alleys as Lisa followed along, perhaps less than thrilled to do so. When I caught up with them I first saw their odd float, featuring Jesus in effigy. (Oh, this was the day before Easter, for context.) I couldn’t tell what the band was playing, but moved around the float to get some pictures. The band had a trombone, trumpet, several saxes, and drums. The played raucously as the many white clad men carrying the float swayed back and forth in time with the music. This parade was in the same form as the last, with the karate kids in front carrying banners. It was quite a fun time–I would be okay with Ames having these. At this we decided that we had seen enough of what Naples had to offer and headed out of the alleys to find a metro station and go back to the hostel. The pizza and bizarre microparade had put me in a good mood and at this point I was thinking that what Zach and Cory had said about Naples having its own nasty little charm might be true. \<\foreshadowing> Maybe it wasn’t such a bad place after all. \<\/foreshadowing>. On our way back to the metro we ended up walking through a crowded sidewalk full of peddlers. I moved my bag in front of me and kept moving through the dense crowd. Nearly through it, I felt a tug on my shirt behind me. I turned my head to see what it was and a smiling man began wiping something off of my shoulder just out of my sight and pointing up. Apparently a bird had pooped on me. I said thanks and started moving forward again, but he kept brushing vigorously. Suspicious, I made to keep walking when I felt a hand in my right pocket. I had been set up. Alarmed, I hit the man in front of my and the hand was quickly retracted. I remember a wet (odd, but that’s what I remember) hand grabbing my forearm at this point and quickly letting go. Luckily that had been the pocket with just my camera. I don’t remember how I knew to hit him in particular, as he wasn’t the one who distracted me or on the side of me with the camera pocket, but it was obvious that he was the one who had tried to pick my pocket as he held his hands up and smiled congenially–not at all the reaction of a man who had been hit by a stranger, not to mention by a tourist. Angry, I pushed through the crowd, hands over my pockets. I may or may not have swore at this point. Lisa was confused, as she had lost me in the crowd. She didn’t know what had just happened (I barely did) so I explained. Shaken, I sat silently on the metro for the ride back to Ostia after taking inventory to make sure I still had everything. Luckily, I did. We went back to the hostel to use the wifi and wait to become hungry enough for some French fry pizza. When we felt like we could handle it, we went back to Pizzeria del Centro to figure out what exactly the pizza was called and bring it back to the hostel to devour it in honor of the gods of deliciousness. From examining the menu (in Italian) we figured out that it was the Fast Food Pizza as it was the only one that had patates (potatoes). How much more American could we be? Impossible without finding a Big Mac Pizza. It was made in front of our eyes, we paid, and returned victorious. We ate in the common room where some guys from New Jersey were cruising Facebook and playing mind games. Lisa and I didn’t really pay attention, but got out a chessboard and played chess/checkers until she got an invitation to try the mind game and an old gentleman challenged me to a game of chess. He was way out of my league. He started with a simple trick that I’ve used many times before, but the thing is I forgot out to counter it, so I lost handily. He often took a little time to contemplate his move, but once he did his movements were abrupt and powerful. It caught me off guard a lot and was a little intimidating. I was able to see where he was heading strategically, but only within two or three moves, and I had a hard time defending, much less attack. I lasted considerably longer in the next game but still fell to his chess playing might. It was about then that I realized that we hadn’t printed our boarding passes for our flight to Athens. We checked at the desk to make sure we could print here (I didn’t want to run around like a chicken with my head cut off like I had in Morocco) and Lisa logged in to print them. We were surprised to recall that our flight left at 6:40 AM, two days from then. Sadly, that left us no time to get from Pompeii to Rome. We were briefly discouraged, thinking we wouldn’t be able to go to Pompeii at all, as the metro didn’t run after 13:00 then next day (Easter). We asked at the desk to see if there was another way to get back to Rome the net evening, and we’re happy to learn that while the metro stopped, the trains continued to run. We wouldn’t be able to stay at our hostel in Athens but we would be able to visit Pompeii and head to Rome that night. I canceled our night at the Pompeii hostel so I wouldn’t get charged. It was a shame, really, as that hostel was supposed to be on the slopes of Vesuvius and right across from the Pompeii ruins entrance. Alas, we would have to check our bags for the day. I went to the room and started packing, glad that the other three beds in the room were empty. I used one of the empty beds to spread everything out and prepare it the best I could for the flight. Lisa came back and informed me that there was, in fact, somebody in the top bunk of one of the beds (these bunks were six feet tall and he was behind the open door, oops). I shut off the light and finished packing by lamp, leaving my stuff out on the bed so I could grab it and run in the morning. I made it to bed at about 1 and figured that nobody would be using it, seeing as our roommates (the guys from New Jersey) had checked out.
We landed in Athens at 10 and took the metro to Syntagma, the main square in the Plaka near our hostel. The directions to the hostel were simple enough, but we had trouble finding the street necessary (you run into that issue far too often when trying to find a street from a square) so we went to the McDonald’s in the square so Lisa could use the bathroom and I could use the wifi to get better directions. We paused to check our email with the free wifi and followed Google Maps for the ten minutes to our hostel, hidden a couple of side streets back from the main road. The girl that checked us into our room was very nice, and informed us that since it was a holiday (the second day of Easter) everything would close at 2:30, but might be free. We had been hoping to nap right away at the hostel but decided that we would rather see some of the ruins before we wasted the rest of the opening hours dozing. We did shower quickly and then head off to the Acropolis, a remarkable five minutes away from the hostel. The Acropolis was indeed free because of the holiday, and surprisingly not packed with tourists, given the circumstances. We walked up the path to the imposing fortress atop the rocks past ruins of temples and an amphitheater (the theater of Dionysus) to reach the marble steps approaching the Parthenon. The steps (and most of the surfaces) on the Acropolis were quite slick from the millions of footsteps smoothing the marble out over the millennia. The Parthenon had changed hands several times throughout the years as various nations invaded and took up residence. It was build as a temple to honor the protector of Athens (Athena Parthenos) but had been converted into a Catholic church and a mosque at various points. Lord Elgin had escaped to England with various statues and bas relief panels from the Parthenon, and the roof been blown off completely by a bomb during a siege by the Persians. The remaining panels and statues are now in the Acropolis Museum at the base of the hill. We took all our pictures, took in the unobstructed panoramas of Athens in all directions, and headed back down the steps to see what else we could conquer before the ancient sites closed at three. We stopped to climb the steps up a large marble rock that had been used as a courtroom at some point. The surface was extremely slick and uneven; I’m surprised they allow visitors on it. The next stop in line proved to be Ancient Agora, again full of ruined temples. We made it through this before we were shooed out by the staff at closing time, when we wandered through a flea market, got some incredible ice cream, and made it full circle round the Acropolis back to our hostel. Still hungry, we asked the girl on staff where we could find a supermarket. I was really hoping I could find beans and bread to make beans on toast, but we could find neither, sadly. We ended up buying spaghetti, biscuits and milk instead, and headed back to the hostel to cook our feast. We relaxed for a while there and chatted with the girl on staff (we never managed to learn her name, for all the conversing we did). Since all the attractions were closed we wandered around the Plaka for a while, running into another supermarket where we bought bread (for toast!) and some hot chocolate mix. The hot chocolate mix was intended to save the milk I had bought, as Greek milk apparently all tastes like cheese, and not milk. It was tragically disgusting, but it made a fine four cups of hot chocolate. We headed to Syntagma to try and catch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is supposed to be quite the deal (but mainly on Sundays). When we got there it had already started,and while there was quite the crowd there it was apparent that they were not all tourists. There was a demonstration of sorts happening with several flags waving. Disconcertingly, there was a row of police decked out in riot gear, shields lined up in front of the guards. We watched for a while to see what would happen, but left firecrackers started emerging from the crowd and landing in the street. Without much else to do we used the wifi at the hostel until it crapped out and we went to bed.
The next morning we went back to Syntagma to get Lisa a new camera. The spot on her lens hadn’t faded any since Rome, sadly. We finished just in time to witness a more peaceful changing of the guard. We next headed to the Archaeological Museum, supposedly one of the “top ten” in the world. I was unimpressed, but they did let us in for free because we’re students from America. That was the first place we’ve run into that; normally it’s prejudiced towards EU students, not the other way around. We stopped at a Spar (supermarket) for lunch where food was surprisingly cheap (soooo much better than Italy). We ate at the hostel and then continued on to see more ruins. The temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch were just across the main road from our hostel so we headed there, where we got in for free as students (awesome!) and walked round the path to see the Panathenaic Stadium. This was the first modern Olympic stadium for the games of 1896 and is made entirely of marble. It’s quite impressive, though the track is just 115 meters (that’s one stadium in distance, so it makes sense).When we’d made the rounds and I completed a stop motion we took a picture on top of the gold/silver/bronze winners blocks on the track, surely placed there for tourists’ pictures. We had no third person, so I asked the nearest family if we could borrow one of their children for the picture. They didn’t speak English, but I managed to communicate through pointing what I wanted, and their daughter happily agreed. We got the picture and walked through a park back to the hostel for some rest. On the way, however, I saw a statue that looks EXACTLY like my father. I don’t understand it, but I got a picture to prove it. Bizarre. Lisa took a nap while I journaled. It began to rain after a bit, and even had some lightning. Excited for the chance to take some lightning shots I headed out towards Hadrian’s Arch to try and find a good setting for some pictures and see which direction I would need to face for the lightning. Sadly, I never saw any more lightning, but got some pictures of the arch before heading round the block again to see the stadium, sure that it would be lit nicely. I opted not to take the park route home, but stuck to the better lit streets instead. I reached what I though was the end of the park and continued towards the hostel. Or so I thought. After half an hour with no sign of the nearby streets or landmarks I stopped at a cafe to ask for directions. Don’t forget that it was raining–I sure didn’t. The bartender didn’t speak English, so I asked for Syntagma, and he pointed me in the right direction. I walked towards it unsuccessfully, stopping again at a kiosk to ask for Syntagma. It had been nearly an hour by this point, and I was really sick of being lost. A customer there spoke English, so I asked him which was it was to both Syntagma and Hadrian’s Arch. I found it odd that they were in the same direction, but moved on anyway. I had to ask one more time, just as I figured out that I had made it to the far edge of Syntagma (which I had not seen before, leading to my confusion) and continued past the many opportunists trying to sell me umbrellas to the hostel. Their attempts at sales kept me amused, soaked as I was, until I got to the hostel, hung my clothes to dry, and made some toast. The wifi apparently doesn’t work there when it’s raining (it was raining) so I journaled some more until a loud Canadian couple came into the common area. They seemed to match some of my annoying stereotypes of Americans (ironic). They were nice enough though, and we ended up playing Scum (a card game) with them until about 1 when Lisa and I retired.
We checked out of the hostel at 10 and headed to the Acropolis Museum where we could check our bags before headed to the port to catch our ferry. The museum was apparently built over the sight of a dig, as we could see ruins and workers digging away through glass panels in the floor. It was quite a neat idea, but didn’t seem like the best thing to do, structurally. Lisa commented that it will probably become an exhibit in the museum once it’s completed. The museum was entirely dedicated to displaying the artifacts recovered fro the ruins of the Acropolis, and especially the Parthenon. The museum was laid out extremely well over its three levels, and is the most attractive museum I’ve seen in that respect. The Louvre obviously wins over in content and straight-up architecture, but the Louvre is massive and confusing to navigate. We stopped for lunch at a cafe outside the museum where I unashamedly ordered a hamburger and fries. It was fantastic. Greek hamburgers are definitely not made from hamburger, but are definitely delicious. The Akropolis metro stop was right next to the cafe, so we hopped on and headed towards Pirraeus (I can’t spell anything). I had been told that the ports were horrible for pickpockets, so I used the passport hider thingy I had borrowed from Lisa for the first time to hide all my valuables away. I was more than a little paranoid about the port given the warnings and my experience in Naples. We had a minor snafu on the metro because of a closed platform and a clever path to the port (I’ve learned from software development that the clever solutions are often not the best, sadly) but we made it there with almost two hours to spare. On the shuttle from the metro to the ferry we met an Israeli girl named Ruth who sat with us on the ferry. She was backpacking around Greece, hiking between villages and taking in the nature. She had lived in the States for three years and had a degree in composition. During the six hour journey I caught up on picture editing and a bit of journaling and chose my pictures of the day for the 24 days of pictures I had taken during the trip up to that point. I got some nice shots of an island as we passed it, and we passed the remainder of the time playing various card games. Ruth was couch surfing her way through Crete and was to meet her ride at the port. We exchanged contact information with the possibility of meeting up the next day and helped her find her ride (a white smart car!) in the crowded port lots before walking the kilometer to the hostel (which was actually a two start hotel). Lisa and Ruth had eaten on the boat, but my stinginess had fended off my hunger. I had some leftover raw spaghetti in my bag and asked at the desk if there was a kitchen. This was sadly not the case. there was a kettle in the room (a twin, thankfully), however, so we made hot chocolate. Then I had the bright idea of cooking some noodles in the kettle. (I mean, it boils water, right? What could go wrong?) I broke up some noodles, tossed them in the pot with some water, and pressed to single button to let it work its magic. It seemed to be going swimmingly until it had come to a boil and the pot shut off. Then boiling, starchy water began pouring out the lid and onto the nightstand. That was fun. It hadn’t gotten anything important wet, and had definitely cooked the noodles, so I dug in and dried up the mess. I only made one more batch, but positioned it over the sink so that the overflow went down the drain. I boiled a few rounds of water in the kettle to clean out any pasta-y flavor for subsequent cups of tea or coffee made by future tenants and called it a night.
We woke up the next morning to a message from Ruth saying that her host had something for us to do that night. We responded positively and headed down to the desk to ask what we could do that day in Crete, not having learned much from the research I had done. He recommended the archaeological music, which we silently declined, and instead headed to Knossos, a site of a ruined palace. The place was much less impressive than Athens (as expected) but still neat. Throughout our journey that I had noticed a lot of older men carrying beads with then, flipping then around in their hands as they walked down the street. I had apparently missed the conversation where we learned that these were worry beads, but I found them quaint. I never noticed any women with them, though, and I still don’t know why. We got lunch (another awesome Greek burger), checked out some souvenir stands, and headed to the hostel to check for further messages from Ruth and ask how to get to a beach. Luckily the nearest one was within walking distance (though still a mile away). We headed off along the coast in pursuit of sandy relaxation, towels in hand. The beach was sparsely speckled with sunbathers, so we had plenty of options for spots. We somehow took twenty minutes to finally settle in to one, but I commenced to taking dozens of pictures right away as Lisa tried to avoid the new canine friend she had made along the way. She got him to lay down and presumably fall asleep a little ways away from where we threw down our towels and started wading. By this time the sun had slid behind cloud cover, but I waded around nonetheless. The sun peeked back out briefly after not too long so Lisa and I exalted in taking tons of pictures of us jumping around in the tide. Perhaps too many. Tired out from this photographic marathon, we laid on the towels, keeping an eye on the dog, and I continued to take way too many pictures of the sand, the surf, and my shoes. In the end we spent over two hours then and packed up to head off once we started getting cold. Our smiling friend trotted alongside us, ignoring our attempts to discourage him. We got to the end of the boardwalk where I had to sit down to put on my shoes. The dog followed suit, closing his eyes. Whether or not he fell asleep, we snuck away without disturbing him and ran away once out of sight. Somewhat surprisingly, it worked and we escaped. We got back to the hostel and chatted with Ruth on Facebook to determine that we would meet at nine to check out a chocolate fondue place and some live Greek music. With our two hours remaining before then, we washed off the sand from the beach and ate a dinner of baguettes and salami from the local supermarket. Ruth showed up at the ho(s)tel at 9:45 and we headed off to find the chocolate fondue place. the amount of nuts in the place was intimidating so I refrained from partaking in the massive pile of treats to be dipped in the chocolate and took a few dozens pictures of it all instead. The lighting was great for some long exposure effects. The bill was 15 Euro, which I had originally thought was expensive, but after seeing the incredible amount of treats they had for dipping, I decided that it was definitely worth 15 Euro. It’s a shame I couldn’t dive in as well. We lingered there until after 11, talking at length about electroacoustic music. (Remember that Ruth was a composer. She had done some electroacoustic stuff in school, which was neat.) We finally decided to move on to another place Apostalis (Ruth’s host) had suggested for some live local music. We found the small bar not far off of the main square. We confirmed with a man entering the establishment that this was the place to find live Greek music. He responded that it was live Cretan music–Greece and Crete were apparently distinct for a good chunk of time (no idea when) and they developed their own cultures. We entered to find just one open table, so we sat down. We were soon informed by the nice waiter that the table was reserved and we should sit at the bar (which really meant stand). The band consisted of one man with a drum and mallets, one with a small bowed instrument, and two with guitar-like instruments. It became obvious why the bar was so packed when they began to play: They were amazing. The music sounded very Eastern, not unlike what we had heard in Morocco. The vocals especially contained a lot of quarter tones and the key was predominantly minor. The music was always quick, particularly what was played by the bowed instrument–he soloed, improvising blazing sixteenth notes like nothing. Lisa and I just got Cokes at the bar, which ended up being 5 Euro each. I’m guessing that included a cover charge of some sort, and I was completely okay with it because of how great the band was. During the music I noticed one man in the crowd flipping his worry beads around. This made me pay a bit more attention and I noticed the sounds of beads clinking throughout the room. I found this part of Cretan culture really cool. It’s a completely unnecessary thing (like ties, am I right?), but it’s ubiquitous and calming. I like it. Apostalis showed up after he got off work to say hi, at which point we realized how late it was. At one o’clock we headed back to the hostel so we could make our check out time in the morning. It was great meeting Ruth and having a relaxing final night in Europe before heading back to the UK. I definitely recommend finding some local music if you’re looking for something to do any night.
We had few tasks the next morning before our 1:50 PM flight, which made for the most relaxed departure to date, especially seeing as the airport was just 15 minutes away by bus. Though it took us a while to find the post office (at this point it would have been great to have a translator of some kind so we could have known how to ask for a post office) we sent off some post cards and looked for a few things at the market. Lisa bought a bracelet from one vendor who proved to be a bit of a schmooze. When she made the purchase he told her that (paraphrasing) “I will forever remember the lady with the huge backpack [we were carrying all of our stuff], the most beautiful woman in all of Europe.” All she heard was “remember backpack…” and thought he was talking about a previous backpacking experience. Thus her response was a complete non sequitur, but he adapted, though taken aback slightly by the response. Somehow I managed to understand both sides of this exchange and got the most amusement out of it. Good times. We proceeded to nab lunch at a gyro stand where three dogs sat next to our table with eager eyes as strains of a violin rendition of “Dancing Queen” drifted past from a nearby busker. That was one of three Abba buskers we heard in two days; popular stuff, apparently. At the airport we celebrating the wedding of Will and Kate by boarding the plane just as the ceremony was about to commence in London. Whoo! I managed to journal for the whole flight, making it through several days of adventure, before landing at London Gatwick where we caught a train into town, and then a metro to the hostel. We were in a room of ten that night, which was a disappointing change from the twin rooms we had enjoyed for the better part of a week. Nonetheless, we set out to find the makings of dinner now that we were back in the UK, the land of beans on toast and hostels in kitchens! We succeeded in our quest after some issues getting ATMs to work and fixed our amazing dinner. I drank way too much milk (it didn’t taste like cheese!!). We played a round of pool at the bar in the hostel, where I alternated taking my turn shooting and taking pictures, trying to satiate my newfound fascination with long exposures. I got some nice shots (pool and photo) before my batteries died completely. We used the internet for a bit and headed to bed early. Traveling can be so exhausting but returning to the UK had felt like coming home. I had started to make a list of things about the UK had missed, now that I was surrounded by them to remind me. Note that beans on toast was on the list.
We planned a relaxing adventure for our last day of vacation, rising at a decent hour (7:15) and eating copious amounts of toast and cereal at breakfast. I really wanted to check out some Banksy graffiti; Lisa obliged and we took the metro to the two remaining complete works. At the first one Lisa was taking a picture of me with it when a gentleman walked past and asked if we wanted him to take a picture of us both with it. My immediate reaction was to distrust him and find the quickest way out of the situation. It took me a second to realize that it was okay and agreed happily. That’s one habit I developed while in Europe, especially after Marrakech and Naples, that I’ll have to use as a learning experience and hopefully break. I’m more cautious around strangers now, but I have to develop better scam and BS filters so I don’t snub and insult honest people. I thought about the realization a bit as we headed back to the metro to stop at the next spot. This second work was in a beer garden, but luckily the doors were open. I asked the lady sweeping the place if we could check out the graffiti. She had a really tough time understanding what I was saying. I’m not sure she ever got it, possibly because she didn’t understand why anyone would want to look at graffiti. Nevertheless, I got my pictures and we moved on. It was fun that the wall inside the beer garden had a stencil on it proclaiming that this space was reserved for graffiti. It seemed slightly contradictory that Banksy’s work had been covered by Plexiglass and thus no longer available for graffiti (just as the previous one had been). Seeing as these were the only two remaining works, we headed to Piccadilly Circus to try and pick up our tickets for Wicked and get a light lunch. We stopped at the theater to ask about the tickets, where we were told that we were at the wrong place. The theater we needed was by Victoria Station. We headed there on the metro, got our tickets, and set out to find food. Because we needed wifi (to check for response from my cousin Laura about meeting after dinner), bathrooms, and food, we stopped at an opportunely placed McDonald’s (don’t judge). Walking along the street in search of another shop, we saw a large Sainsbury’s, at which time I decided I needed some Haribo (gummy candy–yum). Boy, did we ever find the mother lode. Seeing as it was just after Easter, the Easter version of their sour candy was discounted by 70%. At just 13 p a pack, we bought seven, naturally. Nomming our sweets, we headed back to the theater a bit early where we found the place already full of people and took our seats. The show was incredible–definitely the best musical I had ever seen. I thought that the resurrection scene in JC Superstar was powerful, but the conclusion to the first act of Wicked beat it, hands down. I loved the creativity used in filling in the back story for the Wizard of Oz. Having reached musical nirvana, Lisa and I headed back to Piccadilly Circus after texting Laura to arrange meeting there at seven. We wandered around for a bit, Lisa bought some souvenir Royal Wedding mugs, and I took a few too many creeper photos of people in Piccadilly Circus. I spotted Laura and Matt as they were looking for us. It was nice to see some more friendly and familiar faces (though this was my first time meeting Matt). Laura had just moved to London to live with Matt, her new husband. Matt was originally Australian but had lived in London for five years. It was fun to think that I had lived in England longer than her, though I hadn’t been back to the country since she actually moved in. We walked out of Piccadilly Circus and into Soho in search of food. We opted out of Chinatown because of my allergies and settled on a Moroccan and Spanish place after a few minutes. Lisa and I split a paella de carne, which was fantastic. We talked at length about our vacation and thoughts on the UK after having lived there for a while. It was fun having so many perspectives on education and lifestyle. Matt had gone to boarding school in Australia and Laura had spent a semester in Italy during college, so we had no shortage of differences to discuss. I was happy to find that they found electroacoustic music really interesting, and we talked for a while about the qualities present in everyday sounds. I like the sound of the breeze. Mmmmmm. We had spent almost two hours there when Matt generously picked up the check, we said goodbye, and headed back to our respective underground stations. I was really glad we had the chance to meet up while we were both there. My favorite parts of the trip had been when we met up with friends–I highly recommend making that happen to anyone that studies abroad. Lisa and I headed to the Thames along the houses of parliament, Big Ben, and the London Eye to further indulge my love of long exposures before heading back to the hostel. Presumably because of the wedding fiasco, most hostel in London were booked full, so we ended up in a 24 bed room in the same hostel that night. It was almost better than a smaller shared room, in my opinion, as you really can’t expect silence or darkness with that many people coming and going. Packing up in there was a lot better than in the twelve person room in Madrid, for instance. For perhaps the first time on the trip, I went straight to bed without clearing the pictures off of my memory card. I was quite tired and crashed happily until morning.
We packed up quickly in the morning, ate another large breakfast, and hopped on the tube for one last commute to the train station. I headed to Marylebone for a train to Birmingham and Lisa went to Paddington for a direct train to Swansea. Now here I sit on the train, finishing my final journal entry for the trip. This has really been an incredible experience. We have seen more historic and monumental things than I thought possible for one month, let alone a year. I am completely happy with what we have seen and done, and I am really lucky to have had Lisa as a travel buddy throughout the trip. I doubt I’ll ever have an experience quite like this again, and I’m glad we squeezed every ounce of traveling that we could out of our long Easter break. Now I have finals ahead of me, but plenty of time to study. I have a feeling of limbo at the moment, as I’m very much between places. I feel like I should be done with school for the semester, especially since my friends in Ames are just entering finals week, but I have over a month before my last exam is done and I can go back to Iowa. It will be nice to be grounded again. I’m not a huge fan of being a vagrant, and I will be so happy to not carry these bags with me everywhere now. This one month excursion has shown me what I really liked about the UK, given me mountains of new perspective on life and culture, and taught me what I really appreciate about my home, family, and friends. Worth it? Most definitely.