Friday, November 19, 2010

italian farewell

Florence is a culture lover's dream. The Uffizi Gallery offers an afternoon's worth of museum fatigue and Michaelangelo's David is captivating (seriously). I think I spent over an hour transfixed by its perfection. I'll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about art. I couldn't tell you the difference between a Rembrant or a Van Gogh or a Goya. But I could tell David was special. It was amazing to me that an inanimate object could have such a presence.

After Florence I took my own private tour of Tuscan towns. I went to Siena, home to the biannual horse races around its Piazza del Campo, San Gimignano, where all buildings are made from red brick and towers and churchs are 700 years old, and Lucca, which is completely enclosed in an ancient city wall. I also stopped in Pisa for a couple hours to take that famous photo before moving on to Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre was recommended to me by just about everyone I know who has visited Italy, and it didn't disappoint. It's comprised of five fishing villages along the Western Coast of Italy and boasts a world famous 9km hike from the first to the fifth. I had three nights there, so I did the hike twice with both of my full days. One of the sections between two villages was closed because of an avalanche, but the detour (which added an extra hour) was actually a surprising highlight. It was largely empty since most people opted for the train, and took me through vineyards and lemon groves hundreds of feet above the standard trail. The views were spectacular, the weather was perfect, and I even had a room to myself back at my hostel. Life was good.

After Cinque Terre I went to Bologna for two nights where I stayed with my friend Dinah who is studying there. I took my one full day to explore the city, but really Bologna isn't as much of a sight to see as much as it is a place in which to indulge. On my first night Dinah took me to a bar for 'Apertivo,' which is a Bolognese tradition where you pay for a drink and then get to dig into a full Italian buffet. I soon discovered I could get along pretty well in Bologna. On my second night we cooked up some handmade tortellini with Bolognese sauce we made from scratch.

From Bologna I took a train into Venice where I would spend my last two nights in Italy. Venice is the only place in the world where a map is utterly useless. Shoulder-width, cobblestone alleys snake through the city and render efficient navigation impossible. But that's the essence of Venice. To be there is to be wandering and truly lost. I used my time there to take a boat ride along the Grand Canal, visit St. Mark's Basilica, and see where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed. Standard fare, really.

I spent just over three weeks in Italy, by far the longest amount of time I've been in any country. Well worth it, too. Up next is the French Riviera, the Spain, and finally Portugal, where I will run out of European real estate and return home. But such thoughts are not for today. Not while there is still life in my shoes, wine in my glass, and a ticket in my hand.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

roman carnival

I set out from Switzerland at 6am to take full advantage of a Travel Day on my pass. I got all the way down to Naples, Itlay by 4 and spent the night there. Didn´t do much in Naples. It was the only place I´ve ever been where I truly didn´t feel comfortable. Italian police squads lined the streets near my hostel adorned with bullet proof vests and submachine guns. I saw a guy in a business suit knocked unconscious in the middle of the sidewalk on a busy street. So I decided to just grab a pizza and call it a day.

In the morning I took a short train ride down to the Amalfi Coast and stayed two nights in a little fishing village called Atrani. When I got there the first thing I did was jump headlong into the Mediterranean. The water was as warm and azure as I had hoped. At night I sat on a bench overlooking the sea and watching a lightning storm. I ate a ham and cheese sub my Aunt and Uncle had packed for me while watching waves crash over the breakwater and lighting flash across the dark Tyrrhenian water.

On my second and only full day on the Amalfi Coast I hiked to Positano. It was about 9km up to Bomerano, then another 7km along the famous "Pathway of the Gods" into Positano. It was probably the single most tiring day of my trip, not as much from the length but the constant climbs and descents. The towns on the Amalfi Coast are built on cliffs, so walking from one to the next simulates an epic stairmaster workout. Got some good workout out of my headband at least. It was worth it though. The sun-filled panoramic view unfolded in front of me on my way down to Positano and I immediately knew I was going to love Italy. I took the bus back to Atrani though....

The next day I hiked up to Ravello and an ancient castle atop Atrani for panoramic views of Amalfi and Atrani. Then I took a bus to Pompei to explore the ruins wrought by Mt Vesuvius 2000 years ago. After a few hours I caught a train up to Rome where I would be spending four nights.

Like a fool I didn´t book a hostel in Rome and was left wandering the sketchy streets around the train station while managing to find nearly every full hostel around. But eventually I ran into a Persian guy at the station who ran a B&B nearby that was cheaper than all the hostels.

If you´ve ever been to Rome, your visit probably closely resembles mine. For your first visit, there isn´t much variation in what you want to see. The Colloseum, the Roman Forum, The Vatican Museums, St. Peter´s Basillica, the Pantheon, Palantine Hill, Campodoglio, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain.... and so on.

Rome is a gigantic, well-oiled tourist machine. Buy the ticket, wait in line, take the picture. Rinse and repeat.

But what a great city. Centuries of history around every corner, heaps of religious relics, and gelato galore. I used my three days to walk through the city, and Rome is a walker´s paradise. Every street boasts authentic cafe´s, chintzy tourist traps, pizzerias, shamless street performers, gelaterias, and people from every corner of the world. Rome is the ultimate tourist retailer. Whatever you´re after, they have it in stock, and available in bulk.

After four nights and three full days I felt used up and laid-out, like a 10-year old who spent his weeks allowance at a carnival on the dizzy-rides and too much cotton candy.

After Rome I stayed in Assisi for a night which was a welcome down-shift. I saw St. Francis´ Basillica, the crucifix that supposedly inspired St. Francis, and had a day wandering the cobble stone streets where you can find all variations of religous knick-knacks imaginable.

Next on the menu is Tuscanny, where I expect to meet Michaelangelo´s David, the Leaning Tower, and more wine from a box.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

victory #9

Sorry for the delay between posts. I haven't been at an actual computer in a good while. This one comes all the way back from mid-Oct. Right now I'm in Barcelona, and have quite the stockpile of backed-up posts which I'll have to take care of. Anyway, I think I last left off in Austria.

I caught a night train in Vienna and arrived in Zurich by 7:00am. After a couple train changes, I was in Interlaken, then Lauterbrunnen, and a Gondola lift and train ride later I was in Murren, Switzerland.

My first impression of Switzerland was the efficiency of their trains. There's nothing a traveler appreciates more than dependability. Two minutes after pulling into the Zurich station I was on my way to Bern. Another two minute layover and I was enroute to Interlaken. Their arrivals and departures were spot on to the minute. I felt like I was on another Colby road trip with old head coach Tom Austin. His travel itineraries were always planned to the minute. "9:52 -- Arrive at Williams. 12:05 -- Specialists depart. 3:42 -- Victory #1!"

Murren is a genuine Swiss village halfway up the Alps. It caters to skiiers during the winter and hikers in the summer, so mid-Oct was a great time to arrive. I knew I needed to see the Swiss Alps, but the reason I chose Murren was because my Aunt and Uncle were staying there for a week. They had an apartment that they rent annually and I was thrilled to be able to check it out for a few nights. Three nights in the Swiss Alps, catching up with relatives, some of the most picturesque hikes in the world.... life was good.

Of course my Aunt and Uncle spoiled me rotten while I was there. Weisswurst, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken and potatos, and some killer lentil soup.... I was in Heaven. The way my Aunt cooks, I was better off with them than at a restaurant.

My first day they took me on the Northface Trail, their favorite, which took us across the rolling countryside with spectacular views of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch peaks.

The next day I hiked up the Shilthorn. It's summit is at about 10,000 ft, but Murren lies at about half that, so it was only a two hour climb to the top. The building at the summit was built especially for the James Bond movie, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and it offered incredible panoramic views.

I decided to take a different route back down to Murren, and the hike down took longer than the ascent. Well worth the effort, however. One of the best days of my trip.

My third day we hiked from Grutshalp to Murren, and then to Grimmelwald and back. Once again, I was spoiled with the scenery, weather, and company.

My time in Switzerland felt brief but well spent. A definite placement on the Mt. Rushmore of my trip. Next I have a travel day on my Eurail Pass to get all the way down to Naples, Italy, the ninth country on my trip. Pizzas, pasta, gelato and cheap wine await....

Thursday, October 21, 2010

midnight train to vienna

I caught a train from Berlin to Prague and was able to meet up with my friend Brendan, who I met in Ireland. Brendan had a place in the city where I could crash, which was an immediate bonus. If ever you can find a place to stay for free while traveling, the rest is cream cheese.

Brendan took me around the city at night and showed me all it had to offer on a Tuesday night. I drank cheap beer, ate a greasy sausage, and played a drinking game at a bar where you have to pound a nail into a giant tree stump with the chisel end of a hammer. As I drove the head of my nail home to narrowly avoid a first-time loss, I remembered what my grandfather always told me, "Conor, wherever you go, always leave your mark..."

I spent the next day exploring Prague. I cruised through the Old Town Square, Mala Strana, the Castle District, Charles Bridge, New Town, and Wenceslas Square. That night I was catching the night train to Vienna, so I managed to sneak in a few Pilsner Urquells before leaving to help me sleep on the train.

I got in to Vienna at six and caught the next train to Budapest. I would be back in Vienna later that night, but I wanted to see Budapest and with my Eurail Pass it made sense (I have 10 "travel days" within 2 months when I can catch any train and ride for free). So for one of my travel days I went from Prague to Vienna to Budapest, and then back to Vienna. Three cities in 24 hours. At least I got my money's worth. Backpacking is all about value....

I rushed through Budapest in seven hours but I feel like I did right by it. I walked through Heroes Square, City Park, and then saw Parliament, St. Stephen's Basillica, and the Opera House. Then it was on to Buda. I saw Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and hiked up Gallert Hill to see the Citadell along with a stunning view of both Buda and Pest. After that I rushed back to the train station to catch the 5:10 back to Vienna.

My friend Kyra (who I met in NZ) picked me up at the train station in Vienna and gave me a walking tour of the city after catching up over a beer. Vienna has a perfect blend of old-school architecture, progressive social values, and an unassuming, casual attitude among its people that could only be attained through genuine contentment.

After checking out the typical tourist spots (Stephen's Dom, Hofsburg Palace, Karl's Church, Museum Quarter) I made my way down to the Central Cemetary and visited the graves of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Strauss. Then I sought out the much smaller St. Marx Cemetary where Mozart was buried somewhere in a mass grave along with other victims of the Black Plague.

I don't have strong feelings for any of those people, nor do I listen to any of their music, but there's something strangely intriguing about discovering someone's final resting place. I think it says a lot about the person. And besides, it's both peaceful and captivating to walk through a plot of land where there are thousands of decomposing bodies under the ground, and as many beautiful flowers and trees protruding from the same soil. There's got to be some metaphor to be gleamed there... a ying and a yang. Growth and decay. But mostly I think that so many artistic geniuses chose to forever reside in Vienna says more about the quality of its earth than it does for those who lie beneath it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

whirlwind tourist polka

Oktoberfest. The world's most prolific celebration of consumption. It's basically Coney Island on steroids, plus beer by the liter. There were amusement park rides, a Ferris Wheel, Fun-Houses, carnival games, food vendors, sweet shops, and souvenir huts. But the main draws were the beer halls.

People travel thousands of miles, pay hundreds of dollars, and sometimes wait for hours outside just to sit at a table and drink beer. The beauty is in the simplicity. There is literally nothing else to do in a beer hall but sit, drink, sing, and talk with strangers.

I learned very early that a table is a precious commodity. If you arrive early in the day, or reserve a table, you can walk right in , sit down and order a €10 liter jug of beer. If your table is not already full, it soon will be. It is best to position your bulkiest, most intimidating members at the end of the table to fend off the standing-room crowd when others get up to use the bathroom. When the brass band on stage starts playing the Beer Barrel Polka, or a traditional German song, you stand and shout with everyone else, pretending to know the words. Also important to note: after toasting with everyone at your table, be sure to bang the bottom of your jug against the table before taking a drink or the next round is on you. I learned this technicality very quickly, as a slip-up would have been catastrophic for my Oktoberfest finances.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. I spent two full days biking along the Rhine River, stopping at Boppard, St. Goar, Bacharach, Bingen, Rudesheim, and Eltville. The biking trail was easy to follow, as it hugged the riverbank from Koblenz all the way to Mainz. I took my time since my pack was heavy and the scenery was straight out of a classical painting, but also because my bike had probably been around since before the Berlin Wall was built. It might as well have been one of those bikes with the enormous rear wheel and handlebars that wrap around your waist. Nonetheless, I made it into Mainz, grinding gears, bald tires and all. My friend Matthias picked me up and drove me to his house in Trebur.

I stayed with Matthias and his wife, Katja, for three nights. I had met them in Australia while touring the Red Center. They showed me the meaning of German hospitality. I was introduced to proper German beer, authentic Schnitzel, Rhine Valley apple wine, and an unbelievable homemade onion cake. I feel like I learned more about German culture there in three days than in any of the cities I visited. It was difficult to leave, but Oktoberfest beckoned....

I stayed in Munich two nights, spending nearly all my time in the Oktoberfest grounds. I was able to meet up with my friend Evi, who I also met in Australia, and she let me tag along with her group of friends at the festivities.

After Munich I caught a train to Berlin, spending three nights in the nation's capital. With such little time to spend in a playground of tourist attractions, I thought a whilrlwind tour would be appropriate. I visited the Reichstag, seven museums, Brandenburger Tor, Olympic Stadium, Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall Memorial, The Jewish Memorial, the Berliner Dom, Gendarme Market, Hitler's bunker (which is now nothing more than a hotel parking lot), and the Tiergarten.

Now I exhale on a train on the way to Prague. Future stops include Budapest, Vienna, and Murren, Switzerland. As I leave Germany after staying only ten nights, I feel like I've only taken the first few sips from a deep, frothy stein. There was so much I missed. But the train doors abruptly close and the carriage rolls forward, inching south along the rails for the former Soviet bloc and another whirlwind sampling.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

american flyer

Dim are the prospects for a backpacker in Koblenz, Germany. The only hostel in town is closed for renovation. Hotels cater to older travelers looking for a romantic getaway on the Rhine. Winebars far outnumber the pubs. I had as much business there as Bill Murray at Bushwoods. Yet there I was. All because when I was sitting on a beach in Rye I thought it would be fun to bike from Koblenz to Mainz, a route that is considered to be the most scenic in the Rhine Valley. Like most of my hare-brained, half-baked plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the tourist center I was told there were rooms at an out-of-the-way hotel for 25 euro, but after a 3km hike, I found they were about twice that. The walk back into town felt much longer.

I decided to go back to the train station and see if it was open all night. The man behind the ticket counter squinted back at me and said, "Eez open, ya."

"Is it OK to sleep here?"

He shook his head and said, "Because zee cops..."

My first night in Germany was beginning to look fitful and cold. But it was a Saturday night, and hope springs eternal. "Where's a good pub?"

Sugar Ray's was the kind of place where an ex-pat in Germany might go to feel at home. Boxing promos and posters lined the walls and the bar was adorned with American beer cans. I thought it was as good a place as any to find someone willing to put me up for the night.

I left my backpack with the bouncer and went to get a beer, armed with about four words of German I learned from Indiana Jones movies. The odds weren't with me.

As it turned out the owner of the bar saw me walk in and sit by myself, and somehow pegged me as American. He sent a beer over, on the house. Then another. And another. Soon I was behind the bar, talking to him about Las Vegas, national parks, and German beer. That's how I learned how friendly small-town Germans are. Before I knew it I had more German friends that I knew what to do with. They couldn't have been nicer to me. I ended up following them to a club and staying out until five in the morning. Unfortunately none of them actually lived in Koblenz, and I didn't feel like driving 50km back home with them, so that left me without a place to stay.

So I picked up my bag and headed down to the Rhine. I slept under a tree by the edge of the river. I laid down my poncho because the ground was a little wet and bundled up in several layers. I woke up after only a couple hours from the cold and moved to the train station. The police didn't bother me and I got another couple hours of sleep. It was surprisingly peaceful sleeping among the comings and goings of trains and travellers. Say what you will about passing up a bed for 50 euro, a backpacker's got to have his principles....

I woke up when a bum asked me for a lighter. It was 9:00am. I got four hours of sleep after a long night out, and I desperately needed a bike within the next few hours or my much anticipated journey down the Rhine would be experienced through a train window. This was the definitive low point of my trip. To compound my problems, it was a Sunday, and both bike shops in town were closed. But Goonies never say die.

After walking through the city center for a few hours and propositioning strangers on bikes for an impromptu sale, I decided to hang out at the bike stand at the train station. Within ten minutes I had a bike for 40 euro from an Arab who didn't speak a word of English.

Suddenly, with two wheels and a pair of pedals, my whole world changed. I left Koblenz behind. The bike trail hugged the river for 70km, cutting through the flat, green vineyards of the Rhine Valley. I pedalled slow. Ahead was open road, unfolding upstream, leading to new places that might have cheap beds, a hot shower, and fully-baked ideas. But maybe not. It just felt good to move again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

the little things

I'm expecting imminent disaster. Seriously. Things have been going too perfectly. I was worried about how I would get from England to Belgium, but my train ticket from London to Brussels was fairly cheap and allowed one free transfer to any Belgian station. Score.

Brussels was a good first stop. The market square was impressive, and on the day I arrived there was some kind of festival going on and the square was hopping with all sorts of people singing, dancing, drinking, eating and taking pictures. I tried my first Belgian waffle, which quickly resulted in a second. Both smothered in chocolate. Then I tried a Belgian beer, which also necessitated additional samples. And so I quickly learned that Belgians have life pretty well figured out. Enjoy the little things.

While Brussels was nice for a night, Bruges is a dream. The best beers in the world are less than 3 euro. There's free chocolate samples at dozens of shops (I swear Bruges must have the highest number of chocolate shops per capita in the world). The architecture is straight out of a Disney movie. The weather has been great.... If you never hear from me again, you'll know why.

I spent three days in Bruges. I walked along cobble stone streets and canals by day, and medicated my weary legs at the pubs by night. I think what I liked most about Bruges was that there was literally nothing to do but eat, drink, and walk around. It was a little touristy, but since I only added to the problem I couldn't complain. To get a good feel for what Bruges is like, check out In Bruges, not a bad movie.

It was tough to leave, but I was looking forward to Ghent. I have two friends living in Ghent, Mieke and Lien, who I met in New Zealand. They were very generous in showing me around the city and letting me crash at their place for the night. They took me out to dinner, walked me around the city at night, and introduced me to a Belgian late-night delicacy: french fries with gravy and mayonnaise. It might not sound appetizing but man, it beat the hell out of salt and ketchup.

After Belgium, I took a train up to the Netherlands where I spent two nights. I was fortunate enough that my friend Sabrina was able to put me up for a night, and afterwards I toured Amsterdam. But that, as they say, is a different story all together.

One thing about Belgium and the Netherlands is that the area is completely overrun with bicycles. It's out of control. Scads of frantic peddlers descend upon the streets like biblical locusts. They recklessly whip past pedestrians with inches to spare. Walking along sidewalks sometimes feels like driving on the intersate with a vespa.

Next up is Germany, just in time for Oktoberfest. First stop is Cologne, then I'll swing through the Rhine Valley on my way to Frankfurt before my two longest stops in Munich and Berlin. Very glad to hear from some of you guys. Check back in next week....