Monthly Archives: September 2007

Vienna

About 6am we woke to prepare for the trip to Vienna it would be a 7 hour trip and we would get in at around 5pm. We boarded our train and found ourselves between 2 older Australian couples who weren’t traveling together. Everyone was friendly and talkative. I learned more about Australian history and politics in those first few hours than I’d known before. It was an interesting dynamic. Across me on my left was Phil, the retired socialist oil man, and across me on my right was Mike, “the employer”, a businessman and conservative, but arguably more open than Phil on most topics.

They debated the use of Australia as a resource factory for other countries. Going on about how they had everything they needed to make whatever they needed but their country only bothered to export the raw materials to other countries for manufacturing.

Oh, and Phil wanted to nationalize McDonalds, but that was just that he could wipe its scourge from fair Australia’s landscape.

After about 3 hours Mike and his wife, who had a dutch name I cannot remember, exited the cabin to catch their next train to Salzburg. So Summer and I were left with Phil and his significant other who had finished their second bottle of wine and were soon to pick up a couple small bottles from the passing beverage cart. They were both very nice and funny but Phil got increasingly random as his buzz wore on. Every so often while talking about something fairly banal he would say “I hope you’re not poor, because we don’t care” which I found an interesting comment from a self-proclaimed socialist.

Luckily we were able to change the conversation frequently to the stunning Austrian landscape. Everything you’ve seen in movies is true. You picture someone running up a hill in a puffy dress singing and spinning. Heidi is now on my list of films to watch sometime, to see if the Aussies were correct in their repeated “Yep, this is Heidi country.”

We arrived and found our tram, our stop, and our hostel. We were getting much better at this. Our accommodation was a college dorm room and we were directly across from the University of Vienna. There was no elevator and four floors of very steep spiral stairs to get to our room, our shower was halfway down the hall and the toilet was a few doors down. Still, all things considered, it was a comfortable enough room.

We only really had one day in Vienna so we headed towards the Hapsburgs palace but didn’t go in. The Hapsburgs fortune is secure with what they were charging to look at their very valuable belongings. We ran into several classically clad gents outside the archway selling tickets to a concert that evening. Hearing Mozart in Vienna seemed like a must and I’m very happy we did it. Neither of us was dressed for a classical concert in one of the most famous venues for such a thing but we were assured it was a casual event. Undoubtedly catering to tourists like ourselves.

The concert was held in the Musikverein Golden Hall, considered to be one of the three finest concert halls in the world. Why? I’m not sure. It just is. The players were all dressed in classical knickers and powdered wigs. Well, maybe not actually powdered, but they were white. The first hour was dedicated to Mozart and several operatic arias and the second hour introduced another of Vienna’s favorite sons, namely Johann Strauss. It was a very nice night and would become a very long night.

Summer’s flight left at 7am and with a 40+ minute ride to the airport by cab we had to be up very early. So instead of turning in and getting some rest we went to a college pub nearby and decided to have some drinks and enjoy our time together until she had to leave. When I was younger I could stay up for days, 6 was my record, but that ability has faded with age. We both started out with the goal of staying up all night and failed. I decided to stand watch but still fell asleep for short periods of time always waking up with a jolt thrusting my watch into my fuzzy field of vision.

We made it with time to spare to the airport and had time to drink a ridiculously expensive cappuccino in the airport café before Summer needed to proceed through security and onto her plane. It was another hard goodbye-for-now, unsure when our next meet up on this adventure will be. Regardless it was fantastic to have her with me for as long as we could manage and I’m looking forward to the next time whenever that is, at home or overseas.

I stumbled off, needing a nap, to the train station to get my ticket for Budapest.

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Venice

Summer and I had a pleasant trip in first class to Venice. Only about 4 hours. We’d rested the night before so there wasn’t too much stress involved in getting to the train. However, upon arriving in Venice my directions to the campsite (sister facility to the “campsite” in Rome) weren’t accurate. They were based on a different train station. But we tried to adapt them to our current location.

Venice was already beautiful as we walked out of the train station to see the Grand Canal. Summer and I are both water people so seeing a transportation system based on little ferries was a comforting sight. The weather was cooler but still sunny and there was none of the odor associated with rivers. It was very, very nice.

We turtled our way over bridges and through alleys following the directions given to us by an info booth so that we might find our bus. After a longer distance than we anticipated we found the main bus terminal. We were given some directions, “Take the #2 to the Mestere Station and then take the #11”

Ok, we can do that.

We hopped on the #2 and started riding. It was a very crowded bus and with our packs we took up more room than the average passenger. I took up more room than several average passengers. We rode the #2 for quite a while. I kept expecting to see a stop for “Mestere Station” but this was folly. As I would find out later Mestere is the area and the station is named “Station”. We were told by the driver to get off the bus and catch the #2 in the opposite direction then find a stop with the #11 and get on there. I’m paraphrasing because it was all in Italian and largely consisted of hand gestures pointing at me to get off the bus and stand somewhere on the other side of the street.

So, yeah, we did that.

The #2 showed up after a little while and we got on at the appointed entry point. Italian buses are screwy. They want you to get on in the front or the back and get off in the middle forcing you to part the sea of people already there. Summer being much more narrow than I was able to enter at the back and make her way to the middle. She told me to get near the exit and I tried but by the time we made it to a stop that had the #11 I was only half way there. I nodded to her that we wanted to get off and she did. I however, despite my best efforts, was blocked by the mass of people protecting a man with a cane that had positioned himself in front of the exit. After the doors shut and the very loud stream of profanity escaped me the crowd in front of me appeared much more pliable. I turned to look for Summer and made eye contact. The realization that I was still on the bus was a shock for both of us as I was rolling away. I mashed the stop request button as if the more I pressed it the sooner the bus would stop, it did not, and I ended up jogging the 4 blocks back to Summer with full pack. Needless to say she wasn’t happy. Another aggravating factor for this part of the journey was that nowhere in our directions did it indicate that the #11 that we wanted (there were 2) ran only once per hour and apparently we had just missed it, because we waited another hour at that stop before our bus came.

Finally three hours after we arrived in Venice we were checking in at our campsite. I was able to upgrade us to a cabin with a bathroom and this time the heater/AC was included, although it would be a day before we figured out how to use it. Oh, and the hot water wasn’t working. Venice was off to a bumpy start.

The next morning we figured out the ferry system that would take us into Venice. This was much better than a crowded muti-hour bus trip and as soon as we arrived in the city the romance of Venice was back upon us. The narrow winding streets, the many small canals, the boats for taxis, the lack of garbage, this was a step up from Rome.

We talked to a couple of Gondoliers before making our choice and were very happy with the result. The slow, incredibly skilled, navigation of our Gondolier through the Grand Canal and smaller side canals was, in my opinion, the best way to see Venice. They have their reputation for a reason, it was incredibly romantic and we enjoyed every minute of it.

We filled the rest of our day with window shopping and snacking on bruchetta ending with our ferry ride back to the campsite where we would be introduced to Contiki.

Contiki is a tour company that has been around for quite a while and specializes in tours designed for 18-35 year olds, but in our experience it is only advertised in Australia. We returned to find 6 Contiki busses near our cabin and a bar full of drunken 18 to 22 year old Australians.

We ate, went to the market, bought some beers, and returned to our cabin, hoping to avoid the chaos. But the chaos still found us. The bar was raging and we could hear the bass until 2-something a.m. That was when our paper thin walls began to speak as if we were in someone else’s room our doorknob started moving, persistently.

I called out that we were in the room. Then I banged on the inside of the door, but the knob still moved. It wasn’t until I appeared in the window in my underwear that the girl trying to get into, hopefully, what she thought was her room, realized she had the wrong place. This type of noise and drunken Australian chaos, would persist the rest of the time we were at this campsite. We ended up having to wear earplugs as we could hear people partying until 5am like they were in our room. I wouldn’t recommend it to others…

We spent a day on the beach of the Adriatic and several nights in watching movies in the quiet early hours of the night. Overall it was a very pleasant experience, minus the fact that we were always aware of the number of Aussie youths arriving or departing at any given time. Venice was a fantastic and romantic place for us to spend some time together in the middle of our long times apart.

Then we were off to Austria

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When in Rome…

I arrived in Rome on 9/11. For some reason I seem to be frequently out of the country on 9/11 at least 3 of the last 5 years anyway.

I found my hostel quickly and got setup in my 6 bed dorm. All the other beds were in various states of made-ness so I knew I had roommates. You never know what you’re going to get in a hostel. Some have gender specific dorms but more and more are mixed. Still, the hostels do a good job of managing the loads to accommodate the comfort of their guests. You get options of bathrooms in-room (ensuite), separate stand alone showers and toilettes with closable doors, or gender specific group bathroom/shower facilities. Although Goalfever, the hostel I stayed at in Essen, didn’t quite have enough facilities for the ladies, either that or they just felt more comfortable brushing their teeth with their boyfriends in the men’s room. Whatever the reason, when I came out of the shower area I had to question if I was actually in the right place.

My hostel in Rome, The Yellow, was a very well appointed hostel with a full bar next to the lobby, a basement outfitted for beer-pong, and some fun custom drinks like the “Chuck-Norris-Roundhouse-Kick-To-The-Head”.

I met the bulk of my roommates around 5:30am the first morning (no worries guys). There was a burst of laughter and four of them came stumbling in. They’d been out and had found that elusive state of drunkenness where everything is funny. From my top bunk I watched through sleepy unfocused eyes. A strange Canadian woman named Fern noticed I was awake and decided to strike up a conversation with me.
“Are you awake?”
“yes”
“Oh, sorry. This is what happens when bars close.” As if I was new to the phenomenon, and then she shuffled off.
A short time later I was asleep again…

For my first day in Rome I decided to play with the public transportation system. While efficient, the underground in Rome is very very dirty. Actually quite a bit of Rome is dirty. Take that many people in that size of space and add a casual disregard for cigarette butts and small garbage and you get a mess. At least around the main train station I saw staff dedicated to sweeping and wiping up after the throngs of people, but not many other places.

I found the B&B where Summer and I would be staying for a few days without too much difficulty (about 30minutes of wandering and looking at maps). All around the location were signs to St. Peters and the Vatican Museum so I decided to follow them and get my first taste of the amazing architecture of Rome.

The first thing I saw was the wall surrounding Vatican City, the smallest country in the world. It’s an imposing wall about 40 feet tall and just went on and on. I kept walking in the direction I’d started and as I walked I noticed it was not the way that the incredibly long line of people was headed.

I eventually walked through the north entrance of St. Peter’s square. You can tell you are entering something significant because the food carts start to get closer and closer together and the street merchants selling their brand name knockoffs are wandering through the crowds saying “Nice Lady, I give you best price” to every woman who turns their head for a moment.

All that chaos aside, when you step into the center of that imposing square you realize how effective Bernini was at his task. In 1656 he was commissioned to create the square such that all who entered it were humbled. Circling the edges are towering columns with what appear to be small sculptures adorning their tops. These sculptures are actually life-sized but due to the scale of everything in the square their actual size and detail are almost lost in the grandeur of the whole.

Then of course you have St. Peter’s Basilica, the masterpiece of Michelangelo, a truly massive structure designed to be greatest church in Christendom. I actually thought it would be bigger. Not that it isn’t a truly massive basilica but based on descriptions I’ve read I expected it to be at least half again bigger. Maybe these people I’ve read are just much shorter than I am. Regardless, this is the trouble that expectations can get you into.

I began walking from the square in a direction that seemed to make sense; I wandered off in back alleys for a couple hours watching the chaos of the people and cars. There are very few bicycles in Rome or in Italy for that matter. I think they must just be too slow for the Italians. All the rumors in that regard are true. Italians drive like maniacs. There are no lines on the streets and there is a kind of eat or be eaten mentality to traffic. The pedestrians are just as crazy, I don’t know if there is some type of state mandated break check or reaction time minimum associated with acquiring an Italian driver’s license but people would just walk in into active intersections with the faith that traffic would see them and not turn them into whatever keeps the cobblestones in place.

Back to my meanderings… I walked for several hours just trying to get a feel for the city. I would occasionally blend into a tour group (which there was no shortage of) assuming they were off to somewhere interesting and if they didn’t find it by the time I became bored with the collective I’d veer off in another direction.

With this method I found my way to the Pantheon, the oldest Church in Rome. Also, the oldest Christian church in Rome, but only because by order of Pope Boniface IV in 609AD it was reconsecrated and all the statues of Pagan gods were removed to be replaced with statues of Christian Martyred Saints. It is an ancient and imposing structure. The columns that support the entryway dwarf the masses of people gathered there. And when you enter through the massive entryway you see the magnificent dome with its giant open top. According to a discovery special I watched it is believed that the oculus was a design consideration for the unsupported dome to reduce the total weight and keep it from collapsing in on itself. This engineering marvel stood as the largest unsupported dome until until we started building domed stadiums nearly 1800 years later.

I ended up walking across Rome from the Vatican to the Coliseum, which when you first walk up on it you have to remind yourself that you are present, in Rome, standing before one of the single greatest achievements of man, however horrible its purpose by today’s standards.

The next couple days I spent close to the Hostel, re-reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, and tending to my largely stinky wardrobe. I didn’t want to see too many of the sights before Summer arrived. The nights were spent drinking with my Argentinean and Swiss dorm mates while wandering around the Trevasteria neighborhood of Rome. This is supposedly where the “Locals” hang out, but you really can’t go anywhere in Rome that isn’t overrun with Tourists (like ourselves).

Early early the morning of the 14th Summer flew into Leonardo Da Vinci airport. I waited by what I thought was the right arrival door. Constantly checking the “Arrivals” board, wondering why there was nobody coming out the door I realized that the door I really wanted was 300ft further down the terminal so, fearing I had missed her exit, I jogged to the customs door in the C terminal (same building) and stood anxiously waiting for her to appear. About 30 minutes passed and I was shooed away from peering around the corner at least twice by a large disgruntled Italian woman. Still no Summer. I feared that she was wandering around the terminal wondering why I wasn’t there to meet her. Eventually she appeared through the door and we were both incredibly relieved and incredibly happy to see each other. (insert lots of hugging here).

The next day we began our exploration of Rome with St. Peter’s Basilica and the Castel Sant’Angelo which were both just down the way from our B&B. We took it easy the first couple days mostly because we were happier to be hanging out with each other than to be tourists in Italy.

After our couple days at the B&B we switched to more budget accommodations. I’d booked a “cabin” at a camping site outside of Rome. Note: Italy and moreover Europe in general is very expensive. After a confusing journey and several trains we found our way to the spot where the bus for our facility was to pick us up. We met a group of other confused backpack toting travelers and communed about how none of us knew where we were supposed to be. Luckily someone had a cell phone and was able to contact the campsite and find the correct location for pickup.

We got settled in our “cabin”, basically a 300sq ft room with a bathroom and paper thin walls, Rome was quite hot so we paid for the AC option and began cooling our room to somewhere just above freezing and set back out toward Rome in pursuit of the Coliseum.
On the way we met Dave and Nikki, a couple on break from Oxford, who became our travel and drinking buddies for the next several nights. We all made our way through the Forum ruins together and into the Coliseum at the last possible entry time.

If you have the opportunity in your life to stand in that structure and consider its history take it. If you don’t feel you have the opportunity, make it. It is an awesome feeling. Not only is it a wonder of ancient engineering but to stand there and consider the realities of the Emperors that presided over the games, the sheer volume of lives lost, the fact that entire species were made extinct to entertain the masses in this same space is quite a experience even though you are looking at it through the lens of history.

We talked about how it must have been for the attendees to watch real blood being shed for entertainment and I was forced to consider the correlation to our entertainment today. We no longer lose real lives in our day to day entertainment but we have become expert at simulating it. The difference for me became more subtle that day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to stop watching action movies or boycott video games or any other form of entertainment. I love watching stuff explode and shooting the virtual bad guys. I don’t think this makes me a bad person. I just don’t feel we’ve changed that much as a species. We’ve actually gotten better at the spectacle, we are no longer limited by the real world or its consequences, we are only limited by our imaginations, bolstered by the safe distance of fantasy.

Life as we know it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the impact this culture had on the world. For better or worse this was a part of it.

We took a day off of Rome to hang out by the pool at the campsite and relax. We met up with Dave and Nikki at the bar and drank too much; eventually getting beers to go and trying to continue conversations in front of our cabin but we were repeatedly visited by a security guard on a bike and eventually had to end the night. As we said our goodbyes Summer and I were adopted by a stray kitten that snuck in the door as we were shutting it. There was talk about whether or not it might fit into carry on luggage but even in our inebriated state we were able to consider how unfortunate quarantine might be. Regardless it kept us company until the morning and then went about finding another foster family.

Our last must-do for Rome was the Vatican Museum. So on our last day we went to the main train station, got tickets for Venice and made our way to Vatican City. I’m not exaggerating when I say the line was a quarter mile long. While standing in line I started to envision the flat escalators from airports guiding people through the museum. That was the only way I could imagine why the line was moving as fast as it was. The reality wasn’t much different. The Vatican Museum supposedly has the largest private collection of art in the world at over 60,000 pieces. While I don’t doubt it, I can say I didn’t see it. So much art and so many people are crammed into that museum that the whole experience is a waste in my opinion. Huge tour groups overrun the entire museum. All trying to get to the Sistine Chapel. There are literally thousands of people walking in packs with little regard to others in the relatively narrow halls of the museum. If you didn’t get a good enough look at something, forget about it, trying to go back to investigate a piece after you’ve passed it is like salmon swimming upstream. I would not be surprised if people have died in some type of stampede in those halls. Fire codes and good sense seem to be suspended in the country of Vatican City. The whole experience would be vastly improved if there were specific times or days that were dedicated to tour groups and other times dedicated to independent visitors.

Beyond all that, when you finally make it into the Sistine Chapel, it’s worth it. It is such a stunning work of art that you can almost forget the two thousand other people staring up at it. The frescoes are bright and brilliant and huge. The detail is so amazing that no picture or reproduction does it justice, there is just no way to represent the feeling of turning your head and in every direction being in awe of it. I’ll save my diatribe on the need for tourists to understand how to use their cameras for another time.

Sufficed to say, if there are two things to do in Rome, they are the Coliseum and the Sistine Chapel, everything else is amazing, but those two left a lasting impression.

And we were off to Venice in the morning.

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Photos: Rome and Venice

Sorry for the long silence, Summer and I have been very busy. Also, the Internet access here in Italy has been either sketchy or expensive, or both. I haven’t been doing too much writing in the past week but I have been taking loads of pictures and have them up on Flickr now. Expect a flurry of posts in the coming week to catch up on observations, travel mishaps, and essential Italian experiences.

First was Rome

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Then was Venice

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And we’re off to Vienna in the morning!

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Photos: Berlin and Paris

Here are some of the photos from my time in Berlin and Paris. I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to label all of them so for now I hope you enjoy them out of context.

Berlin

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Paris

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Overnight to Rome

After a relaxing nine days in Paris I’d seen the sights, hung out with friends, experienced some real French cuisine, and minus the having-to-be-somewhere, I have some idea what it would be like to live in the city. Having the opportunity to stay with someone gives you a more intimate view.

Until last Friday I had been planning on continuing my adventures through Northern Europe then the overwhelming desire to spend time with Summer won me over. It’s been two months since we’ve seen each other and although we talk regularly I really wanted to actually spend time with her. We’d talked about her joining me in Paris but that wasn’t going to happen so I had to find another way. The last few days of my stay in Paris I spent a lot of time on the internet scouring every possible combination of flights, trains, busses, and ferries to get Summer to Europe – I’d even looked at flying back to Portland for a little while. The end result – mission accomplished! She will be joining me in Italy for a couple weeks and I can’t describe how happy that makes me. I’m looking forward to sharing the experience of looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, taking a gondola ride in Venice and possibly taking in a performance of Mozart in Vienna. I’m a romantic, deal with it.

She flies in on Thursday so I arrived early to figure out the transportation systems and locate the places we’ll be staying, that way she doesn’t have to suffer through my inevitable wrong turns and confusion. She’ll see enough of that while she’s here; there is no reason to expose her to it right off the plane.

I took the night train to Rome from Paris, a 14 hour journey and my first experience in a sleeper car. I have a first class railpass but there were no more first class berths available so I booked for second. It was cheaper and I have no frame of reference so it was as comfortable as I could expect. Called a “couchette” it was a room no larger than most of your bathrooms and smaller than some. Upon first glance there were two beds, two bench seats, and a Vietnamese couple in the cabin. After a little investigation we discovered that the backs of the bench seats folded down to create a total of 6 beds each with a little less than two feet of clearance above the other. Shortly after that a Korean couple and their 3 year old child arrived. It was quite a switch to go from hearing the romance languages to Asian dialects.

I had the one of the top bunks and after a couple hours of sitting between the two couples I ascended to my perch and read there for a while before falling asleep. I woke up at about midnight and found that the Vietnamese couple had folded out their beds, the Korean father had taken the other top bunk, and the mother and child were cuddled up on the bottom bunk. With no windows open the cabin had started to heat up and I had no control over ventilation so I decided to go explore the train a bit. I tried as quietly as I could to exit the cabin, but then couldn’t get the door open. Someone woke up after a moment and showed me how to unlock the door.

The train had stopped and when I exited the cabin I walked straight into two police officers. Apparently we were at the border city of Velbon and the passenger’s passports were being checked before we crossed into Italy. I stepped off the train and chatted with another passenger named Vincent for a little while; he is an Amateur Photographer and was on his way to a holiday in Rome to take some fresh pictures as his eye had tired of Paris. We talked cameras and lenses and the benefits of this and that for a short while before the train doors tried to close.

The night passed uneventfully but was an interesting experience. I passed in and out of sleep. The jerking of the train was a big departure from the slow methodical rocking of the cargo ship. Several things you learn quickly when budget traveling are that you need to abandon any concepts of personal space, you can get by on little food, and that your body will find sleep where it can no matter what the conditions.

We arrived in Rome about 20 minutes behind schedule and, following the directions to my hostel that I’d written down, I found it without a single wrong turn. I walked into the check-in to hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasting and the excited staff buzzing around speaking perfect English. Check in isn’t until 1:30pm so I locked up my luggage and made my way to the bar for a coffee and some free Wi-Fi. After check-in I’m looking forward to a hot shower and a change of clothes, and then I’m off to explore this already amazing city in the sunshine that I’ve been missing.

I’ll try to get some photos processed and up in the next day or two. I’ve got tons from Berlin and Paris that are in RAW format and I need to convert them before I can post them.

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