Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Milan

Upon arriving at the train station in Milan, Italy, we ran around in confusion trying to figure out just how we were going to get to our hotel. We decided that the metro would do the trick so headed downstairs to get tickets. Hanging out by the ticket machines was a very helpful young woman who insisted on pressing the buttons for you and then asking for money. I said "Sorry, no" while reaching down into that dark, apathetic place that resides in us all, grabbed my tickets and headed for my metro. I feel like such a priviledged jerk when I don't give them money, but it's not like I asked for her help or even wanted it. I will not be guilted or obliged into giving my money away! We managed to make it onto our metro and to our hotel with just a tad bit of snapping at each other and some icy silences, but otherwise unscathed. It was a nice sort of place except for the internet. I had been lead to believe that internet was complimentary with the price of the room, bot noooo. It was €5.00 for one hour. That's $7.50 for one hour! And then we were offered two hours for €5.00 or 24 hours for €10.00. We didn't need 24 hours for our two night stay... So that was a bit frustrating and we ended up with no internet. After settling in for a bit we got hungry. We asked the guy at the front desk where a good pizza place was around the hotel, but he was new to the area and didn't know. On the bright side he turned outt o be Spanish and Chuck got to practice his Spanish some more, even though we were now in Italy. We walked down the street and around the corner keeping our eyes open. We settled on a little place called Fly Pizza (whether because of the numerous flies in the place that insisted on sharing your pizza, or because the pizza was so awesome that it was "fly", I'm not sure). They turned out to have some really good pizza, my favorite being the Fly Pizza II that was covered in doner meat (the stuff the use in kebaps) and covered with the garlic white sauce. Man was it good!

We woke up on the 29th with continually itching bed bug bites and some fading sunburns (I might have forgotten to mention that Chuck and I managed to get pretty burned on our hike up the mountain) but managed to get out to see the city despite all that. We caught the tram and ended up getting a free ride because we thought you could buy tickets on the tram, but turns out we were wrong! The driver's apparent apathy meant we ended up with free ride to the Duomo. Although there are numerous "duomos" throughout Italy (afterall, "duomo" is italian for "church") this one is one of the more impressive ones. The outside is more impressive than the inisde according to Chuck. Robyn and I wouldn't know because we weren't allowed to go inside due to the fact that we were wearing sleeveless shirts. In Italy they stick pretty rigidly (especially in the big, well-visited churches) to the rules of "No sleeves, no long pants/skirt, no service." I assume it's done out of respect for the snctity of the church. I sort of think it's BS, but on the otherhand, it's their church and they can do what they want. So no big deal really. But we did learn that we needed to bring along a cover-up in the future. This is also where we first ran into a scam where a friendly-seeming person (usually an African man (I assume they're African by the accent)) physically attempts to tie a little frienship bracelet onto your wrist - just like the ones we all made in middle school - and then asks you for money for the bracelet. We managed to avoid falling into this trap despite being approached about five times. The first guy that came up to us was kind of funny, asking if we were African because Chuck had us, his "two wives" with him. They all seemed to like that "Oh, you are African, yes??" line. After fending a few of those guys off we walked through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which is a big, fancy arcade that is home to some of the high-end shops in the city. I noticed a Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and of course McDonalds in there. The arcade is actually pretty impressive in it's size and detail. And as you pop out the other end of the arcade you find yourself in a busy little square with a fun statue, trees, and an oh-so-popular-for-some-reason drinking fountain. It's not a drinking fountain like you would think of in the US, but more like a fancy spigot with a continually running stream of water. One could fill their water bottle easily this way, or just do a quick rinse of thier hands if they were feeling a little OCD. But I learned from watching another savvy fountaineer that if you stick your finger on the spigot, blocking it's flow, the water pops out in a traditional water-fountain-like stream from another hole in the top. How clever is that?? So I had me a nice refreshing drink of cold water. One of the buildings bordering the square was housing a very temporary-looking exhibit about Leonardo DaVinci and his many, many invensions. We stepped in a looked around briefly. Oh, there was this small, old Italian woman who was having some trouble with one oft he displays. The display was a big four foot wide touch-screen image of one of DaVinci's sketchbooks. To turn the pages you touch the edge of a page and drag your fingers across the screen, effectually pulling the page over. She, however, was having a hell fo a time doing this and after about seven attempts (while the rest of us stood around getting a slightly agravated) she looked with innocent frustration saying something or other in Italian. So Robyn and I ended up turning pages for her. She was actually kind of cute! Across the square from that exhibit was the famous Teatro Alla Scalla. It was opened in 1778 and was the premiere theater for a number of works including Norma in 1831 and Madame Butterfly in 1904. It is also where Maria Callas made her official debut in 1951. Unfortunately we were unable to go on a tour of the building, although Robyn did pay to see the museum section. It's not the most impressive building by any means, but it's got a lok of history. Next stop was Castello Sforzesco. It was original seat of power of the ruling family in Milan - the Sforzas - back in the 1400's. Now it houses a couple of museums, some feral cats, and more of those guys who try to put the friendship bracelets on you. It was a cool place I suppose, but nothing really exciting. After stopping in an American bookstore for a bit we spotted a crowd of people and went to investigate. There was a man carving things out of food sitting cross-legged on the ground. He had parsnips, carrots and beets strewn on the ground around him while he serenly carved away at a swan, or an owl, or a flower. He was fast too! Each creation took only a couple of minutes. Robyn and I were entranced by him and Chuck had to almost literally drag us away finally. We satisfied our starving bodies with paninis from a hole-in-the-wall (I do mean hole-in-the-wall) place. They had over 100 paninis on the menu, it was so overwhelming to have to choose one. It was very good stuff though. Oh, we went back to La Scala again and found there was a chorus singing in fromt of the place. As far as I could tell it was a chorus that was on a trip together for vacationing and decided to pay tribute to the theater by singing right there for the whole world and God to see. It was really cool - the sound echoed well in the little arcade. And the ride home sucked because we tried to get away with a free ride again, but didn't. We were caught and fined €32 each... Ouch! They just calmly wrote us a ticket and had us pay right then and there. The woman was a bit of a shrew, but the guy she was with was actually kind of nice. That sure put a damper on our day. But after a few hours sulking back at the hotel we said "Screw that" and traipsed out to McDonalds for some internet and comfort food. Actually, I tried to just buy two hours of internet from our hotel at first, but the guy who was at the desk was now telling me it was €8 instead of the previously quoted €5. I was ready to shell out €5, but instead they got nothing! Hah! I laugh in their faces. Inside my head. Hah.



We woke up on the 30th, checked out of the hotel, tried to buy tickets on the underground train but the machines were all broken so we got another free ride, although this time it was unintentional and we actually tried to find someone to pay. Then we got our train tickets and hung around at the station forever until it was time to go to Venice!


Friday, September 25, 2009

Zermatt

Our train ride to and through Switzerland was really beautiful. There were a lot of apple trees and orchards along the way which I seemed to perpetually find exciting. As we climbed higher and higher into the Alps it got cooler and cooler until the fact the it was summer seemed ludicrous. By the time we reached Zermatt it was evening and the sky was overcast and cloudy. The main attraction of the area - the Matterhorn peak - was completely obscured. I worried that it might stay in hiding during our entire two-day stay! One of the deciding factors in coming to Zermatt was to see the Matterhorn, the 4,500 meter high mountain that is sort of an iconic image of the Alps. To miss actually seeing it would be disappointing to say the least! We explored the town from our hotel to the grocery store, noticing that prices here were ridiculously high. For example: the McDonald's Big Mac meal was $12 USD. Holy crap! And I thought the $9 USD Big Mac meal though the rest of Europe was pricey... Needless to say, we did not eat at McDonald's, but instead scoured the local grocery store for the cheapest bargains and best deals we could find. I'd say we did a decent enough job. Back at the hostel after dinner we unpacked and tried charging our laptops - I feel like such a yuppie saying that: "Our laptops." I mean, a lot of people who we meet traveling don't even have one laptop. Somehow they manage not to hyperventilate at the idea of showing up in a foreign town with nowhere to stay. As I was saying about the laptops though - there was only one plug for charging in our 6-bed dorm room so I took my computer to the bathroom area and plugged it into the hairdryer outlet. This did have a positive outcome though, because I ended up meeting a nice Holland-er who told me about his mountain climbing experiences. Unlike us, he and his friends actually climb mountains. I was slightly embarrassed to admit to him that we were just planning on doing a 5km hiking trail. Despite that, it was nice to meet someone.



The morning of the 26th broke with lots of sunshine and no clouds - perfect for getting a great view of the majestic Matterhorn. It really is spectacular too. It's as if the earth has been ripped upwards into an impossibly steep peak of snow and rock, like a giant F-you to the sky above. So we got ready (which was pretty easy because we had mostly slept in our hiking clothes to keep warm) and headed out by 10:00. After a quick trip to the mini-mart for our pack lunch we were on our way: first stop Furi. Furi is just one of the many small... towns I suppose you would technically call them, that are scattered throughout the mountains. Furi was really a cable-car stop with a few restaurants sprinkled around it. The hike to Furi was a killer though. I was dying from the steep climb. I constantly lagged behind Robyn and Chuck, my heart was racing like a jackhammer and breathing was out of control. Little did I know that this was only the beginning. We refilled our one little water bottle in Furi and made our best educated guess as to the correct path out of the town and continued up the mountain. As we climbed the views just got more and more awesome and soon we were able to see what were supposedly glaciers nestled into the cradles of the higher mountains. The Matterhorn got cloudier as the day grew longer, perhaps from the snow being blown around by the intense winds up there or maybe because of the evaporation of the snow into vapor, or maybe just because clouds really like the Matterhorn. At one point we were climbing up what Robyn supposed was a ski-slope during the winter months - it was just loose fist sized rocks on a very steep incline for a hikers trail. Admittedly, I think at that point we had lost the trail we were supposed to be on and were just climbing higher wherever we could. We stopped numerous times at small, trickling streams of water to refill the water bottle and I was even caught by two other hikers laying down across a bridge for a rest at one of the larger streams. At some point Robyn started using a 15-step rule: go 15 steps and stop for a 30 second rest. Chuck somehow managed to blaze on ahead of us throughout the whole hike, continually yelling back at us that "We're almost there! It's just over here! Just another 30 minutes!" Of course, those last 30 minutes turned into about two hours. I managed to fall behind Robyn and was completely drained after every set of my 15 steps. It was absolutely exhausting! And I was so disappointed when I woke up the next morning with no muscle aches. I at least deserved that much! As we got higher it also got colder, until my fingers were freezing cold and we were passing clumps of old, dirty snow along the trail. Our final destination was Trockener Steg which lies at 2,939 meters above sea level. By the time we got up here we were so spent that it was hard to appreciate the views, although they were really incredible. The Matterhorn had grown so much closer in our climb of 1,331 meters and looked close enough to touch. Well, not really, but it was noticeably much closer. Seeing as I had been near to tears for the last hour of our six hour climb, there was no way in hell I was going back down the mountain on foot. Thank God for us there are cable cars set up through out this part of the Alps and we had hiked to just such a cable car. We forked out big bucks for our trip back down, but I'm not sure we would have made it if we had tried to hike back down. It was a long, exhausting, and at times a bit terrifying day, but also really rewarding. The whole area around Zermatt is really breathtaking. Being a Florida girl might make me more susceptible to the charms of huge, snowy mountains, but I was awed by the scenery every time I stepped outside. I was also tickled pink by the cold weather in the middle of summer. I mean really, the whole area is like the opposite of Florida now that I think of it. Three-dimensional and cold in the summer. All in all a good day.



We woke up on the 28th to discover that we were covered in nasty little bites. I would estimate that Chuck had close to 150 bites - they really loved him. Robyn managed to walk away with only about five bites... I had about 50. With some help from google we decided that they were probably bed bugs which is pretty gross. Over the next few days Robyn's and mine faded away pretty quickly while Chuck's were a bit more persistent. His arms have faded well enough, but his leg bites turned a nice bright reddish-purple before healing up. To top it all off the suckers itched like crazy! We were constantly slathering ourselves in the cortisone cream that Robyn was thoughtful enough to bring along. But, our Zermatt trip was pretty incredible despite that!


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cap d'Agde

WARNING: There be naked people in these pictures! But the most you can see is backs or shoulders - there's nothing explicit. But just in case you are faint hearted and sensitive to... the idea that people are naked, then you have been warned.

Our next stop was Cap d'Agde, but unfortunately all the rooms were booked for the night we had been hoping to arrive. Instead we decided to stay one night in the only town that had a room available: Perpignon. We almost missed to train from Cerbere (where we had to switch trains) to Perpignon because the ticket line was so long and slow. I've no idea what the problem was at that station, but they did not have their game together! So we just barely made it to our hotel in Perpignon. We got a feast of bread, cheese, wine, chips, applesauce, and vanilla-caramel puddings for dinner which we spread out on the floor and pigged out on. The next day we headed off to Agde from where we caught a bus to Cap d'Agde (or the Cape of Agde). Let me tell you a bit about the place we were going. It's a nudist resort. Yup, a nudist resort on the south-east coast of France. Right on the Mediterranean. Upon arriving (after a slightly confusing bus ride) we promptly headed off in the wrong direction. The guy in the guard house starting yelling at us - not in a mean way, just to get our attention - and directed us to the check-in area. After checking into the nudist colony area (where you get to wander around buck naked everywhere if you wish) we checked into our hotel. It was a nice place with a pool, sauna, Turkish bath (steam room), and our room came with a little kitchen and a nice balcony overlooking the pool area of the resort next door. They played club music from morning to sunset, which was nice at most times, and a bit annoying at others. So we all got naked! Which was weird at first, but we got used to it surprisingly quickly. If you just... act like no one's naked, it's pretty easy! And of course, it really helped that everyone around us where ever we went was usually nude, or at least partially nude. So first thing we did was to go check out the pool area. The pool was cold, and the Turkish bath was very warm. I liked the Turkish bath. And it was very interesting to go to the pool and see two children, a little boy maybe 6 years old and a little girl a bit older swimming with their Mom. Yes, all were in their Birthday suits. I actually thought it was kind of cool. I suppose I tend to feel that American society is so uptight about nudity - that being nude is equivalent to sex. I think it would be nice to raise children with the realization that nudity does not only mean sex and that it can be acceptable to be nude in other appropriate situations. Nudity is so taboo, and female nudity in particular in America seems to be put on some sort of pedestal that I personally think is a bit ridiculous. So it was somewhat refreshing! And I hope I haven't offended anyone with my opinions - they are, after all, just my personal opinions. So, after the pool we headed to the resort grocery store where we got expensive ingredients for risotto. Robyn cooked us a phenomenal risotto with peas, ham cubes, zucchini, and lots of parmesan. We also had a bit too much wine to drink that night which made it a fun, yet forgettable evening!



The 24th I woke up with a hangover, which is never fun. Chuck cooked us a simple but yummy breakfast at at sometime during the afternoon we headed to the crowded beach to soak up some rays. The sun was strong which made the cool Mediterranean water really nice. Chuck ad I spent some time swimming and then playing in the sand on the shore while Robyn mainly read and sun bathed with a few dips in the sea to cool off. I was irresponsible with the sun screen and didn't completely slather myself which left me with a bit of a burn at the end of the day. After the beach I managed to get some laundry done - I did all our clothes since I didn't need to leave out what I was wearing! I cooked a pasta dinner and we kept the wine to a minimum. Before bed we had a quick sweat in the Turkish bath. All in all a pretty relaxing, simple day.



The next morning Chuck made a breakfast again. He made an adaptation of his famous breakfast burrito, but using a dinner roll instead of a tortilla. Yum! It was an overcast day but we headed out to the beach anyways. It was about half as crowded as the day before due to the lack of sunshine. Chuck and I took a walk down the beach to people watch a bit. We saw regular people who like to be naked - nothing special. After our walk we did a little reading, Chuck took a dip (I thought it was too sun-less for a swimming), and then we headed back to the hotel room. We went to the grocery store for some more expensive groceries and Robyn made us some more of that risotto for dinner. Another very relaxing day.



We checked out early on the 26th - so early in fact that no one was at the reception desk (then again it seemed the desk was manned only about five hours of the day anyways). We slipped our keys and a note about our early departure under the office door and took off. Cap d'Adge was a welcome vacation from our vacation. But next stop: Zermatt, Switzerland!


Friday, September 11, 2009

Barcelona

The bus ride to Barcelona wasn't quite as bad as I had expected, but it was still pretty bad. The seats are tiny which makes sleeping hard and the air-conditioner was making the bus smell like cat poo for a while. The people sitting in front of us were playing music on their phone out loud, with no headphones for the first 15 minutes of the trip and the man to our left was playing Indian music so loud on his headphones that you could plainly hear the singers' warbling wails. But despite that, we made it to Barcelona without going insane. The city was ridiculously hot! We wandered around trying to find the nearby metro when a man wearing serial-killer glasses stopped and asked us if we needed help. Don't ask me what serial-killer glasses look like because I'm not sure – you'd know them if you saw them. He actually turned out to be really nice though. Well, nice to us. Maybe he has some poor soul locked in his basement as I type this. One never does know! But he showed us where the Metro was, which was awesome because I think we might have been wandering around sweating our sanity out for at least an hour. By the time we got to the hotel we were completely drenched in sweat anyways. The back of my shirt was disgusting, and our hotel room was just as hot inside as it was outside! God help us. It was very small with no air-conditioning and just an all around miserable place to be. I don't know how people can survive there in the summer without an AC. We barely survived three days! Chuck and I headed out for a few groceries and not too long after Robyn showed up and joined us. The night was pretty boring, although we did meet some Austrian girls who were also staying there. Turned out one was from Graz, which is where Robyn had just been studying in the music program she was in! Small world. We also got in trouble for using the stove to cook our ramen. So sad to have a stove so close, yet so far. It was tough to fall asleep because the window was open in an attempt to get some cool air in the room. I don't think there is any cool air in Barcelona anywhere. We were all wearing as little clothes as was decently possible (although it was rather indecent none-the-less) and we still sweated our...well, you know what I'm saying.

We tried to explore some of the city on the 20th. First we went to an area called Gracia. There were economical decorations strung up in the square and a lot of kids running around have a grand time. When I say economical, I mean that they used colored plastic cups and different colored individual-sized coffee creamers to decorate. It was actually a really creative set-up! The event was Fiesta Mayor de Gracia which, as far as I can tell is an old celebration that entails decorating all the neighborhood streets in a big competition, having parades, and putting on performances. It was very cool, with children running around playing in a hose and adults standing around chatting and looking very jovial. Continuing on, we saw a little market and a few other squares with statues in them. We reached our goal when we finally came upon the Sagrada Familia. It's a big church designed by the local celebrity architect: Gaudi. It was a strange creation, looking like something of a cross between Disney World and a gothic cathedral. Robyn read up on it and found that construction began in 1882 and is still going on to this day. The place is not yet complete! It's strange building and I'm not sure that I really like it to be honest. But certainly an interesting sight. La Rambla was our next stop. It's basically the main tourist street in Barcelona. Not only is it packed with shoppers and sight-seers, it was also lined with quite a few impressive street performers. There were two people dressed in incredible gargoyle costumes, a Count Dracula looking lady, a Roman general, two lovely fairies, a completely gold woman, and more. They're some of the best street performers I've seen. And what busy, tourist street would be complete without people trying to sell things as well. The main items for sale were fans (which we actually bought two of) and these really annoying noise-makers. It's a little thing that goes in your mouth and I guess you just blow through it and it makes a high-pitched squeaking noise that is very annoying. It sounds like a dog toy. And the way they advertise them is to stand around looking very nonchalant and squeak loudly at you as you pass by. So everywhere you go there's some schmuck squakking at you. I feel bad for any parent suckered into buying that for their kids. One of the coolest places we found along La Rambla was a huge market. It was so colorful and lively! Packed full of fruits, nuts, candies, candied fruit, fruit drinks, sausages, meat, cheese, bread, fish, and a few other things. It was a great place to wander around and have a fruit lunch on the go, or just to look at it all. So vibrant! Robyn got some tasty coconut while we were there. We wandered away from La Rambla to find lunch. We ended up at a decently priced little cafe/cafeteria that was okay but nothing special. We walked to the beach next. It was packed! There was barely any space to set down a towel. It was like but we managed to squeeze in and take a swim. The water was really nice, I have to admit. And it was a new experience for me to see so many topless women wandering around the beach. That's the European way to enjoy the beach! We didn't join in ourselves though. After a quick swim we made a few more stops and ended up back at the hotel pretty exhausted from our day. It was a hot, and sweaty, sunburn-y day. We saw some decent sites, found a good market, but the general atmosphere was a little hellish. However, we somehow still found the energy to go out again after our bread, chorizo, and cheese dinner. One of Barcelona's famous sights is its musical fountain which “dances” to a 10 minute segment of music with lights and spraying water every 30 minutes. It's a pretty good show, although Chuck thinks the Bellagio water show is better. If you stand close enough you can feel little droplets of water now and again when the fountain does a particulary big spray. And there's one section of perfectly useable grass that is left abandoned by the spectators because one of the jets of water sprays completely too far and soaks the area. I liked the musical fountain show. Once again, bedtime was horrible. I think the other people staying at the hotel must have thought us very strange. We resorted to leaving the door to our room open as we lounged around in our underwear, trying to cool down. It was so hot!



Robyn suggested that the next day we should get out of the city and go to one of the beaches nearby. She found a promising sounding place called Sant Pol de Mar that's about an hour north of Barcelona. But before heading up there we went back to that awesome market on La Rambla for lunch. We got fruit, salami, cheese, and bread for a picnic style lunch. Robyn also got some fried baby octopus on a stick, I got some fritters, and Chuck got an awesome organic burrito. We found a place near the market to spread out the sheet we had ganked from the hotel for the day and set out the food. All was going well until a bird pooed on Chuck's foot. Then I felt some splashes on my own foot and we decided the picnic was over. Stupid birds... The train ride to Sant Pol was pretty as it ran along the Mediterranean coast the whole way. When we got off the train in Sant Pol we were practically standing on the beach. The water was a lovely shade of translucent blue-green with gentle, lapping waves, and the sand was a coarse pebbly consistency. Chuck had read that there is a nude part to the beach and after he found it we all headed over there. I mean, when in Rome right?? Robyn and I chose to just go topless, but Chuck went the whole nine yards! Of course, it's strange at first but you get used to it fairly quickly. And it definitely helped that there were quite a few people around us that were bearing it all as well. The water was great! Just cool enough that it's chilly to get in, but nice once you're in for a few moments. We just sat around on the beach for about three hours enjoying the sunshine and waves. The sun getting lower in the sky, we packed up and headed back to Barcelona. Back at La Rambla again we searched for a piercing parlor Robyn had researched online. It seems getting piercings is the thing to do on vacation because Robyn now wanted to get one. About 10 minutes after walking into the piercing shop we walked back out with Robyn's new piercing: a teardrop surface piercing. It looks really good on her too! Makes me want another one, hehe. We walked around a bit looking for a cheap place to eat, which we did not find. Instead we had just a few tapas - not enough to fill us up all the way, but enough to keep us satisfied. It was good food, I have to admit, and we even got a free order of patas (or steak fries) on accident. The language barrier led our server to believe that we had not gotten our fries yet, when in fact we had. We tried to tell him but we just couldn't communicate properly, so we ate them!



We left Barcelona on the 22nd and it was a truly frustrating experience. Barcelona has two metro systems run by two separate companies, but they are all listed on Metro maps together, as though they are the same. Our trip to the train station required that we switch trains, and the only option was that we take one company's line, then other. That required that we spend €4.20 a person just getting to the train station. And to top it off, the machine Robyn used to get tickets on the second Metro ate her money and gave no ticket in return. We had to wait while the machine attendant ever so slowly helped another woman get her change from another machine before lazily strolling over to get us back our change. It was so frustrating! The whole experience only re-enforced how glad I was to be leaving Barcelona. On the bright side, the tickets to our next destination were pretty cheap compared to the rest of Europe.


Monday, September 7, 2009

Granada

Oh Granada. It was so sad to leave such a lovely place. I have to say that it has become my favorite place we've been to so far, but let me start at the beginning. We took a full train from Madrid to Malaga and then jumped on a two hour €10 bus to Granada. We took another bus into the heart of the town and checked in to the hotel. By the time we got to out hotel we were already thinking that the town had a nice feel and look, so first impressions were good. After settling in we decided it was time to find a grocery store (pretty much always the first thing we do in a new city). We asked the lady at the front desk and managed to figure each other out despite the fat that she spoke only a very little English and Chuck only a little Spanish. In fact, we discovered that mostly no one speaks English in Granada which was actually kind of nice. The front-desk lady tells us that grocery stores are closed that day due to a festival that was going on. I'm still not sure what the festival was, but we went out to look for something anyways. It was very hot outside and the sun was incredibly intense. We sweated out butts off as we walked around some little back streets trying to find an open shop. About 90% of all the stores that lined the streets were closed! It was pretty amazing - almost had a ghost-town feel. We walked by a couple of fancy, old-looking buildings before coming upon one of the local points of pride: the cathedral. It's a big, gorgeous place that glows a beautiful golden color in the setting sun. It's surrounded on all sides by other buildings which makes getting a nice photo of it a bit hard, but I tried to get a few anyways. Around the cathedral were a lot of restaurants and little shops that were actually open. Of course, they were expensive places geared towards tourists, but we got a soda to take the edge off the heat. Between the buildings are narrow alleys lined with small shops packed full of bright and colorful scarves, shoes, pants, skirts, statues, hookahs, jewelry, etc. The goods are set up not only inside the shops, but also on trays and in baskets set in the alley-way. Above the alley are hung colorful squares of fabric to keep out the blazing sun. It has a very Moroccan feel, which makes sense as Morocco is actually not that far from Granada. It's just a two hour ride to the coast and a short ferry boat across the water to get there. After exploring the alleys we headed back to the hotel for a few hours break before our next adventure: tapas. We had to wait until after 8:00 PM before searching for tapas bars because in Spain dinner-time doesn't start until after then. We very hungrily went in search of tapas and were happy to find we were right next to a street filled with bars. Perhaps I should describe tapas, in case you don't know what they are. Actually, I'm still not exactly sure what makes something a "tapas" as opposed to it being an appetizer or small meal, but I'll describe what we've experienced with tapas. In most tapas bars in Granada, when you order a €2.00 beer, along with it you'll get an appetizer-sized food of some sort. It may be a ham and cheese sandwich with fries, or a pasta salad, or spinach dip, or chorizo on bread, or any other type of food they feel like making. Some places just surprise you with what you get and others have a list of tapas that you can choose from. The food is typically "bar food" quality, but the fact that it comes for free with your €2.00 beer makes it awesome. Of course, some places charge more, but we avoided those ones. And tapas don't work the same everywhere either. In larger cities you'll find tapas restaurants that charge for each tapas. At places like that you have a menu and order the tapas you want - it doesn't come with your drink for free. In that case it feels more like you're ordering a bunch of small appetizers. We liked the Granada style tapas!

On the 16th we stayed in the hotel until about 2:00 PM because most places don't seem to open until around that time. We went back to the cathedral to try and find a good restaurant to eat at around there. We ended up at a place called Cafe au Lait after a lot of searching - it turned out to be a good choice. They had a "meal deal" for €9.50 that included a drink, bread, first course, second course, and dessert. Deals like this are really common throughout all of Spain. Chuck said that lunch is the most important meal in Spain, so I suppose that's why they offer all sorts of good deals on it. I really enjoyed the first course which was melon con jamon, or honey dew melon and prosciutto. It sounds a bit strange at first, but the sweet melon with the salty ham was delicious! Yum. We sat outside on the terrace where we were politely approached a few times to be offered bootleg watches and bootleg CDs, and at one point a man playing a recorder did a little performance and then came around asking for donations. We didn't give him anything yet he still thanked us and said he hoped we had a nice time in Granada! A polite beggar?? What is this?? I was amazed. And the next time we saw him we did give him money. To be fair, he wasn't really a beggar per say, he did offer a skill for which he was asking compensation. I can much appreciate that than people who sit next to a train station with their hands out. After lunch we walked around some of those alleys again and then retired to the hotel for our siesta break. After 8:00 PM we went out for tapas again. This time we went to another part of town looking for a particular place that Chuck had read about online. We found it and were upset to see a sign on the door stating that they were closed for vacation until September! We went back to the area we were at the night before and tried a different bar. They ended up being expensive and not very nice so we went back to the place we were at the night before. About three beers and tapas later we headed back to the hotel for the night. I remember loving the feel of the place as we were walking around. In one area there were a few families all enjoying the after-effects of a good meal with good conversation while the children ran around playing in a public water fountain. It just had such an authentic feel to it - it was really lovely. I felt like we were seeing the real lives of people who just wanted good company after a hard days work with no pretenses.



The next day was rough because we woke up at about 6:00 AM to get tickets into La Alhambra. We left the hotel at 7:00 AM and the sun was just rising, luckily. That meant we could avoid the afternoon heat while we dragged ourselves up the hill to the entrance of the palace complex. The hill was really steep, too, so I was very grateful! At one point I collapsed onto a bench and told Chuck that I just couldn't go on any further. About three minutes later I was okay though and we made it the rest of the way. By the time we got there (about 7:40 AM) there was already a decent line waiting. Once the ticket office opened at 8:00 AM it still took about one and a half hours to get our tickets. I read online that they typically sell out by 10:00 AM in the summer, so I was glad we got there when we did. Once inside you're free to wander the 600 year old, Moorish built palace fortress. Well, you're almost free to wander. There is the Palacios NazarĂ­es that you can only visit during your scheduled time, ours being 10:00 AM. We got to stand in another line to get in there, along with all the other people who had 10:00 AM "appointments." Inside the palace was really beautiful though. The walls were intricately carved with small, repeating patterns, sometimes highlighted here and there with old, fading colors. Some walls were tiled with colorful geometric patterns. There were numerous Taj-Mahal-shaped windows that looked out onto the rolling hillside landscape of Granada. Other windows of the same shape weren't fully open, but were carved with hundreds of small holes making a lovely silhouette when the light shies through. There were a number of perfectly still algae-green ponds, fed by the gentle trickle of nearby, small fountains built into the ground. The style of the place was so different than anything we had seen so far. Although it wasn't filled with fancy old furniture, huge chandeliers, or painted ceilings it was really special. The rest of the complex wasn't as elaborate as the palace, but it still had some nice areas. The Alcazaba had the feel of a fortress with it's high walls and lookout towers. The Generalife was similar to the palace with carved walls and ponds, it just wasn't as extensive. All around the Alhambra were little channels for flowing water. Some would flow down small sets of stairs while others would flow along the hand rail of a stairway. And the place had a lot of wild cats. In fact, all of Granada had wild cats and kittens. They were so cute! But, of course, they won't let you anywhere near them. So after wearing ourselves out at La Alhambra we stopped at one of the many kebap places on the road back to the hotel. It was just about the best kebap I've ever had! It was stuffed with curried chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, grated carrots, grated beets, and white sauce, all mixed up inside the pita shell. Man it was good! We slept while we digested those and woke up in time for our favorite Granada activity: tapas. We went to the restaurant we had lunch at the previous day, Cafe au Lait, and tried their tapas. Unfortunately they weren't very exciting so we moved on quickly. We ended up at what turned out to be a gay tapas bar. It had the best tapas we'd had, in my opinion. There was a delicious spinach dip and they had a great pasta salad. The bartender was a rather butch woman, but with a great smile and attitude. I felt more comfortable in that bar than any of the others we'd been to! Although the one we went to our first night was really good too. We actually met two girls while there - one British and one Italian. We heard one of them ordering in English right next to us at the bar and Chuck was brave enough to start up a conversation. It turned out that the British girl was from London and lived very near to Kensington where we had stayed while we were "living" there. Small world!



The 18th turned out to be a stress-fest because we realized we didn't have a way to get to Barcelona yet. We ran around the city to the train station where we were told there were no more trains available to Barcelona for when we wanted to go. So next we went to the bus station and settled on a 13 hour overnight train that left that very night. It certainly wasn't ideal, but we bought tickets. So we had our last tapas that night and sadly made our way to the bus station to take the long bus ride to Barcelona.




Friday, September 4, 2009

Madrid

The train ride to Madrid was another overnight one, but at least this time we boarded at 11:00 PM instead of 3:00 AM. The first half of the trip was on a train that seemed right out of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. The seats were old and reminded me a bit of a dentists' chair. They had a large footrest that popped out from the front (but couldn't actually hold the weight of the feet without drooping 6 inches) and the seat itself could be reclined to about a 45 degree angle. Of course this puts the top of you head practically in the lap of the random stranger seated behind you. One little, old Italian woman apparently did not like this and at about 2:00 AM woke up half the train with her disapproval. The people sitting right behind us had a one year old baby who they sang to sleep for about 45 minutes. It was very sweet and the songs were in French so it was neat to listen to. Little did they know, they weren't just singing their kid to sleep, but me as well. At 7:00 AM we arrived at the border of Spain where the French border control fellas popped out of nowhere (like the Agents from the Matrix) to make sure no one was trying to... well, trying to leave illegally? I'm not exactly sure. But there was an unlucky young couple on the train that they took an interest in. After a few minutes of discussion they asked them to "Please step off of the train" with them. The poor guys face did a double take when he was asked to step off, but they did. Our train continued on into Spain without them! Poor guys. First thing i noticed when we got into the Madrid train station was that it felt like America. I'm not even sure why, but it felt more like Amrica than any place we've been yet. And the metro system in Madrid is one of the best in Europe that we've seen. We ended up at our hotel with pretty much no problems and took a rest. Our hotel, although a decent place in a decent area, is right next to hooker-corner. To get to the hotel you have pass by a corner where there are usually about 7-10 prostitutes gathered at a time. Sometimes you'll see a man hanging around, looking as though he's probably cheking out the goods. I don't know where they take their Johns, but luckily we never saw anything more seedy than the ladies hanging around in their skimpy outfits. But it never felt dangerous - just a little awkward and humorous. So we passed them on by to go out for an afternoon snack: bocata de calamares, or a calamari sandwich. The place we chose to eat at ended up being a rather unpleasant experience as the staff was constantly giving us the evil eye. I felt like I had spat on a statue of their god or soemthing. All I wanted was to give them my money for their sandwich! The sandwich itself was pretty good, although it could have been jazzed up a bit with a nicer roll. So that was a sad introduction to Madrid dining for us.



On the 12th we headed out to see a few sights and get train tickets for our next stop: Malaga. We saw the Opera House, Royal Palace, and a lovely park before we reached the station. Chuck managed to communicate well with the lady at the ticket counter, despite the fact that she didn't speak English at all. He's pretty good with his Spanish! Walking around Madrid at that time of day (or honestly, anytime that the sun is above the horizon) is miserable! It is so hot! It's like Las Vegas heat and just goes right into your bones. I much prefer Florida heat, and I was sure to make sure that Chuck knew exactly how I felt all day. We saw Plaza Mayor and then finally found a little place to eat that looked more like a local bar than a tourist trap. We got a couple of tapas and beers and cooled off from the heat for a while. My shrimp (or gambas) were served fully intact and I wasn't quite sure what the etiquette on eating shrimp in Spain is. I Just ripped off the heads and peeled the body, but maybe I'm supposed to... eat the brains or something, bleg. When we got our bill the bartender poured us two free shots of a sweet, greenish alcohol! I have no idea why - did he just like us? Is it something they do for everyone? Do they give free shots to tourists? Either way, it was really nice of him and made for a much nicer experience than the sandwich place from the night before. After that we grabbed some food from the grocery store and stayed in the rest of the day. So hot!



I have to admit, the rest of our Madrid trip was pretty boring. We stayed inside most of the next day, but we did get out in the evening. I really wanted to make sure we tried a good paella while we were there so I did some research and found a place that seemed to have some good reviews. We had to wait until 8:00 PM to go out, because Madrid's dinner scene doesn't get started until then. It's that whole siesta thing, right? Everything shuts down around 3:00 PM and opens again after 8:00 PM. So we went to La Paella and had a seat. We tried our best to order and speak in Spanish, while our waitress did her best to use English. The paella, although expensive, was really good, and very pretty when it comes out of the kitchen. When it's ready they bring it to your table still in the dish its cooked in for approval, and if approved they serve it onto plates for you. I wonder if anyone ever says "No, no good." What do they do with it?? We got a seafood paella which had mussels, clams, large red shrimp (they were huge), and other bits of fish. It was tasty! I'm going to have to make paella sometime when this trip is over. Or when I have a kitchen again at least. While we were walking back to the hotel after dinner we realized that Madrid comes alive at night. Don't get me wrong, it's very alive during the day, but at night everyone is all glammed-up in sequins, short skirts, and high heels, ready to go out partying. The downside is that you see the effects of too much partying on the sidewalks the next morning. More than once did we see little, chunky piles of vomit on the sidewalk. Pretty disgusting.



Our last day in Madrid we managed to get out for lunch. Chuck found a place online that looked good, but when we arrived we decided it was too expensive and that another place we had just passed would be perfect. So we took a seat and ordered the lunch meal deal. It was €9.50 for a drink, bread, starter, main, and dessert. That's a really great deal! I would normally expect that much food to cost €18.00 or more. Chuck's starter was arroz negro - rice mixed with squid ink and calamari. Sounds weird as an American, but really very tasty. I got gazpacho, which I had heard of but couldn't remember what it was. It was a yummy, tomato based, cold soup that came with chopped veggies that I could toss in. And for the main course Chuck got a carne platter that came with five different small portions of meat, while I got a ham steak. And dessert was ice cream and a tiramisu flan. Good stuff! Now I'm getting hungry... After lunch we decided we'd better find a place to stay in our next destination: Malaga. After looking at places to stay in Malaga we decided we couldn't afford to stay in Malaga, let alone find a room that was available when we needed it. So we changed our plans a bit and decided Granada would be a nice alternative. We'll take the train to Malaga, then hop and €10 bus to Granada and hopefully it will all work out. Let me tell you, it can get incredibly frustrating to try and find places to stay while on the road and on such short notice. We looked for hours and hours before finally deciding on where to stay. It's very reliving, though, to know that it's taken care of!


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Paris

Our late-night train ride to Paris was just fine. We were told that when going to Paris by train the passport control suddenly pops up out of nowhere as soon as you cross the border. Lo and behold, that's just what happened. Suddenly there are these spiffy, super-security guard looking men going through the train asking for passports with a very French accent. They're serious about their border control! We, of course, had no problems with that though. Thank goodness... We were pretty darn tired by the time we go there, but nothing we couldn't suffer through. We hung around the train station for a while where we saw numerous men dressed in full camoflauge gear, a giant beret, and a large machine gun or rifle or whatever it was. That was a bit disturbing... I assume they're afraid of attacks on the stations and these GI Joes are going to save the day. I honestly just felt like I might get shot for some unknown infarction! Kinda scary and disconcerting. After arriving at the hotel a few hours later we took a good six hour nap, found a grocery store, made a pasta, and went back to bed again. We needed the rest!

The next morning we got out the door by 10:45 AM or so. First stop: Eiffel Tower. It was a bit exciting to walk down the road towards the park and see the top of the tower peeking over buildings or down allys, and finally popping out for all to see when we reached the edge of the green. We got a lot of pictures of it from various spots and angles, so I don't think I'll look back in years to come and say "Gosh, I should have taken a few more photos!" Thanks to our friend Erin we decided to do a wine-and-cheese picnic in the park. I took my time picking out a spot that I deemed worthy and we took a seat and unloaded our little bag of lunch. We took about an hour eating, talking, and people-watching right next to the Eiffel Tower. It was very nice actually! The tower was just as big and just as impressive as I expected so there were no disapointments from me. I think Chuck was expecting a bit more, but I wouldn't call him disapointed. There were long lines of people waiting to go up the tower at each ticket station. You could see them, like little ants, marching up the bowels of the tower. It looks like a hard climb. We opted out of the climb and instead headed out past the Palais de Chaillot and down to the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc de Trimphe was bigger than I expected. It had all sorts of memorials and plaques all over it, written in French so I couldn't really understand most of them. And the surrounding round-about is pretty big and without any lines markign the lanes. How do they drive without hitting each ther?? Mayhem! Nah, traffic seemed to flow just fine despite not having lane lines. We walked down Champs Elysees Avenue to see the Grand Palais and Petit Palais - I thought the Petit Palais was much prettier than the Grand Palais. After that was Concorde Square which is home to a small obelisk (small in terms of obelisks that is - most obelisks are rather huge in height). Next stop, just down the road was la Madeleine, which is another large, impressive building. And next we made our way to the gorgeous opera house: Palais Garnier. They have busts of various compsers displayed in alcoves around the outside of the building, much like that room inside the opera house in Vienna. I snapped some pictures as we passed by on our way to Sacre Coeur. Oh, and on the way to Sacre Coeur we passed by the Moulin Rouge! Very not-impressive, but I guess it's the name that's important. I don't think I've yet mentioned how exhausted I was by this point. I felt like a zombie, just marching along after Chuck, too weak to even complain. We were both dead tired. The neighborhood we were walking through was pretty interesting though. After the Moulin Rouge we were in the sex-district with lots of sex shops and a few theatres. Past that was... Well, I don't know that it had a name (although I'm sure it did because all the different sections of big cities have their own names), but it was a very busy area. There were a number of very cheap clothes shops that basically had cardboard boxes or plastic bins out front filled with a jumble of clothing and a sign saying "€1." There were a few guys with shopping carts containing a mini brick BBQ that was stacked with delicious looking roast corn on the cob. There were a lot of sketchy looking guys inconspicously selling belts, sunglasses, and colognes on the curb as you passed by. Although I noticed quite a bit of African influence all over the city there was a lot more of it in this part of town. Men and women alike were wearing colorfully patterned robe-like dresses and some mothers had their babies slung onto their backs with just a large piece of fabric. And did I mention it was really busy? It was busy over here. After climbing a friggin mountain (technically it was more a hill) to see Sacre Coeur we wearily headed back to the hotel. I was careful to tightly hold onto my bag on the metro because the crowd seemed a great place for pick-pocketers to hang out. Luckily no one tried anything.



The next morning we set out with sore feet from the day before to see the Louvre Museum. On the walk there we stopped into St. Germain Church which I thought was lovely. Most churches I've seen are either painted in brighter colors - namely whites or creams - or left as natural stone. This church was painted in dark blues and greens and marroons. I felt it was perhaps a more honest representation of the religion... I loved it! We also passed by a busy little pastry shop that had a bunch of different flavors of macarons, but I decided to pass it up for the moment. I didn't realize it as we came upon the Louvre. The building is huge and beautiful, covered (as such buildings seem to be) with sculptures and carvings. We looked up how big it was later and it's something like 650,000 square feet. The buildings are built around a square, which is where the famous glass pyramid enterance is located. We paid €9 a person for tickets, but I honestly think it's worth more just for the architecture inside. I was more impressed by all the gold relief and ceiling paintings in each room than the artwork that was hanging on the walls. It's so beautiful!! I believe it used to be home to Napoleon III and one section of the museum is decorated as they might have been while he was living there. Huge chandeliers, long dinner tables, lush couches and chairs, rich carpets and curtains. So amazing. Oh yeah, we saw the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and a few other famous and not-so-famous pieces of art. As expected Ms. Lisa and Ms. Milo were really crowded. I was determined to get close to the Mona Lisa though so I pushed and prodded my way to almost the very front where Chuck and I each got a picture with her. She's so small! Well, I mean I was expecting a 3-4 foot painting but it looks like it's barely 2 feet tall. The wall she hangs on is covered by a thick layer of glass for protection. It sounds like she's been through a few ordeals in her time: being stolen for two years, have rocks thrown at her, etc. But she looks pretty secure now. We spent nearly four hours in the museum and perhaps saw maybe 25% of the place. It is "gastronomical" in size as Chuck just stated. There's a pretty church right next to the Louvre that I looked at quickly before we went back to the hotel. Another exhausting day in Paris!



On the 9th we headed out to start our day at the Republique statue. Walking south down Richard Lenoir we eventually came to a big market selling all the things that markets do. We finally got a small can opener for €1! It should come in handy. We also got a crepe filled with dark chocolate. We took our crepe to the edge of the market and sat down on a ledge to eat. Little did we know we'd be getting free entertainment too. We noticed the commotion only as a large woman with a small dog and a shopping cart holding another dog began to yell at a nearby vendor in French. She seemed very angry. After a bit of yelling the vendor stomped over to her and started yelling back. She spat on the ground at his feet, which I imagine would be insulting to ones honor and he made motions like he was telling her to leave. After a few moments he stomped back to his stall and mostly ingored her. She, however, was happy to go on yelling and throwing a fit. She had ice thrown at her a couple of times which was something I'd never seen before. I almost expected tomatoes to fly at some point. The whole time her dogs are barking and barking along with her. We weren't the only ones entranced by what was going on - there were a few onlookers. A stander-by finally managed to talk to her and she slowly simmered down. I really wish I had known what that argument was all about! I was very curious. And it was interesting to see the cultural difference in how to insult someone - spit at their feet or throw ice on them. After the show we headed to the Bastille - yet another statue. I stopped into a pastry shop that I had looked up the night before and finally got my macarons. Those tiny things are pricey! I got four and it cost me €7. But I wasn't going to leave France without trying a French macaron. I have to say that the pistachio was by far my favorite, vanilla came in second, raspberry third and lastly the chocolate. They're so good though - they have great textures. We next walked our way to Notre Dame which really is beautiful. The line for free entry was really long but I insisted we stand there for at least five minutes. Amazingly, it only took us about eight to get inside! The most impressive features inside are the giant, round stained glass windows and the size of it. Otherwise the inside isn't anything much more spectacular than a number of other churches we've been to. But definitely worth the eight minute wait. Next stop was Palais du Luxembourg which is the home of the French Parliament. The gardens there are really beautiful and it seems to be a popular place to hang out on a sunny day. There were kids poking little sailboats with sticks as they floated around the fountain. After that was the Pantheon that we passed by, a crooked church (the altar, ceiling, and front window didn't line up like most churches do), and then we were done finally! But sadly the grocery store was closed by the time we got back. Can anyone guess why? That's right! It was Sunday! Grrr. We had to settle for plain old, boring pasta for dinner.



On the 10th we checked out of our hotel and walked down to the train station where I debated for 5 minutes about whether or not we should pay the money to go to Versailles. After a bit of inner turmoil I decided that yes, we should go. Amidst continuing inner turmoil we locked our backpacks in the station lockers and took the ride to Versailles on the outskirts of Paris. It is a large place, especially the gardens. And the palace itself, which is trimmed with massive amounts of gold, is behind a very shiny gold gate so we couldn't get in. I wanted to get tickets to go inside and see its grandeur, like the hall of mirrors for example, but apparently the place is closed on Mondays! I was so sad! Here I had struggled with whether or not to pay to go see the place, spent €20 on train tickets, and find we can't even go in!! I guess we can at least say that we went to Versailles, but it would have been nice if I had had the option of actually gloing inside. I bet it's pretty amazing. As for the gardens - they were pretty, sure, but nothing to write home about. We didn't walk around all of the gardens though, so I might have missed something truely lovely. So we just walked around a bit of the grounds and then headed back to the station. We took a quick detour to see the Statue de la Liberte which was a mini Statue of Liberty. For the next 7 hours we hung out at McDonalds using their internet while we waited. We got some Big Macs and fries because we heard they're the best in France, but I didn't think they were anything special. The fries were actually pretty bland, although the Big Mac was good enough. They have McCafes in France (I think they're popping up in the US too, right?) that sell coffes and pastries and stuff like that. Well, they sell macarons at the French ones! I found that odd. I can't imagine they would be as good as the ones I had bought a few days before so I didn't bother trying any, but I just thought it was kinda cool that they had macarons in a McDonalds establishment. By 11:00 PM we were on our train heading to Madrid, Spain.