Thursday, October 29, 2009


The small town of Benitses is on the island of Corfu which lies on the north-west side of Greece. It's a quaint, but fairly touristy little fishing village with pebbly stretches of beach on one side and modest green mountains on the other. This was where we were headed. First we had to figure out how to get there from Corfu though. From the ferry terminal we walked aimlessly, looking for the bus station. I stopped into a BP gas station (yes, they have BPs) and asked the attendant who pointed me back in the direction we had just come from. We walked a bit and came to an intersection that we had seen a bus turn down so Chuck actually flagged down a motorcyclist and asked directions. I was surprised that he actually stopped and pulled over to the side of the road to help us. With a smile no less. If it had been me being waved down, I'm ashamed to admit I probably would have averted my eyes and kept going. He pointed us up the street and finally we came to the bus station! We caught the next bus out of town and landed in Benitses. Standing on the side of the road with our backpacks in place, we were once again at a loss as to which way to go. We started off to the right and as we passed a scooter rental shop we must have looked really lost because the owner asked us where we were headed. He Pointed us in the right direction (which was the way we were headed) and soon enough we found the place, got checked in, and settled into our little room. It was a cozy place with a tiny balcony looking up towards the mountains. Across from us was the skeleton of an unfinished concrete building and to our right was a giant wild grape vine dripping with deep purple grapes. The bathroom was small and the shower consisted of a square porcelain platform and a faucet. You can run the faucet trough the hand-held shower handle or through the tap as though you're filling a bathtub - I don't understand this because it would very quickly flood the bathroom, which might not be such a problem now that I think about it because there is a drain in the middle of the floor right next to the toilet. There's no shower curtain so either you're supposed to be very good at aiming the shower head only at the wall behind you, or you're supposed to just go wild and spray down the whole bathroom. I found I didn't have to worry about this too much because the shower never got warm enough for me to even want to take a shower. I flipped my head upside down over the shower "square! and washed my hair that way, then just did a quick wash-down of the other important parts before jumping out and shivering. Bleh. I hate cold showers! Enough about that though, let's get to dinner. We sit down in the outdoor-seating area of Tony & Alex and I look over to see a teenaged, orange and white striped kitten slink lazily from one of the other chairs. She did a little yawn and stretch, her adorable paws kneading against the ground. I squealed and pointed her out to Robyn and Chuck and to our delight she came right over to us with a meow. I couldn't resist picking her up. She was more than happy to be in my lap. We passed her around cooing over her non-stop. I knew having a stray cat sitting at the dinner table with us was a bit...well, dirty, and I could just picture my parents ordering us to put her down, but I didn't really care. She was soooo cute. We did put her on the ground during dinner, although she stayed and begged for our food. The waiter suggested we take her with us because she begs for food from everyone and is annoying in their opinion. I would have loved to take her but...we're traveling. It would be seriously annoying. I even thought of sending her home to Mom or Dad, but I figured they probably wouldn't really appreciate the souvenir all that much.

We woke up on the 2nd to a slightly overcast sky. We had a breakfast that was pretty good and shared all our jam and honey with the many bees that were buzzing about. One even landed on my finger to eat the jam off of the toast that was in my hand! I'm like the bee whisperer. I gave myself a haircut back at the room after we ate. It's been getting scrappy and the ends were severely split. It's not a great haircut, but it's even enough and my hair is feeling much healthier. Robyn really wanted to rent scooters to drive around the island on so we went down to a rental place (there are lots of them) and worked out a deal for one scooter and one 4-wheeler for €30 for the day. I decided the 4-wheeler would be better for me because I've never ridden any sort of motorized 2-wheel contraptions before, and as you'll see later on, that was a good choice. When the dealer found out which hotel we were staying at he asked us cheerfully if we knew the two American brothers who were also staying there. They had apparently rented scooters the day before. Nope, we don't know them! I rode out of there on my kickin 4-wheeler, Chuck on the seat behind me and Robyn hot on my heels. We were given practically zero gas in our tanks so first order of business was a fill up. Gas stations here are not self-service so we had a fella pump our gas for us and off we went, this time with Chuck driving and me on the back. We just followed the coastline, which was pretty but would have been really amazing if it had been a sunny day. We stopped for a few photo-ops and at one stop I found some wild blackberries growing on the side of the road. I managed to drop one while I was eating and we found it later, squished into a purple mass between me and Chuck. Chuck had to throw his shirt out at the end of the day... I felt bad. It started to sprinkle in the early afternoon which feel like little needles driving into your skin when you're cruising down the road at 40 kmh. As it started to come down harder we came upon a little fishing town complete with gnarly fishermen with unkempt hair wearing rubber overalls, who glare at you from their well-used boats as they untangled a massive pile of fishing net. We stopped here for lunch at what ended up being a pretty nice place while the rain came down. The food was good and waitress was nice and by the time we were finished the rain was too. It was exceptional timing. Back on our 4-wheeler and scooter we headed down to the southern part of the island. We were trying to make our way to a lighthouse that we saw on the map, but couldn't figure out how to get there. We ended up on a dirt road in some field and decided to give each others vehicles a try. Robyn didn't much like the 4-wheeler. Chuck tried the scooter but said it was too different. I didn't like the scooter because I ran myself into a ditch. I don't think I'm meant for scooters. I was trying to turn around on this dirt road and was pretty much walking the bike. I gave it a bit of a rev to help with my forward momentum and boom! Into the ditch! I ended up with a pretty bruise where the handle dug into my thigh too. We even got the whole thing on video, lucky me. Two videos actually. Needless to say, no scooters for me! We reverted back to the original set-up - Chuck and me on the 4-wheeler and Robyn on her scooter - and headed down to Kavos, then back up to Benitses by 5:00 or so. After it got dark the sky let loose and it poured for the rest of the night.

Unfortunately, the 3rd was worse than the 2nd in terms of weather. It rained all day long. We only managed to get out to the restaurant across the street called Big Bite. I've noticed that the island of Corfu seems to cater to British tastes because all of the restaurants have English names, and most of them seem British-inspired. Big Bite for example, had on their menu a full English breakfast. They also had a little kitty on their patio, but she wasn't as friendly as the one from the other restaurant. The waitress had a Scottish accent so we talked with her for a bit. She was from just south of Glasgow and was working in Corfu where her Mom likes to vacation a lot. When she found out we were leaving the next day she asked us if we knew the two American boys from California who were staying at our hotel, because they were leaving tomorrow too. We all laughed and figured it was the same brothers the scooter rental guy had mentioned. We joked about how we should find them and ask how they liked their scooters, how they liked Big Bite and if they wanted to catch a ride with us to the airport tomorrow for their flight back to California. They'd possibly think we wee stalking them, unless they too had been hearing about "the two girls and a guys who rented scooters and ate at Big Bite." We never did end up seeing them though. The rest f the day was spent inside listening to the rain. Corfu knows how to have a storm - there were frequent cracks of thunder that had me jumping in surprise. I love storms like that. The power even went out for a few minutes at one point.

We went back to Big Bite in the morning for their English breakfast. Oh man, was it good to have a real breakfast again! I tell you, these Europeans have wimpy breakfasts... We got hash browns, eggs, grilled tomato, sauteed mushrooms, baked beans, fried toast and jam, and tea and it was delicious!! The sun was shining today. Just our luck, seeing as we were leaving. We hung around the hotel until about 1:00 and then caught the bus into town. I took pictures along the way to try and capture the island when it's nice out. Back in the main town of Corfu where the ferries leave from we tried to find where to buy tickets. As we were walking around it started to, once again, get overcast and drizzly. We walked all the way down to the ferries and were told to go back up the road to the Minoan Lines office. From there we were told to go even further to some other office. So after about 45 minutes of waling around we finally had our tickets in hand and went to wait for our ferry. The ferry ended up being abut 45 minutes late, which had us on edge about catching the bus to our hotel that night. Even if the ferry had left on time we would be cutting it short. But there's nothing we could do about that. So we just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Monday, October 26, 2009


The bus ride from Tirane to Sarande, Albania was really unpleasant. It was decent enough at first, but then the AC started blowing stale, room-temperature air and the bus suddenly got really stuffy. I was also on the side of the bus that got full sunlight, heating me up even more. We had 8 hours of this and by the time we got to Sarande I had been feeling a bit nauseous for a while. I think we all had. I was so relieved to get off that bus. Most of the bus ride scenery was similar to what we had already seen. I'm not sure I mentioned before the amount of trash that is littered around the country. It just seems that people throw piles of it out their car windows or something. There were frequent heaps of garbage sitting along the roadside along the whole trip. Most of the countryside of Albania wasn't very pretty either - brown and monotonous. Even the mountains don't really help to beautify the place. There was one section we drove through that struck as being quite pretty though. It was right through the very twisty mountain roads outside of Sarande. The landscape became more green and three-dimensional. There were scars of red-clay colored rock that looked almost like they had been scraped out of the earth. That part of Albania is pretty. Back to our bus trip though - once it was over it was an easy walk to the hostel. As we came up on the last street we had to go down a man in a red and white striped shirt and a bald head called out to us: "Do you need any help? Where are you going?" We were inclined to ignore him and keep going, but after another shouted "Where are you looking for?" Robyn told him we were going to a hostel. He got up and told us he had a hostel and he'll show us, etc. Chuck was extremely hesitant and was only convinced by the fact that I saw a sign for our hostel plastered on the wall of the building he was going in. The guy, seeing our hesitation said "Trust me. It's ok, man. Anything you need, you let me know." We followed him into an apartment building that looked as though it was still under construction but had fallen into disrepair. There was another sign on the door he led us to saying that it was our hostel, so we went in. As it turned out, it was our hostel and the guy was just really nice and helpful. The hostel was really more like a two-bedroom apartment, each bedroom having two bunk beds in them. He got us settled in with lots of "It's alright, man"s, gave us each a piece of spicy spearmint gum, and went back to his seat on the corner. We headed out for food and saw him there in his red and white shirt. We asked where some good, cheap Albanian food was. He led us to a restaurant across the street. We sat right on the edge of the beach as he ordered dinner for us. At first I was a little annoyed, but then I realized it was pretty cool to have an Albanian guy ordering you food he deems Albanian, so I went with it. We ended up getting a killer Greek salad and some delicious stuffed peppers. I love Albanian food. After dinner we headed over to the ferry terminal he had pointed out to try and get tickets for the next morning. As we climbed up the steps from the beach to the main street we hear someone shouting. We look up and see him there in his red and white striped shirt, standing on the second floor balcony of the building in front of us. He motions to the left and tells us the terminal is right down the road. We're looking at each other and laughing at the situation as we pass by. He seems to show up everywhere we go... He didn't seem threatening or stalker-ish. He just seemed really helpful and like he wanted to make sure we found everything we needed just fine. We decided to call him Mr. Paperclip because he reminded us of the little annoying paperclip that pops up in Microsoft Office to ask if you need help every 10 seconds. The ferry terminal was already closed and as we turned around to head back to the hostel, there was Mr. Paperclip heading our way. He walked back to his corner with us, commiserating on the closed ferry terminal and reassuring us that we could get tickets in the morning. We left him at the corner at his favorite sitting spot. We grabbed our computers and went to internet for a while at a local internet cafe. I showered before bed which was interesting. I tell you, showers just get better and better as the trip moves forward... The shower was a small, dirty bathtub with no shower curtain or anything. The shower nozzle was one of hand-held kinds with no place to secure it onto the wall. I couldn't figure out how one was supposed to shower so I just made it up as I went along. I waited for a while for the water to get hot, but the best I could get was warm water. I knelt in the bath on my knees and washed myself that way. I tried my best to point the shower head towards the wall so that I didn't get water all over the floor, but I didn't do a very good job. Oh well. I miss steaming hot showers with sliding glass shower doors and 15 square feet of standing room. I'm literally lucky if I get 6 square feet. After shower I crawled into bed, did some reading and we were all off to sleep.

Our host had breakfast ready for us in the morning. Plain, untoasted bread with yogurt-butter (yogurt mixed with butter if you didn't guess), locally collected honey, a runny cherry "jam," orange juice (juices in Europe are not nearly as sweet as in America), and a traditional Albanian tea. I saw the tea boiling away on the stove before I knew what it was and thought it looked fun. He had plopped a bouquet of dried herbs into a pot of water, the ends of the plants sticking out over the edge as it boiled away. The tea was very good too. It was nice to have some tea again. We thanked him and gave him a tip for all his help along with our payment for the rooms and headed off to the ferry terminal. It was open this time, but we were still unable to buy tickets just yet. We did, however, get the time that the ferry was leaving. We tried to go to the internet cafe again and when that was closed we ended up sitting under a big pine tree near the beach. The tree was constantly dropping little pill-shaped bean-looking things. They made a fairly steady pitter-patter as they fell around us. One even popped me on the head! After a time we noticed that people who were walking by would stop and pick up a few of these things before moving on. Being the curious and bored people we are we picked one up and cracked it open (it took a few tries - they're tough little suckers). Inside was what looked like a pine nut. We were under a pine tree... These things looked like pine nuts. I can only assume that is exactly what they were. An older man with an empty chip bag came by and started collecting them so we decided to help. Whenever we put a handful in his baggie he put his hand to his heart and sort of nodded his head at us. When we grew bored of that, and hungry again we looked for a place to eat. As we passes by the first one on our right a young man asked us if we wanted some coffee and food. It was a strange request because he seemed to be just a customer, sitting with his friends enjoying late-morning drinks. I wasn't sure if he meant for us to join his specifically, although that would have been hard because he was at a 4-person table with 4 people already seated. Robyn shrugged and said "Sure," so we grabbed a table on the patio. He came over to talk to us after a few minutes. He introduced himself as Al and asked where we were from. "America" we told him. "Wisconsin??" he asked with an enthusiastic smile. Wisconsin?? Where did he get Wisconsin from? Do they have a lot of Wisconsin-ers passing through Albania? We corrected him and told him we were from Florida. We had a nice but short conversation with him and he went back to his table. I noticed that his English was very good and I regretted not asking him where and how he learned it. Oh well. Our meal was nice and cheap again. We love the inexpensive Albanian food! We left, saying goodbye to our new friend "Al" and spent some time at the now-open internet shop. Then we were off to the ferry and on our way to Greece!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Our trip to Tirane, Albania was interesting. First we took a bus to Bar, Montenegro, then caught a bus to Ulcinj, Montenegro and from there another bus to Shkodër, Albania across the border. The bus looked like it would have been considered pretty nice in the 70's with it's faded velvet-like red seats and curtains. In fact, we thought it was pretty nice when we got on. It turned out that the air-conditioner was broken so we got to swelter in the bus for a few hours. When we stopped at the border for 30 minutes it was nice to have the doors open and a slight breeze in the air. I don't know why they had our passports for so long but we eventually got them back and were on our way again. The last stop in Shkodër was not at a bus station. This left us a bit confused as to what to do next and how to get to Tirane. Two Irish girls who had been on the previous bus with us found a van with a wooden sign propped on the dashboard that said "Tirane." They were told it would be €3 a person so we all jumped in. After we were off and driving is when the thought hit us that this was all a little weird. We were on an unmarked, 8-person van with a wooden sign for Tirane on the dash. They did have some official looking stickers on the front window with "2009" written on them along with some other official looking stuff, so that made me feel better. I thought that rationally it would be silly of him to try and kidnap or rob five foreigners all at once. Not impossible to do so, but quite unlikely. Albania is certainly a different sort of place than what we've been used to. First thing we noticed is that their driving is not as strict and rule-bound as... the UK for example. They are constantly passing each other and they honk quite a bit, not to be rude or as a way to insult someone's intelligence, but as if to say "I'm over here so don't run into me, okay?" The road would frequently change from asphalt to pebbles in the numerous construction zones. Every once in a while we would stop to pick up a random person waving us down from the side of the road. They'd just squeeze in where they could and then hop out not much further up the road. We saw a few people with roosters in cages or tethered to a pole. I assume they were for sale for someone's dinner. Other chickens were running free in fields along with emaciated cows, their noses in the browning grass, chewing away. I saw one man wearing traditional clothes (something like this) herding four cows across the busy road. There were scruffy dogs dogs, a burning field, horse drawn carts, hunks of meats hanging from porches, etc. And we saw a bus that had both a Ford and a Mercedes logo on it. I didn't know Ford made Mercedes! Or...Mercedes made Fords? Yeah. Fun ride. We were dropped off in the main square of Tirane, somehow managing to communicate the spot to the driver who spoke zero English. While walking to our hostel we noticed that the city has an abundance of guards in uniform protecting various buildings or intersections. And speaking of intersections, those were fun. It was kind of like Rome where people just drive around you if you're in their way. The honking was even worse in the city than it had been on the drive. As soon as a light turned green people 10 cars down the line of waiting traffic would begin to honk. It was crazy! The city was smoggy and not really pretty at all, but it ended up growing on us. Our hostel was a very cool place, right int he heart of the city. It felt like a big log cabin complete with a garden and outdoor kitchen. Very cool place with nice owners. We got directions to the food part of town and found a nice little restaurant. The food was amazing and hella cheap! We instantly fell in love with Albanian food that night.

On the morning of the 29th Chuck ran to the store and picked up ingredients for sausage and cheese omelets. The stove in the outdoor kitchen was basically just a campfire burner stove with only one setting: really hot. It was very rustic. He still managed to make some killer omelets. After breakfast we hung around our dorm room reading and doing whatever. We met our dorm-mates: two brothers from New Zealand. One had been living in London for a while though and they were meeting up to travel around for two weeks. One of them ended up being into programming and computers and he and Chuck found a lot to talk about. They seemed really cool. And I love their accents!! After they left we met the cleaning lady. She spoke not a word of English and we spoke not a word of Albanian. But she was more than happy to talk with us, smile on her face and lots of sign language. I'm not sure what she was saying, but we think she was telling us she has a 27 year old son and a young daughter. Or maybe a young granddaughter. We tried to look things up in the google translator to figure out how to respond, but we couldn't pronounce the Albanian words - thy were just too foreign for us. Another thing that had us confused was the head-nodding for yes and no. I finally remembered that some cultures have opposite nods than we do - "yes" is a side-to-side shake of the head and "no" an up-and-down nod. Albania, as it turns out, is one of those places. That helped clear a bit of the conversation up! She was very nice though, whatever she was saying. Robyn eventually got sick of doing nothing. She went out to see the city on her own while Chuck and I finished up what we were doing and got ready to go ourselves. I figured we wouldn't be seeing Robyn for the rest of the day, but we ran into her just down the road. We headed toward the main square where we had been dropped off the day before. We found a tourist information center and asked where we could catch the bus to Sarande, which is where we were going the next day. She very kindly did her best to explain, although we were left a bit confused. We figured we'd figure it out. We walked back across the city to a big park we saw on the map. On the way we saw a thin attractive girl with long black hair, black high heels, short black shorts and a corset top walk out of a shop in front of us. It was really funny to see every mans head turn and watch her as she passed by restaurants on her way down the street. Guys were even poking their friends and nodding in her direction. It was hilarious at the same time that it was disturbing. They didn't really seem to feel the need to bother being discreet about their oggling. But I also figure that she was wearing what she was wearing to turn some heads. Once we got to the park both Robyn and Chuck decided it was too ugly to actually walk through. The poor park had half its trees cut down and everything was a brown color instead of nice and green. We walked through a bit of it though - I wanted to feel like we had come all that way for something. We saw a man wearing a gun holster with a skinny-barreled gun resting in it. That kind of freaked me out and I turned to Robyn and Chuck with wide eyes. We nervously chuckled and said things like "Only in Albania, right?" As we passed him we saw he was standing by a little toy target and realized his gun was a toy... I felt like an idiot. He was just trying to sell target-shooting games to little kids. We went for an early dinner/late lunch at the same place we ate at the previous night - it was that good. It didn't disappoint the second time around either. We stayed in the rest of the evening. I stayed up late and read a new book before going to sleep.

We woke up way too early to pack our stuff up and make the long walk to the bus station. When we get lost (let's face it, getting lost is a given) we bravely ask a random woman walking down the street. She doesn't know but asks two other people for us and between the three of them we get directions. How nice of her to ask other people on our behalf! We were grateful. We made it to our bus with 10 minutes to spare - perfect timing if you ask me. Once again, our bus driver doesn't speak any English so hand signals are used instead. Hand signals work surprisingly well for basic things like "get on the bus" and "pay money now." Off we went to Sarande, Albania.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Our bus ride from Split to Budva was interesting. The bus was fairly small, only having room for about 30 people or so. The seats were small as well. One woman ended up having to seat in the very back where the seats were unbroken by the empty middle aisle and ran the entire width of the bus. Not too far into the journey the three of us begin to look around in confusion. The distinct scent of cigarette smoke was suddenly heavy in the air and we didn't know what from. It took about another hour to finally realize that the bus driver was smoking. There were no windows on the bus that opened, so the smoke just spread through the cabin and hung in the air. I was stunned into laughter by the situation. It wasn't very pleasant to be inhaling lungfuls of smoke for the entire trip, but it seemed like it must be commonplace. No one else showed any reaction to his smoking. The bus driver, aside from smoking, was a bit of a loose driver. The entire trip was, once again, along the beautiful coastline. He swung around the never ending turns with hardly a tap to the brake pedal. I shrank back from the window a few times as we sped along just feet from the edge of steep cliffs. I smiled at the wild pomegranate trees that passed by, heavy with yellow-red fruit, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. In one small town we drove through the three of us were pulled from our book-reading or sheer boredom by the sounds of honking and shouting. At first I thought there was some sort of protest going on. There were men on the side of the road cheering and encouraging passing cars to honk their agreement. I think it was actually a wedding though. The traffic was going very slowly and hanging out of one car were two guys dressed in flashy tuxedos. I think everyone was just cheering and honking in celebration of a marriage. It was pretty cool! By the time we arrived in Budva it had been dark for several hours. We didn't know precisely where we were going because google maps hasn't deemed Montenegro as worthy enough to fully map yet. So Chuck bravely asked a random man sitting in the station which way it was to the main street. He didn't just tell us directions from his chair - he was nice enough to get up and walk us out of the main gate of the station and point us in the right direction. I thought it was very kind of him to go out of his way like that to help us. We found the hotel pretty easily, thank goodness, and had no trouble checking in. We were in bed shortly after that.

After breakfast and some ever-important internet time in the morning we headed toward the beach. On the way we were distracted by the sound of music. My ears perked up and I looked around, trying to pin-point the sound. Robyn led us down a little street that came out in front of a church. We took a seat and watched as a wedding party, accompanied by a very bad but very enthusiastic brass quintet, took pictures with the national flag as well as each other. After the photo shoot they all climbed into three cars - cars that one would expect to see in a junk yard. We laughed as the bride climbed into the most dilapidated of the three. They crawled down the street honking repeatedly as they went. A lot of other drivers responded with honks of their own as they passed by, cheering out their windows as they went. As we continued our walk to the beach we commented on how loud their horns were. It was like skull-splitting banshee screams. The beach itself ended up being less than amazing. It was pretty plain and the water wasn't what I would call beautiful. A boardwalk ran the length of the beach and was lined with little jewelry and shoes shops ass well as restaurants and some craft stands. Some food stands had really delicious odors wafting out to tempt people. Chuck got himself a panzzerotte. It was basically a pizza flavored hot pocket. I myself opted for an ice cream instead. I asked how much one scoop was. Eighty cents she told me. Ok. I got a scoop of peach gelato and handed her eighty cents. She looks at it and tells me it's a euro thirty. What? But...eighty cents. You said so. Turns out there's a hidden fee for the cone... That's just malicious! The peach gelato is good enough that my annoyance fades away quickly. At the end of this boardwalk is what they call the Old Town. It's, well, the old town. The labyrinth of old shops is completely surrounded by a fortress wall. The shops mainly sell jewelry and clothes. There are a few restaurants and pubs as well, one of which we stopped at to satisfy Robyn's craving for a Guinness. Once we were seated and comfortable at a little table outside we were joined by a very scraggly pigeon that I decided to call Simon. He was a pathetic looking thing that stood about 15 feet away from us, eyeing us with his abnormally protruding eye. His feathers were ruffled and didn't seem to be able to lay straight and flat against his body. He seemed lethargic and lacking in motivation. Somehow I ended up in the position of being egged on by a laughing Robyn and Chuck to pick the poor thing up. I accepted the challenge. Robyn whipped out the camera to catch the whole thing on film. I nonchalantly strolled past little Simon until he was between me and the wall. I then sneakily turned around to corner him from behind. Being the sad creature that he was he just sort of stumbled away from me as I made my move, reaching out to try and grab him. He didn't even try to fly! His inability to easily escape caused a knot of guilt to rise into my throat and for a moment I just wanted to sit down next to him and make cooing noises. But instead I chased after him, butt in the air, until I managed to get my hands around his emaciated little body. I was surprised at how much of his body was actually skin in bones - he felt so tiny under all those feathers. Holding him away from me with slight disgust, I carried my prize over to Robyn and Chuck for a close-up. Once his cameo was finished I placed him back on the ground where he scampered back to his original spot 15 feet away from us. I felt so bad for him! I immediately asked for hand sanitizer and made sure not to touch anything all the way back to the hotel. Back at the hotel Robyn and Chuck picked up a 2-liter plastic bottle of beer and we all took swigs while playing on our computers. Later in the evening we went out for a surprisingly cheap dinner at a place down the street. I ordered something called muckalica leskovacka which was like a thick beef stew with lots of peppers and dark red oil. Robyn got some goulash and Chuck got some cevapi. The whole meal ended up being less than $10! Quite the deal.

We woke against our will early in the morning on the 28th. I took a shower for the first time in two days and found it to be less than satisfying. I turned it on and waited for the water to get hot. Frowning after a while, I realized it wasn't going to be getting very hot. I gritted my teeth and stepped in anyways, quickly splashing and scrubbing all the important parts and then hopping right back out. I know that some places we go might not have hot water and I'm not sure I'll be staying clean in those places! I think I'd rather stink than talk cold showers. A cold shower is a terrible thing. After breakfast we trudged down to the bus station, our pre-bought, 8:45 AM bus tickets in hand. We stood around waiting. People came and went. Bus employees chatted and laughed. A woman came by and swept and mopped the floor. We jumped up at each bus that pulled into the station hoping it was ours and being disappointed. Fifteen minutes after our bus was supposed to leave we asked what was up at the information window. The girl behind the glass was less than helpful. She told us with a glazed look in her eyes and a flat voice that there was no 8:45 AM bus (despite the 8:45 AM tickets we were holding in our hands) and that the next bus to Ulcinj was at 1:00 PM. Great. We decided to get a second opinion and asked one of the tall and slightly intimidating bus attendants. He shouted out a conversation with his buddy and confirmed that there was, indeed, no 8:45 AM bus. But he was nice enough to explain that we could take the bus that that had just arrived to Bar and from there go to Ulcinj. He quickly took us and our tickets to the ticket counter and got everything set-up for our new plans. We thanked his profusely and jumped on the bus just in time to take off.


We took two buses to get to Split, Croatia. We stopped in a town called Rijeka to change buses and we noticed that lots of people wear fanny packs there. They're a dorky thing to wear in the States so I decided to secretly photograph some people in their fanny packs. Oh, maybe I should all them bum bags since "fanny pack" in the UK is a naughty word. So I have a little collection of bum bag photos now. The countryside was once again, really lovely though Croatia. We traveled along the coast for most of the trip so the views down the steep cliffs to the clear water were constantly beautiful. I've decided Croatia is a really beautiful country as a whole. The scrubby vegetation, big dusty mountains, crystalline water, it's all so pretty. And I especially love all the wild pomegranate trees that grow on the side of the road. I was also lucky enough to spot a deer bounding through a clearing as we went by. It was late at night by the time we got Split. Luckily the local buses were still running and we managed to figure out where we were going and where to get off all on our own. We walked past the hotel at first because its really an apartment. Next problem was that reception was closed. Robyn called the lady after a bit and she told us that our keys were in the mail slot. The apartment was great - very spacious with huge glass doors leading to the patio. It was very nice to finally get into the room and flop down on the bed.

The 24th was a relaxing day. The only time we left the apartment was to get food from the grocery store. Robyn layed out on the patio for a bit, we cooked dinner, nothing exciting. We were disappointed when our internet cut out at 10:30 PM. Bed time.

Chuck and I went into town the next morning to get bus tickets to our next stop: Budva, Montenegro. We had a lot of discussions and research before we came to our decision to go to Budva. At first we were talking about taking a ferry to Greece (which was the ultimate goal) which would entail taking a ferry to Italy and then another ferry down to Greece. I kept feeling this unfortunate knot in my stomach whenever I thought about all we'd be missing by taking a ferry to Italy, etc, when we could be taking buses down through Montenegro and Albania. I finally decided that we needed to go the bus-route and see what we could along the way. So that's how we decided on Budva. After getting the tickets Chuck and I walked around the massive market that is set up in the center of town. Everything from shoes and jewelry to fruits and veggies was available. I especially liked the produce section. Let me relate my experience. I decided the grapes were looking particularly tasty so I headed over to a randomly chosen stall to have a look. I noticed that the fruit was buzzing with bees. They were all over the place, crawling in and out of the grape clusters and flitting about. I really liked the idea that the bees were into the grapes so I went ahead and chose a cluster for myself, holding them out to the wrinkly, dark-skinned woman who had been encouraging me to buy. She plopped them onto a rusty old-fashioned balance scale and used a set of counterweights to balance it out. It seemed so old-fashioned to me. I didn't know people actually still used scales like that! And bees and bugs crawling around on my fruit makes me feel so... au naturale. Geeze, I sound like such a yuppie. After getting a few more fruits I saw some flip flops for sale. I've needed a new pair of flip flops since Milan where mine broke, so Chuck attempted to do some negotiating. I'm very bad at negotiating - I'm happy with just going with the listed price if I think it's worth it. But Chuck wanted to get a good deal. The vendors were not into the negotiating thing at all though it seemed. They didn't budge their prices no matter what. So I settled on a pair for about €7, which was the cheapest we could find them. We had a quick beer at a little cafe before taking the bus back to the hotel for the evening.

We packed up and left the apartment on the 26th and headed to the bus station to wait for our 4:00 PM bus to Budva. We ended up just sitting on a park bench by a very active fountain area. We saw all kinds of things during our wait. There were a few pigeons around so an old man went and got a loaf a bread to feed them. This attracted more pigeons and there was a bit of a feeding frenzy. Pieces of bread would fly in our direction and the birds slowly got more comfortable with coming close to us to pick them up. Chuck even manage to get birds to pluck pieces off of the toe of his shoe. After most of the frenzy had subsided a skinny little cat came along, attracted by all the attention. He was definitely a stray. The poor thing was dirty and obviously malnourished. He pawed through some discarded brown paper that had been used to wrap some kind of food, and leapt onto the rim of a garbage can and stuck his face inside trying to find something to eat. It didn't take him too long to turn to the birds. I thought he couldn't possibly take one down, but he crouched, wiggled his butt in the air, and leapt right onto a bird. He held it down with his little front legs as he worked to get a good hold on his neck with his teeth. When it was secured in his mouth he picked it up and jogged away. We were all in shock. I noticed that no one else seemed to be as shocked as us, so maybe it's an everyday occurrence. Survival of the fittest! Yay! The birds were a bit hilarious after the incident. There were about 10 pigeons near the unfortunate victim when it happened and they all just stood still, their heads held high in the air, eyes wide. Their little heads twitched back and forth as they listened and looked around for any other threats. They were on high alert. But that wore off fairly quickly and they moved on to bath time. In Europe they have these cool fountains that you can use to fill up water bottles, or cup your hands under the stream for a drink, or splash your face or whatever. They're usually much prettier than the average "water fountain" in the US and have basins to catch the excess water so it doesn't make puddles. There was a fountain just like this where we were sitting. A few of the basins seemed to have blocked drains because they were overflowing, to the pigeons delight. They perched on the edge of the fountain, lean in for a drink, and tumble, wings flapping into the water. Underneath the fountain, where the water sloshed onto the ground, were little birds who would stand in the puddles and fluff their feathers in the water. After they were all bathed to contentment they sat int he sun, rolling onto their sides and poofing up to dry quicker. It was actually pretty fascinating to see what goes on in the daily life of a pigeon. I was a little jealous. Eat, bath, sleep. Although the whole being-attacked-by-cats and being bored-out-of-your-mind thing doesn't sound so nice. We had lunch after that and then hopped on our bus to Budva.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


We had to switch trains three times on our way to Pula, Croatia. The last train dropped us off in Trieste, Italy and from there we had to catch a three hour bus the rest of the way. When we passed the border the bus was stopped and everyone's passport was checked over. They did a pretty thorough inspection and we even got a stamp. The bus takes off and about two minutes later we stop again for another border check. Turns out we had to pass through Slovenia (the first passport check) and then enter Croatia (the second check). It seemed a bit ridiculous, but border security is no laughing matter! Apparently. The countryside we passed through was really beautiful. Not in a sweeping-mountains-and-dramatic-scenery sort of way, but a rustic beauty. There was a lot of farmland and little plots of different plants were scattered about along the roadside. There were small mountains whose cliff edges we frequently drove along, offering great views of the valleys below. We had to pass slow-moving tractors a couple of times - it was a bit scary to imagine our big charter bus swerving out into the opposite lane of a two-lane highway to pass traffic. But we arrived safe and sound and even managed to figure out which local bus we had to take to get to our hotel. With a little help from some kind old ladies on the bus we even got off at the right stop. By the time we got settled into our little apartment it had been dark out for an hour. Some beer and pasta put us right to sleep for the night.

On the 18th we woke up to a bright, beautiful day and the first thing we wanted to do was see exactly what this resort we were staying at looked like. It was, of course, really lovely. The resort is basically a little village on a peninsula of Pula. It has a couple of hotels on it, a number of restaurants, a supermarket, a put-put golf course (which looked completely unused) and other little entertainment shops. Most of the space is taken up by little 3-story blocks of apartments though. We stayed in one of these. The shoreline is all rocks and no sand. The closest they get to having sand is a beach full of large pebbles, otherwise it's big rocks and sheets of stone. This makes for a beautiful coastline, but not a very comfortable beach. The water was the stuff of dreams: a crystal clear aqua that faded to deeper blues and turquoise as the water stretched away from the shore. Every time I walked along the path and looked out at the water I was amazed at how clear and pretty it was. After exploring one of the rocky formations near our apartment we decided we had better get some water shoes so our feet weren't in so much pain. We went to one of the many souvenir shops where Robyn and Chuck picked up some shoes, a pair of goggles for me, and Robyn got a big green blow-up float to lay on. On the way back to the apartment I was lucky enough to find a beat up, faded, foam floaty for myself. Armed and ready, we made for the water again! Robyn went off to one of the beaches to lay out while Chuck and I went back to our rocky formation to explore the life lurking below the surface. Unfortunately, the lurking life got the better of us and Chuck stepped on a sea urchin that went straight through his water shoes. Little did we know that we had stumbled into a field of urchins, ready to take on anything that crossed their path. He hobbled to the dry rock and sat down to examine his foot. There were about five spine tips in his big toe and two big spines stuck in his heel. Poor guy! I felt so bad for him! I did my best to help him pull them out and after limping back to the apartment I did my best to pull out the big ones in his heel with a pair of tweezers. I didn't do a good job at all though - the spine kept crushing under the pressure of the tweezers whenever I managed to get a hold of it. So after all was said and done, Chuck was left with some urchin spines stuck in his foot. We read online that they would dissolve over a month or so, so it was no harm to his health or anything. Needless to say, that put a damper on our day though. Chuck couldn't really put weight on his heel for the rest of the day so we just sat inside relaxing. We soon discovered that there was a litter of kittens living in a hole at the bottom of the stairwell outside out apartment. Mamma kitty would come to the top of the stairs with a lizard in her mouth and meow until the kittens crawled out, meowing in return. They were all adorable, but very skittish of people.

I woke up on the 19th to the sound of a woman saying "Gato! Gattino! Gattini!" outside the window. She was busy trying to get the cats to come out and just stood there for what seemed like 10 minutes calling them. "Gato! Gata! Gattino!" Gah, shut up! So that was a pleasant start to the morning. Other than that it was a pretty boring day. Robyn and I laid out for a bit. Robyn took a quick dip and informed me that the rocks were very slippery going into the water. I figured I could handle it and set out for a swim. I slipped on a rock and as I wobbled I figured I would easily find my balance. I took a corrective step and that foot slipped as well. I went down right onto my butt. I imagined that I looked like a cartoon character whose legs flail uselessly for a few seconds before a freezing in the air and then falling to the ground. Despite wearing Chuck's water-shoes I managed to get a nice cut on my big toe. I also felt like an idiot. Otherwise it was a nicely uneventful day.

We went swimming the next day. The water is very cold so the easiest way to get in is to just jump. I always have to have someone else count to three for me. If I count myself I chicken out. Chuck and I paddled around using the goggles while Robyn laid out. There aren't any reefs or anything but there were usually quite a few fish hanging around. None of the fish were over five inches long. They usually hung around us in groups of two or three, but sometimes we saw whole schools of fish. I paddled over and took a look at the collection of sea urchins that we had stepped on the day before. They're so primal looking. After our morning in the water we went to the restaurant closest to us for lunch. A group of three Austrian guys who were sitting next to us decided to introduce themselves. They told us they didn't like Americans. Then they bought us drinks. And they continued to buy us drinks. We ended up talking and laughing and drinking for the next five hours or so! They were staying at a place 10 km down the beach from us and were taking a beer break from their jet ski riding. They were all in their 40's. Heinrich - the apparent "leader" of the group - was a bit chauvinistic and wasn't afraid of mentioning that his current and second wife was annoying but had a big rack. Andy didn't really speak English so we thought he might be a quiet guy, but he turned out to be the crazy guy. He tried to light some money on fire at one point, initiated a hand slapping game that left Chuck's hand with a few red welts the next day, and asked the wait staff for a frying pan to do...manly head bashing things of some sort. He was crazy! And Jeff was a bit of a goofball and had a really light, nice sense of humor. He had nice things to say about his wife and didn't seem as cynical about the world as the other guys did. They were an interesting group and a lot of fun to hang out with. Despite their initial claims that they didn't like Americans they seemed to like us well enough. They asked us our thoughts about Mr. President Obama and various other US policies, but that sort of talk was only a small part of the afternoon. We did a lot of comparing languages and they wrote out the longest word they knew in German which I can't actually type out because I can't make out the handwriting. I can tell you that it was about 68 letters long. Geeze! After too many beers they headed back to their hotel and we went back to ours. We managed to feed the cats some hotdogs before I fell into bed dead asleep and Robyn headed down to the reception area for internet.

On the 21st we decided we had better go into the town and see the sights before we had to leave Pula. We'd been spending too much time on the beach at this point. So we took the bus to Pula's very own ancient Colosseum. This one, unlike Rome's, is still intact. I imagine it hasn't seen quite as much violence and death as the one in Rome, but I assume it was still a place of death. I hadn't known that the Romans reach extended into Croatia although I should have guessed. They were quite the empire. We didn't have a set path to follow so we just wandered around the city and happened upon various points of interest. We saw the remains of the old ancient Roman wall, the old Forum area, a temple, lots of shops and restaurants, and various other random little statues, etc. Pula is a nice city - not too big, an active atmosphere, some history, and the beautiful coastline of course. We went to dinner at a restaurant near the reception building that night. Have I mentioned yet how cheap the food is? We would have large, good quality meals for $20-30 US for the three of us. We tried the "Istrian specialty" meals and found that they were delicious. Robyn's Istrian steak was like a chicken cordon bleu with a delicious white gravy sauce. Chuck got a Fuzi something-or-other which was pasta with a bolognese-like sauce with some different herbs and flavors. I tried cevapcici (pronounced che-vap-chi-chi) which was a bunch of finger-sized fried meatballs. I love trying new foods. While at dinner we got to watch all the kids and teenagers from the kickboxing competition walking around. Apparently our resort was host to a European Kickboxing Championship of some kind while we were there. We saw teams from Russia, Greece, Slovakia, Turkey, Poland, Ireland, etc. It was fun to watch them all flirting with each other and goofing off. A giant kickboxing hormone-fest. Kids seem to be pretty much the same everywhere we've been so far. Interested in looking trendy and attractive, full of energy, lots of laughing, and just being typical teenagers. And babies and toddlers too. They act just like babies and toddlers in the US or Amsterdam or wherever.

We did a lot of interneting on the 22nd. I got some pictures of crabs and shrimp (not very good pictures) in the tidal pools that form on the rocks. And I also managed to break my eReader. For those of you who don't know what that is, let me explain. Before we left for our trip I knew I was going to be getting bored easily. Since I like to read I looked into getting a digital book reader, like the Amazon Kindle or something. I did a bit of research and decided on the Sony eReader 505. It looks sleek and sexy and can support a couple of different formats. The reader has been absolutely great the have on the trip! I've read about 20 books on this trip so far, so new and some I've already read before. When Robyn joined us she also read a lot. It was an awesome $300 investment. So I was reading in bed and got up to go to the bathroom. I set the reader on the sheets next to me as i got up and managed to get my feet kind of tangled in the covers. I guess this put some pressure on the reader and crack the internal screen because when I came back to read some more there was a big scar from one corner of the screen to the other. When I flick the power button it just sort of flashed weakly at me, but nothing legible showed up on the screen. Feeling very sad I put it on the bedside table and decided to wait until morning and see if it would magically fix itself. Nope. It was broken. I was so sad! And still am. It has been a great little device. Stupid Sony... I read online that other people's Sony's have broken very easily as well, so I feel a little ripped off. $300 down the drain. It sounds like Sony isn't really into customer service either. I don't know how I would even go about returning mine though, seeing as I'm constantly on the move. Such a bummer.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cinque Terre

From Rome we went to a little town in the Tuscan region of Italy called Montecatini Terme for just two nights. We would have gone straight to La Spezia but it was booked for a few nights. So Montecatini Terme was our "lay over" stop. We followed our directions to the hotel and try to check in. The old man at the counter seemed to have trouble finding our reservation though and had to call someone else and it was all a big fuss. I eventually whipped out my computer to double-check the hotel - turns out we were at the wrong one! Whoops. We ducked out of there as quietly as possible and panicked a bit at how we were supposed to find our actual hotel. As we're heading back to the train station I look up and see our hotel, looming just off the road to our left. That was pretty lucky of us! They had no problem finding our reservation, although we did have to wait an hour for our room to be cleaned. It was already 5:00 PM and our room hadn't been cleaned yet? This was not going to be the best hotel. Once in the room we realized that our air conditioner was missing it's remote. Of course, they had no more remotes and suggested we open the window (which had about four layers of blinds and shutters on it). And last but not least, they charged out the butt for one hour of internet. Poo. We got out of the hotel and went to get some groceries for breakfast, then we stopped for dinner at a restaurant just next to the hotel.

The next day we headed out try and experience the highlight of Montecatini Terme: hot springs. There are a number of spas in the area, most of which seemed to cater to actual spa treatments. We just wanted to swim in a pool of hot spring water. Another problem was that it was Sunday, and it seemed that everything was closed on Sunday. So after a bit of wandering around with no luck we called it quits and headed back to the hotel. I noticed on the walk back that it seemed everyone was shutting down. The streets were pretty much dead - it was like a ghost town. We watched a few movies and Bones episodes (I love that show) for the rest of the afternoon. We went out for pizzas in the evening. The town had come back to life now. The streets were swarming with people and it was fun to watch everyone going by all dressed up. Chuck and I went to get some gelato while Robyn did some shoe shopping. Back at the hotel I fell asleep kind of early, only to be woken up by some distant loud booms. Over the course of 30 minutes the explosions got closer and closer. We were all sitting around wide-eyed, wondering what on earth was going on. Is there a war? Some Tuscan gang violence? Really, I think it was fireworks, but we never did find out! After 30 minutes it was done and everything seemed to be fine. Probably fireworks.

We woke up to heavy rain on the morning of the 14th. We packed all our stuff up and got ready to leave. We tried to check out a couple of times, but no one was at the desk. Finally someone showed up, we called a Taxi and headed to the train station. The taxi was because it was still pouring outside. It rained all day long. Rain rain rain. It let up just enough that we were able to walk to our hotel in La Spezia though. The room was tiny and Robyn's bed unfolded out of a little wooden box. It kind of reminded me of Harry Potter's little room under the stairs (before he moved to Hogwarts) for some reason. We went searching for internet since we hadn't been able to get online for a few days now. We were really hoping to find some place that had free internet, but after getting groceries and a couple of kebabs Robyn and I broke down and went to a €3/hour place. We ended up booking our next hotel in Pula, Croatia which was nice to have done and out of the way. Later on Chuck and I headed back out together for some cheap gelato.

It was raining again the next morning - the 15th. Thankfully, it let up and we felt confident in going to Riomaggiore to walk the Cinque Terre National Park trail. It's a hiking trail that runs along the coast and passes through five little towns, all tucked away into the cliffs along the north-west coast of Italy. It's so beautiful that it's been made into a national park and has a fair amount of tourists that visit. I heard quite a few Australian accents on the trail, so apparently the Aussies like it. It was a gorgeous hike! The waters were a beautiful aqua green-blue and the cliffs, although they didn't quite dive into the sea, they sort of swooped instead. The landscape was covered in aloe plants (the ones along the trail were completely covered with peoples names that had been carved into the the juicy aloe flesh), cacti covered in bright pink and red prickly pears, and all sorts of other scrubby shrubs. There were also a lot of lime trees and vineyards full of grapes that looked to be turning into raisins. Either their owners were just being lazy and negligent, or they were actually making raisins. Robyn said she though she heard that they make raisin wine around there, so maybe that was it. We stopped for lunch in the fourth city on our route: Vernazza. We ate at a pizzeria and happened to be sitting next to a nice Australian family. The father was very talkative and told us all about where to go in Australia and how to get there, etc. One of the daughters was up and down out of her chair trying to avoid a little bee that was flying around their table. She kept saying "I don't like beeeeeees!" Her Mom finally told her she was free to take her lunch somewhere else and eat if she'd like. She said "He won't bite you," to which Chuck added "He'll just sting." They were a nice family! Some of the hike was pretty tiring. There were parts that seemed to have stairs that just went on forever and was constantly uphill. Most of the trail was easy enough though. So all in all, a great hike!

The next day, it was raining again. It slowed to a light drizzle in the morning and Chuck and I headed out for breakfast. It was nice to sit int he quiet of the morning eating a croissant and having a cappuccino (which I never do). They don't do big breakfasts in Europe like they do in the US or even England. I have to say, I miss giant plates of eggs with sausage and bacon and biscuits and gravy and pancakes and french toast and syrup. Oh yum! But still, the croissant and cappuccino were good. We checked out prices on train tickets to Pula and made it back to the hotel before we it was raining too hard. We headed back out into the drizzle again with Robyn to actually buy tickets and get food for the next days trip at the grocery store. After that the heavens broke open and it became a torrential downpour, keeping us locked up in our room for the rest of the night. Eventually we got hungry enough that Chuck decided he would take Robyn's little umbrella and bring us back some pizzas. Somehow the rain actually got worse while he was out and the thunder and lightning set in. There were some seriously loud cracks and the lights started to flicker every once in a while. It felt like being back in Florida! I was a little worried about Charlie out there in the rain, one hand holding pizza and the other a tiny umbrella and decided I would go help him. I threw a towel over my head and plowed out into the storm barefooted. It was great! I sloshed through the streets managing to mostly stay in the protection of the side of buildings so I didn't get completely soaked. I found him walking back not far from the pizza place and joined him. We were both pretty wet by the time we got back to the hotel, but it was fun. And the pizza was very good.

Can you guess what happened the next morning?? It was raining! Somehow we manage to avoid the rain most of the time, which is just what we did after packing our stuff up and heading off to the train station. We managed to get to the station before the drizzle turned into actual rain. Off to Pula we go.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


We arrived in Rome's incredibly busy main station in the afternoon on the 8th. It was a mad house with people squeezing in on you from every side and others coming at you from the opposite direction you're trying to go. It was as though I was clinging desperately to a barnacled edge of reef during a raging storm, just to keep from getting swept away by the tide of writhing, luggage-wielding bodies. Okay, so I'm exaggerating quite a bit, but it was a really crowded station. We were happy to easily find our bus in the bus terminal, as though he was waiting just for us. We passed by a number of cool looking sights on the way to the hotel. The ride took about 40 minutes, and once we got there Robyn had to use her iPhone to get the last bit of the directions to the hotel. The hotel itself (Il Casteletto) was pretty decent. The air-conditioner worked once we figured out what setting to use, and the internet, once we figured out the settings for that as well. We walked to the grocery store which turned out to be like... the Dollar store of grocery stores. It wasn't that everything was a dollar, but that everything was of a fairly bad quality. We weren't gonna find no Bugles there (and I've been craving them for a while now - no Bugles anywhere! Makes me so sad). But we got enough for a somewhat satisfying dinner and just staying in for the rest of the night.

Being the superbly responsible person that I am, I set the alarm for somewhere around 8:00 AM. It went off quite a few times with no effect until I decided that I should go ahead and get up for breakfast. I was apparently the only one who cared to do so because Robyn and Chuck continued snoring away while I ate a dry croissant and some stale cereal with warm milk. Boy, did they miss out or what. I have to admit being a little peeved at the fact that we didn't end up leaving the hotel until close to noon, but it ended up being a full and successful day despite that. So we took the bus back into town, keeping on the lookout for a nice central stop. The bus was pretty packed when we found a stop that was right by the Roman Forums, so although Chuck made it off, the door shut in me and Robyn's face before we could make it through the crowd. We watched in horror as the bus drove off with us to god knows where. Okay, so there was no horror and the bus drove off with us to just the next bus stop, but I did feel a faint bit of subdued panic at the thought that we could be separated in the big city of Rome. Of course, if worse came to worse we would all end up back at the hotel with nothing lost but a day of sight-seeing, but still! Robyn and I walked back to the stop that Chuck had gotten off at, hoping he had decided to stay put. But he wasn't there. After hanging around for about five minutes I decided to take the bus to the next stop again and walk back one more time, all the while keeping my eyes peeled for him. No luck. I got back to Robyn with still no Chuck in sight. So we waited some more. I was starting to get a little worried now - mainly I though he might have just decided to go back to the hotel immediately and that we would have wasted one of our days in Rome. After maybe 10 minutes or so I was greatly relieved to see him crossing the street towards us with a smile on his face! It was all good - we were back on track. First things first: we deserved gelato after that ordeal. You look for any excuse for gelato when in Italy... So first thing we took pictures of was the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II, then moved on to see some nearby ruins. When we realized they weren't the Roman Forum ruins we made our way across the street to where they were located. We paid our admission and Robyn whipped her heavy, yet useful European guide book to guide us through the ruins. Most of the buildings had completely fallen down and only a couple pieces of columns were left lying in the dirt, but some temples still had quite a bit of floor intact with the stumps of columns planted throughout. There was a memorial to Julius Caesar where he was cremated. There were a couple of huge, Arc-du-Triomph-like arches at the edges of the complex. The highlight of the whole complex is the Palatino. You have to climb a few flights of stairs past pretty fountains built into the walls, but once on top there's a pretty good view of the city. It definitely has an old Roman feel to it. You can then wander toward the Colosseum through the ruins of the old palace area. You really have to use your imagination to be able to grasp how it all might have looked and felt - otherwise you can just be impressed with the idea that you're walking the footsteps of people who are many hundreds of years dead and gone. Walking the footsteps perhaps, of people who have shaped the world. You have to think to appreciate it all. Oh, and I thought it was really cool to see that they had areas blocked off where people were still excavating the ruins and sifting through the dirt, looking for undiscovered treasures. I kept pointing and exclaiming "Look! Archaeologists!" whenever we came upon a site. There's still secrets to be found in the middle of Rome! Next was the Colosseum. It's a pretty cool building with a cool, grisly, dark history. People stood in there cheering on the deaths of other human beings! Craziness! And there we stood, taking pictures, trying to imagine the past. The original floor of the arena is long gone, so you can see into the labyrinthine bowels of the stadium where the gladiators, prisoners, and wild animals would have awaited their fate. Apparently they could actually flood the stage and recreate naval battles! Real blood and all, I'm sure. We headed on to San Giovanni Laterano next, stopping for a kebab on the way. San Giovanni Laterano is a huge church and is filled with absolutely stunning decoration. I can't even describe it. The pictures I took do it so little justice. It was really incredible though. Our last stop was incredible too, but in a different way. It was the Scala Sancta, or Holy Stairs. It is a long set of marble stairs that have been overlaid with wooden stairs for protection. The story is that they are the very stairs that Jesus walked up to face Pontius Pilates during the trail that led to his crucifixion. The stairs were apparently moved from their original location and basically enshrined there in Rome. The coolest thing is that you can climb the stairs on your knees to praise God! In fact, you can only climb the stairs on your knees - no feet allowed. I don't consider myself religious, so I felt a little blasphemous as I made my way up the stairs on my aching knees. But I did think about Jesus and all the good that the man himself stands for in an attempt to make up for that. It was interesting to watch the others on the stairs - some were obviously adamantly devoted to whichever form of faith they had chosen. One guy who had a bit of a surfer look spent about 3 minutes on his knees at the top of the stairs, hands fervently clasped in front of him when he wasn't bowed low enough that his forehead almost touched the floor. I was glad I went through the pain of getting to the top (which I suppose is the purpose). So I may have gone up the very stairs that Jesus himself walked up! If he did go up some stairs and if they actually survived that is... After that we went back to the hotel, got some groceries, and relaxed for the rest of the night.

We managed to get into the city at a decent time on the 10th. First stop: the Vatican. We waited in a long, but quickly moving line to get into St. Peter's Basilica. It was a beautiful church, as one would expect from the Vatican. It was huge too, yet so packed with people you had to fight your way through the crowd in some places. The architecture was ornate and the statues incredibly life-like. Everything seemed to be made of either marble or gold. There was a famous statue sculpted by Michelangelo on display just inside, protected by a glass wall. There was a long line to see the glass casket of Pope John XXIII. We didn't wait in line to see him, but through the gaps in the crowd it looked like it was indeed his actual remains. After fighting our way out of the church we headed over to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum. We had bought tickets online, which turned out to be useless because there was no line to buy tickets in person. So we wasted €12 in online fees to make sure we were guaranteed admission into a rather empty museum. Grrr. The main attraction is, of course, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings. To get there you are tunneled through the rest of the museum first. We just ran by everything at first, but then I realized that we weren't going to be coming back to see it all so I'd better pay attention. Most of it wasn't really all that interesting in my un-educated opinion. When we finally made it to the chapel I was underwhelmed. I'm not sure what I was imagining it would be like, but it wasn't as impressive as it had been in my head. It sort of reminded me of a kid who had painted their room with a bunch of different scenes of various stories. I mean, it was very good and skilled painting, but the way it was all laid out across the ceiling and walls was a bit... I'm not sure how to describe it. But it was still cool to see the famous chapel. The rule was "no photography" but being the rebels we are I whipped out my camera with well-concealed trepidation and nonchalantly snapped a quick picture. There were so many people in there that I could probably have stood taking pictures for a good minute before anyone said anything to me. I saw other people breaking the rule too. I'm not sure why they say "no photos" anyways though - I think probably just to be the only ones with pictures of the chapel so that visitors have to buy a postcard or something to have a visual reminder of their visit. It can't be because it's too sacred because we could take pictures inside their big sacred church, and it can't be because it's copyrighted art, because he's long dead with no existing manager. So we went ahead and stuck it to the man (although in this case "the man" would be the Pope perhaps). After he museum we left the Vatican area and looked for food on the way to the metro to go to see Trevi Fountain. Right outside the metro station we found a cafeteria-style joint where, after much confusion and frustration, we got some food. Trevi Fountain was completely packed once we arrived. Lots of people were throwing pennies over their shoulders into the fountain, as is the tradition. It's said that if you throw a penny over your shoulder into the fountain it guarantees that you'll come back to Rome one day. We all threw our pennies in for fun too, then hoofed it out of there. We passed by the eight columns of Tempio Adriano (not very exciting) on or way to the Pantheon. It's pretty big and looks very old from the outside. Inside it looks newer and has been converted into a sort of open church. Once again, lots of people here. We went south to Campo de Fiori - an open air market - but being so late in the day, most of the stalls had packed up and left. We refilled our water bottles (I should say Robyn's water bottle, since she's the only one dedicated enough to actually bring one along everyday) and popped into a bakery. They had a giant bologna sausage on display out front - about 1 foot in diameter and 3-4 feet long. Huge sucker! So thanks to their crazy bologna they managed to sell me a sugary meringue and Robyn bought a canolli. We walked through Piazza Navona which had a nice big fountain in the middle and lots of people. We went into St. Ignazio di Loyola, another beautiful church. Lastly, we headed to Chiesa del Gesu which is yet another church and unfortunately closed. After that we headed back to the hotel for the rest of the night. It had been another long day!

We slept in on the 11th, making it out the door at about 1:00 or so. Robyn and Chuck found a hookah place, or shisha as it's called in Italy. It was literally called Shisha & Kebab and they served both food and hookah. It was a pretty cool place. We sat in the basement area which had no tables and only a bunch of cushions lining the walls. There were paintings of the walls, mainly of men on horses wielding scimitars in a desert. It was only lit by two or three small lights, giving it a nice relaxing aura. We ended up sitting down there for almost three hours eating our kebabs and a dessert of baklava while smoking our hookah. The lady who ran the place was very nice and had a casual personality. She had us test the hookah to make sure it was working okay instead of her doing it because she was fasting. I assume she was fasting for Ramadan and that smoking hookah was one of the things that they fasted from. Kinda cool. After lunch we walked to Paola Fountain, which is not nearly as grand as Trevi Fountain but still pretty. For the next hour or so we just walked around the Trastevere area checking things out. Before heading back to the hotel we grabbed a pizza to go. I felt bad about possibly making everyone on the bus hungry because the whole bus stank of pizza when we got off. Oh well! It was another relaxing night.

We checked out on the 12th. At the train station we found a grocery store where Chuck got what we've taken to calling a pearple. It was the shape and texture of an apple, bu had the color and flavor of a pear. They do some weird stuff with genetics these days... We hopped on the train and zipped off to Montecatini Terme!

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Warning: This is a long post!

We arrived in Bologna unsure of what to expect. As we walked down one of the main streets and felt the vibes we all agreed that it had a nice feel - it sort of reminded me of the authenticity of Granada mixed with the city-life of Madrid. And of course, throw in some Italians. We found our apartment really easily and I was secretly excited to see that it was a real apartment! The entrance was a giant door that doesn't actually open - what opens is a little door cut out of the giant door. After meeting our cute Italian apartment manager he led us upstairs through a tiny hallway to our awesome, spacious two-bedroom apartment. It had a big TV, a full kitchen, a big bathroom, air conditioning, internet, etc. It has got to be one of the nicest places we've stayed so far - and really cheap for it being a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of a big city. We were briefed about the apartment in broken English mixed with fluent Italian and after settling in we went out for some food. Chuck took us along the scenic route where we saw Bologna's set of leaning towers: the Due Tori. I suppose leaning towers aren't just for Pisa! These weren't all that pretty though. They were just 4-sided, brick towers that rose straight up with little embellishment. We headed through one of the food-market areas trying to find a butcher. Most things were closed by that time in the afternoon though, so we didn't manage to get what we were hoping to: a duck and a rabbit. We got a few veggies instead. Chuck next took us to Piazza Maggiore which is home to the Fontana del Nettuno and the fifth largest church in the world: the San Petronio. We just glanced around as we passed through on our way to the supermarket. After buying a big load a groceries we trudged our haul back to the apartment. We sat in for the rest of the evening just watching TV or sitting on the computer. Robyn made us a yummy pizza for dinner and we all split a bottle of wine.

The morning of the 3rd Chuck cooked us omelets stuffed with chopped ham and soft cheese. We headed out again to try and find a butcher, and this time had much more success. We actually found numerous butchers as well as a bunch of fruit and veggie stalls, cheese shops, and delis. I managed to find a duck (although it was a bit sad looking) and Robyn got some nice, thick sausages. Chuck and I finished up some more grocery shopping at the big supermarket and Robyn went off to do some person shopping for herself. She ended up with a shirt or two and some pants among a couple of other things. Meanwhile I prepared the duck. The duck came still attached to its head and feet, which I have no experience with removing. I got out the biggest knife I could find (which wasn't all that big, really) and stretched out the poor little neck. I looked at it for a few moments, staring into those beady little eyes as I held the knife poised near my shoulder. I had a few small false starts before I steeled myself to the task, counted to three and gave it my best whack. The head was, of course, still attached. I barely made it through the bone for all my effort. But after hacking away a few more times I had the deed done and finished. The feet involved a bit snapping which I won't get into, but that wasn't pretty either. I made my mashed potato and onion mixture, stuffed it up his butt, ringed him with carrots and potatoes and shoved him in the oven. All was looking good! I sat back and relaxed while the duck baked. Every once in a while I would baste the veggies in the bubbling fat that was melting off the bird. About halfway through I noticed something odd. The mashed potatoes that were oozing out of the cavity (as they are supposed to do) had a green tinge to them right around the edge of the duck. It looked like green food coloring had seeped into the potatoes! Try as I might, I couldn't find anything at all about "green stuff on my duck." The duck was still pretty tasty though. If we just avoided the weird green bits then everything was fine. The potatoes were especially good, if I do say so myself. Not too long after dinner we got dressed in our finest clothes (which for us is about the equivalent of getting dressed to go to the movies or something) and headed out to find a fun looking hookah bar Robyn and Chuck had researched online. A few wrong streets later we had made it to find the place was closed down for renovations. What a bummer! So no hookah for us.

The 4th was to be our day in Pisa. I forgot to set my alarm clock so we woke up late. I have to admit, I'm not sure that we would have gotten up in time even if the alarm clock had been set. We tend to ignore alarm clocks these days. Perhaps that's what extended "vacation" does to you? Although come to think of it, I ignore my alarm clock whenever possible, vacation or not. We decided we could still go if we took the 1:15 train so I cooked up a pasta lunch to take with us and Chuck cooked us a quick breakfast. We got to the station, ready to go by 1:15 and waited. And waited and waited. The train ended up being almost an hour late! This totally threw off our schedule for the rest of the day, but what could we do? After finally making it to Pisa and figuring out their bus system we found ourselves in front of the front gate to the Pisa Cathedral. We mingled into the crowd with all the other tourists to take in the sights. On the left is the baptistry with the cathedral across from it. Fun fact: apparently the Pisa baptistry is where Galileo Gallilei was baptized! It's also a unique building because of its echo-y properties. We didn't go in ourselves (would have been €5 a person and we're cheap) but you can find videos on YouTube of people kind of singing with themselves because the echo lasts so long. It's pretty cool. The cathedral is big and beautiful, but really just another of the many cathedrals around Italy. And then there's the famous tower of Pisa right out behind the cathedral. It's not the only tower in Italy that's leaning, but it is one of the prettier ones. And it does have quite a lean to it! We had to do the obligatory "optical illusion" photos of us holding up the leaning tower as well any other sorts of things we could think to do to it. I have to say, I think we were some of the more original tourists there. We not only held up the tower, but pushed and kicked it over, picked it up, and even ate it! It was funny to just stand and watch the other tourists doing the same thing. People everywhere, young and old, holding their hands in the air, pushing against some invisible object. After getting our fill of the tower we made a quick stop at the Arno River that runs through Pisa. Robyn wanted to see it because it's mentioned as the river Lauretta threatens to throw herself into in the song O Mio Babbino Caro from the opera Gianni Schicchi. We arrived back in Bologna at about 10:00 PM, all feeling a bit cranky. It was nothing that some steaming pizzas and freezing granite couldn't fix though. The granite (like a sorbet kind of) were soooo good! We got them from the little gelato place right near our apartment and I think they're made fresh everyday. They taste fresh and natural - like there were real peaches in the peach granita and real grapefruit in the grapefruit one. They made us feel instantly better about getting home so late.

The next morning we slept in. Just as I woke up Robyn was heading out to the big market that's held down the road on main street each day. When she got back she told us that they had absolutely everything there and that it was huge. She got a few woven leather bracelets herself. We were getting hungry so headed downstairs to to the restaurant right below us called Bel Fiore. We each decided to simply go with the "menu del giorno," or menu of the day. The waiter (I think he was the owner or manager at least, too) was a rotund cheery fellow who was very nice and chatty. He didn't really speak English - he could just manage to slip in a few English words here and there when we looked completely confused by what he was saying. But he loved to chat with us about how things are in Italy, and how Italians do such-and-such. He was great. And the food was divine! Our first course was a simple plate of spaghetti with olive oil and some lemon juice and spicy red pepper bits. Next was a filet of breaded pork doused in a tomato sauce with a salad. We also got a tiramisu for dessert. It was all to die for. After lunch we just had to get a granite again - they're that good. We got some wine from the nearby wine shop (everything is nearby, it's awesome) and finished it off while waiting for dinner time. Robyn prepared for dinner those giant sausages she had gotten the other day with sauteed peppers and onions. We went and got more wine... The sausages ended up being great. We had our wine and all just hung out talking late into the night. Somewhere near midnight we all decided we wanted some more food so I cooked up the mushrooms we had on hand and just tossed them in some pasta. Nothing like mushroom pasta at midnight when you're somewhat intoxicated... Good stuff.

I have to say, we've become good at sleeping in by now. We woke up some where between 10:00 and 11:00 and didn't actually get out the door until 1:30 or so. But when we did we went to the train station and hopped the train to Firenze. Firenze is a popular city for tourists, but still has its charm if you can manage to ignore that fact. We saw a number of churches from the outside only: Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo (with the Medici Chapel Museum in the back), and Santa Croce. I would have liked to have gone into Santa Croce but by the time we finally got to the church it was closed. It's home to the tombs of Dante, Michelangelo, and a couple of other famous old dudes. We managed to go inside two other churches, one of which was the huge Santa Maria del Fiore. It is an absolutely stunning church from the outside. It looks like it's made completely of white, cream, pale green and pale pink marble and is just gorgeous. Inside is another story though. It's plain. I guess that's probably why it's free to go inside maybe? It seems that if the church is gorgeous on the outside it usually isn't special inside, and if it's boring outside it's probably incredible once you go in. Maybe inside-beauty is inversely proportional to outside-beauty for European churches. The Duomo also had it's own baptistry and bell tower, just like Pisa's cathedral. Unlike Pisa though, the bell tower isn't leaning. It was just as pretty as the church and for a small, exorbitant fee you could climb all the way to the top. Can you guess whether or not we decided to do it? Yeah, no. We stayed on the ground. We also went into a small, boring-looking-from-the-outside church that was actually rather beautiful inside. They had a large monument-like structure by the altar with a picture of the Virgin Mary in it that looked much to big to be in there. And lucky us, we got to hear a trio practicing. It was two violins and an organ which, as far as I know, is not a very common combination. I always love it when we go into a church and find that there is music being performed. We also wandered through the thoroughly crowded Piazza Signoria where the Accademia Gallery is located. The gallery is home to Michelangelo's David statue, so out front they have an oversized replica that we all got a picture with. We passed by the Uffizi Gallery (apparently a pretty famous art gallery and home to the Birth of Venus painting) and came to the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is pretty cool. It's a bridge that was built in the 1300's that is lined with shops along each side, with the road running down the middle. It was originally occupied by butchers, but when the royalty moved into their new palace nearby they decided goldsmiths would much better suit the place. It still has it's old feel to it with small windows, tiny doors, and small rows of potted plants hanging off a few second story windows. It has a small feel to it and is rather quaint. Our last major sight was the Palazzo Pitti. This is that "new palace" that the royalty moved into. It's rather plain looking from the outside consisting of huge, undecorated slabs of rock. I can't say what it look like inside or around the gardens because we decided not to buy the tickets to go in. I'm sure it's much prettier inside though, and I was kind of sad we had to pass it up. We made it back to the train station just in time to catch our train. In fact, we were so close to the departure time that we didn't have time to buy tickets at the counter. I made sure to ask the conductor before getting on if we could buy them on the train and she said yes. Not too long into the ride a man from the compartment next to us was laying on the ground with a worried wife or girlfriend hovering over him. He seemed lucid and was talking, but something had obviously happened. His wife doused his forehead with water and the conductors came around discussing what they should do. He managed to get back up within 5-10 minutes though and we all thought the excitement was over. About 10 minutes later he's back on the ground again. This time they called the ambulance and the train backed up the station and we all waited. Eventually the ambulance arrived and they brought a stretcher on board, loaded him up and took him away. We never figured out what had happened. The best we could figure is that he kept having moments where he would black out briefly, or perhaps his legs kept giving out on him. Hope he ended up being okay! And we got a free ride on the train due to all the excitement. Once back in Bologna we had dinner at the little restaurant downstairs. The owner was, once again, very cheerful and talkative. And the food was, once again, absolutely delicious.

We all woke up very early on the 7th in order to catch the 6:30 AM train to Cinqueterre where we were going to do a nice long hike through some beautiful scenery. We made it to the station and bought tickets in a sleepy haze. They were more expensive than we had expected, but we got them anyways. We waited at the platform for a few minutes before realizing we were at the wrong spot. We were supposed to be on 6 West, not 6 East. It was very close to the time our train was due to arrive so we backtracked in a run, following the signs to the West platform. We emerged onto the platform in a huff and wondered where the train was. The arrival screen showed that it was already here, but we didn't see it anywhere. And the track we were on looked suspiciously like the same one we had just run from. Long story short: we completely missed the train because it was on a track that is not adequately signposted. But luckily we were able to get our refund put towards our tickets to Rome. We couldn't take a later train to Cinqueterre because it would get us there too late to do the hike. Robyn was pretty disappointed I think, but accepted it as the way things were for now. She said that she still wanted to go and that perhaps we could try again after Rome. So we ended up with our tickets to Rome and a bit of disappointment at the end of the morning. Or really, the start of the morning as it was only about 8:00 AM by this point. On the way back to the hotel I took the opportunity to drag us through a park I'd been wanting to see since we got to Bologna. It ended up being more than a let-down seeing as it was covered in graffiti and not taken care of. Oh well. Robyn went back to bed after we got back to the hotel, but Chuck and I went back out again to the food market to arm ourselves with ingredients for a spaghetti carbonara dinner. We found the biggest onion of our lives at one stall and had to buy it. I managed to get a little practice with my Italian in as well. I find I don't remember much, sadly. The carbonara ended up being pretty good, but I'm always wierded out by the fact that the egg is technically raw when you eat it. So nothing exciting ended up happening that day because or plans were spoiled by bad signage.

On our train out of Bologna to Rome a guy had a kitty in a carrier that he put on a seat in our compartment for a few stops. We all "awwed" a lot and poked our fingers through the cage when we were sure the guy wasn't watching. The cat was really friendly and would rub up against our finger tips, making us "awwww" even more. Luckily, that was the only eventful part of the trip. Next stop: Rome!