Saturday, July 14, 2007

Four Countries Later

It has certainly been another long break in my blogging business, but WIFI has been hard to find, and free time and energy even harder. We are in France now, just finished our first run of Paris and in the Loire Valley, where I bumped into this 'free' access. Hopefully it will be around later when we get back from going out for a (cross your fingers. . .) great French dinner! Au revoir!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Lofty Volterran Adventures. . .

Arrival in Volterra was early and painless. The view of the tuscan hillside was also spectacular, though the bus ride a bit stomach churning. Volterra was much higher and more secluded than the other hill towns we'd seen so far, and the seminary we stayed at had a great view from the window of the entire countryside. As with San Gimignano, the town was a different experience during the day compared to early morning and evening, and we witnessed several 'small town' phenomena along the way too.

Our first day was spent wandering and getting to know our way around (not too difficult considering its size). However, we had another key experience, once again because of the unreliability of Marshall's pants pockets. This time our room key ended up falling off the wall of the city into the ancient Roman theater below, which turned out to be too dangerous for even the police to go retrieve (and, yes, I did ask them to). Instead, I had to explain to the seminary (fortunately not in my broken Italian) what happened to their key. . .

Besides the second 'key incident,' the rest of the first day was okay. We found a decent sized supermarket for our day trip meals and dinners before heading to bed, which turned out to be the most unpleasant part of the day. Apparently bed support isn't too important to the priests and students that live at the seminary, but that, along with our bug infestation, proved to be the ultimate cause of our sleep deprivation for the next three days. When we finally arrived in Florence Marshall ended up crashing at around 7pm the day of our arrival and slept till 7am the next day.

Our second day we had a long day trip planned for the well-known tuscan town,Pisa, and much lesser-known Lucca. The final full day was just for Volterra shopping and relaxing before heading on to museum-hopping Florence early the last day. That's it for now! Ciao!

Under the Tuscan Sun

After our sprint in Italy with Rome and Naples, I was looking forward to a bit more time to relax in central Italy in the region of Tuscany. Our plan was to leave Naples by train early, stop by Chiusi to explore some old Etruscan (the civilization that the region is named for, flourished in history between the Greeks and Romans) tunnels, and arrive in Siena in the afternoon for a one night stay. The next day we'd head to Volterra, where we'd be staying for four nights, and take a day trip to San Gimignano (just left of Poggibonsi on the map) and maybe Pisa while we were there.

However. . . the plans turned out to be a bit more spontaneous due to many unexpected circumstances, and especially due to the lack of reliable public transportation in Tuscany.

As usual, things turned out fine and most of the time we had a good time. In Chiusi we couldn't drop our luggage off, so we never even made it to the town (which required a city bus ride to the top) and just headed on to Siena. Siena is one of the most recommended smaller towns in Tuscany, but we didn't have much time there to enjoy it because of our difficult of arriving in Volterra on a Sunday-- after a very un-buffet style breakfast at our only expensive B&B. We left Siena early, hoping to find a way to Volterra via San Gimignano because they were only 30km apart (and buses only left for SG and Florence from Siena). Upon arriving in San Gimignano (known for its 72 stone towers, of which only 14 are still standing) we discovered a festival was underway, which could have been quite nice if we hadn't had all our luggage with us. My plan was to find the tourist office, which was supposed to let us drop our bags off, then search out a way to Volterra or a room in SG instead. However, the festival was occurring in the blocked off plaza where the tourist info office was situated; to get in we'd have to pay eight euros. Not willing to pay money unnecessarily, Marshall went searching the town for a pay phone and other info offices, while I watched luggage and watched costumed locals parading into the other plaza. . .

Obviously there are a lot more unpleasant details to that particular Sunday, but following almost nine hours of painfully waiting 'in flux' we did get a room in SG. After giving up on the bus to Volterra when the bus driver said there wasn't one, we looked for rooms, and exhausted the recommended places list save one. We found our last hope, but it too was closed. I'm sure we looked pretty defeated at this point, but one of the locals participating in the festivities came over to help us out. When he found out I could (more or less) speak Italian he told me that the owner also owned the adjoining restaurant and would be back at 6pm, so we should try back then. And he told me the equivalent in Italian of 'don't worry, be happy.' It was a nice high in the middle of a long day of lows. We saw him later in the final parade of the festival.

It turned out they took down the barricades later on and we were able to watch a few events for free. First, the final parade of the four competing neighborhoods (blue, red, green, yellow flags decorated the city indicating the neighborhoods) entered the plaza (pictured later that evening), with the winners, the 'contrada' (neighborhood) with the blue flag with the eagle, entering last. Their champion (the guy on the horse in the picture) had won the golden sword and came prancing in on his horse waving his prize in the air, with all the rest of his contrada comrades celebrating with shouts and throwing bundles of wheat (or something?) in the air. But the best part was when tight-wearing, short-skirted men came out twirling flags. . .aka, the flag throwers from Siena. Being an Under the Tuscan Sun fan, I love finding relationships to the movie, like the limoncello tasting in Sorrento, and so this event had even more meaning for me. It started out with just four throwers and four drummers. The passes became more and more intricate, and the music quicker, as the show progressed. The men would do some intricate choreography exchanging flags and 'twirling' them, but the greatest part was when they'd launch them like spears into the air, either to catch their own or to pass it to another. It was simply exhilarating to watch (though I very stupidly didn't have my camera at this point and was too enthralled to leave. . .) Later, a larger group of throwers came out to perform, and it was only toward the end of this group, when 15 or more flags were getting tossed into the air simultaneously, that two flags collided in the air and the men missed them. The rest of the performance seemed flawless.

After the flag throwing performance a group of musicians played a song before we decided to go find some food, which ended up being mediocre pizza to go (from an amusing pizzeria), with which we watched a spectacular sunset over tuscan hills. Then we each got a gelato to end the evening, wandering around the nearly empty city before heading back to the hotel.

The next morning we left early to get to Volterra (finally!!) which was 2hrs away with the tuscan distance-time inequivalency (30km = 2hrs??). Once again the streets were devoid of tourists, just locals preparing for the day. What was really amazing was the way the entire ambiance of the city changed with early morning and evening compared to the day. And before our bus left, I also got to be the third person into the supermarket that morning. I was just behind two men with their shopping carts ready in front of the sliding doors a few minutes before opening time.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Back to the Land of Pizza and Pasta

And of all places to find pizza, Naples is definitely the best spot. Naples was, unexpectedly, one of my favorite big cities. It seems that everyone is just too concerned about their own lives to care about the tourists. The pulse of the city was rapid, especially when we first tired crossing the busy and crowded roads with all our luggage. But I enjoyed it all. Unlike Rome, no one pestered me to buy things and most people I talked to in Italian were willing to hear me out (and help me!) instead of reverting to English and unpleasantness. And we took a packed full day trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast town of Sorrento, home to limoncello! It's a locally produced lemon liqueur that we were able to try (along with licorice --yuck-- and orange) in the midst of their lemon and orange grove in the middle of town. Marshall also made a new friend with their dog, who refused to accept any lemon but the one he was holding, even when his owner, who served us our samples, tried to give him a fresh lemon. It was another free and entertaining experience with locals.

The first night in Naples I was in search of the folded pizza Rick Steves shows in his TV show of Naples. And I never saw a single one!! It was very disappointing, but I did get my brick-oven baked pizza, not in Naples, but in Sorrento at a recommended pizzeria. Since we would be arriving late in Naples, we didn't want to stick around after dark to eat (for all that I liked Naples I definitely wouldn't want to be out after dark), so we had to decide on one elsewhere. I ordered margherita, just fresh tomato and mozzarella with some fresh basil leaves, and Marshall found his dream pizza, marinara, with only tomato and oregano, no cheese at all. At least they were really delicious pizzas because the service was a bit lacking, apparently because we were Americans. I watched the Germans and English customers around us receiving considerably friendlier service, which really put a damper on our meal even with our (my) craving satisfied.

But some good gelato was a good mood booster, at Da Vide Gelateria, which had over twenty flavors! It was really an incredible lineup. We ordered the citrus bursting orange and lemon mix, 'frutti di bosco' or mixed fruit (literally fruit of the forest), and raspberry. Which were all great, refreshing flavors after our humid and boiling sun four hours at Pompeii. While Pompeii was obviously touristy, we arrived early enough that we could wander to the less touristed areas of the huge site and have it all to ourselves. Then, at the end, we stopped by the frequented tour spots like the House of the Faun, the baths, the Temple of Isis, and the brothel. But my favorite things to see there were the plaster molds made of the deceased victims of Pompeii. Archaeologists discovered hollows while digging and eventually realized those hollows were actually the outline of Pompeii's citizens who were covered in ash and were instantly burned away, leaving just the hollows that could be filled with plaster and could be removed to reveal a chilling replica of how the person looked just before he or she died. It was the most real part of the entire place to me.

And now off to bed before a busy museum hopping day in Florence tomorrow! Tuscany will have to wait. . .

Greece Greatness 2: Zakynthos

Zakynthos = Amazing. Returning is a must. Our stay was really hassle free, pleasant, and superbly enjoyable (finally!!). We had a little issue at the beginning with being picked up at the port at 11pm our first night, but it all worked out in the end. And then the room. . . the greatest deal on lodging ever! I still can't believe it. We had a very nice studio that had a double bed, a twin bed, a huge balcony area with furniture and a clothesline, a cooking area with a sink and hot plate and all necessary cooking ware, and a TV and bathroom. The first day of cooking one of the plates fell from its drying position and broke, but the guy at the reception was completely unconcerned and said not to worry about it. The place even had a pool and bar area as well, but Marshall and I never used it considering the beach was only a 10-15 minute walk away.

This particular beach, Kalamaki, was the major reason we came to Zakynthos; it is the nesting location of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. Our first time out in the water, not even five minutes after getting in, we spotted one just a few feet away. It was huge and simply gorgeous. We also went poking around in the sand after the first turtle swam away and found a cool looking crab and a really weird bivalve (clam of some sort). The water was warm and shallow a long way out. And we could walk along the beach and see the spots marked as turtle nests. It was a great break to hang out at the superb beach and come back to a home-cooked meal and not a hostel dorm room! We made some spaghetti for dinner with a salad, had a local sweet white wine, and then cake and ice cream for dessert, with a cappuchino to end. Scrumptious! And then having a warm breakfast the next day and more good meals, along with the beach again.

For our second excursion to the beach we brought the underwater camera and the goggles, and then almost ran into another turtle as we were wading in the water. Though the first one tried to get away pretty quick, the next three were willing to let us swim around them a few feet away, taking pictures. That experience is still our favorite so far because no one else (of human origin. . .) was near us. Just the two of us and the big, friendly turtles. I loved it. That night we also went to see Shrek 3 at a local bar to get some entertainment out of the sun, and while we were wandering in the evening we found a Greek who knew the capital of Iowa! He said he really liked geography and had memorized all the capitals of the states. It was pretty impressive and quite amusing.

But our time in Zakythos ended much too quickly. We didn't see any of the other parts of the island, like the shipwreck beach or the blue caves. And our attempts to get up early to see the sunrise (and go running) didn't work out here either. Nor anywhere else as of yet. . . But the long journey to our next stop, Naples, was simply exhausting. Finishing up packing bags early Wednesday morning we were driven to Zante Town at 9am, where the port to the mainland is located. I wasn't sure about ferry times because no one would answer when I called, but our idea was to get there early and hope for the best. We had our 16hr ferry to Italy at 6pm in Patras, and knew it was at least 2.5hrs to get to the Patras port on the mainland. In the end, it turned out the ferry left at 11am, which was perfect and even allowed time to grab some groceries for the ferry, too. However, the next two days were a public transportation heyday. Saying it all in a row is much more impressive (and painful to recall). . .

Van ride to the bus station, bus ride to the port, get off the bus onto the 1.5hr ferry, get off the ferry for an hour long bus ride, walk to the port to get tickets, onto the boat at 4pm, off the boat the next day at 8:30am, bus ride to the train station, train halfway to Naples, switch to a bus for another 1.5hrs because the train wouldn't be there for another three hours, then one more bus ride from the train station/bus drop off point to our hostel. . . And we, amazingly, were able to make it to the Archaeological Museum after all that without completely crashing. Grabbed some groceries for dinner and our day trip to Pompeii and Sorrento, watched part of a movie on my laptop, and hit the sack very hard.

Fortunately, the extremely long ferry ride wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. We obviously didn't pay for a cabin or anything, but this time found a kid's area (that played Disney movies!) with some nice comfy chairs nearby (with an outlet!) that allowed us to be enertained for quite some time with movies and Nintendo games. Though I don't want to see Peter Pan agian anytime soon considering it was played at least eight times during the journey. But we did get a bit of sleep after I physically attached and locked all of our valuables to me before I drifted off (Marshall was already out, of course). One of the crew had to wake us up to make sure we got off the boat, so it must have been a decent sleep!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Greece Greatness 1

Our first island in Greece was a nine hour ferry ride southeast of Athens, between the Aegean and Cretian Seas. A crescent shaped volcanic island, Santorini surrounds the caldera of the volcano that created it in the center.

Our extremely cheap hostel was a 15min or so ride away from the port near the caldera center. However, cheapness definitely came at a price. A 10 person dorm with squeaky bunk beds, only one sheet, and roadside and patio side door (all of which meant we did not get much sleep).

But our time was mostly spent at the beach a 5min walk away, getting our burns started for the rest of the trip. Though it was not the ideal sandy beach setting, with larger black sand and lots of seaweed, it was quiet and fairly devoid of people. We also discovered a delicious pita place a few doors down from the hostel and enjoyed freshly made pitas for 2 euros (which Marshall still is obsessed over). One day we even hiked the 13km into the capital of Santorini, Fira, to see the tourist donkeys and to get a bus over to Oia for the so called wonderful sunset (Note: it was possible to take the bus to Fira too. . .) Unfortunately Fira was just too touristy to have a good time, and though Oia was very pretty, we had to catch an earlier bus back to Fira to get the last bus back to where our hostel was located, which meant we missed the sunset completely! But I did get Marshall out of bed the next morning at 5:40am to see the sunrise on the beach and that turned out to be absoluely beautiful, even though he was still half asleep.

But after a nap that morning the rest of the day had a few issues. First, some frustrations with the hostel owner who thought we were only staying three nights, then some room key issues. . . ie, it got lost. We asked for a new one then went to get some lunch for our one time restaurant outing in Greece. The stuffed tomatoes were great, then Marshall ordered sword fish filet, also delicious, and I got the fresh fish, which turned out to be a bunch of little sardines. Definitely learned my lesson from that to ask what exactly the fresh fish might be. But it was still good. And even better afterward, when we went back to the beach with my goggles I ended up finding the keys further out from the beach! Apparently in all our huff over the room mixup Marshall had stuck the keys in his swimtrunk pocket, we got in the water, and the keys fell out.

That evening we just enjoyed some cold milk and oreos, then packed up and went to bed (not really sleeping), before getting up early the next morning for our insane taxi ride to the port (first, the taxi broke down, had to be pushed, then he went crazy fast, and we were five really crammed people all being shoved into each other as he turned sharp corners). But this ferry ride was a much better one at least, and we even made it to the bus station in Athens for our bus/ferry to Zakynthos, our next island on the other side of mainland Greece, in the Ionian Sea.

Tardy Updates

Considering the quantity of things that have occurred since my last post, a brief summary should now ensue. . .

I survived my solo trip before Marshall arrived in Spain on May 31, and had some good times meeting people and petting horses in southern Spain (along with some not so hot lonely times). After a night bus to Madrid I finally made it to the airport where I met Marshall and we flew back to Oviedo for super quick packing. Though everything was really stressful (and both of us were really tired), we made it -- without forgetting anything major -- to Santander and caught our flight to Rome the next day.

According to my travel guides, I should have expected unpleasantness in Rome. But by this point in our trip both of us can truly say it was our absolutely least favorite city. Getting from the airport to our hostel wasn't too rough; however, my first experience in the metro a tobacco stand owner tried to rip me off one euro while buying a ticket. My aggravation with the city was also assisted by the mix up at the hostel, a confusing and assuredly unpleasant situation that caused us a lot of frustration and in the end a good deal of extra money. Outside of that problem, Rome was just too touristy. I didn't feel any hint of real Italy in Rome and really looked forward to the day we left it.

Fortunately, one of our favorite sites so far we found in Rome: Raphael's School of Athens fresco in the Vatican City Museum. And of course the Sistine Chapel was amazing, though packed and tightly disciplined (no sitting, no photos, no talking). We used Marshall's little binoculars to get better views of the immense amount of frescoed walls and ceiling. St. Peter's Basilica was quite intimidating as well, but my dislike of the Barocco style overwhelmed any enjoyment from it. After a quick snack break we got out of the touristy area as quick as possible and looked for the path through a park, which turned out to have great views of all of Rome. For the rest of the day, which was beautiful and sunny (and swelteringly hot as we stood in line for the Vatican Museum for over an hour and a half), we just walked around the tourist sites of Rome, and enjoyed a delicious chocolate and honey gelato before heading back to the hostel.

The second day in Rome was rainy and not one of our favorites, even though it was our only chance to see the Colosseum and Palantine Hill. After being soaked all day, we had some good pasta before heading to the airport for our flight to Greece.

Greece was definitely less stressful, and our multiple night stays really helped our sleep levels and gave us a chance to relax. Athens was first, where we had little troubles and even found out there was a national environmental holiday and all tourist sites were free! So we went to the practically empty Acropolis twice and visited the huge National Archelogical Museum as well, along with trying out hand washing clothes in the sink for the first time (but certainly not the last).

Then on to the islands. Our 5am start time to get to the ferry for Santorini was rather stressful since we were both extremely tired and got lost on our way to the metro to get to the port. At least we made it with plenty of time to spare, and another 9 hours on the actual ride, which wasn't so pleasant because of our deck seats. On our return trip we found out we could have sat in the nicer (and air-conditioned!!) inner seats, and had a much more enjoyable return trip watching movies and playing Nintendo games on the laptop.

The rest of Greece must wait!