London (Sept 29)I left Chicago Tuesday night not expecting any dinner on the flight but not only did I get fed dinner and breakfast, but there were TV monitors on each headrest complete with a library of new movie releases, syndicated reruns, music stations, web access (for a fee) and even a map that showed the plane's current location. The Virgin Air flight attendants were pretty hot as well. I kept trying to make conversation with one of them just to hear her British accent, but she was not havin it. The Northern Lights were AMAZING... Seeing beams of blue and white light rays dance around the sky was simply beautiful, like it was a choreographed show for the people of Nova Scotia. I'd never felt so far from Earth before.
I arrived at 8am in London with no sleep and no plans. Border patrol grilled me for a while because I didn't have proof of a return flight home (at least a receipt) or hotel but I showed my RailPass and I guess that was sufficient, even though the officer told me he's sent people home with more valid documentation than I had. Whatever. I took the Underground Piccadilly to St James and on the way I chatted with a few strangers to find out the best places to visit. A lot of Aziz Ansari/Slumdog Millionaire lookalikes. After Buckingham Palace I walked to Trafalgar Square, stopping along the way at this pond to take a rest. I was amused watching Asian girls marvel over a simple squirrel.
I visited the National Gallery and it seemed a lot like the Art gallery in NYC and even in Indy, although the pieces here were much better. Its funny how so many paintings had full nudity or at least teased with a nip-slip. I tried to crack the Da Vinci Code but a group of students interrupted that. There were street performers out on the square, and I briefly found WiFi to email Mom & Dad that I arrived in Europe. I ate lunch at Sherlock Holmes pub and then toured Benjamin Franklin's home (1760s era). Then I purchased an outlet adapter and a 1way ticket to Paris. I'll be leaving Saturday morning, so my next mission was to find a hostel for the next 2 nights. I Googled the best-rated places and found one called Clink that used to be a courthouse and jail. It was perfect location - not near downtown, but walking distance to the train station as well as about a dozen or so hip hangouts. £22 per night, not bad for a bed and breakfast. Plus there was a nightclub and 24-hour kitchen, plus internet cafe. I was in a room with 7 other beds, and 6 were occupied by American high school girls. The showers were coed and I dont think any of the European girls had any issues with that. Its now 2am Friday morning and I just kinda woke up from a nap. My jet lag will take a few days to get used to. Tomorrow I get picked up by a tourbus and we'll drive around town checking out the sites, before taking a boat ride on the river, and then finally going west to Stonehenge. I'm so excited to see one of mankind's oldest structures!
I awoke at 6am Friday so I could get to the nearby Holiday Inn by 7. Thats where the shuttle picked me up to take me to the Victoria coach station, where we soon boarded an open-top doubledecker bus. The tour took us all around London for 4 hours that included a boat ride on the river near the Tower of London and London Bridge. Our tour guide was a replica of Michael Cain and he provided a lot of historical data, which all which seemed to revolve around the Royal family or The Fire of 1666. I probably took around 80 pictures and then when I had a break I reviewed them and deleted a couple dozen due to replicates. A lot of the churches and parliaments looked the same. I wish there was a edit-file-name option on my digicam so I'd remember all the names of the sites, but I'm guessing Google Goggles will help me out with that later. My lunch took place near the Victoria station in a shopping mall area. I ate a baked potato split open and topped with spicy chicken, sweetcorn, and mozzarella cheese. Kinda like the KFC bowl, but easier. I was able to buy a 16-pk of Zantac for 30 pence, which is only 50 cents in US currency. Yay for Capitolism! I went to use the public restroom and that also required 30 pence; boooo Capitolism. I returned to Victoria to get on a different bus, this one took us to Stonehenge. The traffic out of London was painfully slow, but we finally got there (in the middle of nowhere) and it was awesome. I felt like I had already read up on it entirely, but still listened to the headphone-tour guide explain the mysteries surrounding the 5-ton stones arranged in a circle. I took some photos, and made sure to include myself in one - my only portrait of the trip so far. I didn't get any sleep on the way back, so I was ready to zonk out when we returned around 8. Instead, I decided to shower up and soak in my last night in London. The hostel, on Kings Cross St, was in a very lively part of town near St Pancres so I didn't have to walk far to visit a few bars. This was the first time I felt unsafe. Maybe the thought of getting drunk meant letting my guard down, or maybe because the dudes didn't like some American tourist hitting on their women. I figured it was probably best to not start any trouble, so I retired for the night and set my alarm for my Paris departure Saturday morning.
Paris (Oct 1)I woke up Saturday in a good mood because I finally received a full nights sleep - I even got up before my alarm went off. I had a hearty breakfast (oat cereal with nuts and raisins, toast with honey, banana) and walked to St Pancres station. I briefly found WiFi but hardly managed to get anything done before boarding the train. Luckily I had nobody sitting next to me on the full train, but unfortunately there were 3 kids - all under 7 years old - that wouldn't calm down or shut up, until their parents whipped out the iPads. The trip only took about 2 hours because we were traveling at least 150 mph avg. As soon as I got to Paris I reserved my seat for Amsterdam (leaving Monday morning) which gave me a loose time table of what I could do in Paris for the next 45 hours. As soon as I stepped outside, I was accosted by newspaper-selling bums asking me for money. One foreign fella immediately ripped his shirt off and let out a triumphant roar as if he was just seeing sunlight for the first time. His buddies thought it was hilarious. One thing I quickly noticed was the percentage of black people; was I in Gary Indiana? I bought a $5 map so I wouldn't use my cellphone's data, but I found out this metropolis was much bigger than the City of London. I started walking toward a hostel advertised as one of the best, and it was nearby. Unfortunately, they were all booked for the weekend. I tried to locate another hostel, but I couldn't read the street names very well and my backpack was getting cumbersome, so I sat down and turned to Google to book a reservation. It turns out this was a big weekend in Paris and I shouldn't have waited til the day of to find a bed. I walked for miles up and down city streets, stopping by at least 10 different hotels looking for a room. By the third or fourth, I was getting frustrated and kinda worried. Would I have to leave town to find availability? My French was improving with each front desk visit, most of the clerks were nice and helped me out with a few words. Finally I found a strip of nightlife with a bevy of hotels tucked in alleyways. The one that took me in has a room balcony, free WiFi (pronounced wee-fee) and breakfast. As luck would have it, I'm on the 5th floor and now I'm out of range for wireless internet. Checkout's at noon, which is perfect, because I already found another room for tomorrow that allows check-in at noon, so I wont have to worry about dragging my backpack anywhere. €59 kinda high, but what are ya gonna do, its Paris. I bought another plug adapter (European) and took a stroll down the avenue, grabbing a bite to eat. Lots of motorcycles (just like London) and tiny vehicles, like VW Golfs. I found a bus route that will take me to Charles de Gaul tomorrow and Gale d'Nord station Monday. I also want to visit Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower... we'll see.
I slept (took periodic naps) til 11:50am - that's when the front desk called me to tell me I had to leave. So I gathered everything and walked 1 block west to my new hotel. There I left my backpack and went looking for lunch. I stopped at a typical French diner but since I didn't want to eat duck, salmon or frog legs, so I got the burger and fries with a beer, Clark Griswold style. When I first grabbed the burger, blood started dripping onto the plate. I usually like it medium-well, so this was not quite up my alley. Instead of complaining I just ate around the tender, uncooked, red parts. Thankfully, I never felt ill that day. I hopped on a bus for €1.9 that took me to Charles de Gaulle monument. When I got there I started taking pictures (like I normally do) and then within seconds some girl walks up right next to me, bends down and picks up a gold ring. She starts exclaiming "Gold! Gold!" then turns toward me and says "Gold, no?" and hands me the ring. I took a close look and inscribed inside was '18k' so I told her Wi and then she tries to put it on all her fingers but it was too big. So she hands me the ring and motions to see if it fits me, and it does, perfectly on my ring finger. Ha. She tells me to take it and that's when I thought this was some kind of scam. I said Merci and tried to walk away with it, but of course she stops me and asks for some money. I gave her €2 but that wasn't good enough... "no no no", she said "I need sandwich". I shook my head and walked away, periodically looking over my shoulder to see if she was following me or if one of her goons were after me. About an hour later, I noticed my finger had turned green so I took the ring off my finger and put it in my pocket. My impromptu dream of cashing in someone's wedding band to pay for my trip were dashed. Next I walked to the Eiffel tower, a very exciting place. There were newlyweds in costume getting their pictures taken. There was a skate-park being set up with freshly-built ramps. There were poor kids playing in the fountains. There were teenagers smoking weed. There were young couples and families eating picnics in the grass. I contemplated going up the elevator, but the line was too long and I am not a fan of heights. Besides, I was on a mission to explore the rest of Paris. There were bike-rentals stations all around, but the damn kiosks wouldn't accept my bank cards. I later found out I have to have a special (French only?) chip embedded within my card, so I guess I was walking. I had no problem walking miles and miles, except it was a hot day and I forgot to bring my Nalgene bottle. When I got to Notre Dame, there were Middle Eastern-looking men everywhere selling bottled water for €1 each so I stocked up. I walked inside and it was pretty dark and eerily quiet (for hundreds of people) because, after all, this was a church. The nuns were selling candles and asking for donations. The center of the cathedral had pews where people were praying while the circumference was filled with individual chambers, each one dedicated to a specific Saint. Next I walked to the Louvre, a massive museum and monument with ancient Roman depictions. This was a very popular place, and it seemed most were there just to hang out in the center plaza. I got some rest as well before heading back to the hotel, which was a couple miles away. I passed through the high-end hotels and shopping areas, and marveled over how beautiful the women were. They all looked like movie stars and models; or they were neither and just had rich husbands. After I got back to the hotel I showered and went out for dinner. I found a Chinese deli and it was delicious! I figured I might not see Chinese food for a few weeks (boy was I wrong), so I'd take care of the crave now. I couldn't finish my dinner so I gave the rest of it to the first homeless person I saw. Since it was Sunday night, that meant NFL football was starting in America so I followed some of the games on my phone. I had WiFi so I was able to watch my fantasy teams live, this was the closest I felt to home since I left.
Day 5 (Oct 3)I left Paris around 9am Monday morning and on my walk to the station saw a lot of single parents walking their son/daughter to school. I dunno why this stood out to me, maybe I'm just not used to seeing it in America. I boarded the train without ever showing a ticket or passport to anyone. I had an hour break in Lille, so I decided to walk around and found their Notre Dame cathedral. Not much to do other than people-watch. I liked how quiet and peaceful it was, previously Stonehenge was the closest to a 'calm' environment since Tuesday. Lille was on the border of France and Belgium but I mostly heard all French. They did ask for a ticket on my next train, this one to Antwerpen, Belgium. I luckily remembered to validate my Railpass that I bought in Evanston, Illinois on Tuesday. This was day #1 of 15 for my 'global' pass. I had to switch trains again in Antwerpen, so I decided to have lunch here. Again, nobody spoke English here, even the station officials. I stopped by a gyro joint but have no idea what I ordered. It looked like a sausage but tasted like tofu. I asked for bread and decided to make a sandwich out of all it, including a spicy mayo sauce and fries on top. There were two boys, who I assume were the owner's, pestering me throughout my meal and I realized that's just something I'm gonna have to get used to for a few weeks. I gave the older one 10 cents to leave me alone. I wanted some aqua, but since nobody pours tap water, I have to make sure I have my water bottle with me always. Instead of public drinking fountains, they have well water and forever flowing faucets in various locations through many European cities. Sanitary enough for ya? My connecting train was cancelled, so I had to wait an extra 2 hours for my connection to Amsterdam. On my way through Holland's countryside I saw windmills, dairy farms, and plenty of graffiti - but nobody wearing any clogs.
Amsterdam (Oct 4-6)The first thing I noticed when I got here were the bicycles. They were everywhere, like I was on campus somewhere. I walked around searching for a bike station, but they rented them by shop and all bike shops were closed, so I looked for a hostel and came upon one called Cosmos tucked away off one of the main strips. They had WiFi and a cute kitty. I showered and headed straight for the Red Light District, stopping at the first coffee shop I saw. The streets were lined with red lights, sex shops, bars, clubs, private rooms, townhomes, fast food joints, and tourist souvenir stands. Every other walkway crossed or paralleled a canal, the canal systems spanned most of the inner and outer city. I zigzagged my way up and down the streets checking out the scene and eventually kept seeing the same landmarks repeatedly. This helped me navigate later on the rest of the week. I also discovered if you could see Central station you're off to a good start. Its still very easy to get lost here because all roads here diverge at some point, so if the sun is out you can always use that for a guide. On the cloudy times I had to stop and look at a map every once in a while. It helped following the same streets as the rail-cars, but the sub streets were less crowded and offered plenty to look at. I visited the Van Gogh museum, Heineken brewery, Albert Cuyp market, Sarphati park, Vondelpark, Stedelijk museum, Amsterdam Historical museum, Anne Frankhuis, and a number of other fine establishments. Mostly everything was reasonably priced, especially compared to London and Paris. I rented a bicycle for €4/day, which was a life-saver for my aching feet and back. (now instead, I had aching legs and butt, ha) The credit receipts I had to sign never had a line for a tip, so I just threw them some coin. It takes some getting-used-to for each custom, but by the time I understand it I'm off to the next country anyway. For instance, in Paris I had to surrender my room key every time I stepped outside. And I'm damn sure one of these times I'll get busted for jaywalking, as I'm the only one that does it, it seems.
Berlin (Oct 6)I left Amsterdam at 5pm Thursday and had to switch trains in Hildenburg(?) and Hannover. The 3rd train was the nicest I'd been on - digital displays of upcoming stops and sparsely located outlets. My phone wouldn't survive if I couldn't randomly re-charge at key locations. I arrived at HFB around 11:30pm and took the S7 to Waurschausse, which is where I was supposed to meet Cisarna 'Ci' at PlusHostel; I met her earlier that day in Amsterdam. I accidentally boarded the westbound subway instead of eastbound. By the time I realized this, I jumped off at the next stop and tried to catch the next eastbound express. Problem was, it was now 11:50pm and there were no more subways running, so I was stranded in Nikkolasse. I was about already 20 km from downtown, so no cab, thank you. I walked in complete darkness down a lonely street until I found a hotel. I negotiated a fair price of €40 even though I had no upper hand. In the morning, I stocked up on fruits from their breakfast buffet and then took a stroll to the water, about 1km away. From the looks of my map, this lake borders Potsdam, a highly reputable city apparently. I jumped on the S-bahn back to my original destination and left my backpack in their luggage room. The clerks that work at Hostels are the best tour guides; they hand you a map and circle everything you should check out, plus they speak English. This was a great location to start because of the Berlin Wall. After that I jumped on the subway and took that 2 stops to Alexander Place (the public transportation police never caught on to me not purchasing a ticket) where I saw the sky-high Fernsehturm, visited a few museums, checked out Pariser Place, Potsdamer Place and some other Universitats and churches. With all that under my belt, and the fact that it was around 48°, I felt ready to leave Berlin. I went back to the HFB to see when the last train left for Prague and to my delight there was a 6:12pm (twas 4:30 at the time) so I ate a brat and drank a beer in the Biergarten with a band performing until my train arrived.
Prague (Oct 8)I got into Prague around midnight Friday. The train people only check your ticket of you're departing or entering a major city. But as soon as I entered Czech, I was asked no less than 4 times to show my ticket, and they defaced it twice - once with a time-stamp right across my written log/journal entries, and the other time to punch a hole through it. Thanks assholes. Per a friend's recommendation, I went to the Clown & Bard hostel in Zizkov. I was staying in a 25-person dorm, a 10-flight climb, but at only €16/night. Not bad for free WiFi and breakfast too. Beers here are only 30 crown ($1.50) and they let me sleep the first night without payment (just an ID). Awesome peeps. In the morning I hit up the ATM and walked to the train station to determine when trains left for Vienna. Each day was the same schedule, so I could just decide spontaneously when I wanted to leave. I met up with Pat Moriarty from Milwaukee, whom I met the night before. We partook in the free walking tour. I discovered that there's a very grim history of Prague, mostly due to the Nazi-Jew massacres during Hitler's reign. We took the metro back without paying, bless the honor system. I had the duck and sauerkraut for dinner at Svijany restaurant, with two beers and tip for only 200 crown ($10). I met up with some South African and New Zealand girls at my hostel and we went downtown to participate in the Bar Crawl. When we got into the queue, and saw how many dudes were there, and how long we'd have to wait for a drink, so Pat and I decided to bounce to another pub. We wound up at Iron Curtain and met a guy from LA that had been living in Prague 6 years. He was a straight shooter and gave us the 411 on what all to visit around town. We told him where we were staying (Zizkov) and he recommended Bukowski's and TikiTaki. Burkowskis was the perfect bar we'd been looking for all night. TikiTaki had a MissPacMan machine that was free if you were born before 1985. Unfortunately it was out-of-order on this night. :-( Temperatures were now in the upper 30s, a big contrast to the upper 70s in London and Paris a week ago. I woke up Sunday morning and decided to go to Vienna, but not before visiting the Leonardo da Vinci museum and John Lennin wall. The museum was closed for renovation and I never found the wall. Happy Birthday Mr Lennin!
Vienna (Oct 9)I arrived in Vienna at about 8pm Sunday night. I Googled some hostels and made my way toward the biggest cluster. The first 2 were closed and had empty reception areas, they resembled college dorms... maybe Austria's version of a hostel was different than the other countries? The 3rd attempt was a success, although it had the worst reviews online, I was tired of walking and was willing to settle. €20/night plus breakfast and WiFi, so far it was all good. My room was on the first floor and there were only 8 beds in this room. I chatted with the clerk to find a bar with NFL football, he suggested TGIFridays. There was only 1 so I had to jump on the subway to get there. This time I bought a one-way ticket and then didn't validate it til the next afternoon. I asked TGIF for NFL football but they only had soccer and hockey. Their bartender told me about a bar down the street called 1516 that might have it, and sure enough they did. I caught the Saints/Panthers game and Bills/Eagles, but didn't get to witness the Colts lose at home to Kansas City - probably a good thing. I ate the Wienerschnitzel and kartoffel, which was basically breaded pork tenderloin (no bun) and potato salad. I mixed em together. The Jets/Patriots game started but I was ready to head home. Again, the CC receipt had no 'line' for tip so I'm not sure what the custom is. In the morning I talked to some Australian girls in the lounge of the hostel, they started to tell me where to go then said "We'll take you there" which turned into us hanging out for a couple hours and eating lunch together. I did the modern art museum, Wein U, art history museum, AU history museum, and had free WiFi half the time (on 3 different public Wifi networks). I had a map with me, so I tried to hit up everything that seemed important. Even though it was raining half the day, I didn't let that dampen my spirits. The people of Vienna are not poor-looking like Prague, although I saw a few homeless people sleeping in the subway terminals. The ethnic background was mostly German with a mix of Hungarian, Czech and whatever. I need to start taking photos of the city's rail system when I arrive so I can reference it later. It always gives a ya thrill to ride on an invalid/nonexistent pass. The departing train left Westbahnhof, which was 1 block from the hostel (hence why I chose the cluster on Google maps).
To warm me up, I made an awesome alcoholic drink: cotton candy flavored vodka, red bull, and capri sun (orange) I call it the Akrite!© Woooooo-eee!
Munich (Oct 10)I got to Munich Monday night and it was a lil warmer outside, not blustery cold like Prague and Vienna. I walked 1 block to the strip of hostels I found online. First and second try were unsuccessful, but third had availability. Again on the top floor, but free WiFi and towels(!) and great location for a cheap price €20/night. They even had electronic keys, which I hadn't seen since my first stop in London. The key-card also locked the personal lockers just by waving/pressing it near the locking mechanism. This hostel (Wombats) had their stuff together! I hung out at the bar (they gave me a drink voucher at check-in) for a few minutes then decided to take a stroll outside to get a bite to eat. Without my phone or any idea of Munich, I didn't venture very far. I saw a slew of homeless people sleeping in the Burger King. A lot of food joints were open after midnight, probably catering to the drunk crowd or train station arrivals. I made my way back home and retired for the evening. Tuesday morning was warm and sunny, so I decided to do the free walking tour. Ozzie, a gay black German, was our guide. He was flamboyant and smart. Every stop accompanied a few minutes of history lesson. We ate bratwurst and drank bier during lunch, and stopped by all the landmarks that makes Munich unique - the Bravarian state that holds all the stereotypes of what you think of when you imagine Germans (and pisses off the rest of Germany) was the only state of 16 that didn't sign the German constitution. I probably could've stayed another day here but I wanted to get to Zurich before the bad weather came. I jumped on the train to Innsland (Austria) so I could embrace the Alps with maximum exposure, and so I could see Liechtenstein. Unfortunately, I was not able to get my passport stamped but I did check-in on Foursquare. Same thing, right?
Switzerland (Oct 11)I arrived in Zurich around 10pm Tuesday. I had the entire first-class cabin to myself (and took full advantage by stretching out and charging my phone. Little did I know how vital this was because Switzerland has different outlets than the rest of Europe. The people here tell me they're the same, but its 3 holes/prongs instead on 2, and a diamond-shaped frame that wont accept my circular adapter. At least I had a fully charged phone when I started my journey in Zürich. I tuned into HostelBookers.com on McDonalds' WiFi to see the best-rated places, and again I was pleased with the results. This place I found was called Langstars (on Langstrasse) and they gave me a free towel, locker, Wifi, and a bonus beer! I knew Zurich would be expensive, so €45/night was a decent deal compared to the cheapest hotel rooms I could find, at €200. Even though they also use Euro, they have their own currency: the Swiss Frank. The conversion was 1fr=1.2€ so it wasn't too difficult. I hung out in the hostel lobby a while, then took a stroll down "Party Mile" and saw the seedy side of Switzerland... bums, prostitutes, druggies, dogs, etc. I returned to Langstars and chatted with 'Bedda-Bedda' from Czech and the coolest clerks. I turned my smartphone off before I went to bed and used my backup phone as an alarm (it lasts 3 days on one charge). Generally I am supposed to be "checked-out" by 10 or 11am in most hostels, but they are often lenient if you're at least downstairs by that time, eating breakfast or whatever. The showers are usually the least busiest after checkout too. After that I went to OldTown and walked through the narrow, hilly, brick roads. I visited the Stathaus, the marketplace, Kongresshaus, Town Hall, some churches, the Kurst museum (contemporary and historical) and rode the polybahn (a gondola-lift) to Zürich U. Up there was a nice scenic view of the city but I didnt have my 5MP camera with me, only the backup phone (1.3MP) so pictures wont look as good as they should. As beautiful as Zurich is, I also wanted to see Interlocken, so I boarded the train to Bern to connect to Interlachen. The Alps are magnificant forces of landscape that create many villages down in the valleys. Its almost fairytale-like to see giant castles on top of hills overlooking countrysides, farms, and communities. Our train would be hundreds of feet over water one second and then all the sudden in a tunnel, only to emerge amidst breathtaking landscape. When I got to Interlachen I got a bike and went thru town to the nearby lake. I got some ice cream and enjoyed the view til I had to go back to Bern. Bern would then connect me to Milan, or another city of my choice. The last train to Milan leaves at 7pm, so to avoid being stuck in Switzerland for another expensive night I had to leave Interlachen by 6pm. I was then supposed to switch trains in Brig, but missed the Milan departure (wrong platform) so I took a hike through Brig contemplating what to do next, and discovered some amazing scenes. There was a castle across the river high on the mountain that was lit up by lights. The was a cross up there too, like the Hollywood letters on display in SoCal. I rode my bike and took it up and down the streets of a couple small towns, all less than ten miles from the Italian border. I asked a few hotels "How much for a room?" and I got 100, 90, and 89 (Swiss) francs... so my options were not good. I wondered if hitch-hiking was a viable means of transport, but then remembered how all my friends and family were telling me "be careful" and thought "this is probably what they meant". I went back to the train station where my backpack was stored in a locker and took a final glance at the video board. Lo and behold, Domodossola appeared on the screen. This wasn't Milano, but at least it was Italy. I decided to take that train at midnight and even brought my new bike along. The ticket-checker then charged me 17 francs for not having a permit, doh! I am really ready to leave this country.
Italy (Oct 13)I got to Domodossola around 1am Thursday morning in hopes that I'd at least be somewhere where Euro is the main currency. Mission accomplished, but the prices for hotel room were still expensive. I stayed at Hotel Corona for €72 with free breakfast, but no WiFi. Checkout was at 11am and again I stretched that. I asked for a single, got a double, and I'm pretty sure there were bedbugs because I was itching as soon as I got in bed. The view from my window was pretty sweet, and there was even a balcony to welcome the cool breeze on a warm day. I jumped on my bike (with backpack) and visited the 'tourist' spots, which were old cathedrals and chapels. This town was an old officer's post during Napoleon's regime, and they had the full details in English at each chapel. I later found out this was a UNESCO site, one of at least ten I have visited on this trip. Not many people here understand English, nonetheless speak it. Three times the person I was talking to had to get their superior to converse with me, and each time was still a struggle; this reminded me of being in Belgium. My plan was to visit Milan for a few hours and move on elsewhere. There is so much to see in Northern Italy, but the hostels are only in big cities and I needed to be in English-speaking areas or I am on the strugglebus. The towns and lakes I passed through on the way to Milan reminded me of Interlaken, but the homes here were built for warmer weather. Italy kinda reminds me of Florida... the weather, the peninsula, the impolite attitudes. They'll cut you in line to exit the train, but also walk at a snail's pace while blocking the sidewalks. At least there aren't any smelly people (yet) like Czech and France. I switched trains in Verona and had an hour to kill, so I went looking for a "condensed European adapter" which I believe means 220V instead of 250V. It was late and there were no electronic-type shops open, so I took a stroll through town anyway. The area seemed young, like I was on campus somewhere. They seemed kinda snobby here too, which I hadn't experienced anywhere else thus far (except Paris). The traffic laws were different in each city, and it was a challenge trying to fit-in with everyone else. I had been jaywalking freely up until Munich when our tour-guide informed us how much the fine would be if caught. It was difficult figuring out if pedestrians had right-of-way, or if I was gonna be run over by a random motorbike. Sometimes you just gotta be a follower instead of a leader.
I made it into Venice around 11:30pm Thursday night and the city was dead, at least the western port. The island-city has no streets, only canals and sidewalks. There's one train station that takes you back to mainland, where the airport is and Venezia's suburbs. There are hundreds of boats, ferries, gondolas and whatever else floats. There's a main canal that winds through the middle of the city that supports main public transportation. Then the smaller canals are every other block, much like how Amsterdam is set up. People tie up their small personal crafts alongside the walls, which makes navigating very tight. Even though I hag Googled a few hostels prior, they were locked already or impossible to find. I stopped at a hotel way off the beaten path, hoping for a cheaper rate. He quoted me €60 but I refused and tried to walk away. He asked how much I was willing to pay, I told him I was trying to find a bed for €40 and he met me in the middle at €50. The room had 2 windows on top of a canal-way, so close that I could be sitting on my bed and spit into the seawater. I didn't, of course. The overnight temp was about 45° with a daytime high of 66°. I woke up, checked out, and went looking for more hostels. In the meantime, I miraculously found WiFi outside a tavern. I took a seat outside and took care of much-needed business, including my Rome-to-London flight, emailing the family, and obviously updating fantasy football rosters. What a relief to get that taken care of. The problem now was my phone battery was dying. After lunch (lettuce and ham rolled up into pizza slice) I finally purchased another adapter (my third!) and this one was truly universal: Italy, Switzerland, England, Europe, Japan, US, Australia, Thailand, etc. but nowhere to charge my phone until I found a room or train. I decided to take the ferry to Lido because there was a real beach, and I'd never experienced the Mediterranean Sea. I got dropped off on the west side of the island and walked 5 minutes to the eastern shore. There were probably 20 snack shops selling souvenir items or gellato (ice cream). There was some para-sailing and kite-flying, but nobody was swimming and there certainly wasn't any nude sunbathing that I read about. Huh, must be a summer activity. I returned to Venice, took the ferry through town again, and ate dinner - spaghetti with a glass of Rosé. The menu outside had giant letters "No Cover Charge. Service Included" and since the service was so shitty, I decided not to tip, for a change. At home I've become so accustomed to being waited on in speedy fashion it was frustrating not being tended to in a timely manner. American waiters try so much harder than Europeans, and its no mystery why. Venice is a very unique and romantic city, but it seems everywhere I go there are tourists. Its hard to imagine living on any island permanently.
I left Friday night and went to Florence. As soon as I stepped off the train there were lots of young people, around 20 years old or so, and a lot of Americans too. I wondered if the MTV/Jersey Shore appeal brought them here or if they're all just fans of The Renaissance. I circled the train station to get a sense of where I was, then walked to the nearest McDonalds to try to find WiFi. No luck there, so I walked down the first street and looked for any hostel. To my luck, I saw one right away and they told me €27/night - but I felt like I had enough energy to continue exploring and weigh my options. After about 15 minutes going through a few city blocks I didn't find a single other hostel, only hotels (lots of them), so I returned to Archi Rossi and checked-in. This was by far the best hostel I'd stayed at: 3 WiFi networks so you never lost a signal, chef-made breakfast, 4 beds to a room, private bathrooms with shower, large individual lockers/closets, computer cafe, 24-hour access to luggage storage with video surveillance, large lounge area and the courtyard was like something out of a romance novel. Oh and did I mention it was less than 5 minutes from the train station? It was was so nice I decided to stay here 2 nights. The next day I slept-in due to not having a checkout, and boy did I need it. My left heel was sore and my right calf was bruised from some sort of pulled muscle. I still made it out in time to enjoy the day and soak in the sights. In hindsight I should've done a bus tour, but oh well. At 6pm I knew college football was starting, but had trouble finding any bars that had ESPN. If the bar had any sport, it was soccer. How would Americans like it if an Italian came into one of our bars and asked for the soccer game? Hard Rock Cafe only had music television. One of the bars had a CNN-type station showing the riots in Rome. I had heard about the Occupy rallies around the western world but this was the first I'd seen it get violent. Molotov Cocktails and fire-hoses, burned cars and looting. I wasn't sure if I wanted to embrace Rome during this tumultuous time or avoid it, but I really didn't have a choice. My train pass expires Monday and my flights were already booked. At this point I'd given up looking, so I bought a bottle of Chianti and got drunk pretty quickly. I returned to the hostel and searched for streaming ESPN2 online. Sure enough, there was my IU/Wisconsin game in low-def. It was an ugly game to say the least but there was 1 highlight, a 60-yard run by our RB. And the announcer said my high school(!) when Mr Football Tre Roberson came into the game to QB the 4th. One of the guys in my room (John from Philly) and I went out for drinks around 10pm to a place called The Fish Pub. They had hip-hop music, cute waitresses and cheap shots: 5 for €5. After a round of that, we had a couple €3 beers and called it a night. The next morning I did the free walking tour which took us to all the main touristy spots except for 2. I'd already done the Biboli garden so after the tour was over I went to Piazza Michelangelo and was surprised how far I could see. At this point I decided to call it a success and move on to Pisa. I got my backpack from the hostel and went to the train station, took the next train to Pisa and when I got there tried to waste as little time as possible because I'd heard it was a dump - and it was. I walked 20 min to the leaning tower, took a couple pics, and went back to the train station. I had time for dinner so I ate Pizzia, in Pisa. I thought I got a quarter-slice with sausage but they were cleverly disguised mushrooms, Yuck. Then I boarded the 6pm train to Rome. Instead of taking the high-speed rail from Florence (3 hours) I took the 4-hour train from Pisa that hugged the western coast. Watching the sunset on the Mediterranean made it all worth it. The drawback was that I couldn't charge my phone on their crappy 2nd class cabins. I found out that my ticket was first class at ~Prague. It made a difference in that I could recline my seat more often that not and I could use chargers for my phone. I had no working charger for the digital camera and my mp3 player completely died for some reason. Got a 8GB Sansa on Amazon for $30. I'll do that a few more times before I get an iPod. So I'm using my phone as my GPS, www, email, camera, camcorder, and iPod. Oh yeah, and phone. For the seats I had to reserve (Paris and Venice) they serve you a free (alcoholic) drink. Tonight, I have a half a bottle of Chianti.
I got to Rome Sunday night and walked straight to Two Ducks hostel. It was about 5 blocks from Termani train station, which was on the northeast side of the city. The door wasn't marked, only a listing of residents' surnames by the doorbell. I questioned how anybody is supposed to find this place, but then thought "maybe that's the point". The internet said 5th floor, so I walked 4 flights but had the wrong door, so I walked another flight (duh, ground level isn't first floor) and knocked on that door. This was the cheapest hostel in Rome with good location, so I kinda knew what to expect. The bathrooms were very tiny with no door, the kitchen/reception/lounge was approximately 8'x10' and the guy sleeping next to me was a mute who liked to sleep with the windows open. I woke up shivering and caught a cold that lasted the rest of the trip. Nonetheless, I was happy to have a place to sleep and shower. I started off Monday going straight to the Roman Ruins, a stretch of about a 2 square miles including the Coloseum. It felt like the first time I visited Lucas Oil stadium... the sheer size and magnitude of a single structure - of course Lucas Oil is only 3 years old and this was over 2000 years old. There's a fenced-in 'park' of all the demolished columns and walls and faint gates. Some of the rubble was neatly stacked to the side, while other pieces just remained out in the open. I tried to imagine who had been there before and what had taken place... simply amazing. I continued my trek southwest around St Giovanni Paolo, Gregorio Magno and Arco di Dolabella, and then headed north to Santa Maria Maggiore, the best church I'd been in including Notre Dame cathedral. The next day I started on the northwest side of downtown at the Vatican and made my way east, zigzagging up and down every street as to not miss anything. There were so many buildings with godlike (Zeus) sculptures that weren't marked on the tourist map I had. It's just mind-boggling seeing such mammoth buildings with 40 ft entryways and 100 ft ceilings, it made me feel so miniscule. It also made me feel like I was on a Hollywood set, because it was just so neatly sculpted and you never knew when you were gonna turn a corner and be amazed. I would recommend Piazza del Popolo, once you climb the Pincio you can overlook Rome for miles. Same with Trinita dei Monti. Piazza Navona was truly a global market place, with artists and musicians and jugglers. Of course there was the standard beggars, people in costume, scarf sellers, food joints, etc. Campo dè Flori was nearby, and while only half the size it offered many of the same attractions at a discounted price. Also nearby is Torre Argentina, which might've been my favorite spot. Its at original ground level, about 50 below Rome's current street level, and is also mostly in ruins. There are maps and charts posted above that show what it would've looked like 2000 years ago, and history lessons - including the exact spot of Julius Caesar's assassination. The coolest thing about this spot is that it's totally inhabited by (vaccinated) cats. There were probably a hundred or so living on this quarter-block, sleeping, playing, watching humans walk by. One was on the ledge and let me pet it and take pictures. The tale is that Romans treat cats extra special because they kept away the Plague by killing the mice. I also visited Fontana di Trevi, the best fountain I've ever seen outside Las Vegas. There were rows of bleachers for tourists to visit, take pictures, and rest. I climbed a stone structure to take a picture of the crowd, when a policewomen blew her whistle at me, telling me to get down. I quickly left the scene in an attempt to not be scolded or (gasp) fined. The police (and military) presence was quite strong here, it reminded me of being in DC. The Pantheon was enormous, but I wasn't overly impressed by it; maybe I was just so overwhelmed by everything else. Right by my hostel was the Santa Maria degli Angeli, a bascilica with Galileo's entire life memorialized. As a big fan of Astronomy, he's one my idols. There was a straight line that charted the days based on where sunlight hit the floor at noon because of a tiny hole he made in the ceiling. I wasn't sure if the church was built first or if he used the church as his laboratory. It was a thrill visiting this museum.
I also loved seeing all the mobsters roam the streets, traveling in packs, smoking their stogies. I tried not to ever make eye contact with them. Rarely on this trip did anyone ever take a prolonged look at me to see if the recognized me. With this beard, its always "look away from the scary man".
Madrid (Oct 19-20)I got here late Wednesday night as a layover on my way 'home' to Chicago. My departing flight wasn't til noon Thursday - I did this on purpose so I'd have a chance to taste Spain a lil bit. Prices here were pretty affordable; I took the airport bus to Puerto del Sol (center of town) for €2 and walked toward Plaza del Mayor. My airplane buddy gave me a heads up on what to check out and all that, so I felt comfortable right away with a plan in mind, and it helped that I 'downloaded' Madrid's grid on Google maps last time I had WiFi. Being able to zoom in on specific intersections helped tremendously. Each major intersection (usually a 6-way roundabout) had a specific name, like Campo or Puerto del [whatever]. I walked through some pretty interesting plazas. The big one had hundreds of loud, young people enjoying the night. The illegal souvenir guys were even out there well after midnight selling purses, memorabilia, candy, water, beer and soda. I stopped by a few 'Hostals' but each one was really a hotel, at around €45/night. Finally I asked one of the clerks the meaning of Hostel vs. Hostal, and he tried his best to explain and then he told me a place to try. I walked through Mayor and many of the bars were very much alive. I found the place "No Name Hostal" and to my delight it was only €14/night. I shared a room with 15 other beds but only 5 or 6 were occupied, mostly Koreans. I locked up my stuff, changed clothes and went out at 1:30am. I wandered around until I became thirsty, stopping in a club that was like Kilroys Sports in Bloomington. I asked what time they close, the bartender told me 5:30. New York may be "the city that never sleeps" but Madrid had the liveliest after-hours scene of all the places I'd been to in Europe. I met a young lady who approached me by telling me she loved my beard, followed by many kisses on the cheeks. She was short, and drunk. I asked her name but couldn't understand her, so she'll be known as Blonde Snooki. We danced but I wasn't that interested so I cut out and went to another bar. A group of kids (young adults) were gathered in a circle near the fountain at Sol. One had a guitar and others were singing along. It briefly felt like I was at a Phish concert parking lot or somethin. Eventually some city workers came by to hose off the area and they shoo'd us away, like we were cockroaches or mice. I didn't protest because that hose looked powerful and it was a bit chilly. I took in every minute of Madrid, knowing it was my last night in Europe. Of all the places to have an overnight layover, this has to be one of the best.
13 Countries, and over 20 cities, in 4 weeks.
Total trip cost: USD $2,832