Friday, January 21, 2011

An Excellent Ending

Wow. So it’s officially over. It’s such a surreal feeling right now. I don’t think it’s really hit me yet how much Paul and I accomplished in such a short time. Over the last couple months, Paul and I have hit 9 different countries and over 20 cities. We’ve experienced so many different cultures and we’ve met so many amazing people. Thank you to everyone who made this possible, you know who you are! With all I learned both academically and about myself throughout these past months, I can definitely say that this journey was in fact An Excellent Adventure!

In the Valley of Kings and Queens

How silly of me, I was too busy ranting about the Egyptian people that I forgot to talk about the best part of getting to Egypt- the weather. From the moment I had arrived the weather had been amazing! If I was to make a comparison to American weather, I would say a nice sunny spring day. It does get cooler at night, but nothing too bad. Right, so now that's taken care of, I can continue with my stay in Luxor. The easiest way to describe Luxor is to take Cairo and then go to the polar opposite of end of the spectrum. Luxor is so much more quiet, pretty (at least the main tourist roads), and easy going. One can tell it's a tourism area just based off of the lines of cruise ships parked on the shore. But anyways, upon my arrival in Luxor Central Station I was picked up and brought straight to my hotel. This was already going better than my arrival in Cairo. After I got settled into my room, it was already time for my first tour to Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. Different from my one on one tours in Cairo, I was not a fan of these group tours. Nothing against the guide because he had really interesting information, but the fact that I had follow the group and not go off and look at what I wanted (unless I wanted to get lost) was disheartening to me. After about 2 hours walking around the largest temple in the world, we left for Luxor Temple. Arriving in the late afternoon, the sun was going down and the temple lights were lit, illuminating the giant pillars and statues against the darkening cloudless sky. It was very picturesque if you didn't get that from my poetic description. These temples were cool, but nothing compared to what we were going to be seeing the next day. The day started with a bang as we walked around the Valley of the Queens. Not what I expected, a lot of the tombs were random holes in the side of hills while others were colorful multi-roomed tombs. After a short walk around, as many of the tombs are off limits to visitors, we continued on the Valley of the Kings. However, before we reached this landmark, what's a Egyptian tour without trying to rip us off? On the way, we stopped at an alabaster workshop to show us how to tell the real stuff from the fake goods sold on the streets. The only problem is these salesmen were just as pushy and persistent as the ones on the street. Not to mention the prices of their goods were absurdly expensive if not bargained down. I'm pretty sure no one bought anything. Although we were only able to go down into 3 tombs and the most famous ones (Ramses II and Tutenkamen) were not available, it was still unbelievable how well the artwork and colors have been preserved over the years. There are sections that give such a vivid picture, one gains an insight into what entire tombs must have looked like back when they were created. There are, if my knowledge is correct, approx. 64 tombs known and every single one is gorgeous in their own way. The most impressive fact however, is that egyptologists believe there are more tombs to be discovered. After Paul and I had seen our 3 tombs, we rejoined the group and headed over to a temple of which I forget the name (in my defense it was very long, but it was of a women ruler). Built into the side of a cliff/mountain/whatever you want to call it, it was quite the sight. That's really all I have to say about that. After this, we left for the last stop of the day, two giant statues which stand at what use to be a temple, but got destroyed. Not really all that exciting, Paul and I took a couple pictures and then got back in the van to return to the hotel. Our third day started off with a hard choice. Paul and I could either take a hot air balloon ride over Luxor or take a fellucca ride down the Nile to a place called Banana Island. As bad as I wanted to go up in a hot air balloon, I just didn't trust Egyptian technology and equipment enough to put myself in their hands. Knowing that the Egyptians had sailed felluccas since ancient times, I had a feeling very little could go wrong. Not to mention it was much cheaper. Needless to say, it was awesome. I was sailing across the Nile as the ancient Egyptians had done thousands of years ago! After a peaceful ride over to Banana Island, we got off and got a tour of the banana and sugarcane fields for which the island is famous for. Living up to their Egyptian hospitality, I was given a batch of bananas and a stick of sugarcane almost as tall as me. They were both delicious. As we sailed back to the mainland, the sun was setting on what was probably one of the most relaxing days we'd had on our Excellent Adventure. Dare I say it? Paul and I were on our last day travelling! With nothing planned for the day we took this opportunity to go outside the touristy areas and get a real feel of Egyptian life style. It was as we expected. It wasn't the most glamorous place in the world, that's for sure. However, the markets and food/spice stalls were amazing. Everything looked so fresh and the smell, there were so many fragrances hitting me at once, I couldn't tell them apart. Naturally after walking through such a place, we got hungry. Luckily, it didn't take long for us to a koshari stall. After some koshari, we explored some of the less touristy bazaars and then returned to our room to start packing for our early flight back to Cairo. And here ends the journey. We caught our flight to Cairo and from Cairo we returned to London. Once in London, Paul and I stayed in Oxford for 2 nights before catching our flight back to the USA. Now, if your thinking to yourself, "wow this ended abruptly," we are right there with you! It caught Paul and I off guard as well. Our time in Egypt went by so fast, and we still missed so much. No problem though, we'll go back someday. Just not for awhile.

Walking Like An Egyptian

It’s funny how nowadays one can reach something that once felt so distant. Ever since elementary school I had dreamed of visiting Egypt and seeing the great pyramids. I feel like they’re one of those sights that everyone must see at least once in their life time. They truly speak to the genius and evolution of man. However, as I’ve learned over the years and especially over the last couple months as I took Egyptology as my secondary tutorial at Oxford, the pyramids of Giza are not the only things to see in Egypt. In fact, my Prof. told me to only stay in Cairo long enough to see the pyramids and the Cairo Museum. Other than that, she said the city has really nothing else to offer and to head down south, or Upper Egypt, to Luxor. With this valuable information, Paul and I booked our flights and before we knew it, we were off to one of the most influential civilizations in history. Everything went smoothly until we actually landed in Cairo. As I looked at the monitor on the plane, it showed downtown Cairo miles away from the airport. I had already booked a cheap hotel, but hadn’t booked anyone to pick me up because I had assumed the airport was remotely close to the city. What this meant is that I would have to get a taxi to a hotel that I didn’t even know the address to, all the while trying not to get ripped off. That’s probably something I should explain before I go further into my stay in Cairo. The locals are, how shall put this, annoying, creepy, slow, and only want your money. Now I know that sounds really harsh, but it’s the sad truth. Oh and you must keep in mind that nothing has a price written on it because the store keepers set them based on how much they think they can get out of you, and then it is up to you to bargain in order to lower the price. You come to learn very quickly that when someone asks where are you from? It’s not to create a leisurely conversation, but to either retain your attention or to see how high they can set the price. As a white American, everything costs more. Knowing this beforehand, I always spoke broken English and pretended I was from a poorer country. Now, what do I mean by annoying, creepy, and slow? Well, for one thing, they are always late. It’s called Egyptian time. As for annoying and creepy, I’ll return to our adventure to illustrate those qualities. So we arrive in Cairo not really knowing what to expect. As soon as we walk through the gate, a hoard of taxi drivers rushes over and start saying, “Taxi? Taxi? You need a taxi? I give you good price?” I made the mistake of saying, “hold on one minute.” As in I was going to find another way to get to my hotel. However, this man took it as if he had a client and proceeded to follow me around the airport after I’d told him several times I didn’t want a taxi. And that was just the beginning. So I finally get rid of this guy and find a tourist information desk and they arrange a taxi for me. Problem is my taxi driver was a psycho behind the wheel and didn’t even know where my hotel was. That’s another thing you can add to the list of Egyptian qualities, awful drivers. I didn’t know if I was going to make it into downtown Cairo alive! It’s as if there were no lines in the road. Random donkey’s pulling carriages are on main roads and cars dart in and out at speed s I don’t even drive at. Not to mention they practically drive with one hand on the horn. It’s their way of signaling a changing of lanes or a way of saying, “Get out of the way!” However, let be known, that not everyone in Egypt is like this, just the majority. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the nicest men I’ve met all trip and if it weren’t for them, I would have left Egypt the next day. Where do these men reside? At Backpacker’s Point, Hotel Vienna. You see, After finally finding my my hotel, being asked to buy this man whisky for helping me, and then finding out the hotel was a piece of crap, I grabbed my bags and headed around the corner to Hotel Vienna, which I’d seen while in the taxi. It was at this time with I first met Mr. Ramadan (I don’t know his last name, but he said to just call him Ramadan). Not only did they have a room open, but it was reasonably priced, and the moment after I put my bags down, he started to talk to me about tours and reaching Luxor. Although I had already booked a hostel in Luxor, he told me that I wouldn’t be able to get a ticket on such short notice. Thinking this was a ploy to get me to pay more money, I declined his offer at first. However, he not only offered a first class train ticket, but pick-up, 4 nights in a hotel, and 2 days of guided tours all for 150 US dollars. Needless to say I accepted. After this, Mr. Ramadan, along with the other staff members, offered to take me out to a local coffee shop. They claim it’s the Egyptian thing to do when you’ve accomplished something. Not wanting to insult this “Egyptian hospitality” (as they said many times), I joined them for some tea and water pipes. Oh and by coffee shop, I mean an ally with small tables and chairs where primarily men go to socialize and relax. Not really much of a tea person, I asked what was an Egyptian drink? Mr. Ramadan then ordered me sakileb, my new favorite drink in the world. Made with milk, coconut, hazelnut, some other things I never found out, and then heated until it was too hot to drink right away, it was a great first taste of Egypt. And of course, because of their “Egyptian hospitality”, I didn’t have to pay a thing. Also, it was at the coffee where I met Siad (at least I think that’s how to spell his name), my personal tour guide for the next 2 days. An older man and very quiet, Mr. Ramadan informed me he was not as crazy as other drivers in Cairo. He wasn’t lying. The next day would be one I will never forget. The day started off with a visit to a Papyrus Museum where I was shown how the ancient Egyptians used papyrus to make paper. After this, it was time to go to Giza and see the pyramids and sphinx. However, Siad had a surprise for me. I wasn’t just going to walk around the pyramids, but ride a camel around them. It was getting to Giza however, when I first experience the madness of daytime Cairo traffic. As Siad says, “Cairo has too much busy.” I forget the number exactly, but Siad told me how Cairo didn’t use to be as populated as it is now. It’s just absurd watching these cars exit and get on ramps with no real traffic lights or direction. Luckily, Siad knew his way around and took a couple side roads to get us to the camel depot without any major setbacks. After meeting my camel, which I name Humphrey, we were guided out to the pyramids. Moving slowing at first, my guide picked us the pace to, as he said, “Make me walk like an Egyptian by the end of the trip.” I’ll admit, my groan was a little soar by the end. Riding camels is quite bumpy, even if you sit close to the front of the saddle. With the pyramids in sight the whole time, I couldn’t wait to get up close and look up at once the tallest structures in the world. After stopping on the top of a dune to get pictures of all 9 pyramids in a row, we arrived at their bases. And if taking us out on camels wasn’t enough, our guides even gave money to the police to let us touch the great pyramid, something that tourist’s haven’t able to do for awhile because of an incident when someone climbed to the top and couldn’t get down. After pledging never to wash my hand again (don’t worry I have), we hopped back on our camels and moved on to the sphinx. Equally magnificent, we weren’t able to get as close to the sphinx as we were to the pyramids, but obviously it was still worth stopping for. It was after this that my tour came to an end. As customary after any service in Egypt (even giving simple directions!), they ask for a tip. Not know the exchange rate that well yet, I later found out that I gave a very gracious tip, but whatever, Paul and I had an amazing time. I’ll let that one slide. Once we returned, we had a quick cup of tea and then took off for Saqqara to see the first ever pyramid, the step pyramid. This visit wasn’t as extensive as our stay in Giza. Siad just sat in the car while I bought a ticket and walked around. The step pyramid and temple were cool, as well as the tombs that were open, but the locals were just too annoying. Every time we stopped, they would ask if we wanted a camel ride or a picture and wouldn’t stop. One guy even took my camera when I was going to take a picture of myself and not wanting to deal with arguing with him to give it back, I complied and when he handed it back and asked for 20 Egyptian pounds, I ran away. I got him good. And it wasn’t even that bad of a picture too. Then, one guy told us to go to the top of a dune for a view, and when we reached the top, he wanted money for his advice. I just laughed at him walked away. After this, we’d had enough of Saqqara and continued to Memphis to see a giant Ramses II statue. Siad wasn’t kidding when he said it was big. It was huge! And it wasn’t even complete. With nothing else besides a couple more statues and bazaars, Siad took me to the last place of the day, a perfume shop….…. Not a perfume guy, I didn’t really want to buy any, but I felt like I had to after all the salesman went through. He would not except that fact that I didn’t want any and kept on lower the price and saying that I needed them. Plus, it didn’t help that it was just the three of us and he was a friend of Siad. It was because of this fact that I finally caved. Paul was disappointed in me. Eh, I got my souvenirs for my parents covered I guess. After this we made a quick stop at a bazaar, where I didn’t buy anything, and then returned to the hostel. Continuing their Egyptian hospitality, Mr. Ramadan offered a traditional Egyptian dish for dinner called Koshari. I replied, “If it’s anything like sakileb, then yes!” Turns out its better. I still don’t know the exact details of what is in it, but I do know it’s a combination of noodles or pasta, rice, tomato sauce, spices, and that’s I know. I’ll look up the recipe later. Anyways, it was delicious, filling, and cheap. The perfect combination. Before I left for my room, Mr. Ramadan explained what I would be seeing on my last day in Cairo before taking the overnight train to Luxor. A much more relaxed schedule than my first tour, the morning was free for me to see the Cairo Museum, then Siad would pick me up back at the hotel and take me through the Islamic and Coptic Christian sections on Cairo before relaxing in Al-Azhar Park, probably the nicest place in Cairo. Similar to visiting the Danish Museum in Copenhagen, it was an incredible feeling to walk through the door and instantly know what objects were. In fact, the first piece I saw, the Narmar Palette, I had touched on in one of my papers focusing on Egyptian cosmetic palettes. As I stood there I found myself nodding along with what the tour guides were explaining to their groups. It really spoke to how much I actually learned in only 8 weeks. I probably wouldn’t have passed other pieces throughout the museum too if I had stayed longer at Oxford and learned how to interpret hieroglyphics. However, most people don’t go to the Cairo Museum for the Narmar Palette, they go to see the Royal Mummies Room and the King Tut exhibit. The only drawback to the Cairo Museum is that camera’s aren’t allowed. This was devastating when I caught a glimpse of King Tut’s famous golden mask. Not wanting another Accademia Gallery fiasco, I didn’t try any funny business with my phone as we had to hand cameras in to the storage room. After this Paul and I got our tickets for the Royal Mummies Room. Although I had no idea who the majority of the mummies were, they did have some very well-known ones, for example, Ramses II. Was it still worth the money? Yes. It was something else seeing firsthand some of the most influential rulers and authorities and how well their bodies were preserved through the mummification process. It was after this that I met up with Siad to see the Islamic and Coptic Christian sections of Cairo. Being a religious man, Siad knew a lot about the various mosques we passed and even informed me that President Obama visited the Al-Sultan Mosque when he visited Cairo. This busy and crowded section of Cairo was followed up by a gated off, quiet, and clean Coptic Christian area. If you don’t know, Coptic Christians were the first Christians ever. Usually associated with Islamic or its ancient god worshipping roots, it’s surprising to see how similar the churches and cemeteries are to those one will find back in the US. However, just because you go through a gate to enter this area, doesn’t mean you’ve left all aspects of Cairo behind. If you can believe this, Paul and I actually got asked by a “Tourism Police” officer for money. He gave me directions (which I didn’t even ask for nor did I want) and thought it was worthy of a tip. Absurd. Getting late, we left for Al-Azhar Park. As I previously stated, this park is probably the nicest place in Cairo. Filled with gardens, palm trees, fountains, restaurants, and finally, a great view of Cairo (even if it’s nothing special to look at, you can see the main mosque), it makes for a very relaxing sunset. At about 6:30pm, we returned to the hotel for some koshari and so I could pack for my overnight train to Luxor. When 8:30pm rolled around, Paul and I were brought to the train station and by 10:00pm, we had started our 10 hour ride down the Nile to our last destination of our Excellent Adventure, Luxor.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Walking on History

Like a blast from the past, Paul and I made it to Rome! It was only last spring break Paul and I had toured one of the most famous and historic cities, only this time, we could do it on our time. The Pellegrinaggio was amazing because it gave us the chance to see things most tourists can’t, but because of this set schedule, Paul and I hadn’t been able to see some of the most iconic and historic structures in the world, i.e. the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Circus Maximus. With 5 nights in Rome, we not only had time to revisit the sights we saw last spring and see new ones, but also take a day trip out to Pompeii. And I must say, the weather could not have been more perfect. It was the first time I could walk around in shorts in months. Not to fill this post with fluff as it will be long enough as is, Paul and I got straight to walking around the city once we checked-in to the hostel. The first two main attractions we stopped at, mainly because they were on the way to Castle de San Angelo, were the Trevi Foutain and Pantheon. Although we’d seen both of these last time, it was still fun to just chuck a penny over the crowd of tourists as there was no way of getting remotely close fountain’s edge. As for the Pantheon, I’ve just always wanted to see the inside. It was pretty cool. After this we headed straight for the Castle de San Angelo, which again, we had seen before, but never got to climb to the top. It was alright, but not spectacular. As we gazed upon the city from the roof top, we were greeted by the nostalgic view of St. Peter’s just down the street. With nowhere else to go, as we were saving the next day for the Colosseum, we took the extra hour of daylight and strolled over to St. Peter’s Square. After a bit reminiscing and a gelato from a place I’d remembered from the Pellegrinaggio, we made the trek back to our hostel. Our second day in Rome can be summed up with one phase, “Dream come true.” We made sure to wake up early to get to the Colosseum before the hoards of other eager tourists. When we arrived, the gates had just opened and Paul and I were probably two of 30 people in the Colosseum at this time. I just don’t know where to begin in describing my excitement of finally walking where hundreds of past Romans had walked. To think about what took place and who were in the attendance where I was taking pictures just blows my mind. I couldn’t help but sit back in a seat that was probably filled hundreds of years ago and just think about how sophisticated and ground breaking this structure was for its time. After a solid two and half hours of exploring every inch that was available for the public, a quick picture with the Arch of Constantine, Paul and I moved on up the road to the Roman Forum. However, much to my dismay, Paul wouldn’t leave the Colosseum without a picture with the Gladiators outside. After some hefty bargaining, as they wanted 10 euro, I got the price down to 4 euro and they accepted. Now that Paul was satisfied, we could continue to one of the most famous and sacred roads for its time in the world. Now to some, the Roman Forum is just a pile of rubble, however, if one has ever taken a Western Civ. class with Prof. Ford, they would know both where the buildings stood as well as their purposes. Just think how in ancient times only the highest priests and authorities could walk where we walked. Yet again, making sure not to miss a thing, Paul and I continued to the Circus Maximus, home to the famous chariot races. Now, unlike the previous areas, the Circus Maximus no longer stands. The only remaining portion is the rocky outline of the track. What did we end doing at the Circus Maximus you ask? Paul and I raced of course. I won easily. And the other tourists got a good laugh out of it. With our main goals for the day completed, we wandered for a bit before stopping in to see the Ara Pacis, a monument build by Augustus to recognize his wartime victories (if I remember correctly). From this point, we hit the Piazza de Popolo for only 10 minutes at most before heading over the Spanish Steps which conveniently led up to the last destination of the day, the Villa de Medici. All four of these were worth visiting, but not vital to my stay in Rome. After paying 11 euro just see the Ara Pacis, I was not going to pay another 25 euro to see the Medici gallery, even if it was supposed to be good, the lines were insane. Satisfied with the amount we covered, Paul and I returned to our hostel to find out how to get to the ancient city of Pompeii. Now, if I thought walking the Colosseum and Roman Forum was awesome, then walking the roads of Pompeii was indescribable. But I’ll try and convey how it felt anyway. I hate to say it again, but just once more, think about how this thriving community was going about their daily routine and suddenly covered in ash. Nothing destroyed or completely burned down, just covered. You almost forget you’re walking on such an ancient road because how intact and well preserved it is. Compared to the Roman Forum, it’s like a newly paved road. The one thing that impressed me the most was how in the middle of the street, as there were no cars during this time, there are stepping stones from one side of the road to the other so one does not have to step down and then up again (if that makes sense). It was just something I’d never seen before, but made life so much easier. In addition to these minor details, the main structures for all the houses, columns, temples, and even an amphitheatre are still intact which lets one see how these ancient people lived their lives right up until their sudden demise. However, I will say that once you’ve been down one or two side roads, you’ve seen them all. I didn’t know this at the time, but just a heads up for those who aspire to see it for themselves, the community is pretty uniform in its layout. Regardless, it was a fulfilling and gorgeous day and when we returned, Paul and I went right to sleep out of sheer exhaustion. The next morning Paul and I had wanted to get over the famous Amalfi Coast for the day, but when I looked at the clock, which read 10:30am, and realized we would have to take the same route as the day before, we agreed to just go to the top of St. Peter’s instead. However, we had no idea the surprise that awaited us when we arrived in St. Peter’s square. You want to talk about good timing, how arriving at St. Peter’s square not having a clue why so many people were there only to suddenly hear then all start cheering! It was the Pope himself! I stood stunned, mouth agape. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing (nor could I understand it). After a solid 30 minutes he receded back from the window and the flag that was draped over the window sill was pulled up. I’m just going to say it one more time, I, Phil Sabelli, witnessed the Pope! Ok, so after the madness within St. Peter’s square calmed down, I made my way over to the line to enter St. Peter’s. Like previous sights, I had already seen the inside of St. Peter’s, but that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t amazing. Walking in and looking up just brought a smile to my face. It’s just so much bigger and more ornate than anything you’ve ever seen before. Of course I took some pictures, never getting the whole thing in the shot, as well as revisiting the Pieta, which I hadn’t gotten a clear picture of the last time. After this, it was time to climb. Electing to take the stairs, I was stopped multiple times by those who couldn’t hack it. Once at the top, I started making my way around the dome to get a shot of every part of Rome. Not a place to hang out as it gets crowded up there, Paul I descended back to ground level in search of gelato. Paul wanted to get over to the Vatican seeing as it was so close, but when rounded the corner we found ourselves in the line. Not in the mood to wait around, we would save the Vatican for tomorrow and just stick to what we do best, wander around. As we’d done to avoid the lines at the Colosseum, we got over to the Vatican before it even opened. Like St. Peter’s, I had already been through the Vatican because of the Pellegrinaggio, but we didn’t get to see some of its most famous pieces. We saw the giant golden orb in the courtyard (still don’t get it), the statue of Augustus, the Laƶcoon, the belvedere torso, Rafael’s School of Athens, the car the Pope rides around in, and of course the Sistine Chapel. The day only got better in that as we exited the Vatican Museum and got some gelato, we spotted the Swiss Guard in their goofy uniforms! This was a perfect photo opportunity. Sadly, the guard wouldn’t let Paul get any closer than the gate, but it was still a crowd pleaser. It was a great way to end another great stay in Rome. The rest of our last day in Rome was taken up by packing and making sure everything was set for the last leg of our excellent adventure, Egypt.

Nothing But Orange Roof Tops

Most people I had talked to about travelling through Italy told me to spend only a day or two in Venice and then get to Florence as quickly as possible. I really don’t see why they say that? Frankly, I found Florence monotonous after 1 day. Sure it’s in the middle of gorgeous Tuscany, but one can only take so many panoramic pictures of Florence roof tops with the rolling hills in the background. The hostel Paul and I stayed in was a wannabe St. Christopher’s, but it had great showers, so I can’t complain (Paul doesn’t shower so his opinion doesn’t matter). However, the best part of this hostel, in my opinion, was one of the walls as you go down the stairs to the basement/bar. On this wall was a short list of places one should try and visit while in Florence because of their close proximity. In addition to Pisa, which we were able make it to, was none other than San Gimingano! Pellegrinaggio shout out! And here I thought it was a hidden gem found by Merrimack primarily for its Augustinian community. I wanted to go back and visit so bad, but just didn’t have the time before I was heading down to Rome. Major bummer. Right, so like my arrival in Venice, we were too early for check-in at my hostel and therefore, able to go out see some of the city. Not all that ambitious, Paul and I headed straight for the most famous building in Florence, the Duomo. After a couple pictures of its decorated walls, its orange dome, and the Brunelleschi doors directly opposite it, we headed inside. Thinking the inside was going to be something spectacular, we were left very disappointed. You would think for such an iconic cathedral, it would be exceptionally grandeur inside. Nope, it’s just a large vancancy with the usual mosaics and golden crosses. Even though the basement has been turned into a mini museum of the preceeding christian foundations underneath the present cathedral, the real reason most people go to the Duomo is because, as the tallest building in the city, one can get a great view of the city from the top. Not knowing when the next time I’d be able to come back to Florence, I wanted to take every opportunity that presented itself. This meant climbing not just the Duomo, but the tower next to it. The tower was a waste of time and 6 euro. I realized this at the top of the Duomo when I had a better view of everything that I had just taken pictures of. Oh well. Because I had left the Duomo for last, I got some great sunset pictures. I call it a win. It hadn’t been since London that Paul and I travelled outside the city we were staying in. However, with Pisa only a half hour by train outside Florence, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Hearing that Pisa was only good an hour visit at most, this meant Paul and I could get a good chunk of our sightseeing accomplished if we got back early enough. Leaving for the train station around 8:30am, we arrived in Pisa around 9:45am. Tunnel-visioned as we headed to the tower so as not to waste any time, we made it to the Leaning Tower and Pisa Cathedral by 10:00am. We left at approx. 11:00am. The tower itself was quite an architecture wonder for its tilt alone. However I couldn't stop asking myself why they would continue to build it when it started to lean? What will they do when, not if, it falls? I have no idea. For the future travelers, other than this small section of the town, Pisa has little to offer. Back in Florence by noon, we got quick gelato and then headed to the main plaza (I forget the name of it, but it has the fake David statue). After this we stopped in San Croci plaza (nothing really besides the church) before heading across the river to the farthest point on our map, Fort de Monti Croci (if I remember correctly). I had overheard the receptionist telling a couple that it gives a great view of the city. Not only did it give me a good workout to get up to the top and provide a stunning view, but it also has one of the best value gelato stands on the premise. We're talking 2 euro for more than the cup can hold without it falling on your hand. On the way back to the hostel we made sure to walk over the Old Bridge (at least I think that’s what they call it). Looking like a bridge with little cottages hanging off of it, these little huts actually house some of the most expensive stores in Florence. Not in the mood to spend that much money on jewelry, Paul and I headed back to the hostel not knowing what was in store for us the next day. It's funny how a day with really nothing planned can turn into one of the highlights of a trip. It’s become a habit to leave the museums until the last day because I stay in them for so long. Knowing that the real David statue was somewhere in Florence, Paul and I made it our top priority to find it. On the way to the first museum/gallery, we stopped off for a quick look at Dante’s house. Having no idea this even existed, it was cool to see where one of the most inspirational author’s lived. We then hurried off only to wait an hour and a half in line for a gallery with literally nothing in it of value to me except for a few well-known paintings. It was only after asking a local that we found out the real David statue was in the Accademia Gallery. What we didn’t know is that taking pictures of it was not allowed. I’m sorry, but there is no way I was leaving Florence without a picture of such an amazing and famous sculpture. It was this arrogance that got me kicked out of the gallery. Here’s how it all went down. So I walked into the Gallery’s main wing and there it is, right at the end of the hall! In all its glory! It’s really the only piece worth seeing in the entire gallery. After walking around to every angle of the statue and being witness to the security lady saying “No pictures” to numerous others, I tried my luck at a quick photo. I would have had it too if it weren’t for my stupid flash! However, it wasn’t the picture that got me kicked out. The security lady freaked out! Flailing her arms about while rushing over to me, she started yelling, “How many times do I have to tell you?” I replied, “Whoa calm down, I deleted it (which I did)”. She didn’t believe me. I offered her my camera to take a look, but she wouldn’t take it and just continued saying how she’d told me numerous times how pictures were not allowed. I again replied, “Ma’am, you’ve never told me personally.” She continued by saying, “You’ve been here long enough to hear me say it to others, plus we have signs! You are a disrespectful American, that’s the reality!” Taken aback, I would not stand for this remark! As she started to walk I way, I told her how I was sorry, but she was in fact the disrespectful one for making such a big scene when others got a simple warning. Emotions got the best of me. It was after this outburst that the actual security came over and told me I had leave. As the security walked behind me, I proudly showed myself the door and bid them adieu. Oh, and this doesn’t mean I didn’t already have a picture of the David. HA! (the one in this blog is the fake one) Off to Roma!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Where Buses are Boats

After our short stint in Copenhagen, Paul and I could not wait to get down to Italy for some warm weather. In fact, because we couldn’t bear the cold any longer, we opted to skip a couple cities such as Prague or Zurich, which we had thought about making quick stops in, to get to Venice as fast as possible. This turned out to be bad choice. Of course my train through Hamburg, Germany was delayed again and this caused me to miss my Munich overnight train to Venice. Luckily, there was another one only two hours later (the last one) and the conductor let me take a coach seat. Now here comes the most amazing part of the story. Ok, so this train wasn’t just going to Venice, but also Budapest. What happens is, in Salzburg, the train splits and half goes to Venice and other to Budapest. Crazy, I know! Like almost every other train I’d been on, I had fallen asleep and when I woke up, we were in Salzburg. Never confident in my ability to make it to a place without asking an attendant if I’m right, I asked if I was on the side of the train heading to Venice. I wasn’t. Not even 10 minutes after I rushed my stuff into another cart the train start to take off. If I hadn’t woken up when I did, I would have ended up in Budapest. Now that’s lucky. 7 hours later Paul and I arrived in Venice. The second I walked out of the station I felt at home. It’s a hard feeling to explain. Maybe it was the considerably warmer weather or maybe it’s the fact that I’m Italian, but I just felt so relaxed and rejuvenated. After a quick breakfast Paul and I set off to find our hostel, A Venice Museum (that’s the name of the place, it wasn’t really a museum). Let’s just say it took longer than expected. I don’t know who came up with the layout of the streets within Venice, but whoever it was, is an idiot. Venice has to be the most confusing place I’ve ever been. To start, the roads are so small and narrow that there are no cars in Venice. Second, streets we would view as alleyways are main roads. And lastly, there is no pattern to the layout of streets between the station and the harbor. Best term for describing Venice would have to be labyrinth. Turns out we had passed the hostel multiple times. Anyways, when we arrived, we couldn’t check-in right away, so we left our bags and did what every tourist is told to do in Venice, get lost. It really is the best way to see Venice. Being such a small city, we covered most of it in a couple hours. We headed over to the Porte del Rialto for the amazing view of the main canal first. This main tourist attraction did not disappoint. One truly sees the beauty of Venice from this point. Now, I’m sure the fact that the weather was perfect helped a bit, but the way the sun brought out the different colors of the houses along the water is something I will never forget. The colors and canal aren’t the only charming aspects of Venice. Venice wouldn’t be Venice without gondolas! And no, Paul and I did not go on one. It probably would’ve been the most depressing gondola ride in a world. Plus, they’re usually for groups and couples. But we did stand on the bridges and watch them pass by. This creeping on couples continued all the way to the main square, San Marco. Surrounded by expensive jewelry stores and restaurants, Paul and I went straight for the cathedral. Surprisingly, this cathedral has to rank in the top 5 of cathedrals I’ve seen. From the outside it’s nothing special, but step inside and one is greeted by golden ceilings that when lit correctly, makes for quite the picture. After a couple more pictures around the plaza, we reached the harbor.
After walking it in length, basking in the sun, and marveling at the numerous islands scattered around the main port, we returned to the hostel. Oh I almost forgot! It was New Year’s Eve! Because of this, the hostel was having a special 10 euro 3 course Italian dinner for us instead of the free Italian dinner it usually prepares. Following this delicious meal that I’d been craving for a long time, the staff brought us out to the harbor for the New Year’s firework show on the water. It was no Boston fireworks display, but the fact that was standing in a boat docked in Venice was pretty cool. After the fireworks, a group of us plowed our way through the crowd of basically all of Venice, to San Marco square for a massive dance party, then a quick stop at a bar, and the ended the night with some left over New Year’s Eve food. The next day was less glamorous. However, despite the overcast skies, Paul and I made our way around Venice once more. Our goals for the day were to get to the top of the tower in San Marco for the view of Venice, take a boat over to one of the islands, and go to the Leonardo Da Vinci museum. The tower view was spectacular to say the least. Although visibility was low, we still got a great view of the orange rooftops and surrounding islands. The only flaw was our timing. We got to the top right at noon which meant the bells in the tower were ringing when we stepped out of the elevator. It was not what I needed after just waking up half an hour ago. Paul was loving it. When the torment was over and we revisited the harbor, the real challenge began. How do you get to the islands? Up until now when we wanted to get somewhere, we either walked or took the metro. Knowing that swimming was out of the question, we would have to use the bus. Only these buses were actually boats. Just like the buses in other countries, I bought a ticket and got on bus with a specific route until we arrived at the island of our choice, San Giorgio. I feel this system is something one can only find in Venice. The people use it like any other metro or bus system. It’s brilliant. Right, so why San Giorgio? Well, it was the closest and easiest to get to. I was supposed to go see the church and amphitheatre, but both were closed. So really I just walked around and took in the view of Venice. Rather disappointed, Paul and I ate our sorrows away with some pizza and gelato before heading to over to the Da Vinci museum. The museum was only 2 floors and didn’t really have anything truly historic, but it was fun and interesting. In addition to the room to room biography of Da Vinci’s life, each room was also filled with interactive models of his most famous inventions and paintings. If Paul could move his fingers, he’d give it a thumbs up. After a short nap back at the hostel we had dinner and then the staff brought us out to one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been in. It wasn’t anything flashy, huge, or charming. So what was so awesome about this place? Only that if you go to a college outside Italy you can write it on a piece of paper with a highlighter and hang it up in the bar! There was BC, BU, Holy Cross, UNH, UVM, Providence, UMaine, and even Assumption College among many more from around the US and Europe. However, what I didn’t see was Merrimack. Giddy as I handed him the first Merrimack card ever (so I think), I wanted him to put it next to the rest of the schools in our conference, but there was no space, so it ended up at the other end of the bar. Someday I’ll go back and see if it’s still there. I’m skeptical. After this I signed the Oxford card (I don’t care if I was there for only a term) and the night rolled on. As Paul and I had gotten accustomed to over the last few days, we ended up sleeping in till 12:30pm. In the need of food, we grabbed a quick slice of pizza at our special spot and took off to the side of Venice we had yet to walk. It was rather boring. However, on the way back, we stumbled upon one of my favorite corner stores in the world. It was like going back to the years when the Beatles ruled the music world. This guy had everything! We’re talking Beatles action figures, pins, shirts, key chains, posters, rare collector items such as the yellow submarine compass, and a replica (may have been the actual thing because it was encased in glass) John Lennon army jacket. All these collectables, mixed with other memorabilia from the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, etc. made my mouth drop. All I could think about is how my family, especially Uncle Jim, would love to see this. This amazement was followed by another slice of pizza before I started packing for Florence. And so came an end to our stay in Venice. It’s funny how long this post came out to be because most people don’t have too much to say about Venice besides the gondola rides. Maybe it was the food and weather, maybe it was the hostel and people, or maybe it was the fact that I didn’t go on a gondola ride and found other stuff to do, either way, I had a great time. And Paul agrees.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Copenhagen? Like in Denmark? Why?

What can I say about Copenhagen? Well, I made it. Seriously, the story of how I got there is absurd. Ok, so maybe half of it is my fault, but Hamburg, Germany plays a bigger part in my travel hardships. So it all starts back in Berlin. As I previously noted, I had pulled an all-nighter to catch my 7:00am train because with my recent sleep schedule, there was no way of me making it to the train station that early. This plan started out perfectly as I made it to my first train easily. However,because of the recent weather and the fact that Germany doesn't know what a shovel is, my first train arrived about an hour and a half late. This would have only given me 10 minutes to make my transfer, however, the train I was supposed to catch was delayed as well. What didn't help was that Hamburg was having technical problems with the train displays on my platform, so I had no idea where my train was. Luckily, as I'd done multiple times before, I ran into someone not only going to Copenhagen, but to the same hostel as me. Looking like he knew what he was doing, we caught the next train to stop at our station because that's what the display said. An hour and half later we realized we had taken a local train that went as far as some random German town and then back again. Supposedly, this train we'd gotten on was also late and showed up before ours. After 3 hours we returned to Hamburg to find out we had missed another train to Copenhagen. The information table then informed us that there was 1 remaining direct train to Copenhagen. So what do you think happened? Of course it got cancelled because of weather. Now dark and bewildered with other lost travelers, we were informed of our new route that would take us on 3 different trains and have us in Copenhagen by 2:00am. With no other options, we accepted the fact that we had lost a whole day in Copenhagen. It was no longer a surprise when the conductor came on the radio saying how the train was delayed. Finally, after a short taxi ride to our hostel (because it was freezing), we arrived at 3:00am. Just happy to lay down, I passed out immediately and woke up the next day around 1:30pm. In no mood to go out and see the city as the sun was already starting to set, I decided to just stay in and plan out what to do on my last day. With numerous attractions on my list, the only way I would be able to see everything would be to utilize the metro. As if a gift from GOD, it just so happens that Copenhagen has the easiest metro ever! With only 1 main line and 2 trains going opposite directions, I was able to get going early in the morning with limited questions (except which direction the train was going?). My first stop was the Frederickburg Castle, or so I thought.... I got to the location easily, but saw only a big house, not a castle. Turns out, I was thinking of Frederickberg Castle, not Frederickburg Castle. Fredericksberg Castle is in another town. How silly of me. The one Paul and I saw, as I was informed by a passerby that saw my confusion, was only the old summer house for the royal family. Unimpressed we decided to move on to the fortress (sounds cool huh?). It really wasn't. Sure it's one of the only intact ground-walled fortress left, but there wasn't really anything to see besides the gate and the windmill inside. Walking along the wall would've been cool if we weren't drudging through the snow. Sadly, the only upside to reaching the fortress was its close proximity to our next tourist attraction, the little mermaid statue. Yet again, we were left wondering why we travelled so far away from everything to see this? But hey, its what most tourist's do, so we felt we had to. After this it was still only noon and we had hit most of the main sights. The next place we visited has to be the wierdest place I've ever been. When I asked a kid from Copenhagen awhile back if there is anything cool in Copenhagen, he replied, "Christiana." Not knowing anything about this place, except for its location outside central Copenhagen, Paul and I decided to have a look around. What we found, and it's what I say all the time because I no other way of describing it, was the closest thing to Amsterdam without being illegal. It was unbelievable. It's a legitimate "free zone" (as the sign indicates at the main entrance). While in this walled area, which is covered from head to toe in amazing graffiti, one can sell and smoke marijuana as well as other random things that I don't even want to know. They even have their own flag. Its just looks like a crappy backyard with a bunch of sheds and junk. Yet people live here. I really don't understand it at all. How does this place even exist? Anyways, after we'd walked through the well-light main dirt streets of Christiana, we thought it best to get to our last destination of the day, the National Museum. The Danish National History Museum was actually the only reason why I even concidered going to Denmark in the first place. Just finishing Early British History as my primary tutorial at Oxford, and seeing as it focused heavely on the Anglo-Saxons, I couldn't think of a better place to spread my new found appreciation for Danish history. After actually finding the right museum, as their were several, it was everything I had expected. Being able to identify and truely understand the objects behind the glass was a feeling I'd never really felt before. Yeah, I was proud of myself. It proved that I had learned something . And thats a good feeling. When we finally left the museum, the sun had set. Paul and I had legitimately spent the whole day travelling around Copenhagen. I can't even remember if we stopped for something to eat. Upon our return to the hostel Paul and I started packing for our long journey down to Venice and went to bed. Ever since then I've been asked, "Why Copenhagen?" or "Was it worth it?" My answers: Why not Copenhagen? And, of course it was worth it, I can now say I've been to Copenhagen.