Friday, June 18, 2010

Yes, THE DAY must be said with all caps.  This was the day we had been dreading since before leaving the US.  Not just because it meant the end of our trip, but because we knew it involved hours upon hours of travel and included almost all types of major modes of transportation.  We had to check out of our hostel at 10am but had a few hours to melt in the heat before our bus to the ferry left.  This time was spent playing chess and laying in the shade.  After the bus we took the ferry to the main land only to find out that the Greek public transportation had been shut down due to one of their many strikes.   After a death defying cab ride we made it to the airport where we had to kill 5 hours.  Here I bought and finished a book before even getting on the plane.  From Greece we flew to Dublin where we had an 8 hour lay over.  It was late at night and there wasn't enough time to leave the airport and come back so we wandered around attempting to find a TV that would play the Celtics in the finals.  When that failed we tried napping in the Starbucks chairs but for 2 out of 3 of us that also failed.  As the sun was rising we finally got on our next plane to London.  Luckily there was not much of a lay over here and we were able to fly off to Boston.  After almost two straight days of traveling and no sleep we made it home.  It was definitely a bittersweet feeling... happy to be able to rest for a bit but sad that the whole experience was over.  I would gladly go back in a heartbeat!

I'm from Dracut, too!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Because we had spent the past 20 or so days running at full speed we decided to use our time on the island to relax and reflect on the amazing trip we accomplished... at the beach of course.  Our hostel had beach mats and umbrellas for us to use and, other than eating, we spent our entire day in or around the water. 

One of the most amazing parts of our trip was when we stopped into a little shop to get ice cream.  The man behind the counter asked us where we were from and we said "United States" and he said yes but where and we "Massachusetts" and he said "Where in Massachusetts?" We laughed because most residents of Massachusetts don't even know our town but when we said "Dracut" he responded with "I lived there for 5 years, own a dozen restaurants in the area, and played for the New England Patriots until I got a career ending injury."  Dumbfounded, he had us turn around to see his Boston sport pennants hanging on the wall then proceeded to show us his Massachusetts driver's license.  We then spent a while chatting about all of his old hangouts in downtown Lowell that are all our present hangouts.  Through the entire trip we rarely met anyone from the United States and there, on a tiny island off the coast of Athens, we meet a Greek man who happened to spend a few year living in our town.  It really is a small world.

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In all of my 22 years of life I honestly cannot think of a day as hot as this.  Perhaps it's because I decided to climb a rocky, treeless mountain in 104 degree heat but it was not something I would easily repeat.  Because we had put off sightseeing the previous day we were going to attempt to see all of the Athenian sights in a day.  After walking for what felt like hours we reached the Acropolis.  It was an amazing site however the heat was insane.  I give some major props to all of those tour groups of old people.  I hope they all made it back down alive.  It's most likely that they (wisely) took an air conditioned bus there and back.
Worth the hike!

We decided it was just too hot to wander around for long so we headed back to the hostel to grab our bags and then made our way to the port.  Delirious with heat exhaustion we struggled to find the right ferry but made it on five minutes before it left. Thankfully the ferry had air conditioning!

Because we were on such a tight schedule (and budget) we decided that instead of going to one of the larger and more mentioned islands, we would just go to the closest.  None of us had heard of Aegina before planning this trip but I can honestly say for the convenience and price I would not have gone any where else over it.  It was just as I had imagined a Greek island: beautiful water and cute sea side villages.  It was also apparently just a few days before the Greek children got out of school for the summer so we basically had the island to ourselves.
Beautiful Water
Our hostel was run by a lovely couple and we again lucked out with our own room.  After a quick dinner we headed straight to bed (with the air conditioning on!).

From Ancient Rome to Ancient Greece

Monday, June 14, 2010

Most of this day was dedicate to traveling.  The amount of time spent on buses, in lines at the airport, and general waiting really made me appreciated the simplicity of hopping on a night train, laying down for some rest and waking up in a new city.  We arrived to our hostel to find out that we not only had a private room but it had a balcony that had a view of none other than the  Acropolis.  Alanna was not feeling well and it was well over 100 degrees out so we decided to save our sight seeing for the next day.  We had a lovely Greek dinner  where we got to watch a bike thief get tackled and smacked around by two old men.  We then returned to our hostel and spent the night enjoying our amazing view.
View from the balcony


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Today we got to do all of the things that make my dorky historian heart go pitter patter.  Our first stop was the Colosseum.  I doubt there is anyone in the world who hasn't seen a picture of the Colosseum but to see it in person is unreal.  Even with the thousands of other tourists crowded around me I still managed to get lost in thought imagining what it was like thousands of years ago.  I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the vicious fighting and deaths that took place there but it would have been amazing to see in it's prime.
After the Colosseum we made our way to the Palatine Hill.  Ruins here date back to 1000 B.C. and if you wander deeply enough into the ruins you can almost entirely block out the bustling city around you. What most surprised me about this area was that there are still continuous excavations going on.  It's hard to believe that there may still be pieces of history buried under the earth.

Looking down on the Roman Forum

Next up was the Roman Forum which is the ruins of the government buildings of ancient Rome.  This was essentially the birthplace of Republican government.  So much history!

After an amazing day wandering around some of the world's greatest historical sites we headed back to the hostel to have some dinner and pack up for our flight to Athens.

Pope Time

Saturday, June 12, 2010

We woke up early to catch the Metro out to Vatican City.  Although we wanted to see the Sistine Chapel we decided that we would save our 13 Euro and just view the Basilica instead.  It was massive and beautiful and we spent quite a while wandering around.  I went in expecting it to just be a large and fancy church however there were nooks and crannies and small chapels scattered about the building.  We used this opportunity to mail our postcards.  I don't know if there is any way to impress the grandparents more than sending a postcard from the Vatican.

Instead of taking the metro back to the hostel we decided to walk back to see everything between the two areas.  We stopped at Castel Sant Angelo, crossed the Tiber River, walked through Piazza Navona, and visited the Pantheon.  The Pantheon was originally a temple devoted to the Gods but since the 7th century it has been a Catholic Church.  The ceiling of the Pantheon has a massive hole in it and it is apparently the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome.

From there we visit Area Sacra which is an area that contains four temples that were all built between the 2nd and 4th centuries and was undiscovered until the 1920s.  It was in this area that Julius Ceasar was believed to be killed.  From there we saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier/ Monument to Vitorio Emmanuel II and then Colonna Traiana and Mercenti Trainei.  Its amazing how happy just walking around ruins makes me feel.   It's pretty easy to please me.

Area Sacra

Because we are just three girls we had decided to try to be in before dark each night however the US was playing against England in the world cup so we decided to use this night to venture out to a bar.  Luckily our hostel had an event going on at a bar so we were able to go there with a general sense of security.  We met some highly entertaining men that wanted to pretend Alanna was Brazilian and also tried to argue that Lady GaGa was from Finland.   Needless to say it was a fun night and some much needed relaxing after so many days of running non stop.


Friday, June 11, 2010

We took a morning train to Rome and arrived just after noon.  It was again sweltering but luckily our hostel was very close to the train station.   We dropped our bags off, grabbed some quick food, and started our wanderings.  We first walked to Piazza della Republica and then to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.  After that we went to Galoppatoio di Volla Borghese which was a beautiful park that had "Lion King" like trees.  Because we had plans to see the big sites in the next few days we decided to just spend most of this day exploring and it certainly felt that way in the park. Pincio was a garden area that led to a point that over looked the city directly above Piazza del Popolo.  It was fairly quiet in the area that day so it was nice to feel that we had stumbled upon some previously undiscovered part of the city... even if we knew otherwise.   From there we made our way down to Pizza del Popolo and to the Spanish Steps and forced our way through the crowd at the Trevi Fountain which was actually more impressive than I was expecting.
View from Pincio
The Spanish Steps

Trevi Fountain

We had signed up for the free pasta dinner at the hostel so we headed back for that.  We still had a few hours of sunlight after dinner so we headed towards Colle Oppio and Domus Aurea.  On the map this area looks like it is a mass of ruins so the history geek in me was pretty dissapointed when I got there to find that most of the ruins were actually under ground and behind large fences.  While walking around the ruins we just happened to stumble upon the Colosseum.  Although we were planning on seeing it the next day it was amazing to peek through some trees and see the massive walls of the Colosseum rise in front of you.  Because we had essentially been wandering through a neighborhood we again felt as if we had just made an amazing discovery.  This obviously was never actually the case on our trip but the number of times we found things by accident really added a sense of adventure to a trip that for many people is overly structured and planned.
Colloseum through the trees

Pictures in Pisa

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Today we woke up fairly early to take the train out to Pisa.  We took dozens of the obligatory "look at me holding up the tower!" pictures.  Luckily everyone around us was doing the same so we had no problem acting touristy.

After returning by train to Florence we decided that we wanted to trek back up to Piazza Michelangelo to see a view of the city at sunset.  We had been told it was beautiful at sunset and, remembering the amazing gelato that waited for us at the top, we headed up.  We reached the top and waited.  Even in the evening it was well over 100 degrees and it was painful to even sit on the stone steps without feeling like you were burning a hole through your clothes.  We continued to wait and the sun did not seem to move.  We realized that we were going to have to wait another two hours before the sun went down.  We also didn't think of the fact that we would be walking all the way across the city back to our hostel in the dark.  We decided to head back without seeing the full sun set however it was still absolutely beautiful.

Frenzy in Firenze

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ponte Vecchio
After a wonderfully relaxing time in Venice it was back to non stop action.  Having only a two hour train ride between Venice and Florence was amazing however the temperature upon exiting the train was stifling.   It was actually difficult to breathe at times.  Our hostel was much larger than most of the ones we had previously stayed in (with the exception of Paris, perhaps).  As soon as we dropped our luggage off we began our trek around the city.  We first went to the Bascilica of San Lorenzo and from there to the Duomo.  Unfortunately because we were wearing shorts we were not allowed in.  To be honest it was too hot to wear anything but shorts so we did not plan on going back to change.  We visited the home of Dante then traveled on to Palazzo Vecchio, which is Florence's town hall.  From there we went to Ponte Vecchio which is an old Medieval bridge with shops that line both of its sides.  It was an interesting place but unfortunately it was filled with tourists and so hot that we did not stop to look in many of the shops.

Our map showed a nice area called "Piazzale Michalangelo" that looked like it could give a good view of the city.  Little did we know it was basically a hike up a mountain to get there.  I will say that the view was certainly worth it but it took quite a few stops on the way up to make it to the top (where we were greeted with a gelato stand that we may have stopped at three times during our two days in Florence).  We decided that we would have to come back up here to see the view during sunset.
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
Working our way back to the hostel we stopped at Piazza Santa Croce, Piazza Santa Maria Nuova, and Piazza de Santissma Annunzata.  There are many Piazzas in Italy.

While doing laundry we took advantage of the pool in the hostel and although we had sweat away most of our body weight during the day we still crawled into the sauna for a bit.

When asked by the other girls in our room where we were from we replied, "Boston in the U.S."  They sincerely thanked us for not saying America because they were all from Southern/Latin American countries.  It is so interesting talking to people and seeing how Americans around the world are viewed.  Most of the time it is embarrassing but I hope that after talking with us these people will at least get a slightly more positive image of what a United States citizen can be.

Last day in Venice

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A backpacker's breakfast

We used our time in Venice to catch up on sleep and prepare ourselves for the week to come.  After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee we strolled through the city to Piazza San Marco.  We sat by the water for a while where we saw a proposal!  The rest of the day consisted of eating Italian food, gelato, sitting in our square, and almost jumping into a canal after €5 flew into the water. 

Venitian Gondolas
Another canal

Piazza San Marco

Winding alleys, lively squares

Monday, June 7, 2010

 After packing our things, eating a light breakfast, and boarding the bus that we could never figure out how to pay for, we headed to the island in search of our next hostel.  I was amazed to find out that it was located right on the Grand Canal.  I don't think the location could have been any better.  Venice is different from other cities in that there are not a hundred sights to see but the city itself is one big sight.  Just walking along the canals without fear of cars and getting lost in the winding alleys that make up the city was something I could do forever.  I do not know what it is about the city but it almost forces you to relax and move slowly.  No one is in a rush.  We loved to get lost in the alleys only to turn a corner and find yourself in a square with 30 restaurants around the edges with children playing, dogs frolicking, and musicians entertaining.  Of course there is also gelato everywhere and it is very hard to go wrong when you are surrounded by gelato.

Grand Canal

wine in "our square"


Sunday, June 6, 2010

 We had to wake up at 5am to make it to the airport for our flight to Venice.  The bus system in Venice was very confusing.  Because we booked this hostel after our plans changed, we were not on the actual island but a 10 minute bus ride off of it.  Our first action after finding our hostel was to get our first Italian pizza.  Following that we took a 5 hour nap and then took the bus to the island for our first gelato.  Just those few things were exhausting so we called it an early night.
Flying over the Alps

Statues outside of our hostel
Venice is as picturesque as you imagine it


Saturday, June 5, 2010

In an attempt to beat the lines that we knew we would face, we got up early to make the trip to Versailles.  Even with our planning ahead it took us a few hours to get into the place.  Walking through the palace was like trying to walk through Epcot on New Years Eve (which I highly recommend against!).  It was interesting to see however most of the original furniture, etc. was destroyed during the Revolution so we were looking at mostly replicas.  We wanted to walk through the gardens however they wanted to charge us more than we were willing to pay.
Entrance to Versailles

From Versailles we stopped at Notre Dame and then walked through the Latin Quarter towards the Catacombs.  We stopped for lunch along the way and by the time we reached them they had already closed.

Notre Dame
 During our walk we passed by a thermometer that said it was 40 degrees Celsius.  After doing the math we decided that it must be broken because, although it was sweltering out, it could not be 104 degrees Fahrenheit.  After walking for 2 hours to get to the Catacombs we would realize that it was, in fact, that hot out and we wouldn't see less than that for the rest of the trip. 

 Later that night, after showers and a nap, we went back to the Eiffel Tower to watch it light up at sunset.
Eiffel Tower at sunset

Bonjour Paris

Friday, June 4, 2010

Although we thought we were going to be in separate compartments after booking our tickets so last minute, not only were we together, but it was just the three of us in the compartment!  We arrived in Paris around 9 am.  We immediately went to purchase tickets to Venice only to find out that they were sold out for the next few days and any other option available was going to be well over $200 per person. 

Tip: Be flexible and ready for problems.  Not everything is going to work out the way you planned and you need to adapt to the situation with as little stress as possible.

We accepted the fact that we would not be taking a train out of Paris and would have to find a flight but until we could check in we still had time to kill.  We got some coffee and visited the site of the Bastille. As soon as we could we headed to the hostel, checked in, and got on a computer.  The cheapest flight we could find was €123.  This was more than I wanted to spend it would have been much more expensive to stick around in Paris for more time.  We also had to book and extra night in Venice because we would not have the night train to sleep on.

Place de la Bastille
Eiffel Tower
 Changing our plans cut our time in Paris by almost a day, which means we had a lot of sights to see in a very short amount of time.  We took the metro to the Eiffel Tower, walked to the Champs de Mars, then up to the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées, through the Tuilerie Gardens, and into the Lourve.  We sat outside the Lourve to watch the sun set. 

Luxor Obelisk
The small but infamous Mona Lisa
Arc de Triomphe
I have to say I was not expecting to like France.  On the list of countries we were traveling to it was at the bottom but I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  There are so many monuments and everything is so... symmetrical and orderly.  I don't know if that is what I actually mean but I love that you can stand in one spot and see several of the most visited sites in the world all around you.  It is a very well planned city.

A day of scavenger hunts

Thursday, June 3, 2010

After only one night in Barcelona we had to pack our things and head out.  Our hostel had luggage storage so we planned on spending the day in the city and then returning to gather our things before heading to our train. Our goal for the day was to ride the funicular (a kind of inclined cable car that brings you up a mountain) up Montjuïc to the fort that sits over the city.  After wandering around for what seemed like hours searching for the funicular we gave up and decided to just climb the (very large) hill on our own.  Arriving at the top we found a beautiful view of the ocean and a new fort to explore.  It was extremely hot so when we reached the courtyard of the fort we sat down in the shade to have lunch and recuperate from our hike.
View from the top of Montjuïc

My "black" coffee vs. my friends coffee with milk

Tip: When in Europe understand the distinction between coffee and black coffee.  Every time I ordered a black coffee I would essentially get a shot of black coffee instead of a cup that I could sip and enjoy. 

From the fort we made our way back down the hill, in search of the site of the 1992 Olympic Stadium.  It was, again, a bit of a scavenger hunt but we did find it in the end.  From there we made the long trek back to our hostel, grabbed dinner at a sidewalk cafe, collected our bags, and then went to the train station to wait for our second night train.
1992 Barcelona Olympic Stadium


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

We woke up on the train to the loud horn telling us we would be pulling into the station shortly.  Not realizing that we were crossing a time zone, my alarm was set an hour late.  Luckily there is little you can do on a train, even with an hour notice so we managed to throw our things together quickly.  We disembarked in Madrid hoping everything would go as smoothly as it did in Lisbon.  Unfortunately that was not the case.  It took us several tries to find the connecting train to get us to the station that would eventually get us to Barcelona.  I was pretty proud of my Spanish skills.  I haven't used it in a while but it seemed to come back easily enough.  We managed to reach our second train and then we were off on a three hour trip to Barcelona.

We checked into our hostel (Sant Jordi Arago Hostel) which, after Lisbon, was a bit of a let down.  There was nothing terribly wrong with the place, but it just couldn't compete with our first hostel.  Because we had missed a day in Barcelona we had to immediately get to the train station that would get us to France to book our ticket.  Luckily there was room available on the train we wanted.  

Monumento a Colón
When debating between Madrid and Barcelona we were told Barcelona was a must see because of it's amazing beaches.  Perhaps we went to the wrong beach, but I was disappointed after Cascais.   The beach was small and rocky and people interrupted us every thirty seconds trying to sell us something.  

Barcelona beach

After some time on the beach we had a lovely dinner of paella and then strolled along La Rambla before heading back to the hostel for a shower and some sleep.

Last day in Lisbon

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Moorish tiles all through the city
One of the hardest parts about taking night trains is that you have to check out of a hostel and wander a city for many hours before you can board your train.  After checking out of our hostel we headed to the train station to store our luggage.  It was already extremely hot and there was no way we could carry those bags around with us for 12 hours.  We essentially wandered through the city.  We searched for a flea market in the Alfama district but never found it.  We stopped at H&M to get some clothes we decided we needed (and to cool off in the ac). We then found various parks, coffee shops, and cafes to kill time at until we made our way back to the train station.  We each brought one book on the trip, assuming that it would get us through the three weeks however my book (Life of Pi) was almost done by the time we boarded the train to leave Lisbon.

View of the water

A little about night trains.  They can be pricey (although not too bad with a rail pass) but you have to be willing to meet new people.  Most cabins have fours beds which means with the three of us traveling together we were placed with a fourth person.  On this train it was a nice girl from Canada who was backingpacking around Europe for two months with her boyfriend.  Listening to her story made me very happy with the planning we put into our trip.  They didn't have any real plans so they had spent most of the previous four days riding buses and trains trying to find a city that had a room for them to stay in which was apparently not going well for them.
The square