Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dublin and Chicago: The last travels!

Dublin and Chicago: The last travels!

I’ll be brutally honest: I knew this would happen. As soon as I get home (as I obviously already am due to it being September), I don’t bother writing the final leg of my journey. Now I’m forced to remember the gist of the trip without having it fresh on my mind. Let’s see how this works out…

I made it Dublin with no real hiccups, but MAN was it cold in Dublin! And drizzly! Surprise. I caught a cheap bus into the city which took me almost right to my hostel, and what a good choice I made! My hostel was full of cool people. On top of that, it was newly renovated right in the heart of Dublin. Quite a nice spot.

My arrival was too late to enjoy the cheap beer time my hostel held, so I thought I’d explore the city a bit and try to find one. It was cold and rainy, my favorite, so after finding only two pubs in the immediate vicinity (rather surprising, it being Dublin)—and both of them were slam full—I just decided to call it a night and go to bed. Good choice; I’m not cut out for cold and rainy.

The next morning I was up with time to kill for the included basic breakfast of toast and got to chat with a few people from the hostel. Australians, Americans, and Northern Irelanders were the majority it seemed. The free walking tour started not long after, and off I went.

Just to show the economy in Dublin, our tour guide, and Irishman, was actually a certified architect out of work. He made sure to point that out to us in an amusing fashion, and his tour was quite good! I’d say he was one of the top three guides I had in Europe; very funny, loud, and smart. But then again, I guess an architect must be.

The day wasn’t too bad… not terribly cold and rainy, but certainly overcast. That seems to be the common theme in Ireland. The city itself is nice, but to be honest I’ll agree with what most of my friends who visited the city said: nothing special. I expected it to be far larger, but it really didn’t feel much bigger than Savannah. There was a river running through the center, as to be expected, and some pretty architecture, but nothing that would really make you remember Dublin above others.

The parks, though, were quite nice. Very green, lush, and inviting. The tour guide told us that one of the city’s main parks was being considered for a metro station, though… which seems pointless to me being that I wouldn’t say the city needs a metro. Apparently, Dublin is notorious for doing stupid building projects, at least according to our architect guide. The council also bulldozed some extremely historical site in favor of a parking garage twenty years back or so. Now, though, he says it’s extremely difficult to build anything over archeological findings due to the public outcry over that garage.

One highly entertaining bit of the tour was the Millennium Monument (or whatever it’s truly called). The locals apparently call the spire-looking needle structure the “stiffy by the Liffy [river].” Hilarious!

But, moving on. I befriended this really cool girl from Wyoming, and after the tour we had a traditional Irish lunch (quite good… some kind of pie and a Guinness) with some from the group. Both of us decided it was high time to visit the Guinness brewery by this point, so off the two of us (who had just met, mind you) went!

The brewery was definitely the highlight of my Dublin trip. It was cool to see the whole process of brewing, and entry was fairly cheap too… something like 10 Euros. At the end, the two of us got to pour our own Guinness, and we even got certificates for it! A gimmick, sure, but that didn’t stop me from hanging it on my refrigerator at home!

The view from the lounge on the 5th or so floor of the brewery provided the prettiest scenes of Dublin, too. I’d certainly recommend the place just for that fact alone.

After the tour, we tried to head back to the hostel via the tram system only to find out the power on the particular line we needed was out. Now there’s a first… the whole tram system down. We did manage to get back, though, thanks to a bus and a nice stroll from wherever it dropped us off.

Because both my newfound friend and I were both broke (both of us were leaving Dublin within a day of each other to return Stateside), we opted out of a pub crawl (which was ridiculously expensive) and bought some cheap wine for the hostel instead. We ended up playing speed (the card game) for hours before finally going to bed. I’m now quite the fan of speed, too!

Naturally, I had to be at the airport by 8am the next morning, but ended up almost missing my flight anyway. US Airways had overbooked my flight and asked me if I’d be willing to delay and get a huge travel voucher when I checked in. Seemed like a great idea to me… $500 or so flight voucher for delaying for an hour or so? Sure, why not.

However, they made me wait until boarding was complete to find out that they actually DID have a seat for me, making me have to run through security even though I was two hours early initially. Word to the wise, too: when you go to re-enter the USA, expect it to be a pain. You have to go through “pre-clearance,” a whole second set of security, questioning, and passport checks after the initial airport screening. Really? It was as bad as the British system, except I was still in Ireland!

But, with the flight leaving slightly delayed due to several of us being late from the overbooking issue, the rest of the journey was uneventful. It was certainly less painful of a flight than flying TO Europe; I didn’t have a heavy smoker sitting next to me. I read my book from Turville (from the Dibley church!), and before I knew it I was in Chicago!

I must say, even the flight back to the States made me begin to be annoyed with Americans; I’ve been too used to the non-caring Europeans to have to deal with the complaints of my fellow citizens. Now, a month later, that hasn’t changed.

But anyway, Chicago. I wasn’t impressed with the airport, really; Atlanta’s is newer and nicer to me. But it’s easily navigable, and it was relatively inexpensive to get into the city via train. Old train, but train nonetheless.

The city is about what I expected it would be: a mix between Atlanta and New York. The downtown area is quite new and nice with a decent subway system and lots of pretty skyscrapers. I was laden with my book bag again, but I still walked the better part of three hours or so around the city, making it to Lake Michigan (pretty) and up one of the river/canals. The weather deteriorated quickly, though, and by late afternoon it was raining. I got my first Subway sandwich in a while (quite good), and did the American thing and hung out at a Starbucks for a while to look up a hotel to stay in. No, I hadn’t bothered looking that up in my months of planning.

Since it was raining and I had nothing better to do, I wondered into a TJ Maxx and bought a $5 pair of shorts (I was totally out of clothes by this point, having re-worn the few clothes far more than should be allowed). On the street corner was your typical fire-and-brimstone preacher telling me to repent with his mobile speaker. How cute.

Not in the mood to shop due to my book bag, and having found nothing else really to do in a city just like Atlanta where I’ve lived before, I decided to hop back on the train and head back towards the airport where my chosen hotel was. Good choice.

The hotel was about $50/night, by far the cheapest I found in the whole Chicago area. Not sure why everything was so expensive, but it was. I was happy with the hotel, though; nothing fancy, but I had a huge room with great AC, and man was it nice to have a hotel room again. No more hostels for some time.

The fact that it was right next to a Hooters didn’t hurt either. So, my first restaurant in the United States of America was Hooters. Can’t go wrong!

I spent a good deal the next morning at the Chicago airport for lack of anything better to do, continuing the read on my book from the airplane from the airport in Chicago to the one in Atlanta. My sister was waiting on me, and after spending the night with an aunt near Atlanta, I was back home sweet home the next day (August 10th)!

It has already been a month since I returned, as I said. Just as I expected, I am glad to be back… but miss Europe (especially the people I met) deeply. I’m already bored with my surroundings, even though I live at the beach, and am looking for a way to itch my travel bug as soon as I graduate!

Thailand here I come!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Amsterdam, the REAL city of sin.

It’s hard even to begin to describe Amsterdam. The easiest thing to say… everything you’ve heard about Amsterdam is true. There are “coffee shops” EVERYWHERE, hundreds of prostitutes barely dressed, if at all, and sex shops galore. Yet, at the same time, the city manages to be quite beautiful!

I won’t say it’s the prettiest city I’ve seen by any means… and it’s certainly one of the more expensive (especially for food), but it’s really a nice spot. After I landed in Amsterdam and took the train into the city (not too long… 20 minutes, 4 Euros), I managed to catch a tram (which are useless if you ask me… have a metro or a bus system instead…) and find my hotel booked with my two American friends from Trier.

There’s not much, really, to say about Amsterdam. Let’s just say that I enjoyed Amsterdam, and won’t go into much detail. We did have a blast, though, exploring the city, going on a free walking tour, and taking pictures. Our 4 roommates from Northern Ireland were awesome too; we went on a pub crawl with them one night, and let’s just say… it was a blast.

We got lucky enough to catch Amsterdam at the beginning of Gay Pride Week, and as such the city was PACKED, especially with gay couples coming in by the trainload. Our last night, we got to watch the Drag Queen Olympics… a highly entertaining event, I must say. Everyone in the city was dressed in full pride garb, and were all having a good time. I don’t think that’s different than normal for Amsterdam, though.

I seriously don’t know how you could grow up in Amsterdam and make anything out of your life; it’s a city with the least morally-guided policies I’ve ever been, far outpacing Las Vegas in mentality. I certainly see no problem with its party/drug/mellow culture, but still… it’s a place that would appall your grandmother most likely.

The city itself is quite surprising in that it’s center is laced with canals just like in Venice. These, though are far more planned; even the map looks as though the city was well-thought out in both road planning and canal structure. This being said, I was lost the entire time I was in the city. Something in my mind just couldn’t grasp the logically laid-out city. Perhaps it’s due to my having been in Italy for so long and used to random streets and places.

Oh, and another thing: beware of bikers. They’re EVERYWHERE. I’ve never seen so many in my life, and they don’t have to obey regular traffic laws apparently. The entire time I was in the city, I had to be on guard from bikes ringing their bells impatiently to get through the multitudes of people. This, along with the above ground trams and endless vehicles, makes Amsterdam one of the least pedestrian friendly cities I’ve visited.

It was great to get to hang out with my good friends from Trier one last time, and otherwise Amsterdam was a great end to a whirlwind of traveling. Well, not quite: I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport (huge, I may add) waiting on a flight to Dublin as I type! That’ll be my last stop… I hope to see the Guinness Factory while there briefly, and hopefully can do a TRUE pub crawl, Irish style, with another friend from Trier to end my travels in Europe. I’m even listening to Putumayo Irish music to get into the mood!

I’ve already gone through 2/3 of the pictures I’ve taken since Florence… all 1200 of them… and now only have those from Amsterdam left. My eyes are starting to cross…

It’s truly hard to believe I’ll be home in 4 days… and Stateside in 2! Wow… this time has truly flown. How is it August already?

Right oh, old chap. Jolly good.

England! I got immensely lucky; the weather was quite decent the whole time I was in England! Let me see how accurately I can get this chronology.

Surprise, RyanAir delayed my flight well over an hour in Rome, allowing me to sharpen up my Solitaire skills with a real deck of cards. I actually won several games. 

When I finally landed in England somewhere around 2:30am, I was greeted by England’s ever-so-jolly passport control. Just like the last time I flew to England, the agent took her job way too seriously. This time, though, I almost got denied entry to the UK. How cute. I was asked pretty much every question regarding my entry to the UK short of what kind of butter I preferred, and was already quite tired and cranky from RyanAir delaying my flight far past its due time, as well as weary of the idea of having to spend the next few hours in the Stansted airport.

The agent, a right plump old maid if I ever saw one, then started getting on my nerves. She asked what my travel itinerary was, and when I told her a friend would pick me up in Reading the next afternoon, she said “So what if your friend doesn’t come?” Stupid question, so I answered “…then I’ll be SOL, I guess.” She didn’t like that. My b. She then proceeded to ask me every possible question including proof of my next flights, my money available, and various useless parts of my trip. Finally, after a disgruntled look bleeding with distaste for Americans, she stamped my passport and threw it at me. Adorable. When’s the last time YOU almost got denied entry to an allied country?

Anyway, I spent the lovely remaining few hours before the 6am train I was to catch on the floor in Stansted’s airport. Who knew… they even had a shower by the bathrooms for free! I didn’t use it, but still… nice touch. It didn’t hurt matters that a Costa coffee shop, a Starbucks rival, was right next to where I slept, so I got at least a good healthy jolt around 5:30am when I woke back up.

As always, England’s trains were quite lovely. After buying a rail discount card at London Liverpool Street Station (one of the main rail stations in London), something allowing me to buy 1/3 off rail tickets for a year after paying 28 Pounds, I headed for Turville!

Turville, as I’ve noted before, is home to the windmill from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the church from the British comedy The Vicar of Dibley. Wow, was it worth the trip! The train took me to  a station within a 20 minute cab ride from Turville, and by 9am I was in the fairyland village of Turville!

The fact that I spent roughly the same price to fly from Rome to London as I did the cab rides to and from Turville means nothing to me; it was well worth the ridiculous cab prices. The village truly is in the middle of NOWHERE. I walked about 2 kilometers to another church nearby (each village typically has a parish church), took pictures, explored the GORGEOUS rolling hill countryside, took pictures, climbed up to the windmill, took pictures, explored the church from the television series, took pictures, and had lunch at a wonderful pub—the only one in the tiny village and one that wins awards all the time apparently. By 2pm, I really was done… this whole village area can’t possibly house more than 300 people, and that’s overestimating. 

The windmill is a private property, but it looks down upon the tiny village of Turville (Dibley) and is viewable almost anywhere around the village. The walk up to it almost killed me; it’s steep, steep, steep! I also took my time due to really having nothing pressing to do, as well as the fact that I didn’t bring crackers or something to snack on along the way. It never occurred to me there would be a town in Europe too small even for a small convenience store or something. I was mistaken.

The church, too, was quite neat; not only is it the primary scene from the hilarious British comedy, but it’s also OLD! It was built somewhere around 1200, and it was quite nifty to see a tiny church so old. I’m used to seeing huge churches that are as old as dirt, but this was a new experience. It’s a beautiful and quaint little church, and because I was so early to Turville on a Sunday morning there were few people around the village.
By the time the pub, The Bull and Butcher, opened, the village became crowded with training bikers (the hills around Turville are excellent training grounds) and other local tourists wanting to check out the quaint little village. Within an hour of the noon opening of the pub, it was full. Quite tasty, too! I had a traditional Sunday roast dinner, something similar to a pork roast stew you’d put in the crock pot.

I must say, Turville is probably the most “authentic” place I’ve been, even more so than Verona was. The place was so small that I had no cell phone reception, and the town’s only payphone (classic red booth as throughout England) had even been removed. I had to pay to use the pub’s, and off I was with my Indian man to the town of Henley on the Thames River.

Henley is one of those random little towns full of its own spunk; the time I arrived, around 3pm, was perfect timing to coincide with afternoon tea and a little street market was in full swing. It’s a cute little town with many coming to put-put around on the river (not huge… far smaller than in London) and kill a lazy Sunday afternoon in the park. I didn’t stay long, but it was worth the tour around the little town before heading to my destination, Reading.

Reading is also a nice little town! It’s far bigger than Henley and Turville combined (I wouldn’t even consider Turville much more than a crossroads anyway), complete with a large university and all kinds of shopping. It’s not somewhere I would like to live, but it was also worth the visit. I spent the night with my friends from Trier, hitting several of the local pubs, and had a jolly good night with a bottle of the Sailor.

By 11am the next morning, I was in London! Of all the “big” cities I’ve visited, London is certainly my favorite… even more so than Rome! Rome is really neat with its history, but London is just… alive, filled with excitement. I thought of it as New York City on a nicer and smaller scale. After dropping off my bag at the hostel I stayed in (which, incidentally, I had accidently booked for an extra night and had to pay for it even though I was in Reading), I set off to explore.

Again, the weather was perfect. I got an excellent biased view of the city due to this; had it rained and been cold like I hear is typical of London, I likely would not have had such a good experience. As it was, though, I got to see pretty much everything famous about London in the two full days I was there; the Houses of Parliament (immensely impressive), Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Eye of London, London 
Tower, the National Gallery, Piccadilly Square… you name it, I saw it.

The tube system in London is neat, too, and in preparation for the upcoming 2012 Olympics, the city is undergoing huge improvement projects. Parks, the Tube, and everything in between were under construction throughout the city. The Tube, though, is expensive… while it’s about 6.50 Pounds for a day pass, it’s roughly 4 Pounds for a one way trip! So, be careful: it can add up. If you’re going to stay more than a day or so, it’s worth getting a reloadable “Oyster Card” that makes individual trips far cheaper.

While in London, I also got to see two West End shows. London’s West End is the equivalent of New York’s Broadway, and it was well worth the money to attend both shows. I got tickets in Leicester Square, home of the city’s [apparently] famous half-price ticket booth. Yes Prime Minister, the first show I saw, was only about 20 Pounds here, and (wait for it) Mamma Mia was about 35. Both were TOTALLY worth it. I bet I’m the only American to have ever heard of “Yes Minister,” a British comedy from the late 80’s/early 90’s, and the Broadway (West End) show was typical British humor. Funny enough, the Apollo Theater, its home for the ten week run, had quite small seats. The couple next to me remarked, “Wow, what do you think the Americans would do in here? They’d be too fat to fit!” HAHA

Mamma Mia, though, took the cake. Naturally, I’m a bit biased having grown up to my mother listening to Abba, but the show was great. Full of energy, good actors/singers, and even some scenes that aren’t in the film version of the play. Again, perhaps the highlight of my trip to London. The fact that both shows were located around China Town (called Soho) and Piccadilly Square made for cool exits into London’s night life each night too. Keep in mind there, though, that the typical London bar closing time is 2-3am, far earlier than most other parts of Europe.

The second day I went on one of the free walking tours and ended up meeting several cool people, notably a German and an Australian. The three of us all ended up hanging out for the rest of the day, exploring the city further and chilling in several spots as well. The free walking tours are wonderful for their city overview and the ability to meet new people.

London is quite an expensive city, especially considering the Pound is currently even stronger against the Dollar than the Euro is. But, for brief visits, I’d say it’s totally worth a bank account depression. Like most other big cities in Europe, you couldn’t do everything it has to offer in under a year. There’s not really much else to say about London; it’s an awesome city, and I wish I could go there for the Olympics! 

But, I had to catch my early plane to Amsterdam, so I dragged myself to the train towards Gatwick airport around 5am the final morning, August 3rd, and got to fly with British Airways… a REAL airline for a change! How nice. No one bothered me, I got included light breakfast and a tea… life was grand.

Then… Amsterdam!

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Well, my trip in Italy is almost over. I’m currently sitting on another train bound for Rome from Ancona, a last minute trip to say the least. Since my last entry on that roasting train to Florence, I’ve seen Florence (obviously), Verona, Bologna, Venice, and Ancona. How about THEM apples. 

But I’ll start from where I left off. The train I was on FINALLY made it to Florence around 3:30am, even though it was supposed to arrive at 1:45. Yay Italian timeliness. For some reason, we sat in the Rome Termini station for just at an hour… roasting. Air conditioned? Right. In any event, I finally made it to what I thought was Florence’s main station only to find out that the train I got on stopped ONE Stop before the primary station. It being 3:30am, nothing was running… busses, trains, whatever… so I had no way to get to the hostel I’d booked. The next train started around 5:50am, so I killed a few hours by sleeping on the ground outside the train station. Whoo Hoo!

Still, I finally made it the ONE stop farther to Florence’s primary station, tired and unsure of where to go, and was greeted by… gasp, a huge church. I’m thinking Italy should be renamed Jesusland; he seems to be a big deal here. Go figure.

I wondered about for a spell before sucking it up and getting on the bus my directions said to catch to my hostel. This was my first Italian bus, and they’re quite different from busses in other cities/countries I’ve been in; in both Florence and later Verona, you don’t pay the driver. It seems to be some kind of honor system; inside the bus is a ticket validation machine and another to buy one-way fares. I guess the busses get “controlled” from time to time to check that you have a ticket, but both times I rode I was home free.

Big surprise, when I reached my hostel around 7am, they had charged me for the night before for not showing up, and my plan was to stay one night longer due to being unable to find a hostel in Bologna. In retrospect, I’m glad; there’s not much to Bologna. Either way, I was going to take a nap in the room for a few hours before exploring the city only to find one person in my assigned room snoring out of roughly 40 people. There’s always that one person…

So, I took a shower and started exploring. I’m one of those people who doesn’t necessarily like to go IN everything, but rather prefer to hit the “high spots” and those random places I discover. Those random places are actually my favorites, ones that I may otherwise have never known existed. It wasn’t long, though, before sleep deprivation caught up to me and I passed out in a small park next to the river (whatever it is called) for an hour or so. 

The weather in Florence wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was ok; it was the first day of imperfect weather I’ve had since leaving Germany. The city itself more than makes up for it; I won’t say it’s more impressive than Rome, but I liked the “feel” of the city a bit more. Unfortunately, as you may recall, I had (and still have) limited battery power left on my good camera due to the charger and battery being stolen in Madrid. No matter, the weather wasn’t perfect for pictures, so I used my little “tough” Olympus to snap anything worth catching.

It’s hard to describe Florence, really; like many Italian cities, it’s old. Duh. The most striking place in the city by FAR is the absolutely awesome domed cathedral in the city’s center. It’s one of those impressive images that won’t leave your memory. I won’t say it trumps the Vatican, but it was certainly memorable. It’s hard to believe the cathedral in Seville is bigger than it… this one is certainly cooler in my opinion. I didn’t get to go in (the line was well around the block), but I did go into the babtistry just next to it in matching style.

The style… well, it’s not what I would say is typical of Catholic churches. It’s certainly no Gaudy cathedral from Barcelona in shock value, but it is simply impressive in… well, everything. The outside is decorated in a mosaic-like tile creating an intricate pattern all the way to the orange-colored Spanish-styled roof. I swear the dome looks bigger than any I’ve ever seen, but this may be due to the fact that it clearly overshadowed all the buildings around it. Perhaps my perspective is off a bit.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Randomly, I’m walking around this cathedral with an iced coffee (which I was thrilled to find… iced coffee is a hard catch in Europe) and a sandwich when I ran into one of my good friends from Trier and her family whom I had hung out with just prior to leaving Trier. Neither of us had any idea we’d run into one another, and keep in mind here: there are THOUSANDS of tourists in Florence. The likelihood of running into one another in the entire of Italy, much less Florence, was little to none. But, not wanting to waste a good excuse to not be alone, I tagged along with her and her family for most of the rest of the day.

We explored a bit more, checking out an impressive indoor farmer’s market, various other squares, and (by myself while they were in a museum) the street, museum, and square named after some of my relatives! Via Strozzi, quite amusingly enough, hosted the city’s richest district. Cartier, Louis Vuitton (I can’t even spell it), nice banks… all adorned Via Strozzi. Go figure… Florence’s richest district and largest contemporary exhibit museum are named after some long lost relative. Nice!

Side note at this point: what is it with Trenitalia and being so damn hot? My back is drenched with sweat… they won’t let you open the windows because the cars are “air conditioning” (not –ed), which they clearly are not. Anyway.

By the time my friend and her family had to leave for Venice by late afternoon, it had started raining anyway. I retreated to my hostel to check out the internet (again, hard to find… that was Wednesday and I have yet to find it again, now Saturday), needing to check out school registration and emails. Gasp, my school registration and financial aid issues still are not worked out with either AASU or SSU. I’m not surprised. Even when I’m living in town, the schools always seem to mishandle my “affairs.” Being that this is a school blog, I’ll be nice and not go any further into detail on that front…

By the time I’d checked on finances, email, and school stuff, the rain had stopped for the most part and I ventured out to check out more far-reaching parts of the city including an old fort and several other churches. The highlight of this particular trip through the city was seeing a Synagogue, randomly, in the midst of the city. It was totally ornate in decoration, complete with a large copper dome (nothing compared to the cathedral’s, though). I couldn’t go in; like almost every church in the touristy city, you had to pay to get in. Honestly, I’ve been in the Vatican… there’s really nothing else I want to see from the inside of a church. Likewise with museums; once you’ve seen the Louvre, what’s the point in seeing anything else?

My attention span and lack of money to nickel-and-dime my way into every church and museum, along with the sheer lack of time, makes me not unhappy in the least to miss going into many of these places; I visit the city for the “feel” more so than each individual item in the city. One could spend a month in EVERY city in Europe and still not see everything, so I feel my skimming the surface of those I visit is perfect for my personal idea of what I want to get out of each city.

Something else interesting about Florence is the INSANE number of Madonnas/Mother Mary and Jesus “shrines” on the corners of buildings. These little representations, be they paintings on the walls or actual inset sculptures, literally inhabited, I’d say, 3 out of every 5 building corners you saw. I mean, really! You see these a lot throughout Italy, but none more so that I’ve seen than in Florence!

So, that’s really Florence. I dined that night on not the best lasagna I’ve had (I make better), alongside what seemed a gallon of wine. If you order what you think is 2 glasses worth of wine, beware: you’re getting more than you think. That’s good in that it’s cheap to get a lot, but not so good if you intend on staying sober thereafter. I literally had to leave half of a carafe in Verona the next day because of this…

Anyway, I checked out of my hostel early the next morning (not the nicest, by the way… its bathrooms, especially, are the ones that would embarrass your mother) and headed to Bologna. This got a bit interesting… being a bit tired (and hungover, to be honest… I also visited a lackluster Irish Pub in Florence the night before just for kicks), I slept through my train to Bologna by two minutes. Not realizing the trains were really that much different, I hopped onto a EuroStar Italia train that left a few minutes later. Come to find out, these are the equivalent of the TGVs in France; they’re the fast trains.

To make matters even more interesting, I didn’t realize at the time I boarded the train that I got into first class. Holy olive oil, it was nice. It honestly took me a minute to realize my mistake, but after that I just held my breath that they wouldn’t “control” the train (aka check tickets)… the one I paid for was something like 10 Euros, and the cost of this one ticket first class on this fast train would have been more like 95 Euros. Oops!

Let me just say, coming from the know-nothing-of-luxury background, this train was NICE. Ambient lighting, wifi, individual seats (none next to you), electric reclining at that… it was tip-top. The interior even had a glossy finish everywhere, giving the impression of what you’d imagine a Bentley to have. People came by with carts offering drinks and whatnot, which I declined due to my embarrassment at being in the wrong place. 
Luckily, I didn’t look too much like a bum, so hopefully they just assumed I fit right in with these other few businessmen on board.

Here’s the other difference in this train and the regional ones I’ve been accustomed to: whereas the regional train would have taken 2 hours to reach Bologna from Florence, this one took 37 minutes. Yep. Luckily for me, the short time didn’t include a ticket check, so I got away with it… luckily. Had I not bought so many train tickets in Italy thus far, I may feel bad about it… but seeing as I have, I don’t. :)

So, Bologna. Pronounced “bo-LONE-i-a,” there’s really not much to it. It’s a much newer city than most of the others I’ve visited; the churches and fortifications in it are from the 16-1800s rather than far earlier. So, by American standards, ancient. By European standards, yesterday. It’s really just a center of commerce more than anything else; stores and hotels were everywhere. I walked around the city, but didn’t stay longer than 2 hours or so. I think I got the feel of it city fine in this spell; I stole a free map off of a table (quite stealthily I may add)—the people who had it had left I think, and from the looks of it I saw everything I needed to see in the short time.

This time, I got on the wrong train AGAIN, by no fault of my own. How was I supposed to know that platform 2 and platform 2 OUEST (west) weren’t actually on the same platform when the trains had the same destination? This time, though, the place I boarded the high speed train again) was second class, so when the lady (who had family in San Francisco, incidentally, after talking to her) came by, I had to pay another 9 Euros to make the difference of the ticket, of which I originally paid 7. No biggie, honestly, considering I got away with it earlier in the morning.

A brief aside on train prices: I’ve heard from more than 5 people that the EurRail pass is not worth it, and I’m glad I didn’t buy one; it’s roughly $150 for a 5 day unlimited pass, which may do you good if you’re going long distances in short times. However, you have to reserve seats AFTER you have the pass, at which point the train service often charges a 5 Euro surcharge, and you have to have all this organized in advance. If you’re like me and like to play your traveling by ear based on how much you like each place, you’re not going to want this option.

That, and you can actually travel more places for far cheaper IF you have the time to do so. For example: the only reason I even stoped in Bologna was because it was roughly 30-40 Euros cheaper to travel from Florence > Bologna > Verona than it was just straight from Florence > Verona. How about that? There are several reasons for this, the most important being when you choose destinations, the ticket machines (which are quite nice and helpful, FYI) automatically search for the most direct and fast routes between places, which are almost always the most expensive. So, if you’re smart (unlike me) and buy a map of Italy to see what destinations are roughly on the way to your ultimate destination, buying tickets for those specific routes, you can save loads of money IF you have the time to make even a 2 hour layover in some cities.

Another example: it was almost 60 Euros cheaper, for whatever reason, to travel to Verona THEN Venice rather than Venice THEN Verona. Don’t ask me why. So, if you get a chance beforehand to check these random options online before you travel, you can save a lot of money. I recommend buying the tickets the day of or before in Italy, too; although most regional train tickets allow you to use that ticket for the route you bought once in a 2 month span, some dictate specific times to travel on. And, being that the prices are the same the day of as a month in advance (unlike in the UK), it gives you greater flexibility should plans change.

So there’s your lesson on Italian trains. If you mess up and get into trouble, just act extremely sorry and partially scared and claim you’re a dumb tourist; you won’t get fined. I’ve done it… I should know.
SO. I arrived from Bologna to Verona by around noon, far ahead of my original schedule of reaching Verona around 5pm. I’m so glad I did; Verona is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. See, traveling by the seat of your pants works!

Here, my plan (as of two days before in Florence) was to stay on someone’s couch through a website similar to, although this one you have to pay your host. It was a first for me, but being that I am perhaps too trusting of a person, I figured I’d be fine… and indeed I was. Obviously you’ll want to be careful when choosing places to stay like this, but considering this cost me 20 Euro whereas the next cheapest accommodation was roughly 100 (no hostels were in Verona that I could find worth the price), I’d say it was an epic win idea.

Unfortunately, due to being so early, I had to carry around my book bag which must weigh roughly the same as a dead body, until around 6pm. That honestly sucked. It didn’t occur to me until this point that I truly was (and am) “backpacking through Europe,” as you hear many people say they’ve done. I literally have two pairs of pants and about 4 shirts to my name for about 3 weeks. Not the cleanest thing to do, but hey… do what you have to do. Any more “stuff” and RyinAir would stroke out at the size of my bag and fine me 40 Euros per trip. So yeah.

Anyway, the pain and agony of this heavy book bag aside, Verona is… quaint. No, it’s not impressive in the scale that Rome or Florence are, but its smaller size and less tourists (albeit still LOADS of us) made Verona feel like the most “authentic” city I’ve been in Italy save Gaeta. Even Gaeta has a US Navy base, though, so perhaps Verona is even better! Well… no; Gaeta has a beach whereby Verona only has a river. Should you not be a beach whore like myself, this won’t be an issue and you may choose Verona.

Brief interruption: the train en route to Rome right now is going through some beautiful Appilation-styled mountains, complete with a stream below my window seat. Gorgeous! Not as awesome as the drive from Milan to Genova in Northern Italy, but certainly not a shabby view from this sweaty train!

Back to Verona. The reason I actually visited, aside from it making my train journey cheaper, was because 3 of the 4 universities I’ve studied at in my lifetime have advertised mini-semesters in Verona, supposedly a beautiful little city. Well, they’re right. I visited the university briefly, which is situated just across the river from the primary historic district, and it’s awesome how close it is to all of the history and splendor of old Italy.

Keep in mind, too, that Verona is at worst 2 hours from both Florence and Venice, among many others, putting its university in an excellent location. I wouldn’t trade my semester in Trier for anything, but I suspect that, had I applied to go to Verona instead (which does not have an ISEP English program to my knowledge), I imagine I’d of been quite happy as well.

I arrived hungry (surprise), and after finding the place I was to stay the night to relocate later, I stopped at a wonderful pizzeria for a pizza, piece of mozzarella, and spot of wine. For the price of 12 Euros, I got a wonderful freshly-cooked pizza, HUGE block of mozzarella cheese covered in salt, pepper, and olive oil (which is truly heavenly… Italian olive oil = win), and so much wine you’d think I had ordered a bottle. As I said earlier, I had to leave half of the carafe for fear I wouldn’t be interested in exploring the city after its completion. The cheese, too… heavenly, that’s all you can say. You couldn’t buy a block of cheese that big and delicious in a store for under $10 at home! Then again, in America, we typically wouldn’t just sit down and eat an entire block of cheese. Well, I would, but most wouldn’t.

The river in Verona, much the same as that in Florence (although I admit I don’t know my Italian geography and have no idea if it’s the same river), is slightly green in hue and crossed by several old and beautiful brick/stone bridges. It moves far more quickly, though, and would not be nagivitable by even a canoe in my eyes. In fact, in the warmth, I didn’t see a single boat on the river in either Florence or Verona. This may also due to the high pollution that is sure to exist in the rivers, though.

I explored a great deal, finding a Colosseum similar to the one in Rome (albeit not of the same scale obviously), numerous old churches (gasp), and generally cool and old buildings and small, windy streets and alleyways filled with random little parks, monuments, and shops/restaurants. It’s truly quaint. Imagine the building style of Savannah’s downtown, add a few stories to the buildings, and make the roads and alleys as random as possible… and you have any given old Italian town.

I also took a nap in a park by mid-afternoon; you’d think I’d have energy enough, but walking around with a heavy book bag at my pace of efficiency (hey, I don’t have anyone else with which to explore, so it’s all up to what I want to do… which is typically random walking everywhere), and by the evening made my way back to the address of the random person’s apartment I was to stay in. He wasn’t in yet (around 6pm), so I stopped in a little cafĂ© for a coffee just in time for a HUGE hale storm to break out! Seriously, hale at least the size of quarters fell for a good ten minutes before switching to rain. Random, especially for late July! 

In any event, I must say: if I were to stay in Italy any longer than a week, my heart would likely stop due to caffeine overdose. Seriously, coffee is as common as water here… keeping in mind, of course, that Italian coffee is our espresso. I can’t count how many I’ve had since being here either. 

Another side note: I just got controlled on the train again, and got in trouble (again) for not “validating” my ticket. With the regional tickets, because you can use them once in a two month period, you’re supposed to insert them into these yellow validation machines throughout each station to print a time stamp on the ticket, thereby saying you’ve “used” the ticket and cannot use it again. I actually did know that. I guess it’s just the thrill of seeing if I can get away with it… Oops. Again, play dumb; most of these control agents patrolling the trains don’t speak English anyway. Being dumb isn’t all bad.

After this storm, my host finally arrived home and I was let in. Wow, what a nice apartment! Well kept, great location ten minutes’ walk from the city center, nice financial advisor host dude… great experience. He recommended a place to eat in the city (which I later found but was too crowded to get in), gave me a key (quite trusting), and answered any questions I had. Very nice lad. It’s funny to me how people from different places value the homelands of others differently; he had a dying wish (from what I could understand; English in Italy is nowhere near as “good” as in Germany) to visit America, and liked American beer better than Italian or German. I guess it’s the thrill of something different; if I were him, I’d be more than proud to live in Verona! Then again, I am proud to be a Savannahian, so I guess there’s that.

Finally getting to drop off my book bag, I then explored a bit more, stopping at a restaurant around the corner from the one my host suggested for some eggplant parmesan. Delicious! I didn’t stay out too late, though; I was back to his apartment by 11pm or so, and after sorting through pictures up through Florence for Facebook posting (eventually… if I ever find internet; he didn’t have it even in that spectacular apartment), I fell asleep before he even returned home from wherever he was.

I was out of the apartment, through the bus route, and on a train to Venice by 9:20 the next morning. This ride, CROWDED as hell, caused me to have to stand on the train for the whole first hour. Fun fun.

But then, VENICE!

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t really expecting much out of Venice. I really went there just to say I’ve been. Granted, it’s by far the most touristy place I’ve been in Europe yet. And boy oh boy was it crowded. But, I’d argue it’s for GOOD REASON. Venice is simply cool. There’s no other way to put it.

Again, unfortunately, I was plagued with that heavy book bag. There was a place you could pay to store your luggage in the train station, but by the time I got through the line to do so my time in Venice would be over. So, my stuff and I traversed the city.

I have to say: I made some excellent rounds considering the small amount of time I was in the city. I saw a good many of the key places, including the famous San Marco Square of countless films, traveling at least for some time through all but one of the city’s six main districts. I think there are six… I’d check on the map I bought, but it would require getting up. About that. There’s a dog sitting on the seat across from me, and I’d hate to disturb his already antsy self.

It’s hard to get more picturesque than Venice. Seriously, every place I looked was picture worthy with the many canals (including the impressive “grand canal,” more like a river) and old, well-preserved buildings. The city was FAR cleaner than I expected, too; although the water obviously wasn’t crystal clear, its greenish hue and general lack of debris (note “general) made it not the worst water I’ve seen. The streets and winding, winding, winding alleyways of the city were also mostly clutter free.

Save the tourists like me, of course. Thousands, and I mean THOUSANDS of people crowded the small streets, especially around the San Marco Squre. To accompany them, of course, were hundreds and hundreds of venders trying to sell touristy things, and they were succeeding quite well I must say. Interestingly enough, if Florence was notorious for selling scarves (and it was), Venice must hold the world record for the most blown glass shops EVER. It was everywhere. Beautiful, but everywhere.

Speaking of shops, Venice is expensive. Terribly expensive. In fact, I would venture so far as to say it’s the most expensive place I’ve been in Europe yet, at least in terms of staying (aka eating and sleeping). Because online I couldn’t find a room for any sense of affordability (aka, under 80 Euros, and even those under 100 weren’t directly in the city), I figured I’d play it by ear and try my luck when I got there. This proved not to work too, being that the cheapest I found was as before. That was fine by me, though, as my back was killing me from carrying that heavy book bag, and being low on camera battery anyway there was little else left for me to do by late afternoon anyway.

Venice truly is amazing. I’d have to say it is the “coolest” city I’ve been in just for the sheer fact that it’s quite literally built on the ocean. I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t know how much longer it’ll last, but it’s simply amazing. San Marco Square, for example, had large bits off limits due to construction to keep the square from flooding. Pictures on the construction boards showed how the water would lfood quite frequently from the canals, the drainage systems, and even the “subsoil,” which is hard to believe that any even exists. Hopefully they’ll get it right; it’d be a true shame to lose Venice.

I’m sure I would have had a better time had I not been utterly miserable from having to carry my stuff around with me; my shoulders are a bit bruised. It’s primarily this heavy, heavy laptop I have that’s the issue, and I assure you: it will be sold as SOON as I get home and replaced with a smaller 13” laptop like I had before. Even so, Venice was awesome and totally worth the trip. It was so cool, in fact, tnat I even forgot to buy a postcard for my mother even though they were literally EVERYWHERE you looked. That’s cool.

Word to the wise, though: if you go to visit and are on any kind of a budget (aka, don’t have a limitless credit card), you’re best off to look up lodging in the cities just outside of Venice. I can’t remember any of their names, but just Google Map the city and see what cities are nearest. There, you can actually afford to stay, then take the train very cheaply (as in, less than 2 Euros/person) into the city for the days/nights. But that’s just my suggestion.

As it was for me, I hadn’t thought that far ahead, so conspired to try to find a beach in the roughly 24 hours I had before having to be back at the Rome Termini station to catch the shuttle buss to Ciampiano bound for London. Travel, travel, travel!

So, in keeping with my playing with the train schedules and prices, I made a wonderful discovery, as I now know. The price of the ticket from Venice to Rome, had I stayed in Venice for the night, would have been 76 Euros… over $100. However, if I caught a train from Venice to Bologna, then Bologna to Ancona (a coastal city opposite Rome on Italy’s east coast), then Ancona to Rome the next day (today), the total price for all three tickets was only 35 Euros. When I got to Ancona, I found a hotel right outside the train station for 30 Euros. So, moral of the story: by leaving Venice in the evening, traveling a few hours on trains with one change (20 minutes or so), and getting to visit another city, I STILL saved 10 Euros not even counting having to stay in a hotel in Venice! I love it when spontaneity works out…

That’s exactly what I did. I won’t lie, either. When I got to Ancona just before midnight and found the cheap hotel, I was about as excited as could be; not classy by any means, it was still a “real hotel” complete with my own room and bathroom! Coming from someone who hasn’t had that in over a week… it was blissful. I even got to order a Doner (Turkish sandwich) and a beer to eat in my room around midnight thirty and watch Italian music videos on the tiny TV in the room. Ah!

Sometimes it’s the little things that get you the most happy. When you originally plan trips, you just assume you won’t get tired and want to stop. Au contraire, I’m afraid. Even someone like me who naturally wants to go all of the time still appreciates a good old-fashioned rest from time to time. After all, traveling tired will cause you to not appreciate the places you visit nearly as much as you would feeling rested.

Luckily for me, I was able to leave my things in the hotel’s storage room while I explored Ancona for awhile after being given an included coffee and croissant for breakfast. It was nearly 11am by this point, but these are minor details. 

Unluckily for me, I didn’t make it to the beach as I had hoped to in Ancona. However, upon seeing a post card and being in the same general vicinity, I don’t feel too bad. I did get to see a cruise port and marina, which is the next best thing to a beach anyway… success. 

At this point, I should point out again the changed mindset I have toward walking places. I asked the girl at the desk how long it’d take to walk to the city center from my hotel, and she said 2 kilometers. I didn’t blink, and set off. It’s about 30 minutes’ walk to the city, but I walked around from about 11am-1:30pm with no problem. Ancona’s center isn’t that big, but I did climb up what I would consider a mountain (rather just a steep hill with a view of the city) for a few pictures. 

I also stumbled upon what appeared to be a Saturday flea market. I’ve lost track of time and didn’t even realize it was Saturday! It was a bit odd seeing so many “locals” after having been in so many touristy cities; aside from Gaeta, this is probably the least touristy city I’ve visited in Italy. There’s really not much to it… it’s next to the ocean, which is nice, but aside from a church and some old buildings (which would be cool in America, but nothing compared to the rest of Italy),  nothing really stands out in the city. It was totally worth the trip, though, if for no other reason than to get to see that side of the sea one last time during my trip.

The Italian people themselves vary quite a bit. While the language throughout the country is, in my opinion, among the most passionately spoken languages I’ve ever heard, the people’s cultural particulars differ according to the region. In the south, people are far more friendly and outgoing than those in the north; in many northern areas (which I can say of Genova, Milan, Venice, and even Florence to some degree), people are much more likely to act as those do in New York City and ignore you. If you travel to Rome (to some degree) or Gaeta (and presumably farther south based on what my Italian friends have told me), it’s nothing for random people to talk to you on the streets as if you knew each other.

Time as a culture is certainly different than America too. Spain and Italy are very similar in this respect; just as I noted frequently about the truth in siestas in Spain, the Italians largely disappear during the mid-to-late afternoon hours. It’s a bit errie coming from an American background where people are almost always out and about regardless of the time of day; the streets will be utterly empty, shops closed, and you’ll feel as though you’re the only person in the world for minutes on end. This is true mostly of the smaller cities; those like Rome and Barcelona never sleep. Well, not to the degree that New York never sleeps, but you’ll at least see people in these places at any given time of day.

The culture itself is much more family-oriented than most Americans, I would say. Even those that aren’t direct family make informal families in neighborhoods like those you see in television of New York City and stereotypical Greek and Italian families; I’ve only been here a short period of time, but Italy (and Spain) is full of little random cafes, shops, and bars where you see characters just “hanging out” all day. I don’t know how the economy in Italy keeps going; more often than not (a slight exaggeration, I’ll admit), you see Italians just… chilling. Not doing a damn thing. Talking. I don’t know where the business class of people hides, but they sure hide well!

It’s also interesting to me how intrigued Italians, like the Germans, are with America. This statement is obviously a generalization and does not apply to those in the larger cities, but many people I’ve met are simply tickled pink to meet an American, and want to tell me how much they like American and want to visit. Others will have relatives in America, and through their broken English I can decipher that they are jealous of them. Keep in mind here that this is coming from someone who has no problem talking to random people, aka me. Still, it amazes me that, even with our ridiculous politics (especially of the past), most hold positive thoughts of America!

This notion is unfortunately downplayed in the more touristy locations (especially Venice, in my experience) by Americans acting like the stereotypical American tourist, complete with fanny packs and heavy accents, wanting often to “look down” on Italians for not being American. It truly makes no sense to me; why bother visiting a new and exciting (at least to me) place if you’re going to try to constantly compare why your home is better. Granted, I’m constantly comparing the places I visit with America, but for me it’s more of a study of cultural dichotomies rather than an analysis of why I’m better than everyone else I meet. Again, remember this is a generalization, but I do wish it was one I did not have to make.

That about covers Italy! I’m sure there are a multitude of things I’ve forgotten, but considering I’ve been typing about my experiences at my (I’ll brag) naturally fast typing speed, it goes to show there is too much to say and too much to see. I’m sure that, over the next day or so before I manage to find internet to post this again, I’ll come back and add points that I forgot while typing on this train through the Italian countryside… which is amusing considering I’ve typed the better part of ten pages. If only writing papers were this easy…

Future plans: tonight, after being in Rome for a few minutes and catching the shuttle to the RyanAir airport (provided the train is on time… which it is known NOT to be in Italy and Spain), I’ll make my LAST FLIGHT WITH RYANAIR during this trip to Europe! I think I may celebrate by actually buying a drink on board or something… who knows. Or, to better express my sentiments for the company, maybe I’ll throw up on the plane or something… kidding. The price is right, just always remember that the price is right…

I land in London’s Stansted airport tonight and will likely just sleep in the airport; I’m on an extremely tight budget, and considering I’ll only have about 6 hours between landing and my train to visit Turville, the place the Vicar of Dibley was actually filmed (much unlike my last trip’s epic fail in England to visit where I THOUGHT it was…), there’s no point in spending money. I’ll be spending the night with a friend from Trier in Reading tomorrow night anyway, so I should be good.

After that, it’s London, Amsterdam (with the girl I ran into in Florence), Dublin, Chicago, Atlanta, home! It’s hard to believe that I will officially leave Europe in NINE DAYS, returning home in about eleven! Wow… time has flown, just as I am about to do [again] in a few hours!