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January 31, 2012

Getting A Taste Of Taiwan

We are currently on a train from Taipei, Taiwan, to the small city of Hualien, our next destination here in the country. A marble-walled canyon, Taroka Gorge, and a couple days of hiking around a national park wait for us. We are now in our third day in Taiwan, which is remarkably different than Nepal.

Our journey here was pretty interesting. Arriving in midday at Kathmandu's airport, we expected a fairly easy admission through security and customs. After all, there isn't so much technology; this is a country that, in the winter when the rivers run low, cities have no electricity for up to 14 hours daily. What the airport lacked in electronic check-in kiosks and scatter pattern scanners, they made up for with multiple levels of security. I was patted down no less than five times. At each stage in entering the airport, there would be a metal detector and someone to grope each person passing through; even the lines to customs and out the door to the tarmac were separated for "Gents" and "Lady" so we could get another patdown. We emptied our water bottles early, then refilled them in the terminal at a water stand, thinking wrongly that we were in the clear. Out on the tarmac, at the foot of the stairs to the plane, we had our carry-on bags searched (again), and they made us dump the water we had just put in the bottles. Then they patted us down again. 

Three flights and twenty-some hours later, we arrived into the main train station in Taipei. It is a sleek, bustling place, as it is also the main bus station and a stop for two metro lines. Immediately it was clear that we were not still in Nepal, the technology of the train station alone rivals if not surpasses that of San Francisco or Denver. It took us a bit to figure out where the ticket dispensers were for the metro, called the MRT, because they were similar except in color to those of the high speed rail (HSR); fortunately all of the signs and even the ticket machines were helpfully in English. We soon found ourselves on a very clean, extremely efficient metro that had us to our hostel within fifteen minutes. Since the public transportation in the US that I am most familiar with is that of San Francisco, naturally I found myself making comparisons, and once again SF came up failing, with its nonchalant attitude towards punctuality and its frequent colorful characters (drunks and crackheads). 

Our first hostel was hardly that; it was basically a hotel room in an apartment building, in a hallway with doors that obviously had permanent occupants. There wasn't a reception or any common room as one might expect from a hostel, but on the other hand, it was very clean, bright, and not only had excellent WiFi but hot showers. Ah, the glory of a hot shower, especially after two weeks of going without. As I stepped into the stream of water, I still winced in anticipation of the icy bite of glacially heated shower; old habits die hard, I guess. We cleaned up a bit and set out for some lunch. Just around the corner was what looked like a noodle shop, so we entered and found ourselves introduced to Taiwan's answer to Japan's hot pot, the shuba shuba.

Basically, you sit at a counter or table, where you will have the standard pan of water and some sort of heater. This particular restaurant had holes in the countertop inside which a gas burner sat; the pan fit into the hole and was thus heated. At another restaurant they brought out a small gas burner to our tables, but it was the same concept. You get this big plate of food items to put into the water, either all together (probably the right way) or individually (the way we did it). There was thinly sliced meat, shrimp, mushrooms, vegetables, noodles, various dumplings, tofu, and a variety of lumpy items of mysterious origins. Some of it, like the taro root, had to cook for awhile, while other items, like shrimp, were done quickly. There are several dipping sauces as well, though we didn't figure that out until the next day when we ate it again for lunch. I guess the Western comparison might be fondu, but shuba shuba is delicious enough to stand as its own kind of food.

Taiwan is known as foodie's heaven, for good reason. Our evening that first day was spent at the Shilin night market, which conveniently happened to be a few blocks away from our hostel. There we found a menagerie of all sorts of exotic foods; I started with venison on a stick, and ate my way through a huge pork dumpling, a butter roll, a chicken lettuce wrap, and a hockey puck-shaped custard-filled wheel cake, before the finale of candied strawberries (think of candied apples, but with strawberries on a stick). There was plenty more to eat as well, such as pretty much anything that can be out on a stick and grilled, most impressively including a two-foot long squid. There were shrimp and lettuce cones, chicken ovaries, cherry tomatoes inserted with a chunk of fish and then candied, and tons of sliced fruit. I stuck with what seemed least likely to cause GI upset later on. We wandered around for a couple of hours in the huge crowded market, which the food section was really only a small part of. There were loads of clothing stores, electronic shops, restaurants, and multitudes of other capitalism-confirming businesses.

We ended up moving to another hostel yesterday morning, as our first one was full that night; this hostel was more of a traditional youth hostel, with bunks, a common room, and a kitchen that served fruit and slices of bread for breakfast. We got situated in our room, then headed out to explore the city. Our vague goal was to head south to a park that contained the National Theater and the National Opera House, as well as a massive monument building to the late Dr. Sun, of whom I am sure is very important to Taiwanese history but for reasons that I have been far too lazy to read about. Maybe later. We asked the girl at the hostel if we could just walk to the park, which seemed to quite shock her; it was a good half hour walk, which she assured us was much too far of a distance. I guess some Taiwanese are proud of their metro system to a fault. We opted to walk.

I need to quickly interrupt myself here: our train is cruising along the shoreline now, which is a jumble of black rocks and crashing waves. Fishermen are casting into the surf, and islands are small across the foggy waterway. On the other side of the train are the densely vegetated sides of steep hills, opening into valleys that the train follows to reach towns surrounded by water-filled rice paddies and palm trees. It is an overcast day here, and the hills surrounding are shrouded in misty clouds. We are obviously in a tropical place, because although it is probably 65F outside, our fellow passengers are wrapped in their winter coats.

So, yesterday afternoon we found ourselves ambling along busy roads past tall apartment buildings and high rise business complexes. We found a smaller park just south of the main train station called the Peace Park, in which was a small group of pagodas and some nice pools. There, a Taiwanese man decided we looked perplexed enough about  our surroundings and launched into a description long enough I thought I might have to give him a guiding tip. He even described to us some of the superstitions that the park was known for, such as with the number 9 (it is somewhat associated with death, apparently, and so when some people have a nine in their age, such as 49, they will instead tell people they are 50). His voluntary guiding services were part of a trend that we had noticed very quickly, that the Taiwanese people are a very friendly group.

At some point, we did reach our targeted park, which did indeed have the aforementioned buildings, all three of which were large and ornate pagoda style structures. We wandered around the grounds for a bit, watching groups of high school students rehearsing for some sort of dance competition, including one group of boys enthusiastically practicing a routine set to It's Raining Men. Our walk had tired us out a bit after all, or perhaps jet lag was still lingering, so we looked for a nearby coffee shop. We located a Starbucks but couldn't bring ourselves to go inside, so we found a Taiwanese knock-off and had coffee there instead.

Then, randomly, we took a long metro ride to northern side of the city, to find Jolly's Microbrewery and Restaurant, which might be Taiwan's only microbrewery, or at least one of the few of them. Jess enjoyed their seasonal beer of local flair, a passionfruit wietbier, while I was quite impressed by their pale ale and the tasty Scottish style brew. The staff seemed surprised that we had found the place and asked us where we were from, if we were staying in the neighborhood, how we had come from  the center, and more to the point, how we'd heard about them. They were impressed to find that we would search them out, even though the place had clearly been styled on the American-style microbrewing culture. We had a few pints and then headed back to the center.

By this point it was long past dark. We decided to finish our day by visiting another night market. There are many such markets in Taipei, and one happened to be near our new hostel, so we went looking for it. It took more of an effort to find it than the massive and brightly lit Shilin market, as it was really just a single street of one block. It was mostly dedicated to food stands, but in another difference from the Shilin market, this one was not trying to be bright and shiny and moderate; these foods made those at Shilin seem benign. One thing can be said about Asian cultures: they don't let anything go to waste. There was plenty of pork intestines (some looking disturbingly close to a mysterious item I'd eaten with my shuba shuba lunch), and they didn't just have the chicken ovaries but also the other organs and the feet as well. It was a bit more exotic than we had wanted, so we went the safe route and had a noodle and meat bowl. Still, being at such a market made us feel more adventurous than is usually recommended, so we couldn't just go with the safe foods. We played a bit with fire and ate some dragonfruit, which is quite safe except we bought a bag of it that had been sliced (not a great idea in a street market) and had been dyed a mysterious purple (dragonfruit has a boring white meat, which they apparently felt needed some razzle-dazzle).  Not feeling complete, I decided I needed to try out a duck head. If you've ever been to a Chinatown, you'll know what I'm talking about. There are always the ubiquitous duck stores with the whole roast duck hanging in the window; well, this was just the head. I wasn't sure how they would serve it, so it was with some anxiety that I ordered the head. They ended up tossing it into oil and deep frying it; I had them toss in some square bread/tofu/intestine looking items out of pure abandon. Jess and I retreated to a quiet side street to try out the head, just in case I had a violent reaction to it so that I wouldn't insult anyone. To my great surprise, I actually really liked the head. I mean, the eyeballs weren't great and I had to pass on the brain, but the meat was pretty good, and I felt sad that I hadn't gotten a head with the neck still attached. Even the squares, which turned out to be dough, were decent. 

Who would have thought that I would rather enjoy a deep-fried duck head?

Until next time, be safe.


January 28, 2012

Trek Guide Extraordinaire

Jess has written a great piece about our trek guide Manish Rai on her blog. I'm reposting it here, but you can see her posting here.


I have fallen in love with Nepal, and it is going to be very hard to leave tomorrow afternoon. We will be on our way to Taiwan, which I am sure will not disappoint, but Nepal has definitely been a wonderful experience. I must admit that I was less than thrilled to be badgered by multiple taxi drivers trying to haggle prices on our arrival into Kathmandu two weeks ago. I actually lost my patience somewhat and began to wonder if I could handle being here for two weeks. This was worrisome since we hadn't even left the airport parking lot, but fortunately the following day I awoke from proper slumber and felt renewed and prepared to enjoy this fine country.

Aaron has written plenty on his blog, so I will keep this short, but I just wanted to jot down a little bit more about our wonderful trek guide, Manish. We first met Manish in the trek company office here in Kathmandu the day before departing. He stands about five feet tall and probably weighs around a hundred pounds when soaking wet. He also wears a very thin mustache directly above his lip, and he has one single hair in the center of his chin that he doesn't shave. My first impression was that he was very shy since he hardly spoke above a whisper and didn't make eye contact with us during that initial meeting. The following day we rode the bus together to Pokhara, and he seemed to be warming up to us slowly. We exchanged pleasantries discussing the weather and briefly talked about our upcoming six day hike.

Aaron and I were very impressed by his attentiveness from the start of our trek. His constant concern about our well being and enjoyment were very obvious as he encouraged frequent rests during intense climbs, and he was happy to stop for Aaron to take many many many pictures. It didn't take him long to learn of my birding tendencies, and he found all kinds of great species for me to gaze at during the week. He always provided warm cups of tea as we rested along the way, and he helped to cook our meals at the many guesthouses. He never sat down to eat his Dal Baht until he knew we were completely satisfied with our food. Before going to bed he always loaded us up with plenty of heavy blankets to keep us warm during the cold nights.

I really started to notice his personality on the second day when Aaron had a morning of multiple slips and slides on a muddy hill. His frequent reminders as he took up the rear and watched us struggle down the hill were, "Slowly, please Aaron. Slowly, please I cannot carry you." He would laugh, but I think underneath the smile he really was worried about Aaron breaking a bone and having to become a walking ambulance. Throughout the days there were many random moments of him breaking out into song and impressing us with how well he could carry a tune. He loves Hindi music. During the evenings he performed some excellent magic tricks making cards disappear in his sleeve and what not. We also had several serious conversations about life in Nepal, the poverty here, and the overall culture. He is from a small village towards the east. To get home he has to take an eight hour bus ride from Kathmandu and then walk for an entire day. He eventually told us about his home life and that he has a wife and two children back in Kathmandu. He doesn't love living in the overcrowded polluted city, but has chosen this as his home so that his children receive a proper education and have the opportunity to learn English. He is very aware that without English his children will have very limited options in their futures.

As our trek came to an end we were very sad to have to tell Manish goodbye. We so enjoyed his company, and he was one of our favorite things about the trek. I was becoming tearful and ready to give him a big hug when he mentioned that we should come to his house for tea when we returned to Kathmandu. My tears quickly dried while we exchanged contact information and planned to visit with him during the weekend. Such a fabulous idea! So, we called him yesterday after our long and bumpy eight hour bus trip and planned on meeting early this morning at our hotel. I think Aaron has written a detailed account of our day with him. It really was a wonderful experience to be invited into his home and meet his family. His wife really can prepare wonderful Dal Baht, and his two children are absolutely darling.

Yesterday on our return to Kathmandu we met several other backpackers who are getting ready to trek the hillsides. We talked about their various plans and none of them will be hiring a guide. We all agreed that this would most certainly save them lots of money. I am so glad we chose to spend a little extra and hire a guide because we would have missed out on lots if we hadn't met Manish. He has contributed so much to our time here in Nepal. You meet lots of people in life, but really only a handful of them stand out. Manish is truly an awesome person, and we are very hopeful to return to Nepal in the future and trek the Annapurna Circuit with him. And yes, tears flowed today as I had to tell him goodbye.


Final Thoughts On Nepal

So, we are at the end of our time in Nepal, which we are profoundly sad about. This country has joined the short list of countries we hope to someday revisit, as one of our favorites. Tomorrow, we will board a flight that will take us through New Delhi and Hong Kong en route to Taipei. We'll spend a little over a week in Taiwan before flying on, to Fiji. That is a recent development, because upon researching tickets, I saw that we faced an 18-hour layover in Singapore if we flew from Taipei to Auckland, New Zealand. For no additional cost, we are flying through Fiji, where we will spend two full days laying on the beach before continuing on to NZ. We won't be stranded for some terrible layover that way.

We have had a very laid back series of days after ending our trek. We stayed an extra two days in Pokhara, because it is so much calmer and cleaner than Kathmandu. It is a different kind of city. The first day, we rented a rowboat and spent well over four hours struggling around Phewa Lake. We managed to row all along its border; getting to the far end was pretty easy, but then we realized that we had to return, and by the time we cranked our way back to the dock, we were pretty worn out. Maybe that is why we did absolutely nothing the next day. We read books in the sun, on the patio of our hotel, for most of the day, leaving only to find food and tea. Hard life, I know.

Our return to Kathmandu was yesterday. Earlier, I wrote that the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara is pretty well-maintained. For a developing country, it really is, but it still has plenty of bumps and potholes. The difference from our first trip to our return trip was that on our return trip, we had a bus with no shocks. Needless to say, it wasn't the best ride of my life, more like eight hours going down washboard road. It was interesting watching the life go on outside the window, though, so that kept my attention. We arrived into Kathmandu mid-afternoon, and resettled into our hotel. Of course, we went back to the steakhouse for some juicy burgers, mainly because you get a nice Irish coffee free after your meal. That is a big perk in a country with a poor (and expensive) beer selection.

Today has been a very special day for us. I wrote earlier that we'd gotten along well with our guide, Manish, on our trek, and at the end of the trek we took him and our porter Dep out for a pizza lunch in Pokhara. We were all sad to say our goodbyes, and Manish invited us to visit him at his home for a tea. Perhaps he didn't know we are the kind of people to will take up such an offer, because he sounded a bit surprised when we Skyped him last night to tell him that we were back in Kathmandu and hoped to see him and to meet his family. He extended his invitation, though, and early this morning he arrived outside our hotel to take us back to his home.

Being with Manish, we decided it was just the opportunity to experience the local transportation, which is always one of our goals in a new country or city. Here, figuring out which bus or matatu (minivans that ebbs and flows with passengers) go on their particular routes is very confusing, in a large part because most of the routes are written in Nepali (which looks like Hindi), and the boy who hangs out the door calling out future stops rarely speaks English. Besides that, we can't pronounce anything right here, so we can't even ask, even if we knew where we wanted to go. So, of course, it was a perfect time to test the public transport. Our first vehicle, which took us to Manish's neighborhood, was a bus. It wasn't a big bus like the tourist bus that travels to Pokhara and other cities, nor the colorfully painted regional buses that dangerously lurch along country roads. This was even smaller, more like a short bus, painted green and looking the part of the vehicle that plies the dusty, potholed streets of this crazy city, which is to say that it is pretty beaten up. We found three seats in the back, and the experience was on. With the four six lanes of traffic struggling down streets designed for two lanes, traffic didn't move very fast, so I had plenty of time to watch out the window. We very quickly left Thamel, and entered the real Kathmandu. This city, filled with more than an estimated million inhabitants, is incredibly bizarrely designed. Half of the city appears half done, like an orgy of building was started and then left unfinished when the money ran out. Rebar pokes out the top of many buildings like whiskers along with the starting of the next floor, either hoping for someday to be continued or perhaps just because they realized they had reached the end of their design. Piles of rubble and broken brick lay next to partly demolished walls and buildings that obviously once had another outside layer; Manish explained that they've been planning to widen many roads for a long time. Other than frequently being narrow and tall (four or five stories), most residential buildings have no common design and are many dozens of different colors. Manish explained this by saying that most people design their own buildings, leading to such a varied landscape.

At the street level, life goes on in many interesting ways. Small garage-like shops sell any range of goods or hold repair shops for motorbikes, autos, tools, whatever. People eat their lunches in cafes sitting next to butcher shops with huge sides of meat hanging in the open air. Vegetables salesmen bless their wares by poking sticks of incense into an old head of lettuce to create a thick perfumed cloud. Dogs, some tattered and some robust but all dirty, scurry amongst the rushing buses and bikes and tuktuks, in a decidedly poor environment for dogs, given all the wheels of danger. Temples and stupas and small monuments to both Buddha and a multitude of Hindu deities sit in the middle of squares or hide in dark corners. People walk along the tight streets doing their business, or sit talking to their friends, or sip tea and look surprised when they see a blonde, bearded goon looking out the window of a beaten bus. In other words, Kathmandu is, in general, much like the crazy bustling cities of many other developing countries. It is both exhilarating and allergy inducing, fascinating and stinky.

We rode the bus to the end of its route, which was at the Kopan monastery. Situated on the top of a hill looking out over a much less busy and polluted valley of the city, it is like an oasis of quiet and peacefulness. Young little Buddhist monks stream around its grounds, but the top of the hill is a grassy knoll where a picnic would be perfect for reflection and a break from the city. My nose stopped running in the fresher air at its top, where the pollution was much less. We spent about a half hour walking around the grounds before heading down into the surrounding neighborhood to Manish's home. We wandered through a neighborhood that though it had dirt streets and its empty lots were strewn with trash, it was quiet, safe, and instead of buzzing motorbikes and honking horns, all around were the sounds of children playing and of people going about their lives. I was glad to see that there was this kind of neighborhood in Kathmandu. There is a strange trend the most visitors have during their visits to this city: they feel safer in Thamel, with all of its Western influences and North Face knockoffs, so they spend their entire time in that neighborhood, but doing so, they end up spending their time in the most hectic, loud, and the least Nepali part of the city. That is just unfortunate for them.

So, we were pretty lucky to have Manish to take us out of Thamel. As we neared his home, he seemed a bit nervous, starting to apologize for the trash that lay all around us. We stopped him, telling him that instead of being the fault of the people, it was a failure of the government, for what good is putting trash in a can if system exists to come to take it away? I found myself wondering the thoughts going through Manish's head: he was an experienced guide who has seen the lifestyles and manner of dress, as well as heard descriptions of developed countries, from many Western tourists, so he has a much better idea of the world that Jess and I come from than the typical Nepali. Yet, somehow the two of us made him feel comfortable enough to open his home to us, which was a huge honor for us. Really, a massive honor.

We arrived at his building, a standard looking K-du multilevel building, and took us to the second floor. There, he, his wife, and his two children live in a single room the size of a standard bedroom in most home in the US. They have two beds, as well as a cooking setup with a couple of burners, a table, and a cabinet for dishes. There isn't running water inside their home, they share a toilet and sink with the other families living on their floor, which there seemed to be four in total, and dishes and clothing are washed in tubs outside. He explained that this was a typical living arrangement for Nepali people, especially for those living in the city. His home was very neatly kept, clean and bright from two large windows. His children were very energetic and some of the happiest kids I've seen, and his wife seemed pleasant and kind, though she didn't speak much English. They served us tea, and then to our surprise, they filled two plates with dal bhat, the vegetarian rice dish that is the main dish of Nepal, often eaten for all meals. Dep, our porter, had also arrived after us, and he, the kids, and Manish ate with us; Manish's wife kept filling my plate until I left a little there to make it plain that I was finished. After eating, we sat and talked with Manish, laughing while his kids, seven and four, ran around and climbed all over him. They showed us their exams from school (with his wages from guiding, Manish is able to send them to a private school, where they get a much better education than at the government schools). I was floored looking at the exams. Their four year old daughter was already learning both English and Nepali (pages of questions were intermittently in English and Nepali), could write out the entire English alphabet, could not only count to 30 but could fill in omitted gaps between numbers, and had a remarkably steady hand at coloring in spaces and tracing designs. There was more, too. It was amazing. When I was five, I went to kindergarten, where I learned to sit still long enough to have the teacher read to us, and to raise my hand. We also raised some butterflies; other than that, I didn't get much out of it. Here, in Nepal, they are giving children an intense, bilingual education, and as smart as that little girl is, she ranked third in her class, so they all are getting such an education. At 33, I speak less of a second language than little Sanmina and her brother Samjot (I just killed their names, too).

Eventually, the kids were getting tired, and it was time for us to move on. After our farewells to his family, Manish went with us to find transport, which was in the form of what I call the matatu (a term I picked up in Kenya; every developing country has these little minivans, which fill far beyond capacity, and here I was a little surprised no one tried climbing on the top, like they do with the buses). We caught the matatu early in its route, so it was fairly empty, but soon it was packed to the gills, people standing in between seats (it's a short minivan) or sitting on the laps of others, or even hanging out the door, as a few brave young guys did. Being more cramped, it wasn't as comfortable as the bus, but it took its time getting through the neighborhoods, so we had plenty to look at. Students getting on board took advantage us our (likely unlikely) presence and practiced their English, asking questions and throwing in the word "like" as much as possible; they've watched too many movies from the, like, 90s, I guess.

One thing that was apparent on our ride back to Thamel (and present for every moment of our time in Nepal) is the poverty that hangs on the back of this country like the nappy monkeys of the Monkey Temple. It is everywhere, you cannot escape it or avoid it. This is a country where the average yearly income of people is $440. Stop reading for a second, look around your room, and find an item that cost $450; that represents a year's worth of money for the average person here; on the other hand, many people here make less than that. By some estimates, half of the population is unemployed, and a third lives below the poverty line, meaning they make less than $1 a day. On top of this, there is the caste system, which Manish spent a fair amount of time telling us about, which isn't as strong as the caste system of India but is still crippling for many people. The resulting standard of living is something that is frequently a topic of discussion among travelers, but we can't begin to imagine what life is like here. To see Manish's home, and to realize that he makes relatively good money compared to many others, is very educational; even more stunning is the realization that the population here in Kathmandu has doubled in the last decade as people come here to escape the harsher poverty of rural life. People here have a hard life, there is no doubt about it, and for Jess and I, it caused us to look at our own lives, at the materialistic impulses that we have along with much of the Western world. If nothing else, it has caused us to appreciate everything we have, the opportunities that literally make themselves available for us, the standard of living and the quality of life that we enjoy.

For a bit of humor to enhance my point, realize that much of the developing world does not use toilet paper after going to the bathroom. They also do not eat or shake hands with their left hand. These two things are closely related.

Back in Thamel and our at our hotel, we finally had to bid farewell to Manish. Jess cried a bit, Manish and I even hugged, something I have not seen yet in Nepal before. He shook our hands many times, turned down our offers for tea because he needed to get back to his family, and like that, Manish was gone. Since Nepal is now on our short list, though, we have strong hopes of seeing him and his family again.

Until next time, be safe.


January 27, 2012

Photos From Around Florence - Lucca & Pisa

These are from the two little areas we visited near Florence, from Pisa and the small city of Lucca.

Building along river in Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Cathedral in Lucca

Buildings in Lucca

Countryside near Lucca

Until next time, be safe.



Photos From Florence

Here are photos from Florence.

The "Fake David" outside the Uffizi Museum, Florence

Lion statue, Piazza della Signoria, Florence

Reflections of Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Florence

Hills above Florence

Overlooking Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

Another view from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence

Ponte Vecchio Bridge at night, Florence

View from Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Florence

Until next time, be safe.


January 25, 2012

Trekking Around Annapurna

We have just finished our trek in the Annapurna region, and believe me, it was spectacular. I would say that it will turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip, and a great memory for years to come.

Let me start back on the 17th, our last full day in Kathmandu. There wasn't much to say about the day, we mostly spent it exploring around Thamel and trying to get outside of that backpacker's district into the real city a bit. It wasn't hard to get out of bed, our room didn't have any heating, so it got down to about 45F during the night. Even better was the morning waking service the hotel offered, in the form of the ice cold shower I took. You might have heard a shrill scream echoing through the high atmosphere, maybe a bit like a schoolgirl. That was just me.

Exploring Kathmandu is interesting, but a bit on the intense side, as in right in your face. Walking through narrow passageways and down stairs didn't mean that we could avoid the crazy motorbikes, nor that they might slow down a bit. Watching your step anywhere in the city is crucial, if clean soles are important to you, and like many other cities in the developing world, the various aromas (or perhaps the combination of many of them) is less than fragrant. Still, once we left Thamel, the city was fascinating. We wandered through long, winding streets, clouds of incense and cooking smoke puffing the air around us. We ducked through a Nepali-height (i.e. short) doorway and found a quieter courtyard of an apartment complex, kids and moms sitting around in the sun, brightly-dyed fabrics hanging to dry, scruffy dogs chasing each other. Small temples and pavilions, both Buddhist and Hindu, popped out from many unexpected corners. We managed to follow the walking tour in our Lonely Planet guide, more or less, and found the main square in the city, a place of many temples and palaces, but the $10 per person admission fee just to walk around the square was a little too steep, and the temples not interesting enough after seeing dozens of free ones, so we instead opted to go to the so-called Monkey Temple. It goes by a real name, of course, but by calling it the Monkey Temple, we quickly had a taxi driver understand where we wanted to go; my Nepali is actually nonexistent. My bargaining for the taxi price didn't go well for me, as the driver was more than happy to stick around after dropping us off to take us back to Thamel. Still, the ride was great, taking us along the crowded, busy streets of Kathmandu, up hills that offered views down into the various valleys leading from the higher hills. Once we arrived at the Monkey Temple, we were faced with a daunting hill climb to the top, where a number of temples and stupas sit, looking out over the city. We made it to the top, considering the brisk walk a warm-up to our upcoming trek, and looked around the temple grounds. There certainly are monkeys there, scabby, nappy yellow ones that leap around and terrify tourists by threatening infectious scratchings. I wasn't too impressed by the monkeys, they are much more interesting from a distance, not when you look up and find yourself face to face with a scowling monkey scratching a festering sore and getting ready to claw your eyes, but the view from the grounds was great. Kathmandu is a sprawling city, and the noise, the bustle, and the general sensory abundance of the city reach the summit of the hill. For our slap of reality on the way down from the temple grounds, a young boy sat on the steps, begging from people passing by, holding what appeared to be a dead infant in what might have been attempts to get more money. Wealthier Nepali or Indian people stopped to give him a hard time about the tactic, which he ignored; I was less worried about their shock and wondered more about the mind of a child finding himself sitting on steps begging with a dead baby.

Back in Thamel, we spent the rest of the day browsing outdoor stores for a few supplies for our trek. On our way to our hotel room, a man had stopped me by pointing out the the sole on my show was separating from the rest of the shoe. He did have a valid point, and of course he happened to be a shoe repairman, pulling a tube of glue and a thick needle and string from his knapsack. My shoes were once Gore-Tex, back two years ago when I bought them, and they still sometimes keep out water, so I was hesitant to let him go at my shoes with the big needle, but despite my request he simply glue the sole, the next thing I knew he was sewing along. I figured he couldn't ruin my shoes anymore than they were, already being deteriorated and all, so when he assured me that water wouldn't leak through the puncture holes, I let him continue. He told me about his family, his number of kids, and eventually told me about his house, which apparently is a canvas or fabric tent somewhere in the city (not very big, he told me, which could have gone without saying). I believed him, as he invited me to tour his neighborhood and to have tea with his family, and I didn't argue with the $10 he wanted for a bit of glue and some sewing; he needed the money more than I did. Plus, he did a fine job sewing my shoes; they didn't leak once during our six days of hiking in the mountains.

We found the supplies that we thought we might use, a liner jacket for myself, a pair of shoes to replace Jess's, both of which had entirely split soles, a walking stick, iodine tabs. We met our tour guide, a young, shy man named Mannish, and discussed our itinerary, then went back to organize our packs, leaving about half of our belongings with the hotel. Since we had been advised to avoid any meat products on the trail due to issues with hygiene, we went to a steakhouse to stock up on protein, then called it a day. The next morning we were outside waiting at 6:30 for our guide, who walked us out of Thamel and to the nearby bus depot, where we boarded a "tourist" bus. It is called this to differentiate it from the smaller, more crowded regional buses, not just because it was packed with tourists. There were a few of us on the bus, but mostly there were Nepalis on board; the good thing about the bus was that it didn't stop to pick up other passengers, instead going directly to Pokhara. The ride itself took about eight hours, partly because more than a hour was required just to get out of the smoggy, crowded roads of Kathmandu itself. It was a beautiful drive, though, along a surprisingly well-maintained road, passing along the contours of hills, past villages and terraces barren for the winter. We both stayed awake almost the entire time, to see as much of the route as we could. We did stop several times, including for lunch, and after seeing the chicken they offered with the buffet dinner, I decided to start my meatless diet a little early. Eventually, we arrived in Pokhara, a much smaller city that, as the primary city to leave for the Annapurna mountain range, is pretty much a cleaner, quieter version of Thamel. We checked into our hotel and spent the rest of the day strolling around the city and along its lakefront, which boasts great views of snowcapped mountains in the distance.

We were up the next morning early, the belongings we would take on the trek weaned even more and packed into a single bag. We had a porter for our trek, which is something of an unfamiliar concept for me, especially as we weren't going to be doing anything more arduous than hike in the hills, with bags that had half of their usual weights. I wasn't sure how the porter would carry the bag, but we made sure everything we needed was in a single bag; Jess carried a small daypack for the things we might need along the trail during each day. We had a little breakfast, and a car was waiting for us by 8:30 to take us into the hills. (To clarify, the definitions of Nepali topography is considerably different than US standards. For example, anything under 3000 meters (9842 ft) is considered small foothills, anything under 4000m (about 13,000 ft) is foothills, anything up to 6000m (19,700 ft) are mountains, and to 8000m (more than 26,000 ft) are considered peaks. To be considered a summit, a mountain must be greater than 8000m, such as Annapurna I and Everest. This means that we only crossed the line into regular foothills at the end of our trek, for about an hour; the rest of the time we were under 3000m.)

So, we drove out of Pokhara, for about 45 minutes through wide expanses of dry rice paddies, to a little spot in the road called Phedi. This area, including Pokhara, is almost subtropical, with lots of vegetation and greenery, and a temperature of probably better than 60F. We set off from Phedi, straight up a long series of stairs that took us a little more than an hour to finish; we'd been warned about this incline, and I wrongly assumed it would be the most serious set of stairs we would have to climb. In reality, this incline was simply the introduction to the rest of the stairs, and was actually dwarfed by later stair climbs. At this time, we got to see our porter Dep in action; he carried our bag, which was probably a good 30 or more pounds, on his back, and carried his own in front. Although his pack was much smaller and lighter, he still had a lot of weight to carry, and we felt very bad for him, especially on this initial stair climb. He sort of huffed and puffed his way up, leading us to think he perhaps was ill. I felt so bad I bought him a Snickers at the top; as it turns out, Dep was more than capable for the job, and compared to many of the other loads we saw, especially those destined to the Annapurna Base Camp, he probably was glad to only have our bag.

So, with that incline, our trek was off and going. Hiking in the Himalayas certainly means that there will be many ups and downs; as the Nepali say, a little up and a little down. For people who have walked along the hillsides their whole lives, it must seem so ordinary; for me, it was like the Stairmaster from hell. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of times we had a nice even grade; sometimes we had even five minutes at a time of flat surface to walk along, and those times were heaven, walking along like a true hike through the woods. The rest of the time, we found ourselves tromping up and down stairs, which were frequently unevenly placed stones. Our first couple of days we mostly went up, but the third day we started at the top of the hill in a valley, walked down a seemingly never-ending set of stairs to a suspension bridge at the river below, and then climbed to the same elevation on the opposite side; it could not have been less than a 2500 foot elevation change. This is the recipe for very sore legs, which we both had from the first day on.

On the other hand, it was easy to be very distracted by the ups and downs of the scenery that was unfolding in front of us. The landscape changed frequently, from valley to valley, from one elevation to the next. We might start the morning in a broad valley with hills lined with terraces that followed the contours of the hills, some brown with the winter break, others vibrantly green with winter wheat and other vegetables. Later that same day we might cross through a lush forest of rhododendrons covered in moss and orchids, or through narrow valleys along streams crashing from rock to rock. We passed through many small villages, some of which were obviously very active in the tourist trade that had customers streaming by in high season, while others were seemingly as unaffected as possible except for the ubiquitous windows that held the most cherished backpacker necessities: candy bars, soda, Pringles, and bottles of water; Nepalis are nothing if not inventive in their ways to supply passing tourists with opportunities to part with their money. Buildings in the villages ranged from plywood shacks set up as stores for hikers to ancient buildings styled in a simple but effective fashion for the harsh environment of the hills. In the lower elevations, we passed through many areas of habitation, terraces and villages covering the hills, and as we climbed higher these areas lessened and natural forests replaced them. Still, even at the highest points we reached, we still frequently passed many Nepali people, lugging huge loads along the hillside paths, most with the packs hung from straps across their foreheads. Firewood, pipes and rebar, bags of grain and corn: the people themselves are frequently the only means of transporting goods among the high villages. We even saw a village ambulance, which was a man carrying another injured man on his back, staggering up a hill towards a village with a health center. It is a rough life these people live, for sure.

Each day we had a goal set in mind, which were the guesthouses that the Nepalis refer to as teahouses. These teahouses are hotels that offer meals and a basic bed; they range from extremely rustic to just plain spartan. Still, it is more comfortable than sleeping in a tent on the frozen ground. Our first teahouse, in Pothana, was one of the more rustic ones we stayed in; while the windows that faced the front of the hotel on the wall with our room's door had glass windows, the back window was closed with nothing but a couple of wood shutters. During the night, a storm blew in, bringing with it the only rain we had on our trek. The draft came straight in through the gap between the boards, and while I was able to diminish the wind using the raincover for our backpack, our room still was about 36F that night. For the next couple of nights, our rooms were a bit warmer, in the mid-40s, but by the time that we reached the highest town that we would stay in, Ghorepani, which sits at just under 3000m, room temperatures in the mid-30s were expected. We just piled on the blankets and wore our thermals to bed, it was actually not bad. I guess if we'd been staying in hotels with heating, it would have just diminished the whole feeling of the trip. After all, we were hiking in the Nepali Himalayas, and as I told a Aussie couple who were telling us their water bottles had frozen in their room, you don't come here to be warm and comfortable. I read the book Into Thin Air, about the ill-fated Everest season in 1996 during which 12 people died, during the trek, and the descriptions of the conditions that people endure on mountains that we were literally hiking around made our hotel rooms seem downright balmy.

Probably my favorite day was our hike between Tadapani and Ghorepani, the fourth day. It was a bit of a challenging day, because much of the day was spent hiking in snow, though because we were heading uphill, it was easier. People going the other direction had to deal with very slippery trails for their whole day's hike, while we didn't have any downhills until we nearly reached Ghorepani. I loved the day for two reasons: first, much of the day we spent in isolation, with not another traveler in sight, in silent little gorges and canyons that were a frozen wonderland of powder snow and some tough subtropical plants such as ferns and the rhododendrons. The scenery was just fantastic, and though it was cold, being in that forest was so refreshing for our minds and spirits. The other reason was that it was fun: by then, we'd gotten to know our guide Mannish very well, and found that he is a very funny guy. I'm sure with more mature tourists, he has to act more professional, but we made it clear from the beginning that we are very easygoing, and soon he'd let his guard down, showing us that although he is very professional, proficient, and an excellent guide, he was also a fun guy to be walking through the woods with. By the time we reached the downhill towards Ghorepani, he and I were skiing in our boots down the steep, icy sections, and we even got off trail for a bit of sledding, using a trash bag as a sled. We had loads of fun playing in the snow, which was only made better by the brilliant weather we had that day.

Despite the single rainy, muddy morning we experienced, the primitive squat toilets, and the one icy shower that I took before swearing off the concept of cleanliness for the rest of the trek, and most probably because of these things, our trek had tons of experiences and memories. Mannish figured out quickly that Jess likes birdwatching and that I take a lot of pictures, so he spent more time than necessary finding new birds for us to see, and he purposely would choose the villages that we spent nights for the views that we'd have in the evenings or the mornings (hence that icy night in Pothana, which had an awesome view of several peaks). It was a bit strange having someone cater to us so much, but because we had a total of seven days to talk with Mannish, we learned so much about Nepali culture and people that we couldn't possibly have otherwise. He even encouraged us to go up Poon Hill from Ghorepani, a climb of over 450m in the predawn dark, to witness the sunrise over a panorama view of Himalayan peaks and summits (three of the mountains were over 8000m), despite our misgivings over the subfreezing temperatures and the icy path, knowing that we be thrilled by that early morning experience. He was right, we were thrilled.

Our last day was quite somber, each of walking quietly, Jess and I sad that the trek was over for sure, and perhaps Mannish was as well, for it seemed as though he really did like us. Jess and I were dirty, our legs hurt, and we hadn't been warm since leaving Pokhara, but we were so happy on the trek, and it was over far too quickly.

Until next time, be safe.


January 24, 2012

Photos From Venice

Here are photos from our time in Venice. Again, these photos are straight out of the camera, with no post-production work done, so lighting isn't always great

Gondalas in the Grand Canal, Venice

A shaded canal, Venice

Boats in a canal, Venice

Sunset over the Grand Canal, Venice

Another sunset shot, Grand Canal, Venice

Looking down the Grand Canal, Venice

Piazza San Marco, Venice

Buildings on the Grand Canal, Venice

Near north end of Grand Canal, Venice

Afternoon along a canal, Venice

Jess and I near the south end of Venice

The lagoon outside the center of Venice

Until next time, be safe.


Photos From Germany

So, I finally have put photos from Europe onto DVDs, and here are just a few of them from our Christmas in Munich. Please keep in mind these are straight from the camera, no adjustments in lighting have been possible.

Weimaraners begging in Munich

Christmas stalls in one of markets

Christmas lights in Salzburg

Until next time, be safe.


January 16, 2012

First Impressions Of Kathmandu

We arrived late yesterday evening into Kathmandu, following a long flight from Rome that included little emperors kicking the backs of our seats on one flight as well as a four hour layover in the airport of Doha, Qatar, which held a microcosm of much of the world's culture in its tiny terminal. Needless to say, we were glad to be off of the plane, and not yet aware of what to expect from Nepal.

First of all, let me explain my imaginative impressions of what I thought we could expect from Kathmandu, all of which were not accurate in any way. I had this idea of Nepal where people were in the sort of tranquility one might expect outside the walls of a tranquil Buddhist monastery in the high Tibet mountains. I'm not terribly misguided, I understand that Nepal is essentially the northern part of India, and as such is much more like India than Nepal. There is this idea that I had, though, that regardless there was a more tranquil sense of humanity here, perhaps from the pictures of grinning Sherpas you see with the guys who just reached the summit of Everest. Ok, maybe I am misguided.

So, to start, let me put in a little details that reach back to Rome. There, scattered around the city but concentrated around the Coliseum and other big tourist areas, were these guys who we figured were probably from India or Bangledesh, selling various souvenirs. The souvenirs were an odd choice, in my mind, because they were mostly of two types: first, these jelly blobs like the kind I used to buy back when I was six that can be thrown against the wall, where they will splat and then reform to their blob shapes again; and second, these little clear plastic squares that had tiny models of the Coliseum and other Roman monuments imbedded in them, that would apparently light up with a button. The little squares I could understand, as they actually correlated to the surrounding tourist destinations. However, the blobs, which far outnumbered the squares, made no sense, and neither did the look the sellers gave you as they threw the blobs at a piece of plywood on the ground and then motioned with an open hand of amazement at the splat that resulted, an expression that hoped that you would too be amazed, despite having just passed ten men doing exactly the same thing. There was no business logic in it either, since the men all were clumped together and trying to sell the same unsellable item; why not sell something different, or spread out? I won't bore you with my theories, and besides, I'm getting off track.

So, fast forward to the airport terminal in Doha, where we found ourselves in a long line of men lining up to to board our plane to Kathmandu. Suddenly we realized there was a possibility that those men in Rome were actually Nepali, though they could certainly also have been Indian (remember that Nepal is more than just a physical neighbor of Nepal, but it also shares a lot of its culture and ethnicity from its northern regions with Nepal). We found out later that a lot of Nepali men end up going to places in the Middle East such as the UAE, Dubai, and yes, Doha, to work on the huge construction boom as well as for other employment. We apparently paid a bit more than those men, since they were segregated to the back of the plane, behind the wings, while the tourists and more wealthy Nepali people got the seats in the front. That was a bit awkward to me, but then we were on Qatar Airlines, where they picked up the business class passengers in a limo and made all of us economy class fliers wait until the first class people were gone before making us exit out the back door, so I guess we were segregated as well. Don't get me started on the distinct levels of class that one finds in societies such as Qatar, where everyone except men in turbans are discriminated against. That is why I prefer not to have to fly through places like Qatar and Dubai, as no apologies are even considered for how they look down on much of the world.

Anyhow, we arrived in Kathmandu, and found that the customs process was much easier and smooth than we'd heard. We were through in less than a half hour, and exited to the baggage claim to find that our bags had indeed arrived from Rome. We picked them up and headed out into the main area of the terminal, where all of the public is allowed. Immediately, we were approached by taxi touts. This isn't new for us, nor unexpected, but it was annoying because they were very persistent, following us along as we looked for an ATM. I had to shake them off, because I didn't want to have to withdraw money in the presence of fifteen touts. Once we had money, we exited the building to an even larger group of touts. We looked around, hoping our hotel had sent a taxi, but eventually began to ask the cost of the ride to our hotel. They started out at 500 rupees and refused to budge; Jess, who looks to negotiate, began trying to talk them down to 300 or 400 rupees, but they seemed offended we would even try. They talked about the cost of petrol, the pothole filled streets, painting a vivid picture of the desperate lives of the airport taximen. Finally, as a group started to congregate, including several cops who seemed highly entertained by our bargaining efforts, we decided to just pay the 500 rupees, which is really only about $6.50, and off we headed into Kathmandu.

So, I sat in the front seat of the taxi, which was this little red square minibus, which gave me quite the view of our tour of the city. This perhaps was a mistake, as traffic in Kathmandu is exactly what you expect in the capital city of a developing world: absolutely crazy. Of course I knew this, deep down, even though I was still in the midst of my delusions of the Tibetan paradise. Had I been honest, I probably would have sat in the back, because I've been in traffic in enough crazy cities to not need a front row seat. The difference between Kathmandu and Rome is that while Romans drive like suicidal maniacs, they drive in a city with traffic rules, only that they are almost entirely ignored. In Kathmandu, there are no rules: traffic flows in the direction that seems the fastest, while motorbikes, cars, and even bicycles dart through breaks in the traffic in a perpetual race to be the fastest on the road. Folks cross at whim, some without any apparent knowledge that they are in traffic, and traffic does not slow down for them, only swerves. Two lanes road become four or six lane as needed, and inches really do matter, as they are the measurement between most vehicles and other characters in that mad show. Our driver talked and laughed with me the entire time, following a fashion and custom of driving accepted and followed by all of the surrounding drivers, but unknown to me. But, as it wasn't my first time in such traffic, I accepted that while severe consequences were possible, they were unlikely since the driver went through those conditions every day he worked, and both Jess and I were relaxed and enjoyed the trip. Imagining being in a movie can be quite helpful, if delusional.

Along the way, we received our first glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants of Kathmandu, and it was quite eye-opening. I was very aware that Nepal is a developing country, but the amount of poverty that was apparent from our limited ride into the center from the airport made it obvious that Nepal has poverty on the same levels of countries we've visited like Kenya and Cambodia. The traffic kept our attention, but on the periphery, we could see piles of trash lining the road, buildings in utter disrepair, dark streets and windows, people standing around rubbish fires to keep warm. My ideas about Nepal melted away in the face of this reality; of course we were arriving at dusk, which isn't a good idea since shadows always make things seem worse than they are. Still, we could no longer imagine Kathmandu to be this city in the clouds, all ethereal and filled with clouds of incense (actually, the clouds of incense do exist, chokingly so). 

We soon arrived in the neighborhood of Thamel, the backpackers' neighborhood, a crazy mix of restaurants, guesthouses, shops and definite local characters. We had booked a hotel online, one that sounded great with descriptions of a fireplace, a balcony, deluxe beds, and hot showers. Our taxi driver swung through the center plaza of Thamel and began heading off away from it; then, alarmingly, he turned down a dark street and then onto another. My first impression was that it would unfortunate to have to walk along that road in the dark to go to and from our hotel. As it turned out, the word 'hotel' was far too generous for the hovel we arrived at. Walking into the dim reception room, we learned that the power was out (due to low rivers leading to low hydroelectric power output, we found out later), as it was for up to 14 hours a day in the city. However, a generator allowed us to check in and find our way up to the fourth floor, where our room awaited. We stopped in the doorway and immediately began planning an escape; even our little rural house in Kenya had been cleaner, more hospitable, and safer. The room, which literally had zero of the amenities described on Hotels.com, was a bare-walled affair, with three hard cots in the center, a broken window, a bathroom that just needed darkness for its army of very-likely cockroaches to come streaming out, and a simple chair tiredly sitting next to the door. Concrete floors and ceiling matched the plain walls, and a single bulb illuminated the room and kept away the roaches. We have fairly low standards when it comes to accommodation, and have stayed in some sketchy places, but this would have taken the award, and all we needed was an excuse to flee. Jess quickly developed an itch in her nose that we both knew would lead to a sinus infection, and boom, I was out the door, dodging the crazy motorcycles. It took me less than a half hour to return, jubilantly holding the key to an excellent hotel nearby, appropriately called Excelsior. Indeed. I won't say we ran out the door, but we didn't waste time. I thought of trying to get my $16 back (hey, it's Nepal, that is a standard cost), just out of principle, but the less time we spent there, the better.

Today has been smoother. Daylight makes the world seem much better. We were so worn out by the trip from Italy that we slept til noon (although that means it was 7am in Italy...so actually we got up really early). Our meal the night before had been at a steakhouse nearby our hotel, with an American style steak, much needed after the carb-loaded diet we'd had in Italy, so we were ready for a real Nepali meal. We wandered down some alleyways, fighting through the clouds of incense, avoiding the maniac motorcycles, before finding this little cafe serving up two types of food, both involving stir-fry veggies, one with noodles and the other with uncooked oats. With its three year old Fanta, its rough cut plywood table, and the kids' chairs that served as seating, it was exactly the place that a travel clinic nurse would tell us to avoid, and exactly the kind of place we zero in on. If you want a taste of the local cuisine, there is no better way. The food was actually excellent, a bit spicy, but it went down well. Granted, it had the Nepali standards--lentils, veggies, and noodles, which is pretty much the basic ingredient list of most of vegetarian Nepali dietary menus. We still enjoyed it, our first authentic meal in Nepal.

We wandered briefly through Thamel, though not for too long. The jet lag has been quite persistent with us, I'm not sure if it means we are getting older, or if starting a day at 8 am Italy time and ending it at 7 pm Italy time the next day is just simply exhausting, but we haven't had much energy to get out to do too much exploring. We did summon the strength to seek out a trek while we are here in Nepal. I'd researched some about different treks and had emailed a few recommended guides, but when we hadn't heard from them, we decided to visit a few local travel companies here in Thamel. The first one was a dud, the guy seemed surprised that we were wanting to go for a trek, but our second company was a score, and we booked an 8-day trip starting on the 18th. There will be two days of driving (to and from the city of Pokhara), and then we will be out hiking in the Annapurna region for six days. It promises to be incredible (and very cold), and even better, our travel company seems very professional and helpful. We are both looking forward to it, hoping it to be a highlight of our trip.

Until next time, be safe.


January 15, 2012

When In Rome...

Originally posted on Jess's Blog. Here is her original post.


Currently we are in route to Kathmandu.  We started out from Rome last night around 10:30 and had a tiring four hour layover in Qatar this morning.  Now we are on the final stretch and should be landing in Nepal in an hour or two.  We were both very sad to say farewell to Italy last evening as it has provided us with amazing travel experiences and memories to last for years to come.

We arrived into Rome Wednesday afternoon and made our way from the train station to our hostel.  The train station is the largest one that I have ever seen as we had to walk at least a mile from the train to the actual station entrance.  There were plenty of shady looking characters along our walk, but as we neared the hostel the area appeared a bit more bright and welcoming.  It turned out to be a fine location in a quiet Italian neighborhood away from the crowded touristy sites.  We quickly got settled into our basic four bed dorm and briefly took a rest on the roof top terrace before hitting the city streets.

My first impression of Rome was not great.  After coming from a slower pace in small town Italy, the city completely overwhelmed me with its many crowds and insane traffic.  Frequently there is no rhyme or reason to the pattern of traffic with motorbikes, cars and buses weaving through the congested streets, ignoring all rules and always competing to be first.  There is one monstrous roundabout in particular that we had to walk through at least twice daily during our visit.  There are four one way lanes with faintly painted crosswalks and not a stop sign in sight.  We usually managed to cross with a group of people to feel more protected.  The hostel receptionist told me that if I was hit while using the cross walk, we would be rewarded 8,000 Euros.  He made this sound like a pretty great way to earn a little extra spending money.  No thank you, but after a day or so I had adjusted pretty well and walked out into all sorts of oncoming traffic without
gripping at Aaron's coat sleeve in desperate fear.

That first afternoon we got plenty of walking in, but didn't actually visit any of the tourist attractions.  We enjoyed eating gelato (coconut and pistachio) as we past the Colosseum and the Forum along our way.  The evening was spent strolling alongside the Tiber River and visiting the quaint neighborhood of Travestere.  Travestere lies just across the Tiber and is a lovely old fashioned neighborhood full of piazzas, narrow cobblestone streets, small gelaterias, pubs, and plenty of older Italians.  We entered a small local hardware store looking for a corkscrew.  The ninety year old man working there was very suspicious of us, and came hobbling from behind the counter with a stick in hand ready to defend himself from the haggard long haired man standing before him.  Once he realized that Aaron was harmless and actually willing to pay for the corkscrew he became pleasant, speaking jovially in Italian with plenty of hand gestures.  He even threw in a free
bar of soap and thanked us profusely on our way out the door.  We weren't sure if he was trying to apologize or if he thought that we smelled.  From there we visited the ornate Basilica di Santa Maria, which according to our guide is the oldest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Rome, established in the third century.  We were in awe of high ceilings supported by twenty one ancient Roman columns, the colorful marble walls and floors, and the many paintings of Mary and Jesus.  Very Catholic and very impressive.  The long walk back to the hostel just about did us in for the night.  After a quick stop at the grocery store we made dinner of pesto and pasta, and we called it a night.

We had every intention of being out of bed by 8:30 the following morning, but we didn't actually make it out until a little after 10:00.  Our first stop was the Colosseum.  Because we are traveling in the off season the lines were very short, so we only had to wait for about five minutes to purchase our ticket and enter.  Also, before coming to Rome we downloaded Rick Steves' audio guide, which provided us with lots of interesting information about the main tourist attractions here.  Our tour of the Colosseum was amazing.  The weather was cooperative with moderate temperatures, and the cloudless sunny sky provided perfect views of the ancient stadium.  The enormity of this building is breathtaking in itself, and to think it was inaugurated in AD 80 is absolutely mind boggling.  The arched walls stand so high above, and back in the day they were adorned with various statues and ornate decorations.  On the ground level lies an intricate maze of small rooms and hallways that was considered the 'backstage' area, below what was once the actual staging floor.  For all the wonder and the amazing architecture of this structure, it was also astounding to learn about what occurred here.  The theme of the Colosseum was death.  Spectators in the stands drank wine and cheered as they watched their fellow man kill one another all day.  Prisoners were frequently dressed as various characters and brought on stage.  Here they were humiliated and made to act out the parts of past battles or fallen enemies, dying in the same fashion as the character they played.  Gladiators fought to the death.  Midway through a day of 'games,' the rotten stench of blood and death became so overpowering, they sprayed perfume all throughout in attempt to mask the horrid smells.  So, the Colosseum was most certainly an interesting place to visit, but we were both clearly reminded of the cruelty of humankind.

Our next stop was to The Forum, the city center of ancient Rome.  From afar, this area looks like a pile of rocks, but the combination of getting up close, learning from the audio guide, and using a bit of imagination allowed us visualize what it must have looked like back in the second or third centuries. It was interesting to imagine the main road leading through the heart of the city lined with various shops. The guide walked us through all of the significant routes, like Julius Caesar's place of death and tomb. The Palatine Hills above the Forum were where the upper class of ancient Rome resided. Even after all of the many centuries gone by and all that remains are shells of buildings, it is still obvious that this area was for the upper crust.

Our last tourist visit for the evening was to the Jewish Ghetto. Thanks to Rick Steves for providing a guide to this area because it turned out to be an interesting part of the city that we would have missed out on otherwise. The tour started on the Tiber River at Rome's largest synagogue. Sadly, this small neighborhood was frequently flooded by the river many years ago, which is why the Romans chose this place as the Jewish neighborhood. In the ancient times, the Jews were forced to walk through the Forum where they were laughed at and spit upon. We visited a square where several thousand Jews were selected to go to the concentration camps during World War 2; many didn't return. Today, the neighborhood no longer floods, thanks to renovations, and the locals here appear happy and healthy. There are plenty of kosher restaurants and shops, as well a a Jewish school.

After a very full day of walking and sightseeing, we had pasta at the hostel, and our evening spritz. These days we have felt a little on the older side, coming in early and being in bed by ten (at least me). So, after dinner we were determined to go out to a local pub for a beer. We downed a quick pint each and then made our way back to the hostel for what was still an early night.

Our second full day in Rome was spent at the heart of the Catholic Church, the Vatican. The walk to Vatican City was long and tiring but well worth it because it was a fine day. Our first stop at the Vatican was St. Peter's Basilica. After standing through a security line for about ten minutes, we entered this most impressive structure. After visiting many churches throughout our trip so far, we have seen some large and beautiful ones. This gleaming, massive cathedral beat them all, as even our audio guide described its size in terms of football fields. With its marble floors and columns, its walls and ceilings covered completely with paintings, and icons and statues everywhere, there was nothing dull or drab about this church. My favorite part of this tour was seeing Michelangelo's Pieta, his statue of Jesus and Mary. It was subtle but sublime.

The next big experience was our visit to the Vatican Museum. Their collection of art and various archaeological finds is most impressive, but after three hours of walking through endless hallways of statues leads to intense grumpiness. I really enjoy art museums, but even I was limping, and Aaron was staggering like a zombie by the end. It is almost too much, but fortunately the Sistine Chapel awaits at the end, and it is a spectacular sight. Michelangelo's ceiling of frescoes is considered his masterpiece, and it's easy to see why. The colorful frescoes that he painted while standing on scaffolds and straining his neck take you through God's creation to the story of Jesus. The alter wall is his later work, a depiction of Judgement Day, which is huge and scary. It was amazing how our backs stopped hurting after entering the Sistine Chapel. Aaron actually looked human again.

Following the Vatican, we found some much needed gelato around the corner. My pistachio, ricotta, and dark chocolate ice cream cone was perfect after a morning of museums. We continued on our walk, and wandered towards the Pantheon, and even found the Spanish Stairs. I had never even heard of the movie The Roman Holiday, so Aaron had to educate me on this apparent classic that takes place on the stairs. From there, we made it to the Pantheon, which is an amazing dome shaped, Roman era building. We also had an audio guide for this, which made it an interesting experience; it was especially interesting to see the painter Raphael's tomb after seeing his work throughout the city. Before heading to dinner, we sat in the piazza of the Pantheon and took in the crisp evening air. Throngs of people out and about, enjoying the final few minutes of daylight while musicians played various instruments and artists painted the scene in front of us. We were just trying
to take it all in before leaving.

Our final day in Italy involved wrapping things up, doing a few business chores, and eating one more slice of pizza before making our way to the airport. About an hour before we left for the train station, I just happened to look up and see a tour bus full of nuns in their traditional garb, snapping pictures and taking in the sights. It was a classic moment. We have loved Italy and all that it has had to offer us. From the quiet canals of Venice to the beautiful artwork in Florence, from the rugged cliff sides of Cinque Terre to the busy excitement of Rome, we have enjoyed every moment. We have also eaten our way through the country and will refuse to eat pizza anywhere else on this trip. It has spoiled us rotten, and it will make our entry into Nepal that much more different.

Nepal, here we come!

January 12, 2012

The Ancient City of Perugia

Greetings from Rome. We have had two epic days now of walking, about 25,300 steps yesterday per our pedometer, and 33,000 today. But that is something for another entry, so, I will talk about our brief visit to the medieval city of Perugia. 

Traveling by train in Italy isn't as quick and efficient as one might think, at least when traveling on a route that doesn't have the high speed bullet trains. Often, there are multiple changes, which always makes for slower travel. Going from Cinque Terre to Perugia was no exception; we were three different trains, all of which were regional trains that stopped in most little towns. That made our trip to Perugia, for what appears to be a short distance by map, take over four hours. One side note of wisdom for those who might travel to Italy, and might find themselves on a short train ride such as the Florence-Pisa route: you must get your ticket stamped, or face up to a €50 fine. There isn't a noticeable sign anywhere in stations, nor do the tickets or the salespeople tell you so much. In what appears to be a big scam, conductors roam the aisles, looking for the folks who forget to get their tickets stamped, which are invariably tourists. It is a double system, as not only do you buy specific tickets and have them clipped by conductors, but illogically you must get this tiny stamp from a machine that of course is not on the trains, only at stations. We found this out the hard way, on New Years, but the conductor, perhaps in a celebratory mood, only charged us €5. On our way to Perugia, on between Pisa and Florence, the conductor nailed four separate groups of protesting tourists, raking in €200 in our car alone. It made me mad just to watch it, because it is really unfair. My sympathy for this country's financial woes diminished greatly watching her harass one group after another. Boo, Italy, you should know better than targeting your tourists with unfair fines.

Anyhow, we arrived shortly before dark into Perugia. Ou first sight after getting off the train was truly mind-boogling: the elevated MiniMetro going up into this hilltop city. Believe me, they are definitely needed, as hiking the 1.5km from the station to the center (probably with a 2000ft elevation gain) would be cruel and intense. So they have installed this metro type system. Hilariously, they have these tiny little cars, silvery metallic, rounded and shaped a lot like spaceships. They are hilarious to look at, very cute, and yet they area immensely useful. After my initial laugh, I was nothing but impressed.

Thusly, we were delivered to the top, right into the center. The view was incredible, but we had our packs and were tired from a day on the train. We vaguely had had a little hotel in mind near the center, and so we headed in that direction. We have a lot less stuff than we had on our last big trip, but oddly our packs feel much heavier. We trudged through the center and started down a passageway that we hoped would take us to those selected hotel. Before we arrived, though, we came across a sign that read Albergo Anna, which was also in our guide. We decided since it was the first place we had found, it must be right, so we popped in, making our time in Perugia truly unforgettable.

We were greeted at the door by an older lady, presumably Anna, short and squat and distinctly Italian. Through hand motions and half-understood statements, we negotiated a room for €50, making it clear that the size and view didn't matter much to us. Once we settled on a room and put down our bags, we looked around at the place. It seemed to take up much of the fourth floor of a large building, with multiple rooms and large living quarters. It became obvious that the family lived there, probably six to ten of them, and someone had filled the place with knickknacks, in every corner, crevice, and in the many display cases. There was also loads of crystal and dishes, paintings ranging from contemporary to bizarre hung above it all, and old carpets lined the pathways. There seemed to be several living rooms, most with TVs, which all seemed to be on in the evening. It was a bizarre arrangement, and difficult to believe that it was a hotel. It was like being at an eccentric relative's house, or perhaps more apt, at a senior citizen's center where the inhabitants all got to bring their collections. 

It might have all been too weird, except that the family was very nice. There were some real characters. Anna was like everyone's grandma, a universal relative who made sure you had better feel at home or else. An old man that I assumed was her husband shuffled through the house, as kind as he could be. He made sure to show us his brightly lit holiday manger scene, a mix of the the modern, the ancient, and a few random accents, such as a skyscraper and a tunnel with an electric car. We could hear him coming down the hallway in his loafers, and he always seemed a bit surprised when he came around the corner and saw us, as though he'd forgotten briefly that we were staying there. He'd smile, wave, and then turn on an extra light for us, even if it weren't needed. The rest of the family wasn't strange, but just themselves. We had the impression that we weren't staying in a hotel, but their home. It was great.

We stayed in Perugia for two nights, which was enough for us to see the whole of the city. It is a very old city in the ancient region of Umbria that really was the birthplace of the Italian civilization. Turning a corner or looking down a  narrow passageway, it was frequently obvious that most buildings in the center were very old, as well as beautifully preserved; indeed, a tremendous amount of history can be found in the region, beginning long before the Romans came around, and I was a bit disappointed that we didn't have the time to stop and really explore all around, to learn more about the history and the unique culture. Fortunately, I felt that during our day and a half of exploring the city, we managed to walk nearly all of its historic center. This city is built on a large hill, as I mentioned, and the views are breathtaking of the surrounding countryside. Ancient walls, medieval alleyways, and multiple churches gave us a full agenda for exploration for our time in the city, while its frequently sloping streets gave us a great workout. Fortunately, we found a pub that sold excellent as well as cheap food, as well as the cheapest beer we saw in Italy. In fact, the beer was almost exclusively strong, Trappist-style beers, such as the 9% Chimay from Belgium, which was sold for €3.80, about half of what it would sell for in the US. Since beer is very expensive in Italy, we have not really had much here, but we made up for our lacking at that pub. Sadly, it was closed our second night; we had looked forward to a plate of cheap pasta and a bottle of great strong beer all day.

We visited multiple churches, countless plazas, even some Estruscan era gates, but probably the highlight of the city was a circular church built in the 5th city. While relatively young compared to the Roman sites dating back to 500 BC or sites from other civilizations of even greater antiquity, this church had s simplicity and beauty, as well as a distinct feeling of what was a young, fervent faith in the days of its origin. We happened to arrive at the perfect time of day, the lighting spearing the shadows of the church, filling corners with a golden glow. It was beautiful, and best of all, we had the place to ourselves, yet again an example of the benefits of traveling this time of year.

Our time in Perugia passed by far too quickly, as we had to move on Rome. This would definitely be one of the areas of Italy that I would want to come back to and spend more time exploring, in particular if we were able to rent a car and check out the many small towns that are difficult to visit by public transport. Reading about them, it seems as though our three weeks we've had here in Italy could have been spent just in Umbria. Like everywhere else we've gone, I'm sure that is definitely the case.

Until next time, be safe.

January 09, 2012

Cinque Terre - Italy's Slow Country

We have just spent the last four nights in the little town of Riomaggiore, in the beautiful coastal region of Cinque Terre. I think that Jess and I both feel like we could have gotten off of a plane in Florence, jumped on a train here, and been very happy with our decision. That is how relaxing it has been here.

We arrived from Lucca to Riamaggiore on January 5th, after what turned out to be a very slow trip over a short distance. Somehow we ended up on three trains to go about two hours worth of traveling. To add to the stress of the trip, I needed money and had a strangely hard time finding an ATM in the stopover towns. Once we reached Riamaggiore, we realized that each little town in the Cinque Terre has an ATM, so it was an unnecessary stress.

Once we arrived, we found the guesthouse we had called from Lucca. That was our one disappointment our entire time in the area, because our room wasn't so great. It's small window looked out onto a wall, it was freezing and musty, and it didn't have any any kitchen facilities. We had already paid for a night, but we immediately went out looking for another place. For future reference and for those who might travel to Cinque Terre, it is quite easy to find rooms, we found an apartment very quickly, booked it for the following morning, and went on for the rest of our day.

The evening was upon us by then, it had taken far too long getting into town and checked in. So, we walked around Riamaggiore a bit, exploring its alleys and steep streets. The Cinque Terre is an area of coastland that is UNESCO protected, as it is a real jewel. There are four little towns along the coast, though several others can be found further up in the hills, which cascade steeply down into crashing waves and dizzying cliffs. The four towns, including Riamaggiore, cling to this hostile environment by backing up into ravines,  which seems like a bad idea given the likelihood of flash floods (actually in October 2011, horrible floods killed several people and severely damaged two of the town, to the point they are closed to visitors). The towns look like the inhabitants simply found a piece of land level enough to build on, and made up for the lack of acreage by building up, so that many buildings are three stories. Or a better way to describe the towns is if a giant shook out a box of buildings to spill down the walls of the gullies, and the buildings just happened to land upright. At any rate, they make for picturesque views. 

The streets of each town climb progressively from a central plaza-like main street that runs down the middle to smaller walkways that are sort of like alleys, building mazes behind the buildings for a few levels. Above that, this hillsides rise up to tree-lined ridges far above. These hillsides have been worked and carved into terraces for, according to some, over 1000 years; those terraces grow all sorts of agriculture, like grapes, olives, citrus trees, and other produce. This time of year, the vines are bare, and many of the terraces seem empty, but from pictures we saw, they are lush and green in the summertime.

We didn't get into the hills that evening, instead fully exploring Riamaggiore and then finding a walkway that followed the cliffside around to the next town, Manarola. The walkway clings to the cliff, jutting out over the crashing waves, and gives great view of the sunset. We didn't walk all of the way to Manarola but stopped midway to watch the sun drop below the horizon. Once it set,  we went back to Riamaggiore and found a market still open, to get some cheese, sausage and wine. We found a cafe for a spritz, then went back to our room for dinner. It was really brisk there, so we piled on the blankets and set in for night.

We weren't too sad to say goodbye to our room the next morning, especially after our lukewarm showers. We were packed and out by 9, to head over to the office of the other rental place. The lady there took us directly over to our next apartment, which was really a treat, especially compared to the first room. This was a full studio apartment, with a nice kitchen and dining area, a great bed,  and a large bathroom. Even better, our window looked out onto the small cove that served as the town's harbor. By 9:30 each morning, we had direct sunshine into our room, and the waves crashing against the breakwater served as a relaxing background sound. Then, in the evenings, the light from the sunset set the buildings across from ours aglow with color. We could have easily had some belongings shipped over to us and moved right into the place.

As soon as we put our bags down, we headed out to the market and bought some breakfast foods. Our little apartment had an Italian coffee pot, which I didn't know how to use, but we also had wifi, a quick google search had us brewing up cups of espresso like native Italians. For our mornings there in the apartment we did well for meals, with eggs, cheeses, salami, and yogurt for breakfasts. We would have soup and focaccia bread for lunch, and for our dinners that we at the apartment, we would get fresh pasta and pesto sauce. Apparently, both pesto and focaccia bread originated in the area, and they certainly did well with both. Of course, we drank gallons of coffee, and we didn't do so badly with the chianti either.

Speaking of learning to be Italians, we also were surprised at the €5 each that they charged for a spritz in the local cafes in the evenings. As having a spritz each evening has become something of a habit for us, we decided we would be better off making our own. We bought a bottle of aperol, a light Italian liquor that isn't as strong as wine, for €12, while a bottle of local champagne only set us back €3. With an ice cube and a slice of orange, we were in business, and our purchase paid for itself after the third drink. Believe me, we had a few more than three. This is a perfect evening refresher, especially after a day of hard hiking, and while the champagne is long gone, we have the last third of the bottle of aperol in a metal water bottle tucked away in my bag at this very moment.

Anyhow, on the 6th, our second day, we were in the mood for some exploring. A little train goes in between all four towns as well as the city La Spezia on one end and the larger towns Monterosso and then Levanto on the other. We rode all of the way to Monterosso, bypassing Manarola for the next day and Corniglia and Vernazza as they were damaged by the floods. Passing by those two towns on the train, we could see the damaged buildings and main street, strewn with debris and dirt, though people were out painting and making repairs. Monterosso is mostly just a beach town, having a nice spit of white sand that people must love in the summertime. We didn't stay long in the town, heading out for what looked like a nice hike into the hills. The hike quickly turned arduous on us, going from a gentle ascent to the tortuous stair climb. Whereas hiking in the US usually involves well-groomed trails, this trail was carved into the hillside a thousand years ago and hasn't been worked on since. Apparently, the idea of zigzagging  up a hill hasn't caught on, despite a civilization being in place in the area for a millennium, and instead the trails tend to aim straight up the hills. We sweated our way to the top, where at least we had great views to look at (at least when the white dots in my vision receded). We continued down to Levanto, where a cone heaped with some gelato  helped ease our tired muscles. We watched bodysuit clad surfers hitting the waves in the fading sunlight and eventually sundown--making the association with California's coast complete--before boarding our train back to Riamaggiore, a pasta dinner, and a couple of spritzes.

Our third day, the 7th, started out very slow. We slept in, then had a leisurely breakfast. We set out for further exploration, but found that our legs were still tired from the previous day's hiking. So, we went back and enjoyed a few more cups of espresso in our apartment. We did a bit of laundry and lounged around until early afternoon, when we started to feel a little guilty about not having done anything with our day. So we walked around Riamaggiore a bit more, looking for a path that would take us to a chapel that sat far above the town on to top of the hill, shining white above the green of the hillside and even lit up at night. We soon found a trail that seemed like it would take us in the direction (that is to say up), and started walking. It did indeed head towards the church, never deviating into switchbacks or anything that might have proved helpful in our ascent. Let's just say that it would be impossible to be fat if you lived in one of those towns and had to walk anywhere more than just across the street. Even crossing the street involved somewhat strenuous exercise. I'm not complaining, though, because with all the cheese and cured meats I've been discovering in Italy, I need all the help I can get.

So, we didn't quite make the church; it soon became clear that although we were close, we wouldn't have enough time to reach the church and still get back to the village before sunset. So, we headed back to Riamaggiore to watch the sunset paint the cove in vivid oranges and reds. A fisherman was sitting on the rocks of the cove, using a pole that couldn't have been much shorter than 20 foot long to catch tiny little fish; I was waiting for him to catch a doozy so that I could run out to help him pull it in, but he was largely unsuccessful. Most of the boats were sitting in their winter storage spots, but a few go-getters were scraping peeling paint from their little boats and getting them ready for the next season. A few folks gathered to watch the sunset, but yet again low-season proved to be the best time to travel, as we mostly had the cove to ourselves. A fine dinner of fresh ravioli and pesto sauce followed our standard spritzes, rounding out the day just right.

Yesterday was our last day of exploration in the area, so we were determined to get started as early as possible. However, when you have your own apartment, getting out of bed and started at 7:30 is nearly unfeasible, and we didn't get started on the day until nearly 11. Still, it was an epic day of walking. We first took the cliffside route over to Manarola, which was pretty dead, as it was a Sunday morning. Nothing much was happening in the village, so we found a tiny little path that led up a hillside. It grew more narrow and more ancient-looking the higher we climbed, and we almost had to turn around when the path took us closer to the edge of a drop off into the ocean than Jess was comfortable being. I had to carry her coat and water bottle for her, but she soldiered on, and soon we came over the top of a terrace to a small flat area. A small bungalow sat in the clearing, and an older couple was working on a terrace in front of it. We didn't know if we should continue, but upon seeing us, the man came over and told us that the building was his home. We were in awe, as it looked out over a bit of the hill and then out across the Mediterranean. We still didn't know if we were trespassing, so we sort of stood there nodding our heads appreciatively, until he told us it was fine to sit on the terrace and rest, which we did. He must have been quite surprised to have a couple of Americans show up on a trail that most definitely was not on the standard tourist itinerary for hiking, but he's sure was nice about having us in his yard.

From there we pretty much took our own route through the hills, aiming vaguely for a town on the top of a hill across the entire valley that ended up being called Volastra. There is actually a trail that leads directly from Manarola to the village, but we weren't aware of it, and besides we were probably at about the halfway elevation point, though across the valley, and figured it would be better to cut around the valley rather than go down to Manarola and then head straight uphill. Seemed like sound enough logic, except there was no trail, so we followed the footpaths along the terraces until we reach a road. From there, we picked up a trail that seemed to be going in the general direction of Volastra. In general, it was, but at some point, after a fair amount of bushwhacking through some serious scrublands and gaining some battle scars from the thorns we found there, the trail headed off in a much different direction. We weren't aware of the direction change, with the towering thorn bushes around us, until we were actually higher than Volastra, so we had to head out again across grapevine covered terraces, then taking these tiny , ancient steps down stairs made for Italians much smaller and less clumsy than myself, to reach the village.

Once there, we found that the single cafe was closed for the season, and there was precious little else to do in  the town besides take in long views of the valley, Manarola, and the Mediterranean. We kept seeing these hikers in the village, looking fresh and happy and less scratched, and then we came across the well-kept, cobblestoned trails leading straight down to Manarola. As we started down that beautiful trail, we didn't envy those hikers coming up, as they still had a massive climb to reach the top, but rather felt very arrogant that we hadn't taken such an easy trail. Midway, we grew bored with the monotony of a well-groomed trail (I did, at least, and Jess was kind enough to indulge me). We set out yet again across a terrace until we found a decrepit looking trail that was more like a heavily eroded gully to make our descent. I will say, it gave us much better views of Manarola and the Mediterranean than the well-groomed trail could have (I think).

Back in Manarola, we stopped  in a little cafe to have a coffee, some pumpkin soup with focaccia bread, and a delicious slice of lemon tort cake. The sun was fully shining in Manarola, so we strolled around the village, checking out its little harbor and walking along its cliffside pathway that sadly did not go far along the coast. By late afternoon, after I'd taken all possible pictures of the village, we walked back to Riamaggiore, where we had a spritz and watched another beautiful sunset. Both if us were pretty tired, so we took a well-deserved nap. We both got in a couple of hours of sleep, getting up at about 7 to go out for a nice dinner. Seafood is naturally a very large part of the local cuisine, so we ordered stuffed mussels and a seafood soup, both local specialties, washing it down with a bottle of the house white wine. It made sense to have another coffee and dessert, so we indulged ourselves. It was a most excellent meal.

We are currently on the train to the city of Perugia, which is between Florence and Rome. We were very sad to say goodbye to Cinque Terre, especially since we now only have five nights left in Italy. In a way, leaving the region was preparing for leaving Italy itself, as Perugia is the only destination we have left before we arrive in Rome, our last stop. We'll have three nights in Rome and then it's off to Nepal we go, though we will have lots of great memories and experiences to bring along.

Until next time, be safe.

January 08, 2012

Bit O' Business

Well, I wanted to make a few points that don't have to do with any particular destination that we are visiting, more just updates on our trip and thoughts in general.

First, our plans are starting to solidify a little more. I bought our plane tickets from Kathmandu to Taipei , Taiwan, on January 29th. In my mind, I had thought that we would be heading from Rome to Nepal on the 12th, but upon looking at our tickets, I realized that we will be in Italy until the 14th. That is good in that we get an extra two days in Italy, but it also makes our stay in Nepal less than two weeks, which is too bad. Nepal looks like a truly fascinating place to visit, I think we are going to be incredibly busy trying to see as much as we can in our short time there. Like I said, we then are heading to Taiwan, which was a little unplanned. We were wanting to pop by an Asian country before we go to New Zealand, so it looks like Taiwan is the one. It should be pretty cool, too, if people are to be believed about it. I've been told it is like China-lite, or at least a China where the leaders aren't planning world domination.

In other news, I think that I should be an advertising idea for Apple. This is our second trip abroad with our iPad ( we took it with us on our trip to Finland in May, 2011), and I keep finding great things to do with it. Of course there is Skype so that we can call our parents in the middle of nowhere, as long as we score some wifi. There is Messages so we can text folks as well as send pictures. We can look at pictures in larger format on it. We have all of our Lonely Planet guides packed on this thing, as well as the books I want to read, so I can actually say that I do not have a single paperback book with me, a huge change from the Long Trip. That trip, because I had this odd desire to keep all of our LP guides we had used, I literally carried a backpack filled with books through 20 countries, with guides to each of them. That 80+ mile trek in Patagonia? Yup, had 'em. Finally, I am typing all of this from the iPad. Yes, even my sausage fingers can use the screen keyboard.

Now for a couple of critical reviews: first, I have to say that I am less than thrilled with our LP guide to Italy. I am not sure if it is because we have the ebook version from Amazon (instead of buying PDF versions on LP's website) or what, but it seems to be lacking in a lot of vital information, and frankly the maps suck. I can't even find map for the full country. Maybe I am dumb about it, but I can't tell, because it is difficult to navigate through it. At any rate, I need to check the paper version of the guide, but if it too lacks a bunch of important info, then LP truly is slipping. I have been using them since 2002, so I know what information usually is in their guides; maybe I won't use them in the future. Boo, Lonely Planet, boo.

Also, the spell checking function on the iPad is frequently very frustrating, though I wouldn't know how to make it better. Like I said, this is all typed on the screen, and the spell checker is a busy little function. It often comes in handy, popping up suggestions and making corrections. On the other hand, it also makes a lot of corrections that I can't figure out how it managed to get from what I am typing. Sometimes the corrections are so far off that I feel like it is purposely trying to throw me off. All in all, it is a very handy function, and its usefulness still outweighs its issues. You'll have forgive any glaring and unusual mistakes you find, just blame it on the iPad.

(This is the iPad. Don't listen to that guy. He's an idiot. He blames me? Right. You should see his fat fingers, he can't spell, and he is already into his third spritz. Apple didn't tell me I would have to deal with such a fool. He doesn't even go back to check his work, he won't even see this!)  

Until next time, be safe.

January 07, 2012

Lucca - Getting Out Of The Big Cities

We have had quite the chill time since leaving Florence. We left behind the city to see a little countryside, and have found that we have been lingering a little longer in our destinations here in Italy. Compared to our usual high-paced travel standards, it has been very leisurely, which is just the way we have wanted it.

We were up on January 2nd bright and early, though it wasn't so bright. It was overcast and cool, a big change from the brilliant weather we had for the first day of the year. We had that cloudy weather for the rest of our time in Lucca, though now that we are at the coast it is back to being brilliant and sunny again. As Jess mentioned, it was quite a change being back in a hostel again, especially having to share our room with four other people and especially get the small bathroom. However, it was still our first hostel on the this trip (so far our only one), so we were a bit sad to bid it farewell and head to the train station.

Our next destination was the little town of Lucca, known for its intact walls surrounding its center as well as its fine foods. It is very different from Florence, where crowds and massive architecture are the norm. There are more than 80,000 people in the city, though it does not feel that way; there is a distinct small town feeling to Lucca. It only takes a couple of hours by train to reach the city from Florence, so we arrived by early afternoon, to find that it was lightly raining. On previous trips we tended to forget our rain covers for our bags, and while we definitely still forgot important travel items (believe me), rain covers were not one of them. (We are actually finally getting down our list of important travel items,  after eight years of traveling together). So we attached the rain guards to our bags and headed into the city. After crossing the impressive walks that surrounded the center, we trooped on to the guesthouse we were staying at, just to find that the receptionist would not be back for about an hour. We went off and found a cafe for some lunch and warm drinks.

Accommodation in Italy is different than what we've found elsewhere in Europe. When we've traveled to countries like Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other central countries, we usually find hostels to stay at, because they usually are convenient, cheaper than most hotels, and common. With the exception of Florence and probably in Rome, we have found that there are far fewer hostels available in our Italian destinations. Not only that, but the hostels tend to be overpriced, starting at €25-30 for a bunk. When a room at a guesthouse or hotel starts at twice that for a double, of course we are going to stay somewhere besides the hostel. Our choices in Lucca were limited to B&Bs, guesthouses, and hotels; not knowing what a guesthouse was, I went with that because it was the cheapest option. It turned out well for us.

The receptionist returned at 2pm as promised, and we checked into our room. We had a huge room, looking out into small plaza. The guesthouse had a very nice kitchen for us to use, as well as three shared bathrooms down the hallway. It was all well-kept and simply decorated, and was nice after being in the hostel in Florence, regardless of how much we'd enjoyed staying there. We relaxed at in our room for awhile, as the rain outside discouraged us from going out for much of a walk. The receptionist had told us about a market just outside the walls, so we went there and bought enough food for a nice dinner as well as lunch and dinner for the next couple of days. By at time it was getting dark, so we went back and ate. It had stopped raining, so we took a little tour of the city, which seemed very charming and beautiful even in the glow of the streetlight. We quickly realized that we'd made a mistake going to the big standard market, because of all of the small artisan type shops, each selling a particular ware, such as meat shop, a cheese shop, a chocolate shop, and so on. We decided that we would avoid the big market from then on, and continued exploring the center. We found a leather goods shop with incredible bags, folders, book covers, belts, and other items. Even better, it was obviously a family business–-the men there were busy making more leather goods, sewing and cutting. Of course it is possible to just go to one of the many shops selling leather goods, but to know that the goods were made right behind the counter is pretty special. Of course Jess and I have a hard time actually buying stuff for ourselves, especially high priced things, so we decided to come back the next day after giving it some thought. Finally we found a little cafe near our guesthouse (one that seemed much like a gas station to us, with racks of cigarettes and characters one might expect at a truckstop), where we had our nightly spritz before heading in for the evening. We played some card games in the guesthouse kitchen, where we met a couple of fellow travelers, two Americans college students, Nicky and Katie. We talked a bit with them before calling it a night.

The next couple of days weren't so exciting, but quite nice nonetheless. We spent the day of the 3rd walking the surrounding wall, which is about 4km in total. Since this only takes about an hour, we also filled the time by going into the city when we saw a plaza or church that looked interesting. We also spent a fair amount of time in cafes drinking cafe americanos and sampling the fine desserts that Lucca has a reputation for. Lucca can be fully explored in a morning, but we spent all day doing it in a very leisurely fashion. While the city has a small town feeling, its two main roads are lined with a surprising number of stores selling high-priced fashion goods, from clothing to shoes to chocolates. You'd never know Italy is in a massive debt crisis given not only the number of shops but the many folks shopping there. Italians are very fashion minded--Jess, with her sneakers, has really attracted a lot of stares and glares, to the point that it is embarrassing for me even (being the fashion guru that I am). 

At any rate, we ended the day by visiting our little leather shop, called Legatoria d' Arte, which importantly was nowhere near the main shopping areas. Again, we didn't buy anything but continued to solidify our minds about getting some leather goods. We went out for dinner that night, as we have decided that we will go out every destination that we visit for a good meal. We found a little restaurant that seemed to have a lot of locals inside,and had a nice dinner two-course set, which only cost €20 each, including a glass of wine. Then we called it an evening.

The next morning we set off for a few villages up in the nearby mountains, despite a heavy covering of clouds. The American girls ended up coming as well, since we were all a little late getting out of the guesthouse. Sadly, the higher in the mountains that our train took us, the more it seemed to be raining. We got off in a little town called Barga, which apparently is quite nice in good weather. However, we didn't walk ten minutes before we started to get pretty wet, so we headed back to the train station and waited for the next train in a funny little cafe where old Italian men were playing some passionate (i.e. with lots of shouting) games of cards. The next town, the rain was falling even harder. So, we took the train back to Lucca, though we had a very nice, long conversation with Nicky and Katie during the trip. Back in town, Jess and I went on a real spending spree, buying our leather goods, getting some chocolate, and shopping for our dinner food. That was very fun. We had dinner with the girls at the guesthouse, talking and eating until late, and then called it a night.

We headed out the next morning, checking out by 10 after bidding farewell to our fellow American neighbors. We were on our way to Cinque Terre, the beautiful region where we have spent the last couple of days and plan on being for a few more. Lucca was good for us, and even provided us with a little class, what with our new Italian leather goods. Even better, though, it gave us a sense of how rural Italy is, something that you could never get by staying in the big cities like Florence or Venice. 

Until next time, be safe.

January 06, 2012

Visiting Florence

Repost from Jess's blog. Original entry: Click here.

The past several days in Florence were really nice.  We arrived by train from Venice Thursday afternoon, and thanks to google maps we made it to our hostel without getting terribly lost.  The hostel was really basic with only one shower and a closet sized kitchen, but the beds were clean and our fellow bunk mates were quiet.  After coming from very decent hotels in Germany and Venice, our six bed dorm room was a startling change.  Anyways, we got aquainted with our small living space, found ourselves a map, and walked around for a while.  My first impression of Florence was that it was overrun with massive amounts of tourists everywhere, and I really missed our quiet visit to Venice.  Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the people we kept our walk short that evening and went out to find dinner.  The receptionist at the hostel sent us to a very touristy restaurant packed with Americans, so that was kind of a let down.  He made it sound like an authentic dining experience... Oh well.  It turned out that the food and wine were really quite good, so we left in better spirits.  Following dinner we made it back to the hostel for a quiet night.

Friday we were up and out early for a action packed walking tour of the city. Breakfast was at a small cafe we had passed the night before.  The beautiful almond glazed scones sitting in the window display had caught our attention, and we just had to give them a try.  The scones, along with piping hot Italian coffee were the perfect combination to get our epic day of walking into full swing. 

We started our stroll around the more touristy area near the center of town and made our way to the Piazza della Signoria.  This medieval styled plaza was a great place to stop for a while.  The small street cafes were full of mid-morning coffee drinkers.  The buildings are all so ancient and grandiose.  The Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio surround the plaza and house many important pieces of art.  Everywhere you look there are large columns, watch towers, huge buildings and impressive sculptures.  From here we went towards the Arno River and the famous 16th century Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The bridge is always crowded due to the nice views of the river and the many jewelry stores that line its length on both sides. Aaron took a few pictures and we continued on.

We crossed the river and continued our walk beyond the Palazzo Pitti.  After several stops into beautiful old cathedrals, we found ourselves in a non touristy area of Florence.  The south side of the bridge offers a very different experience for tourists. This might have been our favorite part of the day. The quiet narrow streets wound up the hillsides taking us to a beautiful residential area.   The old villas came in a variety of colors, pink, bright orange, and canary yellow.  The well groomed yards housed a mixture of interesting plant species and plenty of olive trees.  Many residences were gated, but we peeked through cracks in the walls to catch sights of the bustling city below and distant mountains.   Tucked among the homes we found a convent and a very small church that was built in the 13th century.   It felt like going back in time as we quietly strolled along this amazing and quaint italian neighborhood.

On our way down we found a cafe to stop and eat lunch.  We sat beside a fireplace and enjoyed a lovely meal.  I had fried polenta topped with fontina cheese and proscuitto, and Aaron had penne pasta with salmon.  Thankfully wine is cheaper than water here in Italy, so we split a half liter of the house red. After a quick Americano to complete our fine dining experience, we were back outside continuing our long walk.  

Before crossing the river back towards our neighborhood, we climbed lots of stairs that led us to the Piazzale Michelangelo.  The plaza is littered with tacky souvenir shops and yet another fake David.  Poor Michelangelo.  Anyways, the panoramic view of the city from this plaza was well worth our time.  The clouds dispersed, the sun made an appearance, and Aaron got some great shots.  

We started the long walk back to the hostel to take a short break and give our feet a needed rest.  Our return trip took us along the Arno River and back into the busier parts of Florence.  Of course we stumbled upon a market, so we had to stop and check out the many interesting foods for sale.  We are both market junkies.  It doesn't matter what is being sold, from trinkets to foul smelling fish, we can be found.  As Aaron says, the more disturbing the better.  Not to get off track, the meats, cheeses and breads had us constantly oohing and aahing, and the fresh produce didn't look so bad either.  We decided to buy a few dinner items here, and so we excitedly left with fresh gnocchi, pesto and some veggies.  

Finally back at the hostel we took a brief hiatus and put our feet up until late afternoon when we went back out.  Earlier in the day we saw fliers at one of the cathedrals about a concert featuring pieces by Handel.  We crossed the river once again and found the church hosting the concert.   Mass was just finishing so we snuck in the back and waited for it to end.  The concert was very small and informal with a soprano and two organists, and there were only a handful of people in attendance.  Really there was only a nun, a few older folks, and us.  The cathedral was dark and gothic style adorned with large columns and frescos throughout.    Heat was lacking, so we stay bundled in our warmest winter wear.  The musicians performed above from the balcony, and the music was absolutely beautiful.  Handel's 'Rejoice' was amazing as the soprano sang impeccably and with appropriate emotion.  This was a perfect end to a perfect day.

Back at the hostel we prepared dinner and just had a quiet night.  The pesto gnocchi was excellent.  I believe we put in about 13 miles throughout the day per our pedometer.  Not too bad...

I won't go into as much detail about the next two days as they were a bit lower key.  Saturday morning we toured The Uffuzi and saw impressive Renaissance art.  Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael...  Standing in front of The Birth of Venice was extremely surreal. We also had gelato several more times.  The pistachio is my absolute favorite so far.  

New Year's Eve was especially nice. I managed to stay out way past my bedtime.  We rang in 2012 in one of the central plazas listening to the Florence philharmonic symphony, watching fireworks, and sipping cheap champagne.  There was a competition going on between the music and pranksters shooting fireworks.  The conductor got very flustered as the surrounding booms drowned out the music.  It was pretty fun to watch him get so angry.  He most certainly could have used some of our cheap bubbles to calm down.

We slept in on New Year's Day, and in the afternoon we made a short hour trip to visit The Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Pisa is a nice quiet town that is easy to navigate.  After walking a short distance from the train station the tower came into view, and sure enough it was leaning at a pretty decent angle.    After Aaron took about 300 pictures we found a pizza place for lunch.   Once again we enjoyed an excellent meal.  In the early evening we caught the train back to Florence and just relaxed and played cards in the hostel.  

Yesterday we packed our bags and made our way to Lucca, which is where we are currently.  Florence was a place that we have always wanted to visit, and it certainly met our expectations! Let the good times continue throughout Italy!


January 02, 2012

A Visit To The Enchanting Venice

Our time in Venice was quite an experience, though we only stayed for two nights. It was better than I'd expected, as it turned out to be a real charming city. I guess that some places you hear about, and it seems like they are probably overrated, or excessively talked up. That is what I figured would be the situation with Venice, which happily turned out to be incorrect.

We arrived into Venice mid-morning on the 27th, tired and grumpy from our previous day's adventures at the Andechs Monastery (see my previous entry). Our trip from Germany included a short flight up to Berlin, a crowded airport to deal with there, and then another flight down to Italy. I didn't know what to expect in Venice, so I was a little apprehensive about arriving there; it was actually quite easy and fun. 

We started out in Venice's small airport, where we bought a 48-hour transit ticket for only €34 each, giving us unlimited transport in the city's vapretto bus-boat service; the pass paid for itself by the next morning. A bus took us across a long bridge to the only place to see vehicles in Venice, the bus station. From there, we had to figure out which boat to take to get out to the little island of Lido, on which I'd booked a hotel. A friendly local helped us with that. Soon we were out on the water, of which there is a lot of. See, I'd always pictured Venice as being this city with small canals, some boats, not a ton of water, sort of like the canal system of Amsterdam. Instead,  Venice is literally built on a large lagoon, with Lido being the breakwater, and multiple islands either linked by boat routes or built into the city by early citizens who built land from water. According to our Lonely Planet guide, there are 117 islands connected by 400 bridges over 150 canals.  However, a few of the islands that make up the more distant parts of Venice (such as Lido) aren't particularly  close and have wide areas of lagoon between them. Even within the center, the main canals are quite wide to accommodate the boat traffic. It is striking how much water is Venice, more than I would have guessed.

To that end, there are no cars in Venice, with the exception of Lido, which is more like a wealthy suburb. Boats of all sizes and shapes ply the waters of the canals, little private boats, the larger tugboats, vaporettos, and water taxis that are the work horses, and of course the man-powered gondolas for tourists willing to part with €60 euros for a short ride (of which there was no shortage that I could see). Out in the larger expanses of water between the islands and the main core of the city, large ferries, transport boats and even some huge cruise ships sailed, sort of like highway traffic; there are all the types of transport that one could find in any city, from bicycles to trucks, only in Venice they are boats.

The vaporettos follow routes like any city bus system, and within a half hour we found ourselves standing on the dock on Lido, impressed at the simplicity of which we'd gotten there. Our hotel was straight up the street from the dock, so we went to check in, and found our little hotel to be quite nice. We dropped off our bags, grabbed a little lunch at a nearby cafe, and headed back to the center. Getting around in Venice is pretty interesting, because unless you've spent a fair amount of time in the city, it is almost certain you'll end up getting lost. Of course, that is mostly the point. Venice is the kind of city where every corner seems turn to another great view, or a plaza you've never seen before, or a street of shops and restaurants to browse through. It seems like there is an endless list of sights to be found there. 

Our first afternoon we spent several hours wandering around, but by late afternoon, we were getting tired, so we headed back across to Lido. Jess wanted to take a nap, so I thought I'd read a little. Jess woke me up about four hours later, after it had already gotten dark. There wasn't much point in going back across to the center, so we found a little restaurant and had dinner before calling it a night.

The next day was one of epic walking. We felt very refreshed after a great night of sleep, so we got an early start. The no. 1 line left from Lido, and went straight down the Grand Canal all the way to the train station, which was our first goal. The trip there was fantastic, as they don't call it the Grand Canal for nothing. All along the route are colorful buildings, beautiful architecture, smaller offshoots of canals, and lots of boats traveling along in what seems to be a chaotic fashion. There are no lanes for the boats to travel in, and the vaporettos zigzag from side to side to their next stops, often heading straight towards another before veering off. It was a bit alarming for us, though it is just part of life for the drivers and the locals, who certainly did not seemed at all alarmed.

At the train station, which is on the north end of the city, we purchased our train tickets to Florence for noon the next day, and then headed south into the center. The walkways of Venice are mostly narrow cobblestones streets, twisting and curving in random ways, crossing the canals over bridges and opening into large plazas lined with shops, cafes and generally a big church with its tower. We started walking on the western side of the city, the opposite side from the Piazza San Marco, which is the main tourist attraction in Venice and around which most of the hotels seemed to be situated. Probably because of it is low season in Italy, there weren't any crowds in this section of the city, and most of the traffic seemed to be locals. We spent several hours wandering from one end of the center down to the other, stopping along the way for a coffee or a gelato in one of the numerous cafes.  It was pretty slow walking, mostly because I had to stop over every canal and at most corners for yet another picture. Jess was patient but had plenty to say about the photo spree, which she always does, though she is always happy to have the pictures later. 

Eventually we arrived to the lower end of the center, crossing over the Grand Canal on the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge), which is one of the more famous ones. This out us right into the heart of the touristy part of Venice, culminating with the beautiful but massively touristy Piazza San Marco. This large plaza has some very impressive buildings, including a massive cathedral, the Basilica di San Marco, as well as opulently decorated palaces, towers, and other buildings. It is understandable why most of the tourists flock to it, as it is very beautiful,  but Jess and I aren't huge fans of crowds, and low season or not, there were still huge crowds everywhere. The surrounding neighborhood was packed full of high-end shops as well as high-end tourists, and within a half hour or so, we were content for a simple walk-through of the Piazza before aiming for the other side of the Grand Canal again. We jumped back on a vaporetto and escaped the crowds to the "local" side.

From there, we followed the outside of their center, along the lagoon, giving us excellent views of the late afternoon dusk over the water. As the sun slipped over the horizon, we found a little restaurant to have a spritz, a refreshing drink made with a dash of aperol, a fine liquor. We liked the atmosphere of the place enough that we decided we should have dinner there, though Italians have a later schedule than Americans and the place didn't even open its kitchen until 6:30. We went off to stroll around in the meantime, though it had rapidly gotten very cool (though warmer than Germany, it is still on the cold side here, more like a humid cold). The sun had set by then, the downside of traveling in the low season of winter, but the lights reflecting off of the water of the canals was still beautiful, and it was very romantic.

Not wanting to be the typical Americans waiting at the door at 6:30, we waited until 6:40 to go back. They seated us, and we ended up having a typical Italian meal, with a first plate of pasta followed by a second entree plate and then the coffee. We both chose a fish dish for our entree, which tasted fantastic, and seemed like the natural dish to get in a city so surrounded by water. We also had a big scoop of ice cream dunked in coffee for dessert, which was equally as delicious. Even better than the food was the atmosphere, with our crazy waiter who was kind of like a drunken Italian uncle that everyone, even people with no Italian heritage, probably had. He clapped me on the shoulder numerous times and somehow convinced us to really treat ourselves to a great meal, at our own expense of course. He spoke English, but he was prone to shouting ou Italian phrases or just jumbled words, which according to an American who lives in the city and who we met at the bar, was his standard. At the table next to ours was an older couple from Texas who has done a lot of traveling and with whom we enjoyed a long conversation about the places we'd been to. All in all, it was a great dinner.

After dinner, we jumped back on a vaporetto and headed back to Lido. We'd had a long day; according to my pedometer, we'd taken 25,000 steps, which was more than 13 miles. That is difficult to quantify, but I would tend to believe it, we literally walked all day. Needless to say, we were pretty worn out by the time we went to bed. We slept very well, and got up to pack and head on to Florence. We'd planned getting up real early to explore Lido's posh beaches or go to the morning fish market in the center, but in the end, we just had a relaxing morning, eating a leisurely breakfast from the spread provided by our hotel, then checking out and taking a vaporetto to the train station. We found a quiet cafe and had couple of coffees while we waited for our train, and before we knew it, we were on to our next destination. However, Venice set a standard for our time in Italy, which fortunately our other destinations have been able to meet. Still, it was a special place for us.

Until next time, be safe.

January 01, 2012

Visiting Andechs

I am just going to write a quick blurb about our visit to the Andechs Monastery, near the little town of Andechs, Germany. I wanted to put a little something about it for three reasons: it was awesome, it came recommended (hats off to our friends who told us about it), and also because it was our final day and hence experience in Germany.

So, a little background about Andechs, in particular the abbey there, since we didn't really visit the town. It is Benedictine abbey that has been brewing high quality beer since 1455. This was my primary reason for going there, though the church itself is pretty well-known regionally. Apparently, legend has it that there is a thorn from the crown of Jesus in the church, though it is seemingly a bad idea to tell a bunch of folks drinking high-gravity Abbey beer that somewhere hidden in this old Baroque church is an old relic. Those types of things get really interesting after a couple of liters of beer. (No, mom, I didn't drink two liters--I drank 2.5!)

So, we set out from Munich mid-morning, after arriving from our visit to our friends' home in Rosenheim. We didn't even go to our hotel, instead storing our bags in lockers at the train station. We took a regional train to the town of Herrsching, which apart from being a scenic German town had little going for it other than being the last stop on the train ride for people heading to Andechs. On the train there, we met another American named Andy. He was a nice guy, about a decade younger than us (ahhh!), and finishing up a backpacking trip through Europe, his first venture out into the world. It's nice to meet people who have finally gotten around to starting to travel; I think everyone should travel so I love meeting people who are.

Anyhow, getting from Andechs from Herrsching requires either waiting for a twice-daily bus or hiking 4km up a fairly substantial hill. We really didn't get started until after 1pm, so the three of us were in a race against time, to get up, drink a lot of great beer, and try to be heading back down before sundown. The hike up was pretty amazing, starting out in the plaza of Herrsching, sneaking through residential areas of the town itself, and finally shooting straight up a hill before turning into a full-on woodsy trail into the Black Forest. We would have been hopelessly lost if not for the hand-painted signs, a quaint touch. After climbing up along along a leaf-strewn trail through the winter forest (there was no snow thankfully), we suddenly found ourselves in a long meadow that looked out over a deep valley, with a distant town and its church-tower, and in the distance large mountains. Andechs Monastery itself sat beyond a patch of trees, and we figured that we were close. Well, the path didn't go towards the monastery, instead dropping first into a small town, across a river, and then back up to the monastery, finally culminating in an intense stairway up to the top of the hill and the monastery complex. Needless to say, it took well over an hour, and we were pretty sweaty and ready for beer by that point.

We skipped the church for the time being, leaving that for after our beer drinking, and headed straight into the beer hall. It was pretty loaded with people, I can imagine that summertime becomes unbearable in the beer hall, what with the the small area for sitting, the huge summer crowds, and the stench of all those people who just hiked up that hill. The beer itself came straight from huge wooden casks, still brewed by the monks themselves, as well as served by them. We grabbed our first beers, and I also got some pretzels to soak up all the beer. Let me assure the skeptical, it was very good beer. I had three types, the hefeweisen, the dunkel (dark beer), and a winter clear wheat. I probably preferred the dunkel, it was amazingly smooth, though they were all great. As I said, I finished off 2.5L, though we sat there talking to Andy for several hours, and we also had a big old hunk of pork that was quite nice. It was easy to imagine being in the monastery in the 1500s and consuming the same things. 

Apparently once we finished quaffing beer and shoveling down meat, we visited the church itself, and Andy and I went looking for the thorn relic. I have vague recollections of that part, though, and don't entirely believe that we went in, though Jess has assured me that we did. I do remember the walk back down. We were entirely unsuccessful in leaving before the sun set, and found that we had to walk all the way down to Herrsching in the pitch darkness of the Black Forest, which now seemed very well named. Fortune was with us, in two ways: I had somehow put a small flashlight in my bag, so we had light to walk down with, and also, we found that we had really gone the long way on our way up. In fact, we probably had doubled the distance from the official route, though I am not sure how we found the official route in the darkness. They say God smiles down on fools and drunks, so we were doing just fine.

For entertainment value, Andy turned out to be a bit afraid of the dark. He denied it and tried to sound brave, but the quiver in his voice betrayed the fact that he found wandering through the dark woods to be somewhat intimidating, flashlight or no flashlight. We lightly teased him the whole way down, and before we knew it, we were back in Herrsching, then the train, and finally back in Munich. There, Jess and I wasted no time going back to our hotel, checking in, and hitting the sack, probably by about 8 pm. One should not take Abbey beer lightly.

The next morning we were up by 4 am, and headed to Venice, but that is for the next entry.

Until next time, be safe.

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