Monthly Archives: September 2008

Made it to Athens…

I’m writing this on our Aegean Airlines flight from Rome to Athens. Nothing much has happened today, but I’m bored, so why not? We got up fairly early today and went for breakfast at our regular Rome breakfast spot. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but there’s a little “breakfast bar” just across the street from our Rome hotel. This seems to be the Italian equivalent of a Tim Horton’s; you go in and ask the guy behind the bar for a coffee (actually an espresso; that’s what they drink here) and pastry, or whatever, and they serve it to you right at the bar. People eat and drink standing at the bar; there aren’t any chairs or anything. Cheryl and I have been eating the chocolate eclairs, which are delicious (side note: in Switzerland I noticed that they put “eclair” in quotes when translating “pain au chocolat” into English). Tim’s been drinking a lot of the “cafe” (espresso); I’ve been having “té” (tea, of course); Cheryl’s had a few different latte/cappuccino-style drinks. I think the proprietor has been a little amused by us; despite the fact that we’re right close to the ancient city, there aren’t many hotels in the area, and very few toutpsifgts…sorry, turbulence….very few tourists. The rest of the clientèle is just local Italians having their morning coffee and chat, so I’m sure he remembered us and our attempts at very bad Italian every morning. This morning when he served Cheryl he corrected her pronunciation; she ordered a morracino, or morrachino, or something like that, and pronounced it “morrachino”. When he served it to her, he said “Morrachino?” and when she nodded, he smiled and said “No, morrakino.”

Whoops, that was the end of the flight. We’re on the train to our Athens hotel now (we hope. We’re on a train, anyway). More later…

Ok, I’m at the hotel now. Where was I? Right, breakfast. The coffee bar guy was rather friendly, and the pronunciation correction was delivered kindly, as a lesson, not as a correction. If I was staying somewhere for more than a few days, I think I’d make a point of going to the same place on a regular basis. I don’t know if its a coincidence or not, but by the third day he seemed to have more chocolate croissants ready than he did before (the first morning he had four, and we bought ’em all: two for now and two for later). We went to the same restaurant for supper both nights too, and the waiter/manager/owner/whatever remembered us.

But now, we’re in the Hermes Hotel in Athens, and split up for the first time this trip: the rooms are double occupancy, and Cheryl was put in a room with another girl. I don’t think she minds, though…a week is a long time to spend with the same people.

Personally, I’m just happy that we can relax now. Tonight, we meet with the Contiki group, and tomorrow we leave on the cruise. No more planning trips on public transit; no more hoping that the airline doesn’t lose our luggage; no more wandering around foreign cities with no guide. It was fun, but it was tiring (physically and mentally), and if it was any longer than a week it probably would have been too much.

True, we still have to get back home, but that’s nothing. A couple more plane trips…but if the airline loses our baggage, it’s no big deal…we’re going home and the bags will find us eventually. We’ll still need to get to our hotel and figure out our flight connection, but that shouldn’t be that much trouble. For the next week or so, Contiki is taking care of all the planning for us.

I’ve wandered around Athens for a bit now (there were a couple hours between the last paragraph and this one), and overall the city feels less foreign than Italy. The written language is barely comprehensible, because I don’t know much of the alphabet, but almost everything is signed in English as well, and the few shopkeepers and other people we encountered all spoke passable English. While Rome feels like an old city that’s held on to its culture for the last five hundred years, Athens feels more like a city that has an old culture but has happily also absorbed aspects of what I will for lack of a better term call “modern Western culture”. There’s lots more traffic, more commercialism, busier people, and a wider variety of people. In Rome, it seemed that everyone was Italian…but not everyone in Athens seems Greek. I took a couple pictures while I was out, but not many, because there wasn’t that much to photograph. Though it is odd seeing a public square paved entirely in polished marble.

And I’ve realized that while I thought my Italian was weak, I definitely don’t know any Greek. I’ve tried to at least be able to thank shopkeepers in their own language…my Contiki Europe Travellers Guide claims it’s “Effaristo”, but I don’t have a clue how to pronounce that.

And…it’s later again. This is sort of a stream-of-consciousness entry, and there aren’t even any pictures, because I haven’t taken any today (well, only a couple). Anyway, we met the tour group, which is a grand total of seven people; ridiculously small. There’s the three of us, a girl from Quebec, two guys from L.A., and a guy from Australia. We went for dinner at a taverna in the Plaka; everyone ordered souvlaki and/or Greek salad. The taverna owners all walk out into the street trying to get you to come in and eat – most of them have a patio area that the owner (or headwaiter, for all I know) is in, flagging people down. There’s a bit more aggressive salesmanship here – we had three people try to sell us roses while we were eating. One of the Americans offered them a chair at the table and asked them if they were hungry, which totally baffled them and they left. Worked all three times.

About the other people on the tour…it could go either way. The Aussie is, surprisingly, quiet and withdrawn: he sat at the back of the room during the pre-tour briefing, and completely vanished afterwards. We were going to invite him to dinner with us, but no one knew where he was…presumably his hotel room. The Americans are loud and brash; they were fun to hang around with for dinner, but I fear it might get old before too long. The other Canadian was, well, a Canadian. Her and Cheryl are sharing a hotel room tonight (I’m with Tim), and they seem to be getting along.

So the tour group is nothing like we expected; I was thinking there would be at least 20 people in the group. Hopefully all goes well. If there are personality clashes in a group this size, though, it could get unpleasant…but it’s a big boat. We haven’t actually met our tour manager yet; the guy that did our pre-tour briefing was filling in, because our real manager is just on his way back from his last tour.

I’ve no idea what sort of communication you’ll have from me for the next week…there’s some fairly expensive internet access on the boat, but if it includes wireless access, I might go for it.

‘Til next time…

Ancient Rome!

What we did today: everything.

Today was our Day To Explore Ancient Rome. The thing about ancient Rome is, it’s smack in the middle of modern Rome. They’re still digging things out; we saw one park in the middle of the city that’s all fenced off and it was full of archaeologists that were digging about six feet down, and it was all full of old walls and buildings and things. Rome has been in continuous existence for well over two thousand years, and everything’s all mixed together. We’ve seen buildings built in the 19th century and buildings dated something silly like 483 AD, on the same street and both in active daily use. There are roads that I’m sure date all the way back to the Romans. (Well, technically, we’re in Rome, so everything’s Roman, but you know what I mean). And the city itself looks like it has hundreds of years of history in it. It looks the way you think Rome should look.

Not the best picture I’ve ever taken, but it’ll demonstrate the point. This is the street our hotel is on: Via Dei Serpenti, which my limited Italian skills suggest translates to “Road of the serpent god”. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I don’t know it. Anyway, you’ve got a narrow road, really narrow sidewalks (or no sidewalks), cars and motorbikes everywhere, nice buildings, run-down buildings, old buildings, new buildings, alleyways, businessmen, hotels, businesses, little restaurants…and at the end of the road, the Colosseum. The city just keeps on going through the years, and some things change and some things don’t. It’s a fantastic place, and we’re in love with it. Everyone should come here once,

What was I saying? Right, ancient Rome. Well, there’s the Colosseum there, so you can bet we went there. It’s pretty neat: there’s a main level and an upper level, and you can walk all the way around the oval on both of them. There’s also a basement area under the main floor or stage or whatever, where gladiators lived and animals were kept and I don’t know what else. You can’t go in there though. As you move around, you’re walking on either the original floor and stairs (brick overlaid with marble) or restored versions of them (brick built in roughly the same style, no marble). There’s really not any sort of “museum” feel to it…you have areas you can go in and areas you can’t go in, but if you’re in one of the public areas and there’s an enormous chunk of once-beautiful marble pillar that weighs 500 pounds and has survived earthquakes, wars, and 2000 years of weathering and erosion, and you want to sit on it and take your picture, nobody cares. What are you going to do, break it? It’s a giant chunk of rock. Beautiful, expensive, cold rock, but still rock.

Anyway, the Colosseum was all well and good. We did a little wheeling and dealing with the street vendors outside; we’d done some in Pompeii, and we did some more later today too. Never pay full price for anything from a street vendor. Some of the conversations we had:

“Where you from?” “Canada.” “Oh, good country, Canada! Very good country! Special price for Canada!”

“How much?” (Vendor turns item over and points at the 80 Euro price tag) “Not eighty, but fifty!”

(As I slowed my pace and looked at a stand I was passing) “You like? You want? Everything fifty per cent off!”

(After buying something) “Grazias, thank you. You want another? Give you good price for two!”

“How much you want to pay? You tell me, I sell to you!”

At the first street dealer I encountered, I paid the first price offered for a souvenir: eight Euros. While I don’t regret the purchase, in retrospect I probably could have gotten him down to four, easily. I just didn’t realize that the prices were mutable until the next stand, where I hesitated over something and the price started dropping. Istanbul should be a lot of fun that way.

Anyway, after the Colosseum we went to the Palatine hill. This is a huge area full of ruined buildings. You could spend all day there without trying real hard. Part of it is the Forum (unfortunately, nothing funny happened on the way there); the rest is miscellaneous stuff including temples, decorative arches, Caesar’s tomb, and the old senate chambers (which eventually got turned into a chuch). I’m actually not sure what parts are considered the Forum and what parts aren’t; there’s no clear delineation that I saw. Chunks of marble pillar and whatnot are everywhere along the paths; hundreds of pieces of what once were beautifully carved architecture and are now serving as makeshift benches and stepstools for tourists because there are only so many thousand pieces of pillar that the archaeologists can bother trying to reconstruct.

After the Forum, we had lunch, and then we saw…everything else. The Pantheon, the Spanish Steps (actually that was earlier), Trevi Fountain, churches and monuments and arches too numerous to mention, plazas, ruins, and more. I’m not even going to bother trying to list or describe them. We were actually totally overwhelmed, especially since we didn’t really know what half the stuff was. (Pretty, yes, but what’s it for?) I took over 300 pictures today, and I’m sure I still missed stuff. You need a week to see ancient Rome; maybe more. We tried it in a day. We walked poor Cheryl’s legs right off. We want time, we want to understand what we see, we want to go through it slowly and really appreciate it. We can’t, We probably need to come back one day and do it right.

Tomorrow morning we leave for Athens. We’ve got one night in Athens, and then we’re on the cruise. I don’t expect internet access tomorrow night. There should be some on the cruise, but there mayh not be any wireless, in which case I doubt I’ll be able to do any blogging. Still, I should be able to email…

Hello from Rome!

It’s been a busy couple days, and I haven’thad time or opportunity to write anything, so I’ve got a lot to cover. This’ll be a bit of an abrdiged version, I fear…but I’ll just start writing and see how it goes.

Where did I leave off…the last night in Amsterdam? After some debate about what to do for breakfast in the morning, and some online searching, Cheryl found a plausible-looking breakfast/coffee place within walking distance of the hotel. Secure in the knowledge that we would be fed, we slept. The next morning, we checked out of our hotel, left our bags behind, and went for one last exploration of the city.

The area she found was quite neat – it was an old industrial area (a “gas factory”, as far as I could translate) that had been converted into a recreation area with a park, a pond, and some little restaurants and cafes and things in the old buildings. In a way, it reminded me of The Forks in Winnipeg. We got some coffee and pastry and things and wandered around a bit, and then wnet back to get our bags from the hotel and catch the bus to the train station so that we could catch a train to the airport.

We’re getting pretty comfortable with transportation, having taken all sorts of buses and trains and planes lately, but nothing prepared us for departure from Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. It goes like this: First, you check in: you drop off your checked baggage and get your boarding pass as usual, but in addition, the attendant asks a couple of the questions that normally get asked by security (e.g. “Do you have any of the following prohibited items?”) Then, you go through customs into the departure area (another stamp in the passport! They don’t always stamp, but Cheryl and I have started requesting it. Tim thinks we’re ridiculous, I think.) After customs, you’re in this shopping mall, basically. Lots of shops and things, and screens telling you which flight is at which gate. The thing is, you have to wait until it’s time to board before you learn what gate you need to be at. So you wander around, shop, whatever, and keep one eye on the screens. Then, when your gate is announced, you make your way to the right area (which can take 10+ minutes, depending on where you need to go.) Then, and only then, you go through security (metal detector, baggage check).

The last part is the real oddity. We’ve seen the delayed gate announcement in other airports, but the way this one works out, you don’t go through security until it’s time to board. I have no idea what happens if you get held up at security for any reason. Maybe you miss your flight.

Anyway, we got to Geneva, but our flight was late. We just barely caught the second-last train from the airport into the city (good thing we’ve learned our way around train stations), deciphered the directions we had, and ended up at the hostel (no hotel here; they’re expensive) just minutes after reception closed for the night (at midnight). But after two rings on the buzzer, we got let in, and got our (tiny-but-cheap-by-Geneva-standards) room. We basically got into bed and collapsed, with our alarm set for something like 5:30 AM the next morning.

The next day, we wandered around Geneva. It’s kind of a nice place, but didn’t have a lot of personality, I felt. It’s fairly busy and modern, though there are still French and German touches to it. Geneva is in the French part of Switzerland, being basically on the French border, so most people were speaking French. In a way, it felt like we were in Quebec. It’s pretty, and I could have spent more time there, but it’s not somewhere I’d hurry back; as European cities go, it lacks that je ne sais quoi (See? French!) that makes it a really attractive destination.

Our main destination in Geneva was the Reformation Wall: a monument to the reformers who were the founders (I think) of the city. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure of the history. Nice monument, though.

In the afternoon, we caught another flight – this time to Rome. It was also a little late, but not badly. Every flight so far has been a success: we made all our connections, they’ve been a little late but the worst was 30-45 minutes, we’ve still got all our luggage (though a zipper pull broke on mine), we’ve had no problems with security (though my pocket full of coins set off the metal detector – whoops), and we always ended up in the right city, which is a nice bonus.

We took a taxi to our hotel in Rome – first time we’ve taken a taxi, but the hotel recommended it. Our hotel is right in the ancient city area; at one point in the cab ride we looked out our window and were driving right next to the Coliseum. I’m actually suffering from a big of architecture overload: there are so many things here that are so old and beautiful and impressive that they all blur together. Take any one out and stand it alone or put it in a North American city and it’d be amazing, but stacked up against all the others it’s just another building.

The hotel is very nice, and the receptionist has been incredibly helpful: when we first came, he asked if it was our first time in Rome, and gave us a map of the area, pointing out the major attractions, giving us suggestions on how to get around (warning about pickpockets on the bus), and pointing out his favourite restaurants in the area (“with the most quality prices”). We took him up on one suggestion and went to an amazing pizzeria, where you get served on outdoor tables on a patio at the end of a little street. Eventually someone started playing Italian music on an accordian and someone else was trying to sell roses. We ordered a pitcher of red wine with the meal, on the grounds that we’re in Italy and that’s the thing to do. Between complete exhaustion, a couple glasses of wine, and comfortable beds, we slept like babies. Well, not like Nik…like other babies.

Which brings me, finally, to today! Today is pretty easy:

We got up early (again), went to a “bar” for breakfact (really a breakfast bar; we got some pastry and took it with us), and caught our shuttle bus to Pompeii (though in Italy it’s spelled Pompei, so I have no idea where our spelling came from). We spent the day wandering around, and I don’t know if there’s much to say that you don’t already know. Most surprising thing: It’s huge! Baically the entire city is still there, and you’re free to wander around a significant portion of it. Lots of streets are closed off, but enough are open that you can walk the entire length of the city (we did). You can see into most of the buildings, and even wander into most of them. In some places, marble pillars, altars, and capstones contrast with the brickwork (which, while surprisingly modern-looking, is a little eroded, and used to be covered with plaster in any case). In other places, carvings, frescoes, mosaics, and other details are still visible. It was a little weird to think that we were walking on roads and going into buildings that were built over 2000 years ago.

We saw a few temples, the theater, the amphitheater, lots of houses, the baths, and I don’t know what else. We debated about hiring a guide but decided not to; I’m still not sure if that was a good decision. I was a strong “no” vote, because I wanted to be able to wander freely without being urged along, but it meant that we didn’t always know what we were looking at, and we had a hard time finding some buildings. Still, a success. The famous plaster casts of the victims are there, but there aren’t that many: thirteen in one place, and three or four in another, including a dog). I suspect there are more that are in the Naples museum; apparently a lot of the artifacts and frescoes and whatnot have been taken to the museum. The buildings were all empty, but I understand that there were things in them that simply aren’t on display in the city now.

When we got back to Rome, it was raining (the first rain we’ve had all trip) but it stopped fairly soon. We had planned to go to a pasta place for dinner, but by the time we found the one that the hotel recommended, we discovered that we didn’t care for the menu, which had a heavy seafood bias. So we went to another place that we had seen, and it was quite good (and had a lot of character). No wine tonight, though.

And…that was the last three days. I’m all caught up now! Apparently “abridged” means “fewer pictures”. Tomorrow we plan to visit the Vatican (though I don’t think we’ll be going into the museums), and then we’ll explore the ancient city (Coliseum, Forum, etc.).

‘Til next time…

Visiting family in Enschede

*Yawn* Good morning. It’s 9:30 on Sunday morning here, our last morning in the Tulip Inn. We have no idea what sort of internet access we’ll have from here on out, so I thought I should put together another post before we leave.

Yesterday morning, we got up fairly early (around 6:30, I think), to make sure we could catch a bus that would give us enough time to get to Centraal Station and figure out how to buy train tickets, where to catch our train, etc. It was a chilly morning (we could see our breath), but felt like it would be a beautiful fall day. We’ve taken enough buses now that we’ve pretty much figured out the system, and are starting to feel comfortable here, so of course we’re leaving now.

We caught our bus and both trains without incident, though the train route that Bert gave us didn’t match the route we found online, and it didn’t match the route that the information desk suggested. We went with majority vote, discarded Bert’s suggestion, and made it to Enschede about 20 minutes early. So we went to the cafe to get coffee while we waited for Om Evert…and it turns out Elinor and Om Evert had gotten to the train station early as well, and were at the cafe while they were waiting for us!

Om Evert drove us around Enschede, giving us his tour of all the old houses and churches and things, complete with a sheet listing all the stops in both Dutch and his translation into English. Elinor was helping with translation, though one time Om Evert was saying something and she repeated it to me in Dutch, which wasn’t very useful but was rather funny.

We considered buying this house, but decided against it. We also saw “Uncle Bill’s rock”:

We also saw the location of the house that got hit by a bomb, and heard a related story involving people jumping out the window onto a mattress, and the father forgetting the important papers he had carefully packed up ahead of time, and instead grabbing, as the one item to save from the fire, a pan of milk, so that the kids would have something to eat. Obviously you can make all the plans in the world, but when you panic you don’t think quite straight.

The tour of Enschede was nice, because of the family history and because the city and architecture are quite different than Amsterdam. Afterwards, we went to Luuk’s house to visit the family. I’m not sure any of us actually caught all the names, but we might be able to sort them out later.

Among other things, the whole The Hague/Amsterdam/Holland/Netherlands thing came up, and nobody seemed to be in agreement as to what was the capital of what (though now we’ve done the research, and it turns out that what I wrote yesterday is exactly backwards). We talked to family members for a while, and I’m starting to pick up the occasional Dutch word — enough that there were times that two people were talking to each other in Dutch and I could figure out what the conversation was about. It feels like if I was here for a month I’d be able to learn a bit of the language, but I’m not so I won’t.

After an early supper (or a late lunch? It was 3:00…) we drove down to a park called (I think) Buurserzand, to go for a walk. It was a really nice area, with an old farmhouse, a lake (though it was almost dried up), and lots of forest.

While we were walking, Om Evert stopped for a rest on a bench. Bert and Tim sat with him while the rest of us kept going, and then we got a phone call to let us know that Om Evert was tired, so they were going to take a shortcut back. We decided that we should take a shortcut back too, so that they didn’t have to sit there waiting…and when we got back to the car, they were nowhere to be found. We had walked right past the place they had stopped to rest, too, so we had no idea what had happened to them. Someone called Bert’s phone, only to learn that they didn’t know where they were, so a couple people got into a car and drove around until they found them.

Back at Luuk’s house, we reconstructed the story. It turns out that by “take a shortcut”, they meant that they were going to keep walking along the trail, but instead of walking the entire loop, they’d cut across and just do part of it. So when we took our shortcut back, they were still coming up behind us, and in fact they ended up walking farther than the rest of us. They assumed we were all going to walk the entire trail, and waited for us where their shortcut intersected with the main trail…but we never went there. When they figured out that we weren’t coming, they walked back to the car, but somehow took a wrong turn or missed a turn and ended up not making it to the parking lot. It’s a good thing we had cell phones, because by the time we all found each other back, it was about 15-20 minutes before sunset.

Anyway, we had coffee at Luuk’s house (quickly) and then Elinor (she’s going by “Ella” now) and us had to go to the train station to catch our trains. Om Evert dropped us off, and we said our goodbyes and came back to the hotel. We missed our bus stop on the way “home” and had to walk a bit, so obviously we don’t have the bus system figured out quite as well as we thought. But we did get back to the hotel: Cheryl went straight to bed, and Tim and I went down to the pub for a bit. We all got plenty of sleep last night; the most of any night so far, I think. This morning we’re probably going to listen to a sermon on the computer, pack our bags, and check out. Then it’s off to Geneva, where we may or may not have internet access, so no promises about when you’ll hear from me again…

Touristing in Holland

Well, the internet access at this hotel is blocking my normal email software, and with the alternate, I’m having trouble sending pictures, which is unfortunate. But I’ve got this blog sitting around that I don’t use for anything, and it supports pictures, so I figured, why not use it? I put together  this whole wonderful photo-journal-y thing.

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