24 August 2008

Cordoba, Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, San Sebastian

Cordoba is a typical Andalucian town. It has tiny winding streets covered in ornate stone patterns, and the homes are all stark white. Meandering through the streets, every so often a small plaza filled with small trees and fountains would open before me. In Cordoba I happened to catch two free outdoor flamenco shows. Young girls did the dancing and stomped their feet at amazing speeds in silk polka dotted dresses. The band played guitar and drums and of course clapped their hands to mimic the rhythm of the dancers feet. They sing desperate melancholy songs and the emotions are reflected in the expressions of the dancers while they pour their hearts out on stage. While in Cordoba I also had the opportunity to visit the Mezquita, a mosque/cathedral expressed by the unusual mix of Catholic and Muslim architecture.

I was so exited to get back to Madrid, one of my most favorite Spanish cities. The entire city seems alive with people out in the streets, eating long afternoon lunches, sietas in the park beneath the towering maple trees, and vibrant nightlife lasting until the morning. The massive Retiro park was my first spot to visit. It was actually the first place I went when I came to Madrid two years ago. It was definitely more crowded now, but it didn´t stop all my memories from coming back. I walked to the football field sized lake and watched the boaters rowing through schools of orange and black fish. I enjoyed a cold coke at the first cafe I ever visited in Europe, and I followed the sounds of beating drums to the central monument on the lake. Here I found a group of at least 12-14 drummers beating wildly to their own tune, somehow working perfectly together. Crowds of people gathered and the hippie, dread-locked Madrianos danced barefoot to the beats.

The next day in Madrid I continued to revisit the parts of the city I had already known. The memories unfolded in my mind as I walked down the Calle de las Huertas, a long narrow walking street lined with colorful builings, cute shops, and popular cafes. I returned to the Corner Cafe where I often had breakfast and enjoyed a fresh squeezed orange juice. Walking into the Plaza Mayor I stood in awe of its size, a huge square surrounded by four connected buildings, forming one seemless courtyard, a retreat for pedestrians. The cafes had spread out into the plaza, and the street performers were filling my ears with music.

The next morning I headed for Segovia, a smaller town about an hour and half by bus from Madrid. I visited Segovia on my last trip to Spain. I revisited the areas I had known as well as I few new to me. I first came to sit in the shade of the enormous roman acqueduct. The grass was cold and soft so I had a bit of a siesta. I continued to the top of the acqueduct for a view of the red-roofed city below. I wandered through the little streets to the plaza mayor, and on the left was the famous cathedral. I continued down the hill to the alcazar, a castle that was supposedly the inspiration for Disney´s own castle. Below the castle winds the paseo walking path until finally below the city is a cool quite park where most of the university students go for siesta. I finally grabbed a bite to eat at the cafe Ven Ven where I had once met a group of crazy swiss folks two years ago before heading back to Madrid.

The next day I went of to check out Toledo. It is much like Segovia with a castle and cathedral, but no acqueduct. It is set on a huge hill along a deep valley with a little river flowing through. I wandered about, stopping for a siesta and had paella for lunch.

I had originaly planned to travel to Biarritz, France, but when I missed the train by 10 minutes I had to quickly run off and find an internet cafe for a new destination. After nearly 2 hours of work I found a less than expensive, but not cheap, hostel in San Sebastian and had a ticket to board the next train. I was excited that I would actually see the city I have always wanted to visit.

The night I arrived we had a down pour with thunder and lightning. The next morning I set out to find cheaper accomodation, with success, in the pouring grey morning. The rest of the day in rained on and off and I wandered up and down along the harbour at the edge of the Atlantic ocean. Elderly men and women were the only ones crazy enough to swim, but it was the perfect oportunity to beat the usual crowds of sunbathers.

I hiked to the top of the castle and had a view of the entire city and the cresent shaped harbor that it rests against. By the afternoon of the second day, the sun had come out and I was at the famous surfer beach watching all the beginners attempt the less than ideal waves. I returned to the beach just a few blocks from the hostel until the sun set and I began to freeze again. Today I am off to the beach once more to relax, work on my tan, and have a swim in the cold Atlantic.

14 August 2008

Valencia and Granada

Valencia is a huge city full of interesting people and amazing architechture. I was so surprised by the beauty of Valencia. The entire city is divided in half by a long, narrow park, not unlike the park blocks in Portland. I walked through this park on the first day and discovered something new around every corner. There were fountians, soccer fields, hiking trails, and even a carnival. I stopped to watch a soccer game and wandered through carnival, watching people play all the little games and winning prizes like TVs, minibikes, and even Jamon (a cured leg of ham).

There was this crazy play structure for kids that was a sculpture of a man dressed like Robin Hood, lying on his back. It was enormous. I even climbed to the top, ran around a bit with the kids, chose my favorite of about 6 different slides, and had a go myself! At the end of the park was the strangest group of buildings I have ever seen. It was three museums but it looked like a city on another planet. There I saw 2 couples having their wedding photos taken and even a live rock band as the sun set. Valencia is very near the beach so of course we made time to go for a swim. The water there was the roughest, but the warmest water I´ve swam in this trip.

Granada is a wonderful city set out in the middle of the desert and was once completely overtaken and ruled by the Moors. There are loads of buildings that look like they belong somewhere in Morocco and you feel a bit as though you are there, especially wandering through all the street vendors and outdoor markets. The main attraction here is the Alhambra, a palace built by the Moors. We heard that we must get in line at about 7 am to see the monument by 10 am, so we met some friends at the hostel, got up at six, climbed up the hill in the dark to the Alhambra and were waiting in line by 6:45. We thought for sure we could get tickets, but after 5 hours, the line had only moved about 10 feet.

We discovered that there was an alternative line for credit cards, so we moved over and within an hour we had our tickets, and as it turned out, we bought the very last 4 tickets! Unfortunately we had to come back later in the evening to use them, and even more unfortunate is that we came too late and had to rush through the gardens and the castle to see the palace on time.

08 August 2008

Montpellier, Sete, and Barcelona

Our last night in Montpellier, I met Jeff from Chicago and Jacklyn from Montreal. The three of us spent the evening making dinner in the park like hobos amongst the other Montpellian hippie kids. We joined several more friends from our hostel at a pub just around the corner. We sat outside enjoying the live reggae band and the lively nightlife.

The next day we took a short train ride to Sete. Sete is a cute little town right on the Mediterranean coast. The town is divided by several canals that serve as marinas for all the boats in the city, and practically everyone here has a boat it seems.

The first night we arrived, we met Ben and Jade who work at the hostel. Ben walked with us to a little beach about an hour and a half from the hostel. We were going to see some live music which was a part of a big music festival that lasts a couple weeks each summer. When we arrived we discovered it was just a DJ at a restaurant on the beach, but it was beautiful and free, so I had no complaints. The next morning we got up and spent a full day at the beach snorkling and sunbathing, ending the day with sunburns.

A couple relaxing days later we were off to Barcelona. When we arrived it was already quite late, and we spent the next hour navigating the metro when we came upon a live band in the underground playing reggae with a crowd and people dancing. I couldn´t wait to get back to the city and check it out the next morning.

Our hostel was about 6 miles outside the city center so we had to take a train there and back each day. When we first came into the city on our first full day, we walked down the main street called La Rambla. The street is just for pedestrians and is filled with street vendors and performers at all hours of the day and night. We saw people selling pets as well. It was never a dull moment on La Rambla!

We wandered all around the city, even stopping for a mid-day siesta along side the other Spaniards in the park under a tree. We randomly found one of the best secret restaurants frequented only by Spaniards. It was a tiny place filled wall to wall with people. The food was fast, delicious, and cheap.

The next couple days we walked all over the city, had time to see the maritime museum and the Gaudi park and several of the buildings he built throughout the city. One night after a late dinner we accidentally missed the last train to our hostel! The guard at the metro said we would have to wait until 5:30am to get the next one. I began to panic as I had no clue how I would begin to find the place as we had only gone to and from by train. I could not comprehend staying in the city all night, especially since we were both beyond exhaustion. Finally, I found a taxi driver who offered to take us for 20 €. I did not care the price at that point, I just wanted to get home.

We have left Barcelona and after a 9 hour wait at the train station, and a 3 hour train, we have finally arrived in Valencia!

30 July 2008

Lyon, Nimes, and Montpellier

The second full day in Lyon I spend wandering the sites of Fouviere Hill, the tallest point in the city. I began wandering through the Roman ruins of two large ampitheatres set side by side. Its actually hard to call them ruins because they are so well intact they are still used for concerts today. In fact there was a concert being set up as I was visiting the site. From there I followed a forested trail along the top of the hillside. I visited the ancient cemetery of Lyon and continued along the trail, across the footbridge to the Fouviere Basilica. It has the most exceptional view of the city below, not to mention a beautiful two story cathedral and rose gardens which led me along my way back down to the city below.

The next four days where spent in the smaller but equally charming Nimes in Southern France. The city was an important Roman colony and is more than 2000 years old. The city was once occupied by Celtic tribes, but when the Romans gained control they surrounded it with a stone wall. A tower sits at the city's highest point and boasts a beautiful view of course! The biggest attraction within the city is the Arena. It is like a smaller verson of the Colosseum in Rome but is the best intact from the empire. Like the ampitheatres in Lyon, it is still used for concerts today.

We met a friend at the hostel, Gabrielle from Montreal, and together the three of us went to visit the Pont du Gard. It was about a 45 minute bus ride, but is absolutely stunning. Three tiers of Roman arches support the aqueduct/bridge that spans a deep green river below.

Yesterday we arrived in Montpellier and already we both feel it is one of our favorite towns. It is a university town full of life and something unexpected on every corner. We first visited the new aquarium called the Mare Norstrum. It is so huge that it takes 2 hours to go through the entire thing. There were of course huge tanks of a variety of corals, fish, lobsters, sharks, nautilus, pirrahnas and even penguins. They had simulations of a submarine and even a moving exhibit of a ship in a storm out at sea on the roaring 40s. It portrayed in detail different ecological marine habitats around the world from the tropics to the glaciated poles. Worth every Euro.

Coming back to the main square in the city at dusk we watched numerous street performers and break dancers. There was a street art show and even a giant timed game of chess, with pieces the size of construction cones, being played in the park which oddly enough resembled Laurelhurst park in Portland.

Today we have wandered about and visited the city's meandering streets lined with cafes, the numerous parks, fountains and olympic swimming pool. We even had time to visit the brand new giant library for a couple hours.

23 July 2008

Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Switzerland and Lyon

Cinque Terre is a national park with a system of trails that connect 5 colorful and tiny seaside Italian villages. The first full day, we hiked from our town Manarola through Corneglia and Vernazza and ended in Monterosso where unfortunately the beach was crowded but were able to do some snorkling. It was five hours of hiking over steep mountains along the Medeterranean cliffs, so we took the train back home to Manarola.

The next day we hiked the opposite direction to the first town, Riomaggiore. From there we followed the 01 trail three hours straight up the mountains! It was quite obviously rarely traveled and over grown; we were the only ones crazy enough to attempt it. On the other side of the mountains we found a tiny town of about 10 homes, a church, and a few unsuspecting Italians!

We visited Pisa on our way to Florence at James request. What can I say about Pisa except that there is a tower that leans accompanied by far too many tourist snapping photos...

In Florence we camped on a hillside overlooking the city. The city itself is of course beautiful and the people are quite friendly! We spent one full day wandering the streets and took off early for our next unscheduled stop, Switzerland!

On the train to Interlaken, as we passed by Lake Como, it began to rain. Steadily raining harder through the Swiss mountains, when we arrived at dusk it had turned into a downpour complete with thunder and lightning. In Switzerland, we found the people to be extremely friendly! A sweet old man who could only speak German insisted on helping us make it safely to our hostel. Switzerland is just what one would expect: towering mountains, lush green countryside, and cute little swiss chalets dotted along the valleys.

We are now in Lyon, France. So far I have met many lovely French folks and spoke francais to them with great success. Alas my studies have paid off! I love the city so far and cannot wait to continue my exploration tomorrow. Au revoir!

15 July 2008

Naples and Rome

Our last full day in Napoli we visited the underground. It was incredible. The first part of our tour was the Roman ampitheatre which had houses built over it. The only way to access the ruins was from a hole in the floor under the bed of an apartment. Only a very small section was visible but it was really cool to walk around underground beneath apartments. The second section was the buried ruins of an aqueduct and cistern. They abandoned the use of it when disease broke out from the contaminated water supply. From then on, trash was thrown down the wells to the cistern for many years. During World War 2 the 5 meters of trash that had built up was cemented over and the whole place was used as a bomb shelter. It was amazing to see the artifacts left behind from that time.

I am now here in Rome and of course have seen all of the important sites; Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill, Pantheon, and Vatican City. Nothing here has been what I expected. Rome is such a beautiful city, and for some strange reason I imagined it a stark grey city full of Roman ruins. It is actually colorful and vibrant and of course filled with ruins, but also beautiful parks and fountains as well. Not to mention an overabundance of gelato shops... I eat gelato everyday, sometimes twice a day.

Yesterday I climed 551 steps to the top of the cupola in the dome of St. Peters Basillica in the Vatican. The view of Rome was simply breathtaking and worth the hike. Today we are off to Cinque Terre! Ciao!

10 July 2008

Italy - Naples and Capri

Two days ago we arrived to our hostel, Giovannis Home. It is actually run out of the massive apartment that belongs to a wonderful Italian man, Giovanni. Upon our arrival, he cooked lunch for myself, James, and two other American girls, Julia and Taylor. Later we took a self-guided tour which Giovanni advised after giving us a rundown on all the great places in Napoli. I think its his mission in life to help travelers discover and love Napoli.

Later that same night we went out for some pizza. Pizza was actually invented in Napoli. This means the best pizza in America is not nearly as good as the very worst pizza in Napoli. We found "Sorbillos" down the street and brought it home to our rooftop terrace to enjoy. We joked that we had finally found the "holy grail" but in all honesty it was the best pizza Ive ever had!

Yesterday we ventured out to the lost cities of Heracleum and Pompeii. These two cities were leveled by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Heracleum aka Ercolano has well preserved mosaic floors and frescoed walls. Pompeii is an amazingly huge city with ampitheatres and gardens, even a brothel, but is less-well preserved. Both were stunning and an absolute blast to experience. We even met and spent the day with a Canadian from Ontario called Amber.

By the end of the day my feet were dead! We arrived back home and faced another 65 steps up to the apartment and Giovanni was cooking up a three course meal to celebrate the upcoming birthdays of Julia and Taylor. It was delicious.

This morning we rose at 6:30am to travel by ferry to the island of Capri. It is a beautiful little island with huge cliffs and tropical flora, but unfortunately a bit over-run by tourists. We took the funicular up the side of one small cliff to reach the town of Anacapri. From there we wandered down a tiny path lined with gated garden homes covered in flowery vines. We reached a little beach with plenty of sunbathing tourists. We snorkeled about an hour and returned up and over the hill for lunch and our departure back to Napoli. We continued from there to a huge castle right on the port and again back to the hostel. My feet felt most certainly destroyed so I spent 20 minutes trying to revive them. Poor things! Tomorrow we leave for Roma, but first we visit Underground Napoli.

08 July 2008

Greek Islands - Ios and Santorini

I have spent the last week or so in the Greek Islands. I was on Ios, a supposed famous party island for four nights and decided the island is relatively tame. People enjoy drinking and dancing innocently until the sun comes up. I never witnessed drug use or and sort of radical skanky behavior even once. Just a lot of fun dancing and eating too many gyros!

Camping for five days on the beach sounds like fun but it was more like a continuous dance party. The resort started the music first thing in morning when the college kids get up and begin drinking. I found myself sunbathing, reading, and wandering the tiny white streets of the village, where surprisingly I found myself one of the few tourists doing so.

Arriving on Santorini, I knew immediately the lifestyle here would suit me better. I was so pleased to run into the Australian couple (Lauren and Josh who we met in Athens) staying at our same hostel by random chance. The next few days we spent with them were such a blast. That night was the 4th of July and the town was having a "western party" which was basically a puny fire on the beach. It made me a bit homesick but I realized that might be a factor in even going. I met a wonderful Australian girl called Katrina and together we ate greasy bakery goods and chocolate milk into the late hours of the night.

The next day the four of us took a tour of Santorini. We boarded a "pirate" charter boat called Afroditi and set sail for the new volcanic island in the center of caldera of Santorini Island. We hiked to the active site of the volcano and witnessed the rising steam and sulfur covered rocks. Next we sailed to a hot spring on the beach of the nearby volcanic island. We jumped from the side of the boat into the cold water and swam into the hot springs. The water is a muddy brown color due to the sulfur and iron in the mud below. The mud supposedly has benefits for the skin, so all of the tourists rubbed it all over their faces and bodies. Including me! It was actually really silly and had everyone laughing.

We continued to the island of Thirassia and had lunch and the four of us swam again in the crystal clear turquoise waters. Off to the town of Oia on the mainland for a view of the famous sunset. We arrived and hired donkeys to carry us up the side of the caldera and into town. The city was amazing, but, after finding the perfect spot atop the roof of an unsuspecting Oian, the sunset proved disappointing.

The next morning the four of us rented ATVs and drove to the capital of Thira. The weather was unbearably hot so we were off to the red sands of famous Red Beach. The hike in was sketchy, the beach overcrowed, and the water turbid, so we returned to our home beach called Perissa. There we snorkled until we froze so we packed our things and headed for the port to reach our overnight ferry.

At the port, as we waited, Josh played his guitar. He was joined briefly by another guitar-carrying traveler called Ryan, from Vancouver, BC. They played and sang together "Under the Bridge"by Red Hot Chili Peppers and the whole port aplauded when they finished, they really played aweseome together.

After the ferry we said goodbye to our Australian friends and headed to the airport. We arrived in Napoli, Italia late last night and were plesantly surprised by our cheap and amazingly beautiful hostel. Tonight we set south for the Amalfi coast and to visit the ruins of Pompeii near Mt. Vesuvius. Ciao!

30 June 2008

Litochoro and Athens, Greece

We took the overnight bus to Thessaloniki, Greece a few days ago. The bus stops several times durning the night including twice along the border to shuffle folks out into the cold at 3am and collect passports. When we finally arrived in Thessaloniki, they just dropped us randomly in the middle of the city. No where near a bus or train station! I managed to learn a few Greek phrases and find help from the locals. We were directed to the train station where we found a shuttle bus to the bus station. From there we took a two hour bus to the town of Litochoro. But when we arrived we discovered we still needed to take a taxi to the hostel which was a few miles away down on the shores of the Aegean Sea.

We spent the day relaxing on the beach and adjusting to the countryside. There we met a Canadian from Montreal named Katherine. We all decided to hike Mt. Olympus the next morning. It ended up being one of the most difficult hikes I've ever done. We only had time to hike a couple hours in and then back out so that we could catch our next bus. The hike was beautiful and we managed to make it to the river that runs through a huge canyon.

After a five hour bus ride we arrived in Athens two days ago. Finding our hostel was easy and I was surprised that it was located in a cute, although touristy, part of town, called the Plaka. Yesterday I spent several hours visiting the Acropolis. The ruins there included the Parthenon and were simply amazing. At the top the wind was blowing so hard that my dress blew right up, giving all the tourists a nice view of my purple polka-dotted underpants!

Last night we met a group of friends at the hostel. We all watched the final soccer match of the EuroCup together here on the big screen. There were several Germans at our hostel singing bits of their anthem throughout the game, but in the end Spain took the cup. We had great fun here on the second day but we are ready to leave. Our next stop is the Greek Islands!

26 June 2008

Leaving Turkey

Today is a bittersweet day in Turkey. İ am leaving this evening after an extended stay in İstanbul to travel to Lıtochoro, Greece. İ have really grown to love İstanbul and the people here. Yes times have been slightly rough around the edges, but its all trial and error when visiting a foreign country.

Since İ last updated my blog İ have been quite busy trying to fit in as much of İstanbul as possible into one short week. İ stepped way outside my comfort zone and visited a traditional Turkish bath. The hamam as it is called in Turkish is 300 years old and absolutely gorgeous. İn the main womens bath area is a domed ceiling with hexagonal windows cut into the top. There are marble collumns and solid marble sinks and floors. At first you arrive in a towel to your own sink in this giant marble room. You are given time to give yourself a bath with the traditional soaps and Turkish silk scrubber. Next, you are taken into the center of the room and instructed to lie down and you are given a full body scrub! Then you are washed with the soap and given a soap massage. You leave the center and return to your sink where she also washes your hair - İ even had mine braided:) The bath house provided cabanas to sleep in and relax with a cup of tea once you are finished.

The next morning we followed the tram line down to the waterfront of the Golden Horn, which is a river that separates two of the three sides of İstanbul. İt was complicated at first but eventually we found the correct ferry to take us on a ride down the Bosphorus. The view was amazing! The boat sailed to the end where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea at this tiny little town. There we had a seafood lunch, purchased a couple souvenirs including for me a bright green dress to wear in Greece.

Yesterday İ spent the day relaxing and packing up my things to leave for Greece. A group of us here at the hostel met a couple nights ago and have been having quite fun the last two nights. Last night the hostel suggested a restaurant down on the Kennedy Caddesi which is right on the waterfront. The view was amazing and the food was excellent and quite cheap. Afterwords was the big soccer match between Turkey and Germany. The bars and restaurants fill the streets here with seats and tables and each has their own big screen to project the game. There were people everywhere with faces painted lighting fireworks and having a great time. The atmosphere had a really great vibe and we all just soaked it in! After each goal or shot or foul - anything really - the crowd goes wild! Unfortunately Turkey lost - but the overall experience was the highlight of my time here in İstanbul. Next stop - Greece!

21 June 2008

Istanbul

Today we spent a good part of the afternoon at the Grand Bazaar. İt is a huge chaotic indoor arcade-maze of various shops which sell all about the same things; rugs, jewelery, head scarves, leather goods, çay (tea), and knock-off designer bags, shoes, and clothes. The vendors are a lot of fun to talk with and haggle prices. All can speak English and love to start up a conversation with all the shoppers. Sometimes they wont let you walk away, but using Turkish to say No Thanks, usually shows you truly aren't interested.

We were talked into a rug shop near the tram. The owners insisted we come inside despite our stating we have absolutely no money to spend. After about a 20 minute Tukısh family history lesson and two cups of çay later, İ finally convinced him there was no way İ could spend 750 Lira ($600) on a rug, we all shook hands, exchanged good wishes, and were on our way.

20 June 2008

Finally here! England and Turkey

I spent all day Wednesday and Thursday taking three flights to make ıt to London although when I arrıved my luggage had not... ! I spent about £15 on a coach to Readıng and by the afternoon I had arrıved at my home for the evenıng. I was fortunate enough to be hosted by my travel partner, James' Uncle Andrew and hıs wıfe, Amanda. We spent the afternoon walkıng about the country sıde on a public pathway that led through fıelds of crops and sheep herds. The weather was beautıful and breezy. To help keep us awake, Amanda's seven year old daughter Emıly played wıth us on the trampoline at least two hours. They also had two bunnıes and a kıtten called Possum to keep us entertaıned. At the end of the evenıng, Andrew took us to hıs favorıte pub about two blocks from hıs home ın the mıddle of hıs country neıghborhood. We all shared beers ın the garden as the sun set.

The next mornıng we were up early and arrıved at the aırport by 4 am to begın the search for my mıssıng luggage. We had no success, and ınstead ordered a wonderful breakfast at a safarı themed aırport restaurant and had just enough tıme to make our flıght to Istanbul at 7 am.

It ıs now 2253 and we have spent the day tourıng ourselves around the cıty. It ıs beautıful especıally ın the dıstrıct we are lucky enough to stay ın; Sultanahmet, whıch has all of the ımportant hıstorıcal sıtes, the grand bazaar, and ıs rıght on the water.

The Turkısh people are wonderful. A woman and her mother ımmedıately offered us help at the traın statıon so we could fınd our hostel... varıous people on the street wıll just come up to you and ask what you are lookıng for and how may they help. They are all so frıendly and pleasant.

The hostel ıs quıte central and on eıther sıde down the road are the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofıa Mosque. Both are ıncredıble breathtakıng. Each has a central dome and surroundıng mınarets whıch call out prayers throughout the day.

The hostel also has a wonderful rooftop restaurant/lounge wıth ample seatıng and turkısh pıllows for relaxıng and an awesome vıew of the Bosphorus Sea. Rıght now the hostel ıs showıng the soccer game between Turkey and Croatıa on a bıg screen on the lounge on the same floor of our room. Just as the game began, our neıghbors entertaıned us wıth a fıreworks show.