Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The End...?

Well we're back in the states now, after nine weeks of travel. Here's my final update for this part of the blog, but stay tuned for more updates once we move to London...that's right, London.

When I last updated, we were in Milan, waiting for a train to Switzerland. It was a gorgeous trip, made more fun by the occasion of our teaching new card games to Jennica, a Canadian model sitting at our table. We got to Switzerland and breathed a collective sigh of relief. It's a fabulous country. Everything is clean and efficient; everything works the first time; and people were really friendly and helpful. We got to Interlaken that first day and set up our tent at the best campsite of the trip, right on the banks of the River Aare, which was the most incredible shade of greyish-greenish-blue.

Our first full day we spent relaxing, running errands, and waiting for Bryan and Christina to show up from Venice. We checked out the town and found some fantastic grocery stores (thank goodness; Swiss restaurants are outrageously expensive). We also discovered that Swiss chocolate is omnipresent and delicious.

Once B and C arrived, we began our Swiss routine of hiking, mountain-gazing, napping, and card-playing, and we stuck to that routine for four more days. We also took a couple day trips. We went to Bern, which is a beautiful town (and our fifth European capital city) with neat buildings, eccentric fountains and clocks, and a bear pit holding the two mascots for the city, which people feed by dropping apples down, where the bears catch them expertly in their mouths. We also went to Luzern, another charming and cozy city on a beautiful lake. Just outside of Luzern, we went to the top of Mount Pilatus on three separate cable car excursions, including one that was at least a hundred feet off the ground that swept us up over deep canyons to the very summit of the mountain. About halfway up we got out of the cable car and went down the summer toboggan run, which was fun for everyone but Andrew, who, in keeping with his behavior at Versailles, hurt himself by falling off the sled and getting dragged down the metal track for a couple dozen feet. Ouch. The views from the summit were fantastic, and we also enjoyed the trip down the other side on a cog railway.

But our favorite Swiss place was a little mountain lake a 30 minute hike from our camp site. We walked over with picnic supplies (ham, wurst, cheese, bread, various salads, pickles, and mustard...and three kinds of chocolate), sat for a while in the sun, then plunged into the surprisingly warm lake and swam and dove and jumped off a rope swing until our arms were sore. It was harder to float in the freshwater than it had been in the Mediterranean, but I managed to stay on my back and watch the clouds pass over the tops of the mountains, and I have rarely been happier in my life.

But all good things must come to an end, and Andrew, Robert, and I left Switzerland on Sunday on a first-class train with a first-class brunch and mimosas packed in our picnic bag and finally got to Paris. We checked in, got some lunch, and wandered through the strangely empty streets. Nothing was open; there were hardly any people walking around; and we wondered why, until we made it to the Champs-Elysses and found the entire city crowded on every spare inch of sidewalk straining to see the circling cyclists completing the final stage of the Tour de France. It was really exciting! People were cheering and waving banners, and there were cameras thick on the ground and helicopters roaring overhead. We stood for half an hour and saw the cyclists rush by in a blaze of color several times and cheered for no one in particular. It was great. That night we ended our trip with a fabulous dinner in the most fashionable part of town. I had tuna tartare with avocado puree, a lobster and herb salad, and creme brulee. Now that's how you do Paris. Our last day was a blur of trains, buses, and airplanes, but we finally made it back to New Jersey, where Uncle Fred is helping us recuperate. Then it's another whirlwind two weeks, and back to London! We're really looking forward to seeing everyone before we leave, but if we don't see you now, we'll be back at Christmas, and you can always come visit us in London!

Thanks for reading about our trip...I hope you'll also read about our new adventures starting soon!

Monday, July 23, 2007

So hot right now

Still here...sorry. Internet access is expensive in Italy!

We had an amazing time in Nice. We swam in the Mediterranean, toured a candy factory, ate delicious food, took naps, and saw the new Harry Potter movie with French subtitles. It was, so far, the best part of the trip. I cannot wait to go back!

We left Nice for Italy, and we started out in Pisa, where we camped for a couple nights, taking time to see the leaning tower and visiting the perfectly preserved medieval town of Lucca before heading to San Gimignano, another medieval town with fourteen big towers all along the walls. In Lucca and S.G. I got to try out my limited Italian knowledge, and it was so much fun! It is amazing what a thrill something so small can be. One night I gathered picnic supplies from four different shops without a word of English. It was great. The last night at Pisa we played pool with some Italian guys, and that was another fun test of language skills...and pool skills: Bryan kicked their butts :-) In S.G. we stayed at a farmhouse, which was another language challenge because the family there didn't speak English at all. We got along okay. You can get a lot of meaning out of simple hand gestures, and you can get a lot of kindness by just smiling and saying thank you.

We left S.G. for Rome, where we ditched our planned campsite way outside the city for a really nice, cheap hotel in the city. We walked around the city at night and threw our three coins in the fountain, like you do. It was really nice. The next morning, Andrew and I left for Sorrento while Bryan and Christina stayed behind. We just couldn't stand the heat anymore and figured the coast would be cooler. We took the train down the coast to Naples, which was, in a word, disgusting. But we left right away for Sorrento, which was not so disgusting. It still wasn't what we were looking for, though, so we hopped on an interesting bus ride up over a high mountain ridge and down the windy cliffside road on the other side. After an hour and a half of nailbiting, bus-turning, scooter-passing action, we arrived in Amalfi and applauded the bus driver. Amalfi was gorgeous. It is a little town on a small harbor south of Sorrento, and it is famous for its volleyball-sized lemons and limoncello liqueur. We splurged on a nice hotel on the water and spent a day and a half just relaxing (and enjoying the local culinary specialties).

After our nice mini-vacation, we headed back to Sorrento to meet Bryan and Christina and Robert and to send Andrew o ff to London for his interview. We found Bryan and Christina okay, but just as Robert arrived at the train station, we later learned, the train workers went on strike. Just like that. So he was stranded in Naples. Yuck. We found him eventually the next morning and set out for a long and thrilling day at Pompeii, sans Andrew.

Pompeii was awesome. I know that's an overused word, but it really was just that. It is so much bigger and complete than I realized. The streets felt eerily empty, and when a nearby wildfire started raining huge black ashes down on us, we were a little alarmed, but it passed in the little breeze there was. It was ridiculously hot, but in such beautiful surroundings, who can be too upset?

The next day, Andrew came back and we explored Sorrento a little bit before a nice dinner. And yesterday, we took a six-hour train trip that turned into an eleven-hour train trip to get to Bologna. We walked around the beautiful city center this morning, and now we're in Milan, waiting for a train to Interlaken, Switzerland.

So there you go.

More news, and photos, as soon as possible.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The pain in Spain stays mainly in the train

We caught the night train from Paris to Madrid. I had never been on a night train before, and it was a lot of fun! We had a little four bunk bed car, and it felt like a slumber party. I slept really well, too, which surprised me, but the motion of the train was calming, and it rocked me right to sleep. We woke up in time to cross the border into Spain and catch our next train (the night train only took us to the border; apparently the trains in Spain are on a different gauge, so you have to transfer at the border). The next train took us all the way to Madrid, and it was a long, long ride. The scenery was beautiful at first, when we were in the mountains, but then it all started to look the same: yellow field after yellow field, punctuated every so often by a crumbling stone wall. It was all pretty, too, but it just went on and on. We finally got there, though, and I was welcomed to Spain by an old woman on the train attacking me. She apparently thought that she should be allowed to walk through the line instead of waiting with everyone else, so she started yelling and then just started slapping me. Looking back, I guess it`s sort of funny, but at the time, it was not very pleasant. It took us a long time to get out to our campsite south of the city, and it was freakishly hot once we got there, but once the sun finally started to set and we bought some picnic food, things were much better.

Our first day in Madrid, we slept in a bit to recover, then went into town and had paella and sangria for lunch in the Plaza Mayor, which was beautiful and calm, and which we later found out was the place where the Spanish Inquisitors executed heretics. Delicious. Later on, we went to the Museo Reina Sofia to see some modern art, including lots of Miros, Dalis, and Picassos. They have Picasso`s Guernica painting, and it is really quite moving. It takes up an entire wall, and at that scale, the emotions on the faces in the painting are gut-wrenching. I`m really glad we got to see it. At night, we went back to the campsite for another picnic under the stars. The picnics in Spain were so much fun and such a relief after the heat of the day.

We had to stay in Madrid an extra day because of the train schedule, so on our last day we had the time to be a little relaxed. We walked around the plaza in front of the Palacio Real, picnicked in the Retiro Park, and tried to go to the Museo Prado, but it was too expensive because they wouldn`t accept our student IDs. Spain was a lot more work than France because only Christina knows any Spanish and the whole culture seems a lot more foreign. We were tired, so we went swimming at the campsite and had one last Madrid picnic.

The next day, we caught the train to Barcelona, walked through the city a bit, found our campsite, and went down to the beach. It was Bryan and Andrew`s first view of the Mediterranean, and it was a gorgeous beach. As the sun was setting, we walked back and had a late tapas dinner at the campsite restaurant. It was on a terrace filled with happy people drinking and eating and laughing, and there was great music playing, and the food was delicious. That dinner will be my abiding memory of Spain.

Our day in Barcelona was great, too. We went to the Sagrada Familia cathedral to check out the construction progress. We couldn`t understand why it is taking so long to build until we saw it. It is the most elaborate building I have ever seen, and if they ever finish it, it will be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. We spent the afternoon wandering through the elegant streets and parks and marvelling at the houses designed by Gaudi. They were really crazy looking but beautiful and natural, too. Very difficult to photograph, though. We tried to go to the Boqueria market, but it was closed. I guess I`ll have to go back some time.

Our leaving Spain was, unfortunately, similar to our entering Spain. We got stuck in traffic on the bus and missed our train, and when I got in line at the station to try to sort things out, I got attacked by another old lady. I kid you not. I don`t understand what possesses a person to be so rude in the first place, but to continue yelling—and hitting!—when I obviously don`t understand the language just seems dumb. I was infuriated, but Bryan and Christina, with their level heads, saved the day by finding a different line and figuring out an alternative route. It took all day, but we finally made it out of Spain and into France and got to glorious Nice. That`s where we are now, and we are loving it. More later. Au revoir!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Still here

With four of us traveling together now, it has been a lot harder to find the time to update the blog, but I am still here, and here is a new update. I apologize for any typos, but French keyboards are very different from American ones, and they take some getting used to.

We made it to Paris without too much trouble and met up with Bryan and Christina on the 30th. We had three full days in Paris, and we made the most of them. The first day, we wandered around and did a tour of Parisian highlights such as the Place Bastille, Notre Dame, Place Concorde, and Tuileries, then we went to the Eiffel Tower at night to see the sun set. I felt a little like a tour guide at first, but then we all got in the groove and really enjoyed ourselves. We had some classic Parisian food, too: Croque Monsieur, salads, croissants, and pommes frites.

The second day, we did a whirlwind tour of the Louvre and hit all the big sights plus a bunch of the emptier rooms with beautiful sculptures. The whole place was packed, so we just spent a little time, then headed for Versailles. The palace is kind of expensive, and, in my opinion, overrated, so we just wandered around the gardens for a long time and saw the outsides of all the buildings. The exciting part of Versailles for us was when Andrew and Bryan decided to race and Andrew took a dive right into the gravel. I took pictures. He is totally okay now, but he looked pretty bad for a while.

Our last day in Paris we went to the Catacombs, which I thought were pretty creepy. I think I would be pretty upset if my bones ended up anonymously on public display like that. It was fascinating, though. That afternoon, the rain cleared up (apparently it rains outside of England, too) and we strolled down the Champs Elysses and had some world famous macarons at Laduree. They were different from macaroons I had tasted before; these were intensely flavoured airy cookies filled with buttercream, and they were out of this world. We had pistachio, rose, orange blossom, and lemon flavoured macarons and a pot of Tea a la Marie Antoinette. That evening, as we were getting ready to leave on the night train, we had another adventure at a local laundromat. Andrew is the only one of us who can speak any French, so we still don`t really understand what the problem was, but the owner came out of his office about halfway through and just started yelling at us in French and gesticulating wildly. We think he was angry that we were doing only one load of laundry, but Bryan and Christina had just gotten here, and none of us brought very many clothes. It was sort of humorous but also terrifying, because he was really furious at us and he would not stop yelling, even though we obviously couldn`t understand him. More on that later.

Right now, we are in Nice and there is free (and slow) internet access in our hotel, so I will write more tonight or tomorrow about our adventures in Spain. Au revoir!