Monday, April 27, 2009

Nice Nice and Monarchial Monaco

I arrived in Nice Sunday afternoon and checked into the hostel, the Villa St Exupery, named after the author of "The Little Prince". It was a pretty good place, with nice rooms, a large bar/cafe that served good meals, a great number of computers for guests use, en suite bathrooms, a large kitchen, travel advisers at breakfast and more.

I was in a 12 bed dorm. Also in the dorm were an Australian couple, Elvis and Mel, who were traveling around Europe after having worked in London for a while and as it turned out had also booked the same place as me in Paris. There was also a British couple and a Canadian whose names I did not catch, and a few others who I didn't talk to much.

On Monday I went to Monaco, land of fancy casinos, fancy hotels, high police to citizen ratios and fast cars. I caught the bus from Nice which took about half an hour. I got off close to the big casino. It was not yet open, and at any rate I wasn't going to pay €10 just to look in the door. I did go in to one of the less exclusive, regular people casinos nearby, and almost had a go on the Star Wars slot machine, but it would not accept coins and I wasn't willing to put more than €2 into the thing.

Next I took a ferry across the harbour and climbed the hill until I reached the Oceanography museum. While I didn't visit the museum, it was here that I boarded a mini-train tour around town. The tour finished where it started and I continued up the hill stopping in along the way at a church where the royal family are buried, and then on to the Royal Palace. I visited the palace and the adjacent Napoleon museum, which had in its collection some of Napoleon's hats and other knick knacks, a number of historical documents, the evolution of the uniforms of the Monagasque forces and more.

I then walked down the other side of the hill and visited the numismatics & philately museum, the car collection of the Prince numbering 100+cars, all expensive in their day and ours, and the maritime museum which was a tightly packed collection of model ships. Having had a full day I headed back to Nice and the hostel.

On Tuesday I walked around Nice. Nothing really exceptional to mention. My plan shortened when I reached the beach, which was entirely devoid of sand, and instead being made up completely of stones. I sat on the beach a few hours just watching the ocean.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Grandiose Genoa

New entry, almost a new country. The train has been stopped for a while, which suggests that we are on one side of the Italian/French border. My last stop in Italy was Genoa, the third of the old Maritime Republics I have visited (the others being Pisa, Venice and Amalfi (I hadn't heard of this one either)). Genoa, like Pisa, has a few great sites, but I wouldn't recommend more than two days there. The place I stayed was the first hostel I'd been to that didn't have free wifi, or indeed any wifi. I made do by stealing wifi from the nearby apartment blocks. To the owner of the wifi network named Sitecom, thank you.

On Friday I kind of followed the walking tour on the back of my map, but kept going off the track as I went to look at other things. I took in, in no particular order, a church whose name I don't recall, the Piazza Principe from the outside only, a port building, an old sailing ship, the outside of Europe's largest aquarium, which is dwarfed by Osaka's aquarium and for which I thought €17 was too much, an old church that was frequented by pilgrims back in the day, San Lorenzo, a cool church with a lot of alternating black and white stripes and its attached museum that contained amongst other items a large, green, hexagonal bowl that was believed to be the Holy Grail, the Ducal palace, a few parks, a museum of oriental art that closed at 1pm, half an hour before I arrived, Genoa's via Garibaldi (every Italian city has one), another church museum that I could get into with my ticket from the San Lorenzo museum, and the house of Columbus.

On Saturday I walked out to the lighthouse, which is around 500 years old and a symbol of Genoa.200904187025.JPG Next I went to the Galata Maritime museum, which was pretty good, but a bit pricey at €10 (by comparison entry into the Vatican museum was €14). After the museum I walked around the harbour area for a bit before heading back. On the way back I passed a cafe called &Sigma pi log pi, which I would have gone to if it had been open at the time on the strength of the name alone.200904187038.JPGThen I passed the museum of St Augustine, which was housed in an old convent. There were some really good statues in the collection, although I wasn't really excited by the exhibition of blue tiles, but it was the only section to also provide information in braille. As I left this museum it was a bit after 5, so I called it a day and headed back to the hostel for a dinner of beef ravioli.

I have started to look forward to the end of my travels. I've looked into cheap flights from Portugal to England and they do exist, although they don't leave from Lisbon. It looks like I'll be reaching England around the 6th of May.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Panoramic Pisa

On Monday I caught the train for Pisa, which required two transfers. It was while on this journey I, for the first time since I left Korea, was, however briefly, somewhere I had been before. Firenze Santa Maria Novella, the main train station in Florence. I was there for only about twenty minutes, enough time to find out what platform my next train was on, buy some lunch and get on the train. I arrived in Pisa about 4pm, and made my way to the campsite I was staying at (they rent out their cabins by the bed) which was just under one click from the leaning tower.
On Tuesday I spent the day in the vicinity of the tower, splurging on the tickets to visit everything there (the tower, the church, the baptistery, the cemetery building thing, and the two museums, €25, of which €15 was for the tower). Climbing up the tower was great. You can feel the tilt as you go up the spiral staircase. The view from the top is pretty good. The Piazza dei Miracoli is the standout feature of Pisa. My second day in town I wandered around town looking at the other historic buildings which weren't anywhere near as impressive.

Serene San Marino and Radical Rimini

Today I'm on an intercity plus train, which doesn't seem all that plus to me, from Pisa to Genoa. We seem to be following the coast, as when I looked out the window I could see the ocean. This is presumably the Tyrrhenian Sea, as I'm on the western side of the Italian Peninsula.

Last time I wrote was on the way to Rimini, which I wasn't going to for itself, but because it is the closest Italian town to San Marino, the other country inside Italy. Rimini is right on the Adriatic coast, and as it happens was hosting the annual world frisbee championships, which I didn't get around to seeing. Rimini seems like it's somewhat of a party town, what with condom machines on the street and a sexy pantie machine in the hostel.

The first day there I visited San Marino. I caught a bus there which took about an hour, climbing up the mountain for about half of that. Once there I followed the main path up the hill as it folded back upon itself several times as it approached the top. I visited the Public Palace, the main seat of the Government of San Marino, the biggest church, which was closed, the vampire and werewolf museum, which was just a collection of mannequins dressed up like famous vampires. It would have been a bit better if there was information in English, but it's not like I'd have learnt a lot I didn't already know. Then I visited the three towers, starting with the largest, which has great views, then the middle one, which included an antique arms museum (antique in the case being pre 20th century as they had a decent rifle collection) (I also passed a modern arms museum that was, alas, closed). The third tower was the smallest and while you could walk up to it, it was not open to the public. After that I had a look at the museum of curiosities, which was a Ripley's believe it or not sort of thing. About a third of the way through I was tempted to start making notes on the grammar mistakes on the displays.

I had lunch at a restaurant on the edge of the mountain which had a great view. I finished my visit by taking in the National Museum, St Francis' museum and the church of St Francis.

While in San Marino I tried to acquire some San Marino coins. Initially I tried making a few small purchases using notes, but this did not work although I did get a €2 from the Netherlands. I ended up buying some coins, a 50 and 20 Eurocent for 3 Euros. This is obviously a lucrative industry for San Marino as even after throwing in a few cents for the backing paper and plastic sleeve, it's still about a 300% profit margin. Even better for the merchants is the set of 1, 2, and 5 Eurocents that goes for €2.50, a profit of about 2000%. The more official looking sets that had one of each coin was €28.

Also on sale in San Marino were a lot of replica swords and guns. I saw quite a few swords from movies including Kill Bill, Lord of the Rings, Highlander, Conan, and more. The guns tended to be airsoft weapons, which I think is a less messy form of paintball.

That night the hostel I was at had a pasta party which meant a free dinner, which was good because I spent too much money in San Marino.

On Sunday I explored Rimini, taking in most of the sites in the historic centre, such as the arch of Augustus, a few churches, a statue of Caeser with a quote about crossing the Rubicon, a 2000 year old bridge and the local museum, for which entrance was free on Sundays.200904126729.JPG

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ruinous Rome and the Vainglorious Vatican

Tuesday was back to the Colosseum and today I went inside. But first I went to the Palatine hill and the Roman forum, which were interesting but a bit lackluster. The audioguide wasn't so good as the locations weren't clearly marked on the ground and a few bits on the suggested route were closed off for restoration, which didn't help. After the forum I went into the Colosseum, which is awesome. There was an exhibit on the Flavian emperors who the the ones who built the Colosseum that was quite interesting. Walking around the Colosseum was amazing.

Wednesday was V day. I went to the Vatican museums. They must be huge, but you don't get a feel for it as you follow a twisting path up and down, so I guess it's a high density museum. The Raphael rooms were incredible incredible, although overshadowed by the Sistine Chapel, which had the angriest guards I've seen, constantly telling people to be quiet and not to take photos (I discretely took two photos). The Sistine Chapel is one of those things everyone knows of, but seeing it in all its glory is great. I think always seeing just the bit with God and Adam makes you forget there's a whole lot more to the place. I could have done without seeing God's ass though.

I had lunch, sent two postcards (the two family member's whose address I know off the top of my head), and then left the museum. I checked the time once I got outside and was shocked to find it was almost 4. I had thought it was round 2-2:30is. This means I spent about 6 hours in the museum.

Then it was into St Peter's Basilica, which is, quite frankly, huge. It took a while to get inside, but well worth it. It is a building on a grand scale. I know I'm repeating myself, but the place is big. After looking around inside, I went underneath it into the crypt where more of the popes are buried (a bunch are upstairs in the church itself). I'm pretty sure this is not appropriate music to be playing on your ipod when down there. There was a small crowd in front of John Paul II's casket, and a few flowers on that of John Paul I. On the way out I got a photo of a Swiss Guard in uniform.

On Thursday I went back to St Peter's as I wanted to go up to the top of the dome, but after joining the very long line (much longer than the day before), I learned from someone offering tours of the Vatican museum that the church was closed for another 90 minutes because there was a mass on, which seemed to be verified by what was being shown on the giant TV screens around the piazza. I decided not to wait around and went to a few sites I'd yet to get to including the Circus Maximus and the Lateran Cathedral, which was also closed. I passed up an opportunity for a plenary indulgence by climbing some stairs on my knees (available every Friday in Lent and one other day of your choice each year). Back at the hostel I cooked for the first time since January, if you consider adding a packet mix of risotto into a pot of water and applying heat.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Regal Rome

Next on the itinerary was the eternal city Rome. Rome, the city founded by Romulus and Remus, the city that ruled most of the known world in its day. The city with a country inside it.

My hostel in Naples and Rome have been different than most of the places I've stayed at so far. They were both a bit out of the centre, about half an hour bu public transport. this had the effect of making me spend more time away from the hostel and have longer days of sight seeing. This combined with a late sunset (7:30ish) meant even on slack days I was doing 5-6 hours of walking around (I noticed on the train I'm a bit sunburnt now). I checked in about 1 o'clock and headed back into downtown Rome around 2ish. I first visited a church which had an exhibition on Galileo The exhibition kept bringing up the fact that Galileo was not an atheist, which I wasn't aware anyone was claiming to be the case. Then I kept walking until I got to the Spanish steps, where I saw some guys offering a free walking tour starting in about 15 minutes, so I went along on the tour. It took in a few squares, went past some churches, the column of Marcus Aurelius, the Pantheon and finished at the Trevi fountain, where I duly threw in a coin to ensure I would one day return to Rome. After the tour I called it a day.

On Sunday I explored the area north of the Colosseum. This took in a few of the forums, Trajan's column, the monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II, the 1st king of Italy, which shows the Italians haven't lost it when it comes to building grand elaborate monuments, a few churches (of course) and later headed up to the Pantheon again to see it slightly less crowded (the day before the tour got there just after a mass had finished) and then on to the Piazza Navona where I bought Mum's birthday present.

Monday I stayed at the hostel until noon as I stayed in to call Mum up to say Happy Birthday. In the afternoon I crossed the Tiber and caught a few sights along the river. I had lunch just in front of the St Peter's, then followed the Tiber south and finished the day by circling the Colosseum

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Absolute Athens

So I've been slack keeping things up to date. I last wrote while on the train to Athens from Istanbul, before entering Greece. It was definitely so because I did not mention the hassles I had on that train after the border. When I bought the ticket I was told I'd have to change trains at Pythion on the Greek side of the border and I'd have to get a reservation before boarding. What wasn't mentioned was the fact that it would cost €6.50, nor that the station would not accept Turkish Lira, US dollars, bank cards of any kind and it did not have a bank machine. I and a Spanish guy were lucky the two Japanese girls on the train (the train had a grand total of four passengers) had just enough Euros to pay for us as well. When we changed at Thessaloniki we had to pay another €8.50. Fortunately this station had some ATMs and snack bars, so I could pay back the Japanese girls and buy some food, as all I'd had to eat that day was two bread rolls and about a dozen pieces of Turkish delight. Dinner was a nutritious bottle of coke and two snickers bars.

I arrived in Athens in the morning and checked in with no hassles. The room was a bit cramped with maybe a foot or so between the bunks, which were two regular bed securely connected on top of each other.

That day I took a walking tour that took in all the impressive remains from antiquity, various agora, temples, monuments, and of course the Acropolis. On the way back to the hostel after the tour I saw a Games Workshop reseller, and popped in to buy a hand drill which has made adding coins to my chain a lot easier. I also learnt a bit about 5th ed.

The rest of the time in Athens I visited museums, one or two a day. The museums in Athens have the annoying habit of closing around two or three o'clock, as do the banks. This meant my afernoons had little to do, especially once daylight savings kicked in.

Other highlights of Athens include the Archeology museum which has a pretty good sculpture collection (comparable to that of the Hermitage) and the Antikythera mechanism, Thanasis kebabs where I had lunch for three out of five days and the original Olympic stadium from 1896 with the required statue of a naked guy in front of it.

Did I mention most of the statue of guys were naked guys. Even the soldiers. Especially the soldiers. They must have been good. I'm sure I'd at least where underpants if I was going to war.

Going from Greece to Italy was a multistep process. First I caught a bus from Athens to Patras. Then I caught the ferry from Patras to Bari. The ferry was huge with a bunch of semi-trailers parked in the garage, and giant escalators to get from the shore level to the main passenger level. My berth was small but comfortable. There wasn't much motion from the sea, but there was a lot of vibration from the engines. After arriving in Bari, I caught a train to Naples, the home of pizza, situated between the sea and Mt Vesuvius. I got to the hostel at about 6, and for dinner I got a marinara pizza from a nearby pizzeria that was really good. They have the kitchen right up the front and it was entertaining watching them make all the pizzas.

The first full day in Naples was spent around Pompeii. I started with a trip up Mt Vesuvius, which has pretty good views from the top. No lava though. I descended the mountain and after lunch I explored the ruins of Pompeii. After Greece, a 7pm closing time was glorious, although I only stayed until 6. Pompeii was great to wander through. Most stuff was pretty well conserved compared to other sites I've seen. Thank you volcano. The audio guide was pretty good, having a lot of background information as well as specific details about buildings and structures.

The second day was spent walking around the historic centre of Naples. The highlight was the underground tour of the aqueduct system built by the Greeks and Romans and since then used as air raid shelters, trash cans, winery and more. I also saw a few churches and castles, but they weren't as cool.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Petition of Sorts

Lords of the sea and wave
your audience I crave
It has come to pass that as I roam
My journey brings me to your home
It is a place I have yet to dwell
Amid the spray and swell
Safe passage do I ask of you
Let me sail on seas of blue
The lords of wind and sky
Have always let me by
The lords of steel and rail
Have always left me hale
The lords of wheel and road
Have always lightened my load
So hear me now lords of dolphin and of fish
I beg of thee one simple wish
Lords of the deep and blue
Let my path be straight and true