Sunday, 7 September 2014

Pizza in Pisa

Yes, you may have noticed I seem to have gotten half-way through my trip and then have gone quiet for two and a half years...

There are several reasons for this, mainly the rest of the trip was quite full on and had less down time on trains etc, but also in a couple of posts time I will deal with this further - there was another reason which will make more sense when I deal with it then.

My apologies if it is obvious from here on in that it has been written 2 years after the fact.

From memory the journey to Pisa was non-eventful.

Ah, the Joys of Southern Europe in Summer
Once I got to Pisa I worked out I had several hours - I got hold of a map and checked my luggage into a storage place and started the trek to the leaning tower. It turns out the Leaning tower is across town from the train station - across the river and at least a 15/20 minute walk - so I got moving. When I got close enough to be confident I was on the right track but not too close so I wasn't paying tourist prices I found a pizza shop and bought a couple of slices, from memory they were damn nice- I'm guessing my appetite was starting to come back.

Once I got to the park where the Leaning tower is, I found an empty piece of ground and sat down and finished my lunch. This was probably the first time this trip I made good use of  Rick Steve's Europe through the back door - by using it with the back door - using it to sit on. In his defence, it is a great book, especially the bit about the Cinque Terre. He can probably be accredited with making it the tourist spot that it is today. Since returning I have enjoyed listening to several of his clips on YouTube. It was a book I had picked up in a hostel book exchange my first time around Europe in 2009. Anyhow, as I was saying - I sat down and had my lunch and figured in the time I had I probably couldn't do/go inside all the things there, so I chose to do two, the Battistero di San Giovanni (The Pisa Baptistery of St. John) Dome, and the Cathedral. Of course I had the obligatory look at the Leaning Tower - but I decided against going inside it as I figured if there was any day it would fall, it would be the day I climbed it, that and the fact that I think the lean would mess with my balance especially near the top.
Credit to Google Maps for this picture

Anyway, the Dome was pretty cool - it had awesome acoustics. I don't remember a whole lot about the Cathederal - in the end they all blend into one. I did catch a  quick documentary on how they fixed the lean (or got it to a safe angle) on the Leaning tower which was also interesting.

Once I finished there, I headed back to the train station and proceeded onto La Spezia - which I recall was a nice trip - as we were most of the way there.

When in Rome...

My hostel was reasonably easy to find from the station, so  I checked in and had a shower before grabbing some dinner. I believe I went for Gnocchi this time.

The next day I invested in a two day train pass, and decided I would knock off country #30 - the Vatican City. To be honest it was a bit of a disappointment as it was really just some glorified buildings with paintings on the roof. There wasn't even passport control, I had expected that we'd be allowed to walk around the "city". All in all, it was a bit boring and pretentious.

Once I finished that I decided to walk to several things that were nearish where I was, and would use the subway where convenient. First stop however was some food - I believe I opted for a panini and some gelato. The next stop was a small castle - Castel Sant Angelo - it looked kinda interesting but didn't entice me enough to go in, to be fair I think I had finally reached castle-apathy. I sat down in front of it and finished my lunch. 

From there I walked beside the river until I got to the next bridge and crossed there and went to the Piazza Navona. From there I headed to the Pantheon. On the way however I came across a souvenir shop and bought my newborn niece a t-shirt and a little pink teddy bear. I decided from then what would be cool was taking a series of pictures with the teddy as I travelled through Europe and back home on the journey back to her. The first photo of course was outside the Pantheon. I wasn't exactly sure what the Pantheon was before I went to see it, as I confused it with the Parthenon in Athens. Turns out the Pantheon is an old church - which is a perfect dome, with a small hole at the top to allow light in. Apparently despite the hole, not much rain enters the church. I thought it was pretty cool. From there I walked and checked out several piazzas and minor sites. At one point I stopped and enjoyed some gelato. The final leg of my walk was down a  big street, and at one point there was an underpass that had become a bookshop, so I had a quick look through there, and then popped across the road and checked out the Adidas store in the vain hope they'd have something All Blacks related and at a cheap price. A failure on both accounts. Eventually the street got me back to a subway station and I headed back to the hostel. After a shower I opted for dinner around the corner at a different restaurant the hostel recommended, all I remember was that it was nice, as I was disappointed the following night when I found it was closed. After dinner I took my laundry down the road to a laundromat to get washed.

The next day I believe I started with the essential tasks, breakfast, investigating and booking accommodation for the next location (La Spezia) and organising my train ticket, and picking up my laundry. On a positive note, the train operator was very helpful and I discovered I didn't need to head to the other main Rome station to head north, I could just get the train from that one- which saved a lot of stress and time. Anyhow, it was midday before I got to the colosseum. I jumped on a tour of the Colosseum which then took us on a tour of the forum. Both were very interesting, albeit a little different to how I'd imagined them to be. After the guided part of the forum was over I had a pretty good look around, and since at one part it overlooked the Circus Maximus, I decided I didn't need to go there and do that myself. My only regret, was not getting to the government building next to the forum earlier, as I believe for free you could go to the observatory at the top. Never mind, Italy is definitely on the return-to list. 

Ted at the Colosseum
Walking back was interesting for multiple reasons - there were excavations like an open cast mine in the middle of the main thoroughfare. Once I had cleared them, a series of Supercars came along. I couldn't work out why, and also why the ferrais and Lamborghinis were allowed into wherever they went- it seemed they were being allowed into the forum- but not the Porsche. When I finally made it back to the colosseum I was tempted by a handout for a
€10 buffet meal - I went as far as finding the restaurant, and checking out the Buffett table, but decided against it as it reminded me of the disappointment I had in London when I went to a £5 buffet and then realising it was vegetarian, despite some things looking like meat. So I headed back to the hostel and had dinner at the restaurant I went to the first night (as the other one was closed). As I was sitting there along came Kate, the Australian girl from my walking tour in Florence, so she sat down and joined me. It was great having a catchup - one of the downsides of travelling is that you meet lots of cool people, but you meet them the once and then never see them again, so it was nice crossing paths again, and sharing our experiences of the in-between days, as well as talking topics that are more advanced than the first time meeting. After dinner we had a beer in the hostel then called it a night. The next morning of course I checked out and hopped on the train for Pisa and La Spezia.

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Italian Job - Florence

I got to Florence sometime in the afternoon, found my hostel and checked in.

When I went upstairs I saw they'd given me a top bunk, but there were plenty of bottom bunks free so I went downstairs and swapped. I went about my ablutions and sorting my bag etc, I think I had a bit of a lie down, and by then it was dinner time. Now it seems in Europe that they push the limits of advertising further than we would at home - in this case the lonely planet had mentioned that dinner was free in the low season, and the flyer at the front desk advertised what was provided by the hostel, including free breakfast and below it was dinner, which on a quick glance you would assume is also free, which it wasn't. In saying that I ended up getting the three specials which were a Euro each, a basic margarita pizza, salad and a basic pasta dish. At this point I had the choice of sitting by myself, or by a girl who'd already got her dinner, or one who'd come in after me. I decided the best idea would be  to sit by the one getting her dinner after me as then I'd have more time, and also I think the other girl had been fussy when ordering, and I'm not having the mother of my children being a fussy eater lol

I asked the "after" girl if I could sit with her and she was happy to have me. We had a good chat, she was from the Netherlands and studying Italian. She told me about Florence, and I mentioned how I was heading to Amsterdam and currently reading Anne Frank's Diary in preparation. I even mentioned my new baby niece, but it was all in vain as she was meeting an old friend later on.

After dinner I went to the station and organised my ticket for Rome for the next day at 6pm and went to the Pharmacy and bought some more nasal strips as I had run out, and so far I've only had one mention of snoring, and that was a night where I have drunk the most.

When I got back to the hostel I sat down to organise my accommodation for Rome and got talking to a girl next to me, as she was trying to decide what to do in the next few days. She then asked me if I wanted to go for a beer later on, which I was up for. As luck would have it, the first hostel I checked out was conveniently located etc, so I booked that without too much effort and went and got ready.

I went and found Hannah (the girl from the computer) and we and her roommate who was originally from Panama but living in the States went out. Hannah was keen for sushi, so when we came across a place we went there.

The next morning I got up and had breakfast, and was joined by Hannah. It was a fairly decent breakfast considering it was free. I went back upstairs and got my pack ready, checked out and put it in storage and by then it was time for the free walking tour that the hostel provided. 
It was a good walking tour, informed me of stuff I wouldn't have otherwise have known. Hannah and I got talking to an Australian girl called Kate and once the tour concluded we swapped names to add each other on Facebook and went our separate ways. I headed first of all to the Michaelangelo square which was on top of a hill, and had great views, albeit souvenir seller Mecca. On the way I stopped for lunch and had a Penne in Pesto pasta.

After the square I headed back to where the tour concluded and went across the bridge, which had buildings along it to (imagine the London bridge that burnt down) and to the Duomo/cathedral etc. I got a ticket and went through the cathedral and catacombs, and climbed the bell tower. I didn't bother with the Dome as the line was too long and I didn't have time. The bell tower was an effort to climb, but good. Once I did that I headed back and got my bags and headed to Rome on the train.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Comedy of Errors: The Merchant (/Medic) of Venice

My train basically was supposed to go from Prague to Munich, and then 40 minutes later I would catch a train from there to Venice, travelling through the night.

When we got about halfway through the journey to Munich, an announcement came over the intercom informing us that the train would go as far as one place, then there was a rail replacement bus to take us to another station to rejoin another train. It was a bit stressful, but I managed. I realised however once on the train taking us to Munich that it was running quite late, so I went about finding the train manager to check if we'd get to Munich in time for my next train, which he assured me we would, and the other train would wait for us. We didn't, and it didn't however, so I went to the information people and they gave me a form to claim on, stamped my ticket, recommended I stay at the hotel across the road, and told me the next train was at 7:30 tomorrow. So I had a night in a rather nice albeit not particularly cheap hotel, but it was a better sleep than I would've otherwise have got. 

Next morning I got up, had breakfast and went across to the station again and went about claiming my money back and getting a ticket for the new train. I seemed to get the only person who couldn't speak English, and after waiting for my number to come up there wasn't much time. This ended up causing a headache because I then didn't have reserved seat on the trains I was taking, and because I'd got my money back on my other ticket, I didn't have proof that I originally did. The ticket guy should've told me that. Annoying as I'd asked all the right questions but got all the wrong answers.

I ended up sitting with some young Germans for most of the way, and they were most helpful especially at Verona when it wasn't clear which platform I needed to be on.

Before that though, it was interesting passing through Austria, and then into Northern Italy, and the amazing landscapes of them both.

At one point I poked my eye with a cable tie on my rucksack when I was putting it up on a rack. Ouch!

Quite fittingly, this vending machine represents
Venice well - i.e. that "You can get Fucked",
 and being a self-service that it is DIY, in other
words - "Go Fuck Yourself"
I got to Venice about 2pm and found my hostel. The hostel itself was alright, the beds weren't bunk beds for a start, the staff however I found weren't particularly keen to help, but neither were the tourist information people - maps were €3, there were 3 staff but they'd only serve one person at a time, and only let one customer into the office at a time. 

The same day as I got there I went for a walk and got information for my next train journey - the train people on the other hand were awesomely helpful and restored my faith in Venetians and Italians in general. On the same wall I found a Co-op supermarket so I had a bit of a look, about 500gm of cheese was about €2 so I bought myself some and proceeded to munch on it (the constipation didn't hit until 2 days later), and some gelato, which I knew Suzanne and Bevan raved about when they were in Italy.

I think I had a bit of a sleep, and then went and had some pizza for dinner.

The next morning I woke up and the eye I had accidentally poked with the cable tie had weeped and was bloodshot and sensitive to light. Like I said the staff at the hostel were a bit useless, but I got the name of another hostel from them, and proceeded to book it for the next night, as I hadn't seen much, and I would also need some time to have my eye seen too.

I took my stuff to the new hostel, and instantly they were 100x more helpful, the manager Nick was an American and he told me how to get to the hospital, and that it wouldn't cost more than a maximum of €70.

I headed to the hospital, getting a little lost, as Venice is hard enough to navigate with two good eyes... But eventually I found it. They have assistants in the waiting room who tell you what to do, and to be fair looked amazingly hot in their white coat/dress things. Eventually I got seen by the eye specialist, he told me I'd scratched my cornea, put some ointment in my eye and bandaged it, and gave me a prescription for some drops.
I then proceeded back towards the hostel, stopping at a pharmacy for the drops, and getting them to help me put them in and re-bandage my eye. Near the pharmacy was a place I had lunch, at quite a reasonable price too - I had spaghetti bolagnaise, which was nice, but not mind-blowingly better than homemade. The good thing about Europe I'll happily admit, is they are up with the times and most accommodation and restaurants have free wifi - I mention this, as it was at this point I checked my emails and found out that I was an Uncle to Sienna. I'll also happily admit I teared up, which of course made my eye hurt ...

I made back to the hostel, they gave me a bed, a bottom bunk which I was stoked about and I got directions to the main sights and proceeded that way. Somehow I got a bit confused and somehow approached the Rialto bridge from the other side than what I thought I was on. Once I worked that out I headed to St Marks square, and then back to the hostel for a pasta dinner. - by this stage my bandage was a bit lacking due to sweat and the fact I kept playing with it, so I bought some adhesive eye patches at another pharmacy- which were just the ticket. To be fair walking around Venice with only one eye is a little disconcerting due to the crowds, the possibiIity of pick-pockets and sense of direction. Back at the hostel I got talking to a young Swedish guy who asked me how old I was, and then told me you're never too old! However we did have quite a good chat after that. Most of the other people at the hostel ended up playing a drinking game which included the game "I have never..." This made interesting listening the next morning when the Swedish guy related in a phone conversation how he'd meet a guy called Luigi, (a comical name even to a Swede) and one of the the "I have never...s".

The next morning I got up, and took some stuff to the post office to send home. It ended up being a little bit of a long exercise, and not cheap, but I got sick of having to jiggle around the stuff in my bag, and any weight I could get rid of was a bonus. I debated whether to get a ferry to check out the canals, but put it in the too hard basket and didn't want to  use up valuable time. I headed back to the hostel to collect my bag and book the next hostel, then went to the station and got a ticket for the next train. I sat down for a while and then caught the train.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

From A Hot Car to Praha

 The train journey was an experience - I was in a six-person couchette room, essentially two triple bunks on either side. Four of them were taken by four English girls that were friends , the other by some random non-English-speaking woman about my mothers age. I was worried I would piss the girls off with my snoring, but at the end of the day it was so hot in the carriage I'm not sure how much sleep I actually got. It was like a sauna, eventually I gave in and took my tshirt off, but unfortunately the girls didn't follow suit. I did have a good chat with one of them when the train stopped on the border for about an hour, and due to there being no movement, there was no breeze coming in through the window.

At about 7:30 we got in to Prague. I made it first priority to go to the hostel and check in. The good thing was they let me do so, and go to my room straight away, as opposed to having to wait until 12 or 2pm. I went in and had a bit of a lie down for about half an hour until the person who was sleeping got up. I then decided it was a good idea to take care of some washing, which I did by hand and with the shower. I also re-arranged my bag, had a shave and brushed my teeth, and had a well-needed shower, not necessarily in that order. I then also needed to organise my train to Venice, get some lunch and do some sightseeing. I opted for lunch at the cafe downstairs that was either part of the hostel, or at least part of the same building. I had some nice soup and a piece of ham quiche. From there I went and sorted my train out, finding it was much easier to get between the two than the instructions made out for getting to the hostel. Once I did that I did a bit of research so I could book accommodation for Venice. By the time I'd done all that (& Possibly had a sleep) it was about 8pm, so I went about finding a nice dinner. The staff at the hostel recommended a pub around the corner -which was good, and when I looked at the price coverted, it was essentially $4nzd for the main course, so I accompanied that with a beer and dessert, apple strudel, as I figured it was a fitting dessert for that part of the world. I then went about sightseeing albeit by night. Prague was still busy then.

The next day I got up and checked out, but stored my luggage downstairs. I grabbed a quick McDonalds breakfast, and not far from there was the starting point of a free walking tour, that had been advertised on the map the hostel gave me (basically it's free, and you tip them at the end, based on what you think is fair - I usually give them a standard figure, in this case, because it was in a different currency, and I felt he did a good job I gave him slightly more.) I then went and had lunch at the restaurant he recommended - I had wanted to try Pork Knuckle, so I had one. I then went and had a quick look over at the castle grounds, then headed back to the hostel, got my bags and went to the station.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

From Pole to Pole: Krakow

After a peaceful journey I got to Krakow. Finding the hostel wasn't quite as stressless - it seems the instructions make perfect sense when you know where the hostel is, not so much when you don't.

Once I got settled I had some dinner - the hostel was also a beer house, and I had a pizza for dinner, which was nice. I decided the next thing that was important was that I needed to do some laundry. I asked at the reception and they gave me directions, but again that was a difficult exercise to find the place. Once I did it was too late to do the laundry myself, but for a little extra they'd do it and have it ready for me in the morning, which ended up being a blessing.

The next morning I got up and had a quick bite and went to pick up my clothes. I realised when I got there that I wasn't that far from the Jewish quarter, so I went there for a look, complete with my bagful of clothes, I felt a little like a sacrilegious Santa, but the good thing was that I was in a shirt and jeans, so I probably looked like a local going about his errands as opposed to some tourist.

I swung back to the hostel past the bottom of the Wawel (castle) and through the main square. I'd been thinking about how I was going to go and visit Auschwitz, as you can get a train there yourself, or take a tour. I decided on the tour for simplicity reasons (and because I was sick of taking the hard road) and knew I could do that in the afternoon. It was probably a good decision also in the sense that it was guided, rather than just me walking around by myself.

It was an experience - in some ways quite moving, but sometimes I felt as though I should've been moved more by it. There were moments where I wondered if I was going to tear up, but others where I felt bad for being desensitised to it. They also made you pay for the toilet, which when I thought about it, wasn't too bad as it was like 2 zloty - virtually nothing, had it been in euros I would have told them to send the bill the the German government as it's the least they (Germany) can do.

Birkenau was just down the road, it was open air, as most of it had been destroyed before liberation, but the size of it in itself blew my mind. Again when you stood next to the gas chambers it felt as though I should be feeling more. Something that irritated me a little was some people who'd brung their 2yo. Naturally a 2yo isn't going to appreciate the history and restrain themselves from bouncing around and making noise. I felt like being a smart arse and asking them at the end if they enjoyed learning about genocide today.

After the bus ride back to town, I had dinner at the hostel - which was free - some spicy tomato soup and a pizza bread. I got to talking to a guy at my table, an Indian guy called Rohan. Had a great conversation with him, turns out he used to work for Microsoft in Seattle, but must've made his fortune and now is essentially retired and travels and volunteers back in India - and he looks as though he is only about my age.

The next morning I checked out, but had the whole day to sightsee. There was a French guy from Paris in my room who I'd conversed with several times, who was in a similar situation, so we combined forces and sight-saw together for most of the day. We mainly went and had a look at the Wawel grounds and then the Jewish quarter. It was nice to share a beer with someone for a change. When it came time for him to get the train to where he was going I went to the station to double check on my ticket, find out the platform etc. After that I went back to the hostel, and was even allowed a shower (despite having checked out hours earlier) then headed to catch my night train to Prague. At the station I picked up some McDonalds as I hadn't been particularly hungry before, and didn't feel like a huge meal before the trip.