Wednesday, September 9, 2009

All good things must come to an end

This is also true of good travels. They must finish and I must return home, to reality. I am currently sitting at an internet cafe in Geneva, Switerland writing what will probably be my last blog update from the road. Perhaps when I return home I will try to add one more giving reflections to the things that have stuck with me. I don't even know if there is interest out there for it. Let me know... But the last few days in this beautiful country have been some of the best of this whole trip. Partying with the friends I've made in Interlaken were too much fun, even though they left me physically exhausted on more than one night. Not even naps could re-energize me fully. Spent 13 hours yesterday travelling in the western part of the country visiting Luzern. I was meant to stay there for the day and travel back to Interlaken for the night and couch surf in Liechtenstein the following day. After spending a few hours in Luzern, I felt like I saw what I needed to see and that I could accomplish the same thing in Liechtenstein on the same day. This is another benefit of the European rail system...just hop on a train and you're there in no time! I came on this trip wanting to visit 5 countries, and I am proud to say - mission accomplished!Within 2 hours, I was in a whole other country! They even stamp your passport at the Liechtenstein tourism office! I know full well I could have stayed at least another day to hike the many trails in this tiny country, but to be perfectly honest, I am ready to go home. Travelling so much is quite draining physically, emotionally and certainly finacially. It doesn't help to do it all alone as well - at least when having a travel companion you can rely on one another to support you when you're feeling tired and take charge. But this is all me, all the time. I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation lol Now I don't want to make it sound like I am lonely or miserable. Quite the opposite actually. I have loved my 2 week trek - every moment of it. I have met so many wonderful people and I hope to have made life-long friends! I am certainly glad I did it, and all that I had set out to do. Ok, so I didn't get to Pisa, or do the Jungerfrau, but those will always be there to visit (well, so long as the tower doesn't fall over or the glaciers don't melt); and I definately plan to come back to do them someday! Back to the present though; as mentioned, I am in Geneva. The large city along the border of France. It is quite lovely in its own right, but for me at least, pales in comaprison to where I just was in Interlaken. The mountains are distant and ghost-like in the horizon. The town is dominated with offices and banks rather than toursit shops. The people here dress in suits and ties on their way to their bank jobs, rather than dressed in outdoor adventure gear heading off to jump out of a plane. Even the languages are competely diffrent. You would think I was in an entirely different country. But I guess that is the beauty of this land. So many differences under one flag. It makes me think of home, and makes me wonder if they have similar political issues as we do here. But, that research will have to wait until I am home. I will be leaving tomorrow out of Geneva at 12 if all goes according to plan. Once again, I will be flying standby and so will have to keep my fingers crossed that I even get on the plane. Fingers double crossed because my bank account is yelling at me to go home and stop abusing it! I have more souvenirs than I have space I think, and the craziest part of all: most of them aren't even for me! With over 20 people on my list to buy gifts for, it takes up a lot of space, even if I have tried to keep them all small! But I think it is worth it. A small token to show my gratitude of friendship and to show that you are in my thoughts. Isn't that what it is all about? As I wrap up this blog of my trek across Europe, I guess it's only appropriate to say thanks for reading it. It hardly seems worth it otherwise. While I may have kept some stories from the eternal memory of the internets, I hope you have enjoyed the ones I have shared, but it will cost you at least a drink, if not dinner to hear the ones I haven't ;-) See you all soon!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Yet another country checked off the list - this one is the best so far!

It happened. I totally stayed out until 4:30 am on my last night in Venice and missed my 9am train! The great thing about European train travel, is that there is always another train. Although I had to pay a bit of extra money to change my reservation. C'est la vie. So what did we do on our last night in Venice to stay out so late? Party on the beaches of Lido with all those hitting up the film festival of course! The beach was soft! The wine was crazy cheap at the hostel (6€ for a bottle!) so I split one with another girl, then we went to some wine fest and had a FULL glass of wine for 1€ then bought another bottle on the walk to the beach at Lido. Needless to say, most of the rest of the night is fuzzy, but I do know it was awesome. So after cursing myself for getting up so late (still got up at 9), I hoped on a train to Milan, then to Brig, then Speitz (sp?). I was tired enough to sleep, but I was always to nervous to miss my stop, so I didn't get much rest and I finally arrived in Interlaken at 6:30 excited but exhausted. I tried to take a nap when I arrived, but that didn't happen either. I had a quick dinner at the thai restaurant next door (yes, not very Swiss, but it was quite tasty!) Did some socializing with other travellers and met two guys who are from Ottawa! I dont know them at all, but its neat to be able to talk about places back home and they actually know what Im talking about! Had an early night 1-beacause of the night before and 2-because I had an early morning the next day because I was going canyoning! Found in only a few places in the world, Canyoning is in one word, crazy! Its all repelling, jumping, sliding and ziplining through glacier waters in a canyon. I went on the middle difficulty level one and it was easily the most terrifying thing Ive ever done! Im not one for heights, and this didnt help. Not to mention the fact it was so cold here yesterday! (though we did have wet suits) The van pulled over to the side of the road...a tiny road that hugged the side of a mountain and said, ok every one out. We then had to repel the side of the cliff, which I had never done before and don't think I will again! lol Then like I said, it was jumps and slides into the water. Terrifying because if you land wrong you hit a rock and are in big trouble. I guess thats why its considered an extreme sport. (Trivia moment: Interlaken is the extreme sport capital of Switzerland) The ziplining was probably the scarriest part of all. They loosely tie a rope around your harness and tell you to use all your strength to hold it tight. You only hold rope for a few seconds before plumetting into the pool below. Nuts! Its definately a once in a lifetime experience because I really dont plan to do it more than that! I spent much of yesterday afternoon warming up and relaxing. I met up with the Ottawa guys for dinner and we actually made our own meals because the cost of everything in Switzerland is crazy expensive! A meal goes for at least 15francs (and we're not talking anything fancy), which is pretty close to Canadian dollars exchange wise. Its too bad too beacuse I really wanted to have an actual Swiss meal (like fondue or raclette) but they're just too far out of my price range and the longer I stay on this trip, the more aware I am of my dwindling finances. So home cooking it is! Good thing I'm a good cook! After dinner, it was another fun night of socializing and drinking. Met some other Canadians, some Australians and a couple American guys in the US Air force who are currently based in Germany. One told me he's been stationed there for 3 years and hasn't done much travelling in Europe in that time. I think I looked at him as if he had two heads. lol My intention today was to take the train to Jungfrau...the highest train station in Europe. The view is supposed to be spectacular. But for some reason when I woke up this morning. I wasn't super keen to go. Its quite expensive (135francs) and I really just wanted to relax all day. This is one of the benefits of travelling solo. You don't need to talk to any one about changing the day's plans. So, I walked around the town of Interlaken this morning. Its ridiculous here. Ridiculously beautiful. The mountains surround the town and are so majestic. The sky is clear and blue. The river is a light turquoise colour, and I'm quite sure it runs down from the glaciers. I love the Canadian Rockies, I love the Swiss Alps - I need to move to the mountains! So that's been my time here so far. I was to stay in Luzern tomorrow night, but decided to stay here instead and travel there as a day trip. They say this hostel (Balmer's) is one of the best in Europe for good reason. I dont want to leave!

Friday, September 4, 2009

It doesn't look like its sinking

When we last left Andrea she was spending her last night in Rome. It was a simple quiet night in to relax and rejuvinate. Emi and I went out for a quick breakfast (it was forced upon me!), then he drove me to the train station, which was awesome because I sure have grown to hate my massive bag! I had to make a quick stop and buy new luggage because a) I was running out of room and b) he knew where to get a good bag! I got one with wheels that go in all 4 directions so i could push or pull it. It has the Italian colours on it too so it doubles as a nice souvenir for me. I have to say, it's pretty awesome. So after a quick goodbye, it was arrivederci Roma, and I was off to Venice. I arrived here mid afternoon, had a quick chat with the staff (all of whom seem to be American), got changed, then went out to dinner and took the water bus to Lido to experience my very first film festival! I had no idea where to go or what to expect when I got there. But I had my ticket in hand and found my way to the Sala Grande for the movie premiere. It was awesome. Just like you see on the entertainment shows: the red carpet, the press, the throngs of screaming fans! I made my way to one part of the stage where a guy with a camera was setting up. Turns out hes based in LA and works for Getty Images. He gets to travel the world and go to all the big festivals. We talked for a bit and I think we were both a bit jealous of each other: I of him because he gets to live the big hollywood lifestyle (all paid for!), while he said he was envious of me to travel the world on my own. The grass is always greener on the other side I guess. After an hour and a half trying to get back to the hostel, I crashed and didnt get up until late this morning. I haven't been feeling quite right the last couple days, so I decided to hit up the local hospital as my first tourist attraction. Nothing to worry about. A quick visit from the doctor and I was done. Compared to other foreign hospital experiences I've had (ask me about Bangkok someday), Venice was pretty dire straits. Really old fashioned wheel chairs, not well equiped for foreign sickies. Then there was the trouble of paying. The cash was closed for the day (it was 2pm) so I had to go to a machine to pay. Of course it was all in Italian, and you know what? I don't understand a single word! So I asked a woman who was walking past if she could help me. She didn't speak any english. But after a fun game of sherrades, it was done and I was able to go out to actually see the city. And what a beautiful city it is! Everything is magical here. The gondolas, the music, the canals! Some one said to me Venice was smelly...not true! Interesting things to note about Venice: there are no cars and no real roads. Only alleyways and bridges that bring you from one square to the next. This whole city reminds me so much of the film Labyrinth (if you haven't seen it, you MUST! Its a classic and one of my favourites!) So after wandering around San Marco square and seeing the Palace and boating along the canal, I started doing what I do best: shop! I have a long list of people to buy souvenirs for and Venice has some of the best souvenirs I've ever seen! Apparently, they're quite known for their hand blown glass and their Carnavale maks (ever seen Eyes Wide Shut? A really awful film, but the masks in the movie were made by a guy in Venice). I made sure to get lots of both! I finally made my way back to the hostel carrying at least 6 bags and arranged all my stuff to make sure it fits...success! Tonights plan is to partake in the communal hostel pasta dinner and then they all go out to party. Apparently last night they didnt get home until 4am. I dont think they'll be re-doing that tonight, but I expect to have a fun night, none the less! Must remember to be some what responsible to catch my train to Interlaken, Switzerland tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

All roads lead to Rome

...apparently train tracks do to! I made it safely to Roma yesterday, although getting to my final destination in the city was another story and quite a stressful adventure! I was planning once again to couch surf for my stay in the city. I had confirmed with Emiliano (Emi) and all I had to do was call him when I arrived and he would meet me at the metro station. No problem right? That's what I thought too... I arrived at the station at the time I had thought and got my cell phone out to pay the ridiculous fees to call overseas, only to not have service for nearly 30 minutes! Usually it takes no more than 5 to find a network. So then I decided to find a pay phone and just call from there. A message in Italian and English told me his phone wasn't working and to try again later. When I attempted to try again, the pay phone itself wasn't working! Finally, I found a nice British family who allowed me to send him a text from their phone to tell him where I was and to turn his phone on so that I could call him. Just as I was about to press send, I noticed I had service on my phone finally. So I called and lo and behold, a voice on the other end! He told me that he was giving a tour to some friends of the Vatican Museum and that I should meet them there...there was a baggage area to leave my backpack and stuff (which is very good because my back is really starting to hate lugging that thing around! Yes, I know that the hip straps are supposed to even the load out, but heavy is heavy no matter where the weight is! I think this will be my official "stereotypical backpacking across Europe" trip. After this, I'll stick with my giant suitcase on wheels...I'm getting too old for this! lol) Anyways, I then set off, sans map, to find the Vatican Museum. Now, I should also mention that he had told me where to meet him, but I was so frazzled I completely forgot if he said inside or outside. So I got there and saw no sign of any group of people waiting for a girl with an enormous backpack with a maple leaf sewn to the back (thanks again, Amelie!). So I decided then that he must have said inside. Went through security (officially stepping into the Vatican City-State at that point), dropped off my bags and looked again for a group. Still no luck. And wouldn't you guess it, my cell phone once again decided to stop working. It showed I had bars, but I couldn't call out or send text messages. I asked around if they had any pay phones, but unfortunately, you needed special Vatican cards to use them. At this point I was starting to worry. It had been a good 30 minutes since I last spoke to him and who knows how long they'd wait before giving up on me? So I decided to find another pay phone outside the museum to try to reach him. I tried 3 phones (all of which were out of service) before finally running into the local Best Western and asked to use their phone. When I got a hold of Emi, he told me they were waiting in a court yard in the museum, that I should go in and find a girl with bright red hair...that I couldn't miss them. I guess he was wrong, because I totally did. I went into what I thought the courtyard he was talking about and saw no one with bright red hair. I'd even asked another couple that were sitting if they had seen a girl with bright red hair. No luck. So I went to the cafeteria on the ground floor where they had a pay phone and hit the same brick walls I had hit earlier: Vatican only phones or messages in Italian saying the customer was unavailable) Since that message wasn't repeated in English, I asked another visitor if he spoke English and Italian. Finally, I stroke of luck! A British guy who knew Italian. I got him to listen to the message and confirmed what I suspected them of saying. He was then kind enough to let me use his phone to call Emi directly. Turns out they had been sitting in the courtyard right next to the one I had been in, and had only been separated by a wall! If I had turned left rather than right I would have found them 20 minutes earlier! Thanking the British man, I ran back upstairs and met with Emi and his friends Eva (from the Czech republic) and Dominico (from Rome). Needless to say, I felt like an idiot for being so incredibly lost and making them wait an hour for me. After saying our hellos, Emi, a tour guide by profession, took us around the Vatican Museum telling us the stories of the statues and paintings. It was interesting, but I was exhausted. Not only from the lack of sleep, but also from the running around of trying to find these guys! I tried my best to be enthused, but I think my tiredness showed. The last stop of the tour was the Sistine Chapel. It was very lovely. Dead centre was the famous picture of Adam and God's fingers out stretched and almost touching. Unfortunately, you won't see any of my pictures of it because I didn't take any. Apparently due to copyright, photographs in the Sistine Chapel are forbidden. Not sure I really understand the logic behind that one, but whatever. Emi was amazing at telling us about Michelangelo's masterpiece and the meaning behind some of the pictures. He definately made the visit so much more enriching. When I got to the apartment, I could barely keep my eyes open. I had to lay down for a couple of hours to take a nap, after which Emi made us a delicious pasta dinner. Now I know how to make a really great tomato pasta sauce from scratch in less than 30 minutes with no more than a frying pan. Awesome. I'll definately be doing that at home more! Later on in the night, we took his scooter for a quick ride to meet with his friends again for a drink. The bar we went to had really comfy lounge chairs for their patio set up. Very chic! We didn't get home until quite late, so I decided to sleep in this morning, the first time I've even had the chance to do so this whole trip (with the quick stops in Marseille and Paris, 11am lock out in Nice and early morning wake up in Florence I haven't had the opportunity!). Emi had some work to do in the morning and then he planned to give a tour of the city on the back of his scooter in the afternoon...sounded good to me! We went to a (supposedly) very traditional restaurant for lunch in the city centre. Our meal was a big tray full of meats, cheese, cold pasta, bread, etc etc And apparently it was just the first course! Once we finished everything I couldn't believe there was still more so we decided to stop there as we were both quite full, but we did have some fruit for dessert. Very tasty, even though I'm not such a fruit fan! This would be the time that an emergency came up at Emi's work and he had to take off. So I was left to wander the streets of Rome on foot. Luckly, all the of the major sites are within walking distance of each other. And when I say walking distance, I mean about 2 1/2 hours to walk from the Spanish Steps to the Trevi Fountain to the Panthenon to the Colesium. And all on cobble stones no less. My back is killing me! But it was all worth it to see the sights I had read about in books or seen pictures of. I didnt go into the Coliseum, 12 Euros just to walk inside? No thanks. Even though I had been to the Vatican the day before, I still hadn't see the world famous St Peters Square or the Basilica. So I hoped on the subway and went. I wandered the square for a bit, but just didn't have time to go into the Basilica (had to get home before Emi left for his soccer game or I would be locked out!). Oh well, there's nothing stopping me from coming back to Rome again, is there? So that's been my time in Rome thus far. I leave tomorrow late morning to head to my next destination: Venice. Let's just hope I get there before it sinks!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Working on my Italian...its a little non-existant

So here I am sitting in Frienze aka Florence. Its been quite a whirlwind trip here. I arrived in town last night at 630, and walked a few blocks to find my couchsurfers' apartment. It's in a good part of town and is super nice inside! Lenny (real name Andrea - apparently a very popular boys name here in Italy, but he goes by nickname of Lenny) was very nice and made us a nice italian dinner of salad, cheese, bread and meat-quite tasty even if it was stuff Iwouldnt normally eat...see, I am trying new things! :-) After dinner another couch surfer from Australia (Wendy) who was staying at a nearby hostel came by for a few drinks. Aparently theres a "rule"in Italy that once you open a bottle of wine, you must finish it. Andrea and I had already had half a bottle each by the time Wendy arrived, and I was already feeling it hard, so the extra third of red was, I thought a little risky, but it wasnt as bad as I thought it would be! Once the vino was gone, we decided to take a walk around the city since I hadnt really seen any of the sights yet. We walked to the Duomo, the River Arno and a couple other places I dont remember the name of, but at least I took pictures. I sure am glad that I've been able to master my camera on this trip! Since I figured out how to use and set the white balance, Ive been able to take some pretty awesome shots, even at night...some of which will definately be worth enlarging and hanging on the wall at home! They also have a replica of Michelangelo's David in one of the squares, so while I didnt get to see the real thing (its in one of the museums in town which was obviously closed last night) it was a good consolation prize. We walked for quite a while and didnt get to bed till quite late. Andrea had to leave for work early this am, so here I am in an internet cafe waiting for my train to Roma, where I will meet my next couch surfing host at the Vatican. I am quite tired and imagine I will sleep for the 1 1/2 trip on the train. First class train travel can be quite comfy!