So, I left Boston last night and arrived in Dublin very early this morning. I had a 10-hour layover before my connecting flight to Frankfurt, so I took a coach into the city and did some sightseeing. I checked out St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin Castle, and Trinity College. Did some wandering around, and then hopped back onto a coach to go back to the airport. Only to find that my connecting flight was two hours late.
I finally got to Frankfurt at about 21.00 (at this point, I had been awake for about 36 hours - I couldn't sleep on the plane), only to find that my backpack was missing. I reported it, all the while thinking, "Oh no, it's only my first day here and I've lost everything!" Found out that my bag (which I had checked in Boston) had actually arrived on time, while I didn't. Every wonder about those lonely bags that go round and round on the belt that no one claims? I have. Turns out that their owners just have a delayed flight. Anyway, I got my bag back, validated my Eurail pass, and took a train into Frankfurt proper. Checked into my hostel at about 22.30. I am exhausted, and I have to be up bright and early tomorrow to catch a train to Koblenz. I'm going to bed.
So, I hopped on the train to Koblenz bright and early. Turns out I had accidentally picked the scenic train - nice! I sat next to a German couple who were going to the Mosel Valley for a wine tasting tour. They taught me how to say "youth hostel" and a few other choice phrases in German. Arrived in Koblenz and tried to get directions to my hostel - it was located in a former fortress, high up on a hill overlooking the Rhine River. I had to use my new knowledge of German at the tourist office - the girl working there didn't understand "youth hostel", but fortunately I was able to say that I was looking for the "jugendherberge". Made it to the hostel (I had to take a chair lift up the hill - it was so cool!) and found out that it was a very good thing I had booked it in advance. Almost the entire hostel was booked for a Renaissance festival going on in the courtyard of the fortress! Also very cool.
I decided to hop over to Luxembourg City just to say that I've been to Luxembourg. My favorite part was actually the train ride along the Mosel River. The view was absolutely breathtaking.
The next day I took advantage of the benefits that come with my Eurail pass (if the pass covers Germany, you can ride the KD cruise line along the Rhine and Mosel for free!). I spent the day cruising the Rhine, checking out the castles and vineyards. Beautiful. And a great way to recover from jet lag. Today was just as lazy as yesterday. I went for a cruise along the Mosel, sampled some local wines, and listen to Wagner on my iPod. It was Gotterdammerung - I thought it was appropriate. Had doner kebab for dinner. Perfect.
Amsterdam! Amsterdam has been great. Checked out all the museums (including the Sex Museum - hilarious!), sampled local culinary delights such as "Indonesian chicken pancake", and met a few great people. I'm staying at the Flying Pig Uptown, right next to Vondelpark. Great location. I went to the Anne Frank House - very moving. Checked out the Red Light District - strangely normal and unshocking.
Yesterday I rented bikes with Nate and Anita, two people I met at the hostel. We took a picnic lunch and just followed the Amstel River to track down a windmill. We saw several. It was great! After about 45 minutes on a bike all traces of the city are gone, and you're just surrounded by the Dutch countryside. It was relaxing and refreshing. Today I checked out the Van Gogh Museum and did a few errands. Tomorrow I'm off for Belgium!
I love Paris! I arrived here and tracked down my hostel in Monmartre - you can see the Sacre Coeur from the terrace! (Check out the picture to the left) Checked out the neighborhood and the Sacre Coeur, then settled down for the night. Then I spent the next few days being a tourist.
I went on the Free Tour with New Europe which was great. Learned a lot of about the city, which I loved because I'm a bit of a geek. Walked all over and saw most of the important places (though we didn't go inside). When the tour was over I explored Notre Dame, then headed up to the Pantheon, which had closed early to set up an exhibit. Ugh. So I went to a bunch of shops and put together my own picnic, which I ate in the Luxembourg gardens. Went out that night with a few people from the hostel.
The next day was the day that I was really looking forward to - the Louvre! I got there bright and early and bought a four-day Paris Museum Pass and went on in. I spent about 6 hours seeing everything I could. The only reason I stopped was because I came across a wing (19th century French painting) that was closed and I had to turn around. My feet were killing me at that point, and I noticed how long I had been there and decided to call it a day. I was also starving, and I was so desperate for any kind of food that I caved and went to the Louvre's food court. I still had time to go back to the Pantheon before it closed, so I went and saw the tombs of Voltaire, Zola, Hugo, etc. Then I bought a crepe with nutella and bananas and hopped back on the metro to the Arc de Triomphe. I climbed the Arc and got some great photos.
The next day I met up with my cousin Christiann, who was in Paris for a few days as well. We went over to Versaille together and spent all day (8 1/2 hours in total) seeing the palace, the gardens, the two chalets, and the hamlet.
Yesterday was my second to last day in Paris, so I tried to cram a ton of stuff in. I went to the Musee d'Orsay and saw the paintings and sculpture there. Then I grabbed a quick bite and went to the Catacombs, which were awesome. Went to the Pompidou and rushed through it because I just don't really get modern art, grabbed some ice cream and went to the Eiffel Tower. I climbed up the stairs to the second level because it was cheaper than taking the elevator. Took in the view, then bought a ticket to the top. The view from the top of the tower was amazing, but it was very crowded up there and rather cold. So I went back down to the second level. I hung out until it got dark so I could see Paris all lit up at night, and I caught the evening's first light show from on the tower. After it was dark enough to see the City of Light lit, I rushed down the tower so I could see the light show from the Champ de Mars and film it.
Today was my day in Paris. I met up with Christiann again and we went on a lunch cruise along the Seine. Then we went over to the Petit Palais to see a special exhibit on Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately the line was so long that Christiann had to leave to catch a flight before we even got in! I was able to stay, and the exhibit was pretty spectacular, though I don't think I would wait in line again for 2 1/2 hours.
So, I took my first overnight train and I survived, but I am definitely paying for a couchette next time. I only booked a seat to save money and it was miserable. It was cramped, it was uncomfortable, and the compartment's air conditioning seemed to be going at full blast the whole night.
The train took me to the Spanish border, where I caught another train to Barcelona. I got to my hostel, only to find that the night manager the night prior had thought that I was supposed to arrive the night before, and when I didn't show he declared me a no-show and cancelled my reservation. I had saved my email confirmation and was able to prove that I had reserved a bed, but they had given it away, so the hostel put me up in an apartment across the street instead!
I saw all that Barcelona had to see, ate and drank the local specialties, and had some fun. But when I showed up at the train station for my train to Nice I discovered that the French rail network had gone on strike and all trains to and within France were cancelled. So I spent an extra night in Barcelona and caught the train the next morning.
When I got to Nice I decided to book a couchette to Venice on the upcoming Monday night right away and I found out that the night train was being cancelled as of Monday - Sunday night was the last opportunity. So my four day "vacation away from my vacation" in Nice was cut from four days to two days due to my extra day in Barcelona and this conflict with the night trains. Nice was beautiful, of course. Went swimming in the Mediterranean, visited the medieval walled village of Eze, and sampled the gelato. Nice had some of the most interesting flavors I've seen - I tried lavender, rose, violet, and avocado. Now I'm just waiting for the hostel shuttle to take me to the tram so I can head to the train station. This time tomorrow, I'll be in Venice! I can't wait!
Although I lost a day in Nice, I'm glad that I gained a day in Venice. The city is absolutely amazing! I arrived bright and early (and the couchette was definitely more comfortable than the seat) and took a shuttle bus to the campgroud that I am staying at. Yes, I am staying at a campground. No, it is not on the island itself, it is on the mainland about 30 minutes from Venice proper. A shuttle bus goes back and forth all day, picking people up and dropping them off. For only EUR16,50 I was able to get a bed in a 3-bed cabin with its own bathroom and heat/AC. The best part is, no one else has been assigned to my cabin, so I get it all to myself!
I went to the tourist office by the bus station and picked up my "Rolling Venice" card and a map, then I bought my three-day transportation pass. Transportation is ridiculously expensive. The only way to get around is by vaporetto, and a single ride on one costs about EUR5. Fortunately, the pass gives me unlimited transportation by bus and by vaporetto. I took in the lagoon from the boat, then arrived at St. Mark's Square. It was about one o'clock, but there was practically no line for the Doge's Palace, so I went right in. It was beautiful and the artwork was incredible, but it would have nice if the rooms had been furnished so we could get a better idea of how the Doges lived (they each brought their own furniture to the Palace, and then their families took it back when the Doge died). The line for St. Mark's Basilica was quite long, so I decided to wait until the next day. The square itself is beautiful, and surrounded by shops all selling glass and jewelry. I popped in to the Correr Museum, since it was covered by my ticket to the Doge's Palace.
The second day I got to St. Mark's Square as early as possible and only waited in line for the Basilica for about 10 minutes. It was breathtaking! I paid a bit extra to climb upstairs for the great view overlooking the Square, and when I turned around from the balcony to go back inside, the Basilica was all lit up! Turns out they turn on the floodlights for an hour each day to illuminate the gold mosaic tiles, and I happened to be there at the right time! After that wonderful sight, I went over to the Accademia to see the Venetian art. Then I took a vaporetto ride up the Grand Canal to see the Rialto Bridge and all the beautiful palazzos. I spent the rest of my day just wandering around.
Today (my last day here), Susie (another girl staying at the campground) and I went over to Murano, another island famous for its glassware. I picked up a few souvenirs for the people back home, then went back to Venice. We wandered the alleys, tracking down the perfect mask. We must have gone into half a dozen mask shops, but eventually we each found the perfect one. We hung around, eating dinner and waiting for it to get dark so we could take another vaporetto up the Grand Canal at night.
After Venice, I left for Naples. I took the express train and arrived in the late afternoon. I stayed at the Hostel of the Sun, and I highly recommend it! They were so helpful. When I arrived, they asked me what my plans were. I said that I wanted to go to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. I thought I would need to days two see them, but the hostel staff told me that I could combine them into one day, and they gave my maps and all the information about buses and trains and opening hours that I needed. Then they recommended a great pizza place and I dug in to my amazing dinner.
I went to Mt. Vesuvius first, as recommended. I'm not much of a hiker, but I was determined to see the crater of the volcano. It was pretty cool, and the view was great. Then I was off to Pompeii to see the destruction that Mt. Vesuvio had caused. The ruins were amazing. Although the original frescos discovered in the remains of homes have been moved to the Archaeology Museum in Naples, reproductions have been put up in their place. It is amazing how much is still intact.
Then I was off to Rome! I had picked a hostel not far from the train station, so I got there pretty quickly and then headed out to see the Coliseum and the Forum (left). The Coliseum was very crowded, of course, but it was incredible. I had downloaded audioguides onto my iPod, and I listened to the history of the sites as I was at them. Then I went to Palatine Hill, where the ruins of the Caesars' Palace can be found. Some of the floor tiles were still intact, which I thought was amazing. I was walking on the same tiles that the Caesars had walked on! Then I went to the Forum. I was trying hard to imagine what this stretch of land looked like at the height of the Roman era. I decided to make a whole day of the ancient sites, to I went off in search of the Pantheon. Instead, I found the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi Fountain is supposed to be rather difficult to find, as it's set amidst a labrinth of alleys and pedestrian pathways, but I found it when I wasn't even looking for it! Convenient. Then I found the Pantheon and admired its ceiling before grabbing dinner.
The next day was the Vatican. I got there bright and early as St. Peter's opened at 8 and I walked right in. No lines. I shared the Basilica with about 10 other people, which was perfect. It is amazing. I couldn't believe how tall it was, and all the intricate details. I saw the Popes' tombs; there were more people worshipping the tomb of John Paul II than there were in the entire Basilica! I took my time and then headed over the Vatican Museums at about 9:30. They open at 10, but they started to let people in early. I grabbed my ticket, then admired all the sculpture, tapestries, and paintings before arriving at the highlight of the museums - the Sistine Chapel. It was smaller than I expected it would be, but no less incredible. It was packed, though. The the sound of so many people talking in such a small space (despite the "No Talking" signs) created a dull roar inside the chapel. I left and grabbed some gelato before strolling along the Elba.
On the third day I took a trip out to Tivoli and went to the Villa d'Este, which was amazing. The villa has these elaborate gardens and fountains. It was incredibly refreshing to just sit by the fish pond and read for awhile.
Today was my last day in Rome. I bought my train ticket to Florence, then went to see the Spanish Steps and the Borghese Gallery. I loved the Borghese, more than the Vatican Museums. It was incredible art, and the size of the villa is not so overwhelming that you feel you have to stop before you've seen everything.
I've been to Florence once before and I've seen the major sights, so I was able to relax a bit this time. I did check out Santa Croce and I went inside the Palazzo Vecchio. I went to the Duomo Museum and the Bargello, two museums I had not made it to last time. I also went over to see the Basilica of San Lorenzo, another sight I had not made it to the last time.
I stood in line for an hour to go to the Uffizi again. Although I had been before I couldn't help it - it has some of my favorite artwork inside, and it was definitely worth the second trip. Then I grabbed lunch - fried zucchini flowers and ribollita. I had been craving both since the last time I was in Italy. The food in Florence and Tuscany is absolutely amazing. I made sure to sample lots of gelato while I was here.
I did some souvenir shopping at the San Lorenzo markets and wandered the Ponte Vecchio region, and then wandered around along the river.
On my last day I took a trip out to Siena. The city was holding the preliminary runs for Il Palio, the famous horse races. The formal races had not yet begun, but the city was still packed. The races were fun to watch, as the locals all screamed and chanted and wore the colors of their favorite horse. Then I grabbed another amazing meal and wandered around before heading back to Florence. I have to be up bright and early tomorrow to head out to the Cinque Terre.
This is Manarola. It is one of the five towns that makes up the CInque Terre. This is where I stayed. Although this picture looks like a postcard, it is not. It is an actual picture that I took. The entire place looked like one big postcard. At times I couldn't believe it was real.
I've been here for three days, and by now I am bored out of my mind. I thought it would be a great idea to stay here for three days, lounging around, swimming, hiking, reading... But it seems that I can only take about two days of doing nothing before I want to move on. I'll have to remember that about myself.
So, I left the Cinque Terre and spent a day on the train to get to Switzerland. I couldn't get to Gimmelwald in one day, so I spent a couple days in Lucerne to break up the trip. Lucerne is a beautiful town on Lake Lucerne, right next to the Alps. I saw the sights and bought some chocolate to send home, as well as a couple high-tech compasses for my dad and my brother. They both do wilderness backpacking, and I thought that it would be a great souvenir for them.
Then I went to Gimmelwald. To get there, I had to take a train to Interlaken through the Alps. Then I had to grab another train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. Once in Lauterbrunnen I had to get to Stechelberg. It is possible to walk there, but it was raining so I took the bus. Then from Stechelberg I had to take a cable car up the mountain to the first stop - Gimmelwald. It was definitely worth it.
This was another place that I came to to relax. My trip is almost half over, I had been running around Italy, I wanted to rest. I had rested a bit in the Cinque Terre, but I ened up being bored. I think this was for two reasons: one, my hostel had a lock-out from 10 to 5, so I couldn't just lounge around the way I wanted to; two, I had run out of reading material. I like to read. A lot. I can entertain myself quite well if I have a book. Fortunately, I found a bookshop in Lucerne with a good selection of english books, so I stocked up. And since my hostel in Gimmelwald didn't have a lock-out, I was able to spend my days doing what I find relaxing - lounging around, reading a book. It was great.
Okay, I ended up liking Salzburg a lot more than I had expected to. It took me a whole day to get here from Gimmelwald and the AC in my train compartment was broken. So that wasn't fun. But arriving at my hostel and finding out that they had their own restaurant was very pleasant, as was the wiener schnitzel I bought to ease my suffering. They also had a ton of information on things to do around town and I was immediately able to book a spot on the Sound of Music tour for the next morning!
Yes, I did the Sound of Music tour. It was a lot of fun! Among other things, the bus took us out to see the Lakes and Mountains district, which was gorgeous, and they took us to a beautiful little town to see the cathedral where the characters got married in the movie. The guide told us a lot about the history of Salzburg as well. When the tour ended it was pretty late in the afternoon, so I tracked down a camera shop where I could copy all of my photos to disks to send home as a back-up in case my camera gets stolen, and then I went back to the hostel because I desperately needed to do laundry.
The next day I went over to Schloss Mirabell to see the gardens. I saw about seven weddings going on in the gardens, and for good reason - they're beautiful. Then I went over the river to see where Mozart was born and the horse baths. Then I went to the fortress and the Residenz. There was a craft market going on by the Residenz, so I spent some time browsing and looking for souvenirs. Oh! And I tried Mozartkugel!
Today was my last day here and it's been raining. I still managed to make it to a park overlooking the city. When I was browsing yesterday I saw the park on top of a hill and I decided that I wanted to go there. So today I spent several hours in the rain tracking down the entrance to the park, then climbing up to it, then taking pictures of the amazing view (see photo above). When I left it was still raining and kind of miserable, so I bought some gelato and spent the rest of my afternoon reading and packing to leave for Munich.
When I arrived in Munich it was raining, just as it had been when I left Salzburg. It was too miserable for sightseeing and the Free Tour, but since it was Monday all the museums were closed as well! So I used the day to do errands - write postcards, go to the post office, buy new books to read, catch up on email, etc.
Fortunately, Tuesday was beautiful. I went on the Free Tour, which was as fantastic in Munich as it was in Paris. I really which I had had the time to do the tour in Amsterdam as well. We saw Marienplatz, the Hofbrauhaus, the Residenz, etc. But just as in Paris, the best part for me was all the history. After the tour I went to the Alte Pinakothek and saw the paintings there. Peter Paul Rubens is one of my favorite artists, and the museum had a great collection of his works. Then I went to a cathedral and climbed its bell tower for the great view of the city seen in the picture above.
Day three I spent at Schloss Neuschwanstein, Mad King Ludwig's "fairy tale castle". Only a few parts of the interior were finished before Ludwig died, including his set of rooms. I enjoyed all the Wagner references inside the castle. Then I hiked to a bridge spanning a rather frightening chasm for this amazing view. Then back to Munich, as it takes a couple hours to get there.
Today I went to the Residenz and the Treasury and checked that out. The treasury exhibit was actually really great. I wasn't going to go to it at first, but then I thought it might be fun to see all the royal regalia, and it was. Afterwards I went to the Englischer Garden, then grabbed a bite at a biergarten. Then it was back to the hostel to pack for Berlin.
I took the night train from Munich and arrived in Berlin very early. I tracked down my hostel, checked in, dropped my stuff off in the luggage room, grabbed breakfast, and still had time to make it to the 10am Free Tour. Just like the others, this tour was fantastic. We went all around and saw the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the Wall, Postdamer Platz, Museum Island, etc. Since the tour ended at Museum Island, I went right in to the Egyptian Museum to check out the papyrus collection, the Greek and Roman sculpture, and the bust of Nefertiti.
The next day I went to the Pergamon Museum and saw the Pergamon Alter and the Gate of Ishtar. Then I went on the Third Reich Tour, also offered by New Europe, that focused on the role Berlin played during Hitler's reign and WWII. After the tour ended I went over to the Reichstag and waited for an hour to take the elevator up to the glass dome. Then I went to the train station and bought my ticket to Poland.
Yesterday I went on another New Europe tour, this time to Potsdam, a town not far from Berlin that has several palaces that belonged to the Prussian emporers. We grabbed lunch in town and went to Sans Souci, the palace of Frederick the Great. Frederick is also buried at the palace, so we were able to see his grave as well.
Today was the Red Berlin tour, which covered the history of post-WWII Berlin. Then it was back to the hostel to pick up my stuff, and in a little while I have to leave to catch the night train to Krakow.
I arrived in Krakow safe and sound after about 14 hours. Had a bit of trouble tracking down my hostel, as the exit from the train station that I was pointed to was not the main exit and I couldn't figure out where I was on my map. But I found it soon enough, and then I left to go see the city. Krakow is beautiful. I walked along the river, saw Wawel Castle, tracked down a used bookshop/coffee house, and took in the main square. There was a performer with marionette puppets - Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Tina Turner - that danced to well-known songs of each. Since my hostel has a kitchen, I decided to do some grocery shopping. Although it's fun to eat out and sample the local cuisine, I get tired of it after a while. I just really want fresh fruit and vegetables, so my go-to meal to make in a hostel is ratatouille over pasta with fruit for dessert. Pasta is so cheap, and I get to satisfy my craving for fresh veggies at the same time.
The receptionist at the hostel helped me figure out how to get to Auschwitz the next day, and while waiting for the bus to Oswiecim I met a couple from Australia who were on vacation. We hit it off and ended up spending the day at the concentration camp together. Appropriately, when we arrived at the camp it was raining. We saw the video footage compiled by Soviet forces when they liberated the camp and then met our guide, who took us around Camp I - Auschwitz, where the bunkers have been converted into displays of information and the displays of human hair, shoes, suitcases, etc. We were asked not to take any photos out of respect, but I saw a girl, about 13 years old, take a photo with her cell phone. For some reason, the fact that she was taking it with her cell phone was what made me angry. We were also shown a former crematorium. It had been turned into something else once the four large crematoriums at Birkenau were built, but those were destroyed by the Nazis as the Soviets approached, so this one was used instead. It was very eerie walking through, for the obvious reasons. Then we took a bus over to Camp II - Birkenau, which was where the trains arrived bearing new prisoners. Some of the bunkers were still standing and we were shown the conditions inside. Then we walked along to the end of the train tracks where the remains of the four large crematoriums were, as well as a memorial.
The next day was more upbeat. It was still raining, but that was okay because I was going underground. I took a van out to the Wieliczka salt mines, bought my ticket, and walked down into the mines. We were shown all the carvings that the miners had created - one of a knight and his lady, one of dwarves performing mining duties (like a scene out of Snow White), a dragon, etc. It was very cool.
My last day in Poland was spent trying to figure out the proper words to navigate the post office, then browsing the shops and the old Jewish Quarter before tracking down what I've heard is the best bagel shop in Poland. The bagel was very good, but the best I've ever had? I don't know.
I took the night train from Krakow to Prague, which I had heard is rather unsafe. My own guidebook discouraged taking it. I've heard several stories first hand of whole compartments being gassed and robbed, so as a disclaimer I'm saying that one should only take the train at one's own risk. That was why I had mailed home my souvenirs before getting on the train. Fortunately, nothing happened to my compartment, and I didn't hear of anyone else on the train getting robbed either. I arrived in Prague then immediately hopped onto a small train out to Cesky Krumlov.
This is Cesky Krumov. Beautiful, no? By this point I had spent more than two weeks running around Austria, Germany, and Poland at a very fast pace, and I was exhausted. I just wanted to relax. So I did. I spent my first two days here just sleeping in, wandering around, browsing the shops, eating the local cuisine. Today I was feeling rested enough to rent a raft with five of the others staying at my hostel and taking a trip down the river. We decided to pretend that we were pirates and tried to overtake every other raft we saw in between stopping at the riverside rest-stops for Czech beer and sausages.
I left Cesky Krumlov and went back to Prague. I tracked down my hostel, settled in, and went out. I wanted to see some of the sights and then see a show. Originally I was set on seeing Don Giovanni. It's my favorite opera, and Prague is the city that it premiered in, and there was a showing at the opera house that night. So I went to see the Old Town, walked along the river to the Charles Bridge, and discovered that a ticket to the opera was far more expensive than I had though it would be. So I gave up on Don Giovanni and went to a chamber music concert instead.
The second day I went to see the famous astronomical clock change, then through the beautiful Jewish Quarter. I crossed the Charles Bridge and wandered around the castle for a while before grabbing a bite for lunch. Then I took the cable car up the hill for a great view of the city and just wandered around the parks for the rest of the afternoon. For dinner, I had reservations at a great restaurant. An aunt of mine had been to Prague and she'd had dinner at this restaurant and she thought it was fantastic. So she booked me a table and told me to order what I wanted - on her. Thanks Aunt Ruth! I had the Trio of Tuna, Truffle Risotto, and Plum Ravioli for dessert. Yum! After dinner I hung out on the Charles Bridge for a while, listening to all the musicians on the bridge and waiting for it to get dark so I could take pictures of the castle. My last day in Prague was quite uneventful. I had been nursing a cold for a while and it was at its worst on this day, so I stayed in and did laundry and read.
Then I left for Vienna. This was quite exciting because I was meeting a friend there! While waiting for the shuttle to take me to the tram in Nice I met another girl who had been staying at the hostel named Claudia. She was from Vienna but had been living in Paris for a while; now she was traveling a bit before heading back to Austria. We hit it off and she invited me to stay with her and her family when I got to Vienna. Alright! I met Claudia at the train station and she showed me around the city. We went to the Stefansdom, saw the palaces and the beautiful squares, wandered around the best cafes in the city and admired the desserts, and grabbed the best gelato in Vienna. Then we hopped in the car and went to Claudia's house. She and her family live about 45 minutes outside the city in a little town. I met her parents, who were wonderful, though communicating was rather difficult since they speak little english and I speak little german. They were so kind! I had my own room during my stay and that first night they took me out for dinner.
The next day Claudia took me out to the Wachau Valley. I can't remember the name of the town we went to, but above it is the remains of a fortress that is allegedly where Richard the Lionheart was held captive on his way back from the Crusades as part of a plot to get his brother on the throne. We hiked up to the fortress and had fun jumping around the remains. Then we went back to the town below and sampled various apricot products before heading to a cafe for coffee and a slice of apricot cake. Then we drove up to Melk Abbey for my benefit before heading back to her house. Claudia and her family went to a birthday party for a relative and I took advantage of the solitude to... do nothing. It was wonderful. I spent the whole evening watching CNN because for the first time in two months I had access to television! I had never appreciated the news so much before in my life. Everything on CNN seemed interesting to me, especially the information about the US elections.
Yesterday was supposed to be my last day here, but with the permission of my hosts I decided to stay another day in Austria. Claudia and I went back into Vienna to see Schonbrunn Palace. We didn't go inside, but wandered the elaborate gardens before going to the zoo. I hadn't been to the zoo in years, so it was so much fun to go to one in Vienna! Then we went up to the cafe inside the Gloriette for coffee and dessert. I hadn't tried Sachertorte yet, and I decided that I had to. We went back to Claudia's house and I played backgammon with her mother for a while. Then we had dinner - Claudia's grandparents have a farm, and they had dropped off several huge zucchini. So dinner was zucchini, three ways - fried as a cutlet, pureed into a soup, and finely sliced into a salad, served with a type of yogurt-dill sauce. It was fantastic! I love to cook and I'm always looking for new ways to use vegetables and to cook on the cheap, so using one vegetable to make three dishes that tasted completely different from one another was divine!
Today was my last day here. I said goodbye to Claudia's parents and Claudia drove me to the train station. We said goodbye and I hopped on the train to Vienna. I put my stuff in a storage locker at the train station (Only EUR2,50 for 24 hours!) and went back to Schonbrunn. I did the Grand Tour, which includes the rooms of Maria Theresia, then grabbed a late lunch - soup with liver dumplings. Then I went back to the train station and hopped on a train to Budapest. A few hours later I arrived in Budapest. I tracked down my hostel, unpacked, and how here I am.
So, right after my last entry I went out for dinner with a few other people from my hostel. We found a turkish place a few blocks away and sat outside while chatting. I guess we had a lot to say because we were there for a couple hours at least! There was myself, there was a girl who had been a news correspondent in Central Asia and was now traveling before taking a new assignment, there was Matt, who was from Colorado and was working as a security guard before going to grad school, and Matt's friend (sorry I can't remember your name!), who was an aspiring reporter who had traveled quite extensively. She told us how she had been in Nairobi when the elections took place and then couldn't leave the building during the ensuing riots.
The next day Matt and I explored some of Budapest. We went to Heroes' Square and spent a lot of time in the gardens north of the square. It was the oddest thing - we came across a flower garden that smelled just like maple syrup! We walked by and then looked at each other - "What does that smell like to you?" "Maple syrup!" "I thought so, too!" Then Matt and his friend (Amanda, maybe?) went to the bus station to buy tickets to Venice and I went to the train station to get a ticket to Romania. I waited in that train station for 2 hours! It was ridiculous! Then I went back to the hostel and Matt, Amanda?, and myself climbed up to the Citadel to see the city at night. We had been told that this was the best view, and I think we all agreed it was. We had a great time just seeing everything up there.
The next day I said goodbye to them and did some sightseeing and some errands before catching the train to Brasov.
I liked Romania a lot more than I had thought I would. The hostel was just off the main square, which was absolutely beautiful. I spent my first day seeing the town and indulging at a chinese restaurant (I was dying for chinese food). At the hostel I met three Australian girls who were all teaching in London and traveling through Eastern Europe. We went out for a few drinks and agreed that the next day we would go to Bran Castle together.
As we had agreed, we woke up early and took the bus out to Bran. We climbed up to the castle (this is the Bram Stoker's Dracula castle, though the real Vlad Tepes never lived there) and took the tour before doing some souvenir shopping at the stalls below. We grabbed some lunch and got back on the bus to go to Rasnov. Rasnov is a town in between Brasov and Bran, and our guidebooks said that it had a fortress worth checking out. So we hiked to the top of the hill and entered the fortress. It was really cool! We actually liked it better than Bran Castle! About half of the fortress is in ruins, and you can wander around them. The other half is still intact and is set up as it was in the Middle Ages. There were just a lot of interesting things around that we were pleasantly surprised to find. Then we climbed down the hill and ran through pouring rain to catch the bus back to Brasov just in time. We went to one of the restaurants in the main square for dinner. I tried the traditional suffed cabbage rolls - delicous!
Yesterday they left and I went to see Sibiu, a pretty little town in the mountains. I wandered around, did some sightseeing as usual, used the one internet cafe to check my email and book my hostel in Athens and grabbed pizza for a late lunch/early dinner before going back to Brasov.
Today is my last day in Romania. I bought my ticket to Greece via Bucharest, which leaves very early tomorrow morning, so I've spent a couple hours riding the bus to figure out how long it takes to get to the train station from here. Unfortunately, it looks like I'll have to take the 5:40 bus - ugh. To comfort myself I went back to the restaurant from a couple nights ago and ordered more cabbage rolls. Things are surprisingly cheap here, and I actually have a lot of money left over. So I'll try to find a couple ways to spend it before leaving in the morning.
So I caught the 5:40 bus to the Brasov train station in time to get the 6:20 train to Bucharest, which arived at about 11:00. The train to Thessaloniki didn't leave until 12:15, so I grabbed an early lunch and stocked up on water and snacks for the train. The train left on time and arrived in Thessaloniki at about 7:00 the next morning. I had to then wait a few hours for my train to Athens, which arrived at about 15:00, after 33 hours in transit. I tracked down my hostel, which was right by the Acropolis, and checked in. I explored Plaka for a while and grabbed dinner before going to bed early.
The next morning I woke up early to explore the Acropolis before all the tour groups got there. I had been looking forward to seeing the Parthenon for years, and it was incredible. After about an hour of gawking at the Parthenon I went over the the National Archaeology Museum, which was fantastic! Then I went over to the Temple of Zeus before grabbing dinner.
The next day I took the bus up to Delphi and spent the whole day tramping around the ruins there. On my last day in Athens I wandered around the Agora, had moussaka for lunch, and tracked down an english bookstore. Then I went to the train station to buy a ticket to Olympia. I was told to take the train to Pyrgos, and to take either a train or a bus from Pyrgos to Olympia. I got on the train to Pyrgos thinking I had plenty of time. But then the train broke down. And we were stuck for almost three hours as they tried to fix the train, found out they couldn't, and had to send for another one. I got into Pyrgos too late to get to Olympia and was forced to find a hotel room at the last minute.
So bright and early I grabbed the train to Olympia. I checked in to the hostel then spent the rest of the day wandering the ruins. The next morning was back to Pyrgos to catch a train to Corinth, then catching a bus to Nafplio. I arrived in Naplio that afternoon and wandered around the town for a bit.
The next morning I was off to Mycenae to see the remains of the ancient city. It was incredible standing there in front of the gates. I kept thinking of the Iliad and the stories about Agammemnon. Then I took the bus back to Nafplio and caught another bus to Epidavros to see the theater and the remains of the ancient healing center.
Today is my last day in Nafplio. It's been a quiet day. I slept in and just enjoyed the town.
I left Nafplio early and got to Athens in time to catch a train to Thessaloniki. From Thessaloniki I grabbed a night train to Istanbul. I was woken up twice in the middle of the night for border crossings, and arrived in Istanbul several hours late. I found my hostel, which unfortunately did not have air conditioning, then went to the Blue Mosque, the Underground Cistern, and the Aya Sofiya. Had dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Blue Mosque.
The next day was all about the Topkapi Palace. I spent the whole day there, admiring the elaborate work on the ceilings and the walls. The Harem in particular was incredible and I'm glad I spent the extra money to go there.
My third and last day in Istanbul was all about bazaars. I did a lot of shopping for people back home and some for myself. I bought a carpet that I absolutely love and found the best baklava! Then I hopped on a night bus to Neveshir. I really hate night buses.
Arrived in Neveshir the next morning and took another bus to Goreme. My hostel sent a car to pick me up and I checked in an dropped off my stuff. It was awesome, my room is actually carved out of one of the rock formations! I explored Goreme and booked a tour for the next day.
The past two days I've spent on the Green Tour and the Red Tour. I've been bused around to see underground cities, hiked through a gorge, had lunch while reclining on pillows on a pavillion built over a river, seen ancient monasteries built into the rock, been to a pottery demonstration and won a free gift, had lunch in a cave, and seen a Cappadocian castle. All in all it's been a wonderful two days and a wonderful end to my trip. Tomorrow morning I take a long bus ride to Ankara. Very early the next morning I take a plane from Ankara to Istanbul, then another flight from Istanbul to Frankfurt. In Frankfurt I will meet up with an aunt of mine who is there on business and together we will fly to Boston.