Thursday, July 30, 2009

Alp adventures

I took the train from Luzern to Interlaken yesterday. It had to be the most scenic train ride I've taken so far. The whole ride was filled with large pearlescent blue lakes that lay between mountains. The sky was crystal clear and a perfect blue color. I was almost tempted to ride the train back to Luzern (and then back to Interlaken).

I'm now staying in Interlaken, the high thrills, adventure seeking, mountain climbing jump off point. My hostel, which has almost everything a hosteller could want, has it's own booking counter for things such as white water rafting, bungee jumping, paragliding, hang gliding, and of course sky diving. Very temping, but just all too expensive for me right now. But trail hiking up the mountains is the good, fair price of free. So that is what I have been doing.

I spent the rest of yesterday wondering around Interlaken, getting a feeling for the town, and looking for a good view point to see everything (including the Swiss alps, ever present in the background). I found one point just on the outskirts I town. A good 120m above the city, and I had found a relatively decent view. Of course all of the fun and excitement of hiking up switchbacks came rushing back to mind. After staying and enjoying the view for a while, I headed back to the hostel, where I sent the rest of the night hanging out.

Today was a bit more involved. I decided I would take a train to a nearby town and hike up to a town called Murren. Instead of gaining an altitude of 120m this was slightly more at nearly 900m. It was supposed to be a 2.5 hour hike, but I just could wait around taking that long getting up. I actually ended up arriving at the top, drenched in sweat, in an hour and a half. It was a steep ascent, and of course I didn't exactly pack proper hiking gear (yay for sandles), but I was pretty proud of myself for blowing thier normal hiking time out of the water. It was good that I arrived when I did for a got thr only glimps of the alp range that I would get for several hours.

When setting out I figured it might get overcast, but I was really hoping it wouldn't. Sure enough, as soon as I walked into town, the clouds came and covered up the snow topped peaks. I trucked onwards though heading to my final destination of Grimmelwald. A small one road village of 150 people with a view of the mountains to die for. And just as I was wondering around town the clouds cleared up enough to see all the peaks. It was breathtaking, and as I sat on a bench with the best view in the world, I couldn't think of anywhere else that I wanted to be at that moment. It was well worth the strenuous hike.

It was also interesting to see the town go on about it's normal life. Everyone was out on the steep hills (30-45 degree inclines) cutting, raking, and harvesting hay. It was amazing to see how they could work on such a harsh steep land. It was probably more amazing to see they driving trucks up these inclines, fill them up, and drive back down the hills side. It looked labor intensive, and walking up and down hills all day does not sound quite like my cup of tea.

Another funny occursnce happened while I was in the one street village of Grimmelwald. I ran into a friend from my earlier travels.

How things like this happen, I will never know. Of all places to be, and of all times to be there, we both happened to be there at the same time. I have to say, after having several of these run-ins while in Europe, the world really is a small place.

Well I'm relaxing now, and plan to spend tomorrow recouperating from today adventures.

A thought.

I've come to realize that the Internation Youth Hostels (IYH) hostels are so institutionalized and have such an expected outcome, that they are all pretty boring. Since they are so predictable (they have to meet certain standards), they have become a haven for families and school groups. The individual adventurer will be hard pressed to find people to hang out and talk with at one. There is no character at one of these hostels, unlike the quirks and admenities of the independent hostels (which I've mostly stayed at). The one that I stayed at in Luzern, much like the others was behind the times in offering wifi and didn't have an open kitchen to use. 2 important things for backpackers amongst many others.

Ok, off to chill.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mountains and valleys

I'm finally in Switzerland, after changing plans a month ago and going south instead. But first recap my last day in Italy.

I planned to be here a day earlier than I actually arrived, but that would be due to meeting a fellow traveler at the camping grounds in Venice who had plans to go to Murano. I wasn't sure exactly where I was going to stay in Luzern, so I decided to stay an extra day at the camp and go to Murano with them. For those who don't know, Murano is a small island near Venice well know for it's glass.

So the next day involved a nice 1 hour boat ride around Venice and out to Murano, which luckily helped justify the outragious 6.50 euro ticket each way for the "bus". Of course I feel only turists use them (or pay those prices). But it was a clear sunny day, with clouds bursting over the mountains in the distance. The salty, questionable, water splashed up on the boat occasionally, cooling off my arm and legs.

The island itself was great. It had all of the charm of Venice with it's colorful decaying buildings, bright open sidewalks, and quaint bridges, but without the crowd. There was no crowd to be seen, the most people congregated in one place was at the bus stops. It was great. Many of the streets were completely empty. We spent the day wondering all the small, offbeat paths that we could find, as well as enjoying the great many shops filled with glass art. It was a day well spent, and a fitting end to my time in Italy. For the next day I was off to Switzerland!

My day began unhurriedly, as my train left at 11am. I took my time gettin up and moving for the day. Like many times I've moved from place to place, I didn't have a hostel booked and didn't know when all my connecting trains would leave. But that didn't bother me, I knew I'd get there. Get there I did. After arrivin in Milan, there was one train leaving for Zurich, one which needed a reservation. I only had 10 min, not enough time to wait in the hour long line. I was ready to just give up and wait for another one, when I decided to just go to the zurich train and give it a try. I asked the conductor (who didn't speak any English) and he just waved me on! Alright! Taking initiative works. Every other train from that time was ready and waiting at connections (I had two more). To top it all off, there was plenty of space at the hostel. It was a smooth day of traveling. And a georgious day as well. In Italy the train followed alongside the mountians, but when we started heading north and going into Switzerland, we went into them. It's really as you would picture it, with talls mountains, green valleys, glacier blue water running down the side in waterfalls and rivers, and quaint towns and houses pearched along the sides. I lost count of the number of waterfalls and small churches perched at the edge of towering cliffsides. It was almost 4 hours of visual bliss.

Then I get to Luzern. A town perched on the egde of a lake which laps at the foot of mountains on the distant shore. I think I could grow old here. There's a lovely prominade that winds alongside the lake shore, filled with benches and million dollar views. My days here have been spent less doing than seeing things. I've just been wondering through the old town, along the shore, and on top of the old city walls. As well as taking my time and relaxing. It's been nice.

Although I had my first sticker shock moment. I've grown so used to the euro that when I heard the amount for three nightsy jaw almost hit the floor. Then I remembered it was in Swiss Francs, almost equal with the dollar ( and it's about $1.4 to the euro). So, funny enough I've been converting everything back to euros, because that is what I've become used to. And since everything in Switzerland is about one third more (a mcdonald meal starts at 9CHF), it makes everything seem a bit more reasonable. I found it odd jus how used to euros I had gotten. But I guess it makes sense since I've been using them for the past two months.

Luzern has been great. Also since my hostel doesn't have wifi, it's pretty awesome that they have blanketed thier downtown area in free wifi. If only every city was that awesome.

Well I have one last night here, been trying to catch the sunset every night, as it lights up the nearby mountain range beautifully, so I'm off to do that. Tomorrow I head to Interlaken.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Two Thirds

A little more than two months are behind me, and a little less than a month lies in front of me. Through this time I've traveld through the counties of England, Scotland, Ireland, Fance, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. I began my slow trek back north a week ago, after leaving Napoli (the southern most city in my journey), and now I've at Venice on my way to Switzerland.

I'm excited to start these new countries, as I work my way east and north. Of course it means new languages to get around in, but if I've learned one thing while traveling it's that there are a lot of English speakers in Europe. In fact there are whole countries that grow up with American english palyeing on thier radios, dancing across the tv screen, and taught in thier schools. Specifically, the Scandinavian region is filled with several countries that all speak excellent English, on top of thier native languages. Knowing two languages seems to be a minimum in most European countris, and if you work at a hostel it seems as though you must know at least 3 or 4 languages.I don't know how people can so easily switch between the various languages they know.

Within Europe, I've found that most of the landscape can be equated to the vaious landscapes that I've seen back in the States. In fact northern Italy, between Bologna and Venice, looks a lot like the Midwest. It's flat, open, and filled with farms. One big key distinguishing factor is the cyprus tress and ancient churches and cathedrals that dot the landscape. This is much different from southern Italy, which had much more of a Colorado feel to it, with big mountains and a lush green landscape. Obviously they are not the same , but it's fun to see and campare the landscape here with what I've seen back in the states.

Traveling solo has it's advantages in the fact that you can pick when you want to be social and hang out with other travelers, and when you want to spend a day or two by yourself. I've found that a healthy balace between the two is a good thing. Although I think I've learned that I enjoy being with and around people much more than being alone (which I thought I prefered at most times). Traveling and meeting tons of new people has given me a new found strenght in doing just that. While I was very timid at first about talking to people, and just plopping down to talk to a random stranger, I now have little problem going over, sitting down, and getting to know someone new. I never know who I might meet, like a skinny white kid with a british accent from South Africa, who had been studying in England, and is on holiday for a month. Hopefully I will keep this confidence gained from traveling, and will be able to put it to good use back home.

I have noticed that traveling in a pair is probably one of the more common things I see. Usually it is a guy/girl couple or a pair of friends, and they tend to make up about 40% of the people that I meet traveling. Another 40% is solo travelers, like myself, and the last section is made up of larger groups traveling. Usually these large groups will be one of the several bus tours offered across Europe, or a very large group of school kids. It's an interesting mix, but there is never a lacking of people around at hostels to talk to and meet. I do think that if I travel Europe again, I'd like to do it with someone.

I've seen and learned that I only need to be at my trains minutes before they leave, as many are just passing through and only arrive a minute or two before they depart again. But I still prefer to get there 10-15 minutes earlier, just to feel safe. Of course I've had a harder time meeting and talking to people on trains since leaving the english speaking countries, as I'm never sure exactly what language (or languages) they speak.While it's easy to assume that everyone on the train speaks that countries native language, I have to remember that there are other travelers like myself, and anyone could be speaking any assortment of languages. I usually cheat and look at the language of the book that they are reading, or if they are from Canada, they are really easy to pick out with their Canadian flag on thier backpacks.

As far as politics, Obama has had a huge impact on the way that Americans are percieved here in Europe. Almost instantly, we've been cast in a more favorable light. In fact, a girl that I met from Finland mentioned that within the past half year a lot of her friends have started travelng to the States again. There seems to be a general consensus that not everyone is sure exactly what Obama will do while in office, but he is seen as a very favorable move for both the US and for the world as a whole. Luckily, if there are any political conversations that I'm pulled into, they revolve around Europeans approval of Obama.

As for Europeans themselves, I've noticed that the waistline has grown across Europe. It's evident in some countries more than in others, And with how many McDonalds I've seen everywhere, I'd have to say that American might have a little something to do with it all. But that's just a generalization. Though you can see the effects of the cheap fast food. It's almost sad to see McDonalds packed in Italy of all places. I do have to admit that I've used them for thier cheap coffee and excellently placed free seating (usually near big plazas and sights), but I won't consume thier food while I'm abroad. At least the craving for a big mac has not hit me just yet. Although I do miss BBQ's terribly, and chicken wings. But BBQ's more so for the atmosphere and friends (and finger licking good food),

Well, these are just a few thoughts. It has been a fun experience so far, and there are many more adventures to come.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Viva la Venice

So, I'm in Venice. As I said in my last post, it seemed a bit intimidating, but how I was wrong. Part of the stress that was on me was making sure that I had a place to stay. I was pretty sure I would be set, as the camping grounds that I had been looking at, had not booked up any night yet. Lo and behold I arrive to find plenty of space, and a tent all my own. Not a bad tent at all, mind you. This one is made for two, tall enough to stand in, and holds two cots. So, I get the comfort of sleeping on a cot, and extra space and privacy to myself.

It's not a bad camping ground either. Outfitted with a pool, jacuzzi's, a restaurant, bar, and internet cafe, it has pretty much everything I need. Besides free wireless, a bit annoying I might add, but I can deal without it for a few days. I've figured out that I'm only charged for the time that I'm online in the internet cafe, but I can use the computer all I want. So, this blog post is being brought you courtesy of WordPad (I won't waste my 'online time' typing a blog). And while I'm typing this I'm remedying a slight problem with the tents, in that there is no power in them, so I'm also charging all my electronics. Ah, it's been a while since I've multitasked.

Anyway, back to Venice. What a georgious city. Unfortunately my first impression was of amazement, a minute whereafter I had to head straight to the bus stop to pick up my ride to the camping grouds, leaveing Venice. Due to an odd break in the bus schedule (which runs every hour), I was forced to wait another 2 hours before I was able to get back into Venice, and actually get to see the city. When I did return, I set right off to loosing myself in it. With only a poor copy of a map, with no names on it, I figured it would be best to just go. Plus, it's an island and not a very big one at that, how could I get lost. I have to admit, there are signs everywhere pointing to Saint Mark's Square and to the Train Station, so there really is no way of getting lost. It would just be difficult to find other things in the city.

The first thing that hit me, was the fact that Venice was not smelly at all, unlike what I've been told by several sources. I'm not quite sure what they were smelling, but I didn't smell anything. Maybe my nose just isn't quite up to their level of odor sophistication. I was free to enjoy the sights and sounds of Venice smell free. And enjoy them I did. Like I've mentioned many times by now, I'm a big fan of the sort of beautiful decay that many European cities find themselves in. Venice is no exception to this. Paint is peeling, plaster and brick are showing, the wood is sun bleached, grass grows in small cracks, and it's all just so lovely. The vibrant colors of the buildings, reds and oranges, yellows and pinks, all add to the auroa of the city. Plus, how can you forget the water. While I would not want to set foot in it, the lovely green murky hue adds to the color pallete as well as reflecting the light and color of it's surroundings. The endless bridges that cross it are ever different, each one a little unique in it's own way. Some residences even have thier own private bridge.

Ah, but Saint Marks Square, what a captivating space. It's filled at any point in time with hundreds of tourists, at least double that in birds, amazing architecture from the surrouding office buildings, and from St. Marks itself, and restaurants with deuling orchestras. Yep, for the cheap price of 5-7 euros for an expresso (plus 6 euro orchestra fee) you too can sit in the square at a table, enjoy your extreamly overpriced coffee, watch it as one of the four different small orchestras (6-8 piece) try to outdo each other, and probably have the best people watching experience ever. I decided to go for the even cheaper option of free, and just wondered around the square, stopping to enjoy the music, and people watch.

St. Marks was amazing. I had forgotten about the interior of the church since I studied it in college, but wow, it all came back as soon as I stepped inside. It's five domes, and many of the walls are filled to the edge with golden mosaics. It is instantly overwhelming when first entering the cathedral. As exciting and interesting as the ceiling was, the floor was also a sight to see. As the foundation was laid on the outside, the ground below the floor was free to undulate as it felt. It almost looks like the floor became fluid for a moment, and then froze into a set of waves.

Other than those two main sights, I spent my two full days in the city wondering the streets, stopping into cathedrals and checking out the artwork inside, and seeing what I could find. It was fun, because it was like stumbling upon treasure every so often with these various churches. Also randomly placed throughout the city were art exhibitions, as Venice holds a city-wide art exhibition every odd year in the summer. These were little gems to find, both for the interesting artwork, and also for the water closets. I am proud of the fact that I did not have to pay the exhorberant price of euro 1.50, to use the public bathrooms spread throughout the city. There are always plenty that are free, you just need to know where to look. Plus, I don't think it really costs the city 1.50 in maintainence and staff, every time someone uses one. Kind of rediculous.

Before I end, one interesting tidbit. I met a fellow traveler in Ferrara, whom we had mutually convinced me to stay for the concert, and I left a day earlier than her to go to Venice (also her next destination). As I was wondering through Venice yesterday, I thought it would be rather ironic if I ran into her. Venice is small, but there are tons of small streets, and actually running into a person in Venice could be quite hard. Well, odds be thrown out the window, on a small street we just so happened to bump into each other. A pleasant surprise, as the company was greatly appreciated for the rest of the evening, where we stumbled upon a small bar/cafe with a live band. Of the course the best part of the band, was the fact that they were all Italian, but where singing all american songs. It's really interesting to note how accents really dissapear when a person starts to sing.

Ok, well enough rambling. Since I am 2/3rds of the way done, and have one month left now, I plan to have a post up soon looking back. But as for now, I'm done.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


This is what happens when you don't have everything planned out to the last detail. You end up in a place like Ferrara for three days, a quaint, georgious, bike city. I didn't know this place existed, and now I would reccomend if anyone is traveling through Italy to stop by at least for a day.

How I ended up here is a good question. Basically, I set out from Napoli without a real destination in mind for the night. I was on my way to Venice, and however far I got on the trains that day, I would stop for the night. Unfortunatly, the regional train I was going to take to get to Rome didn't run on a Sunday, so I had to reserve a seat on a Eurostar train. Eurostar is the speed train of Italy, although I have to say I was a little dissapointed by it's final speed (as fast as it was going through the country side). Looking on the map, Bologna was the closest large city to Venice, so I figered I would stop there for the night. But, Bologna only has on hostel, which is 6km out of the city and not very good at all (and it was booked up that night). So I had to venture onward to the next city, Ferrara, where I found a nice hostel to stay in. Before I knew it, I had booked three nights.

Ferrara is a bike city. It's almost as though they took all of the motorcycles and turned them into Bicycles. So I spent my first full day here biking around town, and quite literally I biked around it. At least the old walls of the city. It took about an hour, but it was a nice peaceful, relaxing bike. I also biked to all of the main highlights of the city, again with everything being so close, it was easy to see it all in one go.

Yesterday was filled to the brim with things to do. I took a day trip into Bologna, since what I had seen of it in 2 hours a few days ago was nice, so I figured it would be good to see the rest. I spent the day leisurely walking through the city streets, visiting the many cathedrals, and popping into the odd museum here and there. It filled the day nicely.

The night was filled with a concert, as Ferrara was having a concert series here. I never thought I would see Animal Planet and TV on the Radio in Italy, lest in a small city, and in a castle courtyard. It was a good concert, which I needed as I havn't been to one in a good while. But alas, my time in Ferrara is up, and I head now to Venice (a city that intimidates me a bit at the moment).

I'm officially two thirds of the way through my travels today. I'll do a post on it later.