Brussels and Brugge

August 21st – Amsterdam to Brussels

Up at 7:30 and out the door by 8:30, we were sitting in a near empty first class car on our way out of Amsterdam by 9am. We had a short ride before we got off to switch trains in Rotterdam. Our train was scheduled to leave at 9:55, but when we got to the platform and checked the departure boards it said 9:55 +10. Ok, ten minute delay, no problem. When 10:05 came with no train, we checked the board again which now said 9:55 +55.  Obviously they were having some technical problems to delay it that long.

We found a spot on the platform to drop our bags down while we waited. Train stations are great places to people watch, especially ones on the routes out of Amsterdam. A plain clothes man who looked like a biker version of Wilfogrd Brimley was walking around with a big dog, which we eventually guessed was a drug sniffing dog. A tall, greasy looking man dressed all in green carrying a grocery bag that got the dog’s attention. Biker Brimley turned around and there was some questioning and ID checking, but no fancy swat team action or arrests (darn). We watched as the man stood with the dog at the end of the escalator, but the only interesting action was when another dog started barking furiously at the drug dog.

Finally, at 9:55 +60, our train arrived and we were on our way to Brussels. The ride took a lot longer than scheduled, and we had to switch stations once in Brussels due to technical problems. Thankfully we had plenty of time before meeting our host, so there was no major rush. And of all of our train travel on this trip, this was the first major delay we encountered.

We met Anass, our Moroccan-now-working-in-Belgium host, on his lunch break and he showed us the room and gave us some recommendations for things to see. We did our usual grocery shopping and had some lunch before heading out to explore Brussels.

View from our room window

View from our room window

Amount we knew about Brussels – basically zero. Other than being the headquarters of the European Union, we didn’t know what sort of stuff was there. The city itself turned out to be very pleasant, full of the traditional looking European historical buildings and palaces that we’d become accustomed to. We stayed very close to Grand Place, a main square housing the former town hall.

Grand Place

Grand Place

So many sculptures

So many sculptures

Grand Place

Grand Place

Right down the street from the square is the most famous statue in the city, Manneken Pis, translated as “Pissing Boy.” And that’s what it is. It’s a statue of a pissing boy.

Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis

Brussels20130821112855

How big it actually is

As you can see from the pictures, it’s tiny. You could put this thing in a small backpack, and in fact, it has been stolen multiple times. The one in public now is a copy. In person it’s a totally underwhelming sight. It might be one of those things that you’d “get” if you were from Brussels, but for us, we were just left wondering why this was a thing.

We wandered around for several hours before heading back and eating more grocery store chow for dinner.

Even the pigeons here eat waffles

Even the pigeons here eat waffles

Brussels

Brussels

August 22nd – Chocolates and waffles

Sleep. Not enough sleep. Our apartment was on a street full of restaurants, which usually means that it’ll be loud until 11 or 12 and then quiets down. It was loud until 11 or 12, but then loud again at 3:30 am when some group of drunkards started parading back and forth down the street singing and clapping. Obviously a football match had ended well for them and they felt the need to wake the neighborhood. After that, we got 7:30am wake up call courtesy of the man with a jackhammer doing construction work across the street. We understand though. Concrete can only be broken early in the morning. :/

So with little rest, our first expedition was to find some lunch and then Belgian chocolates. Lunch was easy – we went into a kebab shop that we had passed the day before. Easy and cheap. Afterward, we started mission chocolate. We ventured into a few shops the day before and they all smell amazing and were outrageously expensive. With a little research, Jenny found a shop that supposedly had good local chocolates at a reasonable price, so we headed there. She bought a few things for other people, and of course we ended up with a variety bag of truffles for ourselves.

A bit spicy

A bit spicy

Chocolates!

Chocolates!

We spent the afternoon taking turns on the computer to write, work, look for work, edit pictures, and make final plans for the trip and our return. Just before dark we got a hankering to try the waffles that the Belgians are so famous for. Waffle shops are everywhere, so we walked around and found one that seemed good enough. Steve went all out with a waffle covered in chocolate ice cream and strawberries. Jenny went conservative and just got strawberries on hers. They were good, but we both like the waffles we ate in Amsterdam better. It started raining as we finished our waffles, so we went back in hopes that we’d be able to sleep better.

This was basically our dinner

This was basically our dinner

Our host, who until that point had spent his time either at work or in his room with the door shut, was finally out in the kitchen eating dinner. We struck up conversation and ended up talking for quite a while about travels, Morocco (since he was from Casablanca), work, and which country produced the worst travelers. It wasn’t America. We weren’t even in the bottom two. Way to go, USA! Of course he said that Australians were the best. Everybody likes the Australians…

August 23rd – Brugge

There were no singing soccer nuts overnight, but our construction friend decided to start at 6:45am this time. (We really didn’t get this… they stopped work by 11am. Why start so early???)  We tossed and turned until 9:30 before getting out of bed and out of the apartment. We caught a train out to Brugge, an hour northwest of Brussels.

Again, we didn’t really know what to expect from Brugge, but were going there based on the recommendation of one of Steve’s friends from college. It was far more pleasant than we could have imagined. Words like “charming” and “quaint” come to mind when trying to describe it. Right out of the train station you find yourself walking down cobblestone streets lined with old brick buildings. Everything is small, close together, and seems old and comfortable like when you visit your grandparent’s house. The cool, sunny weather made it a perfect day for wandering around.

First things first – our only plan in Brugge was to visit De Halve Maan brewery. It is a sixth generation family owned brewer right in town that offers tours every hour. Starting with the mixing tanks, our humorously accented guide took us through the brewing process and company history until we found ourselves on the roof overlooking the town.

Old shipping crates

Old shipping crates

Tour guide

Tour guide

Someday we'll photoshop all the cranes out of these pictures

Someday we’ll photoshop all the cranes out of these pictures

The tour ended with a cold beverage

The tour ended with a cold beverage

De Halve Maan

De Halve Maan

We strolled through the town until we found the main square, where we got some cheap lunch from a food truck (frites with curry ketchup? Sure). After getting our fill of the town (and getting a donut) we capped off the tour by going back into the brewery to sample another of their offerings.

Movie theater

Movie theater

Looking into the main square

Looking into the main square

Brugge streets

Brugge streets

Went the dark route this time

Went the dark route this time

For the second time in Belgium, we had train problems getting back. The air conditioning on the car simply wasn’t working, so the heat from a train full of bodies eventually causes us all to sweat like mad. Already running half an hour longer than scheduled, we jumped off a couple stops early and found our way back to the apartment on a metro instead. We watched a movie, packed up, and got ready to revisit the first city of our trip in the morning.

Amsterdam

August 17th – Berlin to Amsterdam

After two travel days spent having to get to the train station early and fight for unreserved seats, we were glad to have assigned places for the trains to Amsterdam. We spent just shy of three hours on a train from Berlin to Hannover before switching and finding our compartment on the final train to the Netherlands. It looked like this was going to a be a long, but easy travel day.

When we got to our compartment, there was already an older Australian couple sitting by the windows, trying to figure out where to put their giant suitcases. There are luggage racks above the seats, but both the lady and the man seemed not to care that the entire interior space of the compartment was being taken up by their bags. Finally a German passenger assigned to a middle seat, got came in and more or less threw one of the suitcases onto the rack so he could sit down. The Australian man left to look for other luggage storage, and a pair of American girls approached the compartment and did the old “there are people in my seats” double check before asking politely asking the woman if she had that seat reserved. She barked back that they had reserved the seats months ago. Somewhat shocked by the tone of the response, the girls left to find some train staff to help sort out the situation.

The man came back, followed a short time later by the conductor with the girls in tow. She asked to see the tickets of the Australian couple and started a very awkward back and forth that ran more or less as follows.

Conductor: Sorry, you don’t have reservations on this train.

Man: Yes we do.

Conductor: No your reservation was for an earlier train.

Man: We did on a previous train, but you’re incompetent to so we missed it. We’re not moving.

Conductor: Sorry, you have to move, you don’t have reservations for these seats.

Man: Yes we do have reservations, we made them months ago. Because of your incompetence, we’re not moving. (Man folds arms)

Meanwhile, Jenny, Steve, and the German guy are exchanging looks like “well, this is awkward.” The American girls stepped back a bit from the entrance to the compartment while the conductor went on.

Conductor: You had reservations, but not on this train.

Man: We’re not moving.

Conductor: So you want me to get the police?

Man: Yes, get the police, we’re not moving.

Keep in mind, you should only advocate getting the police if you’re clearly in the right and have the paperwork to prove it. This old Aussie pair had reservations on a different train, not on this one, so had the police come, they would’ve been kicked off the train at the next stop and probably fined. Luckily for them, as the conductor was about to leave she mentioned something that is obvious to anybody who has been on a train before – you can sit elsewhere. Or stand. You’ll still get where you’re going. The man agreed to move if there were other seats for him and his wife, which there were. He dragged his giant bag out of the compartment and they left, taking a whole lot of tension out of the compartment with them.

The American girls, Natalie and Audrey, walked in and there was a collective “well that was weird” shared amongst us. They ended up being at the tail end of a summer long trip not too different from ours. The ride into Amsterdam was spent sharing the pleasant bug and toilet stories that travelers collect during their months on the road.

We got into the station, sorted out the details of our next train day into Brussels, and made our way into the city. Walking down the main street through throngs of tourists, Steve was instantly reminded of the trip he took with his dad back in 2006. They had stayed a short walk east of the Damrak, the main street down the center of town, at a hostel right in the red light district. We were staying a short walk west of the main street, in a much less colorful area (i.e. we couldn’t see prostitutes from our room).  In one of our better stays through AirBnB, we found Megan, an Ohio State grad now working in Amsterdam, to host us. She and her English boyfriend, Ed, gave us an early reintroduction into the anglo world with plenty of good conversation.

After eight hours of traveling, we hit a grocery store and Jenny made an improvised asian inspired chicken and vegetables for dinner. Food, beer, bed.

Canal scenery

Canal scenery

August 18th – Around Amsterdam

We managed to drag ourselves out of the apartment by 2pm to walk around the city. After a rainy morning, the afternoon turned into a combination of clear and cool that is perfect for walking over bridges and canals. Amsterdam is often mentioned in conversations about either drugs or prostitution, but outside of all that, the majority of the city is a gorgeous mix of treelined canals, houseboats, little bridges, and tall blonde bicyclists. First we got waffles.

These smelled (and were) too good to pass up.

These smelled (and were) too good to pass up.

We went out into the Jordaan neighborhood. Then down by the university. Then finally over to the seedy red light areas. During the day the activity is fairly tame. The bulk of the working ladies don’t come out until the evening, so the few we saw scattered around were the B squad at best, and generally rather frightening. We found a coffee shop by the old church where Steve and his dad stopped on their trip, as well as the hostel they stayed at. We got some beers and wings at the hostel bar and then headed home.

Pretty canals

Pretty canals

Two points if you can guess how they get things to upper levels.

Two points if you can guess how they get things to upper levels.

Lots of tall, leaning houses.

Lots of tall, leaning houses.

Tram tracks and bicycle paths everywhere

Tram tracks and bicycle paths everywhere

The bar at the hostel that Steve and his dad stayed at.

The bar at the hostel that Steve and his dad stayed at.

That evening, Megan and Ed invited us to join in their Sunday dinner. We were treated to a fantastic spread of roast chicken, leeks, corn, bacon, sausage, roasted potatoes, pak choi, and Yorkshire puddings, while being informed of things like the proper pronunciation of “Yorkshire.” After dinner, we waddled around the red light district at night. Now full of people and glowing with its namesake hue, the area is a lot different after dark. Steve was warned against taking pictures anywhere near the girls, and frankly we were too full to think properly, so we weren’t out long.

August 19th – Anne Frank and the rice table

Another ambitious morning got us out of the apartment just after 2pm. We walked a few canals over to visit the Anne Frank house. After waiting in line for just over an hour, we made our way through the building that housed Anne and seven other people for over two years during the war. We passed through the passage behind the bookcase that led into the annex (as their hideout was called). It was eye opening to see how this group of people, with the help of a handful of outsiders, was able to get by in hiding for so long. The walls of Anne’s room are still decorated with the magazine cutouts and pictures she glued there during her stay.

Of the eight people in the annex, Anne’s father, Otto, was the only one to survive the war. Anne’s collection of writing, which went far beyond a single diary, was saved by one of their accomplices and given to Otto after he returned to Amsterdam. He published the papers, and now we get to see a sad, but worthwhile reminder of the war.

No pictures allowed inside - so this is all you get.

No pictures allowed inside – so this is all you get.

On a happier note, that evening we went to a restaurant recommended by our hosts. The Dutch have a take on Indonesian cuisine where they make many small dishes and serve them with rice at what literally translates as “rice table.” We enjoyed egg, chicken, pork, beef, lamb, and vegetables several different ways, and for the second night in a row, were left too full to move afterward.

Rice table at Long Pura = delicious

Rice table at Long Pura = delicious

August 20th – Van Gogh and kitties!

Steve got up early and went to the grocery to pick up more coffee and some fish for lunch. Now a habit, we got out around 2pm to go visit the cat boat.

One of Amsterdam’s many houseboats has been converted into a cat sanctuary called De Poezenboot. For a small donation, you can go inside and see a bunch of cats wandering freely around the boat. Some of them are up for adoption, others are prissy lifers on the boat, as indicated by little drawings of various cats saying “Don’t touch me, I’ll bite you.” We’ve had some terrible cat withdrawal on this trip, so getting to pet some furry creatures was nice.

Jenny is cheating on our boys, and on Avi's birthday of all days.

Jenny is cheating on our boys, and on Avi’s birthday of all days.

Cats relaxing on De Poezenboot. How many pairs of glowing eyes can you see?

Cats relaxing on De Poezenboot. How many pairs of glowing eyes can you see?

After our cat fix, we made the long walk to the southern part of Amsterdam that has the main art museums. We passed plenty of things along things along the way.

Crazy (but fun) guy on his musical boat

Crazy (but fun) guy on his musical boat

Markets

Markets

The Heineken brewery (at 17 euro, not worth touring)

The Heineken brewery (at 17 euro, not worth touring)

We finally made our way under the Rijksmuseum and into the line for the Van Gogh museum. At 15 euros, it was one of the more expensive museums of the trip, but it was very detailed in its descriptions and had everything from his paintings to his tools on display, as well as details on restoration and color changes in the works. Van Gogh didn’t decide to be an artist until he was 27, and was dead at 37. He managed to do a lot of work in a very short period of time.

Van Gogh's palette

Van Gogh’s palette

Skull smoking

Skull smoking

Potato Eaters

Potato Eaters

Various ingredients in paint

Various ingredients in paint

Self portrait

Self portrait

The museum area

The museum area

After the museum, we stopped at a cafe to get a healthful snack.

In our world, triple chocolate muffins are good for you.

In our world, triple chocolate muffins are good for you.

That evening was spent eating the rest of our food in the fridge and watching Oblivion with Megan and Ed. We totally called the clone thing.

The next morning – Brussels.

Berlin

August 13th – Prague to Berlin

Braving another day without train reservations, we got to the Prague station early enough to buy sandwiches and beer for the nearly five hour ride to Berlin. We fought our way onto the train and found the one compartment that didn’t have reservations listed to grab the coveted window seats (with power outlets and a table). The first half of the ride went fine, but at some point after crossing the border, people started coming into our compartment with reservations. One lady had Jenny’s seat, but agreed to sit in another empty one, but eventually a lady with a little dog got on and started a game of musical chairs that ended with Jenny finding a seat in another compartment. Despite the shuffling around, we made it into Berlin HBF early enough that we were able to wait in line and make our next set of train reservations to Amsterdam.

The apartment we rented was a short distance away from Alexanderplatz and within easy walking distance to the major museums and sites. Our host greeted us, showed us around, and left with her Greyhound to go sleep at her art studio. It was already getting late by the time that we got back from a trip to the grocery store, so we made dinner in the apartment and got ready for another day of city roaming. With cool weather and a comfortable bed, we had some of the best sleep of our trip in Berlin.

August 14th – WAR

Berlin had a really rough 20th century. With major wars followed by decades of split control by foreign powers, many of the major sites are important, impressive, and not very uplifting. We started our day by walking over museum island (we’ll come back to that) and through the city until we reached the Brandenburg Gate. Unfortunately, the entire area behind the gate was closed off and filled with construction equipment, so the view wasn’t that impressive.

Where there is a tourist attraction, there are bad street performers.

Where there is a tourist attraction, there are bad street performers.

Top of the Brandenburg Gate

Top of the Brandenburg Gate

From the gate we walked down to the Holocaust Memorial (formally – The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe). The memorial itself is, well, odd for a memorial. It’s made up of a large open space filled with over 2700 concrete slabs of varying heights. You can walk between them and sit or stand on some of the shorter ones around the edges. But as a whole, we didn’t really get the concept behind it. It’s a space that you could just mistake as a huge modern art installation until you find one of the signs explaining what it is. There were people eating lunch on some of the blocks and kids were running around playing in the rows – not exactly the scene you’d imagine when you think “memorial to six+ million people.” Supposedly the area is “designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” Whatever you say…

Holocaust memorial

Holocaust memorial

Where's Jenny?

Where’s Jenny?

From the Holocaust memorial, we went to check out Checkpoint Charlie. Traffic on the street now flows freely, but the storyboards lining the sidewalk give the history of the spot. There is an area showing pictures, listing the many successful and unsuccessful border crossing attempts, and reminding us that less than 25 years ago, Berlin was a very different place.

History of the checkpoint

History of the checkpoint

Where the wall once stood

Where the wall once stood

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie

And this is what the checkpoint looked like in the late ’80s.

Checkpoint Charlie near the end

Checkpoint Charlie near the end

A section of the wall still stood in the area. Other sections were moved and used as canvas by graffiti artists.

Original wall and paint

Original wall and paint

Wall artwork

Wall artwork

Division of Berlin

Division of Berlin

We stopped at McDonalds to use the bathrooms, and went to a food stand on the street to get some traditional German snacks.

Ok, so doner kebab isn't really German, but we're drinking Berliner beer, so it counts.

Ok, so doner kebab isn’t really German, but we’re drinking Berliner beer, so it counts.

We headed back to our place, walking by the big TV tower that is the tallest structure in Germany.  You can ride up and there is a restaurant in the ball. (Not that we went up there).

TV tower, ready for a storm

TV tower, ready for a storm

August 15th – Pergamon Museum

Berlin has a huge number of museums, so many that they actually have an area called Museum Island. You can buy passes that let you visit multiple museums a day, but Steve was only interested in going to the Pergamon museum. We’d seen plenty of ruins throughout the trip (Ephesus, Olympia, loads of things in Rome) but the Pergamon museum houses some fantastic reconstructions of ancient structures.

The name of the museum comes from its possession of the sculptures and friezes from the massive altar in the city of Pergamon (located in what is now Turkey). German archeologists excavated the site in the late 1800s, eventually bringing the sculptures back to Berlin where they built a museum that included a full scale replica of the front section of the altar. It’s another impressive example of the richness of ancient Greek and Roman cultures.

Reconstructed altar entrance

Reconstructed altar entrance

Altar friezes hung around the gallery

Altar friezes hung around the gallery

Friezes depicting mythological scenes

Friezes depicting mythological scenes

Right after visiting the altar, the next room houses the reconstructed market gate of Miletus.

Did not bring a wide angle lens to this museum...

Did not bring a wide angle lens to this museum…

To complete the series of ancient reconstructions, walking under the market gate takes you through the Ishtar gate on the other side. The museum used many of the original bricks and huge number of excavated fragments to rebuild the inner gate to the city of Babylon. The reconstruction is impressive enough, but if the model of the original city is at all accurate, this place would’ve been a sight to see.

Lions, chimeras, and dragons covered the gate

Lions, chimeras, and dragons covered the gate

A message from the king

A message from the king

Reconstruction of the walls

Reconstruction of the walls

Model of the original entryway into Babylon

Model of the original entryway into Babylon

After the Ishtar gate, the museum continued with other artifacts from the middle east. Most of what we see in museums tends to cover the Greeks or Romans or Egyptians, sort of skimming over the history of these most ancient of cities. It was interesting getting to see things from cultures outside the typical western spots that we’re accustomed to.

Old timey receipts

Old timey receipts

Relief on a palace wall

Relief on a palace wall

Walls of Mshatta, an 8th century Jordanian city (now inside a German museum...)

Walls of Mshatta, an 8th century Jordanian city (now inside a German museum…)

After the museum we wandered around for a while and found a restaurant with a huge number of syllables in the name (therefore it must have been authentic German food).

Six kinds of sausage, potatoes, sour kraut, pretzels, and beers. *insert drool noises*

Six kinds of sausage, potatoes, sour kraut, pretzels, and beers. *insert drool noises*

Before heading back to the apartment, we made the long walk to one of the longest remaining stretches of the Berlin wall.

Not very high, but definitely long.

Not very high, but definitely long.

The wall

The wall

August 16th – Laziness, and people jumping off a building

And on the third full day in Berlin, we rested. Well, didn’t go tourist crazy anyway. Steve got up and went for a much needed jog. He got back and Jenny cooked pasta for lunch. In the afternoon we went out to Alexanderplatz, which has a bunch of fair like activities and shops. We got some currywurst.

Sausage with a sauce and covered in curry powder. This is all over Berlin.

Sausage with a sauce and covered in curry powder. This is all over Berlin.

Oh yeah, we stopped and watch people jump off a building.

What'd you do today?

What’d you do today?

The Park Inn Hotel in Alexanderplatz has a thing where you can do a free fall off the top of the building. For 50 euro, you get maybe five seconds of free fall. Fun, sure, but not really worth it in our opinion as a couple that has jumped out of a plane.

For our last outing in Berlin, we got some Vietnamese food (why not, eh?). Monsieur Vuong was a very popular place and with good reason. We got some amazing food for very good prices. Not a very “German” end to our stay in Berlin, but a very tasty one.

Prague

August 10th – Vienna to Prague

Our train ride to Prague was one of those where reservations were “optional.” This means that you can either pay to get a reserved seat or just try to be first on the train to get one of the unreserved seats. The system sounds nice – be spontaneous, save a few bucks – but the reality ends up being a mad dash by the unreserved masses for the few available seats left on the train. You still get to ride if you don’t get a seat, but you might be sitting on the floor in the baggage area. We worked our way through several cars before jumping into some open seats. We made it one stop before another lady got on and said that Steve was in her seat. He got up and found another one, but this process of people getting on and kicking people out of their reserved seats continued for the nearly five hour trip to Prague.

From the train station it was only a 10-15 minute walk to the apartment. After the cleanliness of Vienna, there was a noticeable difference in Prague. Things were dirtier and a little more run down. The people were sketchier and there were far more “characters” (e.g. drunken bums) roaming around. But it’s the characters that make a place interesting, right?

Just before 2pm we arrived at the gate and were met by a young guy who spoke little English, but let us into the apartment. This was one of the biggest places we’d had all summer, so we got to spread out, do some cooking and laundry for a couple days. Sleeping was cut short by a construction crew getting started by 8:00am every day, but all in all it wasn’t a bad place.

That first night we went wild. What else can you do in Prague? We went to a club, got wasted, and emerged a sweaty mess when the sun came up.

Obviously that’s not true. We went to a grocery store to stock up on things, went back out later, picked up Chinese food, and ate in the apartment. Party – Jenny and Steve style.

Wild night! WOOOO!!!

Wild night! WOOOO!!!

August 11th – Wandering around the old country

Well rested and fueled by a breakfast of leftover Chinese food, we set off to explore the town. We went up our street a short way into Wenceslas Square. Set between the old town and new town, the square is full of huts selling trinkets and Czech fair food to the crowds. From there, we headed toward the astronomical clock.

Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square

Every hour, crowds gather to watch the figures around the clock come to life. The skeleton rings a bell, other characters move around. It’s actually not that exciting, but the clock is complicated enough to be an oddity worth catching while in the area.

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock

No idea what all this says...

No idea what all this says…

We made our way to the Charles bridge. You can find beautiful pictures of the Charles bridge in the morning fog, lined rows of black sculptures. During the day, it is full of people and street performers.

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

If you follow the hills up the other side of the river, you’ll slowly approach the Prague Castle. We stopped into a bar claiming to be the oldest medieval bar in the country, serving beer daily since 1300 something. They made their own dark and light beers that were extremely heavy, but it was a nice stopping point as we made our way up the hill.

Beers by candlelight

Beers by candlelight

Yep, we're awesome.

Yep, we’re awesome.

Inside the bar

Inside the bar

The Prague Castle itself isn’t a single building, but a walled complex full of structures. The entrances are still guarded by soldiers, but you can freely enter and walk around (or take a paid tour of some of the buildings if you’d like). The “don’t miss” church inside the castle is St. Vitus, a gothic cathedral founded in 1344.

Front of St. Vitus cathedral

Front of St. Vitus cathedral

Interior of St. Vitus

Interior of St. Vitus

From the height of the castle, you can get some great views of the surrounding city.

The Charles Bridge as seen from the Prague Castle

The Charles Bridge as seen from the Prague Castle

We left the castle and made our way back to Wenceslas Square where we ate some sausage and ham that was being smoked. We also got some sort of ringed donut thing that was covered in sugar and deliciousness.

That evening we went back to the square to check out the Ambassador Casino. We’d seen signs for casinos all over the place, but this one seemed to be central and easy to get to, so we figured – why not?  Well the casinos in Prague aren’t what we typical-Americans thing of as a casino. After going up some stairs and getting our IDs checked at a door, we were buzzed into a single room that had maybe four poker tables, one blackjack table, a couple of roulette tables, and 15 or so slot machines – half of which seemed to be broken. Through the thick cloud of lingering cigarette smoke we found our way to a blackjack table where Steve sat down for a while. Needless to say, this was no Vegas.

August 12th

We spent most of the day inside catching up on writing and work. When we did venture out, it was only for a short while to walk around. Neither of us had anything that we really cared to do, so we took it easy, made dinner at the apartment, and got ready for Berlin the next day.

Overnight to Vienna

August 7th – Overnight to Vienna

We were due to hop on a train at 7:12 in the evening. While it seemed good that we’d have all day in Rome to do whatever we wanted, there were a few practical problems that we didn’t think about ahead of time.

(1)          It was horribly, uncomfortably hot out.

(2)         We had to check out of our room at 11:00am, with all of our bags

Problem two we could deal with – storing bags at the train station wasn’t cheap, but we could do it and still go out and see stuff if we wanted. Problem one left us few options. We were already soaked in sweat just getting to the station, and we were about to board a 13 hour long overnight train where we didn’t have the option to shower. Even without our bags, going out to do anything would have left us feeling disgusting, and we probably would have killed our host in Vienna with our stink.

So we sat in the train station. Not the best way to spend a day, but we avoided the heat, and Roma Termini is a large station full of shops and restaurants so we were able to wander around and occupy ourselves before getting on the train. Needless to say we were ready to go when just before 7:00 our train’s platform assignment popped up on the departure screens.

This was our first overnight train of the trip, so it was kind of fun getting on and being welcomed to our little mobile hotel room with small bottles of wine and water, and washcloths to clean up with in our tiny sink. The train was unbearably hot until we finally started moving and the air conditioning turned on. They came by and gave us little fruit cups, which – yay fruit! – but turn on the frigging AC.

Inside our cabin

Inside our cabin

We spent the evening on the train eating junk food and drinking wine, watching as our last views of the Italian countryside passed into darkness. Our gruff Austrian cabin steward came by to turn our beds down around 11, and we got what sleep we could. Between the shaking of the train as it passed through the Italian-Austrian border, and the constant rattling of tracks and creaking of the cabin, even a sleeper car offered only slightly better rest than you might get on a plane.

August 8th – Vienna

In the morning, we woke up to announcements of upcoming stations. We were brought a breakfast of coffee, juice, bread rolls, a couple slices of meat, and some yogurt. The train made a stop at one station that didn’t look like ours, so after we stayed on, we looked around anxiously hoping that we had made the right choice. It didn’t help that our train was running late. Finally at almost 9 am, thirty minutes after we were supposed to arrive, we saw WIEN MEIDLING signs approaching. The Latin portion of the trip was over, and the Germanic adventure had begun.

The public transport system in Vienna, while extensive, is a mess to decipher at first. A mix of underground, tram, and bus lines lay over the city. The subway actually leaves from a train station platform, not a separate subway stop. Weird. It took us a while to figure that one out. We took a line to what we thought would be close to our apartment, got out, and had no idea which direction to go. Thankfully as we stood there turning a map over and looking around, an older man walked up to us and asked us where we were going. He was an Austrian guy on his way to a doctors appointment, but was apparently going the same direction as us, so he actually walked us down and got us onto another subway line, rode the train with us for a couple of stops and then pointed us in the right direction. He spoke English like an Australian and talked about his extensive travels in southeast Asia.

Only an hour late, we found the buzzer for our apartment and we soon ushered up by Leo, a Ukrainian born, American immigrant, now living in Austria for school. We were sharing his place for two nights and he ended up being an extremely nice host. The apartment was simple, but just outside the city center and right down the street from a supermarket.

We were tired and hadn’t showered in over 24 hours, so first order of business was a nap and a bath. After that, we ventured out into Vienna’s inner city.

Why Vienna? Honestly, we knew nothing about this city when planning the trip. It just looked like a direct route between Italy and Prague.  Walking around the inner city, we quickly remembered that Vienna was once the capital of a little thing called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It had all the fancy buildings you’d expect from an imperial center. In notable contrast to many places we’d been in Italy… it was clean. You could eat off of these streets.

St. Stephen's, an interesting church, too big to get a wide shot of in the cramped streets

St. Stephen’s, an interesting church, too big to get a wide shot of in the cramped streets

Another church... (whose name was blocked by scaffolding on the front)

Another church… (whose name was blocked by scaffolding on the front)

We walked by St. Stephen’s cathedral, the Hofburg, saw the Rathaus, saw many of the museums in the area. We walked through a park near the Hofburg where a lady let out the most insane belch imaginable, right as we walked by. Eww… Maybe Austria isn’t so clean…

Goethe chillin

Goethe chillin

The Rathaus

The Rathaus

Hofburg

Hofburg

After taking in our loop around the city center, we stopped by the grocery store for lunch food before heading to the room to chill out. Between being tired and it being 100 degrees outside, we both needed a nap.

We woke up in the evening and tried to come up with something to do. Food being first on Jenny’s mind, she looked up Anthony Bourdain online and he had done a No Reservations show in Vienna. We lounged in bed watching a guy with the best job in the world drink and eat his way through the city. Afterwards we were inspired to venture back into the city center to find a place to get some beer and sausage. Stands selling all manner of sausages are plentiful in the city, so before long we had a couple of beers and plates of cheese sausage and bratwurst sitting in front of us. Yes, it was delicious. Passing on the ever pervasive gelato, we found a frozen yogurt shop and got some froyo for the first time since Madrid.

Yes - this.

Yes – this.

These sausage stands were all over the place in Vienna's inner city.

These sausage stands were all over the place in Vienna’s inner city.

Full of meat, beer, and sweets, we made our way back to the apartment to call it a night.

August 9th – Shonbrunn Palace

After a slow breakfast and some good conversation with our host, the goal for the 9th was to visit Shonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the empirial family. Shonbrunn is often called a “Little Versaille” due to the similar layout of the house and extensive gardens. That comparison is fairly accurate. Shonbrunn and the gardens are impressive, but not on the same scale or level of gilded ostentation as Versaille.

The palace courtyard

The palace courtyard

Jenny classing up the joint

Jenny classing up the joint

Entrances to the palace are timed so that you buy a ticket for a specific entrance time. Ours gave us over an hour to explore the gardens. Open to the public, the gardens are full of rows of sculpted trees and are dotted with sculptures and fountains. Unlike the previous 100 degree day, rain was moving in and our time in the gardens here were totally pleasant.

Long rows of sculpted trees

Long rows of sculpted trees

Carriage rides

Carriage rides

Carriage in front of the "Roman Ruins" (built as ruins in the 1700s)

Carriage in front of the “Roman Ruins” (built as ruins in the 1700s)

Inside the palace is a basic tour of the rooms, largely focusing on their use by Franz Josef and his wife Sisi. We had seen Sisi’s summer home, the Achilleon Palace, at our stop in Corfu, Greece. Unfortunately – no pictures allowed inside the palace.

Later that evening, we headed out to find a restaurant recommended by Leo. He had given us directions – walk to underground station, take one line to a stop, get off and transfer to a different line. Or was that line a bus? Or a tram? We had no idea. We spent a good 15 minutes walking around an intersecting stop of several tram/bus/underground lines and never found what we were looking for. Jenny got directions from a newspaper seller… which made no sense at all.

So we walked. Maybe 45 minutes later was found the restaurant, Fischerbrau. It ended up being worth the wait. We drank local beer and ate goulasch and a plate of mixed meats. We were finishing up our plate of fried apples with mixed berry sauce when the rain that had been threatening all day finally started coming down. With full bellies we headed in the direction of a subway stop a couple blocks away that took us directly back to our apartment. If we’d only known that there was any easy, direct way to get there in the first place. Our rainy run home was our last outing in Vienna before leaving for Prague in the morning.

Finally made it to the restaurant

Finally made it to the restaurant

Rome

August 3rd – Florence to Rome

The Florence to Rome was a comfortable ride on one of the newer high speed trains that goes well over 200 mph. An hour and a half after we boarded, we emerged into Rome’s central station where we found our way to a subway map so we could figure out how to get to our apartment. Our place was in a great location in the historical center just south of Piazza Navona, but Rome being Rome, the closest metro stop dropped us about 1.25 miles away. We took the metro as far as we could and then used the river to guide us as long as we could. Half an hour later and we were at the door of the building where the host came up and let us in. Thankfully, this place was clean, had working internet, a washing machine as advertised, so it was a relief after the rough stay in Florence (Yeah, after this long on the road we want a clean place and a good bed.)

We went out for another over-priced, mediocre meal to get some food in our stomachs before going to the grocery store. After eating and shopping we came back to the room to cool off for the afternoon. In the evening, we went exploring to a couple of the main sites that were a short walk from our place. First stop – the Pantheon, an amazing domed building that we’ll talk about more about later. After a few minutes walking around the square, we walked west to Piazza Navona, a long square full of fountains, portrait artists, and street performers.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Caricature artist in Piazza Navona.

Caricature artist in Piazza Navona.

Each end of the square has a fountain, but Bernini’s impressive Fountain of the Four Rivers dominates the center, topped by an Egyptian obelisk.

Didn't really get a good picture of the fountain...

Didn’t really get a good picture of the fountain…

August 4th – The Colosseum and the Forum

We got an early start (for us – early meant getting out the door before 10) and walked the roughly 1.25 miles to the Colosseum. There are a few sites in the city that you have to see, and the remains of an arena that saw the slaughter of scores of animals and people, and has survived wars, earthquakes, and being scavenged for building materials – is definitely one of them. Outside the building we waited for 1.5 hours, the longest line of our trip, before finally passing through the gates and into the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum

Inside the Colosseum

Even for all that remains of the structure, it’s still tough to visualize exactly what is what. This might help you imagine what it would’ve looked like in its prime.

Sketch of the complete structure

Sketch of the complete structure

75,000 people could fill the seats to watch men fight animals, animals fight animals, men fight men, and any other combination of man/beast/machine combat. Sailors were employed to work the ropes on the retractable cover, while more people worked the underground systems that raised men and animals from beneath the arena floor.

Probably a bit wilder than your average football game.

Probably a bit wilder than your average football game.

The hypogeum beneath the arena

The hypogeum beneath the arena

Looking from the Colosseum to the Forum

Looking from the Colosseum to the Forum

Where seats once were.

Where seats once were, before the “let’s use this as a quarry” phase in the Colosseum’s history

The day we went to the Colosseum was empty of clouds and full of August sun, so the few shady spots were crowded with people and the metal railings at the lookout points would give you a hot wake up call if you made the mistake of touching them. We did a loop around first level and then a loop around the second. The upper level had displays of stones and sculptures leftover from the period. Some of them showing what graffiti looked like in the days before spray paint. In addition to the regular information about the Colosseum, there was a temporary exhibit about Constantine, showing the transition of the empire from pagan to Christian belief systems.

Old school graffiti

Old school graffiti

The ticket into the Colosseum also gets you into the Forum and Palatine, so we left the Colosseum and made our way down the street to the entrance of those sites, stopping at a food cart along the way for a much needed beverage. The Palatine, which we didn’t go through (Steve was there years ago) is a hill where the first Romans lived and where the palaces of several emperors once stood.

What remains of the forum is a long stretch of buildings and ruins that once comprised the main street during the height of imperial Rome. Like so many other ancient places, over the years the streets of the forum were used, reused, repurposed, abandoned, used as a quarry for other buildings, and eventually just buried with generations of garbage and neglect. Archeologists came along and gradually pealed away the layers of dirt, returning the street level to that of the late empire.

On the hillside above the forum

On the hillside above the forum

Among the ruins are temples, houses, shops, and churches. Lots of churches, as once Christianity hit full speed they took over and converted large numbers of buildings into places of worship. Walking along the route, it might be helpful to imagine yourself in the scenes in Gladiator when the victorious Roman armies are marching in formation down the streets. That’s the Forum.

Street level at the forum

Street level at the forum

Looking back into the forum

Looking back into the forum

After the forum we went back to relax and wash the layers of sweat and salt off (did we mention that it was hot?). In the evening we met Vahid, the friend of a friend who happened to be living in Rome, and Megan, a coworker of Vahid’s that just arrived in the country the day before. We met in Piazza Navona and walked down a side street to Ristorante del Fico. We’d had a pretty bad record when it came to picking restaurants on our own, so having the recommendation of a local was very welcome. The restaurant had great Roman pasta dishes, and between us we had carbonarra, amatriciana, and cacio de pepe, along with some nice wine, fried zucchini, and melted cheese topped with prosciutto. Good food and good company definitely made this our best meal in Rome.

After dinner we walked to a busy gelato shop for dessert before parting ways (this was a Sunday night, they had to work).

August 5th – The Pantheon and the Basilica di San Clemente

We had no set plans for this day, so we took our time in the morning and decided to make a couple of stops outside. First, we went back to the Pantheon. When we went the previous time the inside was already closed, so this time we were able to go inside.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

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The Pantheon was originally built around 27 bc (later rebuilt after fires), originally as a temple and later converted to a church, which it remains today. The structure itself is a marvel whose design has been mimicked over and over again. The pillars in front are 39ft tall pieces of solid granite from Egypt. The main feature of interest is the domed roof, which to this day is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The Florentines actually tried to copy the design of the Pantheon’s dome for use in the Duomo, but the recipe for the concrete used had been lost and others were unable to support the weight. The dome itself has a hole in the center that opens to the sky. The floor has drains to disperse the water that comes in when it rains. This is one of those buildings that make you go “wow” when you first walk inside.

Light coming through the oculus.

Light coming through the oculus.

Inside the Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon

Raphael's tomb

Raphael’s tomb

The pillars

The pillars

After the Pantheon we made the long walk past the Colosseum to the Basilica di San Clemente. On the surface, this is an 11th century Catholic church, decked out with all the fancy finishings and paintings you’d expect. But go into a side room and buy a ticket to the excavations, and you get to see what’s hidden beneath.

The Roman’s method of dealing with old buildings was generally just to build a new structure right on top. So a level beneath this 11th century church, there were excavations of what was a 4th century church. Some of the mosaic floors and frescoes are still visible, as are the many rooms and archways that made up the different sections of the church. Interesting, right?

Well it keeps going. That 4th century church was built directly on top of a 2nd century Mithraic site, of which the original Mithraeum can still be seen. (Mithras was another religion popular before the wide acceptance of Christianity, and this was a place to study and worship Mithras).

And below that – the Mithraic site was built on top of a roman house that they suspect burned down sometime in the first century AD. (Unfortunately – No pictures allowed inside the church or the excavations.)

August 6th – The Vatican

We walked across the river and used the high dome of St. Peter to navigate our way into Vatican City. We planned on going into the museum, which is notorious for its incredibly long lines, so when we got into St. Peter’s square and saw a line wrapping from the basilica along the columns around the square almost all the way back to the basilica, we figured we had found the right place. For 45 minutes we inched forward with the crowd until getting to a row of metal detectors and x-ray machines. After security, we realized that this was just the line for to go into the basilica, not the museum.

Waiting in (the wrong) line in St. Peter's Square

Waiting in (the wrong) line in St. Peter’s Square

*Insert frustrated swearing here (but done quietly, it was a church after all).*

Oh well, going into St. Peter’s is a must-do while in Rome. Even after being in so many churches on this trip, nothing compares to the scale you encounter here. The top of the dome looks impossibly high when you stand beneath it, and becomes a more impressive feat when you consider the technology available at the time of its construction.

Inside St. Peter's

Inside St. Peter’s

Immediately after the entrance you can stop to look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, the sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus (now behind glass so people can’t get close.) Other sculptures fill every corner of the church. The bodies of several popes lay in state.

Pieta

Pieta

Directly under the dome is Bernini’s bronze baldachin. Directly beneath that is the entrance to what we can only imagine are the tunnels and catacombs where countless popes and church figures are buried.

Looking up to the dome

Looking up to the dome

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After a couple laps around the church, we wandered outside in hopes of finding the line that we were looking for in the first place. We found our way to familiar walls of the city and followed some signs for the museum. Not surprisingly, the line was went along the entire length of a wall. What was surprising, is that we ended up being right around the corner from the entrance and only had to wait about 20 minutes before being inside.

The Vatican Museum houses fantastic examples of art and historical pieces. Other museums might have pieces of ancient Egyptian jewelry, but the jewelry at Vatican is actually clean and in good shape. Sculptures from the Egyptians and Greeks and Romans fill the halls, and Raphael’s paintings cover entire rooms. Even though it was extremely crowded, it wasn’t a museum to miss.

Sculptures

Sculptures

So...many...sculptures

So…many…sculptures

They've got mummies!

They’ve got mummies!

Amazing paintings covering the walls

Amazing paintings covering the walls

More work by Raphel

More work by Raphael

Supposedly the Council of Trent forbade the display of genitals in artwork... leading to the loss of man parts on most of the statues in the museum... poor fellas.

Supposedly the Council of Trent forbade the display of genitals in artwork… leading to the loss of man parts on most of the statues in the museum… poor fellas.

There are various paths you can take in the museum, but most of them point to the crown jewel at the end – the Sistine Chapel. Another example of what papal orders and artistic genius can accomplish, you could easily spend a day staring at all scenes that cover the walls.  The inside was filled with the murmur of the crowd and the constant demands of the guards to be quiet and refrain from pictures.

Oops, totally didn't mean to take this picture. Three times...

Oops, totally didn’t mean to take this picture. Three times…

After leaving the museum, we made our way north of the city walls and toward another food recommendation, Pizzarium. Most of the pizza we’d had in Rome (or everywhere else in Europe) was more or less the same – thin crust with a couple of ingredients. Pizzarium had specialty gourmet pizzas, sold by weight, with eclectic mixes of toppings. We caught them when they only had vegan pizzas ready, so there was no meat or cheese, just different combinations of crusts with fruit and vegetable toppings. We sat on the curb, fighting off the occasional pigeon, and ate what was surprisingly good pizza (despite its lack of meat).

Yum yum goodies

Yum yum goodies

And then we got lost. Not lost like “I have no idea where I am” but lost like “on the map, this road takes us where we need to go, but in reality there’s a giant, impassible hill here.” It took us a while to find our way back to the Vatican city walls which we followed to what we thought should have been a turn to the river and wasn’t. Jenny finally asked (after the Steve gave up trying to navigate (silly men)) some German tourists with a map where we were and we were able to make our way back from there, an hour and a half later… for what should have been a 25 minute walk.

After that we were drained. We went back to the apartment, drank some beer, and went to bed early. The next morning would start another long travel day.

Florence and Pisa

July 30th – Venice to Florence

We took a final boat ride down the grand canal to the train station and jumped on our train. Our last two train travel days were marathons with at least three switches each, so we were looking forward to having a simple, two hour direct shot from Venice to Florence. No missed connections, no wrong trains, and we were soon carrying our bags to our apartment on a busy street in Florence.

We’d used AirBnB to book almost all of our stays for this trip and almost all of them have been surprisingly good. That streak was somewhat interrupted here as our place had some issues. For building that’s about 800 years old, we’ll accept some little problems, which this place had. The bathroom sink was the only thing that would trigger the hot water heater, so to get a hot shower you had to keep the sink running. Flushing the toilet involved pumping the flush button five or six times in rapid succession until it finally went. We can deal with that. Other things, like having a pull out couch instead of the advertised bed – not cool. Telling us to get close to the window and use the wifi from the cafe across the street – not cool. Having to wash all the dishes before we used them because they definitely were not clean – not cool.

But hey, the location was good, perched on a busy street halfway between the river and the Duomo.

The first day in we wandered around the area until finally finding a decent sized grocery store. We did some laundry. Eventually we wandered down the street to a restaurant called Yellow Bar that had been recommended by our host. They had some amazing homemade pasta and pizza that we devoured before calling it a night.

Gods

Sculptures in the Piazza della Signoria

Replica of David

Replica of David

Can't remember what this one was called...

Can’t remember what this one was called…

Rape of the Sabine Women, Giambologna

Rape of the Sabine Women, Giambologna

July 31st – Da Vinci and David

The touristy part of Florence is small and densely packed with old buildings, sculptures, museums, restaurants, and shopping of all sorts. Being so small and walkable made it easy to get around, but it also meant that the streets were filled with more giant tour groups than any city we’d seen. People barely pay attention when they walk around as it is. When they’re being led by somebody talking into a microphone, they’d mindlessly walk in front of a bus if you didn’t stop them. Once you squeeze and push your way through the crowds, you can actually see a lot of impressive things in the city.

Perhaps the most famous piece of art in the city is Michelangelo’s sculpture of David that was moved from an outdoor square into the Accedemia Gallery in 1873. We went out and eventually found the museum, not by using signs or a map, but by seeing a line of people snaked around the corner of a building. Waiting in line for who knows how long in the sun didn’t sound appealing, so instead we walked around the corner to find a small Da Vinci Activity Museum.

Leonardo Da Vinci spent many of his younger years in Florence, so naturally there are places around the city trying to cash in on the history. This “museum” didn’t actually house any works of art or anything original at all, but had an array of machines constructed from his mechanical drawings. We know that a lot of his designs didn’t actually work, but the variety of projects he was involved in was immense, and seeing approximations of what some of these things might have looked like once built was neat.

One of his designs for a weapon

One of his designs for a weapon

He had everything from flying machines to dredgers to olive presses. A lot of things he did had fairly simple purposes, often trying to automate processes, reduce friction, or redirect forces, things that could be used (and some still are) in larger and more complex designs.

Machines that we could play with

Machines that we could play with

After we finished playing with Da Vinci’s contraptions, we decided to check the line for the David, and sure enough, the wait was down to a more reasonable 45 minutes. Once inside the museum (where photography wasn’t allowed – boooo), we worked our way through a line of unfinished Michelangelo sculptures before approaching the David.

You’ve all seen David, probably on postcards or cooking aprons or the million other products that he’s used on. Much like the Mona Lisa, David is immensely famous and reproduced constantly. Unlike the Mona Lisa, David is actually worth seeing in person. The first thing you’re struck by is the size. David is 17 feet tall and carved from a single block of marble that had been abandoned by another sculptor. It’s when you’re only a few feet away, looking up at the giant from human heights, that you come to fully appreciate the combination of power and grace that Michelangelo was able to achieve. Oh, and to make you feel less accomplished as a person, Michelangelo was only 26 when he started on David.

After the main sculptures, there were many old paintings in the museum, followed by an enormous gallery of sculptures and plaster models, mostly done by Lorenzo Bartolini. (Bartolini is the maiden name of Jenny’s grandmother. Jenny sculpts. Coincidence? Probably.) This guy was busy. If you were wealthy in Italy when Bartolini was around, you probably had him do portrait bust of you.

After a morning and afternoon full of museums, we went back to the room to do internet stuff. As mentioned before, stealing the internet from the cafe across the street didn’t really work that well. We tried to actually go into the cafe to order a coffee and hopefully get closer to the source, but their network just sucked. Down the street we found a nearly empty bar and spent the next couple hours drinking Peroni and catching up on work.

Around sunset we walked around the Duomo (formally – The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower), a massive, domed cathedral with an exterior covered in colorful pink and green marble.

The Duomo

The Duomo

It's hard to show how big this place was with pictures

It’s hard to show how big this place was with pictures

August 1st – Pisa

In less than an hour’s train ride from Florence, we found ourselves in Pisa for a day trip to the famous architectural screw up. Jenny has some ancestors that came from the Pisa area, so in a sense she was back in the homeland. On the walk from the train station to the field of miracles, we were looking at names on doors to see if we could find any long lost relatives. Nothing exact, but there were a couple of close ones.

Most of Pisa seemed to be a quiet town, with crowds picking up on the main road that leads to the tower.

Crossing the Arno river in Pisa

Crossing the Arno river in Pisa

Eventually you reach the Field of Miracles which is home to the cathedral, the baptistery, and of course, the leaning bell tower. And yep, that tower is really leaning.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Up close

Up close

We went and bought tickets to climb the tower, because how could we visit Pisa and not climb the tower that should have fallen over hundreds of years ago. The number of people in the tower at any given moment is limited, so we ended up with a couple of hours to kill before our scheduled time. We had lunch a short distance away from the tower and then went inside the cathedral. Churches are often amazing structures.

See? Amazing.

See? Amazing.

But frankly they sometimes have some creepy shit in them.

Like pieces of dead popes or saints, or sometimes whole bodies.

Like pieces of dead popes or saints, or sometimes whole bodies.

When our time came, we went inside the tower and made the climb. The walk up the enclosed spiral staircase to the top plays tricks on your mind. You lean forward, then right, then backward, then left, then forward again as you go up and around.

The stairs are a bit worn down

The stairs are a bit worn down

From the top you get some good views of the area before they quickly send you back down to the bottom.

The top of the cathedral

The top of the cathedral

By late afternoon we had seen the sights, climbed the tower, and made our way back to Florence for the evening. We (we being Jenny) cooked some pasta for dinner and we watched Kitchen Nightmares on the one english TV channel we had.

August 2nd – Relaxing in Florence

We didn’t do much on the 2nd. You have to take a break every once in a while, even from visiting pretty places. Jenny went shopping in the morning while Steve did some writing. We spent more time at the bar to use their internet and get beer. We tried to go back to the Yellow Bar for more delicious pasta, but as we found out, they basically closed for the whole month of August. Noooo!  We picked a random restaurant and ended up with more of the overpriced, subpar food that you get in tourist towns if you don’t know where to go. In the evening we went out visit the Ponte Vecchio, an old bridge covered with a mess of shops. We stopped by a gelato shop on our street that had more flavors than we could count.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

Next up – Rome!

Venice

July 27 – Off the cruise ship and into Venice

We were off the ship before 10 and weren’t scheduled to check into our apartment until 12, which gave us plenty of time to get there (i.e. get lost on the way). We took a water bus from the port to St. Mark’s Square and twisted through a series of streets and canals until we found Campo Manin, a main square by our apartment where we were to meet our contact. As it turns out, we managed to get there by 10:30, so we had some time to kill. We were going to sit on the shady side of the large statue in the center of the square, but the best spot was already occupied by a filthy looking sleeping man. We opted for a nice spot next to a bank where we were able to watch people wander by with large maps in their hands, stopping to examine them, going a few more steps, stopping, turning the maps over. The layout of the city makes it very easy to get lost. At one point, Jenny got up to go find a bathroom, which turned into a 45 minute tour of the city…

A little before noon, a tan woman approached us and introduced herself as Francesca, a friend of our host. She guided us down a couple of side streets to the apartment and showed us how everything worked. The place itself was small, but had everything needed for a few nights in the city. The biggest bonus was that it had a window overlooking a small but popular canal that was regularly crossed by gondoliers. From 10am to just after sunset you would hear music slowly passing by. Vocal soloists, guitars, accordions, and other combinations that all managed to sound really good. Some distance away from our window was a bridge, so we were able to take fun pictures like this.

Our spot on a canal

Our spot on a canal

Looking toward the bridge

Looking toward the bridge

Gondolas passing

Gondolas passing

We don't know what this is, but it was right outside our apartment.

We don’t know what this is, but it was right outside our apartment.

We went out and found a grocery store, did some shopping, and more or less spent the rest of the day getting caught up with writing, email, and seeing what happened in the world during our eight internet-less days on the cruise.

July 28 – Walking through the city

We spent most of the day just walking. We crissed and crossed our way through more streets and across more tiny canal bridges than we could name. Through countless little squares with their now unused central wells. Through crumbly brick passageways lit up by green light reflected off the water. Every turn offers another picture-worthy view that makes for very slow going.

Not a bad place for an office.

Not a bad place for an office.

Door knocker

Door knocker

Venice - Easiest place in the world to be a postcard photographer?

Venice – Easiest place in the world to be a postcard photographer?

We took a break in the afternoon to cool off and relax. In the evening we went back out to find some dinner. We walked through St. Marks Square, a large open area bordered on one end by a cathedral and the former palace, and on the other three sides by buildings now housing museums. Like the other major squares of Europe, it was full of tourists and those people catering to tourists. Jenny had a fantastic moment where a man approached her trying to hand her (sell her) a rose, and she matter-of-factly said “Nope!” The change in expression on his face was priceless. Needless to say, our tolerance for people trying to sell us junk is rather low after a couple months of it.

St. Mark's Cathedral from across the square. Surprise - there's scaffolding on it...

St. Mark’s Cathedral from across the square. Surprise – there’s scaffolding on it…

 

Pigeons are everywhere, despite that fact that you're not really supposed to feed them.

Pigeons are everywhere, despite that fact that you’re not really supposed to feed them.

People still feed them and let themselves be covered by them. Fact - Pigeons are disgusting.

People still feed them and let themselves be covered by them. Fact – Pigeons are disgusting.

We went on to find a restaurant that had inside seating and air conditioning. Jenny ordered a spritz, which was recommended by Francesca as what the Venetians drink, and was a nasty bitter drink that made us not want to be Venetian at all. After some pizza and lasagna we made our way back to get some sleep.

July 29th – Sweet, refreshing rain!

We had planned to get up early to go to the palace and other museums around the square, but “early” doesn’t seem to happen unless we have a train to catch. The line for the palace was way too long to be worth the wait (plus, Steve had already been there and Jenny didn’t really care) so instead we opted to take the elevator up the campanelle, the bell tower overlooking St. Mark’s Square. We got into the building just as rain came in and sent crowds fleeing for cover. The rain was a very welcome sight, though, because it helped cool off a day that was originally predicted to hit 102.

Even with intense winds blowing rain all over us, the bell tower offered some good views of the city.

Rooftops of Venice

Rooftops of Venice

The domes of St. Mark's Cathedral

The domes of St. Mark’s Cathedral

We made pasta at the apartment for dinner and went back out for a little while at sunset.

Venice is pretty at sunset...

Venice is pretty at sunset…

Storms moved in as it got dark.

Storms moved in as it got dark.

We left the Rialto Bridge just as the rain really started coming down and had one last, very wet, stroll through the streets before making it back to the apartment.

The next day – onward to Florence!

The Cruise – Part 2

We left off leaving Turkey and heading westward back toward Greece.  The morning of July 24th we docked at Piraeus, the largest passenger port in Europe that sits a short distance away from Athens. The highlight of the trip to Athens was definitely going to be the visit to the Parthenon at the Acropolis, the gem of ancient Greek sites. We got to see large sections the Parthenon’s friezes and the pediments in the British Museum at the very beginning of our trip. We saw more in the Louvre in Paris. We had just recently been in Venice and Turkey, and the Venetians were responsible for bombing the Parthenon while it was under Turkish (Ottoman) control in the 1600’s. Despite its long and scattered history, it remains as the symbol of the idealized ancient Greek culture that gave us democracy and philosophy.

This entire gallery in the British Museum is from the Parthenon, full of things that the Greeks would very much like returned.

This entire gallery in the British Museum is from the Parthenon, full of things that the Greeks would very much like returned.

The day itself began with an early morning bus ride from the port into the Athens, where we got off and hoofed it up the hill into the historic site. The word “acropolis” simply means “high city” so while getting up there involves some leg power, the views of the surrounding city are impressive.

The stone used to build the Parthenon came from the pointy rock in the distance.

The stone used to build the Parthenon came from the pointy rock in the distance.

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Sadly, visiting the Acropolis wasn’t anywhere as romantic as its history. Much like our experience with the Mona Lisa, it was more about working your way around the other people than really getting anything out of the sights. And rather than seeing what you see on postcards, you see this.

Yes, that's the original crane.

Yes, that’s the original crane.

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Just as they were still doing excavations in Ephesus, they’re still doing work on the Parthenon. While it’s great that they’re trying to piece things back together and rebuild what they can, if you plan on visiting anytime in the next 20 or 30 years, plan on seeing lots of scaffolding.

Six (replica) sculptures

Six (replica) sculptures

The Parthenon (non-scaffoldy side)

The Parthenon (non-scaffoldy side)

The ground filled with grooved stones for easier walking

The ground filled with grooved stones for easier walking

After walking around the scores of other tour groups, we worked our way into the long line to head back down the hill. Back on the bus we drove around some of the other sites of Athens – the Panathenaic Stadium, Hadrian’s Arch, the Temple of Zeus – before making our way back to the ship. Maybe it was because we had to get up so early, or because it was too hot, or just in comparison to how amazing Ephesus was the day before, but we basically let out a “meh” after the visit to the Acropolis. Worth visiting the most famous of Greek sites?  Sure. Are we in a hurry to go back to Athens?  Meh…

July 25th – Katakolon, Greece (Olympia)

Our ship made its way back to the western side of Greece where we stopped at Katakolon. The excursion for the day was a trip to Olympia, famous for, of course, being the site of the original olympic games. When visiting these places, having a good imagination is important. You see quite a bit of this –

Crumbly rocks

Crumbly rocks

Dusty pathways covered with fallen stones that would have been resting inside building walls or columns had you visited 2700 years ago. Olympia was the site picked to hold the original Olympic games starting in the 7th century B.C. Every four years for over a millennium, athletes from around the Greek states would gather in the city to wrestle and race their way to victory. When the games were restarted in 1896, they returned to Olympia, as they do every Olympics, to light the torch before competition begins.

Other than a few bigger structures, most of the ruins are laying directly on the ground. Some have been organized well enough to show you where rows of columns stood and where the outlines of buildings were. Other areas look as if the archeologist said “I have no frigging clue where this goes” and started putting stone fragments in big piles.

Remains of the city

Remains of the city

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One of the draws of the ancient city was the Temple of Zeus and the gold and ivory statue of Zeus within. Named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, all that remains of the temple is a bunch of sections of columns and walls. They rebuilt one of the pillars to give you an idea of scale.

Where the temple of Zeus once stood.

Where the temple of Zeus once stood.

For scale - people in front of the reconstructed temple pillar

For scale – people in front of the reconstructed temple pillar

After the temple of Zeus, we got to walk out onto the field where the sporting events were held. To get there, we walked through the same pathway that the athletes themselves would have taken to enter the stadium.

Entrance to the field of competition.

Entrance to the field of competition.

Sure the archway had been rebuilt, but stop to appreciate the fact that these games were held regularly for over 1000 years, and you can’t help but get a little chill as you walk down the path into the stadium. The stadium itself only had an open field where they would have the games. A bunch of crazy people were running from one end to the other, but it was definitely too hot for us to consider that.

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After the stadium we went into an archeological museum that had a few cool displays showing the pediment sculptures from the temple of Zeus.

Gods, centaurs, and combat

Gods, centaurs, and combat

They also had the helmet of Miltiades, a general at the battle of Marathon.

He didn't die in the battle. The helmet most likely had horsehair coming out of the top. However, he apparently had a tiny head.

He didn’t die in the battle. The helmet most likely had horsehair coming out of the top. However, he apparently had a tiny head.

After the museum we had a few minutes to shop before hopping on the bus back to the ship. We had some lunch at a small restaurant by the water. Steve was lured into a small grocery by an ancient, lightly bearded Greek woman, where he bought a bottle of whiskey with hopes of getting it on the ship using the same “I’ll just stick it in my bag” method as before. This time they caught it and made us take it out, saying it would be delivered to our room the following night. Oh well… That night the dinner dress code was “Formal/70’s Disco” which just confused the hell out of us, so we all enjoyed an evening at the buffet.

July 26th – Day at Sea

The last day of the cruise was spent on the water as we made the long trek back to Venice. After six busy and often early days, we were happy to get up late and relax on the ship. Steve went for a run, Jenny laid out in the sun. At 3:00 Steve went and entered a couple blackjack tournaments in the casino. On the last hand of the second round, he and another guy were tied for chip lead, so he doubled on his Ace/8 vs. dealer 7, dealer busted, and he won. After that we went and climbed the rock wall at the back of the ship. Jenny made a fine showing by climbing the medium difficulty path, which a lot of the guys seemed to have trouble doing. By dinner time, the (horrible) whiskey we bought got delivered to our stateroom, so we all met up for drinks and enjoyed one last meal in the dining room.

The cruise ship was docked in Venice before we woke up the next morning. We were up just early enough to randomly catch Steve’s parents getting on the elevator to leave the ship as we were heading for breakfast. We ate and dragged out our time onboard as long as we could until we felt guilty about keeping our housekeeper from being able to prep the room for the next trip. Then, like so many other times, we loaded up our big backpacks and small backpacks and giant bag of accumulated food, got off the ship, and were once again on our own and off to spend a few more nights in Venice.

The Cruise – Part 1

We were scheduled to meet Steve’s parents in Venice the night of July 18th. Doing so meant another long day of train travel with two switches and given our train mix-up a few days before, we weren’t super excited for the opportunity to repeat ourselves.

We took the tram to the Nice train station and found our regional train that would take us across the Italian border to Ventimiglia. The regional trains are frequent and don’t require reservations, so unless you get there and fight your way on right when it pulls in, you won’t get a seat for the busy stretches. From Nice to Monaco we stood shoulder to shoulder in an aisle. Thankfully, two thirds of the train unloaded at Monaco and we were able to get seats for the rest of the short ride into Italy.

From Ventimiglia, we went to Milan, the common switching point for international trains into Italy. Thankfully this time we had reserved seats in a first class compartment that we shared with a nice older couple from Sydney. They were on a six week trip all around Italy and had been just about everywhere else in Europe, so for two hours we swapped travel stories – where to go, where to avoid, where is overpriced (somewhere on the coast the guy ordered a gin and tonic that ended up being 44euro), where you want to eat or not (which somehow led to us all cracking up to the old lady doing her best impression of goat noises).  The conversation was interrupted for a few minutes when the lady checking everybody’s train tickets got into a loud argument with a girl a few compartments away, saying either pay a fine or get off the train (…the train was still moving at the time). The girl was apparently trying to travel on an expired Eurail pass. Needless to say, when the ticket checker came to our compartment all of our documents were ready to be presented.

We had to switch trains in Milan and had exactly 10 minutes to get off of one train and onto the next. Thankfully our train pulled in on time and we made our last connection (double checking that it was the correct train) and were on our way to Venice. It had already been a long day, so we both took naps and woke up as we were going over the water to the odd mass of land and canals that makes up the city.

Oddly enough, we pulled in about 15 minutes late, which ate into the half hour we’d given ourselves to walk to the hotel. Venice is a very small city, but you rarely go in a straight line to get anywhere. Instead of taking the easy option of paying seven euros each for a ride on the water bus, we trusted that the walking route shown by google maps (which we only had a picture of on Steve’s phone) would get us there. With only one small mistake, we found our way to the hotel and were greeted by the familiar faces of Steve’s parents. We went for a gondola ride and then had dinner along the Grand Canal before calling it a night.

The Grand Canal via gondola.

The Grand Canal via gondola.

July 19th – The cruise

After we told people that we were taking this trip, Steve’s parents put forth the idea of meeting and taking a cruise, something that we were all for. It would it be a nice break from the tedious parts of travel – finding trains, sitting on trains, scheduling check in times, unpacking, packing – repeating every few days. We would get to go further east to a lot of places that would have been impossible for us to squeeze in otherwise. And after more than five weeks on the road, it would be great spending time with family and being able to talk about familiar things back home.

We got a leisurely start on Friday morning and were eventually met by our escort and picked up by a boat right outside the hotel. We went along the grand canal to the port and waited while a line of other boats loaded and unloaded other people that were starting or returning from their cruises. Steve’s parents put their suitcases in a pile that they hoped was going to our ship and we all walked to the check-in area. After snaking our way through a line to get our boarding cards, we passed through security and climbed aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Splendour of the Seas.

The ship was, well, a cruise ship. It wasn’t one of the newer super-massive ships with bumper cars and an ice rink, but it carried almost 2000 passengers and however many crew needed to operate a ship/hotel/restaurant with that many guests. There was a small gym, ¼ mile jogging track, a rock climbing wall, a casino, a theater, several bars and restaurants, and a couple pools on top. Day to day was what you’d expect if you’ve been on cruises before – the regular shoveling of buffet food into your face, getting drinks, catching bits of entertainment, and heading out every day to visit whichever location you’d arrived at overnight.

The first night we gathered on the balcony to watch as the ship slowly glided out of Venice into the Ionian Sea.

Venice from the ship

Venice from the ship

On the way out of the city

On the way out of the city

July 20th – Dubrovnik, Croatia

When we booked the cruise, the first stop was listed as Bari, Italy. We were a bit confused, but pleasantly so, when later we saw that the stop had been moved to Dubrovnik, a city and country that none of us had been to. We took an excursion off the ship that started with a ride on a replica of a pirate ship, because what better way to travel to an old walled city than in a pirate ship? We drank a couple of Croatian beers while getting an overview of the very complicated history of the country.

Yay stuff we can't read!

Yay stuff we can’t read!

Why not?

Why not?

Pretty landscapes - check.

Pretty landscapes – check.

Passing through the walls we got so see a city lost in time. The limestone streets have been polished by foot traffic to resemble marble, giving old Dubrovnik a dirty white color that has been unique among the cities we’ve visited. It was actually used in the filming of Game of Thrones (which we haven’t seen, so somebody else can look that up). We took a tour through the city’s main church, which included a vault full of relics (meaning – body parts of saints and religious figures, supposedly including some of Jesus’ diapers.)

Shopping street inside the city

Shopping street inside the city

Alleys

Alleys

A square inside the city

A square inside the city

We had lunch at Nautika, which according to the tour guide was voted the sixth most romantic restaurant in the world. Eating lunch with thirty other people during a tour wasn’t super romantic, but the view over the water was gorgeous.

We walked out of the city and took a bus up to base of the cable car that ran to a lookout above the old city. Pictures do better than words at describing the view from the top.

Rooftops

Rooftops

Above the city

Above the city

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Once back on the ship we had dinner with a family from New Jersey (you get placed with people to fill up big tables on the ship). Steve’s parents went to a show and we won a few bucks in the casino to end the night.

July 21 – Corfu, Greece

We set our clocks forward and hour and got up early to catch our tour bus for the day. This one included a trip up to the top of the island to the second oldest monastery… which wasn’t original because it had all been rebuilt within the last couple hundred years. The monastery was still in use, and was kind of awkward to visit because it was Sunday and they were holding a church service. Imagine a tiny church filled with old locals being passed through by streams of visitors in the middle of service. Outside the church were gardens filled with grapes, beans, and wandering cats. A one-room museum with old religious texts and paintings rounded out visit before we boarded the bus to go to our next stop, the Achilleon Palace.

Three church bells at the monastery

Three church bells at the monastery

Grapes

Grapes

This palace was the home of the empress of Bavaria toward the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As might be expected, it was well decorated with paintings and sculptures throughout. The palace got its name due to the family’s love of Achilles, with one of the highlights being the statue of Achilles after he was shot with the arrow.

Everybody has paintings like this, right?

Everybody has paintings like this, right?

Death of Achilles

Death of Achilles

We made our way out of the palace and into old Corfu and ended our trip with a carriage ride around the town. It was as you might expect for an old section of city on an island – somewhat dirty with a lot of graffiti, but the ride was a nice change after much time on the bus.

That night we shared a table with a trio of blondes, a mother and her daughters from Scotland. When we could understand them through their extremely thick accents, they were pleasant enough, although one of the girls said that she wished she were American because she loved American culture… such as the Kardashians. Everybody – join us in a collective face-palm for the cultural message that America is sending the rest of the world…

July 22nd – Santorini, Greece

Santorini is a small island without a port able to accommodate cruise ships, so we stopped a little ways away and had to take tenders to land. We had flashbacks of Tarifa when our departure was delayed because the wind was making the water to choppy to load and unload people from the tenders. They eventually turned the entire cruise ship around to help block the wind on the loading side, so we were able to get ashore. We took a bus up and over the rocky top of the island and down to the southeastern shore where black, volcanic beaches awaited us. We grabbed a few beach chairs and umbrellas and ordered Greek beer from the bar staff running around. For the next few hours we lounged and went for swims in the chilly Aegean sea.

The top of Santorini (another monastery)

The top of Santorini (another monastery)

At the beach

At the beach

While we were at the beach, the cruise ship moved north along the island to stop just outside another port. Our bus took us to the top of the island that was filled with shops and restaurants overlooking the water. To get back down to the tenders, you could either walk the stairs (almost 600 steps), ride a donkey down the stairs, or ride a cable car. We opted to wait in line for the cable car and save our legs.

The cable cars

The cable cars

The top of Santorini

The top of Santorini

Another ship leaving the island

Another ship leaving the island

It was formal night on the ship, which we skipped because we didn’t want to carry “nice” clothes with us for the whole trip just for a couple of formal dinners. We met with Steve’s parents for a couple of drinks before parting ways, them heading to the formal dining room and us to slum it in the buffet. It was nice in the buffet, not crowded at all like it often got during breakfast and lunch.

July 23 – Kusadasi, Turkey

Turkey is one of those middle countries that is both in Europe and in Asia, but being that Kusadasi is in the Asian part, we got to add another continent to our list. North America, Europe, Africa, and now Asia. Not bad for being just shy of six weeks into our trip. The highlight of Kusadasi is Ephesus, the large expanse of roman ruins sitting a few miles inland. We had a guide talk us through the ruins of a large port city.  Once the host of the Temple of Diana, a wonder of the ancient world, the city was slowly abandoned due to a combination of frequent malaria and retreating seas.

Thousands of years later, still a busy town.

Thousands of years later, still a busy town.

The romans and their arches

The romans and their arches

Roman crapper

Roman crapper

We walked through a covered excavation of several massive houses. Inside they were trying to piece together the shattered pieces of marble that once covered the walls. Original mosaics floors were still intact. Frescoes covered other walls with pictures of gods and goddesses. Archeologists had uncovered shopping lists children’s drawings of gladiators on the walls. The scale of the excavation was immense, something that was hard to believe after seeing the picture of the site before they started. Time had covered this massive expanse of houses with dirt and plants so that nothing was visible.

Putting together the pieces

Putting together the pieces

Inside the house

Inside the house

Our group

Our group

Artwork inside the house

Artwork inside the house

At the end of one of the main streets through town, Austrian workers rebuilt the façade of the town’s library. Jokes were rampant about how the library was located directly across the street from a brothel. Just past the library led into the agora, where the reconstruction of the 120+ original shops had just begun. Above the open expense where the shops once stood was the city’s theater that faced outward toward what was once the sea.

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Ruins

Ruins

View of the theater

View of the theater

After a very impressive tour of Ephesus, we were taken back to the port where we endured a demonstration on Turkish carpets. It was basically a big showroom where they throw rugs everywhere with the ultimate goal being to get you to spend $700 on a bathroom rug. Nice as the rugs were, we left as soon as the demonstration ended. We walked around for a while, Steve and his dad sitting down with a giant beer while Jenny and his mom shopped.

Before getting back on the ship, Steve bought a bottle of Jameson in a duty free shop and figured he’d try his luck at getting it aboard. We managed to pass through security without getting stopped. Yay for cheap drinks for the next couple of days! We enjoyed pre-dinner contraband cocktails before heading to dinner with a Polish/Australian couple and a Canadian couple. After dinner, some more whiskey disappeared with the rest of the night.

Next up, in Part 2, Athens.