Monday, July 30, 2007
Switzerland: Sooo Good Lookin'
For more photos go to our Switzerland photo album at our photo website.
When Troy and I were in Costa Rica, we thought that was the most beautiful country we have ever been in, but Switzerland is extraordinary! Every where we turn "Wow! What a huge waterfall! Holy cow, what beautiful mountains. Look at that gorgeous village. Isn't that like the 135th church we've seen today? It is so green here! I can't read a single word on this Swiss menu. 20 Francs for a Kalburst? What's a Kalburst? There is actually such a thing as a weinerschnitzel? I thought that was a bad fast food chain. Can't this guy in his Porsche get off our ass? It's cold on this mountaintop! Hoyt, stop looking around and drive!" You get the idea.
Mulegns and SurOur first few days in Switzerland we spent in and around two small towns called Mulegns and Sur. On our drive there we passed through St. Moritz which is as glamorous a town as I have always heard. We had lunch then got out quickly because we could just feel the money from our pockets getting sucked out! The hotel we stayed at in the village of Mulegns kind of reminded me of the hotel in The Shining. Old, decrepit, scary and ran by a creepy old lady. This was also our first introduction to hiking the Swiss Alps. Once again we couldn't get over how gorgeous it was here. Green rolling hills, beautiful and colorful flowers, snowy mountaintops. The whole "Heidi" image. The one thing I didn't expect and thought was found only in the movies was cow bells. The cows here actually wear bells. We would be walking along a trail and surrounding us was all this noise from the cow bells. Sometimes it was a nice background noise other times it was downright annoying. We asked and found out the reason why they wear the bells is so the owners could find the stray cows among the valleys and in the fog.
InterlakenOur next stop was Interlaken. This is a haven for adventurous people. Outside of hiking there was rock climbing, rafting (on glacier water, I don't think so), skydiving and canyoning. Since Troy and I are on a budget we could only partake in the poor mans activities - hiking. Once again the hiking was extraordinary. Only downside on a few of the hikes was the amount of people. A few times we passed large groups of Japanese that were out for just a 1 hour guided hike which started at their bus and ended at the train which took them onto the next part of the tour. There were also tons of cows here (and their bells). We were amazed how unafraid they were of people. You could pet them, pose with them for photos even ring their cowbell. One got a little too friendly with me and tried to eat my pants. Scared me a little because a little bigger bite and I would be coming home with 1 less leg. Interlaken was also the first time in Europe we have come across such huge cultural diversity. Muslims, Europeans, Indians, Asians and Americans all in this little town.
Zermatt and the MatterhornNext up, Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Zermatt is an interesting little village for many reasons. One is that only authorized vehicles are allowed into the town. Everyone else has to take a train up the mountain. This ended up being very nice because the only cars in town besides hay tractors were electric taxis that looked like big Tonka Toys. So there was no street noise and we didn't have to dodge 100's of cars every time we crossed the street.
The Matterhorn is a very famous mountain for climbers and in the center of the village of Zermatt is a small graveyard for all the climbers that have died climbing it. And not just Swiss people. There were graves for people from all over the world. One other thing that stood out about Zermatt is the church bells. In the past Troy and I have complained about the noise from Muslims call to prayer. The Swiss church bells have them beat hands down when it comes to annoyance. Walking through the town as they start ringing, you can't even have a conversation until they stop which at one point was about 5 minutes.
Zermatt sits right at the base of the Matterhorn so everywhere we went there were astonishing views of the mountain and the surrounding range with their snow capped peaks. We did one hike that took us around the backside of it and flowing into the valley at the base of the Matterhorn were 5 glaciers that, unfortunately, no longer spill into this valley. Global warming or not, it is sad to see that these glaciers are receding quickly.
The Swiss Alps is known for a very rare flower called the Edelweiss. It's a small white flower about the size of a half dollar and is velvety to the touch. Troy and I were lucky enough to find two small bunches of them while hiking. As we're taking pictures other hikers would come across and get all excited saying "Edelweiss, Edelweiss!" and then saying whatever excited gibberish to each other in their language.
Even though we were only in Switzerland for a little over a week we got a really good feel for the country. The views of the Alps we saw and the number of waterfalls are unsurpassed. We were even fortunate enough to see the inside of an Alp when we took a wrong turn and ended up driving through a tunnel for 15 miles. That sucked in a car without air conditioning and slowly suffocating from the other cars fumes. Troy and I loved Switzerland but it is very expensive and just too cold for too many months of the year.
Next up France!
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
We Love the Italians
If you want to see the mass of photos of Italy, grab a beer, sit back and enjoy otherwise below next to the section headings are links to the different cities we visited.
Troy and I have decided the Italians are our new favorite people. We still love the Germans but we just couldn’t get over how incredibly friendly the Italians were. Never once in our time there did we think they were rude or found them to be rude to us…except for the guy at the bus station who couldn’t figure out what bus we were telling him to book us on. But that was clearly our fault for not speaking the language. Every time we asked someone for help or directions they gladly helped us, even if they spoke no English and especially since we didn’t speak any Italian. They would just laugh and smile and help us the best they could. We had one lady escort us five blocks to a barber for Troy to get his haircut because she was not able to tell us in English where to go! We wish everyone could be like them. We just love them!
Love the New Family (Nocciano photos or Abruzzo region photos)Remember back in the Rome blog we mentioned meeting up with a relative from Troy’s grandmother’s family? Well we took it a step farther. (Real quick here, Troy’s grandmother’s name is Mary). As soon as we left Greece we decided to visit the Abruzzo region (mid-east coast) to try to find the village where his grandmother’s family live. We knew the village name, Nocciano, but thought we would be lucky to find a bus there but we would try anyways. We scored when we found out the owner of our bed and breakfast, B&B Pescara, spoke fluent English and offered to accompany us to Nocciano to act as an interpreter. He knew the way there so we thought, why not. We rented a car for the day (luckily it was cheap) and off we went. Troy had called Nicola (Mary’s great nephew in Rome) and told him we were going. So he called his dad, Mario who is Mary’s cousin and told him to expect us in Nocciano, which is where he lives. We get there and ended up meeting three of Mary’s cousins who she has never met plus their various spouses and kids. Not only did Mario give us pictures of himself and his father (Mary’s uncle) but he also gave a picture of Mary’s grandmother whom she has never met. We couldn’t believe his generosity with these photos. He said he had tons of them and didn’t mind giving them to us. Troy snatched them up quickly because he knew his grandma would find them priceless. Knowing Mary had never met her grandmother made us sad to because we both think about the role and relationship we had with our grandmothers and what a loss that is for her.
Florence (photos)After two days in the Abruzzo region, we were off to Florence. As everyone knows, Florence is the art capital of the world. While there you would think we go see famous sculptures and priceless paintings in museums. But did we, nooooooo. We went and saw Harry Frickin’ Potter!!!!!!! I’m at the movie and I’m thinking “I can’t believe I am in this fabulous city and I’m sitting watching this dumbass movie!” Troy is insisting that I let you know that museums and things were closed at the time of the movie… but whatever!!! The only good thing about it for me was that the theatre was over 600 years old. It was complete with sculptures, marble columns, carved balconies and a stained glass dome ceiling. Troy thought he was cool because he got to see the movie before it even opened in the US.
Of all the beautiful things we saw while in Florence, we came across one wacky thing that kinda stood out. They have a Museum of Serial Killers (hmmm… go see paintings by Raphael or wax dummies of Jeffrey Dahmer?) One thing we realized too late upon arrival into the city is you need to make a reservation to see the statue of the David. We didn’t make reservations and didn’t want to wait in line for 4 hours so we decided it was our loss. Upon talking to two local tour guides they gave us a little inside information. If you walk about 20 yards past the entrance to the gallery to the exit door you can see the David. It didn’t make sense so the next day we decided to see if they were right. Sure enough, 20 yards past the main door is the exit with smoked glass doors and you can look right in and there he is. The doors are not even solid and the statue is not even in a room deep inside the museum. People would come out and open the door wide open and there he was again, even more clearly. Of course I made Troy take a picture since you can’t take one inside and I guarantee you the people leaving didn’t think to turn around as soon as they left to take a picture so it was a bonus for us.
Siena (photos)From Florence we did a day trip to Siena. Our old neighbor from Colorado is a wine broker and had set up a wine tour with Dievole, which has the oldest certified grape harvest in Italy dating to 1090. This was a very cool tour since they only do a tasting session five times a day and it has to be done by reservation and Troy and I were the only two at our tasting. Each tasting was done in a different room of the vineyard whether it’s the main wine room, the old cellar, the new cellar or the boutique.
The fourth tasting was done in an old church that dates back to the beginning of the vineyard. Even though it is no longer a church it still has pews, crosses with Jesus, pictures of Jesus on the wall even a prayer book. But on the alter is wine bottles and above the alter is a mid-evil painting of people in a pub. So we’re doing our tasting and in walks this little boy about 10 or 12. He kneels down and starts to pray. Troy and I look at each other and both think “For once, we are in the right place so he must not be.” Our wine guide looked at him and said, “This is no longer a church. You can stay and pray but it’s gonna do you no good!” I don’t think the little boy spoke any English but his eyes got wide with embarrassment and took off. It was sad but funny at the same time.
Venice (photos)The following day was Venice. I don’t know what we were thinking or expecting going to this world famous city in July, the height of the tourist season, but there were so many people there it sucked! We got off the train and took a water bus to the Piazza San Marco which is the most famous square in Venice. That right there should have set off alarms in our head. It was overwhelming the number of people in this area, not to mention the number of gross pigeons feeding off of peoples’ hands and heads. Troy and I were instantly in a bad mood and I decided to take it out on fellow tourists by seeing how many photos I could either get in (a trick we learned from my brother-in-law Ryun) or how many photos I could completely disrupt by walking clearly in the middle of the people having their photos taken. We did the smart thing and immediately headed to the back streets and alleyways, which was the best thing we did. The main group of tourists dwindled out and we were no longer in the crowds and could finally have some breathing space. It was at this point that we could finally understand how people fall in love with Venice and find it so romantic.
The one thing (I won’t say it’s the only thing) that sucked was we bought a Chorus Pass that got us into 15 of Venice’s best churches. I know, I know, me, Shelly, of all people wanting to go into churches. Anyways, it’s Sunday, we’re thinking what a great way to see churches. We spent half our day wandering around to these churches to find out they were all closed!!!!!!! It’s frickin’ Sunday and they’re closed. Needless to say, Troy went back to the tourist office and got our money back. The lady started to argue with Troy saying the pass was good all year but Troy just gave her a look that said, “Don’t even try” and she gave our money back.
Dolmites (photos)After Florence we headed further north to an area called Trentino known for the Dolmite mountains. We think we heard at one point they are part of the Italian Alps but we were never able to confirm that. Anyways, by pure luck we ended up staying in this great little village called Vattaro. It had a population of maybe 1800 and that was on a good day when no old people died (and there were a lot of old people here). It was at the base of one of the mountain ranges so we had great access to hiking. And hike we did. For not having done much exercise (other then running with our packs to catch a train) or have done a major hike since the beginning of Costa Rica we did ok. It was an absolutely beautiful area and we were really happy we decided to go there since we kind of pulled it out of our asses at the last moment.
Como (photos)Next on our calendar was to meet up with my aunt and uncle from Phoenix, Hoyt and Shellie. They are in Europe traveling for 3 months and it worked out perfect for us to meet up with them. We initially met in a city called Lecco then headed up to the Como region known for it’s gorgeous Lake Como. Shellie found this amazing bed and breakfast in a nearby small town that was ran by the greatest Italian couple. The B&B was their home, which we found out the main part of the house was over 600 years old. It had this massive fireplace that used to be used for cooking and sky high ceilings.
We spent one day driving to Lake Como and the surrounding villages such as Bellagio and Verenna but there was a downside to this: It was hot, really hot and the car Hoyt and Shellie rented in Germany didn’t have air conditioning. We all thought we were just going to melt. In between melting, stopping for beers, Hoyt avoiding speeding BMW’s we kept trying to find George Clooney’s house. “Oooh, maybe it’s that one on the hill! It looks so George Clooneyish.”
But now we are out of the heat and in Switzerland. And oh, is it expensive here. Youch! “Yes, I’ll take a bratwurst and fries for $13 please!”
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Athens Soup With A Side of Corn Bread
For more photos go to our Greece photo Album at our photo website.
So Troy and I found Athens to be about as appealing as pea soup: hot, lumpy and not very pleasant to look at. We assumed it would have a lot of history around town but all we found was grafitti and ugly, boring block buildings. We thought Athens was going to be like Rome with so much to see and do so we booked 4 nights at a Marriott (using Troy's points, of course). After our first day there, we realized it was 2 nights too many. Don't get us wrong, the Acropolis and Parthenon was one of the most beautiful and amazing things we have ever seen but we quickly found out that besides these monuments, there is not much else to see. We did a stupid bus tour around the city and knew it was a boring city by how much sleep we got on the tour bus. By 4:30 on our first day there, we both looked at each other and said "What do you want to do now?"
Like I said, the Parthenon was amazing but extensive restoration work is going on right now so there was no way to get a photo angle without some sort of scaffolding (or tourists... those damn tourists) getting in the way. Comparing the Parthenon in postcards to the Parthenon we saw, we could tell that at least 25% of the columns are gone right now for the restoration work.
There were also a lot of tourists. I mean alot. The most annoying thing about the Acropolis were the "Acropolis Police" for lack of a better term. These are people that are either volunteers or are employed by the city to help protect the Acropolis area. I call them police because they were constantly blowing their whistles at people to stop doing things they were not suppose to be doing. Wether it was someone who stopped to take a picture and was blocking the flow of traffic or if someone stood on the wrong thing to have a photo taken. It really took away from whole experience (or what was leftover after the tourists were done with it). I felt like we were in second grade with the school yard attendant yelling at kids. "Billy, get down from there!" "Cindy, stop throwing rocks at that 3rd century BC statue!" But yet, tourists can sometimes act like second graders. I completely understand and agree with why they're there but they need a little more etiquette with their whistles.
Right near the Acropolis is a small hill at about the same elevation as the Parthenon that has this tiny little monument on top that is actually quite old (sorry, I forget how old). To get away from the crowds Troy and I went up there and found the most amazing view of the Parthenon and the surrounding city. The best part about it was there were 4 other people there. We found a back way up to this hill that bypassed the main gate and one evening we went up there to see what the city and the Partnenon looked like at night. This was probably the best part of Athens and the one thing we liked the most.
Speaking of the thing we liked the most... the thing we found the least intrigueing were the people. We found them to be either hot or cold, nice or rude. There was either the guy at the cafe buying us a beer for no reason or the guy at the newstand who would ignore me when I would ask a question about the bus stop nearby. We couldn't decide if we loved them or disliked them alot.
After 4 days in Athens (we decided to stick it out) we took a ferry to Santorini Island. Santorini Island is basically the side of the top of a volcano that sticks out of the ocean. Most of the hotels and buildings are either located along the beaches (which were not that nice because they were black gravel, not black sand as they were advertised to be) or the buildings are located on the side of the caldera of the volcano which plunges steeply down to the ocean. This is where we chose to stay. We can stay at a beach anytime, gravel or no gravel, but the uniqueness and the incredible views from the side of the caldera were very cool. But besides the beaches and the caldera view, the rest of the island was dry and very bland.
On the tip of the island is a village called Oia. This village claims to have the the worlds best sunsets. We witnessed every single sunset and even though they were beautiful, we both agreed we had seen better sunsets in Mexico and in Colorado over the Rocky Mountains. I think what took away from the WOW of it is that we were having to share the sunset with... ok, people like us. About a half hour before sunset, everyone staked out their spot to get the best picture. So at sunset, all the rooftops and sidewalks were packed with people. When we were in Costa Rica we came across this amazing black sand (not gravel) beach with the roaring ocean on one side and the rain forest on the other side. It is by far our favorite beach we have ever come across. We both agreed if we had to share this beach with 100's of other people it would not be so special. So for us, that is why Oia was not so special for sunsets.
We are back in Italy now and took the long ferry ride back from Greece. This time it was a 20 hour ferry ride since our destination was farther north then where we originally departed from Italy. We dreaded this boat ride since our one to Greece was so pleasant with our first class airplane seats. But this was a different boat and we were given the option of sleeping in dorms.
Even though they were male/female dorms and Troy and I would be sleeping apart, we jumped at the chance knowing we would sleep. This ferry was empty. It was maybe 25% full, which meant that my dorm that could sleep 30 people, only had me and 2 other women. Troy's dorm was just as empty.
We have found that we love the Italian people. They are such a nice break after the Greeks. But in defence of the Greeks, we have come to realize that their behavior is not purposely to be rude, that is just how they are. Now of course there are the instances when they blantantly turn away from you when you ask a question, and then of course there was our lovely hostess in Santorini, but for the most part they are just being Greeks.
Monday, July 02, 2007
Romans Do So Many Violent Things Naked
Go to our Rome photo album at our photo sight to see more photos.
On our tour through Rome, we were amazed at the beautiful and complex sculptures around the city. Every time we turned the corner we were met with another beautiful creation. The one common theme we kept coming across though was how often the Romans were portrayed doing really violent things naked. Whether they were battling a vicious lion using a sword or trying to keep from falling off a horse while chopping the head off his enemy, they were always portrayed naked. (Ok, so this sculpture is a calm, clothed angel, but you get the idea.) Can you imagine how the modern guy would have lived in those times? Today they can barely get through the day without getting their thing caught in their zipper.
Rome was truly amazing. Although I thought I would be awed when I saw historical monuments such as the Colosseum, the Roman Forum or the Vatican, I wasn't. I think it was because I was having to share the moment with thousands of other tourists (Troy here...I was awed but not by each thing as much as by the volume of history and amazing architecture). Even though we are tourists, we hate ourselves for being one of them. Don't get me wrong, we fully enjoyed Rome and all it had to offer to the fullest extent, but those tourists......
We did luck out when it came to avoiding the long lines at St. Peters Basilica in the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. The lines to both were so short that for quite some time we thought we were trying to get into the wrong place. Somehow we arrived just ahead of the massive quantity of tour buses and their occupants.
St. Peters was stunning. The amount of time and effort that went into building this phenomenal church is extraordinary. The detail in the sculptures, paintings, craftsmanship was beyond belief. We saw a lot of beautiful churches and basilicas around Rome, in fact there are over 1200 churches in Rome. Some were plain and boring on the outside, but were astonishing inside and had massive interiors and housed priceless paintings.
As a side note here, I need to take the time out to piss off a few Catholics(what's new, right?). As we're looking at all these extraordinarily beautiful Catholic churches there was a thought that was continuously going through my mind: Why does the Catholic church feel they have to spend so much time and energy and money and resources to worship? It is absolutely unbelievable the amount of... everything that has gone into creating these churches. Our friend Christiaan in Hong Kong is a pastor. His church is a small room in a mall with a 3 piece band. He does not have marble sculptures, 6' tall gold crosses, elaborate robes or a 100 member choir accompanied by a grand organ. It's just a plain jane church. Does the Catholic church think all this "everything" will give them a better chance to get into Heaven or maybe get them to the front of the line at the Pearly Gates? I wouldn't doubt it if the amount of money involved in the Catholic church could probably make a good dent in world poverty. Ok, I had my say.
We stayed at a bed and breakfast which was actually just an extra bedroom in a lady's 2 story apartment. She was a sweet old lady but she was a talker. She knew just enough English to talk to us about the weather and her sons cat and how much she loved it but when it wakes her at 4am she wants to strangle and kick it and make it into soup with a side of potatoes. Oh, so lovely.
Before we left the US, Troy got information from his grandma about relatives they had in Italy. Ends up that in Rome is a relative named Nicolai Luciani who is a heart surgeon and Troy's grandma is his great aunt. Troy was able to contact him and we met up with him and his wife, Annamarie, for dinner one night. We also were invited to their home for dinner where we met their two older children, Julia and Marco and Annamarie's mother who was an incredibly sweet little Italian woman. Nicolai showed Troy pictures of where Troy's great-grandfather grew up in Italy. We are going to try and stop and visit the small village after we leave Greece. It was a great pleasure meeting them and getting to know them.
After 4 days in Rome we headed to Greece. (We're meeting my aunt and uncle in Switzerland so we will finish up with Italy after Greece.) We knew from our rail schedule book that the ferry from southeast Italy to the west coast of Greece would be about 16 hours. But my idea of a ferry was not even close to what kind of boat we ended up traveling on. I thought we would be on a double hull, catamaran style ferry that would hold about 300 people on 2 decks with a lower deck holding some luggage on cargo (which would suck for 16 hours). Our ferry ended up being a piece of shit cruise boat complete with 3 restaurants, casino, pool, boutique and a few bars. There were also 2 decks at the very bottom where about 50 semi trucks parked. I couldn't stop laughing for the first 2 hours because it caught me completely by surprise.
The boat also had 3 classes for passengers: Super duper class passengers got cabins with real beds and showers. First class, which is what we were in, had "aircraft style" seats. These seats occupied a large room, with the seats on one half (which sat about 70 people) and the other half of the room was empty (which I will explain why in a moment). The second class passengers had no seat. They were given the outside deck, whatever floor space they could find - hence the empty floor space in 1st class- and whatever chairs and couches they could snag. About 4am I got up and found people sprawled out everywhere on floors, in the lobby and in the saloon. This is something I would expect in Egypt of Asia, not Europe. I guarantee this does not happen on Carnival Cruises. About 5am, the boat made a stop and around 25% of the passengers got off. Troy was up wandering around and found several cabins doors open from when the passengers left. He quickly came and grabbed me, we ducked into one of these used cabins and got about 3 hours of sleep, afterwards using their shower. That was one of the best ideas Troy had in a long time. Unfortunately we have to take the same boat back, but this time we will have inside info and might be able to get a better nights sleep.
From living in Hong Kong to our travels now, we have realized one thing: we have never met an authentic Italian. Troy's relatives said the Italians don't travel. They would rather stay home, work and stay with family. So this was the first time we were immersed in their language. Every time we were on the bus or in a local cafe, I couldn't help feeling we were in a bad mafia movie. They are also the first country we have come across that actually use hand signals to try to communicate instead of blabbering away saying completely incomprehensible things.