Monthly Archives: September 2011

From Pisa to Milan and on to Paris

Friday morning we left Pisa for Milan but decided to first stop in the town of La Spezia along the way. We grabbed some food at a grocery store where I also happened to find a Danish beer the size of my head. I had to get it of course.

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We walked down to the harbor area and sat by the ocean where we had a small picnic with our food.

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It wasn’t long before we had to catch the train that would take us to Milan where we were to take a sleeper train to Paris. We got to Milan far before we needed to catch our night train so we decided to check our bags at the train station and explore Milan a bit. Milan’s a big city and I was a little worried it was going to be as unpleasant as Naples, but it wasn’t. The streets were a lot nicer and clean. We even found a large park with ponds and fountains that was really nice. We walked around the city some more and finally stopped at a small cafe where we could grab some coffee and sit for a bit.

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The cafe ended up closing while we were there so we had to move on. We decided we’d just go back to the train station and get our bags out of storage and just wait for our train. Once aboard we got settled into our top bunks and I grabbed a couple beers from the train bar which was conveniently located next to our cabin. As I drank my beers in my bunk I over heard some Americans talking about how they were going to a Jimmy Buffet concert in Paris, I thought that was kinda funny. The train ride itself was alright minus the woman in our cabin who smelled like shit and decided it was a good idea to wake up at 7am and keep opening and closing the cabin door every two minutes, even though we weren’t supposed to get to Paris until 9am. Fuck you bitch, I’m glad the bunk ladder hit you in the head when you were getting your luggage out.

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Once into Paris we caught the metro down to our hotel in the Montparnasse area. We arrived at our hotel early and for the first time on our trip we where not able to get an early check-in. Lame. We were able to leave our bags in their luggage storage and then went to grab some breakfast.

After breakfast we were off to check out the Paris Catacombs which were nearby. There was a pretty good sized line to enter the catacombs when we got there and I’d say we spent a good hour waiting to get in. Once inside you descend about 130 steps down into an underground tunnel which was used for mining stone. You follow the underground tunnels for a while and eventually enter a passageway that is lined on both sides with stacks of human skeletal remains, which is a little shocking to see a first. The tunnel of bones goes on for a while until you finally make your accent back up to the surface.

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After we finished our tour of the Catacombs we bolted over to the train station so we could get a sleeper car reservations for Sunday night. Unfortunately for us the train was booked up. We had to get back to Madrid by Tuesday somehow and the only other way to do it was to take trains all day on Monday, which didn’t sound fun but we had to do it. We booked our trains for Monday and headed back to our hotel to check in and ask if we could book a second night since our Sunday night train plans fell through. Luckily, a second night at the hotel was not a problem.

That night we found a vegan restaurant to eat at called Tien Huang which we were pretty stoked about since we hadn’t eaten at a proper vegetarian restaurant since Prague. The food was superb. After dinner we hitched the Metro up to the Montmartre area to check out a bar called Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus I had Googled earlier that day. We thought we might be getting there too early since it was only 8pm but when we walked up the place was already jammin’ with a live band and people already poured out front in the street drinking. I was surprised. We decided to walk and grab some coffee and come back later to see if the crowd would thin out a bit. We got coffee at a Starbucks which was directly across the street from the Moulin Rouge where we got a table outside and people watched. After our caffeine fix we headed back to Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus to see how it was. When we got back the crowd was a little smaller and there was a DJ playing 7″ rock ‘n’ roll records. I went inside and ordered a whiskey and coke but only got a whiskey with ice, oh well. The DJ spinning that night was supposedly the oldest rock DJ in Paris and he looked it, but he was not messing around. He had an arsenal of props he used to try and stir up the crowd: moroccos, a whistle, and a dinner bell which he ran around with and banged with a spoon. But his antics didn’t stop there, oh no, at some points after he threw on a record he’d then immediately light off a large firecracker in the bar. Let me also say he looked like a bad fat Elvis impersonator. Pretty entertaining but it started to cook like an oven in that joint so I finished my whiskey and we made our way out.

Napels and Pisa

The night train to Naples was a hell ride. It was packed full of people and even though we had seat reservations there seemed to be people sitting where we were supposed to be. As we waited for the train attendant to come the police came on the train and just started telling people where to sit since it was so disorganized. They tried to put us in a space that was crammed with other passengers who had their belongings strewn about. I had to struggle with the train attendant to put us in the seats we had reserved and have the people occupying those seats kicked out. We finally took our proper seats but it was difficult to sleep. We were a little worried about our belongings since the train was crammed with all kinds of random people and it didn’t help that the dude sitting next to us was a loud snorer. Also, sleeping upright in a rocking train seat isn’t easy. After what seemed like the longest train ride ever we finally arrived in Naples.

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I had high expectations of Naples, so it is sad to say this, but the place seemed like a shithole. I guess I shouldn’t generalize the entire city that way, but everywhere surrounding the train station seemed like a dump. There were piles of garbage everywhere, sidewalks in disrepair, tons of construction, graffiti, crazy traffic jams, and you couldn’t cross the street without fearing for your life. We grabbed some coffees and decided to walk towards the coast where we thought things might be a little nicer. After getting caught up in a labor march we happened upon a tourist information booth. Not sure why this wasn’t at the train station, I guess that’d make too much sense. Anyway, the people working at it were helpful and gave us a map and told us about some sights to see; some of Napel’s castles were among them.

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We walked through the pathways of Napel’s oldest castle which was actually on a small island off the coast connected by a bridge. The views we got were unbeatable and it kind of made up for the hassle to get there.

We grabbed some food at a typical Italian restaurant, and then made our way back to the train station where we caught our night train to Milan. The night train to Milan was a lot better than the night before because we were able to reserve actual beds in a sleeper car rather than just seats. We slept great, however, in the morning the train attendant did not return our rail pass to us which he had taken from us the night before when he checked our reservations. I kept telling him that I needed it back but he insisted he did not have it. I was getting worried I’d never see it again and felt quite helpless. I kept pleading with the train attendant but to no avail. There were a couple of Italian dudes in our sleeper car as well, one who spoke a little English and sympathized with us. When he saw the train attendant walk by again it seemed like he was giving him crap for not returning our pass or something, I couldn’t tell since he was speaking to him in Italian, however shortly after that conversation the train attendant was able to produce our rail pass. I guess he finally realized his mistake and had given it to another passenger (that makes you feel good). At least he was very apologetic about the mistake but I honestly think that if it wasn’t for our fellow Italian passenger we wouldn’t have seen our rail pass again. Having our rail pass back we breathed a huge sigh of relief as we rolled into Milan. Shortly thereafter we caught our train to Pisa.

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Our bed and breakfast was just a short walk from the Pisa train station and was quite nice. We dropped off our stuff and then went in search of food. After lunch we strolled around a little while but came back to our room to relax some and watched some English television documentaries about Russia. It was nice relaxing especially after all the train travel we had done for the past two days but alas, we didn’t come to Pisa to watch television. We were off to see the leaning tower, but not without first stopping to get some ice cream from a place that was recommended by our host. The place was called Gelateria De’ Coltelli and was supposed to be one of the top five ice cream places in Italy. It was pretty good I guess. We finished our ice cream on our way to the leaning tower where we hung out and took some pictures. It was fun watching all the other tourists doing the required hand-holding-up-the-leaning-tower pose and making sure their pictures came out just perfect.

Verona and Bolognia

Sunday morning we left our bed and breakfast in the hills of Salzburg and caught a train to Innsbruck where we wanted to catch a night train into Venice. It began to rain on our way to Innsbruck and when we finally arrived at the station it was pouring. When we tried to place our reservation for the night train we were struck with the unfortunate news that it was sold out. We had to now come up with a new plan or be stranded in Innsbruck for the night. We opted to book a hotel in Verona and stay there for the night which would position us to get to Venice the next morning.

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We got to Verona just fine and made our way to our hotel which was about a mile walk from the train station.

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We got dinner at the hotel restaurant where we ordered strictly vegetable dishes since we had been pretty much living off of bread and cheese. We turned in for the night and set the alarm for 5:45am so we could catch an early train to Venice. When I woke up in the morning I checked the weather forecast which showed rain all day in Venice. Well that didn’t seem like fun so we decided to sleep a couple more hours and instead just catch a train to Bolognia where we would be able to meet up with an Italian friend of mine, Estafania, who I had met back on my Europe trip in 2005.

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We got into Bolognia in the early afternoon but discovered Estafania would not be home until about 6:30pm so we had some time to kill. We walked around Bolognia for a bit but finally settled at a cafe where we got some drinks and did some more planning for the remainder of our trip.

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Eventually we met up with Estafania in a plaza near her house. She showed us to her apartment where we got to meet her cat and two dogs. She made us dinner which was really sweet and we hung out and talked for a bit. Later that night her girlfriend, Sara, came home, who we also got to meet.

The next day we took a trip to Venice. We checked out San Marco Plaza and wondered around the twisting Venetian streets finally stopping at a cafe where we relaxed, had some drinks, and took in the surroundings.

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In the evening we went back to Bolognia where we grabbed dinner and then watched a movie at Estafania’s house while we waited for our night train to Naples.

Salzburg and Oktoberfest

Friday morning we checked out of our hotel in Prague and headed for the train station. This was the beginning of our day long journey to Salzburg.

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First we had to catch a train to the southern Czech city of České Budějovice where we had to then catch a train to the Austrian city of Linz. From Linz we caught our train to Salzburg. Once arriving in Salzburg all we needed to do was get to the bed & breakfast we had booked. Easy huh? Yeah, no. We knew we had to catch a bus up into the hills outside the city, but weren’t sure which direction the bus needed to be headed. We decided to just jump on the next bus that came along and see where it headed. Upon doing this we shortly got an unintentional tour of downtown Salzburg. Yes, we were headed in the wrong direction. We hopped off the bus and waited for the next one heading in the opposite direction. This turned out to be the right one and we finally got dropped off where we wanted.

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Then we had a short hike up a large hill to where we finally found our lodging, which was equipped with the latest decor (from the 90’s).

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The next morning we woke up early to get a fast train into Munich. The train ride was nice and we got complimentary juice and chocolates. Coming into Munich for the first day of Oktoberfest was not as crazy as I thought it’d be. The Munich train station was definitely buzzing with people pouring in for the festival but it wasn’t overbearing.

We were planning on meeting our friend John at his hotel, which was not far from the train station, but on our way there we ran into the first parade of Oktoberfest which inhibited us from getting there. The parade was neat to watch but it started getting very warm out in Munich. We decided to step back from the parade so we could get out of the sun and just wait for it to end. As we retreated from the parade crowd we just so happened to run into John. He was on his way to his hotel and got caught up by the parade as well. When the parade finished we accompanied John to his hotel where he dropped his luggage off and then it was on to the festival!

I think the best way to describe Oktoberfest is as a large carnival, complete with thrill rides, shows, fun houses and food, but also with huge beer tents all around with the majority of the attendees dressed up for the occasion.

The three of us walked into the first beer tent we saw and got in no problem, however finding a place to sit was another story. The place was packed and it looked like the only way to get a spot was to wait for someone to leave, and of course everyone who didn’t have a seat was doing this. Rather than wait around like vultures for the next available seat, we decided to keep moving. We grabbed some quick food and went in search of beer. It was surprising how difficult it was to get a beer at Oktoberfest. We found a small restaurant which we were finally able to squeeze into where we ordered three beers. It was cooking like an oven in the little restaurant booth so once we finished our beers we paid and got out. I kept seeing people walking around with bottles of beer but it turns out they just purchased those at a market before they came to the festival (smart). We thought that was a good idea and decided to walk to a market but on our walk we came across a beer garden right on the outskirts of the festival. We decided to try our luck there. It looked nice and shady with lots of tables and not as crowded. After waiting in a short line we were all enjoying large steins of German beer in a nice spot in the shade.

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It wasn’t long before the friendly gay men from Chicago, the hammered soccer (or drinking) team from Tuscany, and us three Californians were all hanging out and cheersing large steins with one another. I’m not going to lie, that little beer garden was Oktoberfest’s saving grace for me.

The time finally came to where we had to make our way back to Salzburg for the night and John walked us to the train station. I had one more beer on the train for good measure while Sayaka slept most of the ride back to Salzburg.

Getting back to the bed and breakfast was a lot easier this time because we realized we could just take a commuter train to a stop that drops us off closer than the bus did. This was nice after a long day of beer drinking.

Prague

We quickly found our way to our hotel in Prague Wednesday morning. Again, we were lucky enough to check in early and get our room right away. The hotel was super nice and actually exceeded my expectations. We had a huge room and in the lobby there was free coffee at all times, as well as free wifi and a computer to use.

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We decided to look up a restaurant since we hadn’t ate since Amsterdam. We found a tasty sounding vegetarian Indian restaurant only a block away from our hotel and quickly made our way over to it. It was buffet style and you paid by the weight of your tray; this was cool because you could get a little taste of everything.

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I probably ate more than I should have and when we got back to the hotel I passed out for a bit. That night we didn’t do much, just took advantage of the hotel’s lobby computer, trying to plan out the rest of our trip.

The next day we helped ourselves to the free hotel breakfast and then headed out to do some sightseeing.

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Our hotel was pretty close to Prague’s Old Town Square so we were able to walk to all the things we wanted to see.

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It was nice not having to use the metro to get around. I shot a little time-lapse at Prague Castle but people kept getting in the shots.

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We were able to grab lunch at a place called Country Life, a vegetarian restaurant/market, in old town which was also a buffet style place. The food hear was delicious and I was actually able to contain myself from eating too much this time.

At night we went out to a couple of local bars. The first one we popped into was called Café Propaganda; it was underground and they were playing American rock songs. We ordered a couple drinks and they were twice the size we’d get back in the US and cheaper to boot. I guess they don’t mess around in Prague. The next place we went to was called Double Trouble which I had read about online. It was stated that this bar is a good mix of locals and tourists with nights usually ending with people dancing on chairs and tables. When we walked in it just seemed like a techno club with a bunch of drunk English folks. I had their only beer on tap, which was actually pretty good, and then we left. We decided we might as well not stay out too late since we had to catch an early train to Salzburg the next morning.

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We grabbed our hotel breakfast in the morning and made for the train station. Goodbye, Prague, you were good times.

Brussels, Amsterdam & Prague

The morning we left Paris was when it started. Runny nose, nasal pressure, and the beginnings of a sore throat. I knew sharing a sleeper cabin with a sick Australian dude was not going to turn out well. None the less, we were off to Brussels.

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The train ride was pretty nice: big first class seats, free snacks, wine, and coffee too. If I was feeling a little better I would have totally taken advantage of the free wine but instead just settled for the coffee in hopes it would make my throat feel a little better.

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The station in Brussels was chaos when we got off the train and there seemed to be no metro map posted anywhere. We finally figured out which tram to take and eventually found our hotel which was nestled in the hub of the old part of town.

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We got food from a market in town and had a small lunch. Afterwards I decided to rest since I still wasn’t feeling too hot and Sayaka went to look around town. She came back shortly and I decided I needed to get my ass out of bed so I could go out and actually enjoy the town. We wandered around town and I got to check out a couple of Brussels’ bars where I enjoyed some excellent beers.

The next morning we caught a train to Amsterdam.

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It was a fairly short train ride from Brussels to Amsterdam. Once in the train station we immediately booked our train for that night which would get us to Prague in the morning. With that done we wondered around town for a bit and walked past The Anne Frank House which did not look like a house at all. The outside looked to be converted into a modern style museum, which was a bit of a disappointment. We grabbed lunch at a burger shop which had surprisingly good portobello mushroom burgers. We wondered around a bit more and eventually made our way back to the train station to catch our night train to Prague.

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This time our train compartment was a six person sleeper, however most of the trip it was just Sayaka and I, with one brief extra passenger getting on and off somewhere along in Germany.

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We got into Prague in the morning and the weather was great.

Two Days in Paris

After settling into our hostel we decided to check out the Sacré-Cœur which was just up the street from where we were staying. From the top of the hill where the cathedral is located is supposed to be one of the best views in Paris; I thought it was alright. There were lots of tourists, beggars, and street venders there selling crapy souvenirs. We grabbed some coffee and sat on the hill for a while and then strolled down to see the Moulin Rouge and the surrounding area.

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We then decided to hop on the metro and head over to see the Arc de Triomphe. This was a landmark I was really looking forward to seeing. Coming out of the metro seeing this thing towering over the streets was striking. Of course there were lots of tourist here as well but less trinket peddlers which was nice.

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Since we were on a roll of touristy sightseeing stops we obviously had to make it over to the Eiffel Tower. On our way over we stopped in a market to grab some proper provisions for the park; it would’ve been foolish not to. It was a perfect day to sit next to the Eiffel Tower and have snacks and wine in the park.

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As the sun went down we left our spot in the park and took a bridge across The Seine River to The Jardin du Trocadéro to get a better view of the tower at night.

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We caught the metro back to the area our hostel was in and walked around that area for a bit. We finally retired to our hostel’s patio where we talked with a fellow backpacker named Ignacio who was from Costa Rica. He said he was also on a three week trip and talked about how much he liked Prague.

We woke up somewhat early the next morning around 7:30am so we could head down for the free breakfast. It was a standard hostel breakfast of coffee, juice, cereal, and bread. Not too exciting, but hey, it’s free.

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We headed out into town after breakfast but it soon began to rain on us. We decided we might as well go back to our hostel, grab our belongings, and head to our hotel booked for that night in hopes for another early check in.

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We arrived at our hotel far before check in time but luckily our room was ready.

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After settling in we decided to find a market so we could make some lunch. We picked up some bread, cucumber, tomato, and cheese for sandwiches which we assembled in the hotel room.

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After lunch I passed out for a bit to get reenergized for the evening. After a two hour nap I still wasn’t ready to get up but there is only so much time in a day. We ended up grabbing some coffee and checked out The Notre-Dame and then walked to the Louvre and hung around there for a bit. I took some nice photos and am hoping to put together some short time-lapse movies from the trip.

Tomorrow we catch a train to Brussels.