The Ride into Athens

Getting to Athens, Greece is a bit rough. I took a ferry from Venice to Athens, and let me tell you, the ride is not glamorous at all. The ride’s total time maxed out at 40 hours and since I’m a cheap traveler, I decided to go with the free ride from my Eurail Pass.

Let me paint the picture for you: rain for the first 12 hours, sleeping on the deck, and intercom announcements overhead every hour in at least 6 different languages. In the middle of the first night, I awoke to a wave of water splashing over me when I slept on the floor of the deck. You can bet that I splurged for seating on the ferry ride on the way back home, which cost about 32 Euros.

Once you travel further south on the ride, the weather completely clears up and you’ll have some great views of the coast opposite Italy and of the golden sunsets over the Sea.

Once the ferry experience ended in Patras, the darkness had another hour to reign. I landed in this town at about 5am and followed other people from the ferry to try to locate a train station to take to Athens. At this train station, I met a group of guys, and we joined forces into Athens.

This small train into Athens could be described as a crazy carnival ride. The trip takes at least 2 hours, you can feel every move and shake, and every turn feels like you’re playing corners. When you decide on getting to Athens by ferry and train, you need to be prepared and committed; but the journey makes you appreciate being in Athens all the more. Next time I go, I will definitely be looking for a plane to take instead.

 

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Photographic Look on Cinque Terre

There is nothing on earth like discovering a gorgeous landscape and documenting what you saw through photography. Cinque Terre provides lush green landscapes, small Italian houses artistically placed on each hill, nestled next to turquoise waters in the sun’s warmth.   Finding each town and shot, along on the hike, equates much to discovering a hidden treasure and like unwrapping an amazing gift; these are experiences of a lifetime.

I stayed in Monterosso; the most commercial of all five of the towns. The village appears split by a hill that stretches out, but the walk to either side of it is easy to make through a short trail. Both sides sparkle with golden sand, but you’ll hit some small rocks closer to the rims of the beach. When the sun reaches the water, the Sea turns into a turquoise gem reminiscent while being crystal clear enough to see all the rocks beneath the surface.

(This shows the right side of Monterosso – the side I stayed on).

(Looking in the left cove of Monterosso – the side that the train stops at).

Vernazza’s placement along the Sea feels as if the town had a city designer putting each structure into a perfect location. Looking down into this scenic second town has become a photographer’s dream shot.

(To the bottom left: viewing up from the village).

Since I visited, these two towns had been beaten down by flooding, landslides, and even an earthquake in late 2011-early 2012. Sadly, these towns no longer look the same; but they continue to work hard to restore these historic and beautiful lands of Cinque Terre.

Corniglia rests away from the water, high enough to be protected from the storms. Here I ate my first specialty of the area: pesto on spaghetti. Along with fresh local tomatoes that I could dip into a virgin olive oil. Dining outdoors over a blue checkered tablecloth while a light breeze passed by proved to be a rest well deserved after such a crazy difficult hike to get there.

(Above: Corniglia).

The path to Manarola (pictured below) stayed flat, which made the hike much easier; however, by the afternoon, the rays of the sun became very hot. So, when reaching Manarola, we were ready for a gelato break. I must say the creamy and light texture of the icy desert tastes like nothing from here in the States.

The very small village of Riomaggiore concluded the spectacular sights of the journey through the 17 km (which equals a little over 10.5 miles) of the trails to reach the end. The whole trip on foot took eight hours, including stops for food. If I could do the strenuous hike again, I would jump at it in a heartbeat.

Backpacker versus Tourist

One of my favorite locations in Italy sits along the Mediterranean coastline, also known as the Italian Rivera. Cinque Terre looks over the Sea while each village sits on a separate looping hill..

In order to get the best view of each small town nestled into each hill, you need to take the winding and steep hiking trail. I stayed in Monterosso, but hiking to the next town proved to be no walk in the park. The trails going to Vernazza incline quickly on what appears as a stair-master hike; the sideways logs that compose the stairs stay distanced in height from each other. I had to stop and take breaks at least six times to catch my breath. Getting to the first few cities takes a determined and in shape hiker – luckily I had been already been walking numerous miles a day from being a backpacker.

During one of my first stops to catch my breath from the hike on the way to Vernazza, I met a couple who were originally from Hawaii. We ended up hiking all the way through to Riomaggiore together – the end of the five cities. Through talking with them, I found many clear differences between a tourist and a backpacking traveler.

First of all, they hadn’t brought any water bottles with them on the hike; as a backpacker, I always had a liter of water on hand.

Second, they brought a thick travel book wanting to locate the highest starred restaurants along the journey; that sounded like a travel cheat sheet. I thought bringing a book telling you where to go was hilarious because the whole fun of travelling is the thrill of discovering places on your own. And I hadn’t even as much used a map by this point. Also, there would be no way I would carry a chunky book around taking up valuable space in my pack and adding all that extra weight to lift around.

The third difference involved how much a tourist chooses to pay and how they look for accommodations versus what a backpacker does. This couple researched all the hotels in Monterosso and found the “cheapest” one for a little over two hundred a night. I walked into town, talked to a local, whose uncle owned a little hotel/hostel and bam: cheap place to stay for about $40 a night. When I told the tourist couple this, they basically went into shock that I could stay there for that price.

Clearly, backpackers save more money, pack a bit more efficiently, and tend to be more prepared even though we don’t always plan for an advance.

The Importance of Being Random

My time in Florence Italy could be summed up in one word: random.

When I decided to go to Florence, I hadn’t done any research to find out what the town was known for and never had a map while I roamed their many many streets. I could say I got lost for a while, but can you really be lost if you have no destination?

Some people can’t stand being lost, wandering without a destination, or being in the midst of someplace they’ve never been without a map; not me, I think of the lack of direction as a true adventure.

I came across museums, high-end department stores, souvenir, pastry, and grocery shops. The only one of those I got excited about smelled like sugar and fruit. By this point in my trip, I had my fill of art, paintings, and sculptures for the rest of my trip; I really wanted to find nature’s beauty instead.

When I made my way back to the train station after walking around for awhile, I found a large bus station nearby and asked around to try find one that could lead me to the best scenic location. I hopped on and I realized that I received some great advice. My transportation meandered through a hill draped with greenery; then the bus climbed up to an observation point, called Piazza Michelangelo, overlooking all of Florence. By the way, the Piazza holds a market of vendors from which I bought the tastiest watermelon of my life. Across the street from the observation point, a monument sat for a architect name Givseppe Poggi.

While I explored the area, I discovered a campsite just a little ways down from the Piazza. From the campsite (http://www.plushostels.com/pluscampingmichelangelo), the view of Florence could be seen all around. The cost remains a steal to this day: about $20 a night. I recommend staying here; it’s a bargain and has a great view, but prepare to share your tent with a couple other people – which has never been a problem for me.

Top 10 Memories of Vatican City

Let’s countdown from number 10:

10. While leaving the Vatican, the Swiss guards stand protecting this fortress. These men remain the toughest and best trained army in the world; however, the uniforms camouflage them to look like they are straight from a MC Hammer music video or from a fancy circus. You definitely don’t want to touch this.

9. After looking at room after room of detailed artwork, I wandered away from the main area to find an untouched room. This room had no paint, no artwork, nothing on the ceiling; everything laid bare in stark white. The bland room showed what the Vatican would look like if not touched by such talent.

8. How can I not mention the ceilings of the Vatican. Seriously, every single ceiling on the tour consists of painted stories and such rich details – the work is absolutely amazing!

7. Toward the end of walking around the Vatican, one room subtly jumped out at me. At first glance, the side of the room appears to contain statues sitting against the wall; however, when you look closer, those are really not sculptures. These pieces of work are actually painted onto the walls.

6. In the Da Vinci Code, the author talks about hidden meanings in artwork; consequently, in the courtyard, another piece of work had been shipped in the recent years to sit among the pieces of history which has it’s own hidden meaning.  This bronze globe called “Sfera con Sfera” actually contains a bit of a disturbing message when you do some deep research about it.

5. While walking around a museum layered in Roman artwork, a random portion of rooms exist in dedicated to Egypt. I have always be intrigued by Egypt’s history and art; so I was thrilled to find these room showing mummies, stones covered with hieroglyphs, and many other artifacts.

4. Each area has a devotion to a theme; such as to rugs, tubs, and animals.  My favorite of the tubs, filled out an outdoor space which continued indoors. Outside, the dozens of them sit around a fountain; but once you return to the interior again, you’ll find the largest basin of them all. This impressive basin takes up a whole room while resting it’s legs on the most intracate mosaic floor.

3. I will never forget the line and people I stood around while waiting to get in. I stood from 8-11am to get in. When you think you may be close to the entrance after that next corner, you’re wrong, there waits another long row of people and a few more corners. After you enter the building, there’s yet another long maze of a line. As I got close to seeing the ticket booth, this couple with fanny packs on in front of me crack open a couple cans of beer and proceed to eat potato chips and leave a trail behind, as well as on themselves. A clear moment of “you might be a redneck when…”.

2. As I made my journey through room after room of the Vatican, I kept wondering: where’s the famous Creation scene? The very last room I entered contained the world famous scene by Michelangelo. The room had a platform for the Italian men to supervise everyone, while in their deep accents they announce every five minutes: no photos please!! All us tourists stay quiet in intervals, when everyone starts getting louder, that’s the best time to try to sneak a shot.

1. A few rooms prior to the Sistine Chapel, you will approach a long walkway illuminated in a golden tone. Once you enter through a pair of heavy doors, the shear beauty is awe inspiring. The walls beneath the ceiling hang with overview pictures of the different states and towns within Italy. The light from the windows and the gap beneath the edges of the ceiling give the area that golden glow. This elongated path of artwork remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen to this day.