Musings 2

By pure number of workers, “selfie-stick salesman” is the most popular job in the world.

It takes about 2.5 rolls of toilet paper to clean up a shattered full bottle of red wine.

If you play your cards right with the tour guide, you can extend your 3 hour group tour into a 12 hour private tour.

Sometimes you know someone you met 2 days ago better than someone you’ve known for years.

When falling out of a plane in the Swiss Alps, you’re too amazed by where life has brought you to feel any fear.

It’s difficult to not smile when you spot a happy family.

Life is a comedy to those who can laugh at their misfortunes and a drama to those who can’t. Take your pick.

Change is inevitable, but you have the option to create it or simply react to it.

Italian trains run on a strict schedule: No earlier than at least 15 minutes late.

Sometimes you just have to stop asking other people for permission to do what you want to do.

When you haven’t seen family or friends from home in a few weeks, every new person you meet  looks like someone from your life.

Contrary to popular belief, you actually can see Rome in a day if it’s your last day of three in the city and you spent the first two in bed with strep throat.

Life is found in the unexpected moments in which you think “I never imagined I’d be here,” such as in the audience of a three-person Italian theater production which you can’t understand in a tiny theater in a Roman alley.

Travelers Advice: when traveling alone, always carry a cheap bottle of wine and some plastic cups in your backpack. It’s the quickest way to make friends in any situation.

Americans’ relationships with friends and family are severely harmed by open container laws.

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On Italy: Part II (Rome, Florence, Naples, Amalfi Coast)

Rome

After 7 weeks of travel, I entered Rome feeling… sick. I had planned for three days in the ridiculously historic city, but thanks to a case of Strep Throat, found myself with one day (and a lot of drugs to take) left to explore ancient Rome. Who says you can’t see Rome in a day? At this point in my trip, I’m about museum-and-churched-out, so it was the ruins and remains of ancient Rome that I was most interested in seeing. It’s hard to imagine that the Colosseum is nearly 2,000 years old, as modern sporting venues are still so similar. There were gate numbers, “season ticket” seats, and of course vicious crowds rooting for blood.

Afterwards, I visited the Roman Forum, a vast expanse of ruins of the Roman city. All throughout Rome, there are small squares containing ruins of pillars and walls, easily accessible by pedestrians and yet just sitting there. It’s a bit strange to think that throughout the ages, someone was conscious enough of their importance and relevance to just leave them be.

The Vatican and Sistine Chapel was next on my list, and did not fail to disappoint. It’s a bit incomprehensible the amount of work that went into painting the chapel from floor to ceiling in dozens of bright, colorful scenes. I finished up my day in Rome walking to The Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, but had only accomplished seeing a very small portion of all there is to see in the expansive city.

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Florence

Florence was a return to the heat and humidity that I felt in Portugal, and walking around the smaller city was sure to get you sweating. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, the most noticeably unique characteristic of the city was the style of the Duomo and nearby clocktower – white, green, and red granite in a very particular geometric pattern. All around the city were impressive sculptures, statues, and fountains. The highlight of Florence for me was watching the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo across the river, with a view of the entire city below.

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Naples

I spent only a short time in Naples, but long enough to appreciate a few Neapolitan pizzas, identifiable by their leopard skin crust and soupy, olive-oil centers. One of my favorite strolls thus far has been a Sunday night walk along the bay in Naples. People lay out along the rocks and beach in the sun, children blow bubbles and play, and couples sit on the railing enjoying gelato. To me, it’s one of the best examples of a community of people living in the moment and enjoying life.

Amalfi Coast

The southern coast of Italy was where I had planned for the “relaxing” part of this journey, and it has served just that purpose. After an hour bus ride along a beautiful but small coastal road (no doubt, the most skilled bus drivers I’ve ever seen. I would have bet that it was impossible to fit two coach buses on this path, but they do it regularly), I arrived in Atrani. Atrani is a tiny town with a small black sand beach. Within a day of arrival, you already feel like a local. Beyond the beach is a small tunnel, which brings you to the town square with 4-5 restaurants, and that’s pretty much it. There are very few international tourists here, and most of the conversations on the small beach are in Italian. The magnificent coastline is made of jagged rock formations topped with small trees and bushes. The sun sets early in the town – around 5:30pm – due to it’s location in a narrow valley. Hours later across the sea, the moon rises and for reasons I’ve yet to look up, appears larger than I’ve ever seen it, shimmering in the Mediterranean and illuminating the coast. Atrani has been the perfect quiet get away to retreat within oneself while among the fascinating views of the Italian coast.

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Atrani, Italy

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On Italy: Part I (Venice, Cinque Terre)

Venice

I didn’t know what to expect before visiting Venice besides understanding the novelty of a city built with waterways instead of roads; with boats instead of cars. I found the beauty of Venice to be that it’s a small, self-contained, winding maze of walkways and waterways which is lined with colorful buildings on all sides. My favorite activity in Venice was to wander along the less-traveled walking paths trying to avoid dead-ends. Each bridge presented a priceless view – a slice of life in this unique city, with clothes hanging out to dry, boats full of groceries or goods floating below, and of course a gondola or 10 (€80 for a half-hour loop, FYI). Venice at sunset is Venice at it’s best, as the golden light reflects off of the red and yellow buildings and shimmers in the canal. The easy way to spot an uniformed tourist was to see someone with their feet in the canals, which 80% or so of buildings in Venice drain their sewage into. While there are very few rooftops available to the public, I spotted one on top of a hotel and decided to try my luck. I paced quickly past the reception and straight to the stairs, figuring that whatever rooftop bar existed was for customers only, and the elevator probably required a room key. At the top of the stairs I found my oasis – a quiet rooftop terrace with a bar and a view of the orange rooftops of Venice. I enjoyed a beverage up top pretending to the bartender that I was a guest of the hotel (I was having a drink while waiting for my fiancé to get ready, you see), before he told me that this bar was actually open to the public. So a word of advice: if you’re ever in Venice, have a drink on the rooftop of Hotel A La Commedia.

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My apparently not-so-secret rooftop bar at Hotel A La Commedia

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre consists of five small towns on the coast of the Tuscany region of Italy. The towns are known for their pastel colored buildings right on the hilly coast. I stayed in the middle town, Corniglia, which is the smallest of the five. For me, this region was about two things other than the views: focaccia and gelato. On my one full day in the area, I took it upon myself to hike from the northernmost town (Monterosso) to the southernmost (Rioggamore). As added incentive, I treated myself to focaccia in each town, along with an Italian beer at the later stops and gelato when overheated. It was a real health-hike. The paths wind along the coast and include steep paths and steps up and over the hills between each city. Total hiking time without stops was just about 4 hours, while my total journey was closer to 8 hours. The scenic coastline includes tiered farming, giant boulders, and the clear-blue Mediterranean waters.

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Just…
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Hiking along the five towns
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Vernazza from above
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Picturesque Manarola

On Switzerland

Interlacken

After 5 weeks of travel, I found myself in the least populous place I’d visited yet in Interlacken, Switzerland. Interlacken, somewhat in the middle of the country, is situated between two lakes: Thun and Brienz, and nestled in a valley between the Swiss Alps. My hostel was in even smaller town called Iseltwald, right on the shore of Lake Brienz. The color of the water is something you’d expect to find in the Caribbean or some other tropical paradise – a blueish turquoise that seems impossible. I spent my time in Interlacken outdoors – kayaking on the lake, jogging through the forest hiking trails and stumbling upon waterfalls (and apparently a Wes Anderson set – see below), hiking up the Swiss Alps, and jumping out of an airplane. This place is truly a nature lovers’ paradise, and I found myself swearing under my breath in disbelief of my view a multitude of times.

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Lake Brienze
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I can only assume a Wes Anderson film has been / is being / will be shot here

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Zurich

Zurich is not traditionally known as a tourist destination, and upon arrival I had two observations: it is very clean and very expensive. The city itself feels brand new and futuristic – the train station is immaculate marble and black tile and feels as though you accidentally wandered into a private mansion. A public tram ride will set you back €4.30, which meant I didn’t buy any tickets and spent each ride hoping I wouldn’t be busted by authorities checking for tickets. I arrived on July 4th and had a goal of finding some way of appropriately celebrating American Independence Day. My google searches for “American 4th of July Zurich,” yielded no promising results, so instead I took off to wander among the city. After walking along the river just north of the city center for a few minutes, I found it. Something in the river caught my attention – it was a body floating by. Thankfully, the body was that of a still-alive person, and I followed it down a little ways to an opening where hundreds of young people were laying out along the river in their swimsuits, listening to music, and drinking. There was a bar and grill right along the river, tables to eat at, and even a beach volleyball court. People were jumping into the river, floating down a ways, and getting out to return to their spot. I quickly grabbed a beer and dipped my feet in the river while sitting in the sun. This was freedom. I found it quite interesting that this was an average Monday for these people. While some of them were surely still in school, I could certainly spot people who had just come from work, took off their business attire and had a swimsuit on beneath. Not a bad way to spend a Monday. 

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On San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian quickly became the favorite city of those I’ve visited in Spain. Much smaller than Barcelona and Madrid, the lifestyle in the small town (relatively) was much more my pace. After the heat and hills of Portugal, the cooler temperature and flatter land was a welcomed change of pace. The city itself is mainly a beach town on the Atlantic Ocean, only a few miles from the French border. In fact, it’s one of the 7 Basque regions, of which 4 are in Spain and 3 in France. Many locals don’t recognize themselves as part of Spain, and even during the Spanish Euro Cup football games, I couldn’t find a single Spanish jersey. While they do speak Spanish, it is often secondary to their own Basque language, which has no known origin and is unlike any Romance language.

My favorite part of San Sebastian is the landscape – a beautiful cove with a picturesque island in the middle, yachts in the harbor, and rising hills on both sides. Hiking up Monte Iqueldo reveals even more stunning views of the coastline and bay. La Concha, the larger beach is mostly used for sunning and swimming, while Zurrioula is known internationally for its surfing – and rightfully so – the surfable waves are both intimidatingly large (for this perpetual beginner) and non-stop. After a couple of hours in the water I was absolutely drained.

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San Sebastian Bay from Monte Igueldo

The Old Town of San Sebastian consists of streets between 3-5 story yellow stone buildings, where nearly every shop is a “bar.” Bars in San Sebastian are usually one room with a few tables if any, where the bar-top is completely covered with plates of small snacks called “pinxtos,” which cost between €2-5. You enter, order a drink, grab a plate, and load up whatever pinxtos you want. My hostel friends and I would often wander from one bar to the next, having a drink and a few pinxtos at each. A note on beer in Spain: when at a bar, you often only order the size of the beer, instead of the type. They’ll serve you what they have – a light lager similar to your Bud Light. The craft beer scene has definitely yet to find it’s way to Spain.

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Streets of the Old Town
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La Concha, the main beach
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Zurriola, known for the surf

On Portugal

Lisbon

I arrived in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, around 8am and could already feel the heat of the sun beaming down on my shoulders. While near the coast, the city of Lisbon is actually inland a bit, although it is situated right along a river which also contains a familiar looking bridge. My two days in the city would come to be looked back on as a few of the hottest and sweatiest – there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun is unforgiving until 9:30pm. To make matters worse, it’s a very hilly city, with paths that go uphill steeply, downhill, and then uphill once again (at times, there’s a completely flat pathway one street over). The streets of Lisbon are hand paved using mostly white stone, which reflects the sun’s rays back onto you from below, leaving little respite from the heat.

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Golden Gate?

I found the city to be a bit overly tourist (speaking as one, of course), and many of the areas that I was in were overpriced and packed. As with any area, wandering off the beaten path paid dividends by finding quite niches of authentic Portuguese establishments. The real saving grace of Lisbon is the view from above. The collection of orange clay rooftops cascading into the river when viewed from the hilltops is certainly a sight to be seen. I was also fortunate enough to attend a public viewing party of the Portugal vs. Poland Euro Cup game (Portugal would go on to win the tournament as a major underdog) in the town’s biggest square, with a few friends a had met in Madrid earlier in the week. 

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Porto

By pure happenstance, I arrived in Porto, Portugal on the day of the Sao Joao festival – the biggest party of the year. To the outsider, Sao Joao is one of the more ridiculous traditions – but I’ll get to that. Walking from the train station to the hostel, the streets were lined with shop owners setting up bars, grills, and decorations one after another in preparation of the evening. After a group dinner of traditional Portuguese food at the hostel, a group of travelers led by our hostel guides headed out to watch the fireworks around 11:30pm. There are many traditions of Sao Joao, and fireworks are probably the most familiar. It’s also a night of luminaries, where thousands of floating lanterns fill the sky (and at times, crash into crowds). My favorite tradition though, is that of the hammers. All around town, plastic hammers in all sizes are for sale. These are the types of hammers that make a “squeaky” noise (for lack of a better description) when hit.  Children and adults arm themselves with these hammers and throughout the evening… hit absolutely everyone else on the head with them. As strangers pass you, hit them on the head. Sneak up behind someone, hit them on the head. If someone hits you, hit them on the head. The streets are so crowded that it’s difficult to move quickly anywhere, so most of the night is spent in a slow crawl being hit on the head with hammers by children and adults alike. It brings out the inner child in everyone and fosters a real sense of community and camaraderie to the town. The longest surviving festival goers stay out until 5am wandering the streets drinking, listening to the music, and hitting each other with hammers. 

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Note: Blue hammer

Beyond Sao Joao, Porto is a beautiful city nestled on hills and bisected by a river. The main city center is on the north side, while the south side is primarily warehouses for Porto Wine. Along this southern riverside is stunning greenery.

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