Saturday, September 28, 2013

Lisbon, full of old world charm

Our arrival in Lisbon began with an expected pattern. Early flight = little sleep, so we get to our hostel, check in and take a long nap. This was doubly necessary since I was sick.

With our needed nap out of the way, we began to enjoy the old-world charm of Lisbon. That evening we walked around its gleaming white streets and enjoyed a lovely oceanfront square under the stars.

The next day I actually felt worse but we didn't want to waste our only full day there. So we headed out to the tower of Belem and the monument to discovery. Both were quite beautiful as you can see.

After an afternoon nap that would make Grandad proud, we went out for dinner and a visit to the ruins of the castle of St. George that overlooks the city. Though a bit hard to find, it was fun to explore with great views. While trying to find the place, we met a US couple where the husband works as an animator at Pixar. Between him and the Google software engineer we met in Switzerland, it feels like half of Silicon Valley decided to join us in this trip.

The next morning was another crazy early flight. It was the first scheduled departure of the day at 6:30am. Fortunately I was feeling mostly better by this time, so the horrible hours weren't such a problem. That and this was our last early flight of the trip until it's time to go home.

And while the prospect of home sounds wonderful, now we got a chance to visit a canal-filled city that we actually liked, Amsterdam.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Barcelona, the break we needed

After the stressful mess that was getting there, we needed Barcelona to be relaxing. And it was. But not right at first.

Once we'd caught a shuttle into the city, we promptly hopped on a train going out the other way since our hostel was in the hills outside the city. When we finally got there, we were distressed to find a hot, loud room that offered almost no hope of sleeping. To our utterly exhausted, and in Vicky's case sick, bodies, this was a nightmare.

Here we opted to do one of the smarter things we've done on this trip. We checked out the next morning despite only getting 4 hours of sleep and moved to a hostel in town with a private room. It was more expensive but worth it 100 times over. And since mom and dad very generously helped with the cost, the price difference wasn't a problem.

We actually arrived before our room was ready and we were so tired we just waited in the lobby until they let us in around 1:30. Vicky then slept for 4 hours and I slept for 2. And we still were in bed that night before midnight. That's how bone tired we were.

Thankfully, after this, things improved greatly. The sleep helped Vicky feel better and by the time we left Barcelona, she was almost back to normal. That evening we walked up and down the famous pedestrian street La Ramblas and definitely enjoyed ourselves.

That night we slept well and long. The next day we dived into sightseeing. We visited the Guell Park which was designed by Antoni Gaudi as a perfect, gated community. It failed at this but it succeeded as a park/modern architecture exhibit.

From Gaudi's name is where we get the English word gaudy. His style of architecture is over the top and crazy, with plenty of nature images mixed in. The best example of this is the place we visited next. Sagrada Familia, the church of the sacred family is his unfinished masterpiece. The building began in 1882 and has yet to be completed. It is an enormous, interesting and downright bizarre church. Since the admission price was about $25 per person, we chose to enjoy it from outside.

Our last stop of the day was at the magic fountain. Sadly no magic was seen since the fountain didn't start til 9pm, 2 hours later than we arrived, and we couldn't stay since we had a 7am flight (with a 4am wakeup alarm) the next morning.

On the one hand, you could see our time in Barcelona as a failure. We didn't see many attractions and really only had one full day there. On the other hand, we got some desperately needed sleep. We got to relax and enjoy the city. And having decided we like it, we now want to go back again some day. We succeeded in discovering a future vacation spot.

The only downside evident as we left was that I seemed to have picked up Vicky's minor cold. Oops. Good thing Lisbon was nice and warm. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A brief interlude about flying with a terrible airline, Ryan Air

In case you forgot, allow me refresh your memory about our condition at the end of my last post.

"At this point, we were completely exhausted. In fact, Vicky was sick. We were really hoping Barcelona would be relaxing so we could both recover. And it was. Getting there, however, was another matter."

The reason for this ominous warning was Ryan Air.  This is what I wrote about it right after the incident happened.

Wow was that ever a mess! We just had a preflight to make us swear off ever taking Ryan Air again.  We caught the bus way out to an airport that's basically a Ryan Air only airport. It took about an hour and forty five minutes to get there. But we left early so we arrived with an hour twenty to spare. It was barely enough. 

Because we're not EU citizens, we had to go to the check-in counter even though we checked in online. The line was moving horrifically slowly because of Ryan air's cabin bag rules. You get 1 bag, not a bag and a personal item. Everything must go in one bag.  It must weigh less than 10kg. It must fit in those tiny bins every airline has that nothing fits in. 

So the desk clerk was rejecting bags and forcing people to pay big fees to check bags and it was making the line crawl. We waited in line until the desk was supposed to close in 10 minutes. The line behind us alone would have taken another 90 minutes at that rate. And we knew our bags were a little too big and heavy (11kg instead of 10), and we were bracing for the huge fee to check the bags and the possibility of us missing our flight while trying to get it done. We were resigned to paying the fees if we had to.

Around then they opened a new line. Hoping the desk clerk wouldn't be such a slow prick, we changed lines. Finally they approved our passports and sent us to security.  Yay.  We had saved $150 and wouldn't miss our flight.

Except security was run by them too. By now we thought the flight had been boarding for 40 minutes and was about to leave. So we were semi-panicking. Security didn't help. 

They were slowly checking tickets and making people check their bag size and weight again. Vicky's bag mostly fit in their tiny bin and we told them mine was the same size. But they wanted us to weigh them. As we expected, hers was 11kg and mine 12kg. The security guy then tried to tell us to go check out bags which set Vicky off. She told him we've flown with these all over Europe with Ryan air with no problem and we'd miss our flight if we had to check them.  He told us, so you'll miss your flight over 1 or 2 kilograms.  That didn't help. Finally after more yelling by Vicky, he let us go while telling us if we are nicer, he will like us and let us through no problem. Much skepticism. 

The actual security part was the only easy thing about this experience. Just a normal security check. 

When we got through all this, hoping the plane hadn't left, we found that no one had boarded and the plane was late. But of course they didn't announce it. So we found ourselves waiting at the end of a huge line to board (no assigned seats, remember).

Finally about half an hour, we finally got through the last check and boarded.  We've flown with Ryan air twice on this trip and arrived over an hour late once and were harassed the other. Also the no assigned seats is incredibly annoying. It produces lines to board over an hour before the flight. 

Our problem was less with the money it would have cost to check our bags (though $150 isn't small change) and more with the attitude of the workers and the incompetence of the company.  Forcing non-EU citizens to get their passports reviewed at checkin even when you checkin online is idiotic since no other airlines require this.  Having only 1 line for a flight is insane (doubly so when you factor in the mandatory passport checks).  Weighing and checking every bag in that line, right down to purses, just guarantees that the line doesn't move.  That combined with a completely dismissive attitude towards the passengers ensures that angry people won't be in short supply.  I know it's all in the name of trying to save money but that isn't an excuse.

In short, we shall do everything in our power never to fly with them again! 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Paris, the busiest 2 and half days of our trip

Our flight to Paris on Ryan Air arrived about an hour late, so we got to our hostel after midnight (remember that airline.  They'll come up again in a future post).  We were exhausted and starving.  Fortunately we found some food still open and got some decent, if not great, sleep.  The next day we woke up and moved to a new place to stay (one with a private room instead of a dorm.  this really makes a difference in the quality of sleep you get and was worth the hassle of changing places).

Then began our extremely busy, and surprisingly cold, days.  We bought a Paris Museum Pass that, while expensive, let us into basically any museum or monument in the city for two days.  We first put this to use by heading out to Versailles to see the most magnificent palace in Europe.

After walking all around that huge chateau, we came back to get dinner and climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe.  Unfortunately, it was raining and so getting pictures was difficult to impossible depending on the direction.

The next day, we were at it again.  We went inside Notre Dame to enjoy one of the oldest, most impressive churches in Europe.  Then we popped over through more cold rain to Saint Chappelle and the best stained glass windows I've seen.  Some of them were under restoration but it was still really cool.

After this, we walked over to the Louvre and used the Rick Steves walking tour to see the highlights.  I really enjoyed his tour, it hit all my favorites.  Of course by the end of this, our feet were killing us and our bodies felt like the weighed 5 tons each.

So naturally, after we walked to dinner, we did a ton more walking to go see the Eiffel Tower at night.  On the way we saw the moon over Notre Dame.  It was gorgeous.

The tower itself looked great also.  The moon was next to it and made for some really exotic, cool views.

And lest you think we were lazy (or completely exhausted), the next day we went to the Luxembourg gardens in the late morning for a relaxing walk.  They had some lovely flowers that I tried to capture here.

And to finish our Paris trip, we visited the Sacre Coeur before getting our stuff to catch our flight to Barcelona.  The Sacre Coeur was "interesting" for the reasons detailed below.

At this point, we were completely exhausted. In fact, Vicky was sick. We were really hoping Barcelona would be relaxing so we could both recover. And it was. Getting there, however, was another matter.

Scam attempt of the week.
We've been all over Europe and had a lot of people try to sell us stuff but this was the first time someone tried to outright scam us. We were walking up the steps to the Sacre Coeur when we turned a corner to find a group of six men holding strings and aggressively approaching anyone who passed. 

In case you're unfamiliar with this con, let me explain. The conman approaches the victim with a smile and ties a colorful string around their wrist or finger before the victim has time to object. They tell the victim it's a friendship bracelet. After the string is tied tight, the scammer asks for money for the "gift". If the victim refuses, the scammer's friends come over to support him/intimidate the victim into paying. 

Being experienced travellers, Vicky and I knew about this con beforehand (and even if we hadn't, we would have spotted it instantly). We tried to ignore them and go around but one aggressively blocked me. I moved to go around him when he shoved me. It had no effect on me beyond being offensive but it made Vicky mad. She instantly started yelling at him as we walked away (I was proud of her). I wasn't happy about it but I wasn't going to do anything when surrounded by a group of his friends. 

The sad part was, this group of scam artists were all African immigrants. And because groups of black men were doing this, it makes tourists and locals alike suspicious of all the black men in Paris even though it was only a few perpetrating this scam. It unfortunately reminds me of how the thug culture in the US has made many white Americans see all young black men as a threat. 

I don't have any great solution to these problems. I just try not to treat people like the worst representatives of their groups (as in don't treat all black people like they are criminals or all teenagers like they are irresponsible idiots) unless I have a good reason to think they are. It's an imperfect world we live in. But at least they didn't get my money!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Florence, the sworn enemy of Guilder

I'll keep this one short since I'm kinda sick right now and don't feel like writing a ton.  The train to Florence was nice.  We arrived, dropped our stuff at the hostel and went out to do some walking through the historic part of town.  It was pretty, if crowded with tourists like ourselves (mid-September is the perfect time to visit Italy.  In summer, the temperature is often in the mid 90s).  We visited the Duomo, walked by the Uffizi and ended the day at the Piazza Michelangelo.

The next day we slept in, enjoying a former monks very dark room.  The weather was rainy and bad, so we went and waited in a very long line at the Accademia (like Disneyland long).  We did this to see the best statue in the world.  Michelangelo's David remains the most life-like inanimate object I've ever seen by a large margin.  It's well past the uncanny valley.  The only problem is that taking picture is strictly forbidden.  There were in fact guards watching everyone to make sure no pictures were taken.  Very sad.

We met a solo traveler from Turkey while there and grabbed some dinner with him after leaving the museum.  Thanks to the bad weather, we headed home after that.  At this point, we had eaten gelato 9 times in 7 days.  We were so proud!

The next day we hopped a train to Pisa since we had a late flight out of there to Rome.  Naturally while there we stopped by the tower.  And yes it does in fact lean.  Astonishing.  Mostly we made fun of the other tourists doing ridiculous holding-up or pushing-down the tower poses.  See below for details.

That night we flew to Paris to begin a very busy 2.5 days.

PS.  Bonus points to you if you understand the reference in the title.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rome, the reason history class was fun

When we last saw our dashing heroes, they were leaving Venice and happy to be doing it. A pretty straightforward trip got us to our hostel. Our room had no windows but it was clean, thankfully quiet and centrally located in Rome. 

After some much needed sleep and a slow easy morning, we decided to start at the Vatican. We'd been seeing churches all over Europe. It was time for the most impressive one in the world. As ever, it did not disappoint. 

Pictures never do the place justice. This is a church that's 2 football fields long, 1.5 wide and 1.5 tall. It covers 6 acres. It can hold 60,000 people. And every inch is richly decorated. This place didn't cost a fortune to build. It cost a thousand fortunes.

After being suitably impressed, we went back to our room before heading to the Colosseum to see it at night. We accidentally met a friendly American couple there and chatted for 2 hours that flew by. 

When they left, we decided to take a moonlit stroll to the Trevi Fountain. Of course, this being Rome, our stroll took us past the Forum, Trajan's Column, an outdoor play in some ruins, and the giant Vittorio Emmanuelle Monument. I love Rome! 

We enjoyed our fountain visit, including the requisite coin toss into the fountain. However, neither of the coins we tossed in were from this continent. Hope that doesn't affect our luck. 

We decided to walk home and only hit one major landmark on the way. Fortunately, Republic Square is especially pretty at night. 

The next day we got up at 6:30am so we could see the Vatican and Saint Peter's Basilica without the crowds. It really made a difference in the experience. We also climbed to the top of the dome for a great view of early morning Rome. That climb is not for the old or the large. It was long, challenging and such a tight fit that I barely got through a couple spots. 

After our morning excursion, we went home and slept for several hours to catch up on our sleep. That afternoon we went back to the Colosseum, this time to see the inside. It also impressed. 

We finished the day with an excellent Italian dinner. It goes without saying, of course, that we were having gelato AT LEAST once a day every day we were in Italy. 

The next morning was a chill one before walking to the station to catch the noon train to Florence. After a rough Venice, Rome had lifted our spirits.