A Travellerspoint blog

Zutphen and Amsterdam, Netherlands

Small town charm and the home of the red-light district

sunny 13 °C
View Britain and Europe 2007 on Jaana M's travel map.

On Friday, October 12th Kyle and I boarded a train to Zutphen, a small town in the southeastern part of Holland, to visit Anne and her son Tim, friends of Kyle’s parents. About half way through the five hour train ride we went through Köln (Cologne) and got a glimpse of the beautiful cathedral there. Hopefully we will get to Köln sometime later to get a better look at it. It was sunny when we arrived in Zutphen, which according to my guide book, and later confirmed by Anne and Tim was a rare occasion at that time of year. Tim picked us up at the train station and we walked to his apartment, which was in the old part of the city. We could feel the cozy local atmosphere as we walked through the ancient streets and we were amazed to see that many of the buildings, despite their excellent build and everlasting sturdiness, were leaning into the street or onto one another. Tim explained that most of the Netherlands lies at a very low alititude, so the land is very wet and complex irrigation systems had to be built under and around each town to prevent the land from flooding. The ground however, was still quite soft, so the foundations of these old buildings shifted, creating the crazily tilting houses. His own apartment was one of the oldest in the town, and we experienced this first hand when we had to climb the endless flights of extremely narrow and heart pumpingly steep stairs. The apartment itself was really nice and you could immediately tell that it was truly ancient: the beige walls were very thick, dark wooden beams crisscrossed the A-frame ceiling and extended to the walls and the floor was slightly slanted. There was a roof top terrace at the back and it offered a beautiful view of the surrounding clay-topped roofs and the church spires.

On a short walk around Zutphen we saw what remained of the old city walls, a beautifully restored church (which we got kicked out of because apparently it was closed), a peaceful park with weeping willows and a rainbow making fountain in the pond, the cute little harbour and a water-works park for children. The water-works represented the intricate water systems Holland uses and consisted of a series of small dams and locks that could be altered by hand to divert the little river running through them. The oldest building in Zutphen was the watchtower, which had now been converted into a three floor, one-bedroom apartment and surprisingly the rent wasn’t even that much (~ 500EUR/month) - there was only one condition: you had to open up your residence to the public at least one day in the year.

Soon Anne came to pick Kyle and me up and we drove to her house in the nearby village called Warnsveld. Her primarily red apartment was of the most tasteful minimalist style and I fell in love with it immediately. We got acquainted over a traditional and quite tasty Dutch meal of sausages with a potato, spinach and bacon stew. After supper we walked into the village to get some beer and along with some Heineken we bought a special dark beer, Kwak, which got its name from an old drinking story. Traditionally it was drank out of a tall tapered glass with a round belly at the bottom of it, and if you drank too fast the pressure would cause the beer in the belly to squirt up and ‘kwak’ you in the face. We talked late into the evening and I really started to enjoy the taste of Heineken. The plan for the next day was to go to Amsterdam, but because Amsterdam is best seen at night we decided to leave in the early afternoon, so that we wouldn’t be too tired to continue exploring by the time Amsterdam awoke.

The next day we slept in and upon awakening I realized that I had a bit of a sore throat and a cough, which wasn’t too bad, but it made me lose my voice almost completely and I spent the rest of the weekend croaking like an old lady with a smoke-ruined voice. Despite that, we enjoyed a lazy morning and then Anne dropped us off in Zutphen. Before we left we did a quick tour of the little Saturday market and I got some fruit and nut snacks for the trip. Tim saw a girl that he knew on the train and we talked with her most of the way to Amsterdam; in fact, she must have been enjoying the conversation so much that she missed her stop! We arrived in Amsterdam at about 5pm and decided to take a canal boat cruise first, while the afternoon sun was still shining. The guide was played in three different languages (German, Dutch and English), so if I missed anything in the German version I could always catch it in the English version. Tim was able to understand all three – lucky guy! Overall it was a beautiful cruise, but it was also quite interesting; I learned that there are over 100kms of canals in Amsterdam, that about 500 are from the 17th century and that most of them are about 2-3 meters deep. The houses built along the canals are very narrow, on average 3-6 meters wide, but in the well-to-do areas the houses were much wider, averaging 10-12 meters, with an astounding number of rooms ranging between 15 and 40. The houses were all very quaint looking with pointed roofs, carved gables and colourful shutters. Each house, even the newly built ones is fitted with a ‘hoisting beam’, which is attached to the top of the house and, along with a pulley system, is used to lift large materials up into the house which can’t be brought up through the narrow stairwells. In Amsterdam however, houses aren’t only found on land: over 2500 boat-houses float on the canals and the government won’t let this number get any higher. The boat-houses vary immensely in style and quality; some are quite large and new looking, with a nice deck and potted plants in the windows, but others are old and shabby, with peeling paint, rotting curtains and broken windows.

After the hour long canal-boat cruise, we plunged into the red light district and it was beyond anything we could have imagined. The first thing we noticed was the delicious marijuana smoke aroma wafting out of the smoke-shops and onto the streets. The streets themselves were lined with sex-shops, pubs, smoke-shops and of course the famous window displays, but most of them were either empty or had their red velvet curtains pulled across, so we figured that most of the ladies must be eating their supper. We searched for the Cannabis College, which was said to have marijuana plants in every stage of development displayed, but it wasn’t at the address we had. Tim showed us to The Bulldog, the first smoke-shop in Amsterdam, and we purchased some New York Diesel. We explored some more of the streets, but felt quite hungry, so we stepped into a nice looking restaurant and enjoyed some pasta dishes. The food was filling, but not spectacular and we were eager to get back to exploring. It was now fully dark, and as we walked past the display windows the velvet curtains had been opened and scantily clad ladies beckoned to us from all directions. At first it was really quite shocking and I felt like I shouldn’t look at them, but soon I realized that they didn’t care at all, so I got over my timidity and enjoyed the sights. Most of them were quite young and were relatively decent, if not all together good looking, but you could find women of all kinds, and I mean every kind and some of them were less than pleasant to look at. Tim told us that a lot of girls do it to get through school and that it wasn’t looked down nearly as much as it is in other countries. Living up to its name the whole district actually glowed red and it felt like we were exploring a different world. We went back to the Bulldog to enjoy some of the New York Diesel, but it had gotten quite packed, so we went back outside and sat on a bench near a canal. The streets were filled with every type of person and I could have just spent the whole evening watching the different personalities walk by. Sketchy looking people would mutter drug names as you walked past, hoping to catch your attention and sell some to you, but it was best to pretend that you didn’t even hear them. Overall it was a completely bizarre experience and nothing I could say could describe it completely, but it was totally energizing in a way and I could understand how people got stuck there and never moved on.

We caught the last train into Zutphen and spent the ride home drinking beer on the train. By the time we got home we were pretty tired, so we headed straight to bed. The next morning we left before lunch and drove to a huge national park, which was originally the humungous estate of a duke in the medieval times. He had built his castle deep into the forest and laid paved paths all through the forest, so that his carriages could ride smoothly. There was nothing left of the castle and most of the paths were just dirt now, but you could still see the medieval bricks in some places. The vast park was famous for its large population of wild hogs and a rare species of deer, but unfortunately we saw neither. We did, however, see a lot of striking bits of nature and on our three and a half hour walk we passed through many different types of forest. At first we were in a mixed forest, with quite a lot of underbrush, and then a deciduous area, with tall, proud looking trees and rolling, leaf covered hills, and then a dark coniferous forest with gnarled trunks and eerie silence. The weather was just as beautiful as in the past two days and it felt like a perfect fall day. Near the end of our walk Anne and I found a blackberry thicket and paused to pick a few while the guys walked on; despite a nasty prick I got from one of the bushes I still enjoyed every last one of them. Many other people were out on the myriad of trails and we could tell some of them were lost, but soon we were the ones lost. It had been awhile since Anne and Tim had been in the park, so they weren’t sure where we were exactly, but they followed their instincts and thankfully we ended up finding our way out. It was already late afternoon and Kyle and I realized that we wouldn’t be able to make our 6 o’clock train home, so we decided to stay another night. Anne had to work early in the morning, so we said our sad goodbyes and moved all of our things to Tim’s place. We spent the night talking about Tim’s intensive biking hobby (I really would like to see some of his tricks one day), playing with his two cats, Trash and Tribal, and watching English comedy videos. Kyle and I reflected on our weekend and decided that Holland had the beauty and quaintness of Germany, but that was somehow cuter and definitely greener. Another thing we noticed was that almost everyone rides a bike, even more than in Germany; bikes and bike paths were everywhere!

We really enjoyed staying with Tim and Anne and I’m so happy that we got to meet them - they’re awesome people! Thank-you Tim and Anne for making our Holland experience so wonderful! :)

Posted by Jaana M 02:39 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

Rome, Italy

Travelling Alone Part 3 - a 3 day adventure in Italy's capital

sunny 28 °C
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Pretty much as soon as I settled into my seat on the train to Rome I realized that I didn’t have my journal. A slow panic started rising up in me and I searched every pocket of my bag, and then I searched them again. I could not believe that it wasn’t with me! The directions, address, phone number and confirmation number for my hostel in Rome where in the journal, along with the confirmation number for my flight from Rome to Frankfurt, not to mention the hundreds of stories and feelings that I had recorded in it during my previous travels. I cursed myself for not looking under my bed in Florence (the first time that I have EVER forgotten to do that) and thought about returning to Florence, but not only would that waste tons of precious time, but it wouldn’t guarantee that I’d get my journal back. I called the hostel and gave him my address and a description of the journal and he agreed to send it to me if he found it, but I as of yet I haven’t got it, so I presume it is lost forever. I spent the rest of the train brooding in self-pity and trying to plan my itinerary in Rome, but I was too overcome with exhaustion from racing all over Florence, so I napped.

The nap had refreshed me and some of my old excitement had come back by the time I arrived in Rome, but my spirits sank again when I realized that I had no idea what the address or phone number of my hostel was, let alone the directions! I found the tourist office mentioned in my guide book and, thankfully, they were able to tell me how to find it. It was as if my body knew everything was ok now, because as soon as I got the directions, I got all of my energy back and felt ready to take on Italy’s capital full storm ahead, with or without my journal.

The Freestyle hostel I was staying at was a small, but very warm and communal type of place. Breakfast, along with a daily dinner consisting of salad, a pasta dish, and wine were included in the nightly rate, and I planned to take full advantage of each. Dinner would be served at 7pm and it was only 4:30pm, so I decided to go for a walk in the area after I had settled in. Shortly before I left, the power went out on the whole street, so I left wondering if there would actually be supper at 7pm.

The weather was beautiful: the sun was still deliciously hot and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The first place I found was the Santa Maggiore Cathedral, and luckily I had planned ahead and brought a shawl to wrap around my too-short-for-in-a-cathedral skirt, otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed to see the outrageous splendor inside. I really imagined that I would have been tired of seeing cathedrals by now, but it seemed that almost every one I saw was more beautiful than the last one. The countless gold engravings, marble sculptures, ancient paintings and frescoed windows are completely unexplainable and I hope everyone has a chance to see at least one beautiful cathedral in their lifetime. After I marveled at that I continued down the road to the Coliseum and found it strange that I wasn’t recognizing anything yet. I guess you look at things in another way and therefore remember things differently when you’re twelve years old. The Coliseum, however, looked exactly how I remembered it, and although it did impress me a second time with its immense size, it failed to lure me into paying the 10EUR to see the inside of it again. Being there opened up a flood of memories and for awhile I stood looking at it and reminisced about being there with my mom and sister, and how Anja had never been so excited in her life; the Coliseum was her number one sight in Europe as far as I can remember. From there I started circling back to my hostel, with the intentions of seeing the Piazza del Quirinale and the San Carlo Quattro Fontana (an intersection which has a fountain representing each season on each corner). The Piazza was disappointing, but offered a nice view of the sunset, and the intersection was just a busy car place, with some ancient, but un-kept fountains. On the way home I was surprised to find the Opera in which we had seen the ballet, Giselle. The tickets had been really cheap, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to see if there were some tickets. Phrase book in hand, I went to the information desk and was informed that a ballet was indeed playing tonight, at 8:30pm and that the cheapest tickets were 17EUR, but that the box office didn’t open until 7:30pm. Excited about my find I rushed back to the hostel, just in time for dinner. We lined up at the kitchen door old-school style and someone ladled our dinner into our bowl and then we helped ourselves to the salad and the boxed wine. There were no tables, so everyone sat on cushiony stools around the room with their bowls on their laps and their plastic wine glasses by their feet. The food was good, everyone was happy and soon lively chatter filled the warm air. A girl had gotten tickets to see the Pope the next morning and invited me to come with her, which I gladly accepted and I asked her if she wanted to join me at the ballet, but she was wiped and everyone else had planned to see the opera playing the next night, so it looked like I was going alone. I made it to the box office shortly before 8pm and it turned out the ticket was only 11EUR!!

The foyer of the opera house was the picture of royalty with red carpeting, large marble columns, a grand piano, and a high ceiling with huge crystal chandeliers. The nicely clad patrons held their slender champagne glasses and conversed in polite little groups, while the children sat on the velvet benches in strained reserved ness. I found my seat and while I drank in the theatrical atmosphere I attempted to interpret the program that I had been given, but all I could gather was that it was an old ballet, performed countless times and re-choreographed by an Italian. Luckily my neighbour spoke English, and he informed me that it was Sleeping Beauty, which was coincidentally the first ballet I had ever performed in: fourteen years ago, at age five, I was a cat in Virginia Nelder’s Sleeping Beauty. The first act was a little boring because I found the choreography to be quite simple and the story to be quite drawn out; I hoped that it would get better. It did indeed and the second and third act where enjoyable to say the least and I left the theatre feeling completely satisfied. It was almost 1am, and I didn’t feel comfortable wearing my short skirt, so I wrapped my shawl around it, and just to be on the safe side, I held my pepper spray ready all the way to the hostel.

Earlier in the day I had noticed a few itchy red bumps on my ankles and shins, but I had dismissed them as bug bites. During my afternoon walk they had started to ooze yellow pus and I figured they were just irritated from the dust, but during the ballet I started to worry about them because they continued to ooze, more of them had appeared and they had all become quite swollen and gotten extremely hard. Back at the hostel the manager and I decided that I must have come in contact with either a poisonous plant or some vicious bugs, but there was nothing we could do other than wash them with hot water.

The next morning they had big crusts on them, so I washed and bandaged them, but they remained horribly itchy and I was forced to continue wiping them throughout the day which was a little embarrassing and quite disgusting. But I was convinced to have a super day anyway.

Anastacia and I took the crowded underground to the Vatican, found some seats in the Vatican square and waited for the Pope to come. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people and tons of school groups, religious groups and other tour groups. The sun beat down on all of us viciously and I was quite glad that I had a cap, but many people, especially the old ones, were resorting to folding up their maps into paper hats; the childish hats on the gray heads created quite a hilarious contrast. Finally he showed up and drove by us in his Pope-mobile, surrounded by an army of suited bodyguards and the Vatican employed Swiss guards. After every group in attendance was recognized individually, an introduction was said in five languages and then the Pope held mass in Italian. We left shortly afterwards because neither of us were religious, and we had only come for our celebrity sighting, but I must say that I’m glad I saw him – he’s a cute little guy and not nearly as scary looking as he was in the papers a few years ago. Anastacia went to go wait in the mile-long queue for the Vatican museums and I continued on to the Campo di Fiori which is a large market square surrounded by tons of shops. I wound my way through Rome’s confusing streets and without too much difficulty arrived at the café Peru, which was supposed to have the best and cheapest coffee in Rome. It was a small place, frequented by locals and crowded with people sipping their espressos and macchiatos while standing. I ordered the espresso, joined the crowd and enjoyed feeling like a local. The Campo di Fiori was much smaller than I remembered which probably has a lot to do with the fact that I got a lot bigger, but it was just as lively as before. I meandered between the stalls, compared spice prices, ogled a whole swordfish, and finally I began ordering my spices and with some successful haggling I got it five euros cheaper. A fountain spluttered cold, clear water and I filled my bottle, which was a much better experience than my usual habit of sneaking into restaurant bathrooms and filling it from the tap. Some people say you shouldn’t drink the tap water in Italy, but it’s not like its Africa and I wasn’t going to pay 2EUR for each little bottle of water.

From there I shopped around, got lost and stumbled upon the ancient cat sanctuary, the Sacred Area of Largo Argentina, which is a city block of ruins sunk beneath ground level and a charity vaccinates, spades, neuters, and feeds the cats in the sanctuary. I explored the nearby Piazzo Navona, which is a lively artist inhabited square surrounded by a huge cathedral, ritzy restaurants and interesting little shops. I had always wanted a caricature of myself, so I decided to get one here and I’m quite pleased with the results. It was terribly hot and I must have been sweating, because the artist drew a few beads of sweat on my forehead! I bought a piece of original art and as I made my way towards the Pantheon one of the many relentlessly aggressive waiters approached me and offered me a free cappuccino. I had seen how they lure people in, so I ignored him and kept walking, but he wouldn’t give up so I asked him what he meant and it turned out that he did actually just want to give me a free cappuccino. I took a seat, he brought me a cappuccino, spoke with me for a few minutes and then I was alone to enjoy my cappuccino and watch the people go by. When I was finished I simply said thank you and that was that! :)

We had not seen the Pantheon last time, so I was quite excited to see this 2000 year old temple. Not only is it extremely well preserved, but it also boasts the largest poured concrete dome; architects today still can’t figure out how it was erected without the support of vaults, arches or ribs. It is indeed impressive, despite the ridiculous amounts of tourists in and around it. The entrance is breasted by rows and rows of massive pillars, and the dome inside is huge and perfect. A hole in the middle of the dome lets light into the Pantheon and was used in the early days as a sundial and to record the dates of solstices and equinoxes.

On the way home I made a quick stop at the Fontana di Trevi, which is the nicest fountain I’ve ever seen, but I had already seen it and there are just too many people to make staying there long enjoyable. I made it just in time for supper again and it was so great to be able to compare stories with other travelers, give tips on what you’ve already seen and get tips from others. The communal atmosphere at the Freestyle hostel is exactly what a person traveling alone needs and I recommend it to anyone visiting Rome. We spent most of the evening talking and before I went to bed the manager gave me a cortisol cream he had picked up for me. I washed my still badly pussing wounds and spread it on them; the cream almost immediately relieved the itchiness and by the morning the wounds had lost some of their swelling, but they were still oozing and forming crusts.

I had planned to get to the Vatican Museums early in order to beat the line up, but I got lost and the line was a mile long again by the time I got there, so I decided to skip the museums and continue on. I walked along the outside of the old city walls and really enjoyed the relative quiet that presided on the winding, tree lined road. It was a huge wall and seemed impossible to scale; the perfect protection. I daydreamed of ancient battles and imagined enemy armies trying to get over the wall while the Roman armies shot them down mercilessly. At a break in the wall I re-entered the old city and found a park with a great view of the city outside and inside the wall. I was shocked to see how far I had walked the day before! From the park I slowly descended the hill into the Trastevere region, which is known for being authentically Italian and largely untouched by tourists. I crossed the river from Trastever and landed in the ancient city. Ruins stretched their ancient structures above me and I was awed at how old everything was. I reached the Roman forum and as I observed it I tried to recreate the ancient buildings in my imagination. It was pretty impressive, but I didn’t have the energy or the interest in history to walk through it all, so I observed it from above and then began my long walk across the city and to the Spanish steps. I stopped at a lovely restaurant for lunch and watched the business groups come and go as I munched my chicken breast. The Spanish Steps were even more disappointing than they had been last time and I wondered why on earth I came back, but I was there, so I made the best of it and climbed up the hill to the park behind. The park was cool and peaceful; a nice change from the touristy and hot Spanish Steps. My back was starting to hurt from all of the walking, so I sat on a bench and listened to the birds and the children playing. It was shortly before 3pm and I was wondering what I should do next, as I had seen pretty much everything that I had wanted to see, when I realized that I might make it to the Vatican museum before it closed.

There wasn’t a single person waiting in front of the entrance and I was able to walk straight into the foyer! My student card gave me a 4EUR discount and then I was in. A word about the Vatican: it manages to stay its own independent state by minting its own coins (euros with the Pope’s face), running its own press and postal system, maintaining an army of Swiss guards (which still wear the ancient uniforms that resemble a jester’s costume) and hoarding art in its museums. I sent a postcard from the Vatican post office and then I entered the huge museum. Galleries upon galleries flew past me and vast hallways with sculptures, maps and tapestries loomed all around me. It was overwhelming, but I enjoyed it and took in as much as I could; my brain was popping with art by the time I got to the Sistine Chapel. Luckily I’m not ridiculously short, so I was able to see over the sea of heads with some tiptoeing. It is a small, fairly dark chamber and is covered in paintings. The famous ceiling by Michelangelo was there in all its splendour and despite the guards’ frequent warnings of ‘NO PHOTOS’ flashbulbs popped all around me. For some reason I decided to behave and not take any photos. The crowd pushed me along and before I knew it, I was at the exit. I took one last look at everything and then with a woosh, I was back in the museum. My back was seriously hurting now and I was in desperate need of a seat, but I couldn’t find anything. The museum was closing now, and I knew I had to hurry if I wanted to see the actual Vatican cathedral, so I sucked it up and kept trudging. I made it to the Vatican cathedral just in time, and after wrapping my skirt in my shawl I was allowed to enter. Mass was taking place, so booming, echoing voices filled the cavernous rooms, but there still managed to be an tremendous silence. Nothing can beat the beauty and size of the Vatican and I felt eternally thankful that I had made it in time to see it again. I think I could go there every day and still be amazed! I was so amazed that I forgot how tired I was, but after wandering around the cathedral for half an hour I began to feel my back pain again – it was time to call it a day, and what a day it was! I have no idea how far I walked, but it was far, really far, way too far and now I was dead. But I had seen absolutely everything that I had wanted to and felt that that was worth every minute of pain.

I took the underground to the train station and figured out that I needed to catch a 4:30am bus in order to make it to the airport on time! Supper at the hostel was even better than before because I knew quite a few of the backpackers by now, and after supper we spent the evening drinking wine and eating cheese and olives. I stayed up until 1:30am with the intentions of staying up all night, but then everyone went to bed and I was overcome with tiredness, so I slept for an hour. The trip home was long, I was dead-tired and felt like I had been traveling for a month, rather than just a week. But I loved every single minute of it and wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It would have been great to have Kyle with me, but I must say that it was nice to be free to do whatever I pleased, whenever I pleased and at whatever pace I pleased. I truly hope to go back to Italy and explore the very south of it, but for now I’m totally pleased with my week long Italian adventure, and a month later my leg sores are finally just scars! Nothing could have been better!

Posted by Jaana M 04:54 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Pisa and Florence, Italy

Travelling alone Part 2 - The not-so-dissapointing city of Pisa and the sculpture capital of the world: Florence.

sunny 26 °C
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On Monday, October 1, I woke up in Vernazza, packed my things together and said goodbye to my roomy apartment and beautiful fishing village. I took a train to La Spezia and then got on a connection to Pisa. On the train a guy, Joseph, asked me if I was American and after I proudly clarified that I was actually Canadian we began talking, realized that we were both headed to Pisa for a few hours and decided to explore it together. At first Pisa seemed like a very little and slightly run-down town, which fit perfectly to all of the disappointing stories we had heard about Pisa. We were doubting our choice of coming to Pisa as we entered the city centre and walked under the old city wall, but all doubtful thoughts disappeared as soon as we got to the other side of the wall. The Leaning Tower of Pisa was there, leaning eternally, and as my guide book had forecasted a ‘mire of gawping, Gelato slurping tourists’ surrounded it, but much to our surprise the tower was not alone: three other magnificent buildings perched beside the tower. We decided to skip the über-expensive tower climb and only visit the other three buildings. They turned out to be well worth it, despite their plain names: the ancient ‘Cemetery’ had hundreds of carved stone crypts and marble tombs, the ‘Baptistery’ boasted some excellent stained glass windows and flawless acoustics and the ‘Cathedral’ was one of the fanciest and most impressive that I have ever seen. Surprised and satisfied we made our way towards the train station and in search of some lunch. We found a student pub recommended by my guide book and enjoyed a spectacular lunch. I had saffron flavoured Risotto with zucchini, squid and baby octopus for my first course, a tomato, squid and baby octopus Bruschetta for my second course and a salad with corn, tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage for my third course. All of that, plus a complementary 1/2L of white wine per guest was only 10EUR! I didn’t even have to pay that much though, because Joseph paid for my lunch. It was a great beginning to a super day.

At the train station we said goodbye and parted ways; he went to go wait for his train to Siena and I went to the track where the train to Florence was due in twenty minutes. Quite curiously the train that was supposed to have left for Florence five minutes ago was still standing there, so I decided to get on. I opened the door and hoisted one foot onto the first step, but much to my horror, the train started to move before I could get my second foot off the ground! I realized that it was going to leave whether I was in or not, so as quickly as I could, I pulled myself up the step and threw myself into the train. Lying on the floor and not quite believing that I had just jumped onto a moving train, I thanked the fact that I had packed light and that half my baggage wasn’t left on the platform. The rest of the trip was quite uneventful and I arrived in Florence at 3:15pm. I found my hostel with no problems, but the door was locked and no one was answering the doorbell. I called the number I had, but that didn’t work at all until I found out Florence’s area code from a local, and then the old guy that answered didn’t understand that I was locked out and kept hanging up on me. In frustration I managed to drop my cell phone and different pieces flew everywhere, but luckily it still worked once I put it all back together. Near tears, I tried one last time and pleaded for him to just come to the hostel, which he finally agreed to do. Finally I was set up in my hostel, freed of my backpack and ready to spend the afternoon exploring Florence.

The first place I headed for was the Duomo, the most famous cathedral in Florence, which boasted the longest nave in the world. On the outside it was quite impressive, with intensely decorated walls, numerous carvings and a huge domed clay roof. On the inside however, it was quite plain and despite the cavernous nave I found it pretty boring. The Baptistery next door was much more pleasing, both on the outside and the inside. The old entrance, the Paradise Gates, consisted of two tall iron doors decorated with eight golden plates and every plate had an impressively intricate depiction of Genesis on it. Inside the Baptistery a gold mosaic stretched across the domed roof and watched over the vast marble floor. The mosaic had a large depiction of Jesus and smaller depictions of the apostles, hell, heaven and other religious items. I sat in a pew and with the help of the info booklet, slowly deciphered what each section of the mosaic represented. Feeling awed and inspired I enjoyed the magnificence for about ten minutes and then headed back out into the afternoon sun.

Florence is a quite a pretty city and you can really tell how culture and art have thrived here for centuries; on every corner there is an ancient cathedral, a famous museum, a statue filled square or a beautiful fountain. True to its reputation, it is also quite a romantic city; dark men offer you roses while little groups of buskers play jovial classical music and lone musicians play sad wistful tunes, accompanied by an occasional emotion-filled wailing. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the streets, soaking it all up and daydreaming. I saw a few more not incredibly impressive churches and a color filled flea market in one of the church squares. Vendors offered me things from both sides and called at me to come investigate their wares, but I was only interested in seeing the colours and the lively people, not their glitzy, overpriced trinkets. The sun went down and I decided to go to my first Internet café. After an hour of emailing, researching and facebooking I headed to the hostel, ready to call it a night, only to end up going back out again with a couple of Swedish backpackers. We explored the area for awhile and found a Theremin, which is the oddest instrument I will probably ever see. From around the corner it sounded like someone was singing an opera solo, but there was no singer in sight; it was actually just a girl standing behind a box with two metal rods projecting out of it. She held one hand near each rod and without touching the rod, she would vibrate and dip her fingers, setting off a variety of high pitched tones. Upon closer inspection of the sign beside her, I learned that it was an electrical instrument and operated with two different radio frequencies that she could manipulate by moving her hands, but I still don’t fully understand how it works; I kept on expecting to see a hidden CD player. I had plans to get up quite early the next day, so I headed back after the Swedes and I drank an interesting, but tasty pint of Strong Bow cider.

The next morning I woke up at 6am, not because I’m crazy, but because I wanted to be at the famous Uffizi museum an hour before it opened, so that I could get in without a reservation. Walking through Florence that early was quite interesting, because all of the tourists that usually crowded the streets and squares were gone and I had it all to myself. I arrived at the Uffizi at 7:10am and I wasn’t surprised to see twenty people already gathered at the entrance. Fifteen minutes after I got inline, another twenty people showed up, and half an hour later there were over a hundred people! I ate my sandwich, wrote some postcards and then at precisely 8:15am the doors opened and I was in. Personally I’m not a huge fan of religious and other ancient art, but I figured that it that this museum must be famous for a reason, so I kept an open mind. The museum is in a huge U-shape, and the two inside portions of the U consisted of two endlessly long hallways with various statues lining the walls and countless paintings and gold carvings on the arched ceiling. Galleries extended from each of the hallways and spread out in a maze of religious depictions, removed altars and sarcophagi. I walked through the galleries extending from the first hallway in a semi-appreciative daze, stopping now and then to ponder over a particular facial expression, but not paying too much attention. The second hallway’s side rooms proved to me a bit more interesting because the paintings were smaller and somehow more personal; I had a special liking for a painting by Federico Brrocci of two eyes, one of a cat and one of a young child. This side also had some restored rooms from before the Uffizi was destroyed for the first time and one of these was especially nice. It was called the “Sala Della Niobe” and it is by far the most beautiful and rich looking room that I have ever seen. It was built by the Grand Duke Pietro in 1779 to house 14th century Roman sculptures depicting the Myth of Niobe (Niobe was a woman that gave birth to the most children, which made the gods jealous and forced them to kill every single one). Along with the numerous sculptures, there were four giant canvases and a huge sarcophagus. A dome in the ceiling had been decorated with minute gold roses and along each tall window there were painted frescoes. After seeing the ridiculous splendor of that room, everything else failed to impress me and I left the museum. It was 10am and I still had four hours before I had to catch my train to Rome.

I visited the national gallery, the Bargello, which had been a prison for hundreds of years, and now contained a huge amount of sculptures and artifacts. I found the building itself to be quite interesting, but the art didn’t mean much to me, other than it was good and that there were tons and tons of sculptures. Florence must have the record for sculptures per capita!

At 11am I got my backpack, checked out of the hostel and sought out what was, according to my guide, the best Gelateria in Florence. Seeing as Florence was the city in which Gelato was invented I figured that I should break my healthy eating habits and try one. It was definitely worth it and I enjoyed every bite of the hazelnut and chocolate combination that I ordered. I spent my remaining two hours wandering the streets, visiting a granary that was now a church, and window shopping. By the time I got to the train station I was completely exhausted and overheated, but also totally pleased with how much I had seen and experienced. Florence was everything that I had expected and more; its beauty and the overwhelming amount of art was spectacular, but what I loved most about it was the lively, happy and welcoming Italian atmosphere that I had fell in love with seven years ago.

Posted by Jaana M 03:34 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Cinque Terre, Italy

Travelling alone Part 1 - Hiking through the most beautiful national park on the coast of Italy.

sunny 26 °C
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I fell in love with Italy in 2007 when Anja, my mom and I went to Rome and Venice. Since then I have always dreamed of exploring the rest of Italy and returning to Rome, so when it came to planning the Italy trip I decided to take a week off school and visit Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence and Rome. By this time Kyle had had enough of traveling and decided to stay home. The idea of traveling alone was a little daunting at first and on the eleven hour train ride to Cinque Terre I definitely felt nervous, but I knew that I could do it and most of all I knew that I would love it.

A series of five sea-side towns below the Italian Riviera form the protected national park of Cinque Terre: Monteresso, Vernazza, Cornigilia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Until 50 years ago these towns were only accessible by boat and were true fishing villages; now trains connect the towns to each other and to the rest of the world, but other than service vehicles, no cars are allowed. Thanks to Rick Steves the area has become a widely popular tourist and hiking destination, but the local people are working hard to maintain the authentic coastal atmosphere. Mountain paths run between each town and provide an excellent hiking experience as well as spectacular views.

I arrived in Vernazza on Saturday September 29th at 8pm with no reservation. The sky was dark by this time and it was raining a bit, but the little village was still fully alive; people hung on corners enjoying pizza and wine, dogs ran down the sloped, cobble stoned road to the harbour and waiters danced around romantically lit café tables. With the help of my Italian phrase book I began my search for an available room, and after the first few unsuccessful attempts I realized that I wasn’t the only one that was temporarily homeless: backpackers, with their luggage spread around them, were huddling over guide books, talking urgently into cell phones and looking quite distraught. I really started to worry about my situation when I heard a group of three saying that they needed to go to the next town to find rooms, but it was just my luck that the next person I asked knew of someone with an available room. An old lady led me up five narrow flights of stairs to what looked like a normal apartment, not just a room; there was a fully stocked kitchen, a living room complete with china cabinets, a couch and a dining table, a large bedroom and a private bathroom. She collected her laundry from outside the apartment window and then I began to negotiate the terms. She knew no English whatsoever, but with the help of the phrase book I determined that the price was 70EUR a night and with some determined negotiation I brought the price down to a more feasible price of 55EUR a night. She took my money, but no contact information and I never saw her again. That night I took a short walk through the town, enjoyed some pesto pizza while watching a Pug waddle around the pizzeria and sat by the dark harbour reflecting on how lucky I was to be wandering around Italy.

The next morning I got up early and after enjoying my splendid ocean view while seeing the sunrise, I took the five minute train to Monteresso, the town north of Vernazza. The town was still asleep when I arrived and the peaceful silence was broken only by the crashing waves, a pair of howling dogs and the lone chime of a church bell. Not a single tourist was in sight! I climbed to the top of the town, explored the grounds of a private stone villa and ascended a hill to the town cemetery. This cemetery was typical for the area, but I had never seen anything like it: the ‘graves’ consisted of a somber maze of rows and rows of engraved marble tombs, framed with flowers and other decorations. Accompanying the cemetery was a small church with a spectacular view of Monteresso and the mountainous coast. Back on the bottom of the hill I wandered through the now awakening town and ordered some breakfast. A short train ride brought me back to Vernazza and from there I started my day long hike through the mountains between the remaining three towns: Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

The trail from Vernazza to Corniglia was supposed to be a 1.5 hour hike and began in a backstreet, led me up through the town and then started winding along the side of the mountain. Never before had I experienced anything like it. The mountain hike in Appenzell was impressive, but this was absolutely breathtaking. Gnarly cacti lined the hill side, interrupted by olive groves, thin trees and stubborn flowers. Below me the ocean sparkled in the deepest blue and I could feel the hot sun shining on me from the clear sky. A strong, but pleasant smell invaded the path, presumably from the ocean and the surrounding plants and flowers. To me it was, curiously enough, like breathing in a flowery fresh cream soda scented air.

Halfway along the path some local guys were bringing up bushels of grapes from somewhere on the mountain below the path. The grapes were small and sweet looking and sweat shone on the men as they heaved bushels of them over their heads and onto the path. Embracing the opportunity for a break I watched them work and talked to an American couple for a few minutes, but assuming they were going the other way I said goodbye and continued on. Further along the path I saw the sign for a free beach that I had heard of and feeling adventurous, I veered off the main trail onto the narrow overgrown path down the mountain. After a half an hour and a couple minor injuries I reached the end and found myself in an olive grove overlooking a beach with naked men sprawled all over it. Deciding that it I didn’t want to go to the beach after all I made my way through the olive grove and looked for the stairs that should bring me back to the town. Instead of stairs I found a tunnel with a permanent campout and tons of cats beside it. A leather faced, pot bellied guy in shorts informed me that this was a private tunnel and that to get to Corniglia I would either have to go back the way I came, which would take 1.5 hours or pay the 5EUR to go through it and get there in ten minutes. Not wanting to hike up that dangerous path again or waste all of that time I paid my fee. I entered the tunnel and the door slammed shut. I now found myself in a dark cavernous tunnel, with dripping walls and a creaking ceiling. Gripping my pepper spray I hurried through it and cursed my adventurousness; it was only my second day traveling alone and I had already got myself in a potentially dangerous situation. Ten minutes later I reached the end, and after a short panic due to not being able to open the door, I was back in the sunshine.

The town of Corniglia was the only one of the five that wasn’t on the water; it sat on a tall cliff and I had to climb a few hundred stairs to get up to it. As in the style of the other two towns, Corniglia’s houses were painted brightly and crowded around the little alleys and squares. The weather, the colours and the friendly Italian locals created a warm, jovial and carefree atmosphere that made you want to stay forever in each of the towns. Once there I was surprised to see the American couple again; apparently they had been walking the same way as me anyways. We introduced ourselves and decided to eat lunch together in a small outdoor trattoria. Roy and I ordered two Toros, a double malt beer, and two Maestrales, a seafood bruschetta dish. I tried anchovies for my first time, and other than being a little salty they were quite good. It was great to have met some people and be able to share traveling experiences. We explored the backstreets of Corniglia and found cute shops, a lively little square and a terrace with an exquisite view of the coast on either side.

The walk to Manarola from Corniglia was shorter and easier than the hike from Vernazza to Corniglia and talking with Roy and Kathy made it seem even shorter. I stopped to pick a prickly pear from a cactus, and it was quite sour, but still pretty good. The town of Manarola was nestled into a small bay and crept up the hillside from the shore. The bright colours of the houses contrasted nicely with the deep blue water in the harbour and the streets bustled cheerfully. We enjoyed a warm slice of what tasted like rice pudding with lemon and tried a Farinata filled with local cheese. At the top of the town there was a 13th century church, with an intact stained glass rose window from the 14th century. On our way there we saw a bunch of lemon trees and to our surprise and wonder: a Kiwi vine! I had always thought that Kiwis grew on trees, but I guess I was wrong.

The walk from Manarola to Riomaggiore was the shortest and easiest, but also the most popular, so it was quite crowded. The views however were still absolutely spectacular, and the deep blue of the water way below the trail kept inviting me to jump in. I wanted to quite badly, but I had already had one close call that day and I wasn’t about to risk jumping into unknown waters from a height that I had never jumped from. The town of Riomaggiore was the biggest, but also the most disappointing. It didn’t have the same friendly atmosphere, felt more commercial and was more crowded. We searched for the famous ancient marble doors, but the church that they were supposed to be in only had wood doors. Perhaps someone stole them. Having lost interest in the town and feeling quite worn out we took the next train back to Vernazza and Kathy and Roy went to their room for a rest, while I walked down to the harbour to eat my sandwich and watch the sunset. The low sun bathed the bright colours of the town in a soft, warm glow and created an even more beautiful scene than the bright daytime sun did. The sunset was quite beautiful and made a perfect ending to a perfect day.

As I was walking to the town grocery store I peeked into a little hidden room and found grapes hanging all over the ceiling. I had read about a local desert wine, Sciacchetra, which was made out of dried grapes and therefore required four times as many grapes as a regular wine. The old lady in the room assured me that that was indeed what it was for. Roy saw me in the grocery store and after realizing that there were no plans for the night we got Kathy, went to my apartment and spent the evening discussing traveling, god and the world. They are both very intelligent people with lots of interesting things to say and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the things they’ve done and what they’re thoughts were on certain subjects. Late at night we said our goodbyes, they wished me a safe and happy trip and I the same to them. It had been a truly wonderful day and I went to sleep exhausted, but full of experiences and good feelings.

Posted by Jaana M 04:59 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Heidelberg and Mannheim, Germany

Castle adventures and city touring with Anja!

semi-overcast 17 °C
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Anja, my sister, came to visit us in Mannheim on Sunday, September 23rd. We hadn’t seen each other since her high school graduation in June, so I was quite excited to see her. I met her at the train station and we reunited happily. This blog will describe her visit and our trip to Heidelberg, but I will also describe Mannheim in general, seeing as I haven’t really said anything about it.

On Sunday night we went for a long walk in the area, but spent most of the time talking and catching up. It was great to be able to chill with my sister again and reminisce about our Manitoulin lives. We watched the movie Twin Towers, which is by far the worst movie both of us had ever seen. Please never watch it!

After my class on Monday we went downtown for some sightseeing and shopping. The public transportation is great in Mannheim: I can get on a tram right outside my door and it takes me to the main train station in 6 minutes, the university in 8 minutes and downtown in 10 minutes. The trams come every 10 minutes and are rarely crowded, always on time and pretty clean. The first place we checked out was my university. The university is in a baroque castle modeled after the famous Versailles, but it is said to be bigger than the Sun King’s castle. Originally a baron owned it and resided there, but the castle, along with 95% of Mannheim, was completely destroyed in the WWII. The outside was reconstructed according to the original plans, but it was decided that the university would be housed there, so the inside of the castle was outfitted with lecture halls, cafes, libraries and other university amenities. A large part in the centre of the castle, and the castle chapel was completely reconstructed, inside and out, and is now a museum. We visited the chapel and it is really quite impressive; a intricately painted ceiling watches over the large marble columns, the gold engravings and the exquisite altar. The rest of Mannheim is less than impressive and looks nothing like a typical German town because most of the buildings were rebuilt in the 50s and closely resemble any American building built then: square, concrete and depressive.

We visited another church in the city that boasts a 20 metre high altar, and is just breathtaking all around. We toured the Schiller Platz with the famous statue of the German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller; the Paradeplatz with its pyramid fountain representing the strengths and powers of the perfect leader; the glass cube holocaust memorial and a very odd looking statue that could possibly represent a human heart. The last three sights all stand on one of Mannheim’s two shopping streets, which are both pedestrian only zones. The city itself is quite industrial, but you can’t notice this when you are downtown. The streets are lined with chic looking clothing stores, gourmet food shops, designer furniture places and colorful cafes. When the wind is right, a thick, rich chocolate smell invades the city from the chocolate factory at the edge of town. We shopped around and watched the people go by as we sat on a terrace and drank coffee. After a couple hours we got tired and went back home with one purchase each. After dragging Anja to the gym with me we watched Happy Feet and relaxed. This movie was much better than Twin Towers, despite the horrible technicolour that our DVD player played it in.

On Tuesday, Anja and I took a train to the small nearby town of Heidelberg. It is a city renowned for the being the birthplace of the first automated printing press, for its ancient castle, its well preserved and heavily protected ‘old-town’, the famous ‘Philosophenweg’ (Path of the Philosophers), its prestigious university and its American Army bases. We were interested in the castle and the ‘Philosphenweg’. The town was bigger than we had expected and quite modern looking, but that was because we were still in the ‘new-town’. A bus took us into the ‘old-town’ and we took a cable car up to the castle. This castle had been destroyed twice, first in the 1400s and then again in 1600s, but was rebuilt almost completely each time. It didn’t suffer any damage in WWII and today about half of it is still standing. The ruins were quite impressive and made you think of how people lived way back then. Lone stairwells and barred, broken down windows stared out at us from the middle of the thick, but crumbling walls. Inside the preserved part the atmosphere changed completely and lost its castle feel. It was still impressive, but I got the feeling I was in an old village square, rather than an ancient castle courtyard. The buildings surrounding us were tall and made out of brick, but the architecture styles varied immensely. One building had turrets and battlements, one had gothic style windows and gargoyles, and another had large arches and round windows. We explored the pharmacy museum which led us through the history of pharmaceuticals: the materials, the research and the dispensaries. The largest wine casket in the world was housed in one building and you could climb a winding staircase to the top of it! Engravings were etched into every surface of the casket and the stairs despite the security camera warnings. The gardens spread behind the castle and up the hill in ascending platforms. Walking on the first platform we found two moss covered pools with statues lying on rocky beds, safe from our reach in the middle of the pool. It started to drizzle, so we ran back to the cable car and descended back into the old town.

Once there we wandered through the crooked, cobblestone streets and entered a lively looking student pub to get some lunch. It was warm and cozy on the inside and smelled delicious. We both ordered bitter lemons and the special: a pasta dish with bits of pork and poppy seeds in a tomato sauce. The food was great and exactly what we needed. Warm and full we crossed the old brick bridge and headed up the ‘Schlangenweg’ (Path of the Snakes) to the ‘Philosophenweg’. The Philosophenweg is said to be the where the philosophers and university professors walk and come to great realizations. The Philosophenweg itself was quite disappointing, but the long steep path leading to it, the Schlangenweg, was quite interesting. A thick ceiling of tree branches and vines arched over the path and made it eerily dark and mysterious. Tall mold and moss covered walls closed in the path and created a damp, rotten smell, while dead leaves and slime covered the brick floor and made the rock stairs a dangerous affair. Every few minutes the darkness would give way to a sunny lookout point. We paused at one of these to soak up the sun and enjoy the splendid view below us. The castle perched on a hill to the left, the old town, with all its spires and clay roofs was right below us and the new town spread out to the right of us in a haze of modern buildings, smoke and factories. A thickly forested hill towered over both parts of the town and a wide river flowed along the valley floor, between us and the town. Once at the Philosophenweg, we trodded along, enjoying the sun and breathing in the fresh air. The only interesting thing on the Philosophenweg was an impeccably neat garden filled with colorful flowers and rare bushes.

The walk back down the hill took us through a rich subdivision with huge homes built into the hill and spectacular gardens surrounding them. Many of the houses had personal inscriptions of when they were built and by whom. Back in town we wandered through the shopping district for awhile and then got back on a train and went home. In Mannheim we played a couple of card games with Kyle and enjoyed our last night with a few beers. By the way, beer is so cheap in Germany! It is actually cheaper than bottled water and you get a 25 cent refund for each bottle you return! Most of it is pretty good too; it is stronger than Canadian and always comes in 0.5L bottles, so drinking two is like drinking four Canadian beers.

On Wednesday, before Anja left for Swizterland, we visited Mannheim’s landmark: the Wasserturm (water tower). It is by far the most beautiful water tower that I have seen, and probably the prettiest building in Mannheim. It was destroyed in WWII along with everything else, but got reconstructed and up until the year 2000 it was used as a water reserve. It is now a protected monument along with the castle I described earlier. It is a cylindrical tower that is 60m high and has a diameter of 19m, a pointed copper roof and a round, brown stone walls. Two winding staircases lead to a balcony half way up, which looks over the beautiful fountains on either side of the water tower and the surrounding park. The whole area is very pretty and creates a relaxed atmosphere, both in the day when the flowers bloom, and at night when lights illuminate the tower and the fountains. We sat on the edge of one the fountains for awhile and then headed to the train station. It wasn’t a sad goodbye because we knew that I would be coming to Swizterland to visit her in a couple weeks. We had a great time together, got a chance to reconnect and be silly sisters again. I am definitely glad that we get to be in Europe at the same time and hopefully we can go on another trip together somewhere. :)

Posted by Jaana M 04:30 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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