Emily and Matt's Summer 2010 Europe Trip

The following contains the (reorganized and spell-checked) contents of the blog written by Matt Doers (on his phone nonetheless) during the course of the trip. We left May 31st after graduating from Grinnell College and returned July 28th before starting jobs as research interns at the Waisman Center at UW-Madison. The rest of the details can be found in the blog entries, and especially the summary sections found at the end. Enjoy and thanks for reading!

Before we go...

    This is the site for the blog that we are going to try to update during our trip to Europe this summer. I make absolutely no guarantees for the frequency that we'll write here, but we'll make an effort. Also, we aren't bringing a computer, so entries are likely to be short. We leave from Atlanta on May 31st and arrive in Paris, France on the 1st of June. We will then pick up our rental car from Renault and we'll be on our way. We don't plan to stay in Paris very long at all, because we hope to have a few days there at the end of the trip before flying back to the states on July 28th. Our trip focuses on the southeastern region of Europe, including the following countries (roughly in order of our route):
-France
-Switzerland
-Italy
-Greece
-Turkey
-Romania
-Hungary
-Austria
-Germany
    Anyway, that's just a very brief overview of what we're planning on. And, as the nature of traveling is fickle, we anticipate our actual trip will deviate from our plans as we go along, which is good. We hope to stay reasonably in touch, and update here when we can. We will be best reachable by email at mdoers8@gmail.com. And off we go!...

6-1-10: Paris->Mulhouse

    Our flights to Paris went off smoothly, and we even got our luggage and our shiny new Renault rental vehicle without troubles. After getting into Paris around 10AM, we got our car and started driving toward Switzerland, only getting a little lost in Paris along the way. This drive was supremely entertaining and interesting, as we got to drive through countless small French villages and towns that were all very neat. When we got tired of driving, we found a campsite in Mulhouse, a small town in France just before the Switzerland border. We made some spaghetti and got a good night`s rest and took some nice hot showers in the morning.

France Summary (round 1):

    We weren't really in any big cities during this first leg through France (got out of Paris pretty quickly). However, we did get the opportunity to drive through wonderful little French towns scenically situated amongst the rolling hills of southeast France. We were charmed by the few locals we encountered and were overall very pleased with our short stint through the French countryside. It was a great and peaceful way to begin our 8 week adventure on this continent.

6-2-10: Bern

    After packing our stuff again, we went into Bern, Switzerland where we toured the sights and marveled at the beautiful mountainous and riverfront city. After walking around pretty much all of downtown Bern, and checking out the recommended sites, we got back in the car and started the short journey toward Lucern. Our GPS failed to locate a campsite between Bern and Lucern, and because it was late already, we decided to try our hand at free-camping. We eventually found a small road that led to a smaller gravel road that led to a fairly desolate cow-farm area. We found here a small grove of trees near a river that sheltered us from view from the road and other houses. We parked the car and set up camp, this time completely free! Because we didn't have any electricity for our stove, we ate a pretty underwhelming meal of salad, cold ravioli, and a sandwich before turning in for bed. Being June, I wasn't anticipating much cold weather, but that night was cold for sure. The incessant rain and the swiftly moving river nearby made for a very cold night, with only a little bit of rest.

6-3-10: Luzern->Interlaken

    So, being uncomfortable already, we got up pretty early and drove into Lucern. We again toured the sights, most notably a large art museum and some big decorated covered bridges. After exhausting Lucern's attractions, we headed to Interlocen, Switzerland, which is a small sort of gateway to the Alps. We got some information there, then decided to take a gondola trip up a mountain to stay at a hostel that is situated midway up a mountain in the Alps. I cannot really describe how breathtakingly beautiful the Alps are. I have never seen such rugged and majestic mountains, really impressively massive hills. So, we are staying tonight (and tomorrow probably) at this hostel on the mountain. Tomorrow we plan on doing a hike that will take us up one of the smaller peaks around here (still pretty big). All of the larger ones require intense mountaineering gear, and are heavily snow-capped year round. Anyway, the trip is going extremely well so far; spectacular views, cute French and Swiss villages, adventures all the time, and really cool old stuff (as Europe is known to have). I hope our weather is nice tomorrow for our hike, and I'll post again sometime when we have internet again. I hope everyone's still doing well in the states too!

6-4-10: Gimmewald

    Well, due to the nature of our trip, a lot has happened since our last post. First, our hike in the Alps was unbelievable. We saw the most spectacular mountain scenery I've ever seen or even seen pictures of. The hike was a grueling steep climb up to the top of one of the medium sized peaks. There was some snow on top, but it was passable in normal shoes unlike the other peaks around it. The top offered spectacular 360 degree panoramas of the neighboring mountains and the valleys below. He weather was better than we could have even hoped for, a clear sunny day that was cool enough, but still not cold even at high altitudes. Though completely worth it, the rigorous hike left it's mark on both of us. The altitude got to me (probably in combination with dehydration, I still am chugging water trying to rehydrate) and Emily knees are still bothering her from the steep and rocky decent.

6-5-10: Gimmewald->Lugano->Verona

    Yesterday, we awoke in the hostel still halfway up the mountain, and the plan was to take the cable car back down to the bottom, then make our way into Italy. But Emily, being cheap and overconfident, thought she wanted to walk down a trail instead of use the cable car despite her knees bothering her. So, the walk back to our car was pretty painful for Emily unfortunately, but we eventually made it down the mountain and we got our car again an were off toward Italy. On out drive south, we soon realized that there were tons of motorcycles and fast sports cars driving all around us. Before long, when we found ourselves swerving up and down mountain roads with hairpin switchbacks and big cliffs, we realized why they were all there. The enthusiasts and adrenaline hunters were all enjoying the extremely intense Swiss Alps mountain pass. This pass (which our small fuel efficient diesel made it through, barely) crossed the mountain peaks well above the tree-line and where snow was around 15-20 feet on both sides of the road at times. Needless to say, this harrowing drive was a little scary, a little fun, and definitely an experience. After surviving the mountain madness, we stopped in Legano, which is a town in southern Switzerland that we could walk around and enjoy their waterfront market square. After a short walk and relax, we headed out again, this time toward Verano, Italy. A short way outside of Verano, we were able to find a secluded spot on the top of a hill in a vineyard to free-camp. So, we setup camp and shortly thereafter were passed by two joggers an a dog, apparently our free-campsite wasn't as secluded as we thought. It didn't seem to matter though, because we didn't see anyone else and no one told us to leave.

Switzerland Summary:

    Switzerland is an amazingly and stunningly beautiful country. We thoroughly enjoyed the sweeping urban beauty of the larger cities like Bern, and absolutely loved the breathtaking hikes and drives we were able to do in the Swiss Alps. The people were friendly, and as we could tell from driving, very quiet and law-abiding citizens. The driving was often harrowing through the mountain passes, but the other drivers were courteous and respectful. After seeing this scenery, I'm not sure how any other sights will stack up, it is really just that incredible.

6-6-10: Verona->Venice

    This morning, after packing up camp, we headed into Verona which turned out to be a very nice Italian city. It had numerous cool historic sites and churches and even is home to Juliet's house from Shakespeare's play. So, we took Rick Steves' walking tour of the city (of course seeing much more because we were constantly lost) and ate some authentic Italian pizza from a small shop. Once we had seen enough of Verona, and we were too hot to continue (definitely a whole different climate here than farther north in Switzerland), we took a short drive toward Venice. We found a campsite on the mainland by Venice that's on a bus line that can take us into Venice (you can really drive there, too much water). So, we just set up camp and ate an early dinner, and now we're about to head over to Venice for the evening. We also plan on spending tomorrow in Venice.
    Anyway, the trip is still going swimmingly, no major hangups yet. It's just always surreal, there is a lot of really neat stuff in Europe, and the landscape and scenery is fantastic!

6-6-10: Verona->Venice (continued)

    Our evening in Venice was very nice. Venice is a small, slightly crowded, but extremely unique town. We intended to wander along the outer coast of the island, observing the sunset as we meandered. We, as usual, sort of did this, but got lost and ended wandering all over the place. As it turns out though, this is a perfect way to see Venice, with so many bridges and little alleyways, you are always seeing something new and interesting. We made our way to a sort of peninsula that separated the grand canal that cuts through the city and the exterior ocean. We sat here for a while and enjoyed the pleasant weather and the sunset. After that, it was getting dark, so we made our way back, getting hopelessly lost again, but eventually finding the bus station where we caught a ride back to our campsite.

6-7-10: Venice->Bologna

    Our next day in Venice was also beautiful. We first went through the Correr Museum, which is huge. There are probably eight trillion pieces of art and other ancient things in this museum, which is located in a brilliant building right in St Mark's square, next to the cathedral. After the museum, we visited the aforementioned cathedral, and then, that afternoon, toured the Doge's palace (the Venetian ruler). This building was unbelievably large and extravagant. It was built to show off the power of Venice in it's heyday, and wow, it's pretty impressive. There are enormous rooms where each group and committee and congress met o conduct their official business. After a while, it became absurd how many different rooms they had to hold meetings, and I thought modern bureaucracy was bad! Pretty much all government action was conducted in this giant palace, from executive action of the Doge, to legislative action from the senate and other committees, and even judicial decisions from all levels of court. There was even a prison in the basement so that the whole process was streamlined to one place. Anyway, after finally making our way through the palace, we got back to our car and headed toward Florence. We wanted to free-camp again that night, but everything was looking very populated and thus no secluded room for camping. After trying and eliminating a few places, we broke down and headed to what Emily had determined to be a campsite that was about 15k out of our way. Upon arriving, we saw that what she thought was a campsite was in fact a town called Campotto, which had no campsites. So, tired, frustrated and hungry, we headed back to where we came, with no campsite in the vicinity. In desperation, we decided to try and sleep in the car, so we pulled over in a parking lot in a small city, and finally ate our dinner (now around 9:45). The city was a little too noisy, and weren't really comfortable sleeping there, so we headed off again in search of a more rural area. In a little while we pulled onto a small road that looked like it might be possible to park off of. Luckily, we stumbled upon a forested area next to a field that looked to be camp-able. So, we pulled over and set up camp. A car passed while we were setting up and stopped, looking right at us for a moment. Emily and I froze, thinking we were out of luck, but after a moment, the car moved on and we had a good camp.

6-8-10: Bologna->Florence

    The next morning, we decided to check out Bologna before heading to Florence. Bologna turned out to e a wonderful town with lots of free museums, a very nice church, a peaceful plaza, and a very tall tower. We looked through a few museums in the city hall complex, as well as a medieval museum. We were very pleased with the impressive content of these free museums. After that, we climbed the extremely tall tower, which is right next to a leaning tower, and got some spectacular views of the city and surrounding hillside. After our nice day in Bologna, we cruised into Florence, where we went to a campsite within walking distance of the city center. We accepted the overpriced campsite because there wasn't really any other options. We went into Florence that evening, and wandered around the many plazas and squares in the city. We also got to see some great panoramas of the city during sunset and at night from a hillside vista just outside of town.
    We are currently in Florence for the day, and are thus far somewhat unimpressed by the tourist-ridden and extremely overpriced attractions it has to offer. Oh well, we'll see how the rest of the day goes. The next few days we plan to check out a number of Italian hill towns and hopefully hit the beach in a few days!

6-9-10: Florence->Siena

    The rest of our day in Florence was somewhat nicer. We saw a few nice churches, and ate some delicious pasta at our first sit-down restaurant to-date (still cafeteria style). After lunch we went to the Uffizi Museum in Florence which is the famous and important one with big-name art and outrageous entrance fees (14 euros a piece). But it actually turned out to be maybe worth it. We spent about 3.5 hours in the museum an got to see lots of really neat artwork (including the real Birth of Venus, Relays teammates). A lot of the art got old really quick such as the ten billion busts of old men and countless painted portraits of ridiculously dressed important people. But the other stuff, the bigger biblical scenes, Madonna and child, and other important event paintings, and also the depictions of mythology in both paintings and sculpture were very fascinating. Overall, the museum was very impressive, but I think we are just about art-ed out at the moment. After the museum, we decided we'd had enough of the hot and tourist-heavy Florence, so we hiked back to the car, and headed toward Siena which is where we planned to visit the next day. We found a good free-campsite in a hayfield by a stream to spend the night.
    This is somewhat out of order, but I should mention our trials with the air mattress. We brought an old air mattress with us on this trip to sleep more comfortably in the tent. This has worked splendidly up until recently, when it has sprung a leak. The hole was originally kind of small, so we tried to patch it with used chewing gum and a bandaid. This helped the situation, but we still ended up sleeping most of the night on an empty mattress (not very comfortable). The next day, we went to great lengths to find a big store that would sell air mattresses, but not knowing the language or any of the stores made this difficult. We eventually found a "Coop" which is kinda like a small wal mart grocery store, but it didn't have mattresses. Instead, we bought some super glue type stuff that looked promising. Upon arriving at our campsite that night, we glued the hole and glued a section of ziploc bag over the hole. After letting it dry, we pumped it up, and the seal held, for about 1 second. Unfortunately, this meant another hip-bruising night on the ground. Fortunately, the next day on our way to Rome, we saw a big store and we picked up a shiny new air mattress.

6-10-10: Siena->Pienza->Cevita->Rome

    Anyway, after our night of freecamping, we had an interesting encounter on our way out of the campsite. Just as we were trying to pull out from the dirt road, we saw a huge flock of sheep coming down the road toward us. I backed the car back into our campsite, and let the sheep pass. At the end of the flock there was a young boy and his dog. This extremely confused looking boy almost shut the gate on us, but we told him to wait a minute and we drove away. We remembered why we like to leave our freecamp sites early in the morning. Our itinerary this day was pretty busy, yet very fun, from here. We first visited Siena, where we saw St Catherine's (patron saint of Italy) hometown, where they store her thumb in a glass case in a church. We also saw her "house" now a cathedral, and a wonderful little plaza. After wandering a little more around the small town of Siena, we went to Piensa. This was a quaint little, true Italian, hill-town. There were tons of gardens and flower-pots everywhere, and many cute Italian homesteads all around. After circling this small town, we headed to Civita. This was probably the coolest hill-town of all. It is only accessible by a footbridge from a neighboring town, no cars allowed whatsoever. The neighboring town actually used to be connected long ago, but the land around Civita has been rapidly eroding for a while. The town is quite small, with only two permanent residents (we talked with one of them, Maria, and we toured her wonderful garden). The town is mostly deserted now, as it has been shrinking, both in population and literally in size, as the buildings on the edge of town are eliminated by erosion. Despite not being very populous, the city was extremely nice, with beautiful views everywhere you look (it is on a hill after all). After walking and admiring every square foot of this mountain top town, we headed back over the pedestrian bridge and headed for Rome, with hopes to find freecamping along the way. The landscape was fairly populated the whole way, especially once we got closer to the giant city of Rome, so camping was hard to come by. We eventually deemed it impossible this close to Rome, and headed for an official campsite from our GPS that is right outside Rome. As we got close, we found ourselves down a gravel road, in a very suburban area, not really where you'd expect to find a campsite. We got to the end of this gravel road, and upon looking around, we found to our surprise, a good freecampsite. We stayed the night there in the small secluded area near Rome.

6-11-10: Rome

    The next morning, we realized what had happened. Emily had moved the cursor slightly on the GPS before starting the directions, which explained why we ended up in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, the campsite we originally wanted was only a few kilometers away, so we went to it early that morning. We got a site for that night (for a surprisingly low price considering the vicinity to Rome and the nice accommodations), and took a shuttle and metro-train into the city center. For our first day in Rome, we did what they call the "Caesar Shuffle". We started with the Pantheon, which is a marvel of feat (still the world's largest concrete dome, built 2000 years ago). Emily had downloaded Rick Steves' free audio tour of the place, so we listened to that on her iPod while we admired the spectacular circular monstrosity. After that, we ate lunch at another sandwich shop (always good sandwiches though) before heading toward the Roman Forum, which is a large expanse of central Rome that has been excavated to reveal extensive ruins of ancient Rome. We toured this forum area, followed by Palatine Hill, which contains more ruins and great views. After seeing more ruins than ever thought possible, we made our way to the cream of the crop, the colosseum. The colosseum is a mind-bogglingly large mass of brick and marble, truly an impressive accomplishment for a culture with only slave-power (no cranes, trucks, lifts, etc). We spent a while in the colosseum, touring the multilevel stands and reading through it's long and interesting (also gruesome) history in the museum that now fills the second story of the stands. After finishing our tour of the most ancient pieces of Rome, we hopped the train back to out campsite, made some dinner, and showered for the first time in way too long (especially considering I've been constantly sweating since Switzerland). Tomorrow we plan to return to Rome and visit the Vatican, and of course St Peter's awesome basilica, as well as the world famous Vatican museum.

6-12-10: Rome

    Our second day in Rome was even more spectacular than the first. We planned on seeing both St Peter's basilica and the Vatican museum, however, because we spent around 4 hours touring St Peter's alone (we listened to a 45min audio tour by Rick Steves and climbed the insanely tall and massive dome to see inside the church from the base of the dome, as well as a grand view of the city from the very top), we decided we didn't have sufficient time to do the huge Vatican museum justice. So instead, we walked over to the Spanish steps (hordes of tourists) and upon making our way to the top found ourselves in the midst of a giant rally/march thing with probably thousands of locals chanting and whistling and holding signs. We worked our way around the crowd over to a church crypt. This was by far the coolest crypt I have ever seen. The monks in the monastery have been collecting the bones of the monks that have died over the past thousand or so years, totaling now over 4000 skeletons. They have artistically arranged the various bones into elaborate patterns and works of unique art. One of the rooms alone had a sculpture probably containing about 1000 skulls. Unfortunately pictures weren't allowed, but I know I won't forget those few small rooms filled with the skillfully arranged bones of 4000+ monks. After having our minds blown by the crypt, we walked over to the (also tourist packed) Trevi fountain. Although the fountain is very large and impressive, the throngs of tourists sort of put a damper on what was supposed to be a peaceful experience. By then, it was getting to be dinner time, so we hopped the train back to our campsite to prepare dinner. As we were about to eat dinner and talking of our plan for the next day, we realized that our delaying of the Vatican museum for a day pushed it to Sunday (we really have a hard time keeping track of the day of the week, traveling tends to do that). The Vatican museum is closed on Sunday, so we decided to instead visit the old Roman port and the ruins there and stay in Rome til monday to go back to the museum. Our mistake means we'll spend an extra day in Rome, but our reasonably priced campsite with good access to cheap public transit makes it worth it to stick around this historic city. Anyway, I hope all us well back in the states, and I apologize for the long entries, sometimes I just don't know what leave out. Also, Italy doesn't really have any free wifi, so it'll probably be a while, maybe til Greece, before our next post (that's also why this one is so long).

6-13-10: Rome (Ostia Antica)

    Our day at Ostia Antica (the old Roman port city) was surprisingly cool. The whole day being a last minute add-on led us to not expect too much from our day-trip, but we were wrong. Ostia was the major port and trading post for Rome during it's heyday, so basically the entire Mediterranean region traded with/through Ostia at some point. However, once the Roman empire went into decline, and the Tiber river shifted course slightly, the bustling city of Ostia was abandoned, never to be rejuvenated. This sudden and permanent abandonment means that the entire city, not just the famous palaces or churches, were preserved. Said to be similar to Pompeii, it is a rare and interesting glimpse into how the normal everyday Roman lived during the early centuries AD. There were so many ruins that it would have taken days to just see every one, but we wandered around the metropolis of brick and marble, stopping to admire preserved bars (complete with marble shelves and a well-preserved raised bar table) frescoes, mosaics, etc. Unfortunately the small museum at the site was closed because it was Sunday, but we got to see pretty much everything we wanted. After seeing the giant port-city, we hopped on a train toward the beach. We followed all the bathing-suit clad Italians to a public beach right outside of Rome, and enjoyed the insanely hot and crowded beach, and all of the associated people-watching as well. We decided that the city folk in Rome were a lot trendier than us, with all the latest fashion and whatnot. I also think the "guido" culture is pretty popular there, which makes people-watching particularly entertaining on the beach. Anyway, after our very unique and decidedly untouristy trip to the local Roman beach, we caught the train all the way back to our campsite.

6-14-10: Rome

    For our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican museum. The line to get in wrapped halfway around the Vatican, but after about an hour and a half of waiting in the sun, we made it into the museum and even tricked the teller into giving us the half-off student rate even though we're pretty sure it's for European Union students only. The museum was as you'd expect, rooms upon rooms of magnificent art, topped off with the Rafael's rooms and the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. After all the lines and the huge museum, our final day in the capital city was about over. We grabbed the metro back to our car and set off toward Naples. We found a spot to free camp a little way outside of Rome, so we set up and called it a day.

6-15-10: Salerno Beach

    The next morning, we awoke early so as to not be seen by the nearby house, and made the short drive toward the coast. We pulled down a road in a small town marked "mare" and ended up finding a very nice little public beach. We ate some breakfast and hit the beach early (already basking in the sun by 9am). We read our books and relaxed the whole morning, until a cloud rolled in and started to drizzle rain. We decided to avoid the rain by eating some lunch and driving a little farther down the coast, toward Naples, while the rain passed. A little before Naples the rain has stopped and the sun came out, so we found another, not as nice, public beach. We chilled there until we started getting too red with sunburn, so we got back in the car in the late afternoon to figure out our plan. Originally, we thought we were going to visit Naples for a day, and Pompeii for a day, and then go to Bari where we catch the ferry to Greece. But, Naples didn't sound very appealing to us, very dirty, busy, crime-ridden, and not too many really good attractions. And, because we had just seen tons of ruins in Rome and Ostia, Pompeii didn't seem necessary either. So instead, we decided to skip these stops to make time to visit the Amalfi Coast, which is said to have some of the nicest scenery in the Mediterranean. So, we drove past Naples, and found a good freecamp site in the back of a crop field. Just after we had eaten dinner, as we were setting up the tent, a van pulled up behind our car and honked. We both knew we were sunk, so I walked over to the car and asked the mid-40s driver if he spoke English. No dice. Emily came over to talk as well, and we continued to have a mixed English, Spanish, and Italian conversation. He first thought we were French because of the license plates on our car, but we eventually convinced him we were American. We asked him if we could spend the night there, just one night, no trouble. He didn't really understand everything, but he seemed to be OK with it, as long as we left in the morning. We thanked him, and he drove away as we wiped the sweat from our brow, it was a close call. Surprisingly, the van came back about 30 minutes later, this time also with his wife and 6ish year old daughter. They presented us with a large full watermelon and a large bottle of water. We tried have another conversation, concerning things like where we could go if it storms and where we could wash our hands. We again thanked them profusely, but they were still bot satisfied with the conversation, so they left and returned 15 minutes later with their older daughter (13ish years old) and their youngest (3ish years old) as well. The oldest spoke a few words of broken English, and we finally had cleared up the details of our stay, we think. I'm pretty sure no one knew what the other side was saying, but close enough. We said thanks and goodnight, and the entire Italian farming family drove away one last time. Although our goal while freecamping is to never be seen or heard, we were really glad this happened. It was such a cool experience to meet an entire "real" Italian family, and witness their compassion and hospitality (we were also very lucky, we realize). In retrospect, we must of looked pretty pathetic. We hadn't showered in a few days, and we had spent the day at the beach, with sweat and sand and salt covering us from head to toe. It's really no wonder they brought us water and made sure to show us to a faucet in the irrigation system where we could wash up. Anyway, we successfully completely another freecamp, this one with more excitement and interaction than most.

6-16-10: Salerno Beach

    This morning, we woke up early and left our memorable freecamp spot. We drove to a nearby campsite that is right on the beach, and the price was reasonable so we reserved a night. We did some clothes and dish washing, then headed out to the beach to enjoy the beautiful cloudless day. We ate about a third of our new watermelon as dessert or lunch, and because this campsite has free wifi, we wrote an posted this entry. This afternoon we plan to continue our beach vacation within our longer vacation, and tomorrow we head to the Amalfi coast to do some hiking, and then later to Bari where we catch the ferry to Greece. Hope all is well, we are very much enjoying this break within our busy trip, a good time to recharge before Greece.

6-17-10: Salerno->Bari->Ferry

    On the morning of the day we had planned to visit the Amalfi coast, we packed and left our beachfront campsite and drove to Salerno, where we could catch a bus to Amalfi. The drive once we got close to Salerno was brutal, insane traffic and unpleasant congestion all over the city. We finally made it to where we could park, and the rate was 10 Euros/hour. We already knew the bus ride was going to be kinda pricy, and also would take a while, especially because of the traffic. So, all this considered, and our rattled senses from the crazy drive, we decided we had had enough, and started toward Bari instead. We made the somewhat long drive across southern Italy in time for a late lunch. We found the port office, and purchased ferry tickets for Patras, Greece, leaving at 7pm. We had a few hours to kill, so we wandered the port town of Bari, also looking for a post office so we could buy some stamps for postcards. We found a few post offices, but found them (frustratingly) to all be closed until 5pm, just as everything else in Italy tends to be (loooooong lunch breaks). So, unsuccessful, we decided that Italian postcards sent with Greek postage wouldn't be the end of the world, and we returned to our car to pack some bags for our ferry trip. Passengers are not allowed back to the vehicle during the long overnight trip, so we packed our stove and some pasta, as well as some pillows and books to pass the time. After surviving the most unorganized and chaotic loading of a boat possible, we explored the giant ferry boat and marveled at it's class and luxury. In our tour, we noticed that the whole ship uses American-style outlets, which means we couldn't use our European electric stove to make our dinner. We were forced to eat at the somewhat overpriced ferry cafeteria (we are definitely not classy or wealthy enough for the other restaurants on this boat). We spent the rest of the evening reading, before heading off to bed on uncomfortable chairs.

Italy Summary:

    This summary is more difficult to do, because Italy is very large, and it's different parts generate very different responses. Northern Italy is very nice as the harsh Alps slowly give way to rolling hills and valleys of the Tuscany area. Venice was extremely unique and a great town to wander around. Although touristy, Venice maintained a very distinctly Venezian quality about it. It really has a unique culture that is partially Italian, but also partially aquatic and uniquely Venezian. Florence had some very impressive museums of art and history, and the sights were certainly worthy of mention, but our overall vibe from Florence wasn't all too nice. We found everything to be overly packed with tourists and outrageously priced. We left the busy and dirty city longing for the small hill towns that we saw next. These Tuscan hill towns had wonderful genuine Italian charm and truly interesting and long histories. We loved to be able to see art in it's natural setting, small churches, up close and personal. These small pockets of habitation amongst the Tuscan hills were probably the highlight of Italy for us. Rome was about as we expected. Amazing and hugely historically important sites, famous artwork and architecture, etc. Although also very busy and touristy, Rome seemed to handle it better than Florence, we found things to be reasonably priced and easy to efficiently navigate. We spent a while in Rome, and I think we got a nice, holistic picture of the city, the ancient Roman forum and colosseum, the fantastic St Peter's cathedral, the vast art of the Vatican, and even the local beach. But the time we left though, we were both ready for a vacation from our vacation. So, we spent the next little while hopping from beach to beach, enjoying the sun and surf as the local do. We never really saw many tourists during this leg, we were happy to mingle with the locals at their favorite beach hangouts. After recharging our solar batteries, we ducked over to Bari, where we formulated our final impressions of Italian people. Some are very kind, and very willing to help (the farm family) but I was actually fairly surprised at the attitude we experienced from much of the population. Driving was much crazier here, as I am convinced these are the most selfish drivers in the world. Regardless of traffic laws, painted lanes, other cars, people, etc, Italian drivers do whatever they want whenever they want. This attitude occasionally carried over into interaction as well, we were on several occasions literally shooed from rooms or shops that we were not wanted in. For example, when trying to buy stamps at a post office, we were greeted with demonstrative shooing motions and shouts of "closed" with no explanation. We found out later that nearly everything is closed from lunch til 5pm for naps (rough life). Anyway, it was usually not a problem, but it seems that respect is only garnered by wealthy tourists ready to spend big money in Italy (we don't quite fit the bill apparently). Overall though, we were extremely satisfied with our tour of Italy, we saw great scenery and spectacular sights and museums.

6-18-10: Patras->Olympia

    We awoke only a few hours later as the lights came on and a guy went through the cabin yelling a Greek word. We were tired and confused so we asked a young guy what was going on. Apparently there were two stops on this ferry, this was the first, and Patras came in another 6ish hours. We now understood, and tried to resume our sleeping on the ferry chairs. After a somewhat restful, but uncomfortable night, we awoke around 8 and read our books until the ferry got into Patras around 11am. We soon found a grocery store on our way out of town, and stocked up for the day. We headed immediately toward Olympia, the host location of the original Olympics for nearly 1000 years. We toured the ruins there, including the Olympic stadium and a large, toppled temple dedicated to Zeus. We then check out the museum there and marveled at the sheer age of many of the artifacts. The oldest finds in the museum date back to 3000-3500BC, it is simply incredible to think how long people have been living in these Mesopotamian areas. After exhausting Olympia, we headed toward southern Peloponnesia (Mani area, apparently very beautiful). We didn't make it far, however, because we saw a good freecampsite and took it, it was about time for dinner anyway.

6-19-10: Mystras->Kardamyli

    We awoke in the morning, Emily a little frazzled because he saw someone near our campsite (I was asleep still of course). We finished the drive to a town called Mystras and proceeded to the historic town which was on the side of a mountain. The ruin here are from the Byzantine era, where small mountain towns and villages fought ceaselessly over land and everything else. This town was in the classic Byzantine structure with three layers of walls enclosing a mountain-top fortress. The outer ring contained ruins from shops and houses and various marketplaces, the second ring contained more shops and numerous churches and temples as well as some housing for nobility. The final inner ring enclosed the fortress that was strategically placed at the pinnacle of a steep mountain, with sheer faces in all direction but one, where the gate was. The fortress was amazingly cool, it was easy to envision how the fort was perfectly arranged and built to most effectively thwart attackers (also the view from the top was spectacular). After exploring this neat Byzantine town, we continued our drive down to Kardamyli, which is a small beachfront town that has some beautiful views and some great hiking in the mountains nearby the coast. After getting a few groceries, we found a real campsite so we could shower and cook (for the first time in a while), and relaxed for the evening. We even made a nice visit to the nearby beach (pebble beachfront, crystal clear water) The next day, we plan to hike in a gorge nearby.

6-20-10: Kardamyli->Monemvasia

    We awoke this morning, packed and checked out of our campsite early. We headed over to a trailhead near Vyros Gorge, which is a large canyon, with a riverbed in the center leading to the ocean nearby. We decided to hike a trail that literally went directly up the now dried out riverbed up the middle of the gorge. We were rewarded with really beautiful and interesting rock formations and cliffs the whole walk. After our morning hike, we drove to Monemvasia, which is a beachfront town situated on a small island near the east coast of Greece, connected to the mainland via a bridge. The town, situated along one face and the plateau of a small mountain island dates to the Byzantine era, and similar to Mystras, it was built for fortification and protection from all sides. The ruins here were ok, but the spectacular views of the ocean and the mountainous region really were a treat. At the top of the fortress atop the island mountain, we got amazing 360 degree views of the coastline mountains and the crystal blue ocean. After our thorough tour of the small war-ready village, we drove just out of town and found a good free campsite amongst some olive trees. The next day, we plan to continue our journey northward to Athens along the eastern coast of Greece.

6-21-10: Nafplio

    We left our freecamp near Monemvasia and headed north along the coast to Nafplio. The drive itself was spectacular, with countless vistas and coastal mountains every turn of the way. We stopped numerous times to admire the beautiful scenery along this eastern shore of Greece. We saw many small islands that lie just off the coast, and merely add to the splendor of the region. When we got to Nafplio, we had lunch on the beach, an then wandered the city for a little while, which was very nice and pleasant. We then headed up the 950+ stairs to the top of the mountain where the ancient fortress was strategically situated. We of course chose to do this in the middle of the day, when the sun was in full force, around 90F. As is true nearly every day now, I was instantly dripping liters of sweat. It is a constant battle staying hydrated in this dry, hot, rugged environment. Anyway, it was completely worth it when we made it to the top and toured the enormous fortress, complete with 7 layers of walls and gates. We thought as we climbed successively higher over these walls that the citadel would never come. Eventually we reached the top, where we found gorgeous views of the city and the surrounding coast and mountains. After this exploration, we made our way down the endless staircase and drove to a nearby beach. We took a quick dip in the ocean to cool down, then took some refreshing showers with the rinse showers by the beach. We drove next toward Epidavros, but stopped soon at a nice freecamp amongst some olive trees again. We ate dinner, and read to close out the day.

6-22-10: Epidavros->Athens

    We started the day by leaving our peaceful campsite, the last night was restful, though I was kept awake a little by the strong winds that were shaking and rattling our tent. By morning, the winds had died down, and we drove the last bit of the way to Epidavros. We ended up actually initially missing the big theater that the town is famous for, but our mistake was well rewarded in that we found a smaller theater, from around the same time (300ish BC). We were the only people there except for two archaeologists continuing the excavation. They both spoke English well, and we talked about the theater and the ongoing excavation with them for a moment. They allowed us to look all around the place; a great example of how nice we have found the Greeks to be so far. After saying goodbye to our archaeologist friends, we headed to the real archaeological site in Epidavros, the large theater. We were impressed by the theater's size and perfect acoustics. They also had some other ruins and a museum at the site, but those were less impressive. We then drove the final bit to Athens, stopping for food along the way. It took some effort to find the campsite near the city center we wanted, but we soon had reserved two nights here, and now we are currently about to head into Athens for the evening. We plan to spend the next few days exploring the sights of the city before heading up to Thessoloniki. Update: We went into Athens via a bus then the metro and bought our tourist combo tickets that give access to a whole series of ancient sites. We started around the base of the Acropolis, then worked our way up to the Acropolis, where we saw (among other, less impressive, things) the Greek Parthenon. That was really a site to see, with the well preserved massive columns atop the Acropolis plateau. We then wandered around the ancient agora and some other ruins before catching the train and bus back to our campsite for a pasta dinner. Tomorrow, we'll continue our Athens tour with the National Archaeological museum and some more classic sites.

6-23-10: Athens

    Today we began by heading into the old part of Athens to finish our rounds of the ruins, including the temple of Zeus, which was really quite impressive, with numerous massive columns. After this walking tour of really old rocks, we headed north toward the National Archaeological Museum. We made a stop along the way at Emily's friend Cassie's hotel (she was scheduled to arrive today) to leave her a note that told her we would be back to meet her later on. We then continued to the museum, stopping for a picnic lunch on a bench in the courtyard in front of the museum. We were very impressed by the museum. We saw many similar items to what we had seen before, it is cool now that we are beginning to recognize and place major trends and motifs of the various cultures and eras now that we have seen so many museums from many perspectives. It is fun, I think, to be able to relate and connect pieces from museums to other pieces we've seen and places we've been. For example, the museum today had large collections from many of the towns we have visited the past week here on Greece. Even more impressive though than the motifs, was the mind-boggling age of many of the artifacts in this museum. Unlike any other place we've been, this museum contained exhibits dating back to 9000BC! Even though we have been seeing "old stuff" or quite some time now (all through Italy and Greece), this was by far the oldest stuff we've seen yet. I think it is fitting for the region though, Greece has been a center of civilization for about as long as any one place in the world. I was also surprised at the quality of some of the ancient artifacts, they had some 10,000 year old clay pots in better condition than most cookware in the average modern university housing. Anyway, we spent all afternoon in the museum (it is enormous) we were pretty wiped out by the end, to the point we practically jogged through the final room of even more clay pots. After the museum we walked back to Cassie's hotel, where we found that they had not yet arrived. We decided to wait at the hotel a little bit, not wanting to miss them (this is when I went back and fixed all the dates/locations in this blog). When they had not arrived by 6, we decided we had to head back to cook ourselves some dinner, so we left another note, and went home. We still have not heard from them, hopefully they reply and we will be able to meet up tomorrow before we head out of town. Tomorrow we head to Delphi on our way up to Thessaloniki. The next few days will be spent making our way ip central Greece, stopping at a few historic towns and some hikes as well.

6-24-10: Athens->Delphi

    This morning we received a reply email from Cassie (who was also in Athens), so we talked by email and decided that they would join us in a day trip to Delphi. We packed up quickly and headed into Athens to pick them up (we successfully crammed all our stuff into the trunk space of our small hatchback). We only got a little lost on our way to Delphi with Cassie and Carey, but it was only 10 minutes farther, and we got to see some vistas by the coast, so it was worth it. Once in Delphi, we stopped into a little modern church built in the Byzantine style, but with modern colorful frescoes and paintings. After that, we wandered a while, and ended up at the ancient section of the city where we saw old temple and gymnasium ruins. Since it was already getting toward the late afternoon, Emily and I skipped the ruins of the Oracle and Theater (we've seen a lot of ruins lately) and instead grabbed a very late lunch of gyros (after saying goodbye and good luck to Cassie and Carey). It was fun and interesting to travel with another pair today. We got to compare experiences and stories of our respective trips so far, and got to socialize a little bit which was certainly nice. It was cool to compare the nature of the two trips, theirs by rail and ours by car. Many experiences were similar, but many of the concerns and stresses were different. Both styles allow for great trips, I suppose it just depends on personal preference and what you want out of the trip. We also discussed the differences in traveling as two women and as a couple. They as two women have received much more attention (usually unwanted I gather) from locals, whereas we (Emily) hasn't really noticed that at all (who knew I was so intimidating! haha). We then headed off toward Meteora, where we plan to visit tomorrow. We stopped a little before we got there at a freecamp site in a hayfield. Tomorrow we'll visit Meteora before continuing our gradual trek up to Thessaloniki (still another day of hiking in there too).

6-25-10: Meteora->Northern Pindos National Park (Vikos Gorge)

    A quote from today: "Greece continues to amaze me more and more every day." -Emily. I believe this pretty much sums up the day well. We woke up early this morning because we were kinda close to the road and there was a fair amount of noise. We started the day by making the quick jaunt (driving) up a mountain to Meteora which is a cluster of monasteries that are perched atop small plateaus with cliffs all around. There used to be 24 of these small monasteries crowning these gigantic columns of rock, but only 6 are still in use today. We saw all of the occupied ones and got to look around and visit one of them. The views were spectacular and the monasteries were beautiful. The one we toured dates to about the 1400s and was really quite large. It contained a beautiful small church and several small museums cataloging the history of the monastery and the Greek Orthodox faith in general. We really loved this site and really took our time enjoying the fantastic views from this magnificent mountain top monastery. To add to the magic of this place, there were numerous cats and many small kittens wandering the whole place (like they owned it of course, being cats). After this cool place, we drove west toward the Vikos Gorge (contained in the Northern Pindos National Park). We luckily happened upon a park information station, and talked to a very helpful lady who helped us find all the best spots in the park. We decided to split the park in two, do the top half today, and the bottom tomorrow. So we headed up the mountains, passing a few small mountain villages along the way. The drive was spectacular in itself with great panoramic views of the rugged mountains. We eventually ended up on a small gravel road, with switchbacks, (all 85 horses of our small hatchback really loved this road) that led to a small trailhead. We walked the short 30min hike and were absolutely floored at what we found. The tallest point overlooking the enormous gorge. The view was stunning. The gorge is reminiscent of the sheerness and harshness we saw in the Swiss Alps, with the edges lined with wildflowers. The landscape here is incredibly beautiful, I really can't say too much about it. The cliffs are mostly slate, which gives them a unique striated look, but this is nearly lost in the sheer vastness of the ravine. After ooh-ing and aw-ing for a while, we headed back to the car and drove back down the mountain to a freecamp site inside the park that we had noticed on the way in (very nice, in the foothills, next to a stream). Tomorrow, we plan to do some more sightseeing and hiking in this wonderful national park, before heading finally to Thessaloniki.

6-26-10: Northern Pindos National Park->Thessaloniki

    Though I thought it was one of our nicest campsites yet, last night was not very restful. We were awake for a hour or two around 2AM because it was so cold, we couldn't sleep. Even with all our best efforts to stay warm, put the rain fly on for insulation, closed all the vents, and used our comforter, I could not stay warm. Apparently we are not very prepared for camping at altitude. We did eventually fall back asleep until morning, when we re-awoke to a beautiful sunny morning. We headed first to a different spot giving a panoramic view of the gorge from slightly farther down than where we were yesterday. Again, especially in the brilliant morning light, this view did not disappoint. We next headed to the town of Vikos, where we saw another fantastic view, this time from near the bottom of the gorge. In this small town, we happened upon a small shop with a few locals inside selling locally produced wine, candies, and liquor. We went in to ask them where we could find a water tap, but we ended up staying and chatting in broken English with the couple that owned the place. They gave us a sample of their handmade candy (made from grapes) and asked us where we were from and where we had been. They really seemed enamored by us, especially the wife toward Emily (she even kissed Emily on the arm at one point). They clearly don't see many tourists from the states, because they noted that they had met someone there from Colorado about a year ago (their last encounter with the US). They were extremely nice people, so we bought some grape candy and a bottle of liquor (grappa-ish I believe). Before we left, the wife ran away for a moment and came back with two slices of a spiced and herb-ed egg thing that was really delicious. We thanked them ad said goodbye, simply thrilled with our interaction with true Greek small-town locals. After that, we drove to another gorge in the same park, Aoos Gorge. We did a small hike here up the center of the gorge and marveled at more Greek scenery. We are now about to head to Thessaloniki to visit Ioannis (Grinnell alum '08). We stopped in this small town to get some wifi to post this and get directions to his house. Now, we're off to see him for a little bit before catching the train to Istanbul.

6-27-10: Thessaloniki

    Today we started with a lazy morning of sleeping in (first real bed in a month) and reading. We then went out to brunch with Ioannis and his girlfriend to a small pedestrian street cafe. We ate some authentic Greek pastries and a ham and cheese pie, very tasty. After breakfast, we walked around Thessaloniki for a little bit, mostly down by the waterfront. We went to a museum that's in an old tower/castle that gave some cool information about the history and development of Thessaloniki over the years. We also wanted to pick up our train tickets to Istanbul today, so we walked over to the train station. After waiting through the line, the ticket person informed us that there will be no trains to Istanbul (from anywhere) until July 2nd, due to an issue with the Turkish rail system. We were pretty bewildered by this, really not expecting this huge roadblock to our plans. So, we thought and chatted at the train station for a bit, before heading back to Ioannis' house to do some investigating on the Internet. After some searching and discussion, we eliminated the choices of air travel (too expensive), and skipping Istanbul altogether (that's no fun). We arrives at what I think should be a good alternative, a bus to Istanbul instead. So we figured out where the bus station is (with help from Ioannis) ad decided to go there tomorrow morning to get tickets for tomorrow (Monday) night's overnight bus to Istanbul. After we had all that figured out, we ate some delicious home-cooked Greek food (including an authentic Greek salad of course) complements of Ioannis. After dinner, we headed downtown to see Ioannis' girlfriend perform with the Flamenco dance school that she runs. The show was great, a good crowd crowded around a makeshift stage on a pedestrian street lined with cafes in downtown Thessaloniki. After the performance, we went to a antiracist festival that was going on downtown. They had two live music stages and numerous booths set up raising awareness about racism and refugee issues. The festival was very fun and interesting to see, even though we couldn't understand all the Greek. The bands were good and the experience even better. All the people, mostly young, reminded us of Grinnell. We saw some really unique dance routines from some refugees from Afghanistan, which, in addition to all the other people watching, made us really glad we got to go. It was definitely nice o be able to see something like this with a native Greek that could translate and explain (and get us there in the first place). We then went to pick up Ioannis' girlfriend, who had stayed behind socializing with her dance crew. After some more talking and meeting people, we headed home and passed out in bed (it was already 2:30 by this point). It has been really cool and informative being with Ioannis recently, we've asked him 8 billion questions about Greece and it's culture, and he has really offered a great local perspective to our visit here. He has also given us a place to stay and things to eat, in addition to loads of advice and information about our plans (thanks Ioannis)!

6-28-10: Thessaloniki->Bus to Istanbul

    Today we slept in again (late night), and upon awaking we ate some breakfast and headed to the bus station to pick up Istanbul tickets. After walking/busing to the station, we were told that you actually have to buy tickets in the downtown office, which was in a square a few kilometers back toward where we had come. So we got back on a bus and after asking numerous people we eventually found the square and the bus ticket office. We purchased our tickets (round trip) for the 10pm overnight bus to Istanbul leaving that night. Relieved that we had solved our transportation issues, we walked around downtown Thessaloniki for a little bit, wandering back toward Ioannis' house. After the long walk back, we gathered an packed our stuff for Istanbul and then spent a few hours catching up on the journal (Emily), and reading some of thousands of unread RSS feed items (me, because I'm always up to date on the blog). We then ate dinner at Ioannis' house and subsequently took yet another bus trip back to the bus station that started the day. The bus arrived right around 10:05, and we loaded up and were on our way shortly thereafter. The bus ride was actually better than we thought it might be, very similar to Greyhound. It was a nice coach bus, with AC and moderately comfortable seats. They also served free drinks (water, tea, coffee, soft drinks) and even a small snack (a muffin-ish thing) during the ride. We crossed the border around 4am and had to buy a Turkish visa (nifty new sticker in our passports) and wait for our passports to be checked. After that, it was a short 4 more hours of riding before we arrived at the insanely huge and busy Istanbul Otogar (station).

Greece Summary:

    We had a great time in Greece, as I'm sure you could tell from the daily entries. Starting by exploring the Peloponnese was wonderful and breathtakingly beautiful. The Peloponnese is a under appreciated and under visited part of Greece that doesn't receive too many tourists, and that's what makes it perfect. The sites are just as good as anywhere, and the scenery is absolutely spectacular. Because it is not heavily trafficked, it's easy to drive from town to town, enjoying the landscape covered in dry and rugged mountains plunging into the crystal blue ocean waters. True Greek culture is preserved well in these small mountain-side towns, where subsistence farming and small shops still dominate the tiny economies. Whether we were enjoying the view driving around, or hiking in rugged mountains, or soaking in sun on clear pebble beaches, or chatting in broken English with small-town shopkeepers, we loved every mile of Peloponnesia. When we got up to Athens, we were ready to see some really old stuff, and boy did we. The ruins here are often similar to what we had seen before, but the Acropolis is really above and beyond, mostly due to it's majestic location. It makes it easy to envision the splendor and magic of ancient Athens. The museum we saw there was also a step above others in terms of truly prehistoric artifacts. Though much of the museum was more of the same, the collections dating to 9000-3000BC were much older than what we had seen in Italy. Our days in central Greece were much more impressive than I anticipated. The guide books give absolutely no mention or credit to anything between Athens and Thessaloniki, but we found a great way to spend a few days hiking and sightseeing. The dry and rugged mountains of the Peloponnese turn into lush and vibrant mountains rutted with impressive gorges and towering cliffs as you travel north in this region. The wetter environment adds color and life to the harsh mountains while also providing an erosive force to carve the most spectacular gorges and cliffs I have ever seen. We end our Greece segment in Thessaloniki with Ioannis. These few days were very different than the rest of our trip. Instead of tourists, we acted as locals for a bit, with Ioannis' advice and explanation. We learned an unbelievable amount about Greek culture ad the real day to day life in urban Greece from these few days. We spent our time people watching and relaxing with the locals instead of taking pictures and seeing sights, which really gave a great and insightful look into a different culture and perspective. Many of the ideas and topics that we discuss in the states all the time were really accentuated and reinforced when we were able to witness European culture up close. I really enjoyed this part of the trip, especially given my love of politics and economics (especially that great capitalism vs socialism debate). So, overall, I'd have to give our top country to date award to Greece. If I were to recommend a trip to someone right now, I'd tell them to fly to Patras, rent a car, and drive around Greece for 10 days, it would be worth it in a big way. So now we head on to Turkey (just Istanbul), so the next country summary isn't too far away.

6-29-10: Istanbul

    We caught a local bus from the Otogar into the center of town, where we (after asking some people) found a hostel that we had noticed online earlier. We checked in and ate breakfast before taking a hour long power nap (bus rides are not terribly restful). We then headed to the nearby Aya Sofya church, which is a 1500 year old church that was converted into a Mosque 500 years ago, and then converted into a museum in the early 1900s. This church is very historically interesting and architecturally stunning. First of all, it is enormous, and is modeled in the style that is now customary for Muslim mosques (all recent mosques model/emulate it's design). It is centered around one large dome, with four smaller domes supporting it. The features of the building are an interesting mix of Muslim inscriptions and spires, with early Christian mosaics and frescoes. The church originally faced Jerusalem, but the mihrab (altar/pulpit/seating area) was later shifted slightly to face Mecca, creating a unique subtle non-symmetry within the massive domed structure. After exploring Aya Sofya, we walked up the hill to the Topkapi Palace, which we found to be closed on Tuesdays, so we postponed that visit for later. We instead stopped at an old artisan square that contained a small cafe. We ordered some interesting sounding Turkish food, not really knowing what it was, and it turned out to be delicious! We were very impressed by the inexpensive and very tasty zucchini with meat and cheese dish, and an interesting egg and many vegetables (omelet-ish) dish. It was also served with a sort of pepper flake thing which made it the first meal with any real degree of spiciness we've had in a while (very welcome). After lunch, we headed down the hill to the Blue Mosque. This is a huge, beautiful, still active mosque in the old-city of Istanbul. I really loved this place. I found the simple yet visually pleasing decoration and layout of the mosque to be very nice. It was also neat to see a place of worship with carpet, and where everyone takes off their shoes at the door. The mosque, though huge, felt cozy and personal, with a very real sense of spirituality and religion (especially with the practicing Muslims there) that is hard to come by in touristy churches. I found the whole experience here to be very peaceful and almost soothing, despite the many tourists. The vibrant blue-painted tiles lining the walls with geometric simplicity gave the place color and a feel of cleanliness. Though the place was certainly not as big as St Peters (Vatican) or as lavish as the Byzantine churches, it was a cool experience of a type of building that I have never been in before, and an interesting glimpse into a religion and a lifestyle that permeates everything around here, and that I wish I knew more about (hopefully will in a few more days). After the mosque, we checked out a small museum nearby about the history of water in Istanbul (random, I know). After that brief museum, we walked down by the shore, around to the Bosphorus, where we sat and watched the countless ships and ferries hauling millions of people and supplies from Europe to Asia, and all over the Black Sea. We then returned to our hostel, grabbed some food at a grocery store, ate and showered. Tonight, we plan to head back into the old city to see what the place is like after dark. After our one day here so far, I am already enthralled by Istanbul. A city containing a staggering 15 million people, and long considered the center of the world. It has been Roman and Byzantine and Ottoman and Christian and Muslim and Greek and Turkish and so much more. I am looking forward to seeing more over the next three days here.

6-30-10: Istanbul

    This morning we woke up after a good night sleep ad ate some breakfast before heading up the hill to the Topkapi Palace. This is one of Istanbul's most famous sights, and it truly lived up to the hype. This is the palace that the Sultan of Turkey lived and ruled during his reign. Besides the magnificent architecture and extensive decoration and tile work, the highlights included the Treasury, the numerous small mosque/religious reflection areas, and the personal apartment of the Sultan and his family. The treasury housed THE most impressive pieces of fine jewelry and decoration I have ever seen; including solid gold vases and bowls and pins literally covered in massive diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, various thrones of previous Sultans inlayed with more mother of pearl than you would believe, and other pieces of extravagance made from huge pearls and copious use of precious stones and metals. The palace covers a very large area, much of which is beautifully landscaped with seasonal flowers and peaceful green grasses. The Sultan's apartment was also (naturally) very extravagant, with patterned tile and gold inscriptions throughout. After making our way through the palace (took about 3.5 hours), we walked toward our hostel trying to find a good place to eat lunch, but the area was really touristy so everything was either fast food or overpriced, so we decided to get some sandwich stuff at the grocery store nearby and have a lunch in the hostel. After that, we headed out toward the world renowned Grand Bazaar. This Bazaar is essentially a massive covered maze of pedestrian streets just packed with shops. It's famous for pushy salesmen and sheer marketplace chaos. Because it was sorta rainy out, we decided to dedicate the afternoon to this place in search of some souvenirs. The Bazaar was really pretty amazing. It really everything that it sounds, acres and acres of packed street shops selling scarves, tea cups, carpets, hookahs, shirts, lamps, ad countless other trinkets and souvenir items. We wandered the covered streets ad alleys for a few hours, marveling at all the shops and interactions between sellers and buyers (bargaining is essential, all prices unlisted). We ended up only purchasing one item before taking a break outside to recover from the stress of 15 million people all seemed to be concentrated inside this shopping area. We ended up going back inside after a few minutes, determined to find cool stuff to bring back with us. Unfortunately, I left the Bazaar frustrated, as I had not found the perfect items I was looking for. All the shops either sold really cheap but crappy and useless trinkets or extremely expensive crafted items that fell well beyond our price range. It also didn't help that most of the stores sold very similar items, for example, all the lamp stores sold the same set of lamps and all the tea shops sold the same tea cups. Apparently this is due to recently large companies have bought out most of the interior shops within the Bazaar so that the uniqueness and diversity of true Istanbul has been lost somewhat. Anyway, it was still worth the crowds to witness the craziest and biggest collection of trade I have ever seen. After we had exhausted the Bazaar (and it had exhausted us), we headed up to a large mosque. Unfortunately, it was closed for repair, so we visited the tombs of some Sultans that were nearby instead. Tombs of Sultans are very different than their Christian counterparts (e.g. The Pope) in that they are all identical and covered in a slanted carpet/cloth thing. Anyway, after that, we headed down to the waterfront (different area than the other day) and walked out onto a bridge over the Bosphorus which awarded great views of the city skyline (all the spires of numerous mosques). We then headed to a waterfront mosque (the New Mosque). Again, we were mesmerized by the atmosphere of this place of worship. The large and tile covered interior was again very cozy and personal due to low hanging light fixtures and soft carpet. I also mentioned this before, ad I still can't quite put my finger on the feeling, but these mosques have an aura of religiousness and spiritual devotion that I have never experienced in any other building. The near silence and the slow yet constant flow of practicing Muslims filtering in and out of the mosque, going through their daily prayers and meditation, really adds to the unique and powerful emotion inside these grand structures. After this mosque, we ate some oranges on a bench outside before trekking back up the hill to a street cafe we had noticed earlier. On the way, we noticed a spice market (a mini-bazaar selling loads of fresh teas and spices and herbs). We walked through and thoroughly enjoyed all the wonderful smells and neat spice shops. Attracted by the delicious smells, we stopped at a tea shop and bought some fresh teas to take with us back to the states. After smelling every spice and tea imaginable, we finished our walk to the cafe. We were quickly seated and without really given any options or ever seeing a menu served some food. The meal of salad, rice, and beans was all right (not the greatest, but also not bad). They also served us some type of milk/yogurt/cream type drink that was really sour and, in my opinion, really disgusting. We chose to not drink these and instead order some hot tea, which was much better (everyone drinks a lot of tea here). After a while, we tried to ask for the check and instead were brought more tea. We tried to tell them no, but we ended up just taking the tea, and a check never came (they weren't very good with English). Eventually, we gathered our stuff to leave and pulled out some change to suggest that we were ready to pay and they got the message and we finally departed after paying (at least it was fairly inexpensive). We walked back toward the Blue Mosque and enjoyed the lit spires and domes an fountains in the square before heading back to the hostel to shower and sleep. Though I will mention this more in the summary, I should mention that we have been very enthralled by Istanbul so far, I think it is my personal favorite city we've seen so far. It is very unique and the Islamic culture is very interesting and different that what I am used to. The vast majority of local women wear hear scarves and we get chills every time we hear the 5-times-daily prayers broadcast from loudspeakers at every mosque (at any given prayer time, regardless of where you are, you can hear at least 4 or 5 different mosques broadcasting the prayer). It's definitely a different sort of place, and it is quickly earning a place at the top of my list (even to my own surprise, given that I don't really like crowds or urban jungles and Istanbul is home to 15 million people). Tomorrow we plan to visit the Archaeological Museum in the morning, and explore some more mosques and other sights in the afternoon.

7-1-10: Istanbul

    Today after breakfast we headed to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art instead of the archaeological museum because we thought that it would be more representative of the more Eastern influences in Istanbul rather than just more Roman stuff. The museum was really quite interesting, and as we hoped, very different from art we had seen from the more traditionally Christian areas. The influence was much more on repetitive patterns and nature-inspired floral patterns with vibrant colors rather than the more biblically or Christ-Based art we have been used to. The pieces ranged from old doors and tomb inscriptions to elaborate bowls and pitchers to Qur'an cases and holders to rugs and carpets (lots of carpets). After touring the museum (it wasn't overly large), we headed north and over the bridge to the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. The admission was free before 2pm and we were pleasantly surprised at the value we received. The museum was pretty big, with lots of modern art pieces made by native Istanbul or Turkish artists. I felt toward this museum similar as I do toward most modern art, the movies are usually too weird (although I did like one of them today), the paintings are underwhelming and overly simplistic and unoriginal, but the mixed media and novel media (including new techniques) pieces are generally interesting and often evocative. They also had a photography section today, which I also enjoyed very much. Emily doesn't like when I make blanket statements like that, but that's how I operate, as shallow or infantile as it may seem. Anyway, after the modern museum, we wandered about for some lunch, trying to bypass the cheap rice and beans places in favor of some good food. We soon stumbled upon a neat cafe with some seating through a low stone archway. We ordered a kebap and a menamen to share, and we were presented with some of the best food we'd had here so far. The meat and tomato kebap was delicious, with very well spiced salami-ish meat, and the menemen was good too with fresh diced tomatoes in the omelet-ish dish. After a long lunch (over an hour) sitting in the secluded couch/chairs of the cafe, we headed farther up the hill toward a famous pedestrian street lined with more modern (western) shops, ending in Taksim square. These walks around Istanbul are always interesting to me (tiring for Emily, too many people), because of the great people watching and the different feel than I'm used to. The streets are always bustling and crammed with people (city of 15million), which is kind if mind-blowing for someone who has just spent 4 years in a town of 10,000 people. Anyway, we walked this street and spent a little time in the park in Taksim square before returning toward our hostel by way of many backroads and the spice market again (just to enjoy the smells). Once back, we picked up some good dinner at the store and ate while watching the team announcements for the Tour de France (our first TV in a very very long time). We hope to make it into Paris for the final stage on July 25th (I really want to see that). Tonight we're going to relax and probably go out for some night tea later before bed. Tomorrow is our last day in Istanbul before catching the bus back to Thessaloniki.

7-2-10: Istanbul->Bus to Thessaloniki

    Today we started the day (after breakfast of course) with a long walk westward toward a Turkish Bath that we had notices online earlier. When we arrived, we decided we weren't sweaty enough yet, so we went on to visit a mosque farther uphill. Unfortunately the mosque was closed for restoration, but we did get to see a nearby old aqueduct that was pretty neat. After that, we headed back toward the eastern part, and stopped at one more mosque. This one was absolutely spectacular, it must have been recently renovated or restored because the colors and decorations were extremely bright and vibrant. After being awed by this beautiful mosque, we headed once again back to the spice bazaar to do some final shopping where we bought a tea pot/cups set that we had been eyeing for days. We then ate some lunch at a nice cafe (more touristy than our usual places) where we had some more Kebap (kabob) dishes. After lunch, we dropped most of our stuff off at the hostel and continued to another Turkish Bath. These baths are very popular around here, Istanbul is kind of famous for them. It is basically a very affordable sauna-bath-massage experience. I was a little hesitant about the whole thing, not really being much of a massage person. It seemed a little weird to bathe like that in a public bath, but determined to truly experience Turkey, I decided to try it. So, we went to a place we found online that was away from the touristy areas. The place was nice, not as sketchy as you might think. We were the only non-locals there (there seemed to only be one other non-employee there). The workers spoke very limited English, but we told them we wanted the whole deal (still less than 20USD/person) and they took it from there. We first changed into just towels, and we got a little personal room to lock our stuff and change. We then were sent to the sauna where it was no less than 72,000 degrees. We stayed in there until I was convinced I had no liquid water remaining in my body, and then we stepped out and were sent to a small cove off the central bath area (all marble everywhere). The cove had three small sinks and a short ledge on the side where we sat. The bath workers (all overweight old guys) poured water on us and used rough scrubbers to remove all our dead skin (some alive skin too). After another rinse, we were taken to the main area where we lied down on a central marble island and we received a nice massage. The massage was nice, nothing weird or uncomfortable, mostly just a soap and water rub. After the massage, we rinsed again and the workers left us to rinse and wash on our own. So we relaxed for a minute in the bath area, before heading back out to the main dry area where we went back to our private rooms and dried off. I thought we were done then, but they came in again and spritzer us with lemon juice and gave another brief massage. We continued to relax and dry off in the small rooms before getting dressed and heading out. Overall the experience was very relaxing and calming. Though I'm not one for this type of thing usually (probably not gonna make it a habit), it was an experience and a good way to witness a Turkish tradition. All along this trip we have seen countless ruins of bathhouses from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and any other ancient time, so it was neat to experience firsthand what those places were/are really about. I think these places were incredibly popular as places for bathing and socializing in ancient times, and it's cool that the tradition still survives here in Istanbul. Anyway, after the baths, we headed back to the hostel to gather our stuff, and write the blog (right now) and the journal before dinner. Tonight we leave on the 10pm overnight bus back to Thessaloniki.

Turkey (Istanbul) Summary:

    I am writing this on our second overnight bus ride required to visit Istanbul (now headed back to Thessaloniki). Initially, once we heard that the train was not operational, we wondered whether it was worth it to find our way all the way to Istanbul at the last minute, without a train. I am extremely happy with our decision to come, we really would have missed a definite highlight. Istanbul is without a doubt a town of 15 million people. The population is obvious when walking around the city and everywhere you go you are accompanied by crowds. Usually, I don't care for this sort of situation, and I typically try to avoid it, but for the four days we were there, I let in the hordes of people and allowed Istanbul to invade my senses. The city is not all perfect, there is poverty in certain areas, and some garbage and cleanliness issues, and the food isn't really that great, but for a short stay, it's worth it. Emily and I both agreed that we were ready to leave today, we had run out of things to see within walking distance and the constant crowd battling and city bustle was wearing on us. However, it was very interesting to us to be able to see all the differences between this more Eastern (and very Muslim) city and the Western (Christian) cities we were used to. In addition to the obvious differences such as the ubiquitous head scarves, tall minarets, wide domed mosques, and five-times-daily calls to prayer, there were other noticeable differences we observed. For instance, we saw mostly men on the streets, we often wondered where all the women were all day. The mosques, as opposed to churches, were typically one large room (no small side-chapels) but felt much more personal because of low-hanging lights and soft wall-to-wall carpeting. The decoration of mosques is much more repetitive and pattern driven, with a focus on vibrant colors and calming visual appeal. The effect is that mosques seem (and are) much brighter on the inside than churches because the walls are typically mostly white, with many bright lights and colors, whereas churches tend to be stone, with more subdued colors and dark oil paintings. There was also a real sense of religiousness and spirituality in Istanbul. The calls to prayer were well respected, we even saw people out lining the streets near mosques praying because the mosque could not fit everyone in. The market culture of Istanbul is also very interesting (such as at the Grand Bazaar). The small shops with personable shopkeepers almost made me want to buy the cheap and poor-quality items they were selling (almost is the key word). I get the feeling that these small shops used to sell great varieties of things and were personally owned and operated, but now it seems large companies have bought out most of the shops so that now there is abundant redundancy in the objects sold around the city (unfortunately). Anyway, there are countless other details and differences that I could go on forever about, such as their obsession with tea, but that's not really very interesting to you. The bottom line is that Istanbul is a wonderfully unique and bustling metropolis that offers a interesting blend of old and new, East and West, Muslim and secular. Now, after being in the big city long enough, we head back to our car in Thessaloniki, where we'll continue next up toward Bulgaria.

7-3-10: Bus->Thessaloniki->Rila

    Our bus arrived into Thessaloniki around 9am, and we caught a local bus back to our car that was stowed near Ioannis' house. We ate some breakfast and unpacked our Istanbul bags before heading off for some more traveling (lots of time on the road through these few days). We drove North into Bulgaria, passing customs with no issues at all. We continued on Bulgaria to a small town called Rila, which is situated in the mountains. A little way past Rila is the Rila Monastery, where we visited first. The monastery was very large (biggest we've seen yet) and must have been recently renovated because the frescoed and painted walls were vibrant and colorful. We toured the monastery and the church there before heading back down the mountain a little past Rila, where we found a nice campsite. Even though it was still only about 6pm, we were extremely exhausted after the overnight bus ride followed by several hours of driving. So, we grabbed some food from the market and ate dinner before relaxing at the campsite and passing out just as the sun set. I know this is sort of a short day in the blog, but much of it was spent on the road, which isn't too exciting (though the scenery in Bulgaria is very nice, similar to much of northern Greece).

7-4-10: Rila->Sofia->Veliko Tarnovo

    This morning we awoke refreshed and ate some breakfast before heading to Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria). Driving in Bulgaria has not been difficult at all, and the roads are better than we expected, but as we entered Sofia, we drove for a few miles on the largest cobblestone road I have ever seen. Four lanes of traffic, stop lights, and a fairly quick flow of traffic made for what I considered an atypical cobblestone road. Our car was bouncing and vibrating enough to think it was going to fall apart before we finally rejoined an asphalt road again. Anyway, once arriving and parking, we headed to the center of the city where we first visited the Archaeological Museum. The museum was nice, containing decent relics from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman times, as well as a large section of Thraician relics, which was new for us. The Thracian stuff was very interesting, and spanned a long time period, though much of it was fairly similar to Greek stuff of the same era (understandably). After the museum, we saw some people in a town square setting up for some big event, and when we walked over we saw a rally car parked under a Citroen tent. Immediately excited, I tried to figure out what was going on. At that spot, a college-aged guy came up to us and asked in perfect English where we were from. We told him, and found out that he is a Bulgaria native, who went to college in Canada, and was back visiting family in Sofia. He was very nice and helpful in our tour of Sofia, and he even walked with us to the biggest church there, where his dad sang in the choir. On our way there, he asked a worker in Bulgarian what was happening in the square, and apparently there was to be a rally/drifting show starting at 4pm starring the 2010 World Rally Championship winner. Of course, I informed Emily that this meant we had to stay and watch the show later. The church (similar to many of the other churches we've seen in Bulgaria) had a very dark and solemn interior with bright gold capping the exterior of the domes. The interiors have been only so-so here, but the nice architecture and brilliance of the vibrant gold caps on the domes make the churches very beautiful on the outside. After seeing this church, we headed to a restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet guide book. There were no tables at first, so we put our name down, walked over to a park where there was a monument under restoration, and then came back. The meal was very delicious, and a buffet (all you can eat, but still actually a pretty classy place) so we ate a ton. After our wonderful and filling lunch, we wandered around to a few more churches, including the oldest one in Sofia, dating to Roman times. After this, we headed back to the square with the drifting show we heard about earlier. We found a good spot to stand, and waited along with several thousand other racing fans for the exhibition to start. The show was amazing, they sectioned off a long and sort of narrow segment of the cobblestone road near the square for the cars to use. Prior to the real show, they raced small, but fast, remote controlled cars around a small track of cones (fun to watch). The announcer said many things and introduced all the drivers (we didn't understand any of it). Before long, we heard the roar of a race car engine and a rally car came barreling into the square. Tires squealing, fans yelling, engine blasting, rubber burning, smoke billowing; it was amazing (I am a little biased, granted, I am a huge rally racing fan, I even watch the championship every year, and have seen this driver race on video many times). The show lasted about an hour, with five different drivers performing, and a few interludes from the announcer that we couldn't understand. After the show, we headed back to the car and drove toward Velikos Tarnovo. We found a campsite a little before getting to Velikos, with only a small mishap of getting stuck on a wrong (muddy) road. With the help of a few small rocks from nearby and a lot of momentum, we got back onto pavement and found our site. As it was late already, we ate a quick dinner, wrote the blog and journal, and went to bed. Happy 4th of July everyone!

7-5-10: Velikos Tornovos

    Today we left our campsite after some breakfast and headed to a campsite we saw earlier on the Internet near Velikos. After the short drive, we set up our tent and tarp and bed to dry, as it had rained quite a lot last night. We also did a much needed load of laundry while we were at it. Once all our stuff was on the line drying, we drove to a waterfall a few kilometers away that the owner of the campsite recommended. On the way, we stopped at a local cafe and ate some very greasy omelets for lunch (I think they were deep fried). The waterfall was actually very neat. The waterfall itself was very nice, similar to what we see in East Tennessee actually. There was a pool at the bottom where a group of local kids where swimming and playing soccer and music and whatnot. Also, and even cooler, there was a small trail that hiked up to the top of the falls, and then followed the stream up for a while, giving a fantastic view of the rocky gorge that the river had created. The hike wasn't too long, but there were numerous sections of steep ladder-steps, rickety bridges, and narrow muddy paths that kept it interesting. After our hike and enjoying the river and waterfalls, we headed on to another recommendation of the campsite owner, a ruined Roman city. The road to get to these ruins was as memorable as the ruins, and that's not an insult. This road literally had more square feet of potholes than actual road. Besides being very bumpy and rough, we even had to plow through a small lake that covered the road (in our small car with 3" of ground clearance). Luckily, we made it there with no broken rims, flat tires, or water damage. The ruins themselves were cool for a few reasons. First, we were the only human beings in site, no tourists, no locals, not even a gate attendant. Also, the ruins were pretty extensive, it must have been a fairly large Roman city. They even had a very well preserved and elaborate sewer system than ran under the main roads. After walking all around the deserted ruins, we headed back to a grocery store and grabbed some pasta for dinner, locally made cookies for dessert, and our first self-purchased alcohol of the trip, a few Bulgarian beers. We then went back to the campsite, called our parents, and made our pasta dinner (a different but very good red-pepper based sauce). We are currently drinking our local beers down on the riverfront by our campsite, watching as the sun sets. I think this is a fitting way to end a Bulgarian day, it is a very relaxed and natural place, with very few tourists, and a small local population (compared to other places we've been).

7-6-10: Velikos Tornovos

    Today after breakfast we headed into the city of Velikos Tornovos. We found a bike shop mentioned in our guide book that rents mountain bikes. So we rented some bikes (decent mountain bikes considering they rent for about 6USD/day) and went to a area recommended by the shop. The trail was pretty nice, with many areas of very nice dirt/mud path with a few areas that were pretty overgrown and a little prickly. We ended up getting a little lost while riding, because the area had way more trails than the map suggested. But, we eventually found ourselves and made it back safely, having done some good biking and seen some nice views of the city in the valley below. After our bike excursion (very fun, especially as it was something different) we headed back into town and returned our bikes. We found a nice cafe for lunch, called the nicest and best in town by our guide book, and ate some lunch. We got some stuffed red peppers for an appetizer (that ended up coming at the end of our meal) that were roasted and stuffed with cheese and a cream sauce. These were absolutely delicious, with the creamy and cheesy stuffing inside fresh roasted red peppers all bathed in the creamy sauce. Anyway, after our late lunch, we walked over to the fortress on top of a nearby hill. The fortress was similar to some of the other mountain fortresses we had seen, but interestingly had had significant restorations done in certain areas. This was good and bad because it made it easy to visualize how it may have looked in some areas, but it also made it very difficult to pick out what was actual ruins and what was constructed since 1970. We walked all around the fortress, getting nice panoramic views of the mountainside and riverfront city of Velikos. The church there had been completely reconstructed, and interestingly, the interior frescoes had been painted in a very modern sort of impressionist style. It was one of only a few examples we've seen of modern Christian art, and the only time we've seen it in an actual church. After the fortress, it was time to head back to the campsite for dinner. We stopped at a grocery store and spent our last bit of Bulgarian change on some more pasta stuff for dinner. Tomorrow, we plan to head north again into Romania, Bucharest to be exact.

Bulgaria Summary:

    Bulgaria was a very neat and interesting country to visit. The landscape is very nice, with calm and lush mountains. A few key points separated it from other areas we've visited. First, there are barely any tourists. We only saw a few tour buses, and comparatively very few other tourists, which was a welcome change from many of the places we've been. To compound this factor, there are not very many locals either. With only 7 million people in the whole country (we just came from a single city with 15 million), there is much more uninhabited space between villages and more undeveloped and untouched land than anywhere else in western Europe. Also, this is our first Eastern Blok country we've seen, and the effects of Soviet rule begin to one into play here. Because Bulgaria was kind of on the edge, the obvious indicators of communism aren't very prevalent, but some are there. Most of all, it is noticeably economically behind other countries we've seen. Not only is everything extremely inexpensive here for us, but you even still see fields tended by hand, and many horse drawn carriages (not Amish). Other subtleties, such as poor road quality, suggest of this countries rough economic past. Though, prevalent construction and pockets of development suggest that this is improving rapidly all the time. We found Bulgaria to be interesting for the people and the culture, and less the major attractions. Though there are some, Bulgaria does not have many spectacular sights or great tourist destinations, largely because everything was leveled during communist rule, or during one of many revolts. Instead, Bulgaria offers a pretty and peaceful countryside, with genuinely nice people that are proudly working hard to make their country better and better. There is an interesting mix of old Soviet influence and modern western influence (they're now even members of the E.U.). Overall, we enjoyed our time in Bulgaria very much, it is a wonderful country for it's beautiful countryside and it's unique blend of old communism and modern democracy.

7-7-10: Velikos Tornovos->Bucharest

    Today after packing up and leaving our friends at the Velikos campsite, we drove north through the Romania border and then on to Bucharest. We found a campsite that was mentioned online that is just north of Bucharest. We left our car there, and took the bus into downtown. We picked up some Romanian lei (cash) and then grabbed some paninis for lunch. We first walked to the Palace of Parliament, which is an incredible building. Seriously, you should Google or Wikipedia this place, it is the world's largest civilian administrative building, most expensive building, and heaviest building. Though the building was started and planned as a communist government building, it now houses the Romanian parliament and most of the rest of Romanian government offices. In addition, some of it can be rented out for large conventions or fund-raisers. Because it's an active government building, the only way to see it is through a hour-long guided tour (free for students). So, we did that, ad even though this tour only sees 4% of the building, it was extremely impressive. It just goes to show what extravagance and excessiveness can be attained by corrupt communist leaders operating in a world with no market economy, meaning essentially no expenses, free labor, free everything. Not surprisingly, the building was only about 80% complete when the uprising ended the communist regime. The rest of the construction was completed in the 90s by the democratic government, because it was cheaper to finish the building than to tear it down. The palace is a proud place for Romanians, despite it's communist roots, because it was constructed entirely from Romanian materials, all Romanian marble, crystal, carpeting, gold, silver, etc. Anyway, the place was tremendously large and brilliant, truly a marvel of human accomplishment (actually over 22,000 people were employed to build it). After the mind-blowing parliament building, we walked along Bucharest's nice tree lined avenue and headed toward a small church, supposedly the nicest in Bucharest. The church was nice, but fairly underwhelming to us, apparently all the nice and large churches were leveled at some point in Romania's tumultuous history. After the church, we went to the Romanian Art museum. The museum has three branches, and is really quite large as well. We only visited the Romanian art branch (not the treasury or European art segments) due to time constraints. The museum was well organized and very informative. We quickly glossed over the massive medieval Christian art portion, because we have seen so much of that already. The more contemporary section was very interesting though, containing Romanian art from the 18th-20th centuries. It was interesting to spot very "Eastern" themes and motifs in more "Western" works of art. After the museum, we caught the bus back to our campsite, made some dinner, and showered. Tomorrow we plan to visit the National Village museum, where they have several reconstructed churches and homesteads from traditional rural Romania.

7-8-10: Bucharest->Sinaia

    Today we packed up and left our campsite for the National Village museum located on the outskirts of the city. The outdoor museum contained several reconstructed homesteads from various time-periods and regions of Romania. The museum was really quite large, and spanned a large plot of wooded lakefront land. The homesteads were interesting to see, it gave a clear picture of what life was like through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries in rural Romania. The homes were mostly log cabin-like structures with hay or twig roofs, and were all fully furnished with realistic beds and benches and tools of the day. The most interesting buildings they had there were the mills and wool processing contraptions. They used mostly waterwheels to power giant grinders, tumblers, and pulverizers. Some of the systems were fairly elaborate, using a series of gears and belts to power many different pieces of the machinery from one large waterwheel simultaneously. We spent several hours wandering this park of historical rural Romania, marveling at the way people lived, and figuring out how all the mechanical wool processors worked. After the museum, we headed to a nearby mall, and grabbed some lunch in the food court (I has my first hamburger in 5+ weeks, it was pretty good, though different from the US). Emily needed some shoes, because she left her running shoes in the Grinnell gym, and left her hiking boots somewhere in Florence. The mall had some good athletic shoe stores, and the Romanian currency exchange works substantially in our favor. So, after trying a few places to find the perfect pair, she bought a nice pair of running shoes for less than $45USD. We then went to the grocery store there and stocked up on some food. After our too long mall detour, we continued toward Sinaia. This area is known for it's beautiful mountains and a famous and extravagant castle that we plan on visiting tomorrow. We made it into Sinaia around 5:30, and tried to get gas. After filling up, we realized they didn't take credit card, so I went to find an ATM, and Emily stayed ad ended up getting some valuable hiking recommendation from the gas attendant. After paying (cash) we drove around town looking for a hostel or motel, because we deemed it far to cold to try and camp (we're in the mountains, gets down below 10C at night). Surprisingly, we found a nice motel that gave us a double room for 60 lei (20USD). So, we decided to stay there, and we made some more pasta for dinner in our first private room of the trip. And, with access to our first TV in 5+ weeks, we decided to stay in and enjoy some TV on this cold mountain night. Tomorrow, we plan to hike in the spectacular mountains here, and visit the lavish castle in the afternoon.

7-9-10: Sinaia->Brasov->Sighisoara

    Today was a busy and productive day. We woke up and ate some delicious yogurt an granola for breakfast before heading up to the Peles Castle near Sinaia. The castle is not really a castle, but more like a home, it was built as a vacation home for the new monarchy (Carol I), and it has no fortifications or other castle-like things. The one trait it does share with a castle though is size. The home is really quite large, and we took an hour long tour that covered the first floor of 3. The tour was actually much nicer than we expected, with a small group and a good guide. The home was obviously very lavish, to impress foreign dignitaries and leaders. It reminded somewhat of the Biltmore estate in many regards, though the Biltmore is even larger, they were both constructed around the same time an were cutting edge in their day. Built in the late 1800s- early 1900s, it was equipped with central heat, a central vacuum system, plumbing, electricity, as even an electronically sliding roof panel over the central room, to make an open courtyard. Overall, the home was quite impressive, and it was interesting to hear of all the important historical events and decisions that were made in that house, really shaping much of Romania's history. After our tour of the massive vacation house, we drove farther up the mountain, until we were about a quarter of the way up a ski-mountain. We then followed a hiking trail (also a ski run in the winter) up the mountain. We wanted to get a good hike in today, but wow, hiking up a ski slope isn't that easy. We persevered a while, and were rewarded with some spectacular views of the town in the valley and the surrounding mountain range. We stopped to eat a late lunch that we had packed at our stopping point on the mountain (we didn't go all the way up, probably would have killed us). The hike was really nice, despite some steep sections and getting briefly deceived by an overgrown false-trail. We have recently been constantly surprised by the temperature here, it must be uncharacteristically cold even for the mountains. I even wore pants and a jacket today (in July!) on our hike, partly due to cold daytime temperatures and partly due to the very strong winds on the mountain. It was actually nice today though, once we started climbing, the cool temps were very welcome. After making our way back down the mountain after lunch, we drove down into town, and then north toward Brasov. A short drive later, we were in Brasov, and found a parking spot near the old city. We first saw the largest gothic church in eastern Europe (Brasov, as well as everywhere we were today, is in the Transylvania region, so gothic churches make sense here). The church was very large, and interesting to see in that it had a few unique qualities that we had not seen yet. For example, though the outside was stone, the interior was plaster or wood, with all wood floors. Also, there were carpets both on parts of the floor and hanging from the walls (reminded us of Istanbul, a much more Eastern motif). The paintings and decorations were slightly different as well, with very dark and ornate patterns characteristic of gothic design. After that church, we walked around some of the old city and much of the old fortification (city walls). We walked inside one other church, a more modern one, in which the floors were completely rug covered (again, reminiscent of Eastern mosques) and the background of the frescoes was a bright and brilliant shade of blue, very pretty. We took a small detour to walk up to an old tower, where we got a nice view of the old city. After our brief tour of Brasov, we headed out again, this time toward Sighisoara (another small Transylvanian town). Along the way, we found a campsite where we ate some dinner and called it a day. Tomorrow, we plan to visit Soghisoara before heading out of Romania and into Hungary.

7-10-10: Sighisoara->Eger

    Today consisted of half sightseeing and half driving (one of our longest driving days of the trip). This morning after packing our soaked tent and tarp (it rained a lot last night) and eating some breakfast, we headed into Sighisoara. The town is actually fairly large. With a nice historic citadel atop the hill. We got there pretty early so nothing was open yet. So we took the time to walk around the citadel and look into a few churches there. The citadel was pretty nice, with shops lining cobblestone streets, and occasional stone and plaster churches along the way. After our walk about, we returned to the clock-tower that contained a museum inside it. We went through the decent museum (the coolest part was seeing the actual mechanical monstrosity that moved the clock and kept the time while also controlling rotating figurines representing day and night and the day of the week) and got to see some nice panoramic views of the city from the top. After that, we stopped by the "torture museum" that our guide book mentioned. Let's just say that our $0.30 entry was probably too high, as the museum consisted of one small room with a few ropes and chains in it. We also stopped by a street vendor selling hand painted bowls and plates that were really neat looking, so we picked out one serving platter and one large bowl and paid less than $10USD for the both. We then headed back down the hill, and after stopping in one more modern church, headed out of town. The rest of our day was not terribly exciting, as it was spent mostly in the car, making our way out of Romania and into Hungary. We stopped for lunch at a small cafe along the way, and got what probably constituted our worst meal yet. The selection was slim, so we chose a few personal size pizzas and a cheese scone. The pizzas were pretty bad overall, but mostly due to the fact that I believe ketchup was used as the tomato sauce. The scone was alright, but basically just deep fried bread with some cheese in it. We supplemented our weak lunch with a few good apples, but overall a pretty underwhelming meal. We drove all afternoon, and crossed the border without issue. We are staying at a hot-spring resort campsite tonight (very nice, but no wifi surprisingly), because it appears to be the any kind of campsite around here (the area is somewhat famous for it's hot-springs, much like yellowstone). Tomorrow we plan to explore Eger and the surrounding area, before heading into Budapest the day after.

Romania Summary:

    Though we only had a short few days in Romania, we very much enjoyed our stay here. The country is similar to Bulgaria, in that both are largely rural countries that still struggle with poverty due to tumultuous political histories and bouts with communism. However, they are definitely distinct places. Romania has some wonderful and majestic mountains that are wet and lush with vegetation (think Rocky Mountain size and ruggedness, with Smokey Mountain forests). The area is rural and beautiful. Also, the people are very proud to be Romanian, a true national pride exists, despite (maybe because of) the various conflicts and troubles that they have faced. The Romanian people are also very welcoming and helpful, we were twice offered to go on hikes with people's families and were often personally guided when we asked for directions. Overall, I really enjoyed Romania for the wonderful people, the spectacular scenery, and the unique culture of real Romania, a mixture of countless social and historical influences. I am now excited to continue our very culturally interesting tour of Eastern Europe with Hungary next in line.

7-11-10: Eger

    Today, after leaving our nice thermal hot-spring campsite, we headed into the town of Eger, which is Hungary's second most popular destination to Budapest. The area is very nice, and is known for good wines and the corresponding vineyards. The town of Eger is fairly large, with a nice old city that contains a few nice churches that we saw, including the second largest church in Hungary. After wandering through some nice pedestrian roads, we went to a large park with a fountain and a local band playing where we ate our packed sandwich lunch. After eating and enjoying the shade of the park, we continued to the castle/fortress. The castle contains a number of small museums and exhibits, as well as a few ruins from the medieval church and walls (it got pretty destroyed near the end of the middle ages). The museums were nice, well layer out and much of it in English. The eat one included a history of the town of Eger, it is clear that this is near central Europe, as basically every empire, union, army, or ruling force that has existed in Europe had been there and battled, even the Ottomans. The history is obviously extremely complex and interesting due to the numerous groups that have been there over the ages. After seeing all of the fortress and the many exhibits and museums, we headed bak down the hill and found some wifi for the first time in a few days to update everything. We then went over to an area where small vineyards store and ferment their wine. The area consisted of maybe 35 small shops situated in a circle around a small park, all selling and offering tastes of their wines. We walked around the loop and Emily settled on one that looked the best, and we went in. Inside was dark and rather empty, with a small man behind a bar. He gestured us over to him, and he poured a small glass of his Merlot for us. After tasting it, we decided to spend the whopping $1USD for a half-liter of his wine. It was sort of unique actually, we had to provide the container (we used a water bottle), and he used a glass siphon to extract the wine from a large plastic jug and into our bottle. After that, we got back into our car and headed toward Budapest. We found a nice campsite about halfway there, where we stopped for the night. Tomorrow (and at least part of the next day) we will spend in Budapest.

7-12-10: Budapest

    Today we woke up early and drove the last bit into our campsite in Budapest. We checked in, washed a few things, then headed into the city (by metro) for the day. Budapest used to be two cities, Buda and Pest, that were separated by the Danube river. Today, a series of long bridges connect the two, but they still retain some distinction in character and look. Buda is the more classic side with a citadel and a fortress on the hill and many old things like that. Pest on the other hand is flatter and more known as a modern city. Today, we explored only Pest, as Buda is tomorrow's plan. Despite descriptions we had heard of Pest being modern and less picturesque and less interesting, we really enjoyed Pest. We though it was much nicer and prettier than the guide books give it credit for. We started a way away from the Danube at Heroes Square. The square housed some impressive St Peters-esque columns with a few large statues and monuments guarded by numerous uniformed military personnel. After visiting the square, we continued to Vajdahhunyad Castle, which is a huge palace type thing with impressive architecture (we didn't go inside). We continued our walk around the Pest central park, and then headed on the main avenue toward the waterfront. We planed to visit the House of Terror, a supposedly powerful museum about the Soviet Secret Police, but it was closed in Mondays, so we plan to go back tomorrow. Next, we stepped inside the old opera house, which was nicely decorated with elaborate architecture. We did stop at the large Synagogue and attached Jewish museum. This was our first Synagogue of the trip, and it was very impressive. Interestingly, the exterior was built to look like a Christian Church, to avoid unnecessary prejudice or animosity. The interior however was very much Jewish, and really quite large. The nave in addition to a large ground floor and impressive altar, was ringed by two stories of balconies for additional seating. The attached museum was also quite good, containing many pieces of art and possessions of the Synagogue, including all sorts of ornamental pieces used for various traditions. The garden behind the Synagogue contained a few artistic and solemn dedications to those murdered in Hungary during the Holocaust, (including a massive silver willow tree with each leaf inscribed with the name of a victim) which made for an extremely moving and powerful close to the Synagogue visit. After this stop, we ate some lunch from a grocery store (things are back to being expensive especially here in Budapest). We then continued on to the Parliament building, which was, again, enormous with really unique and fabulous architecture (we didn't go inside). We next continued our stroll along the Danube coast, looking over to the Buda side where we'll be tomorrow. We walked through a nice indoor and outdoor marketplace that smelled delicious with all the meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables. Exhausted and dehydrated, we walked back to our campsite to shower and make some dinner. Today was extremely hot and sunny, which really took it's toll on us by the end, sweating continuously and profusely can really take it out of you. It probably didn't help that we walked so much today too, we probably walked about 6 miles total, as Pest is a fairly large and spread out downtown. We also began to see many more tourists today than we have for a while. Hungary, and Budapest in particular, is very westernized (I already mentioned the increased prices) and much more frequented by tourists than the other Eastern Block countries that we have been to recently. Still though, we both really enjoyed Pest today, and were impressed by the recent history and culture that is visible as you walk around the town. Tomorrow, we plan to visit the intense House of Terror, and see the rest of the Buda part of Budapest.

7-13-10: Budapest

    Today we got up and first headed to the Buda side of Budapest. The day began with the customary hike up a big hill, resulting first in the large church on top, in the northern part of the old city. The church was under construction, so we didn't go in, but it seemed impressive from the outside. We next continued our stroll around the north side of the hill top city where we received great panoramic views of Budapest. Continuing around, we climbed down a large light of stairs into the old labyrinth of tunnels underneath the city. The tunnels were very impressive, and also extensive. We walked in basically a large loop under the hill top in the chilly and damp cave air. There was a sort of exhibition in the tunnels, set up in the late 80s I think that was really weird. They had "fossilized" computers and other modern technologies, and plaques describing the "ruins" from a perspective far in the future. Overall, this was more strange than anything, a sort of artsy social statement type thing, but at least it didn't detract too much from the labyrinth. Back in WWII, the tunnels had been used as bunkers and hiding spaces for Hungarian troops. After touring the tunnel system, we continued our loop south to the palace there, which now houses a few museums. We walked around the grounds, but didn't go in the museums, as we figure we had seen all the types of things in the museum already. Finishing our Buda loop, we headed back down the hill, toward the waterfront. We ate lunch at an Indian-esque vegetarian restaurant recommended by the guide book. The food here was delicious, a very welcome change to our typical diet. After eating our fill at the restaurant, we walked over to the House of Terror museum (a long walk, and it was very very hot, but we were prepared with an extra bottle of water today). The museum was really incredible. It was a powerful and memorable experience that really I won't forget. The museum is located on a spot where both Nazis (during WWII) and Soviets (after WWII) used to imprison, interrogate, and make decisions concerning Jews (first) and political prisoners (later). The museum had copious amounts of history and information concerning Hungary's role both in WWII and under Soviet rule. It really is fascinating how Hungary has been caught in the middle of so much 20th century history (and before too). Hungary acted as a sort of battleground between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, getting repeatedly destroyed and war torn or the majority of the 1900s. They battled with and subsequently surrendered to the Nazis, and thus the Jewish population here suffered tremendous losses and injustices (in fact, we walked through the Jewish ghetto to get to the museum). Then, immediately after, they were taken into Soviet rule and thus dealt with half a century of strict, corrupt, communist rule. The museum focused on the secret police of this Soviet era, which ended only in 1990! The imprisonment, torture, murder, and other injustices of this long Soviet rule was just more than terrible. Even more shocking is that many of the faces an names featured as victimizers are still alive today, which really brings this close to home and modern reality. The museum featured many video (subtitled fortunately) interviews and accounts from survivors of these atrocities which were extremely powerful and truly heart-wrenching. I could go on about this very well done and eye-opening place, but the feelings it evokes are more indescribable than can be attempted in a blog. So, after the museum, we sat on a shaded bench along the major boulevard to unwind and char about the museum. After a while, we deemed it time to head back (it was already dinner time by this point, the museum took a while). So, we hopped the metro back and showered and made some pasta for dinner. Tomorrow, we plan to leave Budapest, and visit some smaller towns to the north-west of Budapest.

7-14-10: Budapest->Visegrad->Esztergom->Sopran->Austria

    As you can maybe see from the places we saw today, it was another filled day with a fair amount of driving. We left the campsite in Budapest after checking out and headed north to Visegrad. In Visegrad we used most of our remaining Hungarian money to get into the hilltop castle there which overlooks a bend in the Danube river. The views from the castle were amazing, with the small town occupying the valley along with the impressive Danube river, all surrounded by wooded mountains. The castle itself was also fairly interesting, as they had numerous exhibits filling the interior describing the history and way of life of the various groups that had inhabited the castle. After exploring the castle, we headed back down the hill, and drove further west toward Esztergom. It was clear when we had arrived because the largest church in Hungary, fourth largest in the world, dominates the skyline of the small town. We walked around the monstrosity before entering to find a massive cathedral with nice marble work and an impressive dome. The church was a little different than some others we had seen, especially the front exterior, which looked more like a court building than a church. Anyway, the effect was the same, it was a very impressive architectural accomplishment of the Catholic church. After seeing the huge cathedral, we stopped at a grocery store and used the last bit of our Hungarian money to buy food or lunch and dinner. We then stopped by a nice bench on the Danube waterfront and ate our lunch. After eating, we began the longer drive westward toward Sopran, which is right near the Austrian border. It actually wasn't a bad day to drive during the afternoon, as it was really hot today. We arrived in Sopran around 5 and walked around the town's historic center with the small cobblestone streets. The downtown was nice and quaint, but much of it was under construction, which detracted from the feel. We stepped into a few churches, which were fairly normal, and saw the few monuments left in the city center. After that, we completed our drive into Austria (no border patrol at all, not even a passport stamp). We drove only a short way in and found a nice freecamp site to stay at. Tomorrow, we plan to head into Vienna for a few days.

Hungary Summary:

    We were amazed by Hungary's progress and development having only gained independence 20 years ago. The prices, the roads, the overall feel of the country is all very Western, despite it's unbelievably rough 20th century history. Hungary is light years ahead of Romania and Bulgaria in terms of economy and development. In addition to this fascinating differences between eastern countries, I also really enjoyed learning the ancient as well as recent history of this country. Hungary, being essentially in the center of geographic Europe, has been influenced and occupied by nearly every force or empire you can think of, and more. Though the 20th century struggles wiped out most of the remnants and physical evidence of older times, the history is complex and exciting anyway. Even better though, are the modern history bits that are still visible, such as evidence from communist rule that only ended so recently. Although I don't usually mention specifics in these summaries, I have to bring up the House of Terror again. This museum put so much context and reality to the country of Hungary and it's people (as well as history applicable to Romania and Bulgaria). Seeing pictures of Budapest a mere 50 years ago, just completely leveled, and then seeing the modern Budapest is really quite striking. The monuments are still there, but the buildings around them are completely built back up and flawless, despite being piles of burning wreckage a half century before. I realize that for one building, being restored in 50 years isn't really all that quick, but the whole city, and country for that matter, has completely transformed in that time. Though the country still has some baggage to work through I'm sure, I am very impressed at how far they have come in so little time, especially when you compare them to Romania and Bulgaria, where national poverty is still a real issue. Overall, I really enjoyed Hungary for it's rich and fascinating history, and the culture that it has created. Next, we return basically entirely back to Western Europe, starting with Austria.

7-15-10: Vienna

    Today we awoke early from our nice freecampsite and drove the last remaining way to Vienna. We reserved a night at the campsite near town, and after picking up some lunch to eat later at the next door grocery store, we took a bus and the metro into the city. Our first stop was the Hapsburg Palace. We didn't go into the actual palace (overpriced and not all that nice), but we did spend the rest of the morning wandering the massive associated park/garden. The gardens were really pretty and impressive, with acres and acres of flawlessly manicured tree lined paths and shuddery lined gardens. Throughout the park, there are a number of monuments and statues. The most impressive of these was a giant fountain that faced the palace across a wide garden. The most comical was a "Roman ruin" that was actually built in the 1770s to look like a Roman ruin. We found a nice bench in the gardens to eat our packed lunch, and after enjoying the shade or a bit, we headed on to the Museum of Technologies (my idea, obviously). On the way we happened across a large ropes/obstacle course/playground that we stopped and climbed on for a while. After tiring ourselves out on the ropes, we entered the Technology Museum. The museum was absolutely massive, with 4 large floors filled with exhibits. I was extremely impresses with the quality of this place, they covered an amazing breadth of material very well. They had large sections on energy, materials, mass production, cars, bikes, appliances, the human body, planes, ships, and even musical instruments. The museum focused on the growth in technology in these areas since the industrial revolution. They had great real life examples of many of the things they talked about, including retired metal processing equipment, mass production machines and robots, classic cars and bikes, appliances from the mid 1900s, old and new (robotic) prosthesis, full-size aircraft, countless old instruments, and much more. Overall, I thought the museum was incredible and truly a remarkable place; also a great way to see something different and unique in a museum, at this point in the trip, many of the museums can get repetitive. Anyway, we stayed in the huge museum until they kicked us out at 6pm, when we hopped the metro and bus back to the campsite and made dinner and showered. Tomorrow, we head back into Vienna to see the many sights of the historic downtown.

7-16-10: Vienna

    Today we started the morning with a walk across the street to the supermarket where we picked up some lunch to pack and 6 eggs for breakfast. We planned to make the eggs with a skillet we saw in the kitchen of the campsite, but we found a large group of teenage campers sleeping on the floor of the kitchen. Thus, our ideal plan was foiled, but we instead used our little stove, and our large cooking pot to make the 6 scrambled eggs with a diced tomato. The luxury breakfast turned out perfectly, and was a welcome change from crackers and jam. After breakfast, we packed our stuff and checked out before heading into downtown Vienna. We wandered for a short while before coming to a church that was advertising a free concert that started at 3pm today. Wanting to attend, we switched up our plan and headed first to the Vienna Museum. The museum was very well organized and contained a fair amount of art arranged chronologically from Roman times through the 20th century. As a bonus, the museum included a fair amount of history and context of the various time-periods, which was very interesting. As another bonus, there was a large special exhibit going on called Vienna in Film which showed many many clips of movies that have shown or involved Vienna over the years. The films were accompanied by explanations of Vienna's role in the film and the film's portrayal of Vienna culture. Though most of the films were in German, the explanations were English which made interpretation of the ideas possible. After the Vienna museum, we ate our packed lunch in a park nearby (a pretty late lunch). We then went back toward the church we were at earlier and saw the concert there. The concert started with an organ recital, then a church choir ensemble came out and performed a few songs. The organ music was nice, though I think all organ music sounds the same (Emily disagrees). The singers were also very talented, but the acoustics of the church (very echoey) bothered both Emily and me. After the brief concert, we wandered the streets of Vienna for a little while, stopping to enjoy the countless massive and well architectures buildings that comprise the old downtown. We ended our tour with the parliament building, which was actually kind of a letdown compared to some of the other monstrous parliament buildings we've seen. Overall though, Vienna is a very nice, though large, city. The architecture is a very impressive mix of neogothic and modern, and there are nice parks and green spaces all over the central downtown (the shade here helps as a rest from the very hot days). After our walking tour, we caught the metro/bus back to the car, and took some showers at the campsite before leaving. We headed toward Melk, which is a small town on the way to Linz. Tomorrow, we plan to check out a famous monastery in Melk before spending the day in a few nice museums in Linz.

7-17-10: Melk->Linz

    Today after packing and leaving our pretty freecampsite in the hills, we headed the short way into Melk. We were able to see from a distance, and again somewhat closer, the massive monastery abbey that dominates the skyline of the town. Until we saw the sign, I thought for sure that the huge complex was way too big to be an abbey, but alas, it was. However, it didn't open until 9am, and we were there about 7:30, so we decided not to wait around and instead head into Linz. After the short drive, we found our campsite on the outskirts of Linz, and took public transit into the city center. We wandered the center square which was packed with a mix of yard-salers and retailers. After our walkabout, we went to the Lentos Museum, which is an art museum of 20th century and modern art. The museum was very nice, and had rooms organized chronologically by decade from 1900s-2000s as well as a large modern section. The building itself was also rather artistic, made of glass with small mirrored writing covering the exterior. Emily and I have been talking lately that we are really starting to have a firm grasp of the evolution of art and it's motifs throughout history. We have seen numerous museums now, ranging from many eras and styles of art, and I think we have certainly gained a much better understanding of the role of art throughout history and into the modern time. Anyway, after the art museum, we picked up some lunch in a grocery store and ate it in a nearby park. After our lunch (deluxe for us, including a sandwich and chips), we crossed the bridge over to the Ars Electronica Center. This large center is a sort of technology museum with all kinds of really neat stuff. We started with a 3D imax presentation of space (the earth, solar system, galaxy, etc) that was pretty cool. We then moved on to several multimedia interactive exhibits that gave examples and demonstrations of various technological advancements. They had neat interactive demos of things such as video image tracking, eye tracking, limb prosthesis, retina imaging, robots, simulation imaging, medical imaging (MRI), DNA analysis, electron microscopy, and more. We spent literally hours viewing, reading about, and playing with these various displays of technology, and loved every minute of it. Even I, as a self-proclaimed technology nerd, was very impressed at the exhibits presented here, truly modern and relevant technological breakthroughs. Upstairs, they also had a very detailed and well-organized history of the Internet section. I had known bits and pieces of this before, but it was really neat to learn the very early conceptions and predictions of the internet's role in society. They also had a section about the development and evolution of search engines and information portals that included some cool info about Google, wikipedia and their predecessors. Anyway, after spending all afternoon in the really awesome electronics center, we hopped the metro and bus back to the campsite in time to make a late dinner. Tomorrow, we plan to head on to Salzburg and the surrounding area for our last full day in Austria.

7-18-10: Linz->Hallstatt->Vorderer Gosausee->Lammerklamm->Berchtesgaden

    Today was a sort of transition day out of Austria and ending into Germany. We left our campsite in Linz and first headed to a town that was supposedly very scenic, Hallstatt. The scenery changed dramatically as we drove only a short while, as we entered the Alps. Hallstatt was very scenic, though clouds plagued us all day. The small town was surprisingly touristy and didn't offer parking unless you wanted to pay 4.50€, which is pretty steep. Not wanting to pay to battle crowds on our designated natural sights day, we ended up skipping Hallstatt and driving toward Salzburg (no intention of actually going into Salzburg). We found a few small towns on the way, and the drive this whole time giving us flash backs of Switzerland. Now that we are fully in the Alps again, the scenery is nearly identical to the breathtaking beauty we experienced in Switzerland (with more clouds this time unfortunately). We stopped at a small restaurant in a town for some lunch, since every grocery store we saw was closed (Sunday). We had a rare classy sit down meal with real hot food, I had a sausage dish (appropriately German) and Emily got a panini type thing. After our classy lunch, we continued on to a large lake situated in the valley of large steep mountains. We walked a trail partway around the lake, but my stomach wasn't feeling too good and it was starting to rain so we turned around. I'm not sure why my stomach was bothering me so much, usually I don't have any issues like this, but maybe the greasy sausage and fries at lunch were a shock to my sandwich trained stomach. Anyway, after a while, I felt better and it didn't really affect the day at all. After enjoying the scenic mountain lake, we continued on toward Germany, but made one more stop in Austria. We had seen a brochure earlier about a gorge trail with a waterfall, so we stopped there along the way to do some hiking (the rain had stopped again). To our disappointment, they charge 3€ for access to the trail. But, while investigating if there were any free trails in the area, a group walked out the exit so we asked them if it was nice and of it was worth 3€. They responded that it was very nice, but that you could enter the trail free if you drove a little further down the road and parked at a restaurant there. We marveled at our luck, and thanked them before driving a short way to the restaurant parking lot. We easily found the trail, and sure enough it was free! So, we hiked up the gorge next to the river along the well-kept path. The gorge was very nice, and narrow and low enough to not be obstructed by the clouds, which made it a perfect hike for the day. We found the so called waterfall, which I would more refer to as a river rapid, but it was pretty anyway. We followed the trail to the end, and received many nice views of the gorge along the way. After making our way back to the car, we drove on and soon entered Germany (no border crossing, just some road signs). We stopped at a town just inside the German border, called Berchtesgaden. We parked and explored the downtown area which was quite quaint with a fairly large cobblestone pedestrian area lined with nice cafes and expensive shops. We wandered for a bit, making our way through the pedestrian downtown, before finally deeming it time to find dinner and a campsite. Because all the grocery stores are closed on Sundays, and all the restaurants are way too pricey, finding dinner took some creativity. We first grabbed two roll/bread things at a gas station for 0.30€ apiece just in case we didn't find anything else we could make jam sandwiches. We then headed toward Munich, which took us on the major highway instead of the small roads. We stopped at one of the large highway gas stations and they had some better pre-made sandwiches which we purchased to improve our dinner. After taking care of dinner, we drove on for a short while, before taking a random exit and weaving into some hills where we found a nice freecampsite eventually (Germany is definitely more densely populated than some other places we've been). Tomorrow, we plan to head into Munich and spend the next day or two there before heading westward again.

Austria Summary:

    Austria is a country with a surprising lot to offer in a small package. The east side (Vienna et al) offers great history and interesting museums. Their involvement (this area at least) with many of central Europe's conflicts over time gives them a rich and complex history that is truly interesting to see (especially 20th century stuff, similar to Hungary). Also, we found the two technology museums here to be absolutely amazing. We spent more time in those two museums than any other museum we have seen. The sense I get is that Austria has always been an industrial center of Europe, and now that industry is transforming technology, and thus Austria has redefined itself as the core of technology in central Europe. However it happened though, Austria has put together some fantastic museums, both technology related and otherwise. The western part of the country is suddenly very different. Instead of the bustling high-tech Vienna, it is very much like the active but friendly Switzerland. This area has the scenery characteristic to the Alps, with majestic mountains and still lakes; and it has the people characteristic of Bavarian Germany, small quaint towns filled with people in funny looking German outfits eating sausage and drinking beer. This combination makes for a very fun little area, with interesting culture and lots and lots of outdoor activities. We have seen tons of mountain bikers, road bikers, kayakers, etc in this area, certainly a very fit and active place. Overall, I really liked our short stay through Austria. Vienna and Linz offered interesting historic and modern sights while the western part offered splendid scenery and a taste of Bavarian Germany, where we are heading next!

7-19-10: Munich

    Today after packing and leaving our freecampsite, we headed to our campsite in Munich. After hanging up some wet stuff to dry during the day, we caught the bus and metro into the city center. We had seen a flyer about free walking tours, so we headed straight to the meeting point and got there on time. We quickly found the company that had advertised free tours, and found that they now charge 9€/person. Luckily, they told us about a rival company that still gives free tours (they said free tours were now illegal in Munich, which we later found out was false). Anyway, we soon found the real free walking tour and joined in. The tour guide was a Irish man with a masters in history and archaeology, he was extremely knowledgable of the history of Munich, especially 20th century stuff. The tour hit all the main sites in central Munich, and lasted about 3 and a quarter hours. The guide offered many interesting stories and historical tidbits, as well as describing the history of each major sight, it was very fun and entertaining. The guide also made a big point to have some serious talks about the Nazi and Hitler incidents that took place in some of the places we visited. He gave a very straight-forward and brutally honest account of these histories, and the stories were very powerful. We walked the route of Hitler's first march and saw the square where many of his famous speeches were delivered. Apparently, Hitler's real rise to power started and matured mainly in Munich, right in the very beer halls and town squares that we visited. Very intense history for sure. On a lighter note though, he also emphasized the fun spirit of the beer-loving Bavarians and their various beer-related anecdotes. After the tour, we were pretty hungry, so we grabbed some falafel and stuffed eggplant for lunch at a small street side vendor. After lunch, we went back to go inside a few churches that we had walked past earlier, and the caught the metro to the BMW Wert (building). The building is quite spectacular in modern architecture and is even featured on Munich post cards. And being a car-nut, and it having free entrance, we had to go. To make it even cooler, it is located right near the Munich Olympic park. The BMW building was a huge glass and steel rod construction that housed all of BMW's latest and greatest models as well as many exhibits and demos of the technology incorporated into their vehicles. We spent a while wandering around the building and trying the various hands-on demos of their technologies. Overall, the building was pretty cool for what is basically a hugely expensive interactive advertisement. After seeing this building, we walked around and got to see nearby the BMW headquarters skyscraper and the BMW plant. After that, we walked the short way to the other massive glass and steel tent-looking contraption that is the Munich Olympic park. We saw a few of the main buildings, such as the soccer arena, the track and field arena, and we got to go inside and see the Olympic pool arena. After our brief Olympic venue tour, we hopped the metro (we had day-passes today) over to a huge city park. We walked around the nice grassy and shaded walkways for a bit, enjoying the people-watching, before finding our way to an outdoor beer-garden inside the park. We broke down and paid the 3.70€ each for two half-liters of local Bavarian beer and found a nice table in the crowded outdoor garden to enjoy it. It turned out to be completely worth it, the beer was good, and the relaxing and people watching with the locals at the busy beer garden was even better. We chatted and sipped our beers for quite a while, just enjoying the atmosphere. Finally, we got hungry and realized it was already 7:30, so we headed back toward the metro to get back to the campsite. Along the way, we needed to stop at a grocery store to pick up something to make for dinner, as our stockpile was empty. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any grocery stores along our way (the park was in a fairly residential area). And one we got back to our campsite metro stop, it was a few minutes past 8, and the store there (and every other grocery store apparently) closes at 8. We went back to the campsite where we knew they had a small minimart only to find that even the campsite store closes at 8. Luckily, the small eat-and-go window near the campsite was open, so we grabbed some bread and cheese sandwiches. In addition, we made some soup that we has leftover all the way from France 7 weeks ago. Surprisingly, the soup and sandwich turned out to be a very good last-minute dinner, especially on a cool night like this one. Tomorrow, we plan to see Dachau which is a small suburb of Munich where the first, and model, concentration camp was located, along with the training school for upper-level SS officers (we expect this to be rather powerful and heart-wrenching) before heading on to the rest of Bavarian Germany.

7-20-10: Dachau-> Garmischpartenkirchen

    Today was an emotionally and mentally exhausting day. We started by packing and leaving our Munich campsite and driving about 10K north to Dachau. We quickly found the concentration camp memorial there by following the tour buses. The site was crowded with tourists, but the unbelievable impact of the place was undiminished. I'll go a little into the emotion later, but first the logistics. Dachau was home to the first concentration camp, which is also the only camp to function continuously for the full 12 years of the war (1933-1945). The camp here served as the model ad example from which all other German concentration camps were based. Throughout it's operation, over 200,000 detainees (mostly Jews and political prisoners) were held at the camp. The most recent version of the barracks there were designed to house 6,000 prisoners, but there were over 30,000 present when Allied forces liberated the camp in 1945. The camp here was equipped with a gas chamber, but it was never used for mass killings. Instead, untold tens of thousands died from overwork (the camp was one of the largest slave powered armaments shops supplying the German army), starvation, hypothermia, countless diseases from malnutrition ad overpopulation, and cruel medical testing as well as other tortures. The tour of the site was indescribable. We started with a 25 minute film about Dachau. The film offered information about the function of the camp as well as sickening video and photographic footage of the site toward the end of the war. I am not exaggerating when I say I was truly sick to my stomach by the end of the video, it felt as if my whole torso was contracted, even making me notice my breathing. After the film, we toured the huge museum, housed in one of the "factories" where slave prisoners worked long days. The museum had abundant information about the war and the holocaust in general, as well as lots of specifics about Dachau. The museum was obviously extremely disturbing as well, and reading the atrocities and massacres that occurred in places that we stood in today made the experience that much more intense. After the very thorough museum, we walked through a reconstruction of one of the 30 large barracks that housed the thousands of prisoners. Seeing the tiny beds stacked and crammed into large rooms accompanied by pictures showing 3-4 malnourished prisoners occupying each and every tiny plank of wood was just unbelievable. We then walked the length of the camp, where the outlines of all 30 barracks line the central corridor, where roll call took place every day. In this area, there are a number of artistic and religious monuments and chapels dedicated to those who were murdered. After this area, we crossed just outside the two high electric barbed wire fences to see the only gas chamber left in Europe. Though this particular one was never used for mass killings, the features of those horrid rooms were still all in place. That room really was terrifying. In this area we also saw two preserved crematoriums. They originally had one, but one year after it's construction, the number of deaths outgrew the first one, so they build another, larger, crematorium to burn all the bodies. In fact, within the last year of the war, there was a coal shortage and thus they couldn't burn all the bodies, so when the Allies arrived there were more than 10,000 unburied bodies piled in and around the rooms of the crematoriums (these pictures are probably the worst, truly haunting). At this point, we had only started to realize that it was already 3:30, and we hadn't even eaten lunch yet. We had spent most of the day in this awful place, and I must admit it wasn't fun, it wasn't enjoyable, but I think it is something everyone should do if they have the opportunity. As miserable as it may be to see and remember these things, I think it is important to do so that our society can avoid these disasters before they occur, and not let history repeat itself. Overall, the site was very well organized and commemorative and informative at the same time. We left completely exhausted and emotionally drained, completely mentally spent. We got back to our car, and after taking a few minutes to take some deep breaths and collect ourselves, we found the nearest grocery store and got some food for a very late lunch (4pm) and dinner. We then drove on toward Wieskirche, where there is a nice church. Upon arrival however, we found the church to be closed due to a concert tonight, so we admired the outside, and the beautiful views of the nearby Alps and moved on. We headed now toward Garmischpartenkirchen (awesome town name) which is a very nice town situated in the valley next to the tallest peak in Germany (Zugspitze, 2973m). The views here are spectacular, with some very rugged and majestic mountains on all sides. Not finding a good place to freecamp anywhere around here, we decided to stay in a campsite again here in Garmischpartenkirchen. Tomorrow, we plan to see a monastery and a few castles (including the one that the Disney logo is based on) before heading westward into the Black Forest region.

7-21-10: Garmish->Ettal->Linderhof->Ruette->Lindau

    Today we packed and left our campsite after a nice shower and breakfast and headed toward Ettal. The main attraction here is a large monastery with an elaborate and ornate church. We walked around the monastery and enjoyed the massive fresco on the dome of the church. This monastery also brews it's own beer, and apparently has a brewery tour. We asked every non-tourist there and opened every door we could and sill could not find any information about the brewery tour. Strangely, not even the attendants or gift shop employees had any clue as to any details of the brewery. Annoyed, we gave up and left the monastery. We headed next to Linderhof, where we visited the Linderhof Palace. This palace was the only palace built by Ludwig II that was completed during his lifetime (though he started many more) and he lived here for the last 8 years of his life. Ludwig II was an extremely strange guy. The palace is just outrageously over the top, it seriously looks like heavily ornamental gold pieces were crammed into every available space on the walls and ceilings. It is beyond extravagant, to the point of absurdity. In addition to his style, he was personally strange as well. He lived and ate completely alone. He entertained no guests, had no family, and never even had so much as a girlfriend (or even a friend at all for that matter). He even had an apparatus installed to raise and lower his dinner table from his private dining room down to the kitchen so he could dine without ever seeing another person. The premises also had a few other buildings he built in addition to the main palace. He loved operas, so he had a "cave" constructed for opera scenes from Wagner to be performed in for his personal viewing. The "cave" was actually quite funny, as it appears from one side as a real cave entrance in the rock, and the inside (made of concrete and rebar) is complete with cave formations and even an "underground" lake. There is also a small hunting building on site, though Ludwig never hunted, he liked to read his Wagner operas alone in his hunting shack. The gardens around the palace were also extremely nice, and included a few fountains, one of them being enormous and very impressive. We toured the whole place, and once done, we ate lunch on the banks of a stream nearby. After lunch, we headed to a cluster of medieval castles near Ruette. The castles are now only ruins, though many of the walls are still standing. Of the group of four castles situated on adjacent mountain tops, we visited two of them. We hiked to the first one, up a mountain of course, and were rewarded with nice views of the valley and surrounding Alps. Having some extra time, we decided to hike up the big one, to the largest castle atop the highest mountain peak of the four. The hike was extremely steep and quite grueling, but we made it to the top and received even better panoramic views than before. The Alps and the river in the valley stretched as far as the eye could see (it was fairly clear still, bur clouds rolled in shortly hereafter). The castle complex itself was pretty neat, and much of the hugely extensive wall system that protected all the way down into the valley was still preserved. It was also very peaceful here, as most tourists don't make the effort to climb up to castles like these. After our hike to the castles, we headed toward Fussen, where the famed "Disney Castle" is located (also built by Ludwig II). We did not go into this one, as the tourists are overwhelming and the prices outrageous. We did however get a picture from a free distance away. And, to be honest, it's a bit of a stretch to compare this castle to the Disney logo. Although very nice, it doesn't really look like the same castle, the Disney one is symmetrical and has numerous tall spires, but this one only had one such spire. Anyway, after our quick view of the famous castle, we headed west in the direction of Freiburg. We stopped about an hour into the drive when we found a nice freecampsite. Tomorrow, we plan to spend the day near Lake Constance, before heading on to Freiburg where we will meet up with our lab-mate and friend Steve Sando on Friday.

7-22-10: Lake Constance

    Today after packing and leaving our freecampsite, we headed about an hour and a half down the road to a lakefront campsite. The campsite was full at the time, but it was early in the morning so they said to try back in an hour once people checked out. So, we headed to a nearby campsite to check their prices and vacancy to kill time. We had a somewhat strange encounter with the lady at that campsite. She first asked where we were from, and we told her the US. She then said that this campsite was very expensive and that we should probably go to a different site (she gave a few suggestions). We enquirer a little more, but she really seemed to not want our business, so we left and went downtown to a grocery store to pick up some food for lunch later. Germans aren't the friendliest bunch, but this was worse than usual. We then went back to the first campsite and got a spot there. After washing some things and setting up, we went down to the lake beach, where we spent most of the day. We read our books, soaked up the sun (to try at get our tan back that we had earlier in Greece), and enjoyed the cool lake water (it's a big lake). The day was really quite relaxing, and a good way to wind down as the last few weeks have been pretty non-stop. It was also a good way to recharge before making the final push through the last remaining days of our Europe adventure. Tomorrow, we head into Freiburg to meet with Steve, and then Saturday we drive to Paris in order to see the Tour de France on Sunday.

7-23-10: Freiburg

    Today we woke up and packed our wet tent and tarp into the car before hitting the road westward. We drove the hour and a half to Freiburg from our campsite on the lake to a campsite near the city center of Freiburg. We set up our stuff again, then walked downtown to meet our friend and fellow-Grinnellian Steve Sando. He spent the past several months here in Germany on a study-abroad program. We met in front of the giant cathedral in the central square, where a bustling market was taking place. We then walked together a short bit to a busy food court type market where we had way too many delicious options to choose from. I followed Steve's personal recommendation and it was great! We talked during the walk and during lunch about everything. It was really nice to catch up with him, and hear about his abroad experiences. We also shared our travel experiences and it was fun to compare and relate our thoughts on Germany. Steve seems to have had a great experience, and proved to be a wonderful first-hand guide of the city and of the culture there. We walked back to the cathedral and went in for two reasons, one the church is fairly impressive, both on size and unique gothic architecture (it was one of only a few churches like it in Germany to survive the war intact), and two to get out of the rain. Unfortunately, it rained pretty much constantly after lunch. Many of the things we wanted to do in Freiburg involved being outside and walking, but the cold rain really put a damper on our plans. After some more conversation, we said goodbye to Steve, and headed separate ways. We wandered toward the university there, both to see it and to hopefully find a library with some Internet to do some Paris research. We easily found the urban university, but unfortunately the campus computers require a student login, so we were unable to use them. We then headed further down the road, in hopes of finding an indoor place with wifi. We stumbled upon a bookstore that had some English books, so we stopped and perused and read for a bit while we warmed up and dried off. We eventually moved on, back into the rain, and wandered for a while, with no luck in finding free Internet. Being cold and wet, we gave up and turned back, this time in search of an indoor cafe of sorts. We soon found one and ordered some tea and a piece of cake (one of only a handful of snacks this whole trip). We sat here and warmed up again, before heading out, this time back toward the campsite. We stopped into a public library we noticed on the way back, but they ended up charging for Internet, so we moved on again. We then happened upon a string of American places, a McDonalds, a Subway, and a Starbucks all in a row. Luckily, the Starbucks had free wifi, so we did some research about where to stay on Paris and posted this entry. Finally having fulfilled our goal for the day, we walked back to the campsite to eat. We made some hot soup for dinner and hoped that tomorrow would be nicer. Tomorrow, we might do a hike around here in the morning if it's nicer, and then head into Paris tomorrow evening. It was great to see Steve today, but the constant rain made us feel very fortunate that we have had such nice weather for most of this trip. It is very hard to see a city and beautiful forested countryside when it is so nasty outside. We cross our fingers that Paris will be nicer!

7-24-10: Freiburg->Paris

    Today was our longest driving day of the entire trip. We woke up to more rain unfortunately, so we packed our very wet stuff into the car, and after a hot shower (it was pretty cold last night), we headed out. We decided against a hike due to the rain and cold. Stopping only a few times for bathrooms and lunch, we made the 7 hour drive out of Germany and into France, all the way into Paris. We found a campsite to stay for our last four nights, and checked in to a campsite for the last time this trip. Fortunately, we had driven out of the rain, and it was now only overcast so we set up our stuff to dry. We spent the rest of the afternoon planning our next few days in Paris, including two days of sightseeing and one day of seeing the final stage of the Tour de France. After some pasta for dinner, and some more discussion of the many things to do before we get on a plane next Wednesday, we called it a day. Tomorrow, we plan to see the Tour somewhere in downtown Paris, it'll probably really busy and kinda crazy, but I'm really looking forward to it.

Germany Summary:

    It's unfair to really call this a Germany summary, for our short five day stay was only enough to experience a very small piece of the country. We stayed, for transportation purposes, only in the Southernmost parts of Germany, mostly in Bavaria. From what we saw though, we really liked Germany. Munich was a neat city, with lots of modern history (though not many historic buildings, all destroyed in WWII). Bavaria has a very interesting and fun culture, where the people are Bavarians first, and Germans second. They really do love their beer as much as stereotypes like to portray. They are a fun loving, though still law-abiding (like typical Germans), bunch that seem to be constantly socializing in one of the countless beer gardens. In Germany as a whole, we did find the people to be a little more serious and strict than most places we've been, it seems everything is VERBOTEN sometimes. And even though the Bavarians are fun, they still retain some of the lack of humor that seems to characterize Germans. Overall though, we had mostly positive experiences with locals. The countryside in southern Germany is fantastic. Bavarian Alps are stunning and beautiful mountains with rugged tops and forested bases. And the Black Forest side (south-west) is less rugged, but the rolling hills are covered in either green forests or lined vineyards. It was disappointing we didn't get the best experience from Freiburg and the Black Forest due to the rain, but it seems like a really beautiful and laid back region, almost Tuscany-like maybe. And, like Hungary, I have to mention the hard stuff too, Dachau. Dachau was so memorable and so powerful that I know it will leave one of the most lasting and intense memories of this trip. And, as I said before, it isn't fun or pretty, but it does add so much emotion and context to the struggles of the past, especially here in Germany, that it is a must to visit. So, I leave Germany with the wonderful sights of mountain scenery and thoughts of beer-loving Bavarians, juxtaposed with the images of a dark history that is painful, but only adds to the whole German story. Overall, I really enjoyed the small bit of Germany that we got to see, a beautiful modern country with a happy but serious population trying to positively redefine what it means to be German while preserving the lessons of an unfortunate past.

7-25-10: Paris

    Today we witnessed the final stage of the 2010 Tour de France in Paris, in person. After waking up and eating breakfast, we grabbed the (pricey) bus and metro into the city center. We started from the Arc de Triomphe and followed the famous Avenue de Champs Elysees toward the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre. This area looked nothing as it usually does, with extensive temporary fencing and employees preparing for the spectacle soon to take place (it is about 10am now, race runs around 1-4pm). People were already staking out places to stand along the railings all along the famous tree lined avenue. We walked all the way into the garden situated in front of the Louvre. The path of the race comes into the city center along the riverfront, and then laps eight times in a big loop between the Louvre as the Arc de Triomphe, before finishing near the Arc. We first positioned ourselves on the corner of the park where they first enter, and then lap 8 times. However, after about an hour, a large group of police ushered us far away, claiming the area for VIPs only. Perturbed, we tried to find a way back toward the action, but we were met with battalions of police at every turn. I must admit, the police presence was impressive, every officer in France must have been in uniform and in Paris today. After talking with numerous fellow tourists, we gathered a good idea of the lay of the land, and headed to an area that we predicted to be good. We eventually found a place, in the park near the Louvre, that overlooked the road that was part of the 8 time loop at a height of about 20 feet with the road only a sidewalk distance horizontally away. We were pleased with our find, and deemed it even better than the first one due to the height advantage making for a greater viewing distance. We found a few chairs in the park nearby, and carried them to our front row spot along the wall. We sat and read our books in our chairs and ate some salad and sandwiches for lunch at that spot. After about 3 hours, around 3pm, a huge parade of advertisement and logo covered vehicles and floats came thundering by. The parade lasted about a half hour, with hundreds of cars and floats representing numerous brands and sponsors. After the excitement of the parade and all the humorous floats, another hour+ of waiting ensued. A sporadic stream of official cars or team cars continued to pass by during this time, but still no bikes. Finally, around 4:15pm, we spotted the first rider, and then in a period lasting about 10 seconds, the entire pelaton of hundreds of riders whizzed past us with the distinct yet dull sound of carbon fiber vibrating on the asphalt. Already I was hooked, although it only lasted a few seconds, it was awe inspiring to see in person what I have watched so many times on TV. And although the TV cameras give better and longer up close views of the riders, it cannot truly convey the massive speed that these riders carry themselves. The visual sweeping motion of an entire pelaton crossing your several-hundred meter wide field of view in just a few seconds, combined with the hollow vibration of carbon, and the chorus of yelling and honking horns really makes the experience worthwhile. And yes, I do think waiting for the majority of a day to witness 8 ten second passes was well worth it. After watching the laps from our nice spot, we ventured away from our peaceful wall over toward the Arc again. We soon ran into a police block, and had to walk way around, but we eventually made it to where the ceremony and announcement of victors was being held. The crowds here were enormous. We got to see the stage where the winners were presented, but couldn't really see much more. We were present in that mob when the winning team, and the individual winners of all the different jerseys were announced, which was both crazy and fun, even though we couldn't really tell what was going on. After the big ones were announced, and we just heard more rambling French, we moved on further up toward the Arc. The road here was still lined with people, though less crowded than it was before. We stopped in to the Renault and Toyota showrooms that are along this road, just to kill time as we waited for the lines to get on to the metro to die down. We made it all te way back to the Arc, marveling at all the people and Tour merchandise along the way. I really consider us lucky today, as the weather was overcast and cool, but not raining, which made it very pleasant to wait and read outside for the Tour. We also saw about as many if not more English speaking people today as French. I was expecting to see lots of foreigners today, but I was still surprised at how many Americans we saw. Anyway, we then bought some metro tickets an headed back toward the campsite. As it turns out, we had bought the wrong metro ticket, so I got to jump my first turnstile, which was fun. Anyway, we decides to walk the last bit back, to stop at McDonalds to use their wifi. We made some motel reservations for our last night here to make things easier on us (we found some decently competitive prices). We then finally made it back to cook some (already almost 9 by now) and shower. Tomorrow we plan on seeing the many major attractions of Paris in a big self-guided walking tour.

7-26-10: Paris

    Today we saw many of the main tourist attractions that Paris has to offer. It was a long day of visits, so I'm going to sort of summarize. In order of the day, we visited te following sites: Eiffel Tower, Champ de Mars (a square), Hotel des Invalides (a lavish old hospital), Jardin de Luxembourg (a garden), the Pantheon, Eglise St Germain des Pres (Paris' oldest church), Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and the Cemetery du Pere Lachaise. Now, this list seems pretty daunting for one day, but many of the sights we only paused briefly, took a couple pictures, then moved on. We bought a day pass public transit ticket this morning, and really got our moneys worth, we used the metro several times to squeeze in more sights into one day by reducing waking times. Since both Emily and I have been to Paris prior to this trip, we were able to gloss over a few of the more expensive or time consuming things, for example we just walked under and around the Eiffel tower instead of going up to the top. The sights were as expected for Paris, the architecture here is magnificent and matching everywhere, and there is a huge monument or important building basically everywhere you look. I've decided not to go into specifics today about each attraction, especially considering most of you probably at least have a sense of what the major sights of Paris entail. Instead, I'll merely refer you to the France Summary, where I will give the overall impressions we got from our wanderings today. And, to make today's blog less pathetic, I'll make a few observations. First, Paris is incredibly touristy. You might have already guessed this, but compared to any other place we've been, the Americans just dominate central Paris. At many places, I could easily have been in the States, as I overheard far more English than French. Second, I'll get to this more in the summary, but Paris is a repetitive place. They have tried so hard to make all the buildings downtown really beautiful and stone and matching, that it all sort of blends together, losing any sense of uniqueness or individuality. Third, it is a very pretentious town. I will leave you with that as a teaser for the summary, coming tomorrow. Tomorrow, we plan to first pack up and leave our campsite and drive to our motel for tomorrow night. After dropping off our stuff, we'll return the car, and get all our stuff to again fit into our suitcases. We then plan to spend whatever time is left that evening to see Paris at night and eat out for our last meal.

7-27-10: Paris

    Today was a sort of preparation day for our departure tomorrow. We slept in and took nice showers and ate breakfast at the campsite this morning before packing our wet tent and tarp into the car (it rained last night). We drove to the motel we had reserved near the airport and checked in. We managed to completely empty the car and move all of our stuff into our small motel room. To avoid paying for parking, and mostly to save time and stress tomorrow morning, we returned the car without hassle to the Renault place at the airport. We then walked to the main terminal and found a cafe place to eat some lunch. The hot sandwiches, though a little pricey, were actually quite delicious. After lunch, we (after a little wait) caught the free hotel shuttle back to the Comfort Inn. Earlier, we had literally set up the tent inside our room, upside down on the bed, and hung the tarp on a rope strung between the door and the closet. It was really a pretty funny sight, as the tent took up almost the entire room, with essentially no space to even walk. However, it was a necessary hassle to avoid packing a wet and heavy tent into our luggage. Fortunately, everything was pretty dry when we got back, so we were able to take it down and pack it up. We spent the next while sorting and folding and packing our things into suitcases, which was quite a task given all the various items we had used and acquired during our two month stay. Eventually, we stuffed the last few things into bulging bags, and it was done. We had thought about going bak into Paris today, but decided against it because it was already late in the day and it costs an outrageous $20+/person to get into the city and back. If we dd that, we wouldn't have enough cash left to eat dinner, which was the whole point of going downtown in the first place. Instead, we relaxed and did some Internet catchup in the motel room until dinner. We plan to eat dinner in and walk around the small suburb that our motel is in near the airport before getting some good sleep tonight. Tomorrow we will catch a 7:55AM shuttle to the airport for our 10AM flight to Miami, and then to Atlanta. We get into Atlanta around 6PM eastern time tomorrow. It'll be a long day+ of traveling, but we're both excited to get back to the States.

France (Paris) Summary:

    It is clearly unfair to call this a France summary, as we really only saw Paris this time around, so this section is going to only talk about our few days in Paris. Paris is a large city that carries an even larger reputation. People know it as the cultural center of the West and the essential epicenter of all that is modern, fashionable, or trendy. And in many ways it lives up to the hype. The buildings are huge and elegantly architectured everywhere you look, and the downtown is littered with impressive monuments, nice parks, and of course rows and rows of expensive trendy shops. Walking around Paris I think leads to a two stage thought process. First, I was impressed and awed by the endless classy avenues and flawless architecture that draws tourists by the bus load, literally. However, after some time here (and this was my second time here), the buildings all seem to run together and the classy streets just start to rub me the wrong way. The architecture loses originality and you start to look toward the people there instead, which is where the problem lies. First off, there are way too many tourists, which I think distract from the experience of being in a foreign place, sometime I felt that I was just in New York or something. Secondly, the locals that you do encounter are trendy pretentious snobs that are constantly shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Now, that was probably a little harsh, as not all Parisians are this way. But the vibe I frequently get is that of deep pretension. Now, you're probably thinking, Matt, it's hypocritical of you to say that since you are so overconfident and maybe even arrogant yourself. And yes, while I'll admit that I am a bit cocky, I don't believe I am at all pretentious. I think there is a definitive difference here, in that Parisians have an aire of superiority and entitlement that is fundamentally more obnoxious to me than simple cockiness. Anyway, French rant aside, I did enjoy our days in Paris. The sights are spectacular and it is a wonderful and beautiful city to wander around. However, I don't think Paris will ever be high on my list for return trips, as I have had much better and more friendly experiences with the locals of most other places we've been.

Final Pre-Summary:

    Well, I write this from our motel room of the final night of our two month Europe adventure. Tomorrow morning we leave on a plane from Paris and travel for the next almost 24 hours until we return to Knoxville. Overall, the trip was fantastic! We got to see so many amazing places and experience so much in the eight short weeks we were here. I am not going to write the full summary yet, as I plan to wait until we're back in the States and I have a real keyboard to type on (this entire blog until now has been written on my iPhone). Be sure to stay tuned for that final summary coming in a few days. It will include a textual summary of our experience, a 'trip in numbers' segment where we'll give some cool statistical and cost data, and a 'superlatives' segment where we'll include some fun 'best of...s'. Anyway, though it is sad to leave this amazing and diverse continent, we are very much looking forward to getting back to the States. Getting back to a more stable routine with a real bed and a real computer, and even starting a real job, will be nice. Our time here was comfortable enough, but 8 weeks of traveling and camping outside and living quite inexpensively can really wear on you. When we get back to the US, probably around 10pm tomorrow into Knoxville, we have quite a busy schedule the next few days. The 29th we have to unpack and repack and load the stuff we need for moving to Madison in one day. The next day, the 30th we'll drive the 11 hours to Iowa City to pick up Emily's stuff. And then on the 31st we'll drive to Madison to get the rest of our stuff our of a storage unit that expires that day. On the 1st, we then load all of that stuff into our new apartment in Madison. On the 2nd, we start our new jobs at the University of Wisconsin. It'll be a crazy return to America, but certainly exciting as well. Anyway, I will cover more detail in the real overall summary that is coming soon. Stay tuned!

Final Summary

    The trip was a fantastic success. We traveled all around Central and Eastern Europe with our trusty rental vehicle with essentially no major setbacks or troubles. We began in Paris, and quickly drove southeast to Switzerland. Switzerland was the most majestically beautiful segment of the trip with vast rugged mountains and steep cliffs. We then moved on to Italy, where we first met the wonderful rolling hills of Tuscany and the windy river streets of Venice. Toward central Italy, in Rome, we saw some of the best ancient ruins sights in the world. And then, after a relaxing stay on an Italian beach, we headed next to Greece. Greece was probably our overall favorite country of the trip, notably for the breathtakingly beautiful scenery of the dry ocean-front mountains of Peloponnesia and the wetter rolling mountains of central Greece. Interspersed in this scenic region we experienced ancient and prehistoric sites as well as neat modern Greek culture. After our enlightening and fun meeting with a fellow Grinnellian, we headed to our farthest Eastern destination, Istanbul. Istanbul was my favorite city, and as a place with 15,000,000 people, it truly is an experience. Though massive and bustling, I loved the unique Eastern and Islamic influences, especially the mosques and other Muslim sights. We then headed north to Bulgaria and Romania, where we saw the dramatic influences of the 20th century history of communism and war. These culturally unique and economically suppressed countries were extremely interesting not only for the complex modern history, but also for the unexpectedly beautiful and rural countryside. We then transitioned more back toward Western culture in Hungary, where we got to learn some of the fascinating history of traditionally Central Europe. This part of the world has really been involved in every piece of major European history from prehistoric times right through the 20th century. From there we transitioned to Austria and Germany where we again got to see some spectacular Alps scenery and witness unique German and Bavarian culture. Finally, we returned to Paris to witness the Tour de France and see the cultural capital of the world before returning home after two full months of travel. That was a very brief and cursory overview of our European loop, but the experience of a whole is truly indescribable regardless of how much I wanted to write. I simply cannot really summarize the memories and emotions and struggles and triumphs that the trip supplied. The experiences were invaluable, and sure, we had some struggles, every 8.5 week trip would expect to have road-bumps. But I am legitimately and pleasantly surprised how smoothly the whole thing went. We did drive on some pretty crazy roads and suffered through confusing city streets with swarms of mopeds crowding every lane, but we made it through without ever getting too lost and without ever getting a scratch on the car or a traffic ticket. And also, gathering and scouting for food and lodging every night for two months got tiring and stressful at times, but we managed to never go hungry or have to sleep in the car (although we got close once). Anyway, I really am going to try to keep this short (I know, I know, the blog is a little overwhelmingly long now). Overall, the trip was truly the trip of a lifetime, I will value the memories and experiences gained over the past two months for as long as I live. I really couldnÕt ask for more.

Superlatives:
Best country overall: Greece
Best city overall: Istanbul
Best scenery overall: Greece
Best scenery (mountains): Switzerland
Best ancient history: Italy
Best modern history: Hungary
Best countryside: Bulgaria/Romania
Coldest temperatures: Switzerland
Most scenic big city: Bern, Switzerland
Most impressive ancient ruin: Parthenon, Athens / Colosseum (Rome)
Cheapest country: Romania
Most expensive country: Germany
Most touristy: Rome/Paris
Least touristy: Bulgaria/Romania
Best food dish: Stuffed peppers, Bulgaria
Worst drivers: Italy
Best drivers: Switzerland
Most memorable site: Dachau
Best museum: Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria) / Archaeological Museum (Athens)
Best architecture: Munich, Germany / BMW Welt (Vienna)
Most impressive church: St. PeterÕs (Vatican, Italy)

Trip in Numbers:
Miscellaneous:
Length of trip (days): 57
Number of nights free-camped: 21
Number of nights in a campsite: 25
Number of nights in a hostel: 6
Number of nights in a hotel: 2
Pictures taken: 3,646
Car:
Amount of Fuel used: 410.5L (108.45gal)
Distance driven: 8,927.5km (5,547.3mi)
Fuel economy: 4.6L/100km (51.15mpg)
Average speed: 54.1kmh (33.6mph)
Tickets received: 1 (parking)
Money: (unless noted, totals for both of us, USD)
Total spent on the trip (combined/per person): $8,136.04 / $4,068.02
Spent on gas: $723
Spent on alternate transportation: $626
Spent on sleep: $893
Spent on food: $774
Spent on miscellaneous: $245
Spent on sights: $465
Average spent per day per person (w/o plane, ferry, or car rental): $32.65
Average spent per day per person (all but plane): $52.37

Pictures!

    Well, Emily and I have finished sorting through all of the pictures we took in Europe this past summer. On our first pass, we selected out around 1,100 of the best pictures to post on Picasa. Click here to view these pictures. Soon, we plan to go through these selected pictures one more time, and choose the best 200-300 of them to post on Facebook. Anyway, we tried not to be too repetitive with our choices, I hope you enjoy them! I'll probably post here one more time when we finish this final sorting. Thanks again for reading!



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