Posts Tagged ‘eurotrip2017’

Rome

September 23rd, 2017

Colosseum, Rome
 

From Florence I took a high speed train to Rome in late June. I stayed at a small Airbnb loft near Palatine Hill, the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, and many other historic locations.

Since I was a kid I’d been fascinated by Rome, a small city that somehow became a vast empire through technological superiority and military might. Today it’s a bustling city with an unusual mixture of history and modernity on nearly every corner. Although I also had a sillier reason to visit; more on that in a bit.

Not long after arriving in Rome I was joined my Greek friend and his girlfriend for the first part of the trip; I joined them again in Greece, which I’ll get to in a subsequent post.

Rome Rome Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Rome
 

Google Maps had somewhat screwy walking directions near the Airbnb. As it happened, the Airbnb was steps away from a number of other historic sites including Rome’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (locals jeeringly call this the “wedding cake”) and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli church. Both are built on top of a partially excavated site adjacent to Palatine Hill.

Today Italians refer to this weird mix of structures from various eras as “architectural lasagna,” a theme that’s especially present in Rome.

Rome
 

The three of us went to the Vatican on a guided tour. You can’t talk about Rome without discussing Vatican City. Technically it’s a separate country from Italy with its own governance, but no sane government would allow so many people into such tight quarters. The Vatican apparently doesn’t believe in fire codes. Seriously, the place is not only a tourist trap, it’s a potential fire trap as well.

My tour group wasn’t alone in being rushed through one tight room after another, finally going through a densely crowded Sistine Chapel. Is it Michelangelo’s most impressive work? I couldn’t tell you, as Vatican security yelled at everyone to keep moving so fast that I barely caught a glimpse of it. My takeaway here is that the Vatican is not worth visiting, it’s just another overcrowded tourist trap. Unless you can arrange for an off-hours visit, skip the Vatican; there are many more pleasant places to visit in Rome.

Rome Rome Rome
 

One of the oldest Roman buildings still standing is the Pantheon, a temple built with a non-reinforced concrete dome. These days it’s a church and is free to enter — and is well worth visiting. If nothing else the structure is an outstanding example of ancient architecture which still survives to this very day.

Here I should point out that Rome had an unusual history of flooding. For centuries, Rome had floods that brought more and more sediment, bringing the street level slightly higher after each flood. For this reason the Pantheon — like many excavated structures below Palatine Hill — sits below today’s street level, evidenced by trenches around the structure.

Rome Rome Rome Rome
 

Around this time we started making regular visits to Trastevere, a hipster foodie mecca on the east side of the Tiber river. We visited a few excellent restaurants, my favorite of which was La Boccaccia, a Roman-style pizza joint. If you’re unfamiliar with Roman pizza it’s a relatively thin, flat pizza made in rectangular pans and served in rectangular slices. The comparison to Little Little Ceasars is obvious, but a good Roman pizza is much thinner and has a variety of delicious, high quality toppings.

Later in the trip I ventured out to a food tasting trip in Trastevere which I’ll cover shortly.

Down at the level of the Tiber was a film festival on Tiber Island, with a variety of shops and activities on either side of the riverbank across from the island, mostly in white tents. The funniest of which was a roller coaster simulator that involved moving chairs with Oculus Rift headsets. This festival was particularly active during the evening.

Rome Rome Rome Rome
 

The following day the three of us arrived slightly late to our appointment at the Galleria Borghese, an art museum focusing on the sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a few of his contemporaries, and paintings from Caravaggio and others from the same late-Renaissance era.

It’s a small but remarkably well organized museum. I was particularly impressed by the sculptures. The first of the photos above depicts David in a battle-ready and clothed position, quite different than how Michelangelo had portrayed him earlier.

The Galleria Borghese is located inside a park called Villa Borghese Gardens, which is just outside the historic city wall of Rome. Unfortunately we didn’t get to explore the park due to an unexpected rain storm.


 

This museum has an unusual appointment system that I should probably explain here. Unlike most museums where you can stay as long as you like during the open hours, the Borghese requires visitors to book an hour long visit. You can come and go freely during that time, but when it’s over everyone has to leave so the next group can come in. The last ten or so minutes a loud breathing sound effect is played throughout the gallery, alerting visitors that their time is almost up. (Immersive designers may be interested in this fusion of modern technology with old-fashioned artwork to evoke a sense of creeping urgency.)

An hour was about the right amount of time in this museum; we went with the official English-language tour that covered the most important works, which only lasted about the first half of our booked hour.

Rome
 

From there we visited the Trevi Fountain, a beautiful 18th century fountain that’s a tourist magnet. Like many sites in Rome it was heavily policed. By this point in the trip I was pretty much done shoving my way through crowds — if you visit during tourist season I’d recommend going at night when it’s less crowded.

The same evening we went on a tour of the Capuchin Crypt, a display of human bones from the Capuchin Monks in the basement of one of their churches. The tour included a bus trip just outside of Rome’s historic walls to an early Christian catacomb, which was after hours and as such an uncrowded a peaceful relief from the heat. It was also a hiding spot for Allied soldiers during both world wars, who left behind graffiti. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited at both sites.

Rome
Rome Rome Rome Rome
 

The following day our time together in Rome came to a close, but not before a tour of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. Although this tour was ostensibly through Walks of Italy, for the majority of the Colosseum tour our group was merged with other tours for an official Colosseum tour, which includes the underground, the nosebleed section, and a few unusual spots like the bathrooms and the elevators from the underground to the arena floor.

The Colosseum’s exterior has been power-washed recently to remove blackened exhaust reside, but it’s still visible in the interior. Private cars are no longer allowed on the road outside the entrance to the Colosseum — but there’s a Metro station there, and a second Metro station was under construction for a new line.

Palatine Hill and the area just underneath were interesting, although much of the structures that once adorned it are now in ruins. A church and the former Senate Hall still stand just below the hill, as do a number of triumphant arches (at least three?) I should point out that you can get a combined official ticket to both the Colosseum and Palatine Hill without a tour.

Taverna Romana, Rome Taverna Romana, Rome
 

Just after the tour we headed to Taverna Romana for lunch on the recommendation of our guide. This turned out to be one of the better places in the ultra-touristy neighborhood of Monti, with almost everything made in house, including pasta and deserts. Surprisingly, the prices were very reasonable.

A few hours later my friends headed to the airport and flew back to Athens, and I was on my own again for the next six days.

Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome
Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome
 

The following morning I took a long and meandering walk to see the pyramid in Rome. Yes, that’s right — there’s a pyramid in Rome, albeit a small one. It’s located in the “non-Catholic” cemetery which is also the resting place of two Romantic-era English poets, Shelley and Keats, among many other people.

It’s still an active and well maintained cemetery with beautiful gardens, but also serves as a cat sanctuary. While most of the cats were young and skittish, one big fat friendly calico cat resting on top of a large gravestone meowed at me, so I went to pet him. Five minutes later I found myself covered in cat hair and regretted not bringing along a lint roller to clean off my clothes. Thankfully, the cemetery also has a free bathroom with paper towels.

Aqueduct Park, Rome
Aqueduct Park, Rome Train cutting through Aqueduct Park, Rome
 

From the cemetery I walked over to the “Piramide” Metro station nearby and rode the to the Park of the Aqueducts, a public park somewhat off the beaten path that contains ruins of the Roman Aqueducts. The surrounding area is decidedly non-touristy, and not everyone in the area necessarily speaks a word of English. This was only slightly problematic when finding a quick bite for lunch.

The park itself is a somewhat rural mishmash between the various historical aqueducts — at least two that I spotted — as well as picnic areas, day care centers, and fenced off areas for various train systems. Despite being near-peak tourist season the park was largely deserted, aside from a few locals going for a jog or having lunch. I was disappointed though not surprised to find the oldest aqueducts heavily covered in graffiti.

Walking to the Metro station on the other end of the park I got a little lost, and heard sheep baaing in the distance. A sign pointed to a ranch somewhere inside the park but I never managed to find the animals. On my way to the Metro, Google Maps led me through a small neighborhood, took me on a pedestrian and bike path under a rail bridge, and around some apartments. Though I found the aqueducts fascinating to see up close I also felt glad to be back in modernity. Rome’s ancient past is somehow still very much alive and well to this day alongside its urban counterpart. For those interested in Roman history I’d recommend this park, and even if you’re only mildly interested the place is surreal enough I think most visitors would at least find it intriguing.

Rome
St. Valentine's Skull (allegedly) Rome Aventine Keyhole, Rome
 

In the morning I went on a free walking tour that included a number of interesting sites, including the legendary Mouth of Truth, the alleged skull of St. Valentine, and the Aventine Keyhole, the later of which is the above photo of all the people waiting in line to see it. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t get a decent photo through the keyhole, but you can easily find photos on Google Images.

I happened to mention to the tour guide that I’d seen a version of the Mouth of Truth that’s a fortune telling machine at home in San Francisco. He theorized that these fortune telling machines were all over and were part of the appeal of seeing the real thing. But he also pointed out something else we had a replica of in San Francisco…

Turtle Fountain, Rome
 

Does the above fountain look familiar to you? If you’ve been to the park on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco, it should — because it’s a replica of this original one in Rome. Located in a small square in the Jewish Ghetto, the original Turtle Fountain was built during the Renaissance. Oddly, the turtles by which its known weren’t originally part of the fountain, but were added decades later.

Rome Via Ezio, Rome
 

For lunch I stopped by the nearby Pizza Florida, another excellent by-the-slice Roman pizza joint that I’d recommend almost as much as La Boccaccia. Across the street there’s an excavation site which was once the Largo di Torre Argentina temples, notably the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Today one corner is accessible and operates as a cat shelter.

After a long walk in what was becoming unbearable heat, I found one of the silly things I knew I had to see in Rome — Via Ezio. See, it wasn’t exactly a coincidence I visited three of the cities in Assassins’ Creed II (one of my favorite video games of all time) which stars a character named Ezio Auditore. Seeing places I’d only visited virtually in the real world, albeit a few hundred years after the events of the game were to have taken place, was part of the Italian leg of this trip’s appeal. Some of it felt downright uncanny. So I had to make an out of the way pilgrimage to a short street that happened to share the name of the main character.

Avocado toast, Rome Rome
 

The next day I wandered over to a fast casual restaurant near the Colosseum called “Avocado Bar” and ordered their avocado toast for brunch. When in Rome… amirite? It was great and unexpectedly filling, with a layer of beets under the avocado and topped with nuts.

After lunch I headed to my appointment at the “Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini,” a multimedia museum located in the basement of a (relatively) modern building. The basement was excavated by archaeologists who found two layers of history; a series of Renaissance era structures on top of a couple of mansions from the Roman Empire. A surprising amount of the mansions remains intact, from various rooms to tile patterns on the floor.

While visiting this site, you’re mostly looking down through a glass floor, with lights and projection-mapped visuals timed to an audio guide explaining what you’re looking at. In some cases the projection mappings visualize what archaeologists imagine how the original buildings appeared. At the end of the tour there’s a video explaining Trajan’s Column, a monolith just outside the museum which tells the story of a Roman battle.

Photography isn’t allowed anywhere inside Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini, but you can get a good idea of what it looks like from their website. Personally I enjoyed this one, it’s a creative and modern way to peek into history.

Rome Rome
 

Not having learned my lesson from the ultra long walk through Aqueduct Park, I decided to take another epic stroll through Trastevere to a hill that’s either spelled “Janiculum” or “Gianicolo” depending who you ask. The way up the hill isn’t obvious, and I somehow managed to take a route that was partially fenced off due to construction. Oops. Anyway, at the top I found a giant church, which was hosting a wedding at the time. Rather than crash the wedding — which I wasn’t dressed for anyhow — I continued on and found an enormous fountain as well as some other recreational structures, part of a park on the hilltop. It also features spectacular views of Rome.

It’s not difficult to find an amazing view in Rome, but this one has many vantage points and is completely free. When I went the hilltop had thinner crowds than other touristy spots in Rome.

After heading back down the hill I went to La Boccaccia again for some more pizza, because hey, I was already in Trastevere and who can resist a perfect slice of pizza? Not me, apparently.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome Baths of Caracalla, Rome Baths of Caracalla, Rome
 

The next morning I went to visit the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, an enormous bathhouse from the days when Rome’s power was at its peak. Today it’s used mostly as the backdrop for a series of outdoor operas. The building is surprisingly well intact considering it hasn’t been used since AD 500 or so, including original tile floors, and has been exposed to the elements for most of that period.

But the real draw for me was in the basement level, which was once a Mithraic temple. They tended to be in basements and there are many in Rome, but most are closed to the public. This one’s free, although none of the original artifacts are still down there. The audio guide available at the baths goes into this a little, but as much as I would have liked.

Rome
Giordano Bruno statue, Rome Rome
 

In the evening I took a walking tour that visits allegedly haunted locations. The tour features some brutal subjects including a heretical monk roasted alive over a spit fire and women poisoning their husbands to avoid divorce.

Like any modern city, Rome has its own modern ghost stories too — one of them involves the filming of a recent James Bond movie. Be warned that this tour can go late.

Ancient wine cellar, Rome Rome
 

On my final day in Rome I took a late afternoon food tour in the Trastevere neighborhood. We stopped at a small restaurant for light appetizers, then an old synagogue basement now used as a wine cellar (left photo above) for a wine tasting and more appetizers, a deli where we tried various small items, an excellent pastry shop (right photo above), a tiny “street food” restaurant that served fried cheese balls, a freshly-made pasta restaurant, and finally a gelato joint for desert.

As a non-meat eater they made special arrangements for me at a few locations, though for the most part I had the same food as everyone else. I was completely stuffed at the end and ready to call it a night.

Rome
Colosseum, Rome Colosseum, Rome
 

The above photos aren’t connected to anything, I just thought it would be fun to end on some photos of Rome at night. It’s a scenic city after dark — although I bet it wasn’t before electric lighting came along.
 

So to wrap this all up (is anyone still reading this post?) here’s a list of all the tours I went on in Rome:

  • Vatican Tour from Dark Rome/CityWonders. Maybe this is better in the off season, but I’d stay away if I were you. Other tour operators aren’t going to be any better, the crowds were the real issue.
  • Galleria Borghese. You have to book this one in advance and you only get to stay for an hour. We did the guided tour, which doesn’t take the full hour. It’s much more tastefully presented than anything you’d see in the Vatican.
  • The Crypts & Catacombs at Night: With Exclusive After Hour Access from Walks of Italy. More than a little morbid, but that’s all part of the appeal. No real crowds to contend with since it’s after hours.
  • Walks of Italy’s VIP Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum & Palatine Hill. This one felt both rushed and too long at the same time. I’d recommend booking the Colosseum and Palatine Hill separately if possible.
  • The free walking tour from Veni Vidi Visit isn’t the only free walking tour in Rome, but it included somewhat more esoteric stops that I was more interested in seeing. Bring a cash tip if you go.
  • Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini, the multimedia archeology exhibit. Definitely go, and definitely book way in advance.
  • Baths of Caracalla’s audio guide tour. Not sure if there’s an official website for this one, but it doesn’t matter. It’s pretty easy to find, relatively cheap, and if you pay slightly extra for the audio guide you can go around looking at the ruins instead of reading text in small print on the signs scattered around the place.
  • The spooky story Dark Heart of Rome tour from City Wonders is fun — if you’re into that sort of thing. This one involved more walking than the others.
  • Twilight Trastevere Food Tour from Eating Italy. This one fills up fast, which is why I had to go in the afternoon, so book it in advance if possible. It’s great if you like Italian food — I wish I’d gone on their sister tour in Florence.

The remaining photos I took in Rome can be found in this Flickr album.

Come back next time when I complete the Eurotrip 2017 series with my visit to Athens and a handful of Greek islands.

Florence

August 24th, 2017

After my stay in Venice I jumped on a high speed train — the trains in Venice leave directly from the main islands via a bridge — over to Florence. Or as the Italians call the city, Firenze.

I stayed at Hotel Axial, a relatively no-frills hotel that occupies a single floor of a building (this is far more common in Europe than in the US.) Everyone who I interacted there was completely fluent in English. Finding the place proved to be challenging because my phone couldn’t get a signal, so I had to ask around to find it. As luck would have it there was an Apple Store nearby. After checking in at the hotel I walked over to the Apple Store with my iPhone to find out what was up.

The guy booking appointments for the Genius Bar told me suggested to first ask my carrier for help as the problem was likely on their end. Sure enough, after contacting a T-Mobile support person via their web chat my phone had a signal once more. Phew! I have to hand it to them, Apple Stores have consistently good customer service; even in the Mediterranean where “customer service” isn’t exactly part of the culture. Fortunately I never had another issue with T-Mobile’s (free!) roaming anywhere else on this trip.

The hotel was steps away from the Florence Cathedral, better known as the Duomo. It’s a massive building, one of the largest churches in Italy.

Florence Florence Florence Florence
 

On the one hand staying near the Duomo was great due to the central location. On the other… oh man was it crowded outside! I wish I’d looked at the map more closely before booking that hotel because as I mentioned back in the Barcelona post, “Hard Rock Cafe, Stay Far Away.” This hotel was right around the corner from a Hard Rock Cafe, and that chain tends to rent locations as close to tourist traps as possible — lesson learned.

Originally I’d booked a food tour for my first night in Florence but that was cancelled at the last minute and I was offered a different tour. More on that in a second. While the food in Florence (and Venice, for that matter) generally wasn’t anything to write home about, I was surprised by the quality of the espresso in Florence. One place I went even served a small cup of sparkling water with their espresso. Sound familiar? It should if you’ve ever ordered espresso at Blue Bottle.

Florence
 

Instead of the food tour I opted to take a guided tour of Michelangelo’s David. Originally the statue was going to be one in a series of similar statues lining the buttresses of the Duomo, but that never worked out. Today the statue is located in the Galleria dell’Accademia, a tiny but crowded museum primarily devoted to David and a handful of Michelangelo’s unfinished works.

Carved out of a single piece of marble, it’s hard to describe the scale of the sculpture to anyone who hasn’t seen it in person. I don’t think I would have appreciated Michelangelo’s works at all based on what I saw in the Vatican (my stay in Rome will be in another post) if it weren’t for this epic statue.

Florence
 

Florence is home to one of the oddest structures I’ve ever seen. From the Palazzo Vecchio government building with its tall clock tower is a long indoor hallway that goes across the Ponte Vecchio bridge to a palace on the other side of Tuscany’s Arno river.

Although this corridor was closed while I was in Florence, it was once used by the powerful banking and political Medici family to commute between the seat of government and their own palace. Now it’s being renovated into a walkway between two museums of Renaissance art. This makes sense today because if Florence is known for anything, it’s Renaissance art.

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Ponte Vecchio bridge, Florence
 

That said, the reputation for art doesn’t stop at the end of the Renaissance. These days Florence has an active street art scene, most of which involves wheatpaste. The second photo here is also an interesting example of something I’ll get back to in a moment.

Florence Florence
 

But first, someone clearly spent a lot of time playfully messing around with Florence’s “Do Not Enter” signs. This might be the most common form of street art in Florence, which is impressive considering the overall abundance of street art in general.

Florence Florence Florence Florence
 

On my final day in Florence I’d thought about visiting the Duomo, but it was closed. Why? Well that turned out to be related to a number of parades around town, which looked like a Renaissance fair gone overboard. Turns out it was one of the local patron saints days for the city which meant there were celebrations all over town. There were also fireworks over the Arno river, though I unfortunately didn’t get a good look at the fireworks due to the massive crowds along the river.

Florence
 

As for that tiny door from earlier — the one with the wheatpaste over it — it was far from the only such door. Back in the day buildings with a wine cellar tended to have a small door on the side. If you wanted some wine you’d knock on the door, hand over some cash, and you’d get a cup of wine. This was basically a precursor to a modern wine bar. Who knew?

Here’s a more obvious example of a wine door:

Florence
 

I went on the following tours in Florence:

  • The David Tour from Artviva. A British art historian walked my group to the statue of David, explaining the life of Michelangelo and the history of the statue along the way. The tour price includes museum admission. If you’re interested you should book online in advance.
  • Artviva’s Original Florence Walk. This covers a lot of the history of Florence near the city’s center. There’s a lot covered regarding the local religious and political families, as well as some of the historic architecture. Both this and the David tour start at Artviva’s office, which is located a couple blocks from the Duomo. Their office can be a little challenging to find at first since it’s upstairs in a large building with multiple entrances. Again, book in advance when possible.
  • The Florence Free Tour is a big free walking tour that cannot be booked in advance — just show up and bring some cash to tip your guide at the end. There’s some overlap between this free tour and Artviva’s paid “Original Florence Walk,” but this one is (surprisingly) longer and goes into more depth about the Medici family. That said, my guide wasn’t as fluent in English as I would have liked but I still got the gist of the tour. I should mention that both tours take you inside different historical buildings, and the Free Tour takes you to the other side of the Ponte Vecchio bridge whereas the Artviva tour does not.

The rest of my photos from Florence can be found in this Flickr album.

Venice

August 21st, 2017

Venice
 

In June after visiting Barcelona I took a flight to Venice and stayed for a few nights. I only visited the main island chain, though there are a handful of others that I would have liked to check out if I’d had more time.

From the airport — located on the mainland — I took a vaporetto (water bus) to meet my Airbnb host’s son. I was glad to have a local show me around because the layout is pretty confusing. These days Google Maps can help you get around Venice pretty well, although the location services and compass hardware on your phone are sometimes misleading due to the thick stone walls mixing the signals up a little.

Anyway, the Airbnb happened to be larger and more beautiful than it looked in the photos; much nicer than my own apartment in San Francisco.

Venice airport Venice AirBnB Venice AirBnB Venice AirBnB
 

The location I stayed at was relatively quiet, but steps away there was always something unexpected around every corner: historic buildings, bustling canals, local restaurants, temporary art installations, etc. Venice is weird like that; you can walk from an ultra-crowded touristy street to a seemingly abandoned alleyway in well under a minute.

If you’ve ever seen photos of Venice, the photos are not a lie — the entire city is a maze of buildings lined with canals, walkways, bridges, and town squares. Just wandering around and marveling at the place was easily the best activity in the city.

Venice Venice Venice Venice
 

The most touristy thing you can do in Venice is take a gondola ride. It’s absurdly expensive with a fixed, regulated price of 80 euros for a 30 minute ride. At a price like that it made me question whether I should continue my career as a software engineer when I could potentially make far more as a gondolier. Time to learn some Italian?

Although riding in a gondola didn’t really interest me it was fun to watch them, especially when the gondolas got into sticky situations like tight turns, going under bridges at high tide, or simply getting stuck in a traffic jam like in the photo below.

Venice
 

Before embarking on a gondola ride apparently you can tell the gondolier where you’d like to go. For whatever reason, couples riding gondolas seemed to enjoy taking a trip under a certain white bridge, often kissing while under it.

Did they know this is the Bridge of Sighs where prisoners were taking from the Doge’s Palace to the jail on the other side of the canal? I can’t even begin to guess how this weird tradition originated, but come on folks, just stop already. The least you can do as a tourist is spend a few minutes looking up basic facts about where you’re going on Wikipedia.

Venice
 

The second most touristy thing you can do in Venice is visit Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square.) During high tides it tends to flood and become a pigeon birdbath, but it’s also home to three of the most famous buildings in Venice: Saint Mark’s Basilica, Dodge’s Palace, and St Mark’s Campanile — the big brick bell tower that stands over the square. The current version of the Campanile is a re-creation of the original, which suddenly collapsed in the early 20th century after standing for nearly five hundred years.

The plaza takes its name from Saint Mark from the gospels in the bible, and the basilica there is allegedly home to his remains. According to legend, Venetian traders stole these remains from Egypt and hid them from Muslim customs agents by covering them in pork. It’s a fun story but as to whether it’s true… who knows.

By the way, in the first photo below there’s a building with a giant clock on the facade. Several buildings in Venice have similar clocks, but this one is particularly impressive in that the lone hand points not only to the hour, but the current zodiac sign, planetary locations, and phase of the moon.

Venice Venice Venice Venice
 

As for practicalities, everything from cargo to deliveries to people with medical emergencies in Venice are transported by boat. Forget UPS trucks, in Venice they’ve got UPS motorboats. Local delivery and garbage workers have specially designed hand carts with two sets of wheels on either side capable of going up and down stairs.

Venice Venice
 

Venice doesn’t have a lot of traditional artwork — no fresco would survive the climate, obviously — but these days the city is lined with temporary art installations. From a flying car to lifelike statues of female swimmers, there wasn’t enough time to see all of it.

Venice Venice Venice Venice Venice Venice
 

There’s a quirky bookstore in Venice called Libreria Acqua Alta, which roughly translates to “High Tide Bookstore.” Since it sits on the ground floor of a building on a small canal, the store floods frequently. Rather than put up a flood barrier they’ve come to terms with the water, storing many of the books in bathtubs, high up on bookshelves, or even on an indoor gondola.

In the back there’s a small patio with a staircase made out of books. It’s not the most stable staircase, but at the top there’s a nice view of the canal outside. On the other side of the wall, there’s a “fire exit” which leads directly into the same canal. The bookstore is also home to a number of cats.

Venice Venice Venice Venice Venice Venice
 

I’d say the best time to wander around in Venice is at night, when the street lights come on and it’s getting dark. It goes from beautiful to surreal during that hour, to the point where I had this feeling like I was somehow walking through a painting of a place that couldn’t possibly exist. And yet, there it all was.

Venice Venice
 

Finally, on one evening not far from my Airbnb I heard live music echoing in the distance and took a short walk to find it. I pulled out my phone to record the journey, and while it struggled to stay in focus with the dim light I did eventually find a band playing outside a local church in a town square. See my video below:


 

I only went on two tours in Venice, but both are really interesting and available in English:

  • The Free Walking Tour has a starting point that’s difficult to find, but it’s otherwise very well organized and goes into a lot of detail about Venice’s history. The tour shuns most tourist attractions, focusing instead on how the island once operated, the constant restoration required due to the saltwater, and some of the historical quirks like men bleaching their hair with urine and why there’s so many stores selling masks. If you go bring questions for your guide and a few euros for a tip at the end. Advance booking is recommended.
  • Speaking of history, the Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour grants you access to the Doge’s Palace along with a tour of the secret parts of the palace (many rooms are rebuilt from the original plans.) Back when Venice was an independent country, this was the seat of government and as such includes everything from jails to courtrooms to torture chambers to secret passages. A walk across the aforementioned Bridge of Sighs is included in this tour. At 20 euros it’s a bargain. Definitely book this one in advance to skip the super long ticket line.

For the rest of my photos in Venice, check out this Flickr album.

Barcelona

August 16th, 2017

In the very first post in this blog, I justified its creation by stating that I had some things to talk about, or “In other words, no vacation slides” as I said at the time. Realistically I wanted to start a blog to talk about my fascination with a local immersive art installation known as The Jejune Institute rather than an aversion to vacation photos.

Look no further back than my 2012 visit to Copenhagen to see an example of a violation of the principles outlined in that first blog post. Yeah, I lied… though somehow I never got around to writing about my 2013 trip to Shanghai on this blog for whatever that’s worth. So forget the no vacation photos thing and let’s move on.

As I wrote in my first post about my vacation to Europe this summer, I started and ended the trip in Barcelona because I booked cheap flights. This meant I stayed at two different hotels a few days in June and again a few days in July.
 

My trip’s first hotel was Hotel Via Augusta in the L’Eixample District, near the Gracia neighborhood. L’Eixample means “expansion,” and it’s literally an expansion of the original part of Barcelona. The original city is now known as the Gothic Quarter and was once surrounded by a wall. After the city wall was demolished the city built outward, mostly in large, dense blocks that had tapered edges to accommodate streetcars. That last factoid plays a pivotal moment in Barcelona’s history, so read on.

Gracia is an older neighborhood that wasn’t originally part of Barcelona. Even though most of the buildings look new, the streets are very narrow with a layout that’s slightly more contemporary (less chaotic) than the Gothic Quarter. It’s a lively, family friendly neighborhood that doesn’t attract as many tourists as other parts of town. That said, it’s walkable from a number of Metro stops and not far from Sagrada Familia. Gracia grew on me quickly with one exception — it’s completely dead on Sundays. Depending on your schedule this can add a significant challenge when you need food. For my part on Sunday I found a “takeaway” lunch at a sushi restaurant (they have Philly rolls in Spain!) and a gazpacho dinner from a convenience store.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

It’s fashionable everywhere to gouge and generally hate on tourists; Gracia was no different. But I couldn’t help laughing at this anti-tourist sticker with a skull and selfie stick “crossbones”:

Barcelona
 

Further out in the L’Eixample District, the architecture takes on a life of its own. Local architect Antoni Gaudí and his contemporaries built — or in many cases renovated — buildings with their own modernist styles. Not all of them survived Spain’s civil war intact.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

The most astonishing architecture near my first stop is also the most famous: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, an enormous church that’s been under construction since 1882. Gaudi knew he wouldn’t live to see the end of the construction, and as fate would have it he was killed by a collision with a streetcar in 1926. His original plans for the structure were also destroyed in Spain’s civil war.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
 

With the interior largely complete, the exterior still has one facade and several more towers to go. Will it be complete by the deadline of 2026? I doubt it, even though they’ve switched from stone to modern reinforced concrete for the main facade — which has barely begun construction. Still this is an amazing building to visit and its unfinished, changing nature is a part of its allure.

For better or worse, I booked tickets for the tower on the Passion facade. The ticket included an elevator ride up, but (unbeknownst to me) not back down. The views from there were spectacular, but the path down involves narrow stone staircases. The last part of the climb down has a handrail on one side, and a steep drop on the other. This is an alarming descent, especially when the temperature is 95 degrees and your hands are a little too sweaty to firmly grip the handrail.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
 

Fast forward to the end of my trip, and I stayed in at Hotel Cortes in the Gothic Quarter, the old and original part of Barcelona. Like many folks in Barcelona, the guy running the front desk when I arrived barely spoke any English. Fortunately others in the hotel spoke English fluently, and my limited (Castilian) Spanish was enough to get by.

Everyone will tell you the Gothic Quarter is the most touristy part of Barcelona, but it’s also historically significant, and even today is quite lively. That said, if you want to check out the architecture, wake up early on a Sunday when everything’s closed and stroll the narrow streets for a few hours. It’s a gorgeous part of town when it’s empty, and the clash of styles between the old buildings and the modern street art really shines.

Even during the day, the restaurants, bars, and cafes a little ways off the beaten path are worth checking out. In particular I found a bar with excellent gazpacho, a taqueria (yes, really) with killer margaritas, and vegan British pub with not only good beer, but surprisingly good food.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Taco Alto, Barcelona Gazpacho, Barcelona
 

Though the Gothic Quarter can be touristy, one part in particular stands out as a serious tourist trap: La Rambla, a wide street going down the middle of the neighborhood towards the sea. Despite a few useful shops, for the most part the place is crowded with tourists and poorly rated restaurants, including (of course) Barcelona’s Hard Rock Cafe.

As a general tip for traveling, remember this helpful rhyme: “Hard Rock Cafe, Stay Far Away.” I’ll get into that more when I discus my trip to Florence.

Barcelona
 

From the Gothic Quarter I wandered up to Montjuic, a scenic viewpoint on a tall hill. An aerial tramway connects the hill with a (man made) beach. It’s fun to find your way up the hill, especially because not all the pathways are marked. On the way there I happened to walk past “El Gato de Botero,” a large metal sculpture of an overweight house cat. Silly, but worth checking out. The top of Montjuic sports a hotel, a couple restaurants, and an immaculate garden.

Although it’s not included in the panorama below, from several vantage points on top of Montjuic you can easily spot Sagrada Familia. The numerous cranes are a dead giveaway.

El Gato de Botero, Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

On the opposite side of the city from Montjuic (yeah, I got around) there’s another high vantage point: Park Guell. Built into the side of a hill, Park Guell is filled with lush gardens, meandering pathways, playgrounds, and a number of homes designed by Gaudi. Commissioned by a man named Guell, the place was intended as a small village for a handful of rich families with sweeping views of the city. Ultimately it was a failure, and the place was eventually handed over to the city to be used as a park.

The most built out and decorated part of this development is near the bottom, with a number of buildings, man made cave-like structures, fountains, and mosaics. This part currently costs extra to enter most of the time, although it’s arguably no more or less interesting than the rest of the park.

Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

The street art scene in Barcelona is pretty wild, especially in the Gothic Quarter. I took dozens of photos — too many for an already long blog post — but here are a few works I found interesting and representative.

Barcelona Barcelona Post No Bills, Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona Barcelona
 

While I explored Barcelona mostly on my own, here are all the tours I went on:

  • Sagrada Familia top views. For 29 euros you get to go up one of two towers and get an audio guide. You have to book this one at least a day or two in advance. Third party operators also provide tours, but I suspect you’re better off sticking with the official tour.
  • Free walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. This is a very well put together tour available in three languages (each with a different guide.) Even though it’s free, they do encourage tips at the end of the tour so it’s more of a pay what you want kind of thing. You don’t have to book in advance, but if there’s no space available you may not get in if you show up at the last minute.
  • Craft Tours: Barcelona Beer Tour. Who knew Barcelona has a beer scene? This is the same company as the free tour, but it costs money upfront — and includes tapas and a lot of beer. This one has to be booked in advance.
  • Craft Tours: Discover Gaudi & Modernisme. Another tour from Craft Tours that also requires booking online, this one goes into detail about the modernist architecture in Barcelona in the L’Eixample District, mostly around the time of Gaudi and his contemporaries. The tour ends after a brief Metro ride at Sagrada Familia.
  • Park Guell Monumental Zone. While Park Guell itself is completely free, the core “Monumental Zone” costs seven euros to enter, and you generally have to book in advance — though if you arrive very early in the morning it’s free. It did seem a bit overpriced, though maybe the guided tour option would be more interesting.

For more photos, see my Flickr albums for part one and part two of my Barcelona trip.

Eurotrip 2017: Itinerary and transportation costs

August 2nd, 2017

In a previous post about my trip to the Mediterranean earlier this summer, I broke down how I decided to take a month long vacation on a whim after finding out about a cheap flight directly from Oakland to Barcelona. Here, I’m going to explain where I went and how much the transportation cost at and between each location.

I’m won’t go into what I spent at each location on food, hotels, tours, etc. since unlike transportation costs that’s going to vary wildly from one person’s budget to the next. Some people can afford luxury hotels and fancy restaurants, others couch surf and make their own food — but the costs are more or less fixed when we’re talking about getting from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time. And yes, you can pay more for “first class” airfare, but why? Let’s get real, flying still sucks no matter how much money you squander on it, so don’t be an idiot.
 

Barcelona

The trip began and ended in Barcelona. I landed on June 17th, took the Aerobus to the central Plaça de Catalunya, and walked to my hotel from there. The Aerobus is very convenient, and a reasonable deal at 10.20 euros for a round trip or 5.90 one way. You can buy tickets online or at either terminal stop. I also bought a T-10 pass on the Metro for up to 10 trips for just under 10 euros. Individual rides cost about two euros, so I got an okay rate despite only using it six times total.

Fair warning that in Barcelona, the two main languages are Catalan Spanish and Castilian Spanish. Many locals don’t speak anything else, so be aware that you may have to get by with pointing at things and using basic Castilian (or English) phrases in some situations. But for buying passes on the Aerobus and the metro, English is fine.

Transportation cost: 10.20 euros ($12.08) + 10 euros ($11.84) = $23.92
 

Venice

On the 20th I left Barcelona for Venice. I took a Vueling flight for just under $71. If you’ve never flown Vueling before, it’s an absolutely no-frills discount airline based in Spain that flies throughout Europe. There’s no in-flight entertainment whatsoever on Vueling, so bring a book, magazine, movie, etc. to keep yourself entertained.

I should point out that the Venice airport isn’t on the main island (which is technically a chain of islands, but who’s counting.) From the Marco Polo airport, I took a water bus — or “vaporetto” — to the stop closest to my Airbnb. I used Alilaguna’s blue line vaporetto, which cost 15 euros for a one way trip. Tickets are sold at the airport, and you can pay by cash or credit card.

For a large group of people it may be more economical to take a water taxi, but as an individual that would have been a little pricey. Once you’re on the main island it’s very walkable, though you have the option of getting around via vaporetto or water taxi — or take a gondola ride, but that’s silly and overpriced.

Transportation cost: $71 + 15 euros ($17.71) = $88.71
 

Florence

Originally I wasn’t planning on staying in Florence, but after looking at the layout of Italy’s rail system it seemed reasonable to stop in Florence for a couple nights on my way to Rome. So I stayed at a hotel from the 23rd to the 25th right in the heart of Florence, steps away from the famous Il Duomo cathedral. The only transportation cost within the city was the wear and tear on my shoes.

How much did the rail trip cost? Well, hold on a sec. After Florence, I got on the train again to visit…
 

Rome

I bought my rail tickets all at once so I don’t have a cost breakdown, but from Venice to Florence, and then from Florence to Rome I spent $71. That’s it — all the train stations were easily walkable from where I was staying, so no additional bus, subway, taxi, etc. charges were needed. If you can, high speed rail is by far the best way to travel.

I stayed in Rome from the 25th to July 5th. Within Rome I mostly walked, although I bought a seven day bus/metro pass for 24 euros and used it when needed. Which if I’m going to be totally honest, was not very much; Rome is a very walkable city, I barely used the pass at all.

On my way to the airport, I took the not terribly fast “express” airport train for 14 euros from the main train station.

Rome/Florence transportation cost: $71 + 24 euros ($28.34) + 14 euros ($16.53) = $115.87
 

Athens and Greek islands

From Rome I took a flight to Athens on Aegean for $115 USD on July 5th. Despite what you may think, the Greek economic problems doesn’t mean everything there is cheap. That said Greece doesn’t attract as many tourists these days — most of the tours I booked wound up as personalized tours because nobody else showed up!

My Greek friend, his girlfriend, and I spent a long weekend on the island of Spetses. I also ventured out on a One Day Cruise which went from Hydra to Poros to Aegina. Combined, both the day cruise and the hydrofoil tickets to and from Spetses cost just slightly over $200 USD.

I also took a handful of trips on the Greek metro, but since I paid in cash there’s no paper trail on how much I spent. It’s only 1.40 euros per trip, I probably spent less than $15 total. Greek taxis are also fairly cheap, so maybe that’s $25 on local transit if you include the two times I took a taxi — a very liberal estimate.

Transportation cost: $115 + $200 + $25 = $340
 

Barcelona, part 2

From Athens back to Barcelona was not cheap, I wound up paying $175 for a Vueling flight. That said, flying to or from Athens isn’t cheap on any airline, and it was still cheaper to fly back to Barcelona then back to the Bay Area than to fly back from Athens directly. Besides, I very much enjoyed spending more time in Barcelona. I arrived on the 13th, heading home on the 16th.

While I had to buy another round trip on the Aerobus for another 10.20 euros, I also continued using my ten ride Barcelona metro pass. I didn’t spend anything else on transit in Barcelona.

Transportation cost: $175 + 10.20 euros ($12.04) = $186.98
 

Conclusion

Let’s add this all up:

Barcelona part 1: $23.92
Venice: $88.71
Florence and Rome: $115.87
Athens and four Greek islands: $340
Barcelona part 2: $186.98

Total European transportation expenses: $755.48

So traveling around Europe doesn’t have to be all that expensive these days. Something to think about if you’ve got a lot of vacation days saved up, or a job where you can work remotely. Wrapping it all up, here’s my takeaways about getting around in Europe on the cheap:

  • When possible, travel by high speed rail. When you have to fly, research how you’ll get to and from the airport in advance.
  • For the best deals on airfare, book as far in advance as you can; for rail you can book at the last minute and it won’t matter.
  • Compact, walkable cities are great to visit since you won’t need to spend much (if anything!) on getting around.
  • Riding public transit is usually a bargain, but don’t do what I did and pay for more than you need.
  • Google Maps is your friend! But make sure to keep your phone charged, and add labels at places your staying or traveling to so you don’t get lost.

I took that crazy cheap flight to Barcelona

July 22nd, 2017

Park Guell
Barcelona skyline from Park Guell
 

Recently a new airline called Level introduced a crazy cheap nonstop flight from Oakland to Barcelona. I immediately decided to take the plunge and book a trip. If that sounds insane, keep in mind Level is from the same company as British Airways and Iberia, so it’s not just some random startup with an airplane made out of cardboard and duct tape.

Now I should mention that going in, I knew that the cheap ticket wasn’t without its limits. The flight did not include free food, checked luggage would cost extra, and selecting a seat was also an extra charge. I only paid for the latter — I’m an aisle seat kind of guy because I drink too much coffee.

The first step was buying the ticket, from there I needed to find out how much time off I could take from work. When that turned out to be a month, I also needed to figure out where else I wanted to go in Europe.

I’ll get into some trip details some other time, but first I learned a few things traveling to and from Europe on the cheap. Here’s what I found:

 
Book now, ask questions later

Over a couple weeks I found my friend in Greece was interested in traveling with me, I could stay at his place in Athens, and that we were both interested in visiting Rome. From there we had to figure out what we wanted to see together, and I had to figure out where else I wanted to go.

After booking half a dozen tours, a few flights, train rides, airport bus shuttles… somehow a couple months had gone by. Oops.

For better or worse, the cheapest flight out of Europe by that time was also on Level, and was also from Barcelona — but for almost double the original price. I shouldn’t have spent so much time on research. Damn!

The worst part of it is that many of the most interesting tours, museums, even restaurants that I went to were the ones I found after I’d landed in Europe, either because someone told me about them or because I happen to Google them late at night before going to bed. Clearly, mistakes were made.
 

Pack light

Discount airlines charge extra for checked luggage, so only bring the absolute minimum with you — and the absolute minimum back. For me this meant I had to buy a few extra supplies like a new toothbrush and more sunscreen while abroad. Not a big deal.

You might think traveling light is hard; I found the experience the exact opposite. Instead of trying to lug a rolling suitcase over cobblestone roads and dragging it up and down flights of stairs, it was just me, a backpack, and whatever was in my pockets.

Clothes were not a problem. Most of the places I stayed at where Airbnbs with their own washing machine, so about four days of clothes was enough. I actually overpacked; I bought a pair of pants and a sweatshirt that I never wore due to the hot summer weather.

Still not convinced? Well don’t take it from me, travel expert Rick Steves recommends packing light as well. Besides, there’s no better feeling than walking past the baggage claim, eyeing your fellow passengers collecting mountains of luggage while silently mumbling “suckers” to yourself.
 

Prepare for liftoff

No food on the plane? No problem. Buy some food at the airport that will last a while, and eat it on the plane when you’re hungry. Bring a bottle of water and some tea or whatever. Most importantly, bring an energy bar or something in case you’re hungry. In theory you could buy food before you even got to the airport, but that can result in TSA headaches.

Like many airlines, Level does have food for purchase on the airplane but it’s overpriced and there’s no guarantee it will still be in stock by the time you’re starving, so it’s best to buy food ahead of the flight.

As with any air travel, check SeatGuru to see what each seat has — in flight entertainment, USB charger for your phone, electrical outlet for your laptop, etc. Even if there is in flight entertainment, it still doesn’t hurt to have some TV shows, movies, audiobooks, and podcasts all ready to go at your fingertips. This is especially important for very long airplane rides.
 

Don’t fear the cheaper

So, what’s the trade off for a cheap flight like this? Here’s what I noticed.

Both flights were reasonably on-time, with the flight back getting delayed 30 minutes or so. Not bad for a transatlantic flight. Seats were as comfortable as other airlines, and the airplane was brand new. Level doesn’t have its own points/miles system, but at least for the moment you can earn Avios points through an Iberia Plus membership.

The flight leaves from OAK instead of SFO. For me anyway, I think the BART ride is a little shorter to OAK so that’s fine. However, the airport food options leave a lot to be desired. At the Barcelona airport the plane doesn’t connect to the gate, you have to get on a bus that takes you between the tarmac and the gate. This seemed a little weird because the Barcelona airport is enormous and not all of it is currently used, but maybe this saves money somehow?

The in flight food ordering system was supposed to work through a touch screen, but it was buggy and impossible to place an order without help. I suspect this will be improved in the future, and I was an unwitting beta tester. As a result the flight attendants could be a little slow to help sometimes.

The in flight entertainment was much better than I would have expected. I finally had a chance to watch Deadpool and finish the first season of Westworld. I also watched the Assassin’s Creed movie, but the less said about that the better.

Online check-in was broken on the flight out, but was working and integrated with Apple Wallet on the flight back. This is a huge time saver when you only have carry on luggage. It also means you have to make sure your phone still has a charge by the time you get to the gate, of course.

Obviously, cancellation or changes are not included in the lowest fares.
 

Just do it

If all that sounds fine to you, then by all means book an inexpensive flight like this on Level, Norwegian, or whatever. But make sure to book as far in advance as possible so you get the lowest rates, and say no to upsells you don’t need.

In my experience, I’ve always flown economy in all my transatlantic flights, and this seemed easily on par with what you’d get with a more expensive major carrier like United. I’d even go so far as to say that not including meal service is a plus, since the cabin frankly smells a lot better without the nauseating stench of airline food.

So if you want to cross some travels off your bucket list without spending a lot, by all means try the new cheap airlines. You have nothing to lose — especially if you don’t check any luggage.