Sunday, June 1, 2008

Europe Day 11 (Thursday)

Although a bit delayed, I should probably do my best to catch up this blog before I return home. I am sitting in the Heathrow airport on one of my shorter layovers waiting to leave for San Francisco. I'll do the best I can to recall the events of the trip. I am thinking while sitting here that I am going to require the input of Ryan and Dipper to adequately fill in these days as I am a bit hazy due to the traveling and Paris whirlwind.

Thursday was an improvisational day that we did not anticipate having in the first place so I pulled for a visit to the Champagne country. I had a big fuck-off map of France that Bobby gave me before I left Davis that showed the path he took on his Bike many months ago that allowed me a reasonable idea of where I wanted to visit. Convincing the others that this trip was worthwhile was not actually too difficult as Ryan assumed the roads would be interesting and Dipper loves champagne almost as much as I do. Ryan's sister Nicole and friend Courtney also decided to tag along so we had a very full car for this adventure.

We started the trip by making a valiant effort to leave Paris. By means of a vehicle this is not exactly a trivial or safe proposition. The 5 of us used our GPS and a little bit of luck to get out of Paris as quickly as possible. The drivers/motorcyclists here are insane and most of the roads have no sense of a "lane." There are many roundabouts that have 5-8 lanes merging into 2 and then 5 again with tons of exits at random points and random vehicles tearing in and out of these so-called "lanes." Terrifying, but we made it. Once we hit the A4, it was smooth sailing out into the not so developed portions of France.

As we headed East the countryside got greener and the weather worse and worse. There is simply no helping the rain on this trip. We have endured it for the majority of the trip and have almost gotten used to it. I might add that this did not stop Dipper or Ryan from complaining about it :). We decided to take a more scenic route that was aptly labeled "route touristica de champagne." This took us through many of the smaller wineries and hundreds of acres of grapes in the French countryside. This was pretty incredible experience. The Champagne region is beautiful and has many small roads that take you into portions of the country where you see nothing but rolling hills and vinyards. We stayed on this road for quite some time and as it began to get late we took the slightly more main road into Epernay.

Epernay has most of the most famous Champagne companies (Moet, Perrier etc...) and has some incredibly large mansions that most of those big champagne groups call their home. We went down the main Champagne road by foot and quickly realized that we should have thought ahead if we were to have any chance of being able to take a tour of any of the big wineries. It was still cool to see anyway and most of the tours were pretty expensive regardless. Our spirits slightly down we decided to at least go and see if we could purchase some champagne to drink/take home.

We found a really interesting store that sold champagne exclusively from the smaller growers and given that these were much closer to our price range we chose a few of these (they turned out to be incredibly good). We found a shop that sold the bigger names but grew overwhelmed quickly with sticker shock as most of them were over 50 Euro ($80+). As baller as I wanted to be, the UC job just doesn't make for frequent splash-outs like that. Wanted that Dom Perignon though. Damnit. One of the Dom "Rose"s went for over 350 euro for a bottle. Ouch. Probably would be something like 10 dollars a sip.

We decided to head out after this but ran into a huge church (shocking) that we decided to check out. This was not nearly as cool as some of the other churches that we have seen but it did have a very small spiral staircase that we found by opening a door that its very possible we should not have opened. We walked all the way up to the top and found a door to a room that was filled with spider webs and thus turned around and walked all the way down. Swiftly. Very strange claustraphobic experience. Maybe that was where Jesus has been hiding?!

We finally got back to the car and decided to head out of the Champagne region by means of the normal roads. This was fine aside from he fact that we were stuck behind a really slow bunch of traffic that Ryan attempted to pass which allowed for the opportunity to almost accidently head-on colide with another vehicle at 110 miles an hour. Most of us were pretty spooked but quickly grew tired of giving Ryan a hard time for almost killing us :). It actually wasn't that close but it certinely was alot closer than any of us would have liked.

The rest of the evening was filled with wandering around and looking at the huge Phallic iron light stick and grabbing some dinner. We also phinagled an ice bucket from the Hotel and had two Bottles of the stuff that we purchased at Epernay. This was some of the best champagne I have ever had period. First bottle was definetly better but still amazing stuff. Slightly hammered so we went to bed at around 12:30!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Europe Day 10 (Wednesday)

We didn’t wake up early. Oh well. The weather has made it so the Gondola ride is not a possibility. The ride is about a 5 hour experience and WOULD have been awesome but they do not open it if the weather is bad. We got up at 9 or so and went down and had our 9 (a piece) euro breakfast (satisfying-ish though). We checked out of the hotel only to find that the damn hostess last night didn’t return the extra key we gave her to a place where the morning hostess could find it. The morning hostess could not reach the evening hostess so we were screwed out of a 50 euro deposit fee on the key. Hopefully this will be refunded when the chick finds it. Damnit.

We headed onto the highway realizing that we didn’t get any good pictures of the enormous glacier that sits on the mountaintops above our heads. We spent a good amount of time driving around looking for a good vista point and eventually decided upon a driveway in someone’s back yard. Good view though! Driving out of Chamonix was gorgeous though. It’s like driving out of a much larger Yosemite Valley during the spring when everything is very green. Great waterfalls and all!

We finally arrive in Paris. Lots of terrible traffic going the opposite direction but the real fun didn’t begin until we got into the city. As you can expect, driving in this neck of the woods is bloody terrifying. I am of course not the person who is doing the driving but just being in the car is pretty insane. Motorcycles everywhere, traffic everywhere, streets that are not built for cars, no sense of parking, no sense of space, claustrophobics nightmare, and neat buildings. We are staying this night at the Westin in Paris. As I mentioned before, Dipper cashed in some of his rewards points for our first night’s stay in Paris. We get this room for free and its supposed to be 690 Euros a night. That’s about 1000 dollars for an evening here. Fisties.

Really nice here though. Not a big room, but elegant. I am paying 7 euros for 1 hour of Internet to post these blogs and make a few calls but I suppose its worth it J. We are going to go out with Ryan’s sister and her friend tonight as they are staying in Paris as well. Should be good jet lagged fun for them.

Everything in Paris is expensive. EVERYTHING. Internet expensive. Parking is 26 euros for 24 hours. I have yet to experience the food and I would normally write about it in this blog but I don’t think we are going to pay again for internet here unless we decide to be slightly masochistic. Maybe tomorrow at the slightly less baller hotel.

We are off. Hope all is well! J

Europe Day 9 (Tuesday)

This was a day that Ryan was looking forward to regardless of the fact that it was set to be one of the more intense (length wise) driving days. The plan for the day was to head out of Italy into Niece to have lunch and then drive to Chamonix, France. In general distances in this area are covered faster than you would think because the traffic moves much much faster. It’s pretty normal to hold speeds between 90 and 100 miles an hour unless there is roadwork which we have definitely run into our fair share of. We drove the 2 hours into Niece which was a pretty uneventful experience. Lots of boring roads and some through the mountains that were more interesting.

Niece itself turned out to be a disappointment. This is supposed to be a resort town with a bunch of busy beaches but the weather was absolutely shit. Overcast and lightly raining every 10 minutes doesn’t tend to bring the most active of beach crowds. Beaches in France are also supposed to be an experience because there are no rules about attire so there is a strong lack of clothing tendency. The US‘ rules are much more socially conservative than France’s. We ended up not having the opportunity to observe. Empty beaches J.

We had lunch at a tiny shop in the downtown area where a Parfaits and sandwiches were had by all. Once finished we headed out of Niece back into Italy en route to Chamonix, France. We actually had to drive a good ways back into Italy to hit the highway that headed into the Alps. I did discover something here on the road north in Italy. Italy may be the one of the few countries in the world that can compete with California in terms of diversity of Geography. Beaches, grasslands, what can be called desert-ish areas (or very arid areas for lack of a better term), and the very high mountains (the Alps). Its absolutely amazing how fast the scenery changes. The far northern parts of Italy are amazing and the drive into the alps is breathtaking.

In order to get to Chamonix we had to drive through the Mt. Blanc tunnel. This is an absolutely enormous tunnel spanning almost 12km in length. If memory serves they had a huge fire in the tunnel a few years ago that claimed many lives so they have viscous speed cameras and very strict rules about how automobiles pass through the tunnel. The speed limits in the tunnel are about 70km (about 44mph). It’s a crazy experience considering that the tunnel basically goes underneath an enormous mountain with a glacier on top. Other than that, it’s a slow and pretty boring drive through a very straight tunnel. Not to mention it costs almost 50 dollars US to drive through it!

Our arrival in Chamonix was bittersweet. The city is a huge resort town in a clearing between Mt. Blanc and the rest of the Alps. The weather however was absolute rubbish. Rainy, windy, and cold. Given that the one thing we wanted to do here was take the Gondola up over the glacier/mountain top, the outlook was not good. We decided to check into the Hotel and find something to eat. We decided to have Fondu which was ultimately the heaviest meal we had had so far. Yum though. Given the crummyness of the weather we also began to investigate the possibility of using some of Dipper’s points to stay in a nice Hotel in France one day early. This was disappointing because the Gondola ride is supposed to be amazing.

However, given the quality of hotel Dipper was able to book for us, it is at least a minor silver lining. We are going to be staying at the Weston in Paris! We headed to bed early knowing that we had a ton of driving (a day early) to do in the AM!

Europe Day 8 (Monday)

This is our last full day in Cinque de Terra and we were determined to experience a bit more of the atmosphere around the area. We woke up at a slightly more reasonable hour and went down to purchase some goods for breakfast. We were able to scrounge up some nice looking fruit and chiabatta bread + pesto for a reasonable price so we felt like that was a good enough breakfast. Given the expense of some of the dinners, this was not too bad at all. I purchased some lemon juice that turned out to be just that… without sugar. Painful, absolutely painful to drink. I gave up several sips in knowing that I’d never make it through.

Given that there are 5 towns up and down the coast here we decided to make the hike up to Vernazza (the third town). We really had no idea what to expect so we went down to the information office and purchased our passes that allowed us to travel up and down between the towns on the trails. This was 5 euro apiece but given what we were about to experience it turned out to be a sweet deal.

Admittedly the trail up the coast was a bit hairy. It wasn’t to the point of ridiculousness but at times the trail was pretty skinny and there wasn’t much to our right hand side but cliff face. The views were absolutely gorgeous though. Nothing but crashing waves and epic ocean views. I would say that it took us about an hour and a half to complete the walk but we didn’t stop much and tried to keep the pace up. I think that most people probably take about 2 hours if they are committing to a leisurely pace.

When we got to Vernazza we dithered a bit as to what we should actually do but we agreed that food was probably going to be necessary. We decided upon a seafood restaurant that was also a pizzeria that was about as reasonably priced as the rest of the restaurants around. Food was good except for the fact that Dipper got nothing resembling his order and Ryan decided he was not a fan of the way that shrimp is served in Italy. I think he has a point given the rather ‘whole’ nature of the beast when it arrives on your plate. You have to do quite a bit of digging at the whole shrimp to get to the meat. Given that I am only marginally partial to seafood in the first place, having to wrestle the meat from the dead shrimp dude would probably put me off it pretty quick.

Our original plan for the day was to hike to the city beyond Vernazza but given that we were all feeling exhausted and sunburned we decided that we should probably head back. We ran to the train that takes you back to Monteroso and rushed to buy a ticket. The schedule for the trains really doesn’t make any sense and there is only really one constant. They are nearly always late. We were able to make the train that was supposed to arrive 20 minutes before we got there. The train had a few downsides. We were not able to sense a molecule of moving air through the cabin while the train was moving. This made for an extremely stuffy experience and we were lucky that the entire ride lasted less than 5 minutes. I was feeling very nauseous by the end and was glad to get off the train.

From here we decided to go up and shower because we were pretty gross after not doing so for 2 days and then going on the hike. Hot. After doing so we waited until dinner time and then ate at a restaurant referred to as Chiak. We had walked by it 7 or 8 times before and always thought that it looked pretty good. Ryan ordered Mussels which presented him with a HUGE bowl of Mussels that were cooked to perfection. I am really no judge but they were incredibly good. Overall its was probably up there with our best dinners had in Europe.

After dinner we were determined to find some Prosecco so we stopped by a few shops and landed in a place that gave free samples to nearly every guest that walked in. They handed us 5 or 6 half shots of random liquors. This was an interesting experience purely on account of the fact that you could probably go in there and 20 minutes later be tossed. Good times, for some! We ran into a couple of girls here that I spent 10 minutes convincing Dipper to go talk to with minor success ultimately. He decided to do so and Ryan and I went back up to the Place.

After about an hour and a half we decided to go down and check on him. We found him in the “Fast” bar which is supposedly the American bar in Monteroso. We had avoided this place since we got there because we had no interest in visiting an American bar while in Italy. Dipper found it to be momentarily worthwhile but opn learning that each of the girls possessed several veto-worthy qualities, wished that we had come and disturbed him sooner. Regardless, Ryan and I had packed for the next day and gone to bed by the time Dipper came home with the news of how lame the chickies were.

Until tomorrow!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Europe Day 7 (Sunday)

Slow day. U2 sucks. (that is for Dipper)

This is actually a holiday here in Monteroso al Marre. The Holiday is something like Corpus Domini. What it means for tourists is that the streets are littered with flowers and decorations. Its really neat but we didn’t have much time to check it out. We decided that we were going to spend the day relaxing, as the last days have been an absolute whirlwind. Not to mention far too much alcohol.

We went down to the market and wanted to find some food on the cheap so we found some fruit, pesto, and chiabatta bread. This was an awesome lunch and it should last for tomorrow as well. We went back and ate it overlooking the ocean at our room and had a relaxing time. From here we had a chat amongst ourselves and then decided we wanted a nap. Shocking.

We actually slept from probably 3:00pm to about 7:00pm. From here we dragged ourselves from the bedroom and decided to find some dinner. We had dinner overlooking the ocean at probably the most reasonably priced restaurant in Monteroso. Probably spent about 40 euro for drinks/appetizers/main courses/dessert. Cheap day, which we needed after Venice (I hate Venice). ☺

We had another long walk around the city checking out the bars and then decided that Sunday is obviously not the night life evening of choice and then headed back to the guest house. Dipper and I are as we speak enjoying the bottle of Prosecco that we didn’t consume last night and taking it easy. We plan on making the hike to the other towns tomorrow so I should have more to share.

Miss you all ☺

Europe Day 6 (Saturday)

We were insanely glad to get off this bloody Island. Venice sucks. However, Dipper was very excited about the opportunity to visit Murano before we headed off so, what the hell? Murano is the place in Venice where they manufacture/create some very nice glass sculptures/art. Some of it really is very beautiful. I must admit that I was entering a state of extreme jadedness but I tried to grin and bear it (I probably failed).

The trip there was yet another long boat ride that didn’t help our spirits. The highlight of which was me getting lectured by several old Italian ladies who knew very well that I didn’t speak Italian yet still decided to lecture me on my pronunciation of the word Murano. BURRRRRRRRRRAAAANO. God damnit. I hate Venice.

We stayed at the glass factory for about 35 minutes before deciding we really had had enough. To make matters worse, we purchased some lemonade slushies from a stand near the Boat-Taxi area and then got bitched out by them because we considered sitting down at the tables outside. No NO. If you want to sit down it’s a 5 euro charge. Fucking hell, seriously? I mean really? There was noone there! I hate Venice.

We finally got back to the car and paid our 20 euro parking charge. Finally getting back on the road we had to get fuel. Italian petrol stations don’t make any sense at all and it took nearly 20 minutes for us to figure out how to pay them and place the petrol into the tank. There wasn’t just a language barrier here, it just doesn’t make any sense. I hate Venice.

From here we basically drove for 5 hours. Venice is on the extreme East side of the continent and Monteroso Al Marre is on the extreme West side. It took nearly 4 hours on the Autostrada (highway) to reach countryside in Italy that was actually worth looking at. Dipper drove some of the trip, which was… an experience in and of itself. Manual transmission is not his favorite, so to speak. Most of this countryside reminds me of the parts of the drive between Sacramento and LA that noone wants to look at it. There were 1 or 2 slightly bitter comments coming out of my mouth from the backseat here.

Once we reached Monterroso everything changed. This place is fantastic. Basically a small town nestled in a Italian hill/cliffside that is right on the ocean. Not a lot of parking but we got the last spot in the only parking structure. Awesome! The car will basically stay there for 3 days anyway. Cinque de Terra is a series of 5 towns that are very close together. You can hike or walk between them as the roads are not particularly wide or frequently used for automobile travel.

We had a bit of trouble finding the place we had reservations to stay at though. We were staying in Manuel’s guest house, which is a place that Rick Steves (traveling tool) recommended in his book on Italy. We walked up an amazingly steep flight of stairs that the directions told us to get to the top of looking for house # 39. We found 38 and 40/41 but 39 was nowhere to be found. We ran into a couple of girls who had just gotten to Monterroso as well but they were not able to find it either. We ended up having to call Manuel and go all the way back down the stairs (with all the luggage) and then going up a completely different set of stairs that were much more epic in height up to one of the higher points in Monterroso. It was painful with all the luggage but WOW what a view. I have pictures and will post them soon.

We decided to go ahead and get showered and then go grab some food. We wandered around the city for a while before actually deciding on a place though. The ocean is gorgeous and not too cold, the atmosphere is really neat, and the prices are nowhere near as outrageous as Venice (I hate Venice). We finally decided to go eat at a small place that wasn’t too expensive on one of the side Alley’s of the city. Dipper had a great plate of pasta/seafood and Ryan and I had Pizza for 7 Euros. Yum.

After dinner we spent an hour wandering and decided to purchase some champagne for 10 Euros a bottle. We also wanted to check out this bar that we read was nice down by the ocean. This turned out to be one of the more ridiculous alcohol infused nights. A liter of red wine at dinner (it was ass, but…whatever), 1 shot of some lemon liquor at the bar + more champagne, then we went and slayed one of the bottles of champagne that we purchased without pouring any into cups while watching the ocean in the dark near our place. Good times.

We also got to watch the Italian guys that worked at the bar kick the futbol around for about 30 minutes. Its awesome to watch these guys who have been playing all their lives juggle the ball. We played a bit with them but mostly acted as someone to kick the ball back.

Good night for now!

Europe Day 5 (Friday)

I am thinking that this is going to be a bit shorter entry because we spent the majority of the day driving but I told myself that I would continue to do this blogging thing if it killed me so here we go…

We left from Venice in the early AM (about 7:00) and headed out onto the highway. We wanted to make sure that we hit the Grossglockner at a reasonable time because there are only certain hours when it is open. This pass goes through the Alps and costs 25 euro to go through. It is also one of the most incredible roads in the world to drive on as it is very windy and has many switchbacks. On top of that, it is very well kept and smooth.

It goes from about 4000 feet up to about 12,000 feet and then comes back down to about 1000 feet. It is a very radical climate change that occurs going up and doing this pass. We started with cloudy weather at the bottom, merged into rain and then snow and then back to rain and then back into cloudy. This was probably the coolest thing I have ever done. Driving through mist crowned canyons and snow-covered mountains in the Alps was absolutely breathtaking. Ryan’s car handled like a dream and shot around the corners like… something that goes around corners really well. Again this is probably something better experienced in pictures but you get the idea.

Once we got out of the Alps, it was still raining (shocking) but barely. We noticed a fairly good sized waterfall off to the right side of the road so we got out and snapped pictures of it. Turned out that it was a national park but we didn’t have time to do the hike associated with it. Continuing to drive South, we eventually entered Italy.

The scenery essentially went from gorgeous to somewhat ordinary after we got out of the mountains. The roads to Venice were very southern California esque and the Italian drivers are definitely a smidge on the crazy side. Basic road etiquette is to tailgate someone if you want to pass them and to go as fast as humanly possible when there is not someone in front of you. If you don’t fit into either of those categories, stay in the right lane. Other than that, you’ll live if you avoid the city streets.

We had our first Italian dining experience in an extremely dodgy town that we stopped in for the sole purpose of putting something in our extremely famished stomachs. No one in the restaurant we chose spoke English but we were able to get by on the basis of pointing at things and repeating items that the waitress described. Excellent food overall but dipper somehow ended up with a slab of pork for his second entre. This has been becoming a habit.

When we finally got to Venice we had to park in a huge garage and then take a boat onto the island. The boat ride was long and rocky but we made due. We arrived at the hostel and checked in. This place struck us immediately as having a much younger crowd than any of our previous residences. We had to put sheets on our beds, lock our valuables and head out. Our beds most definitely left something to be desired but as this was the only youth hostel in Venice, we felt like we didn’t really have much of a choice so we complained semi extensively and then took off for the main sights.

If I were honest here, our opinions about Venice never really arrived at a state greater than luke-warm. We noticed immediately the huge crowds of tourists and large quantities of small tents selling cheesy Venice labeled items. Very soon after noticing this we simply started walking the back alleys and making a semi-conscious effort to avoid the huge crowds. This was impossible at two locations. St. Marks square, which incidentally took us nearly 2 hours to actually find given the confusing nature of every single sign in Venice. The architecture here is very impressive and probably would have been a more impressive place to visit if our spirits weren’t already down and we had more time. We also had a hard time avoiding crowds at the huge bridge crossing the Grand Canal. There were more random tourists here snapping pictures of themselves in front of the Venice boat traffic than I have ever seen at large New York monuments. Ew.

The highlight of the evening was after another hour and a half boat ride around the island. This was the dinner that we chose by finding a restaurant that was as off the beaten path as humanly possible. Our initial restaurant choice seemed to have been shut down on account of… some safety regulation (oops) and the place that we chose had absolutely marvelous prosciutto. We ended up drinking too much champagne but what the hell, it was cheap! Only 15 euro a bottle! I feel as if alcoholism may be swiftly entering this vacation. Oh well.

Off to sleep in the Toys R’ Us-creak-every-5-seconds-not even-when-you-move bed. Ugh. Get me off this island.