Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Slovakia

April 14, 2009

I arrived at the Kosice, Slovakia train station to a driver, Boris, with a sign saying “Wick” on it just for me. From there he took me in the SUV to pick up the husband and wife I was staying with, and also a couple other Americans to take us to the bowling alley/bar for the weekly American bowling night.

Just a warning, this post is very, very long. So I hope you have the time and dedication to read it, or the will power to say no to it. 

These Americans I speak of work for US Steel Slovakia (the biggest US steel plant in Europe). My girlfriend, Natalie, best friend’s dad is the Vice President of US Steel in Slovakia, and I worked it out so that I could stay with them (I had never met them prior, but know their daughter Caitlin very well) for a few nights while I was in the area of Central/Eastern Europe. The dad is Pat Mullarky, mom is Carroll (Natalie warned me not to hit on her haha), and they have one of their daughters living with them in Kosice, Bridget (about 14). It was a great decision on my part to stay with them, amazing hospitality on theirs.

 

Kosice is a city in the very eastern part of Slovakia. It is the second biggest city in the country behind Bratislava, with about 250,000 people. It is currently a candidate for the 2013 European Capital of Culture, and so through the preparation for that you can tell it is a city on the upswing.

 

After a somewhat interesting train ride to finally reach Kosice (pronounced Ko-sheets-za), I was picked up and directly thrown right into the mix. I arrived later then I thought I would, and therefore put right into the Mullarky’s evening plans, bowling with the American crew. Within the first hour of being in Kosice, I met, and told my personal life/traveling story, to probably about 40 Americans living/working in Kosice/US Steel. Everyone I met was amazingly nice and very interested in hearing all about me and what I am doing.

 

I was also chosen to bowl as a substitute for each of the 3 games. I have always said that I do not like bowling that much, mainly because I am ultra-competitive and it is one of the few things that I am not really good at. I was sure to tell everyone that I was not the greatest bowler when I started, but I ended up having 3 pretty good games, but which didn’t matter that much anyway, everyone was there just to have a good time, be social, and drink. I was being fed beer after beer (local Slovakia brews which were great), and I probably had the most fun bowling I have ever had.

 

There were also a couple American female basketball players who were bowling with us too. They are playing in Kosice for 3 months, and their conditioning coach is the personal trainer of a bunch of the US Steel wives, including Carroll, so that is how they fit into the picture. I talked with both of them for a while and it was nice to have people about my own age to talk to. One was from Chicago, played at Purdue and then in the WNBA for the NY Liberty and was now playing in Kosice. The other played at Tennessee for Pat Summit, and now plays for the LA Sparx with Candice Parker, and is just here for 3 months to make some money and stay in basketball shape while the WNBA is out of season. I really enjoyed talking to them, and I think they enjoyed getting to talk to an American male for once too. They also let me know that yes girl’s bball is a much bigger deal here then it is back home, it is more of an exciting and physical game, and also the money is better (depending on who you are). They talked me into going to their game the next night, it was free, and I will get to that later.

 

The US Steel Employees also had a couple guys who provided security for them whenever they were at social places and also for the kids on their way to school and stuff like that. The two at the bowling alley that night were two British ex-Navy Seal like types (Britain’s equivalent to our navy seals I mean). They were both from England and only about 20 minutes from Wales, so they were very interested in talking to me and seeing how I like it in the UK and Wales. I sat and talked with them for a while and ate some of the local fare (goulash!).

 

All of the US Steel people this night at the alley were in the 35-55 age range I’d say, and they were all having an absolute blast. They were drinking a lot, taking lots of pictures, screwing around, and also much to my surprise even taking Jager-Bombs! After a few hours there, and as everyone was packing up, I was assuming I would finally be getting to go to the Mullarky’s home for the night (I had gone straight from train station to b-alley), but one of the wives had asked, “do you want to go out?” After seeing that Carroll (the mother I was staying with) was encouraging it and also joining, I of course said yes.

 

We were thus picked up by our driver, and taken to a very unique “Retro Bar.” They had an awesome décor and a brilliant drink list. I had a couple specialty drinks and after a while there it was finally time to call it a night and retire to the Mullarky residence. Having my own room in their house was a nice break from the 6-14 bedrooms I have been sleeping in at hostels too.

 

The next morning I awoke early to a phone call from Pat asking me if I had any plans, I of course said no, and he said that he had organized one of his Slovakian employee’s (kind of like his right hand man guy) 24 year old son, Vladko (silent k), to show me around for the day if I wanted. I thought this sounded great, so he told me that he would send over the driver to pick me up in an hour.

 

The driver then picked me up, with Vladko already in the car, and we were off to explore Slovakia. Vladko and I got to know each other and he turned out to be a really cool guy. He is in engineering graduate school in Kosice and his English is pretty good. I asked him what was in store for the day and he said that he would take me out to a Castle, and then show me the Kosice town center and then we had two tickets to sit in the US Steel Corporate Box at the Slovakian Hockey League game 1 of the Championship Series. Sounded good to me!

 

We first went to the Castle Krasna Horka (translates to beautiful/pretty hill). It was about an hours drive away from the city and it was a nice ride getting to see the Slovakian countryside and talk with Vladko. After getting dropped off and hiking the rest of the way up the big hill it sat atop, we took a guided tour of it. There were about 20 people on our tour, but since it was not the peak tourist season, they weren’t doing any tours in English. But they did give me an English cheat sheet for everything she was talking about so I didn’t have to just stare at her and wonder what she was saying the whole time. It was a very interesting tour and the castle was very well preserved. The highlight of the tour was towards the end of it in its church. There was a real mummified body of a lady in a glass enclosed open casket. I can’t remember whom she was (I think a queen/princess) or how long she had been dead (I think 100-200 years) but it was very weird, creepy and cool to see.

 

After our castle tour, we had Boris drive us to a traditional Slovak restaurant that was on the way back for lunch. A little side note about having the driver, it kept feeling weird to me when he would take us places, like the castle and lunch, and would just drop us off and then proceed to just sit in the parking lot waiting for us. I kept wanting to invite him in or ask if he wanted anything, but I knew that he was just doing his job and getting paid to sit there.

 

So at the restaurant I had Vlado order me a traditional Slovakian beer and meal. I told him I will eat anything and everything and gave him complete freedom in his choosing. The beer was superb and I had no idea what I ate but it was delicious. Not even sure how to explain it, but it might have had something to do with dumplings, and I know it had really good bacon chunks in it, and also it kind of tasted like the white Mac n’ Cheese.

 

After lunch we headed back to Kosice to check out the city center. We got dropped of at the Hlavne Namestie, the main square that is lined with attractions, restaurants and bars. Next to this is the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth, the best in Slovakia, which also had great views for us of the city from its tower. After about an hour of wandering around and pretty much seeing everything the city center had to offer, we went to a pub to meet up with one of Vladko’s friends who wanted to meet me.

 

I can’t remember Vladko’s friends name, but he spoke good English too, and he had a ton of questions also. He was asking all kinds of questions about life in the states, and also about Wales (because he lived in the UK for a short amount of time). The three of us sat and chatted for a good 2 hours, and had a few pints of course (after sampling all of the Slovak beers, had had Vladko try my favorite, Guinness, which he had never had).

 

The hockey finals game started at 5 (pretty early, kind of different), and we got a ride from Vladko’s friend in his tiny, crappy lime green Skoda to the arena. The arena also happens to be “Steel Arena” (after US Steel). We got there and went through the vip entrance and we were in the corporate box just in time for face-off. I recognized and was recognized by a majority of the people in the box who had bowled the previous night, and so I had good talks with a lot of them, filled up on the free buffet and had a few beers that were provided for us.

 

The hockey game itself was an absolute blast. We had great seats/view of the rink from the box and the atmosphere was electric inside the arena. It is by far there biggest sport, something the US doesn’t really have (a sport that is way above the others in popularity), and so the fans were of course going crazy for their hometown team, H. C. Kosice. They ended up winning 4-2 on a game that was won in the 3rd period on a penalty shot (plus a open-net goal at the end).

 

After the hockey game, Carroll, a couple others and myself headed over to a basketball gym to watch our WNBA American girls play a league game. The stands weren’t very big, but everyone there was really into the game. The funniest part about the game was the cheerleaders (who all looked 15) and their ugly uniforms that didn’t even match the team’s colors. Never been a big fan of girls hoops but this was definitely worth going to and experiencing, especially since I knew a couple of the girls playing.

 

After the game, we talked to the girls, and the other guy that came to the game with us invited the 2 American players and us other 3 to go to a bar for pizza and a couple beers, on him. This guy, TK (US Steel person), was very nice to me and a cool dude, but I am still not sure if he was being creepy or nice to the girls all night (I want to say he was trying to get in their pants, but he could just have been being nice). So we all went out for pizza and a drink. The bar we went to happened to be showing Football World Cup Qualifying – Slovakia vs. Czech Republic. Obviously a huge rivalry match-up, and so it was kind of fun to watch this, and Slovakia ended up pulling off the upset and winning. So I had a nice little night of the Slovakian sports- hockey, girl’s bball and football (soccer).

 

The next morning Pat woke me up with a phone call and asked if I would be down for more of the same thing that day. I said perfect and he sent over the driver and Vladko to get me. I asked Vladko what he had in store for me this day, and he said that we would go up to the High Tatras Mountains to hang out, and then Pat had also given us box tickets to game two of the hockey finals that night. Perfect. So we had about a 2-½ hour drive to get up to the mountains, but the drive was well worth it. On the way we saw an awesome castle, I can’t remember its name, but it is the biggest castle in central Europe, and Vladko was telling me all about how it is always used in movies, such as Dragon Heart.

 

The High Tatras are easily Europe’s second most stunning and best mountain range, behind the Alps. Their span is relatively small, but the peaks reach alpine heights and are absolutely gorgeous. Vladko was telling me how they are easily Slovakia’s number one tourist attraction year around –skiing/boarding for 6 months and hiking/lakes for the other 6. As we got up the mountain a little bit, the ground started to become snow covered. It was 60 degrees when we started off that day, but even in the snowy areas it was still upper 40s. We went through a bunch of little mountain resort towns, and then got dropped of at one of the more popular ones. We wandered around there for a while, watched some people on the slopes and sat at a neat outside bar and had a drink.

 

After a while exploring the High Tatras we headed back down and went to get lunch at a restaurant right by the castle I spoke earlier of. This happened to be one of Vladko’s favorite places and I just had him order me whatever he got. It ended up being some type of meat (pork or veal or something..), served with bread and all covered in a delicious gravy. It was another very good local meal. He also got us these drinks, which were actually shots served in mini-champagne glasses. He was trying to explain to me all about them, but I had no idea what he was saying. Something about how they drink them before they go to the disco, and some other stuff I couldn’t understand. And then after we ate he asked if I wanted another, I said no thanks, that was plenty strong enough for this early in the day. He then explained to me how you have to always drink at least two, because I think he said that one was bad luck. So we had another.

 

We now were on our way back to Kosice and to the hockey game. Pat and Carroll didn’t go to this one (as he said, “He is all Hockey’d out,” he likes it, but he is tired of it because that is all the town has been about for 5 months). This game was another amazing experience, and H. C. Kosice won again 3-1. After the game I walked back to the Mullarkey’s with Bridgett, their daughter, who was also sitting in the corporate box with us.

 

I also parted ways with Vladko at this point. We had spent a lot of time together those two days and he showed me a very good time and was a great “tour guide.” I am guessing at first that Pat had told him that if he shows this American kid around for a day then he would get a free ticket to the hockey game. Well Vladko is crazy about hockey and H.C. Kosice is his team, so of course he would do it (like telling me to show around a Slovak to get Cubs World Series tickets, I’d give my left nut for those, maybe…). I’m not sure if that’s exactly how it worked, but I am sure Vladko had a great time with me as anyways. He was telling me how he never gets to practice his English ever, only hear it in movies and music, so he liked conversing with me. I also think he really enjoyed getting to spend all that time with a person from such a far away place (USA). But we are now facebook friends so we’ll keep in touch.

 

On Friday I spent the morning at the Mullarky’s planning the next part of my trip (booking hostels, figuring out trains, and other things), blogging, doing laundry, putting all of my pictures so far from break on facebook, and generally just catching up on some internet time that I had been missing out on. I then raided their fridge and made a ginormous sandwich for lunch. A little later on, Pat sent one of the drivers to come get me so I could pick up my train tickets and to bring me out to the US Steel plant for a personal tour.

 

So it was a different guy picking me up this time and I didn’t know what he looked like or what car he was driving. I waited outside their house and a guy waved me down and I got in his car. He had the blackberry on the dash that all the employees had been using and it seemed like it was the right car. But, I knew kind of where the train station was, and we were headed nowhere close to it. We started to leave the town, and I knew the plant was outside of town, but I hadn’t been this way to it. I started to see all these signs for the airport, and it seemed like we kept going towards it, so I thought maybe he was mistaken in his directions (airport instead of train station). I tried talking to him, but he didn’t speak any English at all. Then it started to cross my mind that maybe I was just kidnapped or something and was taken to be sold as a sex slave or to be chopped up in the next ‘Hostel’ movie. Not really sure what to do at this point, but then I saw the plant in the distance and realized that he had just taken a different, backwards way to it (and he had already picked up the train tickets).

 

So I got to the US Steel plant ok, and went up to Pat’s office, which was really big and nice. Security was really tight throughout the building and through the rest of my time on the tour, which is a good thing I guess. But so we didn’t have time to give me all the mandatory equipment and safety training to actually go inside a lot of the parts of the plant, so instead Pat gave me a driving and walking tour around most of the rest of the plant. Vlado’s father, also Vlado, joined us too.

 

I learned a whole lot about steel, how it’s made, what they do there, numbers, facts and all sorts of stuff that was actually really interesting. Vlado was like the know everything about everything man and kept throwing in little interesting knowledge nuggets. Pat was still technically working, so it was fun getting to see him go yell at some people for not having their helmets on, and then we sat in the car while he had to go have another disciplinary meeting with some people who f’d up (Vlado said we didn’t want to go in the building and see what was going to happen haha). Overall it was a very unique and highly interesting experience. You don’t get many chances to get a tour of such a big and important place by the Vice President, so very neat.

 

That night (Friday), I went out with the Family and a few of their friends to a neighborhood pizza joint. Very good pizza and one of the first really good salads I’ve had in a long time too (like an Olive Garden one). We then went back to the house and watched the new James Bond, “Quantum of Solace,” that had just come out there.

 

So on Saturday I had my train at 2pm, and so that morning I packed up all of my stuff, did some last minute planning and organizing, caught up some more on the internet (while I still had it easily at my disposal) and prepared for the next step of my adventure- Vienna.

 

This may sound a little weird, and don’t take it the wrong way my parentals, but it was really nice to have a psuedo-family for those 4 nights. I mean that as though I have been gone for 3 months now and just haven’t had like physical interaction with parental figures, and meals cooked for me or things bought for me, but the Mullarky’s did all of that. They treated me just like that would have treated a son while I was there, and I am very thankful of that. I really miss all of my parents and I can’t wait to get home to see them!

 

A couple things about Kosice, as well as Slovakia and most of Central/Eastern Europe I’ve been too. Graffiti is everywhere. It’s big, it’s fancy, it’s dirty, and it’s everywhere. And the other is gypsies, got to watch out for them. They’re big especially in this region (Slovakia, Budapest and such). I’m not really sure exactly how to explain what and/or who they are if you don’t know, but they are just kind of this group of people who are shunned by the rest of society and cast-away, and are really poor and dirty. The Mullarky’s lived in a nice house on a nice block, but only 1 block away there were some, and each night I would see gypsy hookers on the corners of the streets right there. No lie. Pat even pointed two of them out as we drove to get pizza on Friday night. Both Vladkos also warned me to look out for the gypsies, especially the packs of gypsy kids who were really good at pick-pocketing in touristy areas and they told me lots of interesting stories about such things.

 

So that is it for Kosice. I never really imagined myself even going to Slovakia in my lifetime, much less having so much fun! I am very glad I went, it was a great time and I was very lucky to get to stay with such great hosts. Next up- Vienna.

 

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A Kwick Update

April 12, 2009

Ok, so yes I am still alive and yes I will be continuing to keep and update this blog. I have been very busy though and have not had much Internet access, nor do I want to be wasting my precious traveling time with sitting on a computer. But I promise I will be posting about everywhere and everything I do soon! And tons of amazing pictures too!

Currently I am in Interlaken, Switzerland. I just did the best thing I have done on my trip so far, and probably the coolest thing I have ever done in my life- Paragliding down from the top of the Swiss Alps. It was unreal. I am still shaking from the excitement of the high of it. I am very tempted to go skydiving here now, but two things are holding me back. One, I dont have the money to do it right now exactly, and two I don’t want to damper my paragliding experience on the same day. I will get much much more into this and exactly what it was and everything later in a post dedicated to Interlaken.

So for just a rundown of what I have been doing since my last post, Budapest.

Stayed with a friend’s family in Kosice, Slovakia. Amazing hospitality by them. Got to go to Game 1 and 2 of the Slovakian Ice Hockey League Championship and sit in the US steel corporate box, one of the best sporting atmoshperes I have ever been in. Also saw a few castles in Slovakia, went up into the mountains and a lot of other stuff.

Then Vienna, not much time here but cool city.

Prague. Coolest city I have been too. The whole place is like a giant museum. My second favorite place so far probably, behind….

Munich. Wow, I didn’t know much what to expect here, besides beer and sausages, but this place blew me away. Loved it. New favorite city and I love German people now, so fun and interesting. I did lots of good tours here too, including a free tour to Dachau which I won doing a beer challenge the night before. Dachau was an amazing experience, didn’t plan on going there, but soooooo glad I did.

Day Trip to Ashley’s old stomping ground, Salzburg. Very cool city. Also went up into the Bavarian alps from here and toured a salt mine.

Day Trip to two Castles in Southern Bavaria. Cant remember how to spell them right now, but they were awesome. One is the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

And now in Switzerland for two days. Tomorrow off to Nice, France to sit on the beech for a couple days. Also go to Cannes and Monaco while there.

Then I will use the final day of my railpass, Thursday, to get to Barcelona, where I will stay for two nights and then fly back to Wales on Saturday.

I am kind of sad my trip is winding down, but I still have lots to see and do. This has been the experience of a lifetime so far and I have loved every single moment of it. I am having the time of my life and so thankful to be doing what I am doing. I have had great weather throughout, met tons of amazing people and loved every place I have been.

I promise I will post much much more info, stories and events about each place I have been since Budapest, I just wanted to give everyone a kwick update on my travels though.

I hope all is well back state-side.

Cheers

Budapest, Hungary

April 3, 2009

After my interesting night-train ride from Venice, via Slovenia and Croatia (I got off at both stops to kwickly walk around to officially have “been” in the two countries) I arrived in Budapest at about 9 in the morning on Sunday the 29th. I had about a 20 minute walk to my hostel, The Aboriginal Hostel (Aussie themed), and I found it with no problem. On my long train ride I spent plenty of time reading up on Hungary, Budapest, and the Hungarian Language (always gotta know at least Thank You – Kosznom, this keyboard doesn’t have the letters with all the dots and crap over them so that is kind of what it is).

So after getting settled at the hostel, I was completely ready to explore the city. At this point I am starting to get out of my comfort zone. Everywhere I had been, English had been pretty easy to find (and my Spanish skills helped in Spain and also Italy), and places seemed pretty normal. But now I was starting to get into Central-Eastern Europe where things were a little different. I soon found out that English speakers were hard to come by and Hungarian was impossible to understand/read, but really I got by just fine.

I chat-chitted with a girl who was staying in my hostel room when I got there, and she showed me to the closest ATM (gotta get some Hungarian Koruns). A little different dealing with this currency, since 1 American Dollar equaled about 223 Koruns. I felt like a complete baller with a couple 10,000 bills in my pocket. I then parted ways with my new hostel friend, Karen, who was headed to Budapest’s World Famous Baths (more explanation on these later), and I was headed to see the main sites of the city.

Budapest is divided into two parts – Buda on the west side of the Danube River, Pest on the East. It is nicknamed the “Pearl of the Danube,” and it was obvious to see why as I first approached the river. The huge buildings and sweeping bridges were quite a site. Buda is the historical side, featuring Castle Hill- A mile long plateau with lots of mansions, churches and palaces. Pest is the more city-like side – busy, vibrant and much like a lot of European cities.

I started off my exploration by crossing one of the bridges to the Buda side and immediately hiking up Castle Hill. The main feature on top of it is the Buda Palace. Also on Castle Hill I checked out Szentharomsag ter (a busy square with lots of tourists, vendors and buskers), Matyas Church (very big and colorful, somewhat dampered appeal though because its main steeple was under reconstruction), King Stephen’s statue, and the Fishermen’s Bastion (a castle like building on the edge of the hill that had great views of the river and Pest side).

After a few hours exploring the Buda side, I crossed the cities most famous bridge, The Chain Bridge, and walked by the massive Parliament building which sits right on the banks of the Danube. I then headed towards St. Stephen’s Basilica, another site to see from Castle Hill that sits in a few blocks in from the river. I had spent most of this days sunlight simply walking around, taking pictures and admiring what Budapest had to offer.

As darkness approached, I headed back to the hostel, and there I met up with Karen, and also met a couple other girls staying in my room. We sat and exchanged traveling stories and plans, and then headed to find a local restaurant to eat at. We found a good looking one near by, and we all sampled some Hungarian brews, and I had roast duck, cabbage and potatoes to eat (listed under Hungarian specialty dishes). Everything in Hungary also happened to be very very cheap, so it was nice to sit down and have some good meals. We spent a couple hours at the restaurant and then called it a night.

The next day, the 3 girls and I had a plan laid out for the day after breakfast. We first headed back to Castle Hill, and after exploring around for a little bit more, we went into the labyrinths located under the Castle Hill and the Palace. It was like a giant maze of caves and corridors (aka a labyrinth) and was very creepy and cool. There was also this one statue thing there that had wine coming out of it. I tested a little, and then saw the sign that said it is not suitable for consumption, I am still alive so oh well. We spent a while getting lost there, and then headed to our next Hungarian adventure.

Up next we wanted to go to one of the famous Baths. Karen had been to one and there were many in the city, but we wanted to go to one that wasn’t very touristy (Karen’s was the mainstream one). We found a local out of the way one, but this meant Zero English to be found. This old man saw us struggling with what to do, and he also spoke German, as did Karen, and so they got to talking and he  ended up walking us through the process of paying and starting off, and then ended up hanging out with us the rest of the time at the Bath. He was a very nice old man, and very helpful!

I have never been to a Spa, but I think that the Baths are basically very similar, but obviously way better, duh. It was a bunch of different pools, hot tubs, hot water springs, thermals, mud baths, and saunas, all of which looked awesome with really neat architecture (mosaics, sculptures, stained glass). We first went into this outdoor pool that was very warm, and had all of these different stations with water jets that would message you. Very, very good for my back and feet that had been doing tons of walking and carrying of my heavy backpack.

Oh and a kwick side note, I was the Only one there wearing board shorts. I have never seen so many speedos in my life. And since we were at like a local one, it was basically just a bunch of old retired people (lots of big bellys and hairy people). So let me burn that picture into your head – Old, hairy, fat guys wearing speedos.

Next we went indoors to the hot tub thermals. There were a lot of different temperatures, sizes, designs and need-based ones. I tested them all out. Then I took a cold plunge in one with freezing waters and headed straight for the sauna. The sauna was very, very hot and had like a minty/menthol taste in the air. I guess doing the cold plunge and then going into the menthol sauna is suppose to be amazing for your heart. We spent about three hours at this Bath doing all of these different things and others that I can’t even explain. But all in all it was a great time and like something I have never experienced. And very relaxing and a great way to spend a good chunk of the day.

After the Baths we went to the Communist Statue Park. Here there were basically just a lot of old statues of commies such as Marx, Engels and Lenin. It was very interesting and a cool place, even though it was a little bit out of the way.

Then it was time for dinner. I had found a place in my book that sounded really cool called “M.” It was a tiny little restaurant that had plain walls with the decorations literally drawn on them (lamps, fish tank, books). You could also draw on your table, as we did. They had a highly animated chef, who the book claims is completely real, but seemed a little of the top. The food was of the Franco-Hungarian type, and I had a smothered steak with potatoes, local beer and a bananas fosters-like desert. Once again very cheap for what I got.

That night as we were walking back to the hostel, a kid stopped me and another girl (we were a little separated from the other 2), and asked us for some directions. He spoke English, but was obviously from somewhere in Europe. It was a very shady situation and I was being very careful of him and my surroundings, and it also seemed like he was looking at someone else the whole time.

We then left him and the girl I was with went to the ATM to get some cash, and then realized her wallet was gone from her big purse-bag. She automatically starting freaking out and we of course figured that she just got pick-pocketed by that kid or someone he was with. The situation seemed perfect for it, and I was being very careful and protective of my stuff, but she felt really stupid. We then went to talk to the police. I kept telling her that she should check the restaurant, but all three of them were certain nobody left anything there.

The police didn’t do shit, and she had a plane to catch in 4 hours, but now had no cards, cash or passport to fly. It was now about an hour later and we were at the hostel and I finally convinced her to at least call the restaurant and of course, it was there, haha. Nice little adventure though. It was now pretty late and I picked out a movie to put on in the lounge area (Team America: World Police, I thought it was very appropriate ha) and then called it a night.

The next day after breakfast I did a little more wandering around on my way to the train station to catch my Noon train to Kosice, Slovakia. It was this train ride that I ran into my first traveling troubles while in Europe. My EuRail pass is not covered in Slovakia. So I got a free train to the biggest Hungarian city on the way that was close to Slovakia, and had also bought a ticket from there to Kosice. But the ticket didn’t tell me a train number, departure time or arrival time. So basically at the other Hungarian town where I had to switch I was on my own trying to figure out what to do and where to go.

I found a train that I thought looked like it was heading towards Kosice (and I swear its destination said Kosice), and the ticket guy for it grunted at me and motioned towards it like I was on the right train. I couldn’t find annnnnyyyyy English speakers anywhere so I took a chance. Turned out that train terminated at the very last station in Hungary before the border. This station shouldn’t even be considered a station though, it was tiny and had a total of 2 people working there, neither of who knew a word of English. So after drawing pictures for them to try and have them help me, I figured out that I could catch a train to Kosice in about an hour from there, and my problems were pretty much solved. I eventually arrived at Kosice where I had my own personal driver, Boris, waiting for me.

No pictures yet for the blog posts. I do take tons of pictures though of each place I go. Hopefully at some point soon I will get them up here, but for now check out facebook those of you who have it or know someone who has it. I put up usually 60-120 photos from each place I go.

Venice, Italy

April 2, 2009

On arrival in Venice on Friday the 27th, I immediately bought my over-night train ticket for the following night to Budapest. Then right as I walked outside the train station, boom, Grand Canal. This city is bar far the most unique place I have ever been. There are basically no cars or regular streets in Venice (there is a mainland part that is like a regular city, but I never went there), canals and water everywhere, tons of gondolas, water-buses and water-taxis, street peddlers mainly selling Carnival themed items (lots of masks and glass ornaments), lots of churches, cafes, gelato and pizzerias.

Luckily I had been smart enough to write down the directions to my hostel that were on hostel world, otherwise I probably would have never found it. Part of the directions went something like this, “walk ‘straight’ for about 10 minutes, cross a bridge, go through a square, cross a small bridge, pass a church, turn right at a big bridge, look for this building number and the hostel, A Venice Fish, has its own private bridge.” Different then any other directions I have ever had to follow, but it got me right there.

This hostel ending up adding basically a 3rd main category of types of hostels I have stayed in. There have been the ones that are basically hotels (with basic receptions, lounge areas, and room, but just with lots more people in the rooms), and there are the ones that are a little smaller and located above Pubs, but still somewhat like a normal hotel (especially in the UK). But this one was a lot different and thus creates its own category. As I was buzzed into this one and walked up to the second floor, I was very confused. There was nothing close to resembling a reception desk or area. I could not tell who was working or just hanging out and staying there. After a little bit, a man of about 30 (Nimo, who I would later find much, much more about) approached me and checked me in on the guest computer and showed me my room.

I was led to my room through another room and mine had about 6 beds in it. This hostel basically consisted of one floor of a building, which had a main dining/hang out room, 4 large bedrooms that were all connected together and without individual doors or locks, and a kitchen. I had checked in at 4, and so it was not very busy yet, but after a couple hours of exploring the city, I came back to a full hostel with people everywhere in the main lounge room. I found my self a seat and started to socialize. I probably told my story of what I was doing and where I was going to 30 different people in an hour’s time, while also hearing all of their stories. I was also surprised to see that almost everyone there was English speaking. I mainly talked to a couple from Vancouver, a couple guys from Texas, and then a U Colorado Vball player, a girl from Virginia and one from NY (the 3 of who I would spend most of the rest of my time in Venice with).

We then were prepared a free dinner by the hostel staff (pretty good pasta). I continued to hang out and socialize with people, and then Nimo (the guy in charge, and who had been getting drunk while making dinner), announced that he would be going out to a couple bars soon and that anyone who wants to should join. I heard from other people that he basically does this every night, and that I should definitely go. I figured it would be a good way to see what the town had to offer for a nightlife. A group of people and I went out to a couple bars with him, we didn’t drink very much, but it was a very fun night. At one of the bars I met a guy who used to work in Burlington as a tennis pro and knew Mt. Pleasant well. At another bar we went to, the ceiling was covered with bras. Turns out that if you (girls obviously…) give them your bra to put up, they give you a free t-shirt. It was a very good decision to go out with Nimo and see a little bit of the town, but he is crazy, good crazy though.

One last paragraph about the hostel, but mainly a run-down of this Nimo character. He is a very interesting man. Very, very friendly and it seemed he would do anything for you. He had a very interesting way of carrying himself too, as well as his mannerisms. He was described best to me to me as very Jack Sparrow like. After making my review of the hostel on hostelworld and looking at some of the others, I realized that almost every single person gave awesome reviews and mainly just commented about Nimo and how much they loved him. He was a little bit creepy though and I am pretty sure he probably sleeps with a girl staying in the hostel about every night…  Good guy though, haha.

Ok, so back to actual Venice. After our free breakfast Saturday morning (eggs and such prepared by Nimo), the 3 girls I spoke of earlier and I headed out to explore the city for the day and we purchased day passes to ride the water-buses around. We took a nice little tour around the city first, and then went out to the city cemetery. This was an island by itself and the only cemetery for the island portions of Venice, meaning there wasn’t going to be enough room for the big Venice population to have spots. Therefore, once you died, you were buried there for 10 years, then dug up and cremated so someone else could have your spot, unless you had lots and lots of money to keep it. It was the coolest cemetery I have ever been to, and much of the plots/tombs were above ground (like New Orleans).

From there we took a canal ride to San Polo, the center and main district of Venice. Located here was the main tourist attraction, Piazza San Marco. It is a huge crowded square, that houses two of Venice’s chief buildings; the Campanile (tallest structure in Venice, once was a lighthouse) and the Basilica di San Marco. The Basilica is a huge exotic cathedral, which was modeled on Constantinople’s Church of the 12 Apostles.

Then it was time for some grub (Italian pizza and gelato for me), and then more site seeing. I split up from the girls at this point and did some exploring on my own. I think I got to all the main places that I had heard of and that my book said were must sees. But really it was just amazing being able to walk around the city, so unique and different then any place I have ever been, I loved it.

Oh and I did have to check out of the hostel at 11am this day, but I talked Nimo into letting me keep my big bag there until that night when my train left. Very, very helpful not having to carry it around all day. I went back to the hostel a couple times throughout the day, it was located in a great location, to check on my stuff and also talk to some people, and then I killed some time there at the end of they day before my train at 9:20pm.

I then got on my over-night train to Budapest, and it went pretty well for being my first really long ride (12 hours). It was quite interesting though because I got my passport checked and stamped 4 different times. I only went into 3 new countries though (Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary), so I don’t know what the 4th stamp was for. One time the guy checking it called someone on his phone and was reading stuff off of my passport and was obviously checking to see if I was illegal or wanted or something. At the Hungarian/Slovenian border they had drug-sniffing dogs come on and also a group of police who checked all the panels in the ceiling and on the sides of the train cars (I don’t know if for drugs, people or what).  I then arrived into Budapest, Hungary at about 9 in the morning to spend two nights there before heading to Slovakia.

2009 Nation Count- 13 (US, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary).

Train from Cinque Terre to Venice, via Pisa and Florence

March 29, 2009

On Friday the 27th, I activated my 21 consecutive days, 21-country EuRail pass. This enables me to travel on trains anywhere in the 21 European countries available to me as much and often as I can or want. I have a rough idea of the path I am going to take, which right now I am planning on eventually using the last day of it to get to Barcelona. The great thing about the pass is that it allows me freedom to do what I what and doesn’t make me commit to booking trains and times. I started off by taking a train from Cinque Terre to Venice, and it had two train changes along it, Pisa and Florence. I had 40-minute layovers between trains at each city too. Instead of being a bum and sitting on my ass at the station, I decided to take the world’s faster tours of the two cities.

Getting off at Pisa train station, there is obviously only one thing to do or see in Pisa, the leaning tower of Pisa. I quickly looked at my map and saw it was all the way across town (not a very big town, but still across it), but I tried to catch a glimpse of it anyway. After 18 minutes of run-walking, I barely caught a glimpse of it, but had to turn back to catch my next train, even though I could have easily just caught the next one. I contemplated this but I didn’t want to get into Venice to late, especially since I was only spending a little over a day there.

An hour later I was stepping out of the Florence train station. There is much much more to see and do in Florence, but I just wanted to get a little taste of the city for the 40-minutes I had to do it in. I was able to see a few different things, and made it as far as the impressive Duomo, the fourth largest church in the world. One thing I really wanted to see in Florence that there was no chance of me seeing was the David. I have heard amazing things about it from friends who have gone to see it and I was very very close to skipping my train and going to see it. I am a little disappointed I didn’t, but then I probably would have felt shorted on my stay in Venice. Next time I suppose, next time.

I barely caught my last connection to Venice, and as I was getting on I helped a girl get her bags on, she had no chance by herself. I ended up sitting by her, and she was from Brazil, and living and studying in different parts of Europe for a year and a half (moving from back to Germany from Italy now, with a quick stop to site see in Venice). We ended up talking about the entire train ride and she was very helpful with a lot of things. She had been all over Europe multiple times and wrote me down lists of things to go see and do, and was especially helpful with Munich.

I also spend part of this train ride trying to plan where I would be going next. My somewhat goal/plan is to reserve a spot on a train out of a place when I arrive at one. I had been thinking I would go to Vienna from Venice, but about 5 minutes from arrival I changed my mind and decided to go with a night train the next night to Budapest (still planning on going to Vienna soon though), and the first thing I did when I got there was reserved a spot on that train and then started my Venice adventure.

Cinque Terre, Italy

March 29, 2009

Stop number two on my month long trek is Cinque Terre. Three weeks ago I had no idea what or where this place is or was. I had wanted to start my spring break in Italy and slowly make my way through back west through Europe. A few friends from Swansea had told me they were spending the first week of spring break here and invited me to stay with them as long as I wanted. After a little research into this place and booking of the cheapest flight that was close (Milan), I planned on meeting up with them.

Cinque Terre is basically like a National Park. It consists of 5 beautiful villages perched on tiny cliff-bound inlets on the west coast of Italy. The main things to do are to hike around and to admire the amazing views of the sea and sunsets. I stayed with 5 others who were also studying abroad in Swansea (all from ISU, boo, one of who is Guatemalan-Diego) and also Diego’s cousin who came from Germany. They rented a holiday house in the village of Manarola, which was 5 rooms/stories, including the roof top terrace, which had amazing views of the sea.

On my train ride to Cinque Terre, I had made friends with some other Americans, who were really nice and helpful, except when they wrongly informed me to get off at the 2nd village, Vernazza. I didn’t realize I was off at the wrong stop until the train had left, so I had 30 minutes to kill. This worked out perfect because it gave me enough time to go down to the water and watch the sunset.

After arriving in Manarola, I luckily ran into two of the friends I was staying with (wasn’t sure if they were getting my calls and was getting worried) and we headed to the house. After a few Italian brews, we went on an adventure in the village. We had decided that lemons hanging over the fence of people’s little yards were not rightfully theirs and we could take them. We loaded up and were set for a while on lemons. We also made smores on our fire (we used marshmallows, crackers somewhat similar to graham, and nutella instead of actual chocolate).

The next day we started off by going on a hike along the cliffs/shoreline to the next village, and furthest south, Riomaggiore. This was the easiest of hikes possible in the Cinque Terre, for it was paved and was short. After spending some time exploring that village, we hiked back to Manarola and straight through to the village on the other side, Corniglia. This hike took about 45 minutes, but the worst part was the exact 382 steps needed to climb to reach the village at the end. I think this village probably sits the highest up of the 5 on the cliffs, and there was an awesome panoramic viewing area at the top of the village we hung out at and ate gelato (I lived on gelato and nutella while here).

After hiking back to Manarola, we all decided that we needed some IT (internet time), and the closest access point was in Riomaggiore, so we went back there for that, the sunset and dinner (local wine and amazing Calamari for me). That night we then used our lemon treasure to make vodka-lemonade. We all pitched in to squeeze the lemons and produce lemonade (I cut them and also made some wedges and twists with my bartending skills). Best vodka-lemonade I’ve ever had. We drank them that night by the fire and played some card games.

On Wednesday, we pumped ourselves up for a real hike. We planned to go to Corniglia, but not the shorter, straightforward hike, but instead one up to the top of the coastal mountains and then down to the village. The paths were much steeper and narrow, and it took us a little over two hours to do at a very fast pace, only stopping for the occasional photo opt. The views from the top were well worth the climb. After getting to Corniglia and more gelato, we took a quick train ride to the most northern village, Monterosso. This is where the beaches were located in Cinque Terre, so we hung out there for a while, I climbed some big rock thing sticking out of the water, and then we had a dinner on the boardwalk (delicious anchovy pizza for me).

I had planned to leave either Wednesday or Thursday when I first arrived in Cinque Terre. But as Thursday morning rolled around and I woke up to another beautiful day, there was no way I could leave yet. That is the great thing about no planning and just winging my backpacking journey; I’m not locked into to many things and can stay places as I please.

So we found out that there was a local train strike for 5 hours during the middle of the day Thursday, so we decided to hop on a train right before the strike at noon, and take it to the farthest north village, Monterosso. This is where the only real laying out type beaches were located in Cinque Terre, and that is what we did. The weather was in the high 60s and the sun was out in full, so we were able to get our bronze on. We also frolicked in the Mediterranean water for a little bit too, but it was still a little cold.

After a couple hours on the beach, and still three more until the strike was over, a few of us got restless and decided we would start hiking. We decided to go with a trail that was suppose to take about 3 hours to get to the next village, so we thought perfect, right in time to take a train home and get ready for another beautiful sunset. When asking how to get to the trail, we were advised not to do it, for it is hard and not very well marked. We went for it anyway though. The hike started off really cool, going up a mountain alongside a big creek, but then turned into a path that obviously wasn’t ever used and it was getting very difficult and somewhat dangerous. We were pretty sure we were going the right way and everything, but after about 45 minutes we ran into a dead end, a giant tree had fallen in our path. There was no way around it, we were on a 2-foot wide ledge of a cliff, and so we were forced to turn back. Even though we didn’t get to do what we wanted, the hike was still pretty fun and exciting.

That night, one more of our friends from Swansea came to Cinque Terre to stay the last couple nights there. We of course had to show him what we do at night in Cinque Terre. That had consisted of watching the sunset, borrow/stealing lemons and making lemonade, playing cards, and making smores by the fire. Just another great night in Italy.

I was able to do laundry that last night, and early Friday morning I was off towards Venice.

Sorry it may take me a while before I can get pictures on here or facebook, but I do have a ton of them!

Week in Swansea with Natalie

March 24, 2009

Following our weekend in London, Natalie and I spend Sunday through Saturday morning in Swansea. Natalie was super excited to finally see the city I have been living in, my campus and my student village, flat and room, meet my flatmates and now she finally got to see what it was all about.

 

One major note about this week is that Natalie did not get to experience the true Swansea. It did not rain Once while she was here, it wasn’t even cloudy a single day. We had beautiful mid-50 degree-days each day she was there. I don’t think it has gone 2 whole days without raining once since I’ve been in Swansea. The rain isn’t really that bad, some people make it out to be a lot worse then it is, but the fact that most days are gray and cloudy gets some what depressing sometimes, I guess that is maybe why I travel so much, to get away from it! But anyway, Natalie brought perfect weather with her!

 

On arrival Sunday we took it pretty easy, I let her catch up on her jet lag and long train ride, and just showed her around a little bit. The next morning, we got up and caught a bus out to the Gower Peninsula. This is where all of us American students went on a field trip to the very first day we were in Swansea. This was my first time back though, and the other time we only spend about 45 minutes there, so I was very excited to get back out to it and spend more time there, especially in the much nicer weather.

 

Natalie thought our bus driver was trying to kill everyone on the bus, because he was flying down these tiny backcountry streets and through town street corners that didn’t seem possible for a bus to fit through. She said she had never been going so fast on a bus before, and it made it even crazier that we were on all these tiny roads, and with sheep crossing it at their own leisure.

 

When we got to the point of the peninsula, we took a walk along the cliffs by the beach and out to the beginning of the Worm’s Head (the header of my blog is a pic of the Worm’s Head I took that first day). At low-tide you can cross the cause-way to the Worm’s Head island and you have about 5 hours to explore it before you get stuck out there until the next low tide. I plan on making a hiking trip out to it sometime before I leave. We explored around the area, got some really cool pictures, and even saw some white Seals! After that, we got lunch at a little local café (fish n chips for me!), and then checked out the beach for a little bit (It has been named to the top 10 most scenic beaches in the world).

That night we went to get dinner at the convience store in the village, and right as we got back one of my flatmates suggested a trip to KFC. This meant getting in one of their cars and driving all the way across town to the closest one. Of course we were going to go, Natalie was very excited to ride in a British car (they all drive tiny 2 door hatchbacks, and of course on the opposite side of the road), and we all let her sit shotgun.

 

I also found out on this trip supposedly why they actually drive on the right side of the street and we drive on the wrong side of the street. Joel, the one driving, informed me that back in the days of when everyone rode horses, you wanted to approach somebody on the left side of them, that way you could draw your sword and have a farther and much more effective stab at them with your right hand, if need be. I don’t know about that…

 

So we had a nice little adventure, KFC was closed 3 minutes before we got there, we ended up going to the next thing British thing that we could never get back home, Burger King. This started the stealing of a chair from BK and 2 traffic cones on the way back by my flatmates, they are really in to causing, as they call it, devastation!

 

On Tuesday, Natalie attended class with me, and found it very interesting, for what she could understand from the teacher at least, and then I gave her a little tour around my campus, and then we got a good pub lunch. We then went to the city center to do some looking around and what not, and the that night we went to the pub in the student village, Woody’s for a couple drinks to celebrate St. Patty’s Day. She was very glad to finally check out this pub in my student village that I have been going to.

 

The next day we just hung out and took it easy all day, then we to a pub for dinner with all of my flatmates (another sweet car ride for Natalie). That night, I had bought tickets for us to the Easter Bunny themed night at the club PLAY. Wednesday night is considered a student night everywhere, and is probably the biggest night to go out each week. I couldn’t let Natalie’s week go by without showing her some partying, British style. We had a little get together at my flat before going to the club, and we had a great night there. We even got a picture of all of us with a couple of Oompa Loompas that the club had hired for the night!

 

The following day we got a little bit of a late start, but eventually got on a bus to head towards Mumbles. This is a small fishing village/ harbor town on right next to Swansea on the bay. It is also home to the infamous “Mumbles Mile” where there are 15 pubs located along a mile stretch of the board walk and water front road that you are suppose to go to each one and drink a pint at and then move on to the next and so forth. We did not do this, nor have I, yet…  

 

This was only my second time to Mumbles, and it was very cool walking around the town, beach, and boardwalk, and also another perfect weather day. We walked all the way to the point of the bay, where I climbed a big mountain rock thingy (Natalie did not try, but this meant she could take good pics of me at the top). After leaving Mumbles we went into Swansea city center and got dinner at a nice pub/restaurant I had not been to yet.

 

The next day, Friday, I figured it was about time for me to start planning and packing for my month long backpacking journey. We were leaving for London early the next morning, so I had to get all of this taken care of that day. It was a very long process (I like to take my time), which did not make Natalie very happy because my attention was not on her 24/7 like it had been the rest of the week. But I got it all done, and now I’m on day 4 of my journey and I have done good so far with what I’ve got. That night we got a ride from one of my friends to the city center so we could have a one last nice dining out experience in Swansea, which we did.

 

The next morning, we did some last minute packing and organizing, before getting on a train back to London. When we got to London that afternoon, we checked into our hostel, and then went and explored the Piccadilly Circus and Covenant Garden areas. We didn’t spend any time here the weekend before, and it was very fun walking around and pushing our way through all the dumb tourists that were everywhere. We eventually stopped at a pub to watch the 6 nations rugby match between Wales and Ireland, and I was one of only 2 people in the pub supporting Wales.

 

We then had late night dinner reservations at the Japanese steakhouse, Benihanas. The food was absolutely amazing, but the presentation was a little disappointing. Natalie and I have our own personal favorite chef at 3 Samurai in Iowa City that we always request, he is the best ever. And so we had high expectations, but our chef seemed to be focused 100 percent on making our food and not on entertaining us, good for the food, not so good for our spirits. What was really disappointing though was that we saw him as we were leaving at another table doing all kinds of cool shit, guess he thought our table (mainly the boring people to our right) was just not that exciting or in the party mood.

 

The next morning we both were up by 5 am to take the tube(which was closed, so bus) and train combo to get to the airport and prepare for our flights; hers home and mine to Milan to start my break. It was a very hard goodbye, but when talking to her that night I received good news; she was home for maybe a few hours and had missed me/UK so much she had found and booked a cheap flight out to see me again in May!

 

So I am now starting to get caught up a little more. Coming soon I should have updates on Milan and Cinque Terre and also lots of pictures.

 

Weekend in London

March 24, 2009

So I have fallen kind of far behind in my blogging, oops. I have been a little busy, lacking Internet access and also time the last couple weeks, but hopefully in the next couple days I will get everyone caught up. Currently I am in Cinque Terre in Italy and it was amazing and beautiful. It is quite possibly the best place I have been so far, but maybe I am just saying that because I am still here and enjoying it. Before here I was in Milan, where I flew in to start my month long Easter break and backpacking across Europe trip. But before I go into any of this, I will update you all on the previous week and its activities.

 

On March 13th, Natalie flew into London to visit me for 10 days! I traveled to London, along with my friend Sean, to meet her and Sean’s girl Ashley. Natalie and Ashley actually have become really good friends since finding out they were both coming to Swansea to visit their boyfriends and realized they had a lot in common, such as going to Iowa, Nursing and other girly stuff. So that night we picked them up at the airport and then headed on an adventure through the London tube (subway) system and finally checked into our hostel, just north of Piccadilly Circus, and pretty much called it a night.

 

The next day, Saturday, we had a double decker bus tour planned. The tickets we bought enabled you to hop on and off the bus as much as you wanted, and it stopped alllllllll over London, so you could really see everything you really wanted to see in London in one day, and then get back on the next bus to come along. The weather for it was pretty decent, just sometimes got a little cold on the open air top of the bus.

 

The main things we spend time at were Big Ben (not as big as we thought it really was), the London Towere (not actually a tower, more of just a castle), the London Bridge (it was not falling down), Buckingham Palace (the guards were not wearing the traditional red outfits and big black hats, but some alternate ones, but still cool) and the London Eye. Natalie went on this and it was expensive but well worth it. I believe it is the biggest ferris wheel type thing in the world (actually inside basket things that fit up to 25 people). It sits right on the Thames River across from Big Ben, and you can literally see all of London from the top of it, and it takes about 30 minutes for the whole rotation around it

 

We also did a cruise down the Thames River, which was free included in our tour bus tickets. This took us from the London Bridge down right next to Big Ben. Natalie and I had good seats right in front, and also inside (would have been a little cold outside on the river). The captain of the ship provided commentary and was very informative and funny.

 

We found a good little pub for lunch, and of course when in London you’ve got to get Fish n Chips, well at least Ashley and myself did, because neither Sean nor Natalie eat fish. But I have become very fond of the English meal, and also putting vinegar on almost everything I eat like they do.

 

That night we started off by having a couple drinks at our hostel’s bar and then went on a little adventure trying to find this bar area that the workers at the hostel directed us to. We wandered around for far to long, and I finally had my first encounter with another primary British food, Kebabs. We found a little Kebab shop and all got one and they were delicious. After that we finally found a bar we thought looked cool, and it is still up in the air, but we are pretty sure it was a gay club, or at least very gay friendly. What are the chances.

 

So after a few drinks and lots of meandering our way back to our hostel, we called it a night. The next morning Natalie and I got up early to catch a train to Swansea, where we would spend the entire following week (Sean and Ashley flew out of London that night to spend the week in Barcelona, and from what I hear it was amazing, I’m excited to be going there at the end of my backpacking trip in April).

 

So there is the first of my very absent updates. Pictures will have to wait until I have more time and Internet. I am actually writing this in our holiday house (I’m staying with a few friends here in Cinque Terre), and we do not have Internet here, but I am just trying to get caught up and I am saving this to my external hard drive and taking it to a Internet café where you have to pay lots of Euros to use the Internet, so this is saving me lots of money I figure.

 And sorry for the mass of spelling and gramatical errors, time is money.

Chow for now.

Dublin, Ireland

March 10, 2009
My addiction to Eurotripping continued this past weekend, as I spent it in Dublin with two other guys, Sean (from Iowa) and Davis (from U of Alabama, and for those of you who remember the show “two-a-days” on MTV about Hoover High School Football in ‘Bama, he went there and was part of the Season 1 Seniors, but he didn’t actually play football, but still pretty cool).

The 3 of us got decently cheap flights out of Bristol to Dublin on Friday evening and stayed until Monday night. We planned the trip kind of last minute, andcould not find any good hostels (price or location) but ended up finding an apartment on travelocity.com, that cost me only 75 quid for the three nights total (actually cheaper then a lot of the hostels would of end up being).  When we got to our apartment, we were all blown away. This place was by far nicer then any place I have lived in college. Sean and I each had our own bedrooms with huge beds, and Davis had a nice leather pull out couch. We had a fully equipped kitchen, a large dinner table, nice hardwood floors, multiple sofas, and a tv(something I have pretty much been without since I’ve been here). In addition to this, it was within a 10 minute walk of pretty much everything we wanted to do in Dublin. The place ended up being an amazing find for us and I felt like royalty for the weekend.

Our Apartment living room in Dublin

Our Apartment living room in Dublin

So after arriving in Dublin, getting settled into our place, and finding some food to eat, it was late Friday evening, and we figured it was time to start joining in at what the Irish do best, you guessed it, drinking. We had the game plan of going to as many pubs as possible and getting one drink per pub. The first pub we went to was the “Brazen Head.” This is the oldest pub in Dublin, 811 years old to be exact. And the drink of choice in Dublin obviously has to be a pint of the black stuff, Guinness. I have actually started to become quite fond of it since coming over here and actually consider it my go to drink, doctors actually recommend it too! (so the ads say ha)

The Oldest Pub in Ireland

The Oldest Pub in Ireland

After the Brazen Head, we headed into the famous Temple Bar area. This is like Dublin’s bar/social scene area (like Iowa City’s PedMall, Swansea’s Wind Street). Things were pretty crazy here. People everywhere, street performers, drunks passed out all over the streets, and tons of traditional Irish pubs. We went into quite a few, and had a number of pints of Guinness and also Ireland’s 2nd most famous drink- Jameson Irish Whiskey.

Davis, me and Sean with a random street performer in Temple Bar

Davis, me and Sean with a random street performer in Temple Bar

After an amazing night of sleep (best bed I’ve slept in since I’ve been abroad, and slept in a little bit too), we had two tours planned for our Saturday afternoon; The Old Jameson Distillery and The Guinness Brewery.  This day also happened to be Sean’s 22nd bday (as well as my lil bro’s 19th who I didn’t get to talk to, but who now gets a blog shout-out, happy bday Mo!)

First up was the Old Jameson Distillery. This was the site of the production of the Whiskey for almost 200 years until a new distillery was built 40 years ago elsewhere in Ireland. But this meant we got to go through all of the different parts of it and they still had it looking like what it used to. So we learned all how it is made, how Irish whiskey is distinguished from Scotch and Bourbon, John Jameson’s legacy, and finished off with a free glass, along with a taste testing.

This tour I had to endure one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I was one of the few people randomly picked out of our tour group to be an official taste tester (got to try multiple different whiskeys, learn how to drink them and tell the differences, and also an “official Jameson taste tester certificate). BUT, Sean really wanted to do it too, and didn’t get picked, and me being the good friend I am, I let him have my spot as an official tester since it was his Bday. I really wanted to do it, and this was not an easy thing for me to give up, but I did so. And he really appreciated it, I hope.

I had to settle with my glass of Jameson and watch, but I ended up basically getting to do it anyway though, because the girl next to Sean realized she didn’t like whiskey at all and gave me all of hers and let me do it. Only difference I ended up having to live with was the lack of an official certificate that Sean got, but I’m coping. But I did get an official Jameson drink stirer thingy! ha

Sean and I drinking our free glass of Jameson after our Whiskey tasting

Sean and I drinking our free glass of Jameson after our Whiskey tasting

Next up was the Guinness Storehouse tour, located within St. James Gate, or basically just the acres and acres of land that has been the location of the Guinness Brewery for 250 years. This tour was not a guided one, but you go through 5 floors of all things Guinness before arriving at the gravity bar at the top for a free pint. We learned all about how Guinness is brewed, its amazing history, what makes it so special, their long-standing history of excellent advertising, as well as many other things. We spent a couple hours going through the different levels, which was not easy to do knowing we had a free pint awaiting us at the top, but it was just so interesting we had to take everything in.

The final stop, the Gravity Bar, is where you get the best view of Dublin, It has a 360 degree panoramic view of all of the city, which was amazing. But the best part was the best pint of beer I’ve had in my life, a Guinness of course. (Sean got two free pints, damn birthdays). We hung out and mingled in the bar for a while, and even got to see a couple of famous people. Guillermo, the Mexican from Jimmy Kimmel live (Yimmmy!), was there filming a skit for the show for St. Patty’s day, and was doing it with the Guinness head master brewer. We were able to watch the taping from 5 feet away and it was really cool.

Guillermo from Jimmy Kimmel, the Head Master Brewer of Guinness and Me at the Gravity Bar

 That night we celebrated Sean’s birthday the only way we could think of; by having another Irish pub-crawl. Sean and I actually both randomly met separate groups of friends of friends this night too(I met some SMU girls that know Steph Fedler and Tyler Norris). The night was a great time out and Sean was very pleased with his entire birthday and celebrating we got to do.

On Sunday we started off getting brunch at a cafe. I had a full-on traditional Irish breakfast, complete with tea (first time I’ve ever drank multiple cups I believe, not to shabby). We then wandered around the city and took in some sites and saw some landmarks. We went to the Dublin Castle (lamest castle I’ve been to), multiple Cathedrals (St. Patrick’s was the biggest and best, it’s ginormous), St. Stephen’s Green Park (Dubs most famous park, very nice), and Gafton and O’Connell Streets (Dubs two most famous streets -shopping districts and what not). That night we had a really good dinner at a pub and then pretty much relaxed and took it easy the rest of the night.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Davis had an early flight back Monday morning, but Sean and I had the entire day to kill before ours. After check out from our amazing apartment, we did a little more exploring and wandering around, and eventually made it over to Croke Park Stadium (Ireland’s National Stadium) and the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum (Governing body of Gaelic sports- hurling, Gaelic football and handball).

We took a tour of the Stadium; we got to go into the dressing rooms, players lounges, vip areas, corporate boxes, and onto the pitch. It is a very cool and historic place. One big difference it had from American stadiums was that of the dressing/locker rooms. They are ALL about business. Their locker rooms were a single square room, cement floors, small open lockers, benches, and two medium sized tvs. None of the frills that American locker rooms have such as plasma tvs everywhere, sofas/recliners, video games, huge lockers. I’m pretty sure a lot of Amerian D-3 locker rooms have more frills. I have often discussed with my British friends how American sports in general are way more about the entertainment value, as where British sports are ALL about the sport, but this is just one example of that.

On the pitch at Croke Park

On the pitch at Croke Park

We then toured the GAA museum. The best part of this was learning about how to play the sports Gaelic football (kind of like Aussie Rules football, or like a combo of rugby and soccer) and hurling (like a combo of field hockey/lacrosse/Gaelic football). There was one area where you could test your skills out, a batting cage like area where a radar gun tested how hard you could wack a hurling ball with the stick, and another one for trying to Gaelic style kick a football through hoops. This was pretty interesting, especially the hurling, because my neither do my baseball or golf swinging skills translate to hitting the ball, and to make it worse there was a big group of Irish school-boy teenagers in the area at the same time, all who played hurling and were good. It was a big competition with all of them to see who could hit it the hardest, and obviously we couldn’t even come close to competing, so I proved my athleticism by baseball style throwing the ball harder then any of them could hit it (138 km/hour, or roughly 86 mph, not bad for not throwing a baseball in 8 months, but my arm is killing me today and I’m paying for it).

After proving my superiority to little Irish boys and receiving our official tour of Croke Park certificates it was time to head to the airport and back to Swansea so I could get some sleep before my Tuesday morning class.

Dublin in general was very, very touristy. It seemed so more then any other place I’ve been too. Everyone on the streets seemed to be stopping to take pictures, or carrying around Guinness/Jameson/random gift shop bags. It also seemed like most people we talked to at Pubs who were close to our age with people visiting just for the weekend from university’s around Europe, not to many locals. On our stadium tours there were 4 really old Irish dudes though, who were cool to talk to, even though I couldn’t understand their thick accents at all.

Another thing about Dublin is that it was a very expensive place. I had heard that it was, and like any big city it was to be expected, but Dublin seemed worse then anywhere I have been yet by far. I knew a pint of Guinness in a pub would not be cheap (usually around 5/6 euros at min.), but what really was absurdly priced was the little things like at convenience/grocery stores. Since we had a kitchen we cooked a few meals for ourselves, but it was so expensive to get things (but still cheaper then always dining out). I’m talking like a bag of crisps (chips) that would be 1 pound in the Uk would be 2.50 euros in Dublin or a frozen pizza being 6 euros instead of 3 quid. But even with all this, I still managed to not spend to much money while there (I think I spent the least out of the 3 of us, by a good amount too).

Dublin was an overall great trip and I had an absolute blast. I would definitely go back, and the one thing I kind of wanted to do that we didn’t was get out of the city and do a tour of the surrounding areas, castles and what not. Maybe someday.

Now I’ve got a whole week to finish up some school work and continue to plan for my month long trek across Europe for spring break. But then Friday I go to London to meet my visitor/girlfriend, Natalie, at the airport and spend the week with her, so excited!

Pics to come soon!

 

Spain- Palma De Mallorca

March 2, 2009

Donde esta el bano? Agua/Cervesa por favor. De Nada. Gracias. No pasanada. No se.  This was about the extent of my Spanish I remembered/used, a long with plenty of random verbs, while in the Spanish Island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean this past weekend. These few terms pretty much could get me through most interactions with locals, about half of who could somewhat carry on a conversation in English as well. Its been a good 4 years since studying Spanish, but actually I started to pick up on the language towards the end of the trip and definitely was feeling an improvement in my Spanglish.

Myself and three others (Tom, Michelle and Carly) were able to arrange for a pretty cheap trip down to Spain this past weekend. We took a train to London on Wednesday night, stayed at a cheap hostel, took a bus to London Stansted airport (which is no where close to London, bus thus has dirt cheap flights), and hopped on a RyanAir flight down to Palma de Mallorca. Mallorca is the largest Spanish island in the Mediterranean, and Palma is its largest city.

We hired a car for the weekend, a hatchback ford focus that was super cheap, so that we could do lots of exploring around the island. We stayed in a hostel we found on hostelworld.com, which was actually just a hotel, that we had two rooms in and were only a couple blocks from the beach in the town of Playa de Palma (20 minute drive from Palma), which had an awesome beach and boardwalk area. It may seem like I just listed off a bunch of expenses, but everything was generally pretty cheap. flight-60 euros, buses/trains -30, car per person -13, 1st hostel – 8, palma hostel – 16/per night. So all in all not to shabby for a 5 day holiday in Spain.

So now for a rundown of the events. Starting off at our hostel in London, called the Greenman. It was another one thats reception doubled as a bar, which we hung out in, watched some Champions League Football, had some amazing fish n chips, played Wii, and witnessed a fight between two old ladies, pretty hilarious, but I thought someone was going to be killed.

The next morning we boarded our RyanAir flight, the airline is a joke. It is so cheap, and I actually never even got my ID looked at except for one single glance by a man at the start of security. The sky was really clear for our flight and I was able to snap some good pics of the Pyrenees Mountains and Mallorca as we were landing. When we landed, I was the first to go through customs, and the Spaniard I went to thought it would be funny to screw with me. He actually didn’t ask me any questions, but simply would shake his head and wag his finger at me, saying that the passport I showed him was not actually me. It took me a couple minutes before I realized he was screwing with me and I finally got through.

We then picked up our car and headed to our hotel. It was nothing like the 14 bed dorm room hostels I have been staying in in other places, this was actually just a hotel, but for the price of a hostel. After dropping off our stuff we took a walk down to the board walk and beach, explored the area a little bit, and then found a Spanish restaurant to eat at. I had a very Spanish meal of Papaya and red wine and we were able to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean from our seats outside at the restaurant.

Watching the sunset from our dinner table

Watching the sunset from our dinner table

Mallorca is a huge vacation spot for Germans all year around, and big for Brits during the Summer. A lot of things were closed though because its off-season, but still plenty of places/things to do and the weather was pretty good, mainly 60s and sunny while we were there.

One of the reasons we chose to go to Mallorca was that Michelle had two friends studying abroad in Palma and Tom was having his friends from high school studying abroad elsewhere come the same weekend and they stayed at our hotel.

So Thursday night, we had a few drinks in our room (I drank Absinthe for the first time, the stuff is lethal), and then took a bus to Palma to meet up with Michelle’s friends who took us to a local party at an apartment and then to a couple pubs.

The next day, Friday, we started off by driving to the Palma Cathedral. Palma is set in a bay, and is decent sized city, but the Cathedral and its Gothic towers dominate the city skyline. We took a walk around and in it  and learned about its history and what not. We then explored the city for a while, ate and then headed back to our hotel.

pic of the Cathedral from our coche

pic of the Cathedral from our coche

Next up was the beach. This was the nicest and sunniest day, and I was not about to have my first trip to the Mediterranean and Not get in! Michelle was the only other of the 4 of us to bring a swim suit, and I convinced her to build up the courage to go for a swim. The water was definitely a little to cold, and people were looking at us like we were crazy, but I’m glad I can now say I’ve been in it (I should have plenty more chances though later in the year though). After a couple hours on the beach we met up Tom’s friends and had dinner with them at a place on the board walk. We had another very traditional Spanish meal of Tapas and Sangria. Muy Bueno.

Running into the Med

Running into the Med

That night we had a mini-part in one of our rooms and drank some cervesas, pino and more absinthe. This led to an example of our hostel being a hotel instead, for we got warned for noise a few times. A German guy across the hall really didn’t like us (the walls/doors were paper thin, we should of complained about hearing his snoring from our beds) and he was the one complaining about us. As we left our place to go to the pubs, he actually came out in his underwear and yelled at us, and proceeded to tell us if he got woken up again he would pull his knife out on us. Crazy Germans. Don’t worry, we were then careful and warned reception of a possible stabbing later that night.

Once we got down to Palma that night, we spent a while walking around trying to find a Discotecca party at, but after a long walk ended up settling for an Irish pub. This worked out well because they ended up giving us some free stuff. I got 3 Guinness scarfs, a bunch of posters and a stocking cap.

On Saturday, we started off by going to the Castle overlooking Palma, Castle de Bellver. The Mallorca Museum was also located inside it, so we learned a lot of really cool history about the city, island and castle, and also got some really good pics of the Palma bay and city. After that we went to a market in Palma for food and to haggle for some crappy merch that none of us ended up buying.

View from the Castle of Palma and the harbour

View from the Castle of Palma and the harbour

Next, we took the car for a little exhibition through the back streets and mountains of Mallorca. I was really excited to hike and climb some cliffs and what not, but our car ended up being a piece of crap and couldn’t quite get as far up the terribly small and steep mountain roads, so I had to settle for a smaller scale hike and exploration. We also were able to check out a couple of the small towns in the middle of no where that were definitely not meant for tourists, much less 4 Americans who knew very minimal Spanish, but it was a good time.

Hiking through a wine vineyard

Hiking through a wine vineyard

Everybody was pretty worn out by this point and wanted to go back for a nap. I let them, but I don’t believe in naps, especially when on holiday, so I used up the last couple of hours of sunlight by exploring the side of Playa de Palma I hadn’t seen and the towns next to it along the beach. I was also searching for a pub that was showing the 6 nations rugby, but I could only find ones showing German football and they were all filled with the Duetschlanders. I made it probably 4 miles down the beach before I arrived at a pier, and went and hung out with some people on the end of it fishing, before I headed back to meet up with the rest of my lame friends who take naps on holiday.

After dinner, we headed to Palma to meet up with Michelle’s friends, who took us to another part at some Germans apartment. Randomess (yeah just made up a word) thing happened here. I ended up knowing a girl at this party. One of my good guy friends from Iowa City and who lived with me for a summer 2 years agos girlfriend is studying abroad in Cork and she was at this party. So random. I haven’t talked to her at all since I’ve been here, just knew she was in Cork. But she happened to pick the same totally random place to go, on the same weekend, and was at the same party. So weird, but cool and we had a nice chat.

After the party, we headed to a discotecca with a big group of people. We got there, and it was really busy and we had to wait in line for a little bit, but it was totally worth it. Right when you walk in to the place, Titos, they escort you to an elevator and you go to the top floor of this building that overlooks the bay and it was absolutelycrazy inside. They also basically had strippers dancing in cages and poles, once again photos that aren’t fit for facebook or this blog, so ask if you want to see those, haha. The discoteccas stay open until 6am, we made it to 430 after our very long day, and knew we had a long day of traveling the next day.

So on Sunday morning we went back to Palma to check out the harbour. Tons of sailboats and ginormous yachts everywhere. Then after lunch it was time to leave the beautiful island of Mallorca and head back to the rainy UK.

A very fun, adventurous and a nice break from the constant overcast and 40 degree weather of the UK. But it was a great weekend, and very glad I went. I definitely can’t wait until I can get back to the Mediterranean during my spring break and also in May/June when it will be much hotter and beachy weather. This was also my first real test in having to deal with people in another language, at least partially. It was never that hard though, but is a little bit scary though seeing how I actually knew some of the language here, but I’ll be backpacking by myself through places that speak languages that I know nothing of, such as Italian, German, Czech, Polish, Greek and French to name a few. I’ll just have to create a cheat sheet of the important terms I started this post off with though and I’ll be set.

My Nation count is now up to 7 here in 2009 (Wales, England, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and now Spain.) This coming weekend was going to be a week off, but now its looking like a trip to Dublin is in store. I really have been wanting to get to Ireland, especially Dub.

Adios Amigos!

Playa de Palma

Playa de Palma