27 February 2007

At Last, Greece

Greece fascinated me as a young boy. I have no recollection as to why, but for a year or so of my life I craved this country and its culture. When I was in the sixth grade I even attempted to teach myself Greek. While my lust for this land has waned to mere curiosity, I am still thrilled to finally find myself in this ancient land. After all, this country gave the world the original Odyssey.

Before I go further, allow me to state that my post on Albania lies below this one. I split them up for the ease of reading. The interent is cheap at this cafe, so I have problem with providing many details.

Yesterday morning I walked across the border from Albania and into Greece. A customs agent, suspicious of a lone American young man arriving from Albania, stopped me to search my backpack for drugs. However, I was able to answer all his questions in such a detailed and talkative manner that he trusted me before I even began to remove my clothing from the pack. Completely unpacking my belongings would have been quite the annoyance.

From the border station I took a bus to Ioannina, and from another to Kalambaka. The north of mainland Greece is home to the Pindos Mountains. From time to time the clouds would part and reveal snow-capped peaks. Part of the ride took me high over the landscape, along those aforementioned peaks, and provided downward views of a sea of clouds. As in Albania the views reminded me of the Rocky mountains, but shorter and not as green.

I got off the bus on the side of the road and found myself in the town of Kalambaka. I came to visit the monasteries of Meteora, a region next door to this town. As the daylight faded I checked into a hotel and searched for a place to eat.

I am no stranger to Greek food. In fact, back home I have even picked up the tradition of treating myself to gyro after successfully completing an exam. Only a few other dishes can out beat the juicy roasted lamb, cucumber yogurt sauce, and warm peta bread of a gyro to my taste buds. Baklava, with its layer of filo dough, walnuts, and honey, is the dessert of the Greek Gods. Greek salads, souvlaki, moussaka, I enjoy it all. In other words, the Greek food may be the most dangerous items my budget strapped wallet will encounter on the Odyssey.

I found a taverna and tried their versions of moussaka and greek salad. The first dish is a casserole or potatos, eggplant, ground beef, and cream. The true greek salad is nothing but olives, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, and olive oil. Both tasted outstanding.

This morning I awoke to dissapointingly misty and cloudy skies. Exceptionally dissapointing because those monasteries I came here to visit rest in the sky. Meteora litterally means "in the sky."

The famous monasteries of Meteora lie on the summits of slender rock pinnacles that thrust up from the plains located in this region. An ancient sea created the pinnacles, which stretch up hundreds of feet into the sky. Early religious outposts were built in the area during the 11th century. As the Ottoman Empire expanded, the hermit-like monks in this region wished to remain in isolation. They decided to move their monasteries from the sides of the immense rock pillars to the towering peaks. I suppose in a way the monasteries were the first skyscrapers.
One must understand that these pinnacles are not steep hills, rather they are truly vertical monoliths rising from the plains.

The first monks climbed the pinnacles, centuries before rock-climbing was a recreational activity, and built the monasteries. Until the 1920s one could only reach the monasteries by using retractable wooden ladders or hoisting nets. Since then workers have paved roads as far as possible, and then built steps up to the monasteries. There were as many as 26 monasteries; only six remain today, mostly as museums. Two are still functioning monasteries. The six remaining outposts show off their Byzantine frescos and works of art collected over the centuries. One monastery was even used as a setting in a James Bond film.

Perhaps now you can understand my dissapoint towards the poor weather conditions.

I made the most of it and hiked off to the base of the pinnacles. This being the low season, the bus between town and the monasteries was not running.

Almost no signs marked the way to the pinnacle bases, which are large and forrested enough for one to lose his way. I found a steep trail that led through the Greek wilderness and up to the bare rock. The series of switchbacks eventually led me to the entrance gate to the steps which led up to the Varlaam Monastery. At this point I also was a bit disheartened to find a parking lot with a road leading to it from the other side of the pinnacle's base. Only a few cars were present though and I hurried up the steps hoping to beat more visitors to the monastery.

This monastery turned out to be an active one, with a small number of Greek Orthodox monks residing in it. There were small gardens and split level buildings spread out over the pinnacle's summit. The church and its beautiful frescos were the highlights of the visit. I even witnessed one monk hoisting supplies up to the monastery. These days the rope nets and pullies have been replaced with metal baskets and electric wrinches.

I hiked down as a couple tourist buses arrived, and I walked down the paved road. It led to another monastery's steps, which I ascended. This monastery, Rousanou, had frescos grusomely depicting the martydom of numerous saints. I took the road and a woodland trail back into town.

I bought my first true Greek baklava and gyro as a late lunch. The first was great, but the latter was not as good as some of the gyros I have had in America. The inclusion of french fries in the wrapped peta surprised and displeased me. I by no means intend for that to be the only gyro I will have while in the country.

Tomorrow I leave for Athens, where I think I will spend around four days.

I could get used to this traveling life. At times I realize where I am and what I am seeing and cannot help but smile out of the joy it brings me. I still wake up a few mornings and suddenly remember that I am not in America or Germany. I have learned to rely often on the kindness of strangers, which is especially important with the language barriers (amplified in Greece, where the Latin alphabelt isn't even used). Hostels are not always the best places for privacy and comfort, but they expose me to many people. My expectations of cleanliness have changed as well to meet life on the road. With room only for a few shirts, two shirts, and five pairs of all underwear items let's simply say that I do not always feel Spring time fresh. Do not mistake me though, I am relishing every minute of the Odyssey.

Albania: An Alien Land

Outside night falls on the streets of Kalambaka, Greece, a town in the northern highlands of this country. I arrived here yesterday after a brief, but eye opening stay in the developing country of Albania. It was a wild and sometimes anxious ride to this point, but every minute was worth it. I will cover Albania in one post, and my stay in Greece up to now in another.

As soon as I stepped of the boat in Vlora, Albania I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore, or anyother region in the developed world. Chrildern beggars and fare hungry taxi drivers greeted me outside of customs. The appeareance of the city reminded me of the images I had seen of Bosnia and Serbia. The city looked like it had been abandoned for years and only reinhabitated recently. Through the kindness of strangers I found my way to a bus stop.

The public transportation system in Albania consists mainly of buses, which mostly head to the capital city of Tirana. Bus stations are usually nothing more than the side of the road. There are no posted schedules or information on the routes. If one wants to catch the bus he must flag it down as it passes, or hopes a current rider will get off at the stop.

A woman who spoke a little Italian brought me from this bus stop to another 'intercity' station; it was nothing more than a large parking lot of the street. We had to ride a local bus to reach this station and she even paid for my fare since I did not yet have any Albanian currency. At the new station we learned that no buses served my desired destination, Gjirokastar. However, she found a taxi driver who was willing to take me to the city. While I felt the driver was ripping me off with the price of 60 euros (especially considering this was the same price as the ferry ticket from Italy), I couldn't beat the convience of this offer. I accepted.

I wanted to thank the woman in a special way, but all I could manage was grazie repeated over and over.

I buckeled up in the cabbie's car from the seventies and we began the three hour ride to Gjirokastar. The driver was 56 year old man with graying hair and a worn face. His name was Vladmir.

Vladmir spoke only three phrases in English: "How are you?" Where are you going?" and "Do you want to go together with my taxi?"

Communication was not as large a problem as you might think. Vladmir had spent a year of his life in Italy and could speak simple Italian. Fortuanately, my previous two weeks in that country bestowed me with a little Italian as well. With a bit of that language, broken English, and sign lanugage we could communicate on a basic level.

During the ride Vladmir would teach me words in Albanian and I would quickly write the phonetic prounciation down in a small notebook. When the conversation would die, he would surprisingly quiz me on the vocabulary. If I answered correctly he would always shout out "Bravo, Nick!" By the end of trip I had learned a good deal of words, but most described the sceneary seen along the route, like the words for mountain, valley, river, and lake. Therefore, not all that practical for everyday communication.

Along the way the country of Albania presented itself to me, in all its glory and despair. The physical landscape was outstanding. Towering snow-capped mountains gave way to vast arid river valleys. It reminded me somewhat of Rocky front ranges in southern Colorado. Sadly, garbage and litter existed in such amounts which I could not have previously imagined. Entire hillsides and creek beds were blue and white with layers of plastic bags and other debris. If not for this distraction, the landscape could easily have been breath-taking. We passed numerous donkey-drawn carts and other donkeys carrying riders. The 'highway' was at times no more than a rocky dirt road, don't even ask about signs or painted lanes. Apparently driving exists in an aracharic state in the country. Most drivers would fly by us on the twisting road, but Vladmir, thankfully, remained at a safe speed. Beggars and people selling simple goods lined the way. Freshly skinned-sheep hung from wooden beams at roadside butchers. Hundreds of concrete bunkers dotted the countryside, remants from Albania's communistic past and its dictator's grand scheme of defense against foreign invasion.

I also saw signs of change brought on by the Westernization of the country. There were many new buildings under construction, and the government was busy upgrading sections of the highway and other pieces of infrastructure. The country is changing for the better, albeit slowly.

Upon arrival in Gjirokastar I hired another taxi to take me to a hotel, which was closed. The English speaking driver took me to best guesthouse in town and nicely arranged my stay with the caretaker.

One Albanian leke approxiamently equals US$ 100. This fact, combined with the country's inflation meant that in Albania I could live like a king.

The small city of around 90,000 sprawls over a steep mountain slope overlooking a wide valley. The historic center is 'known' for its traditional houses with gray slate roofs, which blend together and into the mountain slope when viewed from the old castle which overlooks most of the town. My first impression of the town were negative. Described as medieval I expected something akin to Rothenberg ob der Tauber, but more reminders of Bosnian images greeted me. As in the countryside, litter lined the streets and drainage ditches. Supermarkets were nothing but 100 square foot rooms lined with shelves full of a wide away of items.

At first the town seemed to lack order, but as I learned to look past the somewhat superficial quality of cleanliness I realized it existed like communities in the developed world, with the same worries and desires. Adults went to work during the day, and childern went to school. At night people relaxed in cafes and bars. Streets in the historic center had been recently paved with new cobblestones and lined with historic looking lamps. The city, like the country, is obviously trying to improve, but only so much can be done with such little money.

The main tourist attraction in town, if you can call it that, is the castle. It was built by King Zog and used by the Nazis and the Communists as a prison and torture center. Today one can walk among the crumbling walls for a entrance fee of 200 leke, or $1.60. An odd assortment of artillery guns line the main dark main hall, and an unusually placed rusting hull of a U.S. Airforce plane rests on one of the outer walls. How the plane came to the castle I haven't a clue. There were no information signs or guard walls along the top of the cliff-like walls.

After the castle I roamed the streets of the historic center. At some point the sound of the Imam's voice sounded over the loudspeaker on the minaret of the town's mosque. The Albanian nation predominately adheres to Islam. This call to prayer reminded me that this was indeed a land the likes of which I had never experienced.

I soon met Chimi. This aged and wrinkled-skinned man saw me on the streets and began speaking to me in broken English. He introduced himself to me and invited me to coffee. I hesitated at first, but accepted his invitation when I saw that we would not be alone in the small cafe. I eventually realized he was a friendly old man who wanted nothing more than a chance to share his country with a foreigner and practice his English. When he laughed he revealed his almost toothless grin as his eyes squited and his head nodded up and down. We watched a soccer match between Chelsea and Arsenal on the cafe's television. Apparently British soccer is popular in Albaina.

Later in the night Chimi surprisingly visited me at the guesthouse (he said he was friends with the manager, Drago) and asked for an English book. I had none, but I remembered that how excited he was when I told him I was from Memphis and he talked about his appreciation of Elvis music. I presented him with an Elvis postcard, one of many such Memphis themed postcards I brought along for exactly such reasons. He seemed more excited about the prospect of a new book, but gladly accepted the small gift.

That night I dinned at the finest restaruant in town, which overlooked the city from a hilltop higher than the castle's. Luckily, my young waiter spoke some English. The tip, small change to me, must have made his night.

The next morning, Monday, I woke up and took a taxi to the border with Greece. This driver was less friendly and more suicidal. He returned my request to slow down with a couple shakes of the head. Perhaps a no, or perhaps a yes. Many Albanians still follow the old tradition of shaking the head for yes, and nodding for no, the opposite of to which what Westerners do. In either event, our speed seemed to remain unchanged, but I arrived at the border safe and sound.

My most significant observation from Albania was that even though the people live in quite different conditions than us in the more fortunate parts of the world, their lives are similar. People are fundamentally similar around the world, rather we live in poverty or abundance we still care about the well-being of our selves and our loved ones. We all seek happiness. For Americans that may require vacations to exotic locales, and for Albanians simply watching a British soccer match will suffice. In a way I already knew of this common connection within humanity, but my experience in Albania allowed me to see it first hand. It was a experience I will never forget.

Nonetheless, when I walked across the border into Greece and back into the developed world a greater peace of mind returned to me. I never would have guessed that painted lane dividers on the road would be so pleasing to my eyes.

24 February 2007

Arrivederci Italia

I sit now in Brindisi, a small city on the Adriatic Coast at the heel of the Italian boot. Today is the last day in Italy, for tonight I board a ferry to Volres, Albania. I doubt I will be able to post from that country, but perhaps I can find a internet cafe there. After a few days in Albania I will head to Meteroa, Greece, and from there Athens.

I forgot to write in the last post about one of the more unique experiences I've had on the trip. This past Wednesday I returned to Rome to recapture some lost photos, but mainly to attend the Pope's Mass for Ash Wednesday. The church, Santa Sabina, was a small one on a relatively isolated hill overlooking Rome. There were about 500 - 800 people attending the service, mostly nuns, monks, and priests. I met Sisters from Norway, the Phillipines, and Indonesia. The entrance procession was the longest I have witnessed for a Mass. When Pope Benedict XVI finally entered the church the congregation reacted as if a movie star stood before them. Considering he comes from Bavaria and that he helped save the university in Eichstaett, I hoped I would somehow have a chance to speak with him, but the chance never occurred. Security was tight, all attendees had to pass through a checkpoint to enter the church.

Actually, only those who had reserved tickets far in advance were supposed to enter the church. The rest, like myself, were to watch from a giant television outside. However, when rain appeared immient the staff allowed us to enter the church, where there were surprisingly enough seats for all of us non-ticket holders.

One my last day in Naples I went in search of my father's old house from when he and my grandparents lived in the Naples area.. My search took me two trains and nearly an hour of travel to the small town of Lucrino. With only a postcard view of the house and notes on its location based off my father's and grandparent's memory to guide me, I left the train station and took in my first views of the worn town. After asking a few of the locals to help point me in the right direction, I came upon the house. At that place only 40 years or so seperated me from my father. As I left town I wondered if my future son or daughter would some day journey to Eichstaett, Germany to visit the city and apartment in which I lived for nearly a year of my life.

I spent yesterday in transit from Naples to Brindisi. I stopped for a couple hours in the town of Alberobello, home of the trullis. These other-worldly buildings look like beehives with their unique white-painted walls and stone cone roofs. To be clear, the roofs are not domes, or merely slanted; they are true cones. The points of each cone are decorated with sphere, crosses, or other geometeric designs. The large concentration of the trullis in the town center is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking among these alien sturctures felt like I was in a Dr. Suess book.

I had hoped to meet up with a friend I made in Eichstaett, Ilaria, here in Brindisi, but she will not be in town until after my depature.

Brindisi is her home town, and she spoke fondly of it around me and just about everyone else she met, often calling it the most beautiful town in Italy. Most of the others Italians laughed at that comment, but, actually, it is a very attractive city, at least in the center portion. It reminds me in more ways than one of Pensacola, Florida. The Italian navy has a few bases in the area, and its presence is strongly felt around town. The city center is abloom with flowes and palm and orange trees. Numerous fountains and sculptures dot the streetscape. I don't know about being the most beautiful town in Italy, but I can understand Ilaria's devotion to it.

I have enjoyed my two weeks in Italy, and I will miss it. It's a good country, except when its people try to rip you off or steal from you. Of course, those people are not the status quo. Most people I met were friendly and helpful, perhaps more so in the South. Much of it is a beautiful land, but it can also get nasty in certain places. I will miss the food: pizza, foccacia bread, gelati, and conoli.

The last item are pasteries that my family and I usually by from an Italian grocery store during visits to New Orleans. I had forgotten about their Italian (ok, Sicilian) origins until the pleasant surprise of finding them in a bakery in Rome. They soon became almost a daily staple for my stay in Italy.

I have seen and done so much in two weeks, it feels like I started travelling more than only two Saturdays ago. With six weeks left I'm excited to put Italy behind me and see what else Europe will offer me.

22 February 2007

The Best and the Worst

I will begin by bluntly stating the bad news, I was pickpocketed on a bus during my last day in Rome. Fortunately, the thief stole only my camera and not my wallet or passport. Unfortunately, all of my orginial photos from Venice, Pisa, and Rome are gone forever. I grimace to think that some grudgy twenty-something man looked over them with a criminal smile before deleting the whole lot. I had many photos of which I was particularly proud, especially those of the Vatican and the leaning tower in Pisa.

When I first noticed the camera was missing from my pocket I retraced all of my steps from the morning, searching around and asking various offices if anyone turned in a camera. Eventually I accepted the truth. The worst is that I'm fairly certain when and how it happened, and it could have easily been prevented.

I was on a bus and a young man came from the back of the bus and stood beside me. I even remember thinking it was unusual but I decided not to raise my guard. He leaned down as if to look at the window at a bus stop, and exited the bus at the next corner.

For all of the other days of the trip I have been extremely careful, having read again and again the dangers of pickpocketing. I have kept my valuables in front pockets with my hands inside, or in zipped jacket pockets. On the subway and around transit stops I have taken extra vigilance, holding my backpack in front of me, sitting when possible instead of standing, and observing my surroundings. On this bus ride however, I forgot all that.

I left my jacket pocket with the camera inside unzipped. Worse, my jacket was unzipped and I remained standing, so the pocket was hanging loose and easy to reach.

Now I can only learn from my mistakes. I refuse to allow this incident to repeat itself.

Incidentally, I bought a new camera the next day in Naples. The same model which I previously had, only twice the original price. A costly mistake to say the least.

With the bad news covered let's try to put behind us and move on to the more cheerful events of the past few days.

On the morning of my last day in Rome, before my camera was stolen, I visited the catacombs of Santa Sanbastiano Church outside of the city proper. This turned out to be the most interesting place for me to see in Rome. The church allows entrance to the underground tombs only with a guide, in my case one of the Brothers. There are three levels of tunnels, running 8 miles in total. The first earth removal began around 150 AD. Today the upper portion is accesible for visitors to see the creepy environment, but the bodies have been moved to the lower levels out of respect for the deceased. While these facts are interesting alone, the story behind these catacombs is even better.

Some of the first generations of Christians started work on these catacombs, and many others around Rome, as a place of worship and burial for their dead. At this point in time, 150 AD, Christianity was still illegal in Rome; therefore, churches and Christian cemetaries could not be located in the open. The early Christians secretly dug these tunnels underground in what was then the far countryside in which to lay their family to rest and worship. Today, the original tombs and altars remain. In order to pass through the maze of tunnels, the people used a system of early Christian symbols to guide themselves, so only they knew the proper way in or out. The complex grew overtime and came close to a Pagan necropolis (cemetary). The area around the necropolis collapsed a little time before 300 AD, forming a giant pit in the ground. The locals eventually named this area the necropolis of the catacombe, or the cemetary of the pit. From this we obtain the modern meaing for catacomb, an underground cemetary. However, the story for this site continues.

A family soon built their house over the pit, which they filled in with dirt. Modern archaeologists found the perimiter wall to this home, which one sees during a visit, and were perplexed by the amount of graffiti covering it. More so, the exact words of the graffiti, which were Peter and Paul. After further research and detective work this is the conclusion the archaeologists deduced.

A little after 300 AD the Roman emperor cracked down on the Christians in Rome. Fearing for the survival of their religious artifacts, the early Christians hid many of them around Rome. The remains of St. Peter and St. Paul were brought to this house for safe keeping. Christians in the know would come to this site and pray, leaving their prayers scribbled into the outer wall's plaster. When Christianity was accepted by Rome, the holy remains came to their present sites in Rome, but saints throughout the ages continued to visit these catacombs out of remembrance for their significance.

To think, I only thought I was going to see a bunch of old tunnels. I had no idea these catacombs would introduce me to such surprising history.

Later in the day I would visit a church in Rome which contains, according to tradition, pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Then I spent the rest of the day in a frantic and enraged state of mind of the loss of my camera, and travelling to Naples.

The next day I explored Naples while also searching for a new camera. At best, Naples is trashy and cheap; and at worst, it exists as a city edge of self-collapse. At one point while walking the streets I even questioned if I was still in Western Europe. I have never seen such quantities of litter and graffiti. Perhaps it was because I was a victim of crime the day before, but I could not feel calm walking the streets. If Rome is filled with energy, Naples is simply chaos. Of course, there is also this city's notorious reputaion with crime and the mafia. Put simply, this was probably not the best city for me to come to after being stolen from the day before.

In the afternoon I visited the ruins of Pompeii south of the city. The extant of which this Roman city existed, before volcanic ash covered, destroyed, and preserved it in 79 AD, amazed me. In many ways it was like a modern city. It possessed houses, offices, bakeries, theaters, brothels, and even a stadium. Many of the domestic frescos and mosaics remain intact. In fact, the frescos in the best preserved brothel display sexual positions used to advise clients. Authorities have moved most of the famous body casts to museums for further protection, but a few remain in Pompeii.

As the ash solidified around the citizens of Pompeii, their bodies slowly decayed and left behind cavaties in the rock. Later, archaeologists filled the cavaties with plaster, creating amazing statues of people in their final moment of life. The morbidly fascinating reality is that these are not statues created by an sculpter, rather the casts derive themselves from true human beings. A viewer can all to easily recognize a man covering his face in agony, or a women cowering in horror and fear. For this reason, I understand why many of the casts have been removed. If they remained, I think Pompeii would be too grusome of a site to visit with entire city's residents forever frozen in the state of dying.

At night I dined at Da Michele Pizzeria, one of the most famous pizzerias in Napoli, the birthplace of this world famous dish. I ordered the classic margheritta style, thin and covered in tomato sauce and mozzarella. Thanks to the Italians I befriended in Eichstaett, I remembered to look the part and eat it with fork and knife. While quite the tasty treat, I have to say that I still prefer the thicker American style pizza. Sorry Italy, you may have invented the pizza, but America perfected it.

That night I ventured to the top of a hill looking over the harbor of Naples. It's my first time in this city, but it was view I had seen over a hundred times before.

In my grandparents' bedroom, over their bed's headboard, hangs a painiting with nearly an identical night-time view of the scenic Naples harbor. When my father was young, he and my grandparents lived in the area of a Naples for a short period of time. As a small child during visits to my grandparents' house, I would sit on their bed and stare at the painting. I would wonder what life was like in Naples, Italy, and on the other side of the world. I imagined seeing it for myself for someday.

It was a surreal moment to finally find those shades of oil paint replaced with real twinkling city lights, the calm night-black water of the harbor, and the silhouette of the mountains in the background. A gripping reminder of how far I have come from that curious little boy to this world-travelling, yet ever still curious young man.

18 February 2007

Roaming around Rome

Italy can keep Venice, give me Rome. This city amazes me like few others have. Its pulse of life never fades, rather it speeds along at a continuous beat. Perhaps this is what is really meant by the nickname for Rome, The Eternal City.

Before I get too deep into Rome, let me begin with my time after Venice. I left that watery city early in the morning. I walked a long confusing walk along its maze of streets to the train station in the morning darkness. Transfering at stations in Bologna and Florence, I eventually made my way to Pisa and walked off to its famous bell tower. I took an indirect route, away from the tourists and street hawkers. When I turned the corner and saw the tower with its distinictive lean I couldn't believe I was seeing it in person. I unbalancedly hiked up the tower's steps to the very top and took in the view. Walking on the top surface was a bit unsettling due to the tilt. After the tower I continued on to Rome.

Along the way I passed through some beautiful scenary. Along the right side of the train for part of the ride was the Tyrrhenian Sea. I saw many Italian villages and towns full of homes and buildings all the same characteristic shads of yellow, orange, and red. They reminded me of the many Mediterranean style vacation homes and condo developments I usually see every year in Florida. The only difference being that these buildings are real and authentic. When one taps on the exterior wall, he does not hear the hollow sound of fake stucco.

Wednesday night I arrived in Rome, and it immediately introduced me to its pazzo (crazy) lifestyle. The car traffic blows my mind; drivers whiz around the cars and buses on their scooters with seemingly no regard to others. In most of the crosswalks there are no walk/don't walk signs, the pedestrian must trust that the scooter barreling down on him will slow down or go around him.

Roma is a stunning city, full of one bella vista (beautiful view) after another. True, many of the buildings look past their prime, as in Venice, but the sheer number of monuments, ancient ruins, and civic art pieces nullifies all that.

Thursday I walked around the city center and took in the sights. I saw the Pantheon, one of the most important architectural wonders left behind by the ancient Romans. The dimensions of its dome are so peferct that it would be difficult, if not close to impossible, to replicate it even today. The center of the dome has a large hole in it to allow light in and remove some weight. It had rained earlier in the day and a puddle of water sat on the floor. As with many of the sights and attraction I have seen here, I previously learned and studied about the Pantheon; therefore, it was rewarding to finally see it with my own eyes.

In fact, that's becoming exhausting in a way. How many more times will or can buildings and pieces of art take me back and cause me to question if I am actually standing in front of them? While it Rome, that seems to never end.

Continuing with Thursday, at one point I saw a beautiful building guarded by decorated soldiers and decided to go inside it. I passed through security and didn't see much more to attract me, so I walked back outside. In this moment a fleet of police motorcycles and black diplomat escort cars pulled up in the front courtyard. In a flurry the motorcade drove through the building's car entrance as the soldiers saluted the passing cars. I asked a police officer who it was and he told me the Italian president, apparently I was in his house seconds before. Although, if my understanding of the Italian political system is correct, the President is more of a figurehead, while the Prime Minister is the main executive figure. I later saw the latter's house as well, and the Italian Parliament building. I also saw the famous Trevi Fountain later.

That evening I saw my first view of Vatican City, the world's smallest country and center of the Catholic Church, and St. Peter's Bascilica. Those minutes were some of the most emotionally charged in my life yet. Stunning. Beautiful. Magnificient. These words do not do the Bascilic justice. It truly inspires awe. The archiecture of the structure paired with the fact that it is the most important sight in all of Christiandom should make it a powerful sight for all. I did not plan to visit the Vatican until Friday, but after seeing it I simply couldn't resist.

I returned on Friday and spent the whole time touring the Bascilica and the Vatican Museums. I spent nearly two hours alone in the Sistine Chapel, in wonder of Michangelo's The Creation and The Last Judgement. The Chapel's floor space is probably a little larger than an NBA court, and yet this one room contains some of the most important artwork ever produced by mankind. The Chapel is also the sight where a new Pope is elected. In the Bascilica I gained a new understanding of what man is capable of building. A ten story building could fit inside the nave and not come close to scratching the ceiling. Inside the Bascilica are the remains of St. Peter, other holy relics, and art work like Michelangelo's sculpture The Pieta. I plan to return later tonight to walk up to the top of the dome for the view of Rome, and to attend Mass.

Yesterday I explored the Colosseum and the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum. These relics forced me to wonder what our current civilization will leave behind as our ruins. The Colosseum was impressive, but almost baren in the interior. I had no idea that so many ruins remained and one can walk so closely to them. I saw the site where the Roman senate met, Ceasar's tomb, the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, among many other important sites of ancient Rome. I often thanked Ms. Proffer of my senior year high school humainites class for teaching me about many of these attractions.

Tomorrow I will tour the Roman catacombs, something I've wanted to to do since reading a story set in this creepy location in the ninth grade. Then I will venture on to Naples, where I will attempt to find the house in which my father lived for sometime as a child.

I also must say that I love the food here. I thought I knew what gnoochi tasted like. I though I had eatten eggplant parmaegan. I was wrong. Dinner at Olive Graden will never be the same again. Buffala pizza is superb. I made the mistake of visiting the best gelati (Italian icecream) cafe in Rome on the first full day here. Now every other cup I buy tastes like McDonald's soft serve yogurt. At dinner i order a Fanta to drink and the waiter gave me a crazy look, apparently every dinner is usually accompanied by wine. I should have know better after spending time with Italian friends in Eichstaett. At least I remember to eat pizza with a fork and knife. Afterall, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I really enjoy Italy and will probably have to return someday. After this trip I will have seen all the sights that I must seen in Italy for my life, but there is so much more here to visit and do. The food is great. The history and culture is rich. The people are friendly (expect for those who try to rip you off by giving wrong change). In summation, I think I'm falling for Italy.

13 February 2007

Com' è bello!

I'm currently in Venezia, Italia, a.k.a. Venice, Italy. I'm also on the clock in an internet cafe, so this is will be short and sweet.

To the point, Venice dispoints me slightly. I think people have built up too much hype about it. From a distance the cityscape is beautiful, but up close all of the small faults add up. She may be the Queen of the Seas, but she past her prime in my opinion. It reminds me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, obviously breathtaking at one point in it's history and now a faded image of what once was. For another thing, I discovered there's not too much to actually do here. I shorted my hostel reservation from four to three nights because of this.

However, in spite of all of this the city is still worth a visit. The atmosphere is incredibly unique and mesmerizing. To top if off, it's Carneval season right now, the party time before Lent begins. The streets are full of people decked out in rich costumes and masks. At some points I feel as if Casanova himself may be concealed under one such mask. I took in Saint Mark's Square and Basilica, which houses his tomb. It was powerful to see the tomb and realize what one would find inside. I rode a gondola, but the cheap kind that only acts like a ferry across the Grand Canal. That cost 50 cents, the alternative of the tour version would cost around $90. I visited some other islands off of Venice: Burano (Venetian glass), Murano (Venetian lace), and Torcello (abandoned centuries ago due to malaria).

Italy easily keeps me entertained and happy. I like the fact that when I walk leave a store I can say ciao, and it's not spoken in fun. It simply sounds cooler than hello or good-bye. Italy is of course the center of fashion, and the Italians prove it without hesitation. No simple t-shirt and sneaker wearing twenty-somethings around Venice. Apparently the latest fade is wearing black jackets with a patch on the shoulder that says "Arctic Exploration Museum" and with a little picture of Alaska. I also like the Italian language because the prounciations are so fun. I'm picking up simple words and phrases as I go along. It helps that Italian and Spanish are similar, and that I finished a semester of studying the latter only five days ago.

I head to Rome tomorrow via a short stop in Pisa. As long as I see an Italian driving a scooter while wearing sunglasses I should have a good time. If he happens to say ciao to his friend before sputtering off down the street, it will be all the better.

07 February 2007

My European Odyssey

With the completion of today's Geography exam all that remains is Spanish, then the semester will reach its end and lie in the past. In the last week or so whenever I wasn’t studying, I spent my time at a number of goodbye parties and dinners for the multitude of foreign students who will not return for the Summer semester. I have plans to see some again before I cross the Atlantic back to America, and with others the promise that if I ever visit their respective home countries, or they mine, a comfortable bed and warm meal await. From this one semester alone I made friends from more than 10 countries; the number probably doubles when you count all of the people with whom I simply spoke once or twice. While the past four months unquestionably justified and satisfied my decision to study abroad, they also exceeded my original expectations. I feel fortunate, no, blessed about the fact that I took that initial blind leap to commit to the full year. Were these the final days of my life in Germany I would question, distantly into the future, why I chose only one semester. My time here since the end of last September endowed me so frequently with one unique memory and virgin experience after another, that I can only barely imagine what the next six months hold in store for me.

Most of the friends about whom I have written or of whom you have seen pictures, will be gone by April 16, the first day of classes for the next semester. The French girls Amelie and Nawell, the first other foreign students I befriended, returned to France over two weeks ago. The Italians will return to their country in the beginning of March. Kristin and Briana will walk on American soil again by next week. Of course, there are many other friends, whom I never had the opportunity to introduce on Fire at Will, who will journey back to their homes. In fact, the only group of remaining foreign friends about whom you have read are the Spanish girls. It goes without saying that my German friends are also staying put.

Yet with sad ending, comes a bright beginning, one over a year in the making. Saturday evening my European Odyssey commences. For the past two years, even when the notion of studying abroad was but only that, a notion, I have patiently and carefully saved my money for an ambitious dream. I earmarked the vast majority of every dollar I received, rather from pay check or birthday card, for a grand adventure. As the puzzle pieces fell into place, the picture became clearer. My grand adventure could in fact be a portion of an even larger one, studying abroad. As I saw it, it was indeed, for lack of a better word, perfect. The semester break in Germany is over two months long. Two months to wander around Europe. Two months to bring my dream into reality. Not to mention living the other eight months also in a dream, and, important to note, continuing toward my college degree at the same time. You see? Perfect.

My plans are as basic as the can be. It is more accurate to say that I have mere destinations in mind; perhaps I will see them all, perhaps I will see more. History shows me that when I rush to meet reservations during a trip, I usually miss out on something. Therefore, except for the hostel at my first destination, I have no reservations for accommodation or travel. My mind will not worry about the future, rather it will remain focused on where should it should be during travel, the present. My plans are also laid back in a such a way that if I fall in love with one destination I will gladly opt to stay a little longer, instead of hurrying off to the next city. I realize that such easy going plans present a bit of risk, but I believe they will benefit more than hinder me.

Now, I ask you to dust off your globe or pull that atlas off the shelf and trace my Odyssey with me. Keep in mind that this is only a ‘perfect’ scenario. As stated I may decide to stay at one place longer than originally thought, and will therefore scratch other destinations off the list. Likewise, a once in a lifetime opportunity may present itself to me and I could journey to an unconsidered locale, again forcing me to rethink my greater route. With that said, let the tracing begin.

Saturday night I board in a train in Munich (look towards southern Germany), and will wake up the next morning in Venice, Italy. Here I will stay for four days, with perfect timing to soak up the Carnevale atmosphere. Then it’s off to Rome, via Pisa. From the home of a great empire I will head to the home of great pizza, Naples. While in Naples I would like to take a day trip to Pompeii. Next I’ll travel to the heel of the boot at Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast. Probably around three weeks into the Odyssey I will board a ferry from Brindisi to Durres, Albania. My stay in Albania will most likely be short, but long enough to experience life in a country reportedly a century or so behind much of the world. Then I will go south to Greece and first take in the sky-high monasteries in Meteora. After that, the birthplace of democracy, Athens. Then to the northeast region of the country and Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. From here I hope to gain admittance to the monasteries of Mount Athos, a semi-autonomous peninsula jutting out into the Aegean Sea where Byzantine monks have lived a simple life since the fall of that empire over 500 years ago. I will then take a train north out of Greece and to Bucharest, Romania. I will explore the city for a few days before heading to Bran, a small town in the heart of Transylvania, another region busy catching up to the 21st century. In Bran I will visit the castle which belonged to Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Count Dracula (or at least the figure Bram Stroker used for his story’s inspiration). Perhaps along the way I’ll learn a thing or two about vampires. From Bran I will travel to Cluj-Napoca, a college town in western Romania, and then to Budapest, Hungary. When finished in Budapest, I will venture to Kiev, the Ukraine. I suspect this will take place sometime in mid-March. In Kiev I will pause and decide on two possible options based on the amount of my remaining time and money.

If it’s a go with both, then I will begin venturing north by boarding a plane to Tallin, Estonia, along the Baltic Sea. Before too long I will continue on my way with a ferry in route to Helsinki, Finland. After touring the country’s capital, I will push on even farther north, that is the Arcitc Circle. My base camp will be in the town of Rovaniemi, the cultural capital for the northern Scandinavian region known as Lapland. The region offers such things as wild reindeer and the aurora borealis. Once satisfied with Lapland or too frustrated with the cold, I will travel bound to France, via a ferry to Stockholm, Sweden then a train to Copenhagen, Denmark, and onwards to the country of wine and cheese. While seeing Stockholm and Copenhagen interests me, France does more so; therefore, I intend from the beginning to only pass through those capital cities.

However, if I come to discover that time and that pesky problem of paying for things are not my friends, then I will take a more direct route toward France. From the Ukraine I will go with train to Krakow or Warsaw, Poland. I have heard that Krakow is better for visitors, but I have a friend in Warsaw. It will be a last minute decision. From Poland I will continue on to Prague, the Czech Republic. This city has recently come alive on the radar of European travelers due to its well preserved and beautiful old town. However, it lies only four to five hours away from Eichstaett by train, so if I miss it this time around I would likely visit it in May or June for a weekend getaway. After Prague I will head to France.

In France I will first arrive in Paris, but continue on my way to Angers, in western France and the Loire River Valley. In Angers I will meet up with two of my best friends from America, who arrived in the city several weeks ago to begin their studies for the semester at a local university. After a few days, the plan, as it stands now, is to take the train north to the Normandy coast and Mont-Saint-Michel, a fortress and village which together rest on a rocky outcropping from the sea floor. During high-tide this outcropping becomes an island, and during the other times it rises simply from a dry sandy plain. From here we will go together to the last destination of the Odyssey, Paris. The City of Lights requires no introduction. I would like to stay here for almost a week, before returning to Eichstaett on April 10 at the latest. My European Odyssey will end, and my second semester will begin.

I will attempt to post as often as I can in order to share the Odyssey with you, but possibly much time could pass between entries. If nothing else, check-in after April 10 and I should have a post with my favorite pictures and stories. Naturally, I presume I will return to Eichstaett with too many stories and photos to share them all, but I will surely share my most memorable.

I see Europe in my sights, and my finger eagerly rests on the trigger.

01 February 2007

The Semester Comes to a Close

I’ve been fairly busy recently, and with my final exams this week and next I assume it will remain that way. The problem with the German university system is that there are no other grades for a class than the final exam. This means, at least for me anyway, that everything will feel fine until the last few weeks before the exam, then the student will realize that he or she must hit the books. Although to put it like that is a bit of an understatement. It is far more accurate to say that the student must attack the bound pages of grammar, geography, and what have you with a fury and intensity similar to that displayed by a gorging lion pride. In the mean time, here’s a post mostly of photos from the last two weeks.

Two Saturdays ago I went with International Student Organization to the Alps in the cities of Garmisch and Patenkirchen. One finds these two towns about as far south in Germany as one can drive before entering Austria. Even here though the Alps only begin to rise from the continent. While not as tall and stunning as the Swiss or Austrian Alps, the scenery was nonetheless beautiful. However, you will notice the disappointing lack of snow in the photos. It felt more like a Spring day.

Here are all of the Spanish girls as we wait for our bus. From the left, Maria, Nawellia, Ellena, Angela, and Olga.

The first part of our day was spent hiking through a rock gorge worn over the millennia by the oh so patient yet persistent force of moving water.

Next we hiked up to the summit of one mountain which rose to around 3,800 feet above sea level. I don’t think the organizers of the excursion have a lot of hiking experience because they underestimated the group’s ability to ascend the trail in a timely manner. Looking around at the summit I think it was safe to say that most people were wondering what the planners were thinking. Of course many of the girls were also wearing stylish boots instead of good athletic shoes, I imagine that could have played a part in their misery. I on the other hand had a great time; the hiking made this my favorite excursion with the ISO.

From the Summit we took a cable car back down to Garmisch. The Winter Olympics were held in the city a few times in the mid-1900s. Here are some views of the cable car and the ski jump stadium. Television greatly distorts the height and angle of these jump structures.

From the train station we could see the Zugspitze, Germany's tallest mountain at almost 10,000 feet. It's the peak the farthest to the right.

Last week the first Winter snow arrived in Eichstaett for the year, and remained around for nearly the whole week before the temperatures took an abrupt about face and rose above the freezing point.

Here is the university's main library. It was desigend by architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the orignial redevelopment plans for the World Trade Center site in New York City.

On Thursday I presented a belated Christmas gift to my university-appointed tutor, Charlotte. The gift, which my parents brought from America, was a piece of pottery molded by a pair of relatively famous artists in the area of Memphis, the McCarteys. She repeated over and over that a gift was unnecessary, but after the excellent help with which she provided me during my first days in Eichstaett I regarded such talk as nonsense.

This past Friday was Nawell’s last day in the Eichstaett before heading back to her university in France. A small goodbye party was held for her in the fourth floor kitchen of St. Mike’s dorm. The first photo is of the party’s honoree.

Here we have Amelie. I look at her and think French.

The same usually goes for Ester.

Sunday I made a good old typical American breakfast for Federica, Valleria, and Charlotte. The meal consisted of bacon, scrambled eggs, hashbrows, and blueberry pancakes. The maple syrup proved a tad difficult for me to track down in Eichstaett, but I eventually found some imported directly from Canada. When we sat down to eat Federica asked what were we supposed to eat first, I smiled and said everything together. One thing I’ve noticed about the European eating habits is that very different tastes, such as sweet and savory, are rarely enjoyed at the same time. Therefore, sugary blueberry pancakes covered in syrup with eggs and meat on the side seemed odd to the Italians. Charlotte, having lived in Vermont for a short period of her life, knew better what to expect out of the breakfast, and had tried each item before. However, each dish was new for the Italians, who seemed to enjoy it all down to the last morsel.

As of today I have only two exams remaining. Now that we’ve caught up, I must be returning to the lion’s den to continue my studies. Once I’ve completed the last multiple choice, you should expect a post about my upcoming travels, which I’m referring to as my European odyssey, and my plans for the next two months off from school.