A French Geography Lesson by a German

Lots of Santas in France – skinny ones too!
After my siesta in Montpellier, France I headed out for a drink with Nicole.  I told her about the Irish bar I had been to, and we ended up finding a different Irish bar called Fitzpatrick’s.  This bar was much busier than the other one, but it was later in the day.
The good news was that this bar had a pool table!  Bad news was it was across the alley in a lonely little room that the bartender would give you the key for.  So we decided to stay in the bar where all the people were.  We drank hard cider and chatted with the different bartenders.
One awesome thing in Europe is you can get these mini glasses of beer.  Sometime you just want a half pint instead! 
Notice the Frosty the Snowman chugging a Guinness!


While sitting at the bar the bartender said that a guy down the bar wanted to buy us drinks.  I was surprised, but told the bartender to go ahead and bring me another cider.  The guy was in a military uniform and he came over to talk.  He spoke perfect English, was from Germany, but was serving in the French military. 
We chatted with him for a while about his life story and about our travels.  At one point, I stumbled over my geography so he picked up a coaster and started ripping little pieces off the edge.  I was laughing and asking what he was doing?  He just told me to hold on.
He took a pen and started drawing in cities and then finally held it up for us to see. 
He had made France!  The coaster looked a lot like France on a map and he put the cities in for perspective.  It was very clever and helpful.  I still have my map of France. :o)
Eventually we headed back to the hotel, so we could get up early and figure out how to get to Spain.  

Walking About Montpellier, France

I woke up excited to be in France! I quickly got dressed and ran down to the square to find some espresso and a real French croissant with chocolate of course.
After munching down a chocolate croissant, I found a little visitor center in the square and luckily the guy working there spoke some English. He gave me a map of the city and circled the historic areas and landmarks for me.
Plaza de la Comedie – Trolley and Opera House
I walked down the main road in the historic shopping area. It was a Saturday and the streets were busy with people doing their Christmas shopping. This whole area next to the Plaza De La Comedie is pedestrian only for the most part so it was quite a pleasant area to wander around. I was enchanted by the winding streets and shops.
Shopping district, with the Christmas tree on the plaza in the distance.
I found an indoor market and went inside to gawk at the freshly butchered pigs and chickens on display. It was a bit bloodier than I’m used to, so I left quickly and moved on my way.
French Meat
As I walk along Rue Foch, I spotted an arch like the one in Paris. I got excited and quickly walked up to the Arc de Triomphe. It was beautiful and went over the road, so cars drove underneath it. I saw a school group going inside to be taken up to the roof. I thought about sneaking up with them, but it would have been kinda awkward, so I moved on.
Arc de Triomphe
Across the street directly ahead was a beautiful park called Promenade du Peyrou with gravel walkways and perfect fenced in squares of grass. I walked about the trails admiring the terraced view of the city in a park with trees and lamp posts in perfect rows. In the center of the far end of the park is a tall stone columned structure with a large reflecting pool on one side. On the other side of the structure is a beautiful vista of the more modern section of the city with an elevated aqueduct shooting out from the park running through the city.
Promenade du Peyrou
This park would have to be the closest I would come to walking through the famous gardens of Versaille on this trip. Sigh…
Kitty doesn’t like bird on his nose!
I decided I was thirsty and it was time for lunch so I headed back the way I came and sited a bar with the Delirium pink elephant as it’s logo. There was a nice shaded patio with lots of tables, but I was getting chilly so I sat at the bar inside and spoke the common language of beer names with the bartender. I ordered a Leffe and the bartender went back outside to read his paper, smoke a cigarette, all while sipping on a coffee.
After writing in my journal and enjoying my lonely Leffe, I wandered on and found myself in a beautiful square with a church called Saint Anne and directly across the square was an Irish pub called O’Carolan’s. It looked welcoming so I stepped inside. The bartenders were all Irish and therefore spoke English which made me very excited. I became quick friends with the two bartenders working, well the older one was nice, the young one just annoyed me.
I asked for food, but they said I would have to go next door and bring something back. So I went next door and of course no one spoke English so I miraculously ended up with a vegetarian sub, with sun dried tomatoes, mushrooms, artichokes, and onions. I ate my sandwich at the bar and talked to the bartenders about my travels, while all the patrons had their eyes glued to a rugby game on the TV.
Saint Anne
The young bartender got annoyed with me and started a sentence with “, You Americans come over here with your checklists…” Blah, blah, blah… And that was my cue to get my check.
I realized I was late anyways to move my stuff from the king room to a double back at the hotel… so I quickly found my way back. But I was disturbed by the guys attitude at the bar and it bothered me the rest of the day. Particularly because I hadn’t really been using a checklist, unless you count an itinerary of cities a checklist… but I know there are far more organized tourists than me.
I wrote it off as a case of someone who hates their life and needs to make a change…

Shenandoah National Park

SNP Collage
Shenandoah National Park is a beautiful park if you’re in the mid-atlantic region.  A road called Skyline Drive runs from the North end of the park to the South along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The Appalachian Trail also runs directly through the park.  In addition to the drive with over 75 overlooks, there are 500 miles of hiking trails and 4 campgrounds.  One of the most popular times of year to visit is when the leaves change in the Fall.

This past fall, I reserved a campsite way in advance for the peak weekend.  During this weekend, every year, Skyline Drive is inundated the entire length with families, photographers, and tourists.  Armed with cameras, packed into vans and SUVs to save on the per car entrance fee, they take over!

But if you show up friday night and camp out, you beat the crowds to the punch!  We camped at Matthew’s Arm, which is the furthest north campground in the park.  On top of avoiding the traffic, you are also guaranteed a parking spot at your camping site.

The campground has a trail that connects to the popular Tuscarora Overall Run Trail, that provides views of several waterfalls.  One of the falls is 93 feet tall and stunning as it cuts through the fall colors.

I would like to embarass myself a bit now and share my experience of trying to sleep outside in October in the mountains.  It’s cold!  I wasn’t quite prepared.  I had my tent and sleeping bag and lots of layers, but I forgot my air matress, which would have lifted me off the cold ground.  So instead of bothering my other friends in their tents and trying to spoon… I ran to my car in the middle of the night and slept on my passenger seat laid out flat, snuggled in my bag.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep in my car… I thought it would be uncomfortable, but I passed out.  I think after shivering for two hours, I was exhausted.

OK, spare me the lecture… I learned my lesson.

Enjoy the pictures from our hikes and drive along Skyline.

Smart People have campers…
Going down the trail.  Down the mountain!
Creek crossing
The fall foliage and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.
One of the waterfalls
Overlook from the trail
Hikers enjoying the vista
Last look before heading back to campsite.
To warm our feet after a long day of hiking.
From a Skyline Drive overlook
Skyline Drive view
Hiking in the Fall – wear layers and enjoy the colors!

For more information, visit: http://www.nps.gov/shen

Cote d’Azur

Cote d’Azur
We woke up early in Rome to head to the airport.  We had tried to buy cheap plane tickets to Nice online but it wasn’t working, so we were off to buy them in person at the airport. 
Turns out, this is not the best option, because the tickets cost more at the counter.  The girl at the desk apologized but explained there was nothing she could do.  So we each paid more than double the online price and headed to security for our gate. 
When it was time to board, we walked out onto the tarmac and boarded a little shuttle bus that took us to our Blue Panorama plane, which is a lot like Southwest.  As soon as we got off the bus, people ran to the two entrances at the front and back of the plane to board.  The seating was first come, not reserved.  But finding a seat together was not an issue.
It’s a very short flight from Nice to Rome… less than an hour, but with great views of Italy’s coast and islands in the Mediterranean.  I sat in a window seat on the eastern side of the plane.
When we arrived in Nice, it was very warm.  The sun was out and there was steam coming off the runway because it had recently rained.  The Nice airport is on the water and again you have to just walk across the tarmac to get inside the airport.  We found the bus to the train station and were on our way.
The bus drove along the coast and I understood why it was called the Cote d’Azur!  There were palm trees, white sandy beaches, rocks, and beautiful blue water.  I couldn’t stop staring out the window. 
Originally we had planned to go to Monaco for one night, but changed our plans to save money in France.  I’m glad we did, because of the surprise additional cost of the flight.  So we caught a train to Montpellier where we had a reservation that night.  Again, I walked down the aisle of our car taking pictures out the windows of the beautiful coast. 

View of a French vineyard from the train.
View from the train.

We arrived in Montpellier after dark with no map or idea of  how to get to our hotel.  We asked some girls, but no one speaks much English in France.  Luckily they understood some of Nicole’s Spanish and pointed us towards a cyber café so we could look it up. 

The French people in the cyber café were awesome!  None of them spoke much English either, but they helped us pull up a Google map and were arguing in French about the best way to go.  Finally, after all coming to agreement on where to go, we headed off towards the Plaza de la Comedie, which was only a few blocks away.  Our hotel was called Hotel de la Comedie, and considering that the plaza it’s on is very central to the city and well known, I’m not sure why the guys in the cyber café took so long to give us directions.  But whatever, we made it! 
Montpellier Christmas Festival
We were happy to find a very busy and fun Christmas Festival on the plaza.  We quickly checked into our hotel on the plaza and headed back out to explore the wonders of a European Christmas Festival. 
Seafood boat.  Oysters, Mussels, Shrimp, Prawns!
There were lots of drink choices… I started out with a glass of champagne and talked with the French man in broken English about how I had just arrived.  He welcomed me to France and another drunk French customer gave me a toast in all French and I have no idea what he was saying.  I smiled and nodded and drank up.  I was enjoying France already!
I moved on and had a warm mulled wine.  I tried the mulled wine from every stand to see which was best, but they were all good!  I had a shrimp cocktail from a seafood stand.  The most popular seafood dish was the soup, but I love shrimp and can’t pass them up.  I had a nutella crepe for dessert.  I watched the lady pour the batter on the hot iron circle and spread the thing layer for my crepe.  And she loaded it up with nutella.  Oh man it was so warm and gooey and delicious!  Let’s not think about calories now, you’re in France!  I kept telling myself that…
Nutella Crepe – Nummy!
There was a dance tent with a live band covering American rock songs from the 50’s.  I enjoyed watching the French people dancing the twist to Woolly Bully and singing along.   Eventually, I was too full to eat, drink, or be merry any more… It was time for bed.

Honduras: Day Trip to San Lorenzo

Note:  This is an old post copied from my Travelpod page.  August 4, 2008

Beautiful San Lorenzo, Honduras

 We woke up early at Nicole’s apartment in Nacaome.  We got ready with a backpack to share and headed down the street to the market, where we could grab breakfast and catch the bus.  We ate some black bean and egg burritos and jumped on the San Lorenzo bus.  We also bought some lychees on the bus.  Yummy!

We got to San Lorenzo about an hour later.  It was very hot and we had a good 8-10 blocks to walk to get to the water front.  Nicole was able to get a hold of her friend that lived in this town with her cell phone.  So we stopped by her house and I was able to see how other Corp kids live.  She agreed to come have lunch by the water with us, so we headed out. 
Lunch on the water

On the way, we stopped at an ATM, which was inside a little room with Air Conditioning!  OMG, it was amazing!  So we lingered in there for a minute, before we finished our walk to the water.  Throughout the town there are cute statues of sea creatures, like Shrimp and Sea Horses.  

We ate at a cute restaurant on the water, sitting on the dock hiding under the shade of a palm leaf umbrella.  We ate shrimp and fish and they filled me in on the town gossip and goings ons.  The food was amazing by the way! 

After lunch we walked back towards the highway to catch the bus back to Nacaome.  The bus stop was very dirty, like everywhere else, but we were tired, so we sat on the curb anyways, surrounded by corn cobs, empty water bags, lychee shells, and various other articles of garbage. 

We got back to Nacaome with a bit of sunlight left, but headed back to Nicole’s to make dinner.   We ate and drank wine and listened to the rain on the tin roof, and passed out!

Arriving in Nacaome, Honduras

August 3, 2008:

After a 3 hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa, we arrived at Nacaome.  I jumped off the bus into a busy street full of people selling roasted corn and water.  As I took my first couple steps I realized the streets are littered with trash and flip flops were not a good choice.  
Dirt and Dust after the market stands have shut down for the day.
We walked 3 blocks to her apartment, which is above a hardware store.  The family that owns the hardware store also lives on the 2nd floor, but they rent half of the floor to Nicole.  There’s a nice courtyard in the middle of the house dividing the 2 sides like an ancient Greek house or something.
Nicole’s open-air apartment.
After dropping my things off, we immediatly headed over to the futbal field by the river to watch a futbal game (soccer).  During the game, a herd of cows were ushered down the sideline.  A calf in the herd runs out to get the soccer ball at one point and both teams have to chase the little cow back off the field.  It was so funny! 
The River by Nacaome.

After the game, we walked back through the town and back to her apartment.  Each night we were safe in her apartment before dark.  It’s not safe for anyone to walk about at night.  
Pigs wander the streets and eat scraps of trash.
 Nicole made me a simple meal of mac n cheese out of the box and we sat around drinking wine and listening to the rain on her tin roof.  It pretty much rained every night after sunset for about an hour.  We then moved into her living room where she has cable TV and A/C!  Watched some Simpsons in English and went to bed.

Flying into Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Note: I’m copying some old posts over from my travelpod page.  This is from August 2, 2008:
View from our room.
I flew into Tegucigalpa forgetting all the news several months prior regarding issues at the airport.  Supposedly planes used to fly off the run way by accident.  So as the plane navigated the hills/mountains of Honduras on the approach to the Teguc airport, I was just enjoying the view.  As soon as the plane was rolling down the runway, the entire plane full of people started to clap!  I was a little surprised, because it’s not normal to clap after landing.  Usually the plane lands and there’s no call for clapping.  But the Honduran next to me explained that sometimes the plane doesn’t get the landing right on the first time and they have to fly up and around and try again…  

I waited an hour to get through customs and then Nicole met me at the gate. We walked out of the airport and down the street a ways to catch a cheaper cab.  The cabs sitting outside the airport will rip you off.

Marriott Pool

We spent the night in Teguc at the Marriott.  Nicole enjoyed the hot showers.  We ate dinner at El Patio, which was very yummy.

Shopping District of Tegucigalpa, Honduras
The next day we caught the bus to Nacaome.  This was my first bus ride in Honduras and I was a little nervous.  The bus looked like it was straight out of 50’s america.  There were raggedy curtains on the windows and worn out vinyl seats.  As we sat on the bus waiting for it to be time to leave, people would walk by the windows outside or walk on to the bus trying to sell bags of water, sliced mangoes, lychees, sunglasses, or quesadillas(corn meal cookies). 

Megan’s Roman Holiday

We checked in at the Yellow Hostel and were greeted with free drink tickets for the hostel bar.  I ended up playing beer pong in the basement with the hostel staff late into the night.  An international game of beer pong, with people from every end of the world was a warm welcome to the international community in Rome.  

Beer Pong at the Yellow Hostel

I made friends with a bartender from Pennsylvania.  He gave me his life story in a nutshell.  He came to Rome while backpacking and never left.  He ended up marrying a Roman and they had 2 kids and 2 dogs.  I asked if he had learned much Italian and he laughed.  He had given up trying to become fluent in Italian and his wife knew English perfectly, so they just spoke English at home.  Everyone speaks English in Rome!  For the most part…

I woke up early and headed straight for the Colosseum.  I had a gypsy insist on helping me purchase my metro ticket.  I offered her a Euro penny but she declined… Immediately after I walked away a cop yelled at the gypsies to get away from the ticket machines.

Colosseum in the morning

The Colosseum in the morning light was gorgeous!  The sun kept peaking through the columns in different angles and it looked so peaceful and serene.  In the morning light I could see a sort of light mist or smog in the air.  I’m leaning towards it being smog, but who knows.

I decided to buy a ticket to go into the Colosseum, because then you can also go into the Roman Forum across the street.  The size and deteriorated condition of the Colosseum are very apparent as you walk around.  But also, as I stood at the end of the oval, looking down into the rooms that would be below the sandy fighting area, I had tears come to my eyes.  I stood there imaging the hundreds of people, tigers, bears, and other creatures that had been forced to fight for their lives here. 

How many living creatures died in the sandy center stage of this arena?  We will never know.
There are a bunch of black cats living at the Colosseum.
I walked over to the Roman Forum and tried to figure out the cryptic map they provide you with when you walk in.  It’s useless…  So I just started walking. 
Turns out the Roman Forum is very big!  I covered a third of it before I gave up and exited to go search out some lunch and take a siesta. 
Arena inside the Roman Forum
The Pines of Rome with the Colosseum in the distance.
After my siesta, I got back on the metro and went up to the Trevi Fountain.  I was very excited to see this fountain.  It looks so beautiful in all the pictures I’d seen.  I walked around a corner and heard the sound of a lot of people talking… Turns out Trevi Fountain is a hot spot!
Square near metro stop for Trevi Fountain
Trattoria on my way to Trevi.  Scooter parking only!
It was so crowded.  I tried to get up close and take pictures without anyone’s head in my way.  I had to fight the crowd to the front…  What a circus?!
Me and the Trevi Fountain
I quickly headed on my way to the Pantheon.  This building is very old and the dome is bigger than the one at the Vatican.  The outside of the building looks very dirty and worn out with little dents and holes in the stone. 
But the inside is beautiful, with a big hole in the center of the dome to let light in.  It also lets water in, so there are cones around the center of the floor where there are little holes in the marble to let the water drain. 
Birds flying past the hole in the dome of the Pantheon
I rested on the front steps of the Pantheon and stared at one of the many Egyptian obelisks in Rome.  I thought about Cleopatra for a while and then headed off to the Piazza Navona.
The Piazza Navona is a very large square… but it’s actually shaped like a rectangle.  There was a sort of Christmas festival setup with retail stalls everywhere.  Off to one side is a bright carasel, busy with happy children.  In the center is a beautiful fountain with another obelisk in the center.  There’s a lot to do and see at this square, but I was running out of steam and the sun was setting.
Piazza Navona
I headed down a busy main street towards the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument.  This monument is quite impressive in size and at night they have it lit up beautifully.  I walked around taking pictures, but feeling the energy drain from my legs.
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
So I continued towards the Colisseum which was the closest metro stop at that point.  Of course, I had to take some night shots of the Colisseum and then I headed back to the hostel. 
Roman ruins
Colosseum and the moon
I ran into Nicole at the hostel bar.  It was almost dinner time and she wanted to go eat somewhere later.  I explained that my legs were jelly and I needed to rest.  I passed out in my top bunk for two hours.  I finally threw myself out of bed, but I felt like crap.
So luckily Nicole agreed that we could just go to the restaurant across the street where my beer pong partner from the night before worked.  We got him as our waiter and we were able to get to know him a bit better.  He was from the Ukraine, but had lived in Rome with his parents most of his life.  At the moment he was studying at a university in Rome and working and partying all at the same time. 
After dinner, Nicole headed out to find nightlife in Rome and I headed back to my bunk to pass out.  Nicole ended up getting her dance on and I got a very deserved good night sleep in preparation for our journey to France the next day. 

Pit-stop in Florence, Italy

                After our late night in Venice, Nicole and I woke up and scadoodled over to the train station to check out tickets for Rome.  Nicole had an idea of going to Florence on the way to Rome, just to walk around a bit.  People had told both of us not to skip Florence, but it didn’t really work into our fast paced agenda. 
Lots of  ties!
                We figured out that we could stop in Florence for two hours and hop back on a train to Rome and not extra expense than going directly.  So we purchased our tickets, and went back to the hostel to pull our stuff together.  We had one last Venetian pasta meal at a café on our way back to the train station and we were off across the Italian countryside again via train.
                The train was cutting through beautiful foggy valleys the whole way to Florence.  Often the fields were full of rows of grapes.  It was a beautiful ride.  We had to switch onto a local train to get to the central train station for Florence, where we checked our backpacks at the station.
                It was dark out by the time we got to Florence and we really weren’t sure where to go.  But the first thing we saw when we walked out of the station was a cathedral.  It was huge and right there in front of us.  We walked around the first big brown cathedral and came upon a big white marble cathedral.  So we walked around that one as well. 
Pretty Bright Cathedral
                All along the streets in Florence there are tons of street vendors selling leather goods, clothing, and scarves.  Behind the street vendors are stores selling the same items, one after another.  The sales men are using broken English lines to get our attention.  “You look like you need new jacket.” 
                “Really?  No thanks…” Rolling my eyes, I keep walking.
Fancy Coffee & Candy Shop
                Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the train station.  I was turned around, but luckily a shop keeper sent us in the right direction.  We hopped onto our empty cheap night train to Rome and started the second leg of our journey to Rome. 
                The cheap night train was very empty and very quiet.  At one point it stopped at a station and didn’t move for at least twenty minutes.  I began to think we were on the wrong train and at the end of the line in a random town… but then the train lurched silently forward all of a sudden… Sigh…