Chatting over Coffee in the Spanish Countryside

View of a rainbow from my room :o)
 
 
At first, I was nervous about where to sit at meals… I had flash backs of school cafeteria social rules. Luckily, we had one rule to follow at meals. Every table should have 2 Anglos and 2 Spaniards. Except there was one 6 person table, which would become the party table. 
So each meal I would walk into the little hotel restaurant and sit at the first seat where an Anglo was needed. By the end of the week, everyone was friends with everyone and people were starting to clique. Meals were the perfect setting to let loose a little and get to now each other even more than we already did. We became family and I didn’t feel an ounce of homesickness the entire time.
Unfortunately for me, I became very ill mid-week, with the worst enflamed sore throat and my nose was running like a faucet. I was a mess and I think I can tie the source to the very sick girl in my bunk room at my hostel the night before I left for Vaughantown. I bet she got everyone in that room sick…. She was coughing and rolling around in her bed the whole day and night I was there.
One on One conversation sessions
I kept going to my conversation sessions the second day when my ailments were hitting me full force…. unsure of what to do. Luckily, my second session that day was with a doctor from Madrid. As soon as I realized what she was, I started pleading for help and she was most gracious. She took me in the bathroom and shined a light in my throat. No white bumps, so she loaded me up with ib profren and just like that 30 minutes later I felt 100% better!
I wanted to cry and I ran over and gave her a hug! My throat had gotten to the point with all the conversation that it felt like it was bleeding, but I didn’t want to fail my obligation as a volunteer. All of the Spaniards were so interesting and I wanted to meet them all. I would warn them to sit away from me so I wouldn’t get them sick and I kept my sentences short.
Aside from my medical issues, I tried to take advantage of the experience as much as I could. Every night we would have entertainment whether it be a skit or sing along, etc. One night we did pub style trivia. We formed 2 teams and my team turned out to be a good team. All the trivia was in english, but some of the questions were geared towards European music and movies, so it was a good mix and we came together and won! It was very exciting… I think alcohol was on our side that night.
Later in the week, we were given a free afternoon to go to town as a big group and explore. So we went to the little castle at the center of Barco de Avila and took a couple group shots. We shopped for the specialty of the region: white beans. I bought a big bottle of hard cider to share with my new british friend that night. We had coffee in a small shop on the main square with a cute fireplace that we all gathered around.
On the cute bridge in town
Special beans from the region
The river in Barco de Avila
It was the perfect afternoon to cap off my week of emerging in Spanish culture. It was probably a funny site to the villagers, 30 people walking around speaking english in a town full of quiet senior citizens with little tourism.
The next day we had a big banquet style lunch before loading onto the bus to go back to Madrid. I was sad to leave my private hotel room in the remote hills of Spain, but I was looking forward to my plans to bar crawl in Madrid with my new British friends. I would have 2 more nights in Madrid before my flight back to the US. Stay tuned for the story of our bar crawl… it was quite eventful!
 
Our final lunch all together!
 
 

Going to Vaughan Town

I woke up early in my dark hostel dorm room on a Sunday morning.  Quietly I slipped from my bed, stripped the sheets, slipped my pack on and headed out the door.  It was the first time I had set an alarm clock on the trip and wasn’t happy about it, but I was excited for the journey ahead.
 
I caught the subway and got on a car that slowly emptied out as it moved along.  I then had a very creepy encounter with a guy on the train, which I will not go into details about.  I saw something I didn’t want to see, and luckily I packed light enough to run with my backpack.  I pushed the button at the last second for the door to open at a station before the train left the station. 
 
I sighed with relief when I saw I hadn’t been followed and waited for the next train.  On the next train there was a large group of young guys leaning on each other singing.  I found it hard to believe they had been up all night drinking and were still awake, but I recalled my younger days when the pulse of dance music kept me going till the sunrise. 
 
View of Hotel from back yard.  My room was the dormer in the roof on the left.
As I sighed at the realization of the passing of time, I found myself finally at my stop.  I was off to meet up with the bus for Vaughan town.  This is a volunteer program a friend had written about in her travel blog the year before.  I had planned to stay at least an extra week in Spain just to give it a go.
 
I found everyone on the sidewalk by the bus, sleepy but excited to go on the journey as well.  We were headed to a small hotel in El Barco de Avila, just a few short hours from Madrid, tucked in a valley between snowcapped mountains. 
 
The purpose of the program is to practice English conversation with Spaniards who’ve been studying English for the past couple months.  For my part, it was easy, there was no script, I was just supposed to talk and keep the conversation going.  The only guideline was to avoid testy subjects, such as religion and politics. 
My cute attic room.
 
Well, it was also pointed out that Spaniards tend to be very chatty, so we were not supposed to let them dominate the conversations.  We were told to try to make it 50/50 so they practice listening as well as speaking.  Everyone in the group, especially the Spaniards laughed when this was pointed out. 
 
I was seated with a Spaniard on the bus, so we could chat during the bus ride.  My job began immediately, but after my experience on the Madrid subway a distraction was most welcome!
 
Several hours later, we arrived at our lovely hotel, which appeared to be a great old house converted to a hotel.  There was even a side building that used to be stables or something, with very modern rooms installed within.  I was enchanted by the property and couldn’t wait to explore, but we were sent straight to work.  We went to have a group activity first, before checking in to our rooms. 
 
View from my room.
But let me clarify, that I never felt like I was actually working.  For a social being like myself I had fun at every activity.  We each had our own rooms.  Volunteers, who were all native English speakers from all over the world, were given free rooms and meals. 
 
Our meals were on a regular schedule in the hotel restaurant, where we had tables of four.  We had to sit 2 Anglos and 2 Spaniards at all times.  I was provided a vegetarian sign to put by my plate, because each meal was a fixed menu served to us.  This was the first time I really had to adjust to Spanish meal times.  Lunch was 1-2 and Siesta 2-4.  We had activities after 4 and then we didn’t eat dinner until 9!
 
Zoomed in on some snow caps from my room.
By the end of the week I was very used to napping in the afternoon and eating dinner late.  In addition, I was introduced to Spanish dishes I would not have picked out on my own.  It was such a great cultural experience for me.  The Spaniards also got to see how Anglos do dinner conversations.  It can be a bit harder to understand one another when you’re speaking quickly between bites. 
 
I taught all the Spaniards my business meals trick, for remembering what side your bread and water are on.  You just make a B and D with your fingers on both hands and you should see the B on your left hand and the D on your right.  That means your bread is on the left and your drink is on the right.  I explained to them that I learned this trick the hard way, by stealing a boss’ bread at a business meeting.  All of them found the tip very useful and easy to remember.  I was happy to share, especially since most of them were learning English to help them in their careers. 
 
Our closest neighbors.  Bunch of cute red heads!
My room was very cute on the top floor of the main house, with a big dormer window facing the mountains behind the house.  I felt like I was in a fairy tale, while I would stand in front of my windows and swing them open to feel the wind coming off the mountains, blowing clouds down into the valley over the snow caps.  I breathed in the fresh air, as best I could with the cold I had picked up in my Madrid hostel and looked forward to an eventful week.

Spanish Constitution Day

Fountain on Plaza de Colon
               December 6th is Dia de la Constitucion in Spain.  They don’t have fireworks like in the USA, but they do like to party all day!  After Nicole and I took our siesta naps, we got ready for a walk about the area of Madrid called La Castellana.
                Very close to our hotel we came across Plaza de Colon with a bunch of large block sculptures for Christopher Columbus.  There was a long line of familes on the sidewalk waiting to ride the open top Christmas lights tour buses. 
Children playing the lights around the Christopher Columbus monument
                During December in Madrid all the streets are decorated with Christmas lights in different colors and patterns.  It’s very beautiful and helped me distinguish different squares and streets.  We walked past designer clothing stores and window shopped a while, before we headed to Chueca which is the gay district.
                A friend of mine had told me it was her favorite area, but when we arrived in the main square for Chueca, decked out in rainbow lights, it was very quiet and desolate.  Perhaps it was too early in the evening, or maybe the hot spots were hidden off on the side streets.  But we were not impressed, so we headed over to the streets around Puerta del Sol where we found crowds of people strolling through the lively streets, with tapas bars one after another.
Chueca – Gay District
                We hopped around the bars and wove our way through the streets enjoying the sights and sounds, snacking on tapas and sipping on vino.  We walked down one street lined with outdoor tables and were invited by a group of four guys to join them.  One of them spoke good English, but they spent most of the time speaking to Nicole in Spanish, while I sat quietly enjoying my drinks.
                They explained the holiday and how they celebrate it, which mainly entails drinking all day.  They were all but one married, they just wanted good company.  The unmarried single guy was actually Ukranian and his family had moved to Spain when he was in high school.  He spoke a little English and we tried to talk, but he usually didn’t understand what I was saying. 
Me at a bar, sitting next to a pig leg.  They have Jamon on display at all the bars!
                Eventually, we all decided to move on and find a new bar.  They joked about running out on the check.  I kept telling them jokingly to let me go first since if that was the plan… but they were good guys and paid the check before we left. 
                We wandered the streets, joking and making fun of people dressed in strange costumes.  There were a lot of people in wigs to celebrate the holiday.  We eventually picked a jazz bar to walk into.  It was super crowded and the band was about to start.  There weren’t any available tables, but Nicole and I decided to stand by the bar and stay for the music and we said good bye to the guys. 
Jazz Club in Madrid
                The live jazz band was good and the female lead singer was singing and American jazz song in English, but would occasionally mispronounce a word or say it funny.  It was interesting to listen to her sing and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the song the audience actually understood.  We finished our wine, enjoyed the music, and decided to head back towards the hotel. 
                But of course, we had to finish the night with churros and hot chocolate.  We found a crowded 24 hours churros shop and went in.  Nicole ordered 3 churros and a hot chocolate.  We dipped pieces of the fried dough into the Spanish hot chocolate, which is thicker than and not quite as sweet as American hot chocolate.  When we finished the churros, Nicole said that you’re supposed to drink the hot chocolate. 

 

                I didn’t believe her, I wanted to drink it, but I thought it was a trick.  So I sat, looking around to see if anyone else was drinking it.  I finally saw someone else take a sip, so I drank the whole thing!  Nicole didn’t want it, but I love chocolate!  It was very yummy and the perfect treat before bed.

Strolling Through Parque del Retiro, Madrid

In my little book of Madrid, I found my hotel on the map and saw a huge green park two blocks away… So I figured it was worth checking out.  I walked past the beautiful circle called Plaza de la Independencia with the majestic Puerta de Alcala in the middle.  These arches are beautiful at day and night, especially in December when they have the Christmas lights up.


Across the circle is the entrance for the park called Parque del Retiro… or just Retiro for short.  I was impressed as soon as I walked through the first gate.  In my mind I was comparing it to Central Park in New York City, but this place was much prettier.  My little book said the park used to be the private grounds of the royal families until the late 1800’s when it was made public.  This explained why it looked and felt so perfect, because it was built for royalty!

It was a nice mild winter day and it happened to be Die de la Constitucion, the Spanish Constitution Day.   Two days later it would be Immaculate Conception day, another holiday, so a lot of people were off work the whole week and it seemed a lot of friends and family were out enjoying the park.

All over the park there are plazas and paths named after Central and South American countries.  Just past Plaza de Nicaragua, I came upon this beautiful body of water with the stately Monument of Alfonso XII across the way.  The lake is called Estanque and it was full of people rowing little boats around.  All along the perimeter of the boating lake were families walking along, taking pictures, enjoying puppet shows and music.  I felt nostalgic for a moment, thinking that this is how the people of Madrid had been enjoying this park for decades.  The whole scene would fit perfectly in a painting at the Prado art museum in Madrid.


I looked at my map to figure out what direction to head in next.  I saw two palaces on my map and my intrigue was lit up.  I went to the Palacio de Cristal first, curious to see the glass palace.  This structure looks more like a very fancy green house and is used for exhibits.  I thought about going inside, but the line was a bit ridiculous and I didn’t feel like being in with the crowd, when I was surrounded with such beautiful open spaces.


I walked along the pond in front of the Crystal Palace and found a black swan!  Just like the crazy ballet movie.  I didn’t know they were real.  Somehow the black swan knew exactly where to sit for my picture of the palace.  

I walked towards the other palace, Palacio de Velazquez, which is just a small historic building with wide open space inside used for exhibits as well.  I went inside and enjoyed a large exhibit of modern art.  It was a very pleasant space for art display with lots of natural light filtering through a skylight.


After enjoying myself in the park for so long, I decided my feet were tired and my stomach was hungry, so I headed back to the hotel to see if Nicole was awake.  Luckily, she was awake and wanted to go out for tea.  She was hoping herbal tea would sooth her throat.  I wanted to check out Cafe Gijon, because my little book said that’s where intellectuals used to hang out.  Also, it was only two blocks from our hotel!  


I was not impressed by the menu… it was regular tapas like everywhere else, but twice as expensive.  So I just ordered a Spanish tortilla, which is just a potato omelet sort of thing and a sangria.  Nicole had a lot of trouble ordering her tea, even though she speaks fluent Spanish.  She must have been calling tea by it’s Central American name, and in Spain they call it something else, but after much confusion and hand gestures she got her tea with honey.  

We enjoyed the outdoor seating on Paseo De Recoletos, a main street so to speak.  And made plans to fill up on cheap tapas later that night.  

Palace and Churros

I woke up in my nice dorm room all to myself with the radiator blasting next to my bed.  Today was the day I would rejoin Nicole at an AC Hotel she reserved.  I knew she was arriving early today, but I decided to run over to the Royal Palace since my hostel was so close before checking out.
 

Across from the Royal Palace in Madrid is the Plaza de Oriente.  It’s a beautiful garden with majestic rows and paths for strolling around.  Later in my trip, I would learn a few funny secrets about this park.  The numerous statues in the park were meant to go along the roof of the Palace.  However, the statues were too heavy!  So they placed them throughout the garden.  If you look closely you’ll notice that they aren’t top quality sculptures, with random chips and unfinished details, because the artists didn’t plan for people to see them up close!


Another interesting story I would learn was about the statue of a king on a horse in the park.  It’s a large impressive bronze statue of a man on a horse with his 2 front legs in the air.  If you look at the statue and think about it you’ll notice that the only part of the statue touching the base are the horse’s two hind legs.  


This statue was built for a king who no one liked, but the kind wanted an impressive statue so maybe people would think differently of him.  So he insisted on having the horse up in the air… but the artist had issues.  The statue kept falling forward…. even hollow it was to heavy and off balance.  So they called in some brain power… Galileo!  Galileo came up with the genius idea to make the back half of the horse solid bronze and the front half hollow.  And now we have an impressive statue of an unpopular king!

Across from the garden, I walked over to the main gate for the Royal Palace.  They keep the public locked out from the courtyard within the Palace, so you have to pay and go through the visitor entrance.  It was early and the entrance had a bit of a line already.  I thought about waiting and going in, but didn’t want to be here all day and I had to get back to my hostel for check-out.  I figured I would come back later, but that never really happened… Turned out it was Spain’s Constitution Day this week, so the people celebrate by visiting the sites in Madrid.  Super crowded!

I stuck my camera through the fence to get a nice shot of the palace.  Someone told me this palace is bigger than Versailles, but I didn’t really believe them.  It’s big, but it’s hard to tell if it’s really that big?  

If you turn around from the Royal Palace Gate, you face the Cathedral.  It’s not the most impressive Cathedral, but it does have interesting murals on the building and doors that are worth checking out.

I assume this is the royal crest that I took a picture of.  It’s very pretty stonework. 

I turn to leave and notice the morning light shining into the lonely courtyard between the Palace and the Cathedral.  I headed down Calle Mayor towards my hostel and stopped over at the Mercado de San Miguel.  The market is a beautiful iron and glass historic structure.  My lonely planet book mentioned that Anthony Bourdain had been there on his show.  

I checked out the beautiful fruit stands and grabbed a cafe con leche to go.  

As I walked further along my way, I came upon a churro stand getting setup for the day.  The stall had all this steam pouring out the sides.  From a distance I thought it was on fire, but as I got closer I realized he was just getting his yummy churros ready.  So I bought a couple churros to dip in my coffee and kept moving.
 
I checked out of my hostel and headed towards the Retiro area where our hotel was.  Nicole had sent me an email to notify me that she had arrived and let the front desk know I was coming.  So I found our hotel in a very nice expensive looking area.  The AC Hotel was beautiful and modern.  Free wifi in the lobby bar and a bed to myself!  What more could I need?
The most entertaining part of the room was the frosted glass walls to the bathroom.  It really was a non-issue, because you couldn’t even see details of a body through the glass, but it made the room feel very modern and fancy to me.  I liked it a lot!  
 
I also liked my new AC Hotel terry cloth slippers I found ready to wear under the sink.  :o)
 
But unfortunately, I found Nicole asleep in one of the beds with a cold.  She had been on the night train all night in a cabin with a family with a crying baby and she felt like crap.  She was down for the count and just wanted to rest for the remainder of the day.
 
I was dissapointed for her, but totally understood.  I showered up and got ready to explore more on my own while she rested up.  

High Speed Train through Spain

The next destination of our trip was Madrid.  It was kind of rainy in France and I wanted to move on and find good weather.  So the next day we went down to the train station to figure out when we should go.  There was a train leaving in an hour that would connect me to the high speed Renfe train in Spain at the border.  


The high speed train cost the same as a plane ticket!  But I was excited to get there and decided I didn’t care about the cost… 100+ euros… 

Expensive Fancy Fast Renfe Train… with a movie in Spanish, thanks for the free headphones I guess?

Nicole on the other hand, was not going to cave on the price and decided to wait in France for the super cheap overnight train.  


I raced back to the hotel, grabbed my backpack and ran back to the train station to board my train.  It was a regular train to the Spain border, then I transferred to a regular Spanish train and then in Barcelona I went through airport level security and boarded the high speed train.  


At this point, I probably should have stayed in Barcelona for a couple days.  But Nicole was flying out of Madrid in three days, and I wanted to spend the last few nights together.  What I didn’t know was that Nicole would be sick the last two days and would stay in most of the time.

Mediterranean view from Spanish train

But it turns out Madrid is not a bad spot to spend a week.  I arrived at the Madrid train station around sunset.  I had a reservation at a hostel near the Puerta del Sol and I decided to walk since the weather was so nice.  But it was a Sunday, and the closer I got to my hostel, the more and more crowded the sidewalks became.  Turns out, Spanish families walk around the shopping districts on Sunday evenings.  And particularly this week was very busy, because it was a week full of holidays for them.  

Pretty Circle outside Madrid train station

Eventually, at a snails pace I made it to my hostel, where I was put in a five person dorm by myself!  Sweet!  I got settled and headed out for tapas and sangria!  The streets were super packed, but I was super hungry and 20 pounds lighter without my backpack, so I quickly zigged and zagged until I found an empty shrimp shop. 

Puerta Del Sol Christmas Tree

I walked in and they had a pretty menu written on a wall of mirrors.  One of the guys spoke english and he kindly walked me through my options.  I went for a full plate of prawns and multiple glasses of the sweet house red wine.  


Within minutes of chugging my first wine, while waiting for my prawns, the shop filled up with hungry groups of people.  I was watching the people at the bar, peeling their shrimp and throwing the shells into a little gutter along the foot of the bar.  It reminded me of the olive pit spitoons in Venice.  

Prawns and Wine at my cute standing table.

I was utterly stuffed after my plate of prawns, but I wandered on to find a glass of sangria.  I found another empty bar and sat down near a girl that was also by herself.  She said hello in English and asked if I spoke English.


I was excited as always to find someone who spoke English and we sat together and chatted.  She was a doctorate student from England and she said she spends a lot of time in Spain for whatever her thesis was.  We chatted for a while until I explained I was tired and said good night.  


I went back to my nice solo room and enjoyed my bed next to the radiator.  

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.
Tourist
I wrote it off as a case of someone who hates their life and needs to make a change…

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.

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. 
Pantheon
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.