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.

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.  

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. 

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…

A Very Full Day in Venice, Part 1

I woke up to the noise of the water bus shifting gears outside my window.  My bed was gently shaking from the loud boat activity outside.  I popped out of bed and ran to the window to take in my view again.  Ahhh, Venice!
 
Please note the pretty graffiti flower.

I met two of my roommates while eating a quick brekky and we decided to find our way to St. Mark’s together.  I was delighted to follow the auzzie guy with a map, while the girl from Quebec, Eve and I took pictures as we walked down the sunny yet crisp Venetian alleyways. 

 
We were following signs for the Rialto at first and it turned into a bit of a game to find the signs and the correct direction to take at every turn.  Sometimes the sign is a plaque high up on the wall of a building and sometimes the word Rialto is spray-painted on the ground with an arrow.  It’s not uncommon for scaffolding to be covering up the sign you’re looking for, as a lot of these ancient buildings are being renovated. 
 
We turned a corner into a small square and I smelled fish.  Lots and lots of fish!  We had arrived at the fish market, which is right next to the Rialto Bridge.  We wandered through the fish market and then the veggie market, which are right on the Grand Canal. 
 
Mercado de Pescado

As we walked by a fishing boat, a fisherman threw out a box of small fish on the sidewalk and the seagulls came from every direction for a feeding frenzy!  Those fish were gone in 60 seconds.  The fisherman was entertained that my new friend and I were taking pictures of the scene, so he threw out another box of fish for our entertainment.   We smiled and waved to him and headed up and over the famous Rialto Bridge.

 
The bridge is not very pretty because of the stores built on the middle of it.  The bridge is iconic and a landmark in the city, but it’s not my favorite bridge.  It provides a nice view of the canal, and it’s one of the only ways to cross the Grand Canal when you’re in that section of Venice, so I guess it’s important, but ugly just the same.
Me on top of the Rialto Bridge

 

We began our hunt for S. Marco signs after the bridge and found ourselves in the sunny Piazza San Marco in no time.  We were in awe of the size of the square and the buildings around the square compared to everything we had just walked past in the rest of the city.  Venice is not a city for the claustrophobic, but Piazza San Marco can provide relief from the small alleys and squares in the rest of the city.
 
Venetian Masks – for masquerading.

Eve finished up her sandwich before we could go into St. Mark’s basilica.  As a joke she threw bread crumbs at our feet so the pigeons would jump at us!  Very funny!

 
At this point, there is a gap in my camera pictures, because inside the basilica you are not allowed to take pictures, which we respected.  It’s a very beautiful church with beautifully patterned marble on the wall, which almost had a psychedelic appearance.   The floors are extremely worn out marble mosaic, with tiles sinking in.  In fact, the floor is very uneven, so keep your eye on where you’re going.  This is good advice if you’re as clumsy as me…

 

Next stop was the Doge’s Palace.  I skipped paying to go up the Campanile tower and walked towards the beautiful opening of the piazza looking out on the beautiful Venetian Lagoon.  It was a beautiful sight with blue skies and lots of sunshine.  Across the lagoon you can see St. Maria’s Basilica to the right and the Abbazia Benedettina church off to the left on Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore.  There are usually lots of gondolas lined up here to take you around under the Bridge of Sighs, which is a covered bridge that takes you from the Doge’s Palace to the prison, which I was on my way to see.
 
I walked in and paid to get into the Doge’s Palace.  I decided this was my one touristy thing for the day that I would pay for.  Coming from Washington, DC where almost everything touristy is free, I was having trouble adjusting to all the fees in Europe to see the sites. 
 
I won’t walk through the palace step by step, because it’s huge, it’s beautiful, and you have to see it for yourself.  Also, it would be boring to hear me talk about it all, but I’ll tell you about my two favorite rooms.
 
Me and the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile Tower.

First, was a room with maps of the world all over the walls and two gigantic 5 foot globes in the middle.  I stood and stared at these centuries old maps of the world and took note of the ancient interpretations of the shapes of the continents and the former designations and territorial lines for the Americas.  I would love to have copies of some of the maps in this room.  Not to mention, a 5 foot leather hand painted globe of the ancient world?  How cool is that?

 
Second favorite room, was the The Sala del Maggior Consiglio, which is a very large hall, with beautiful paintings on every wall and the ceiling.  It’s just gorgeous and you can imagine it full of Venetians doing important things back in the day.  For a 360 degree view of the room, try this link:
 
After going through the entire Doge’s Palace and prison, I was tired, but I didn’t feel like stopping and resting.  I wanted to see the Santa Maria basilica, partially because it’s free and also because it’s on a peninsula with a beautiful view of the water on all sides.  So I grabbed a spinach calzone with sesames on top and ate it while I walked all the way to the bridge I needed to cross to the other side of the canal.
Saint Maria’s Basilica

 

I walked by Peggy Guggenheim’s museum and then found myself at the basilica on the peninsula.  I was exhausted!  I looked at my map and realized that I couldn’t have walked any further away from my hostel at this point.  So I tried to pick the most efficient route back to my hostel, but in Venice there is no most efficient route, unless you have a boat.  I guess I could have sprung for a 10 euro boat bus ride, but I wasn’t sure which boat to get on… I found the map of the boat bus system to be very confusing.
 
A girl at my hostel had told me she doesn’t even pay for the bus, because no one checks your ticket.  She just hops off and on, but I didn’t even know which boat to hop on and didn’t want to end up in Morano or something.  So I hoofed it back towards my hostel.  As I passed through a churchyard I ran into a Canadian dude from my hostel.
 
Boy with a Frog, at the tip of the peninsula.

I smiled and said hello and he asked what I was doing.  I explained that my legs were turning to jello and I needed to find the hostel and rest.  He walked with me a bit of the way, helping me with his map, but we split up when he go near a church he wanted to see.  He tried to convince me to come in and go up the tower for the best view of Venice, but I couldn’t muster the energy to consider it.  I trudged on towards my hostel and eventually collapsed on my bed.

 
Me and the view of Doge’s Palace from Saint Maria’s
It was late afternoon and I knew I needed to rest for some Venetian bar hopping I wanted to do that night.  So I rested with little thoughts of Venetian spritzers in my head.  Olives, Aperol… zzz…

Milan, Not Just a Fashion Runway

When I arrived in Milan, I had no idea what to expect.  I kept seeing fashion runways in my head. Turns out, there’s more to the city than fashion.
 
               I only stayed in Milan one night, with plans to take the train to Venice first thing the next day.  I was really excited to see Venice!
 
 
               My hotel told me to take the metro to the Duomo.  The duomo is the cathedral and it was beautiful.  The cathedral faces a big square where there’s lot of people and pigeons.  It was a Saturday, so it was super crowded.  Then as you walk away from the square there are several pedestrian only roads with lots of shopping and coffee shops. 
 
 
               The coffee shops in Milan are beautiful, with an array of perfectly designed pastries and bustling espresso counters.  Luckily, I walked into one where a waiter spoke English.  The waiter was the head waiter and he was wearing a very fancy suit for just serving coffee and cookies, but hey it’s Milan!  He brought hot chocolate syrup with my cappuccino.  It tasted amazing!
 
               I wandered through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which is an immense ancient indoor mall basically.  It’s a street covered with a lovely arching glass ceiling.  I walked past Gucci and Louis Vutton and went on my way to the Sforzesco Castle.
 
               This castle is very large and looks like it’s been through some battles.  You can walk freely from courtyard to courtyard and you realize how big the compound is.  I can imagine a large army bustling about the courtyards in the past, but of course I have no idea what the real history is.
 
               At the back of the castle, I came upon a beautiful view of the Parco Sempione.  This park is very green with walkways going every which way.  At the far end of the park I could see the Arco Della Pace, a beautiful archway with the statue of a man in a chariot with four horses on top.  It was a beautiful view from the back of the castle, but I was hitting my maximum of walking for my feet. 
 
               I headed back to the hotel to rest and refresh.  I was hitting a wall, because I had taken the red eye from JFK to Milan and I hadn’t really gone to sleep yet.  I took a nap and got up in time to go out for a late dinner and drinks.
 
               I asked the hotel where to go and I ended up in the Navigli District.  It’s a cute strip of restaurants and bars with apperativos along a canal.  I found a crowded bar with loads of apperativos on the bar.  I bellied up to the bar and took in the atmosphere.
 
               The bartenders were amazing, shaking and dancing as they made every cocktail.  I stared for I don’t know how long as they made beautiful cocktails, with all fresh squeezed juices as their mixers.  After finishing my beer, I asked for a fancy cocktail.  The bartender laughed and asked what kind of liquor I like.  I said Vodka, but he said he was going to make me a gin cocktail.  He said by the time I finished my drink I’d be a gin fan.  I laughed and agreed to give it a shot.
 
               He mashed up some mint, squeezed some fresh citrus and I missed a couple ingredients, but next thing I knew I had a big cognac glass with a very tasty gin drink in it.  After I finished the drink, I told him that gin is good when he makes it for me.  Next, I asked for a red drink, so he made me something kind of pink and served it in a champagne flute.  It was frothy and it had a beautiful twist of lemon peel on top.  I savored it to the last drop. 
 
               Overall, I enjoyed my day in Milan a lot more than I expected.  I was very impressed with the cathedral and the nightlife I found.  But Venice was calling to me!