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.  

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.

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…

Ciao Venezia

All of a sudden there’s water on both sides of the train.  Tiny islands here and there in the open water.  I’m only a few minutes from the last stop on the train, Venice!
 
I step out from the train station with an instant view of the Grand Canal with a beautiful arching bridge and Venetian architecture in every direction.  I inhale the fresh, crisp waterfront air as I slowly step down the sweeping steps of the train station.
 
My hostel was just over the bridge in front of the station and to the left on the Grand Canal.  Of course, like all routes in Venice, you have to walk a twisted route to get there.  The Grand Canal does not have a sidewalk along its sides the whole way…. only on sections, so you have to walk away and zig zag back to the canal sometimes… But it’s kind of charming for that reason.
 
I found my hostel and was super excited when I saw the view from my dorm room, overlooking the Grand Canal!  I had the perfect view of a three way canal intersection that was constantly bustling with boat traffic.  Directly across at the canal corner was a church, with a statue of the Virgin facing towards the water, for the boat traffic to admire. 
 
View from my room
Unfortunately, not far from my window was a water bus stop and water bus-boats make a lot of noise when they switch gears into reverse when docking.  The bus starts running at 5 AM every morning and the rumble of the boat engines would shake my bed at times.  But again, it’s part of the charm!
 
My view of canal intersection
I stowed my stuff away and headed out to explore and find food and coffee.  When I first started walking, I realized as I made one turn and then another, that I could easily get lost in this maze of ancient alley-ways.  The only landmarks are graffiti, architectural features, bridges, and flower boxes. 
 
I begin to wish I had sidewalk chalk so I could draw arrows for myself to get back home.  All I need are some bread crumbs!  I try to make my route simple, but nothings simple in Venice.
 
I discover a fairly large square with a church and a couple cafes.  It’s bustling with children playing and adults chatting over coffee and cigarettes.  There are dogs running freely playing with each other.  It strikes me that Venice is a pedestrian only city, so the dogs and children are safe to play as they please.  How pleasant to not have to worry about cars?!
 
Churchyard square – Venetian gathering place
I grab a seat at a café and enjoy my sandwich and cappuccino.  At the shop across from my table, a small dog stands in the doorway watching the world go by while its owner sits inside reading her newspaper.  Life feels simple and relaxed here.  I wished at that moment more than ever that I could speak Italian so I could get an even richer Venetian experience. 
 
After dinner, I decided I needed to try the Venetian spritz drink I’d wanted to try ever since I saw Anthony Bourdain get blitz in Venice on the Travel Channel.  I take a turn down an alley and see a crowd of smokers outside a bar… BINGO!
 
The bar has free potato chips set out as the appertivo.  I get an explanation from the bartender in mostly English about the two different spritzes I can have.  Sweet or Bitter, Aperol or Campari.  I go for the Aperol spritz first.  It’s red and spritzy, garnished with an olive and a slice of orange.  Yum!
 
Me and my bitter spritz
Next, I try the bitter spritz made with Campari.  Well the bitter spritz tastes awful!  Maybe if you like liquorice you would like it.  I held my nose and tried to gulp it down. Ugh! 
 
Of course, I got another sweet spritz to fix the flavor in my mouth.  Yum again!  Cutest thing about this bar was the spittoon on the floor by the bar for people to spit their olive pits into.  It’s genius.  I held onto my first olive pit for a minute until I saw someone else spit their pit into the brass spittoon.  How convenient?
 
After my spritzes, I decided I had accomplished enough for my first night in Venice, so I wandered back to my hostel the long way… but I found it.  Walking the streets of Venice at night is a beautiful and peaceful experience.  Even getting lost in Venice is a pleasure!
Venice at night