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Italy and Greece

Tuesday, October 18, 1994. The train ride from Cinque Terre to Rome took most of the day. During the last hour of the trip, a lively young Italian man named Tonino (that’s “Little Tony” to you and me) struck up a conversation with us. Soon, all three of the Italians in our compartment were happily jabbering in broken English. I love that singa-songa accacenta that Italians have, pronouncing every syllable as though it ends with a vowel. Tonino’s English was the best of the three, as he had spent six months studying in England.

Roam if You Want To

On arriving in Rome, Tonino showed us where we could pay to store our packs for a while, where to buy tickets for the trip to Brindisi later in the evening, and then he took us on the bus to the center of the city. Although he lives in a small town in northern Italy, he is very enthusiastic about Rome. I have to say, Tonino was so friendly, so unlike most of the Italians we have met, that I was on my guard, expecting him to turn into a con-artist at any moment. Fortunately, he was just what he seemed to be: a genuinely nice guy who wanted to be helpful and show off his country.

We have five hours between trains, so Tonino has pointed us to a few of Rome’s major sites: the Colosseum, the Unknown Soldier’s monument, Benito Mussolini’s former residence, and the Piazza Navona, an enormous baroque plaza with marvelous statues. We are not staying long enough to see Vatican City and the Sistine Chapel, which is okay, because I’m already thinking that five hours in Rome is too much. For all of it’s amazing monuments and ancient ruins, Rome is still noisy, crowded and dirty. Even crossing the street is frightening, navigating through flurries of scooters and lunatic drivers.

Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh What a Relief It Is

As a traveler, one of the inconveniences you learn to deal with is the state of public restrooms. Rule number one when traveling in Europe — especially southern and eastern Europe — is carry your own toilet paper. As you travel south or east, the conveniences begin to disappear. The first thing to go is the cleanliness; European restrooms can be nauseatingly filthy. Next goes the toilet paper. By the time you get to Italy and Greece, you’ll find that most public toilets do not have toilet seats. And, by the time you get to Turkey, there is no toilet at all; just a hole in the floor and a place to put your feet as you squat.

Rome is so filthy that we are unwilling to use most of the public restrooms. This is where McDonald’s comes in handy. Although many travelers consider McDonald’s to be a cultural cancer metastasizing in the previously healthy cities of the world, a global homogenizer destroying cultural and scenic uniqueness with the artistry of a bulldozer, the restaurant equivalent of the Borg, McDonald’s can nevertheless be counted on to have more-or-less clean restrooms with toilet seats and toilet paper.

If you’re wondering, the entire reason for this discourse on McDonald’s and the state of European toilets is just to tell you about an ingenious invention we discovered in the restroom at McDonald’s of Rome. It is called McWash. The best inventions are the ones that are so obvious, you wonder why no one thought of them sooner, and McWash is just that. To wash your hands, you put them into an opening in the wall labeled “McWash”, which sprays them first with soapy water, then with rinse water, and finally dries them off with hot air. Maybe we’re just easily amused, but both Ann and I came out of our respective restrooms saying “Wow! What a cool sink!

Stealing the Night Away

Wednesday, October 19, 1994. There are thieves on the night trains in Italy. Ann and I are on an overnight train from Rome to Brindisi, again trying to sleep in one of the six-seat compartments in which the seats pull out to form a makeshift bed. These compartments are not very deep; short enough that my foot touches the sliding door. Twice during the night, someone opened the door — waking me up — and then left. At first, I thought nothing of it; just a passenger looking for an empty compartment, and in too much of a hurry to actually look in the window to see the sleeping people. But at about 4:00 am we both woke to find a man standing on our “bed”, reaching for Ann’s pack. As we sat up, he grinned sheepishly and said something like “skyoozie” as he backed out of the compartment.

When you wake from a dead sleep into a confusing situation, your mind shuffles the possibilities and spits them out like a blackjack dealer on speed. At the end of the deck, only one possibility is laying face-up: that man was a thief! He was after our stuff! Nevermind that Ann’s pack weighs about 30 kilos and he never could have gotten it down without waking us. Nevermind that, even if he had gotten her pack, there was nothing of substantial value in it. But it pisses me off that there are people making a living stealing luggage from sleeping train passengers in Italy. When I was traveling with Michael and Bronwen, Michael mentioned that he had lost his Eurail pass to a pickpocket in the Rome train station. Just be forewarned: always be extremely cautious with your belongings when you travel; there are lots of scumbags eagerly waiting for a chance to take them from you.

I’m So Tired, I Haven’t Slept a Wink

Our travel guide recommends one of the hotels in Brindisi, Italy on the off chance that you are forced to spend the night and suicide is not an option. This is only a slight exaggeration. Brindisi is a miserable little town. If not for the ferry port, Brindisi would be a miserable little town with no reason to exist.

What made Brindisi even worse is that we had had a whopping 2 hours of sleep on the train and an 11 hour layover before our ferry left for Greece. The ferry ride was long enough for another 6 hours of sleep, but the sea was rough and we did not sleep well. Corfu — the one of the largest Ionian islands, on the northwest coast of Greece — greeted us with buckets of rain. Needless to say, we were less than cheerful by the time we arrived.

The only thing we had been told by previous visitors was “Don’t go to the ‘Pink Palace’.” The Pink Palace is apparently a drinking fest cleverly disguised as a hotel. At the Corfu ferry landing there were representatives of several different hotels, including the Pink Palace, vying for guests. We and several other passengers went with a man named Spiros to the hotel “Vrachos” on Pelekas Beach. As soon as we checked in, we went to our room and slept for the rest of the morning.

Pelekas Beach is on the west side of Corfu, the opposite side from the ferry landing, so we would never have found it on our own. I’m glad we went with Spiros, though, because both Pelekas Beach and Vrachos were an excellent choice. At US$6.50 per night, the rooms are not luxurious, but Pelekas is one of Corfu’s finest beaches, and Vrachos has everything you need, including a restaurant and bar, a small shop, cheap scooter and snorkel rentals, etc. You would have to work hard to spend more than US$20 a day. Although we originally intended to stay only two nights, we ended up staying nine; it’s easy to get stuck on Corfu. After a couple initial days of rain, we spent a week sunbathing, bodysurfing, snorkeling, riding scooters around the island, watching the sunsets and hanging out with other guests.

Two Tickets to Paradise

Saturday, October 29, 1994. After three false starts, we finally escaped from Corfu. Our plan was to take a ferry to Igoumenitsa on the mainland and then catch a bus to Athens. The ferry part worked out alright, but we just missed the 11:00am bus. The next bus wasn’t until 6:30pm, which would have put us into Athens at 3:00am. Instead we opted to take a bus to the nearby town of Parga — a nicer town than Igoumenitsa, according to our guidebook — to spend the night.

Jackpot! If you are looking for an idyllic Greek seaside resort in which to spend a month or two, you couldn’t go wrong by choosing Parga. Parga is entirely a tourist destination; there are only 2,000 residents but, during the summer months, the population swells to 45,000. This means that 90% of the housing in Parga is hotels and private rooms for rent. Double rooms rent for 4000 – 7000 drachma (US$18 – US$31), allowing for a very affordable vacation.

More importantly, Parga is one of the most scenic vacation spots we have seen. It is a small Greek village of narrow, winding flagstone streets, built on the slopes of a hill that falls away into a clear, waveless sea. On the hill overlooking the town is a minimally restored thousand-year-old Norman fortress and, a hundred meters out in the water is a small white chapel on a tiny island. Both the island and the fort are well lighted after dark, ensuring that Parga is as beautiful at night as it is in the day. On Sundays, the town is transported to another world by the wailing songs of the Greek Orthodox priest, broadcast all morning over loudspeakers and echoing off the hillside.

We are told that, in the summer months, Parga is standing-room only but, because it was late in the year, there was hardly anyone there; we felt like we were the only visitors in town. And, even though it was nearly November, the weather was perfect. We intended to stay only a single night, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave in less than three. This place is like a drug. Sunbathing on warm, pebble beaches, swimming in the crystal blue Mediterranean, dining on fresh fish and red Greek wine in quiet waterfront restaurants; I’m jonesing just thinking about it.

Don’t Drink the Water and Don’t Breathe the Air

Athens sucks. The air is so polluted you might as well take up chain-smoking. The traffic congestion and noise pollution are so bad, and the city is so unrelentingly ugly that we can’t wait to leave. Admittedly, as ancient ruins go, Athens has the best in the world. Aside from the pyramids of Egypt, the Athenian ruins are among the only “seven wonders of the ancient world” still standing. In the three days that we’ve been here, we’ve seen the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Acropolis, and several other ancient ruins, plus the marble Stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, a re-creation of an ancient Greek stadium. We’ve also visited Athens’ famous flea-market, Greece’s National Garden, and generally tried to see much of what Athens has to offer. Our conclusion? Athens is a dump of world-class proportions. We give it a big thumbs-down. Sure, use the Athens airport as a stepping stone to the Greek islands or coastal resorts, but don’t plan on spending any time here.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Friday, November 4, 1994. Ann and I are on a plane from Athens to Munich right now. In Munich we will pick up my car and drive to England and Scotland. We got so heavily side-tracked in Greece that we have decided to postpone our Turkey trip for a while.

Until next time, I’d like to leave you with this parting thought. Although I don’t think I’ve said it explicitly, you’ve probably noticed something from these travelogues that I’ve been noticing all along: smaller towns and villages are consistently more pleasant and interesting than large cities. Since, for example, we’ve all heard of Rome and Venice and Florence, it’s convenient, when planning a vacation trip to Italy, to think in terms of spending it in those cities. My advice is this: read your travel guide carefully with an eye toward the smaller places. They are usually cleaner, cheaper and friendlier. Taking the time to search out interesting little villages is almost certain to be more rewarding than heading for the big cities.


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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt

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South From Prague

Monday, October 3, 1994. Everyone who has been to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, will tell you about its enchanting beauty and how much they enjoyed their visit. Some will tell you that Prague is overrun by American and German tourists and has lost the innocent charm it once had. Some will tell you how inexpensive Prague is, how you can live like a king on just a few dollars. All of these things are true.

What they may forget to mention, while telling you the facts and statistics, is that you cannot help but feel at home in Prague. As you wander spellbound around the magnificent town square of Stare Mesto, then through the maze of narrow cobbled streets, over the majestic Charles Bridge, and up the hill to the castle, you will notice a feeling of peace and contentment. I cannot tell you where this feeling comes from, but I can tell you it is quite real.

Sweet is the Night

Prague’s beauty is even more dramatic at night than it is in the day. All of the important monuments — the Charles Bridge, the castle, etc. — are well-lit, providing a fairy-tale illusion that they are the only buildings in Prague. Every night, there are several different operas to choose from, all for under US$5. Mozart’s Requiem was written in Prague, and is performed every Friday and Saturday night.

It is turning cold now. The nighttime temperature in Prague is just a few degrees above freezing. I’m staying in a clean, inexpensive hostel, a short way from the city center, called Pension V. Podzamci. The hostel is run by a Eva, very friendly Czech woman with a disarming sense of humor. If you walk in and say “I have a reservation,” she will reply coyly “Are you sure?” She is particularly fond of Australians. Even if the hostel is full, she will find room for you if you are from Australia. When I called her for a room, it was late in the evening and the hostel was already full. I mentioned that I had four Australian friends there and that I was hoping to stay with them. She found me a bed.

I’ve met an American woman, Ann, traveling alone and staying here at V. Podzamci. We discovered that our immediate travel plans are the same: we both want to see Greece and Turkey, but neither of us wants to go alone. We will leave the car in Germany, take the train through Italy, and then catch a ferry to Greece.

Let Me Take You Down, ‘Cause I’m Going To…

Friday, October 7, 1994. Before I met Ann, I had arranged to go to Budapest for a few days to reconnect with Jen and Christie, the two Americans I met in Hallstatt last week. Two nights ago, I drove from Prague to Budapest, Hungary with Amber, a Canadian woman who is traveling alone. The drive took longer than I expected, almost nine hours. We could not take the most direct route — through Bratislava, Slovakia — because Canadians cannot enter Slovakia without a visa and Amber had not paid for one. Another Canadian woman we met in Prague had told us about spending a day in Slovakian jail for not having a visa. When her train from Budapest to Prague went through Bratislava, she was arrested and thrown in jail for a half-day, and then eventually put on a train back to Budapest. She was especially distraught because they spoke no English and she did not know how long she would be in jail.

For those of you who plan to travel on the cheap and expect to see Budapest, let me tell you this. We spent two nights in Budapest, at two different hostels listed in Let’s Go: Europe. The first was the worst hostel I have ever seen and the second was the best I have ever seen. The first, called Hostel Ghost, aka “Number Three”, run by More Ways Than Company, is a dump. Do not stay in this place. It was unheated, filthy and generally unpleasant. (Actually, Number Three is not listed in Let’s Go, but Number Four is, and they will send you to Number Three when they are full.) The second place, called the Backpack Guesthouse, was wonderful. The front of the house is grafittied with the warning “This Place is Addictive“. Many people I met there said they never wanted to leave. One guy from Seattle had originally planned to stay only a day but wound up staying for more than three weeks. The rooms are painted with different motifs: I stayed in the Safari Room, with jungle vegetation and wild animals covering the walls and ceiling. The owners, Alex and Attilla, organize caving expeditions, can direct you to Budapest’s Turkish baths and historic monuments, and are just generally helpful and friendly. I met a number of other travelers with whom I spent the day sightseeing and the evening getting drunk on various Hungarian liquors and wines. Do stay in this place if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 8, 1994. I said goodbye to Amber, who was headed for Madrid, and drove back to Prague with two Australian guys I met at the Backpack Guesthouse. On the way, we called Eva at V. Podzamci and, needless to say, even though she was full, she had room for two more Australians.

This Bud’s For You

Monday, October 10, 1994. The western half of the Czech Republic is Bohemia, and the eastern half is Moravia. Bohemia is the birthplace of two of the world’s most famous beers: Pilsner Urquell and Budvar(better known by it’s German name, Budweiser). Czech Budweiser is a strong, yeasty beer that bears no resemblance to it’s American namesake. Pilsner Urquell is the original pilsner beer, taking it’s name from the town of Plzen where it is brewed. Today Ann and I drove from Prague to Southern Bohemia to spend a couple of hours in Czesky Krumlov, a town highly recommended by one of our guidebooks. Czesky Krumlov is a cozy, romantic little village, surrounded by a small river that arcs nearly 360 degrees. The tourist information office pointed us to a small, wood-paneled bar where they serve half-liters of the dark, potent local beer for 18 kcs (about US$0.60).

Today is the first day that Ann and I have traveled together and, fortunately, we seem very compatible. Neither of us likes to plan things too carefully and both of us are flexible when plans change. Although we had originally intended to see Budapest together, Czesky Krumlov is almost at the Austrian border, near Linz, halfway between Salzburg and Vienna. This means that, if we are heading to Munich to leave the car, Budapest is 300 km out of our way, in exactly the opposite direction. Instead we’ve decided to go to Hallstatt, Austria. I told Ann about my prior visit to Hallstatt and how beautiful it was. Hallstatt is not far out of the way and will be a good place to stop for the night.

With a Million Stars All Around

The last time I was in Hallstatt, the town was nearly empty. There were only a few other people at the hostel where I stayed. Driving back to Hallstatt, I did not have the phone number, so we just chanced it. We arrived at the hostel at about 7:30pm only to find it full. The owner was kind enough to direct us to a couple of inexpensive private pensions. This was a stroke of terrific luck. The first pension we called had a large, comfortable double room available, with a tiny balcony overlooking Lake Hallstatt. Leaning on the railing, with the Milky Way drifting overhead, we shared our first kiss.

Hallstatt is as magical as I remember it. We called tonight our “first date,” meandering through the town arm in arm, bundled up in hats and coats against a slightly chilly evening. We had dinner at the Brauhof while a choir — a family of ten or so — practiced their peaceful, angelic carols at a table nearby.

After two glorious days in Hallstatt and an afternoon sightseeing in Salzburg, we drove to Munich. My friend Dorothee has been amazingly generous and helpful on this trip. She gave us her apartment in Mauern for the night and let us leave the car there while we continue to travel.

My Girl

Okay, I’ve been holding back so far, but I suppose it’s time to tell you a little bit about Ann. Ann is 22 and from Seattle, recently graduated from the University of Washington; “U-Dub” as it’s called. She is beautiful, smart and funny, and we have really hit it off together. Ann had been traveling for a month when I met her, and intended to travel for another month before heading to London to find work. She does not plan to return to the States until next May. Now that we are traveling together, all of her plans — and my own as well — are subject to change. Of course, I will keep you posted as our trip progresses.

What’sa Matta You?

From Munich, we took a night train through Austria to Florence, Italy. In theory, you can sleep on the train and avoid wasting an entire day. In practice, you are woken up every hour or so: by border guards for passport checks, by train conductors for ticket checks, and by customs officers with german shepherds for drug checks. They don’t knock; they just throw open the door, turn on the light and blurt out something unintelligible in German or Italian. As you might expect, the Italian word for passport is “passaporta”. Status: RO

The train station in Florence was bustling. There was also some sort of demonstration or parade going on; hundreds of Italians marching, waving Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags and blowing whistles. We were also assailed by numerous locals offering cheap accommodations. Instead, we called one of the pensions listed in Let’s Go, and were told “Yes. Come.”

The nicest thing about Italy is the warm weather. After the near-freezing temperatures in Prague and Budapest last week, it is nice to be wearing shorts and T-shirts again.

We tried to spend the afternoon sightseeing, hoping to get a look at Michaelangelo’s David, or perhaps the view from the bell tower at il Duomo, the main cathedral in the center of Florence. Unfortunately, government workers were on strike. Now here is a real oddity of Italian culture. Every other day while we were in Italy, all the government employees would go on strike for four or five hours — shutting down trains, museums, state-run youth hostels, etc. — and then return to work as if nothing had happened. They know in advance when they are going to strike, and for how long, but they don’t always tell you. This has the effect of really screwing up your schedule and getting you frustrated, without making travel and sightseeing completely impossible. Eventually we did get to see David and Il Duomo, but we had to pass up the Uffizi — perhaps Italy’s most famous museum — for lack of time. In truth, we just wanted to get the hell out of Florence and away from the noise, crowds, pollution and unbelievably rude waiters .

If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out

Sunday, October 16, 1994. A short way north of Pisa, on the Italian Riviera, is an area called Cinque Terre, five picturesque little villages where you can hike, swim, drink red wine, and watch blazing Mediterranean sunsets.

Ann and I arrived in the first town, Riomaggiore, in the evening and found our way to Mama Rosa’s, a hostel recommended in one of Ann’s guidebooks. Mama Rosa’s was described as friendly and festive. In truth, it was more like a full-tilt frat-house party. If you get excited at prospect of getting butt-wasted with several dozen American college students and drinking until you pass out, you’ll really like Mama Rosa’s. But if you hope to get more than just a few hours of sleep, you really ought to stay somewhere else. Also, although Mama Rosa’s is relatively clean, her many unnamed cats have given the place a powerful stench of cat-pee.

On Monday, we took the train up to the third town, Corniglia, and lugged our packs up the long, winding brick stairway to the center of the village. There are no hotels or hostels in Corniglia, so we just wandered until we found a sign advertising private rooms for rent. There was no one home, but a large old woman carrying an unlabled bottle of wine beckoned us from across the street and led us through the twisty little pedestrian streets to another house a few blocks away. For 30,000 lire apiece (about US$20), we rented a surprisingly clean and spacious double room overlooking the hills and ocean. In the evening, we took a bottle of the local Cinque Terre white wine to the edge of town — a stone terrace at the top of a 25-meter cliff, about 100 meters from our room — and watched the sun sink into the sea with slow, flaming brushstrokes.

Cinque Terre would be an easy place to get stuck for a while. If you come to Italy, I strongly encourage you to visit Cinque Terre and see how long you can get stuck.


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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt