At this point, I would say that France has been fairly underwhelming. It’s not that we don’t like it. ??It just hasn’t impressed us as much as, say, Italy or Russia. Since I don’t want to be a Debbie-Downer, I’ll tell you about the good parts.
We enjoyed a beautiful train ride from Barcelona up through the Pyrenees to Toulousse. Once we were there, we couchsurfed with Louis, a 22 year-old avid skydiver who owns his own catering company. The first night we were joined with two other guests, Patricia and Fernanda from Brazil. They are both currently living in France and were just taking a weekend getaway. Louis had to work most of the time we were there, but he did spend one afternoon showing us “The Pink City,” which is Toulousse’s nickname because of its red and pink brick buildings.
From there we moved on to Bordeaux, a well-known wine center that has a fairly heated rivalry with Paris. In contrast to Toulousse, all of Bordeaux’s buildings are white. There are many shops along its cobbled streets and a large part of the city is a World Heritage Site. It was extremely hot while we were there, so we both decided to get haircuts. My hairdresser didn’t speak English, but I’m still happy with the results.
After that we went to La Rochelle, which is about the cutest French seaside town you can imagine. It’s a major port city and we saw many expensive yachts floating in the harbor. There are several lighthouses and medieval defensive towers along the coast. They also have excellent and cheap mussels, which we discovered at lunch one day. I ordered the??moules frites??and was very surprised when the waiter delivered an entire bucket of mussels to our table. They were by far the best mussels I’ve ever had, but I was stuffed before I could even see the bottom of the bucket! Brad joined the efforts and we did get them all eaten, but I think we had to spend the rest of our day digesting.
So, since we’ve had fun and seen some nice places, you might be wondering what the problem is. The truth is, we don’t really know. We like France, but we just don’t love it. Like Malaysisa, it’s lacking the “Wow!” moments. In the next few days we’re going to ride a bicycle through the Loire Valley, so maybe we’ll change our minds, but at this moment, I would have to say that we should have spent more time elsewhere.
Barcelona is the first city on this trip’s itinerary that I’ve already seen before. I loved being back in Spain, especially because I could actually communicate with people again. Once we were in the country, it was very tempting to go back and visit my old stomping grounds in Sevilla, but we decided to spend more time in new countries.
The main reason we went to Barcelona is because Brad hadn’t seen it. I was last there in 2007 with my friend Falafel. I remembered that I had loved the city, but I admit I had forgotten exactly why I loved it so much. As soon as I returned, it all came back to me. Barcelona has a beautiful location, right between the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains. There is fascinating architecture, including some of Gaudi’s most famous works. It has a vibrant culture with lots of art. There’s an easy-to-use public transportation system. And, of course, it’s home to one of the most famous sports teams in the world
Brad and I had one of the most fun days of our trip here. We met up with Jordi and Tanit, two couchsurfers that Yoshiko in Tokyo highly recommended to us. They were both awesome people and they took us to the Gracia neighborhood for its annual block party. Each neighborhood has its own party during the summer, and from what I gathered, Gracia’s is the best. They have a contest for the best decorated street and the streets go all-out in their participation. We saw an elaborate wild west themed street, a beach, a winter scene, and a Star Wars one. (There were many more, but we didn’t see them all.) They were all creative and the residents were very resourceful with their materials. For example, the cacti in the wild west street were made with aluminum cans that had been painted green and covered with Tic-Tacs.
The parade was the best and most dangerous part. First, people threw candy from trucks, which is pretty standard, except that they were whipping the candy at us. Then groups came through doing an intricate dance with sticks that they hit together and against other people’s, switching partners and moving the whole time. Tanit, who used to do this dance, said that if you make a mistake, you could whack someone in the head. Following them, men with guns arrived. Their guns were so loud, we could feel the shockwave in our ears. After that, young people dressed like devils came through with gigantic sparklers that whirled around and shot sparks at the crowd. I’m not exaggerating. The spectators had to duck and run for cover. A few people got small holes burnt into their clothing. Our Spanish guides explained that the devils are supposed to act mischievously. Finally a dragon with sparklers shooting out of his mouth came through. His fireworks shot even further and started a tree on fire. Again, I’m not exaggerating. The tree burned for a few minutes, threatening to set the entire district ablaze, before someone brought a fire extinguisher over. Brad and I got a kick out of how hilariously dangerous this parade was. Only in Spain.
Top three experiences?
- Our time with Jordi and Tanit at the Festa Major de Gracia. So much fun!
- Seeing the Sagrada Familia for the second time. A lot has changed since I last saw it. Gaudi’s inspired cathedral is slowly coming together and the inside is now finished. The many pillars on the inside are supposed to resemble trees in a forest and the stained glass windows are beautiful. It’s an amazing work of art. I can’t wait until it’s finished around the year 2025!
- While strolling around aimlessly, we came across a neighborhood with a lot of small, artsy boutiques. We spent a long time browsing through the eclectic offerings.
- The parade in Gracia. It was a blast!
- Sagrada Familia. It’s an incredible mix of shapes from nature and geometry. I liked reading the exhibit on Gaudi’s inspirations, which include microscopic plants, tree trunks, crystals, hyperbolic paraboloids, and twisted planes. The inside is stunning, and considering its finished height will be far taller than it is now, I really want to come back when it’s done in 2028 or so.
- Parc G??ell. The view was amazing and so was Gaudi’s work.
Bottom three experiences?
- Our hostel was actually in Badalona, a little bit outside of downtown Barcelona. We were very close to the subway, but unfortunately that section of the subway was under construction, so we had to take slow buses into town.
- Camp Nou, the stadium where Barcelona FC plays, was doing some renovations, so the locker room and media room were closed to tours. We decided it wouldn’t be worth it to pay for a tour if we couldn’t see these areas. And there weren’t any home games while we were there, so we didn’t get to see the inside of the stadium.
- The crowds. I was first there in the spring time, which is apparently the off season. This time around everything was packed with people.
- Construction in the soccer stadium prevented us from seeing it.
- The lizard in Parc G??ell was constantly mobbed by people, so it was impossible to get a decent photo. The only chance would be coming here during sunrise to beat the crowds.
- We stayed in a hostel a little out of town, but very near a subway stop. However, part of the subway line was closed for maintenance and replaced by a bus that supposedly came as often as the subways did. We essentially had to transfer to that bus to get to and from our place.
Nikki: The more traditional Catalan fare we tried with Jordi and Tanit. I had a sandwich with fuet (Catalan sausage) and Brad had a sandwich with honey and bacon.
Brad: The open-faced sandwich we had with Jordi and Tanit. Mine was bacon, brie, and honey. It was really good.
Nikki: McDonald’s. It had actually been months since we’d eaten there, so I was looking forward to it. And then I felt terrible after lunch. I might be done with McDonald’s for good.
Brad: We had McDonald’s for lunch one of the days. It was too much food and too heavy. I didn’t feel well that afternoon.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Jordi and Tanit. Super friendly, funny, and interesting!
Brad: Jordi and Tanit. They took us to the crazy parade and a delicious dinner.
Nikki: The construction on our subway line.
Brad: We didn’t tour the FCB soccer stadium. It was under renovation and Nikki, who has seen it before, didn’t think it was worth the €23 admission if we couldn’t see the press and locker rooms.
Nikki: All of Gaudi’s architecture is very weird.
Brad: A musician in Parc G??ell wearing leopard print leggings, huge sunglasses, and ankle sleighbells. He played “Charlie Brown, he’s a clown,” at one point screaming gibberish and blowing a snot rocket as part of a guitar solo. He’s how I imagine a homeless Ziggy Stardust post-glam rock’n'roll suicide playing for change in a park. He wasn’t bad, just a lot unconventional.
Statistics for Spain
- Days in the country: 4
- Places we stayed: 1
- Rainy days: 0
- Blog posts: 1, this one
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
- Photos taken: 514
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 125, 24% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 1
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 19
- Days on the road: 352
- Days remaining: 47
- Places we stayed: 145
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 40
- Photos taken: 15,812
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,745, 24% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 36
- Plane flights: 12
- Miles on plane (approx): 15,600
Italy is a country with great food, an extremely old history, and famous art. We started by meeting up with Nikki’s family in northern Italy, a change of pace from our normal traveling routine. After they left, we kept going south, passing through the city of canals, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and the heart of an empire. We braved the heat each day to see some really cool stuff and eat some great food. Here’s what we thought of our stay in Italy.
Top three experiences?
- Spending time with family and friends in Cinque Terre.
- Roaming around in Venice.
- Touring the Colosseum.
- Seeing the towns of Cinque Terre.
- Boating on Lake Como. It’s something we wouldn’t have done on our own.
- Seeing the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It’s strange to think we were through the center of the Roman empire and what it would have been like a couple thousand years ago.
Bottom three experiences?
- Dealing with the train strikes on our way from Cinque Terre to Lake Como.
- The city of Florence. I just didn’t like it as much as the other cities we saw.
- The heat. Don’t go to Italy in August.
- Train strikes. Canceled trains is annoying enough, but the railroad company readily selling canceled train tickets and not providing an easy way to reimburse or exchange them is a outright scam.
- United Airlines. We were expecting new shirts to replace our old, torn ones, but they never arrived. We did find a flea market in Bologna and bought some cheap new clothes.
- The heat. Italy is scorching the time of year! I was sweating constantly.
Nikki: Wow, tough to choose just one. I really don’t know, I loved it all. I guess the pesto and pasta dishes in Cinque Terre might have been my favorite.
Brad: The pizza slices we had for lunch in Bologna were so delicious! But really just about everything we had was really good.
Nikki: I can’t think of any bad meals. I think there was one piece of pizza that wasn’t as good as the others, but I don’t remember where we got it.
Brad: In Cinque Terre we were going to make a simple pasta dish, but I bought the wrong kind of cheese. We tried a different recipe, but we didn’t have any spices so it was bland.
And the worst drink I’ve ever had: a Spritz in Venice. It looked red and fruity, but was so bitter I couldn’t finish it.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: I don’t remember any of their names, but I got a kick out of the outgoing and funny girls from Australia that we met in our dorm in Florence.
Brad: The Australians and Kiwi who suffered with us with in our Plus Florence dorm. They were funny.
Nikki: The train strikes on our travel day. Everything else went pretty smoothly.
Brad: We never had as much hassle traveling as the day of the train strike. Seriously, we went through Cambodia, Vietnam, and rural China without so much hassle as in this supposedly developed European country.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: The room we rented through airbnb in Rome. We had a giant, clean room with a big bed, sofa, desk, and a private balcony.
Brad: Our Airbnb place in Rome. We had a huge room with a balcony, fast Internet, and a fan. It was our first Airbnb experience, and we’re planning to keep using it through Europe.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: PLUS Florence. The air conditioning in our dorm was broken, so it was super hot and the staff didn’t seem to care about that at all.
Brad: Plus Hostel Florence. They said it would be air conditioned, but each night I couldn’t fall asleep because my sheets were soaked with sweat, the Internet basically didn’t work, and there were only seven lockers for in our eight bed dorm room.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Seeing the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. It’s one of the most famous opera houses in the world and the inside of it was gorgeous.
Brad: The Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II in Milan was simply gorgeous. We saw it in the perfect lighting near sunset.
Nikki: The artwork in the crypt of the Capuchin Church.
Brad: Capuchin Monastery. Wow, the museum part was strange with their masochistic rituals, but the crypt with strange displays from thousands of friars’ bones was extremely creepy.
Statistics for Italy
- Days in the country: 24
- Places we stayed: 6
- Rainy days: 0
- Blog posts: 6
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 5
- Photos taken: 1,450
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 273, 19% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 7
- Hours traveling overland: 22
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 18
- Days on the road: 348
- Days remaining: 50
- Places we stayed: 144
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 39
- Photos taken: 15,298
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,620, 24% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 35
- Hours traveling overland: 784
- Olympic host cities visited: 7
After our first day in the Vatican City, we spent a couple of days looking around in Rome. We got up very early every morning to try and beat both the crowds and the heat. It was a pretty good strategy because by noon, everywhere was super crowded and the sun was melting us.
One of the first places we went was the Colosseum. I was of course excited to see it, but I wasn’t expecting it to be one of those, “Wow!” moments. Taking a tour through it was actually my favorite part of our time in Rome. As far as ancient monuments go, it’s probably not the best. (I’d say that title goes to the temples of Angkor.) What’s awesome about the Colosseum is how modern it is. Even though it is almost 2,000 years old, with one look you can just tell that it’s a sports arena. That’s probably because our modern sports complexes are based off of it, but that’s still incredible. Think of how different life was in the year 70 AD, and yet we would understand the gate number and seating system if we went back in time to watch some bloody spectacle there. This is unbelievable to me.
The Colosseum also has ancient??graffiti??on display. Looking at this was fascinating. There must be some deep-seated urge in literate humans to scribble messages on walls. However, it’s one thing to write, “Tina was here,” with a pen in a bathroom stall. Actually taking the time to carve this message into a stone bench takes a whole new level of determination. You would have to really want everyone to know that “Maximus sucks,” if you were going to spend two hours carving it onto your seat. And yet there they are, whole rows full of two-thousand-year-old sketches and stories about popular people and important events that took place in the Colosseum. Did those graffiti artists ever imagine that people would be studying their handiwork in the year 2012?
What’s also incredible about Rome is how ancient ruins are strewn all over the place. If you ride around on the bus, you’ll be looking around at a busy street with a McDonald’s and an Armani store, and then all of the sudden you’ll see a roped-off area with marble columns and crumbling walls. It would be so weird to grow up there. You could potentially have Roman aqueducts running right behind your apartment.
Speaking of the aqueducts, Rome is still very proud of its public water supply. Both decorative and metal water fountains are everywhere, and everyone seems to carry around a bottle of water and fill it up as they go. With so many countries that don’t have access to safe drinking water, and other countries that do have safe drinking water but insist on drinking bottled water, it was very refreshing to see people actually using, and even celebrating, tap water.
Besides all the impressive ruins, we also visited??Capuchin Church. It was the creepiest place I’ve ever been in my life. The beginning of the tour is just a museum, but even this freaked me out. I’m not sure why. The museum was spotless and looked very new and expensive. But they were playing this weird background music and they had really gory artistic representations of the??crucifixion on display, along with the whips for their self-flagellation. I kept expecting to run into the albino from??The Da Vinci Code.
And then we got to the crypt. There are several stories about how this place got started, but regardless of how it started, the result is that the bones of hundreds of monks have been put on display in some macabre and disturbing work of art. Femurs and tibias are arranged in crosses and designs on the ceilings. Skulls line the walls. Entire skeletons of long-departed monks are standing around in their fraying robes. Lamps made out of bones hang from the ceilings. I remember one room was dedicated to jaw bones and another featured??pelvises. It’s all incredibly ghastly and bizarre and I’m not sure what exactly the original artist was going for, but he succeeded in scaring the hell out of me!
It didn’t seem like it, but we visited a new country while we were in Rome: the Vatican City. It’s the smallest country in the world, both in terms of its size (800 people) and area (109 acres)–in fact, we literally walked around the country’s walls in about an hour.
We started early, seeing St. Peter’s Basilica first. The scale inside is nearly unfathomable. It’s just too big to truly take in. For instance, the Statue of Liberty, on her plinth, would fit under the dome with 25 meters to spare. It was decorated beautifully as well, with multicolored marbles and sculptures by the famous Renaissance artists. We took an elevator and a couple hundred steps to the top of the dome, with a great view of Rome and the Vatican gardens.
After seeing the top of this giant basilica, we took a tour underneath it. Back in the fourth century, Constantine required it to be built on the site of St. Peter’s grave. This presented two problems–the grave was close to a pagan Necropolis still in use, and Peter was buried on a hill. To solve both problems, the basilica and grottos were built over the top of these tombs, preserving them in a pristine state for about 1,700 years. They weren’t rediscovered until the early 20th century, when the pope ordered an excavation to find the actual site of Peter’s grave. After a decade of digging, they found bones that could plausibly be Peter’s, so the church declared that they are most definitely the bones of St. Peter and stopped all further excavations. They give tours nowadays, limited to 200 per day, led by an archaeologist who was very knowledgeable and gave lots of information about how things came to be. It was chilling seeing some of the best preserved artifacts of ancient Rome in the world.
In the afternoon we visited the Vatican Museum. We enjoyed the ancient Egyptian collection, complete with sarcophagi, mummies, and hieroglyphics. The Rafael rooms, painted on all four walls and ceilings with bright frescoes, prepared us for the most amazing room of them all: the Sistine Chapel. We spent a good half hour soaking in the beauty of Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, while trying to ignore the guards’ constant shouts of ”sshhh!”, “silencio!”, and “no fotos!” Many visitors were taking pictures anyways.
Nikki: The Swiss Guard. OK, OK, St. Peter’s was amazing, the Sistine Chapel was incredible, and our tour of the Necropolis was fascinating. But before our visit to the Vatican, I didn’t know about the Swiss Guard and its silly orange and blue striped uniforms, so that ended up being my favorite part of the visit.
Brad: The Scavi tour underneath St. Peter’s. It was an eery look back almost 2,000 years, and the story of how the Basilica came to be was very interesting.
Nikki: The guard in the Sistine Chapel shouting, “Silencio! No fotos!” nonstop, while everyone ignored him and continued talking and taking pictures anyway. Super annoying and hard to concentrate on the art. I wish everyone would just be quiet.
Brad: The security guards’ constant shouts in the Sistine Chapel. It was really annoying. If they were serious about no photos, there would be a room where you’d check your camera and phone before you entered, and you’d get it back when you left.
Nikki: I think it’s very weird how much the Church loves science when it proves what they want it to prove (These are the bones of Peter! Science says so!), but they hate/ignore science when it says something they don’t like (The earth can’t be 4.5 billion years old! Science is wrong!).
Brad: The Swiss guards’ uniforms. They kind of look like striped pajamas.
Statistics for Vatican City
- Hours in the country: 8.5
- Blog posts: 1, this one
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
- Photos taken: 130
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 34, 26% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 1
- Perimeter of the country: 2.1 miles