When in Rome (do what the tourists do, but eat what the locals eat)

For the past two days, Gord and I have been very diligent tourists, wandering, photographing and taking in all the wonder that is Italy’s capital.

Arriving late Tuesday night from Athens, Gord and I decided to leave the country on the morning of our first day.

Fooled you? Probably not. Our first visit was to the Vatican City, the world’s smallest city-state. We were in three countries within 24 hours. Pretty impressive, n’est ce pas?

Now, you can’t visit the Vatican without making note of the modesty police. This is the name Gord and I gave to the dress code enforcers of Christianity’s holiest place. No knees, shoulders or inappropriate cleavage were allowed, lest you make the handsomely dressed Swiss guard fall in love with you.

Once we were modesty-approved, we began our visit in the Vatican Museum, home to Michelangelo’s neck-breakingly beautiful Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Overall, the Vatican was really cool, albeit insanely, INSANELY busy. I obviously took lots of pictures in St. Peter’s Square/Basilica and pretended I was Robert Langdon a la Angels and Demons searching for antimatter.

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Of course, one cannot visit the Vatican without making note of the stunning art and architecture housed within. The only problem was that there was just SO much of it. Every room was so ornately decorated, floor to ceiling, that it was actually too much for our unrefined artistic minds to take in. After much early admiration and appreciation, Gord and I spent the last few gallery hallways speed walking around the slow-as-snails tourists, disregarding the painted frescoes and century-old tapestries. Perhaps Gord described our apathetic art views best when he said “you can only look at so many baby cherubs.”

After the Vatican, we started to wander back in the direction of our bed and breakfast, hoping to stumble on more tourist checkpoints as we went.

Gord’s stellar navigational skills found us in front of the Pantheon, which was amazingly well preserved. We both had to wonder: do they close the oculus when it rains? Have they installed some secret, SkyDome-esque closing mechanism? Clever, clever Romans.

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Walking further, we rounded a corner and were met with by the sight of the Trevi Fountain, Rome’s most famous water attraction.

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It was PACKED (with tourists and pickpockets, I’m sure) and, after making a wish which I valued at 1 euro coin, we scurried off beyond the crowds and into the open air.

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At this point, Gord and I decided to separate for the rest of the afternoon in favour of a little independent wandering.

From here, I proceeded to do the two things I do best: get lost and eat. More on that on my blog soon.

For supper that night, Gord and I reunited and decided to investigate one of the restaurant recommendations I got. Katie (@tinymurders) suggested we try the spaghetti carbonara at La Pigna, a restaurant located not far from the Pantheon.

It was here that we encountered our first “Roman Holiday” closure, wherein Italians use August as a time to flee the city and summer heat. La Pigna was closed for the month, leaving a barren and lonely space in the piazza where the patio would, I suspect, normally have sat.

The closure was a blessing in disguise, however, and we instead dined on delicious homemade pasta dishes and tiramisu down the street at Osteria Pizzeria di Agrippa.

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Day two started with a trip to the Colosseum. After an hour worth of waiting in line, we finally proceeded into the ancient gladiator theatre, the upper, inside levels of which have been transformed into a museum. Here, we found out more about the Colosseum itself – did you know they could flood the entire floor area in order to hold marine battles? So cool.

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Once the obligatory Colosseum photos were taken, we headed next door to the ruins of the Forum, the old Roman public square.

I’d like to say that something funny happened on the way to the forum, but alas, it did not.

This was also true for the rest of our Forum visit which, although once again impressive, was not assisted by our “sick of ruins” state (see Athens post for more).

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Determined to fulfill at least one of my Twitter food recommendations, we walked south to get gnocchi for lunch at La Fraschetta.

Possible movie title for this meal: The Curse of the Roman Holiday Strikes Back.

You guessed it, La Fraschetta was closed. We drowned our sorrows in bubbly water (my new favourite thing) and lunch nearby.

Splitting again in the afternoon, I trekked back to the Vatican area to buy dresses from one of the many vendors that lined the street. Mission accomplished, times three

To celebrate (MOURN) our last night in Rome, we decided to try our hand one last time at my Twitter recommendations. This pizza suggestion from @hellokaitlin was the biggest gamble location-wise – about a 35 minute walk from our B&B. After reading rave reviews online, we decided to take our chances. It paid off.

The restaurant, Dar Poeta, was so popular that a long line twisted outside the entrance. I LOVED my pizza, which was topped with zucchini slices, spicy pepperoni, garlic and cheese. Gord was less than mesmerized by his, however. I felt sorry for his lack of delicious pizza, so I decided to share mine.

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The night ended with us wandering about an eclectic and lively street market on the bank of the Tiber River – a great way to spend our last few hours in Rome.

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Gord and I both bought new wallets and, with the purchase of a knock-off (but real leather) book bag, I officially became the biggest tourist ever.

Rome, you have made my backpack burst at its seams and my camera pray for forgiveness. One day I shall return.

Athens: The city that launched 1,000 “ruin” puns

“Gord, you RUINED the picture.”

“Turkey really RUINED ruins for me.”

Etc. etc. There are a lot of really old stone ruins in Athens. They drove us kind of crazy.

ANYWAYS.

This post will likely have the greatest “words per hour spent in city” ratio.

Gord and I were in Athens for 24 hours. Not an hour less, or more.

After an extremely classy and unnecessarily expensive ferry ride in from Santorini (apparently the only difference between economy and VIP seats is a red leather, a table and an extra 30 euros), we arrived in Athens, ready to use what little time we had to take the city by storm.

But first, we needed to find the subway. An adventure in and of itself. Unlike France where we could decipher the language into something that sort of resembled english, the complicated Greek alphabet characters were lost on Gord and I. It took approximately 30 backpack-sweaty minutes of searching to find the subway station, which was in the exact opposite direction of where we originally started walking. Whoops.

Once found, we navigated our way through the Athens subway fairly easily, noticing quickly how clean and empty the whole place was.

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I didn’t know whether to be impressed or weirded out. It was a relief to get back to normal subway scum when riding the metro in Rome today.

Arriving at our hostel, Athens Backpackers, we quickly dumped our bags and went off to explore.

Since our hostel was super close to the Acropolis (seriously, best location ever!), we wandered over there to start our sight-seeing. Five minutes later, we were looking up at Parthenon, lit from behind by the late evening sun. Naturally, we decided to walk further into the grounds, our hearts set on looking down on Athens at dusk.

On our way up, we passed through the ancient Theatre of Dionysus, where we made sure to take tacky tourist photos sitting on the crumbling marble thrones.

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Just as we were about to reach the final uphill stretch, drama set in.

Okay, not really drama, but Gord and I like to exaggerate because it makes us sound cool. Apparently we needed tickets to enter the Acropolis. Yes, in hindsight, this made total sense, but we swear there was no one selling tickets anywhere along our route. After much wide-eyed innocence and groveling, we were kindly escorted down the side of the Acropolis hill by a stern Greek official.

Plans foiled, we consoled ourselves with a dinner of delicious Greek salad, oven feta (our new favourite thing), moussaka and some weird tubular pasta thing (for Gord).

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It was just what we needed and was super cheap. All part of the Greek “crisis” menu, as the restaurant liked to call it. Yes, that’s a thing.

We ended the evening by making new friends on our hostel’s rooftop patio, sipping on Mythos beer and staring out at the beautifully-lit Parthenon.

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The next day, we registered for our hostel’s walking tour in order to find out more about our ancient surroundings. In the end, we found out LOADS more than we had to, and our very-informed, very-chatty Greek guide kept us out in the blisstering sun for a sweltering two hours.

Some lessons? Well, we learned a lot more about the tensions between the Greeks and the British Museum. In the early 17th century, the British Lord Elgin decided to strip the Parthenon of its artistic glory in order to impress his bride-to-be. As a result, the majority of the Parthenon’s glory now sits in London. The Greeks are not pleased.

We also learned about the history behind Athens itself. The myths made me reminiscent of learning about ancient Greek mythology, circa grade six. I won’t go into detail, but lets just say I am stunned with the amount of godly self-impregnation that occured (seriously Zeus, you REALLY needed to grow Athena in your mind? That’s just begging for attention.).

Stunning sights of Athens were also a given. This one was taken atop the point where the Greek Supreme Court once stood.

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After our tour’s gyro/souvlaki stop (I finally got one!), Gord and I decided to ditch out of the tour early to actually go up to the Acropolis.

Once again, we stubbornly refused to comply with the proper ticket-buying procedure. Here’s the thing. You could get to the Parthenon for free if you were a student studying in the EU. Thankfully for us, Carleton University just happened to be in Cork, Ireland for the day. Imagine that. Hey, we need to save all the money we can. It’s not our fault Greek ticket officials are very trusting…

Here’s what we saw at the top:

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On our way down, we decided to stop at the New Acropolis Museum, which we were told was the place to go. The building itself is very modern looking and is cleverly designed to reflect the remains of the Parthenon on its glassy outer walls.

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Since we got away with the Irish student scam once, we thought we would try it again. It worked, 2/2. Wonderful.

The museum itself was worth the short visit. As impressive as we’re sure the stone remains would be to antiquity studiers, Gord and I were a little bit tired of seeing ancient artifacts. It was a bit boring. Sorry, history buffs. I did, however, love the top floor – it was an exact to-scale replica of the Parthenon, complete with a 16×8 metal columns outside. I took many pictures, despite being yelled at on numerous occasions by both Gord and officials at the museum.

Conclusion: Athens is a city of rule-breaking.

And that was our very short visit to Athens! We avoided riots and saw the Parthenon. Mission accomplished.

H

PS: This is the tan difference between Gord and I after a week in Greece. 🙂

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Greetings From a Grecian Isle

Hello Everybody.

While its been a while since I’ve blogged about anything, I want to assure you that our blogging absence is not because Hilary or I have been in some tragic accident but rather because we have been having too much fun!

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For the past five nights Hilary and I have been staying on Santorini, the most picturesque island you could imagine. If you haven’t heard of Sanotrini you have probably seen it in some movie. It’s famous for its white-washed houses and bright blue roofs. I have to say that Santorini has lived up to its reputation as being the prettiest of the Greek Isles.

Our five days have gone way to fast and we will be sad to see the island go tomorrow morning as we move on to Athens.

Our time here as been spent catching-up with one another bragging about all our travel adventures, beaching and exploring this surprisingly large island.

I first arrived on the island days ago, one day ahead of schedule due to my own incompetence at reading ferry timetables. One perk of arriving a day a head of schedule was being able to surprise Hilary at our hotel. Boy was she surprised! We spent the rest of the day catching up, exploring Perissa (the beach-side town we are staying in) and having what is sure to be the first of MANY delicious meals to come.

The next day, we woke up early and joined a full day excursion tour of the entire island. Our first stop was off to visit the monastery which sits perched atop the tallest mountain on the Island. From the stop you have a great view of the rest of the island and it was a good way to get ourselves oriented to our home for the next five days.

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From the monastery we head to Pyrgos a cute traditional-styled greek village in the middle of the island. We got the chance to explore the town for a bit and check out some other awesome vistas.

Our next destination was to the port of Santorini where we boarded a ship which would be our transport for the rest of the day. We sailed out from the harbour and straight for the active volcano which the island surrounds! Our ship docked at the volcano and we got the chance to climb up to the top. Both Hilary and I got a bit excited because our guide explained as we climbed we would get the chance to see different colours of lava. We both imagined that we would get to see great torrents of magma oozing down the side of the mountain, but in reality we got to see different coloured rocks, which apparent pass for “lava” here on Santorini. Perhaps our guide forgot to mentioned it was cooled lava…

From the volcano we headed for some hot springs which are directly beside the volcano. These naturally occurring hot springs, are a product of the still active geothermal processes that are shaping the island. While nice and warm, the springs STUNK of rotting eggs because of the sulpher that is being released. The sulpher also has the nasty side effect of dying all of the white bathing suits a rust colour. Apparently it comes out in the wash, but since I wash most of my clothes in the shower, it might be a while before my bathing suit is looking its best again.

From the hots springs we sailed for Thirissia, another island right beside Santorini. This tiny island has a small village that is perched 300m up a giant cliff. There are two options for climbing the cliff. Option 1: walk the series of switch backs that connect the harbour with the village. Option 2: ride a donkey/mule up the same switchbacks. Being a proud Albertan that’s spent most of his childhood in the Rockies, I bullied Hilary telling her that the climb wouldn’t be that bad. Twenty minutes later and a LOT sweatier, we made it to the top of the cliff and looked down on our ship we left behind. At the top, we enjoyed a severely overpriced Fanta and then marched our way down the hill we had just climbed.

Our final stop of the day was Oia, probably the most picturesque of the towns on Santorini. Our mission for our stop in Oia was to watch the famous sunset. After eating a delicious dinner which included baked feta that will forever be remembered by both Hilary and I, we found our way to a tremendously romantic parking lot, where we watched the sun slowly make its way in to the Aegean. All in all, we had a great day with our excursion.

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The next day to compensate for all our activity from the day before, we decided to slum it on the near by beach. What was crazy about the beach we chose was the colour of the sand! Perissa is located on the black beach of Santorini. The dark coloured sand means that the sand can get painfully hot throughout the day but it also means that the water is a bit warmer for swimming.

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After our day at the beach, Hilary and I decided to rent ATV’s so we could explore the island at our own leisure. ATVing was a lot of fun and it gave us the freedom to explore parts of the island we hadn’t seen yet. Our first stop was to check out the red beach, which I’m sure you guessed it had red sand! The beach was lots of fun and both Hilary and I snorkeled around and checked out the cool fish that live in the waters around the beach. After the beach, we headed out to the southern tip of the island to investigate the lighthouse that sits there. While the lighthouse itself wasn’t all that interesting, the views along the way were amazing and we were able to take some really nice pictures.

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After the lighthouse, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant which had some amazing views of the cliffs below. After our delicious meal, we decided to head to Fira the capital of Santorini. Unfortunately just as we were pulling into Fira our ATV began to die. Every few metres the engine would cut out and we needed to restart the engine. Finally we pulled off to the side of the road, and started looking for a WiFi connection so Hilary could call the rental place. After a fruitless search for Internet, we ended up going to the nearest ATV rental place to see if they could either help us, or call the place we had rented our ATV from.

Thankfully the man from the ATV rental place was extremely helpful. After disappearing for a few minutes, which we learned later was to buy credit for his phone, the man called our rental place and explained what happened. For the next 45 minutes Hilary and I sat in silence as he blared Greek house music while we waited for someone to help us with our ATV’s. Once someone from our rental place showed up, we thought we were out of the woods, but apparently the problem was more severe than originally thought and the guy told us he would have to drive back to Perissa to get us a new ATV. Hilary and I decided to take the time we had to explore Fira, which turned out to be a fairly cute town. An hour later, we had our new ATV and we roared home to make ourselves dinner. Upon returning the ATV to the rental agency, I learned that apparently it was a grain of sand in the carburetor that had done our vehicle in. All terrain my ass!

Last night we had the pleasure of spending a fun evening with some of the other guests here at the hotel. We met two Swedes, two Norwegians, two Americans and 5 Aussies, and spent the evening, swapping travel tales and drinking.

Today was a bit of a quite day for both Hilary and I. We went to the beach in the morning, but because it was so windy it made it hard to spend too much time on the beach. I spent some time relaxing and reading my book and Hilary head back to Oia to do some shopping.

Well, that its for our time in Santorini! Tomorrow we head for Athens and the day after that we are off to Rome! We will be sure to update the blog as we move from city to city, but both Hilary and I are excited to hit the road again!

Later Days

G

PARIS DAY 1: Natalie comes to visit! (ft. guest appearances by pickpockets, home-away-from-home galleries and a spectacular view

I’d like to take this time to offer a major kudos to all those who somehow find the time to blog whilst traveling. I arrived in Europe with the best of intentions – the desire to document and photograph my adventurous tales. So far, I’ve only done much of the latter.

Time to stop slacking.

Now, a week into my European vacation, I will attempt to explain to you, one day at a time, my journey so far.

PS: part of this is to blame on the fact that I have no computer, and only an iPhone with a detachable keyboard. This is the cause of my partial blogging avoidance and extreme laziness.

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My first full day in Paris was an eventful one. My friend and old roommate Natalie kindly came in to the city to visit. Lovely Ottawa reunions occurred. Since I was still recovering from the mortifying advances of forward French men, it was nice to have the company of a French-speaking friend who could help me ward off the creeps.

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Since Natalie had already done the majority of the tacky tourist stuff I had on my agenda, we decided to spend the first half of our day vintage shopping in a neighbourhood just north-east of the Notre Dame (the name is lost to me, at the moment). Here, we encountered cheap (but strange smelling) garments selling for a single Euro, poorly chosen store soundtracks, cavernous bargain basements and completely unnecessary shoe purchases. We also stumbled upon a variety of cool boutique shops, the likes of which sold Lego-themed waterbottles, Playmobile figure pendants, paint chip-inspired wall deco and colourful clothing hooks. I wanted to buy a Parisian apartment that instant, just so I could furnish it using the store’s overly priced, designer furniture.

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Having gone straight to France in April to start her job at Vimy, Natalie hasn’t been home to Winnipeg in some time now. Due to this, she was particularly eager to visit out next stop: a Parisian gallery featuring, get this, all things Winnipeg. In Paris. Oh eccentric French art enthusiasts. The gallery was short walk from the Place de la Bastille, right across from the Seine. Inside, overwhelmed by Canadiana nostalgia, Natalie wandered through the exhibit, chuckling to herself like the entire studio was a giant inside joke. There was just as much quirky Canada-themed art to appreciate as there was Winnipeg stuff: beavers munching on desk legs, snow-filled images of frigid winters and many references to Louis Riel. I don’t think the French got the ironic nature of some displays.

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From here, we did something completely different, and went to Ladurée, the famous French bakery which I make reference to in many a post, tweet and Facebook photo. You can see more photos from the wonders of that tea room visit (as well as my gluttonous second visit) on my blog, Hilary Makes.

Next, because we hadn’t done nearly enough shopping earlier, we walked over to the Champs-Élysées to complete my obligatory window shop down the street. Okay, not so much window shop. More clothing was bought (on my part) and an H&M was found. Just as we were figuring out ways to get our European chic on, disaster struck.

Natalie got her wallet stolen.

It almost happened to me too. The pick-pocketing technique was seamless: as fast as you could say “macaron,” two girls surrounded their victim (i.e. distracted girls like Nat and I) and just sort of…well…walked into you for an extended period of time. It happened to me first. Being the easily annoyed, get-out-of-my-way-stupid-people-who-can’t-walk person that I am, I elbowed my way on through. Being the paranoid, neurotic freak that I am, I automatically felt my purse. The twisty buckle that normally clasps the flap shut was open. LE GASP.

Alas, my wallet was still there and tears and breakdowns were averted.

Shortly after, a similar situation happened to Nat. Unfortunately, she didn’t get so lucky.

Thank heavens she is fluent in French (I, for instance, do not even know the French word for wallet). After some undiscernable French chatter with an H&M employee and much searching around the store, we walked out, our otherwise brilliant day shrouded by the occurrence of the stolen wallet.

(Don’t think I’m leaving this hanging on a depressing note. The next day, Nat called the H&M, and was happily met with news that her wallet had been tossed and found. All was safe and, although she was a few Euros shorter, she was once again in possession of her attractive Manitoba driver’s license and her other plastic lifelines. So relieved).

After dropping Natalie off at the train station for the night, I decided to trek back over to the Champs-Élysées and check out the view from atop the Arc de Triomphe. My mood was lifted rapidly from here, especially after I found out my admission to the top was free (hello $15 saved!) thanks to my European Union passport. It was also later in the evening, so there was very little of a line. Once I climbed the 284 spiraling stairs to the top, I was met with a breathtaking view, not only of the 12 streets (including the Champs-Élysées) circling the panorama, but also of the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur in the distance. Even though I didn’t pay to access the view, the experience was priceless.

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