Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Final Days and FAQ's

I'm back and better than ever! Well, let's say I'm back and more relieved than ever. Though today's the day I should've been arriving back in New York, I've actually been here since Sunday morning. On Saturday morning I found myself at the Dublin airport sending Nathan off and decided to hop on a plane myself. It had been a long, hard 6 weeks of travel and I was simply too exhausted to do another 3 days on my own.

That being said, our week in Ireland was wonderful. It was relaxing and fun and Nathan picked a really great mix of places for us to visit. We did a good amount of driving (or I should say Nathan did) but got to see a varied mix of spots and get a good overall impression of the country. After Mullaghmore, we headed on to Doolin which is a tiny town known for its live traditional music scene. Now, you might be picturing Austin, Texas with a drop more whiskey or Nashville, Tennesee covered in tartan plaid but Doolin actually has a whopping 3 bars that offer live Irish music. And that makes it the live music capital of the country. Seriously. I hate to say it, but we were slightly disappointed in the music scene in Ireland as a whole. We kept expecting to walk in to bagpipes or fiddles or traditional dancing but the majority of the time we actually found lone guys with guitars...and drum machines...singing The Monkees. Guys with guitars would've been fine but the drum machines were unbearable. And The Monkees? Really? Is that really what American tourists are aching for? Well, if they were all my Mom then yes, they would be but come on, Ireland! At least Doolin was free of these two plagues but the music was still less than stellar. Nathan and I may be spoiled seeing that his Mom plays fiddle, both he and his Dad play guitar and we see incredible live music in the States all the time but I still expected a bit more from the Irish music scene.

From Doolin we took the ferry out to the farthest and largest of the three Aran Islands, Inishmore. It was absolutely my favorite stop in Ireland - filled with the requisite cows, sheep and horses but like a little time capsule of what Irish life must have been like centuries ago. Yes, it has bicycles, ice cream shops, a few cars and a small airport but the whole mood there is just about enjoying time and taking in the gorgeous scenery that envelopes every single inch of the place. After spending a full day exploring the island on bikes, we hopped on the afternoon ferry back to the mainland and drove onwards to Athlone, a city in the Midlands region. When telling a Dublin couple about the last stop on our trip they asked, "Athlone? Can you cancel?" I guess its reputation isn't great but we found it to be a fun, funky little town, or at least the Left Bank section where we stayed was. It had lots of little restaurants and shops and the oldest pub in the British Isles, founded in 900 AD! Our B&B there was quite "eclectic" with a maze of old, dark, wooden stairs and some sort of taxidermied animal bearing its teeth in the lobby but it was a nice change of pace from the more traditional and proper ones we'd been staying in all week.

The next morning we awoke at the absolute crack of dawn and made our way to Dublin airport. I got the next flight I could to London, had some nasty struggles with payphones, ticketing agents and airport internet kiosks and somehow found myself in Newark, New Jersey in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Since then, I've found that lots of people have been dying to ask me the same questions over and over which I know is just a means of making smalltalk but efficiency obsessor that I am, I figured I'd do some FAQ's so that I can answer everyone's questions upfront and then when I see you in person you can skip right ahead to, "What directions did the toilets flush?" or some equally pressing tidbit. So here we go! (Note that I'll be playing the role of interviewer and interviewee in tonight's production but if you have any other questions you'd like answered and you think others might enjoy, leave them in the comments or on my Facebook page!)

FAQ's - Finally Answered Questions

What was your favorite place that you visited?
What? No, you can't name 3. Okay, fine.

My first favorite was the town of Corniglia in Cinque Terre, Italy. I remember being there and thinking, this is it, this will be my favorite place of the whole trip, but I also really enjoyed the little medieval town of St. Paul de Provence and the Aran Island of Inishmore. There's a definite theme that unites the three: very small, rural, historic villages overflowing with their own unique character. Each one was unlike any other place in the world. Oh also, I really liked my trip out to Eastern Serbia because the towns were so unlike what I expected and really beautiful and peaceful. So those 4. I'll stop now.

What was your favorite food that you tried? Follow-up question, are you going to be a meat eater now for good?! Pretty please?!

Does coffee&Baileys count as a food? No? Hmm, okay, I'll go with pretty much all the desserts in Italy: gelato, frozen yogurt, cannoli, tiramisu, etc. I also really came to love the tradition of tea in England and Ireland. I've always been a tea drinker but NEVER with cream or sugar and usually I like a little kick of fruit or flowery essence but the Breakfast tea in the UK was perfect as is.

As far as eating meat, I am for now but will probably meander back towards the vegetarian side with an occasional dabble in bacon. Meat tends to be one of those things that sounds amazing (Coconut fried chicken with spicy mango dipping sauce? Yes, please!) but then never lives up to my expectations and leaves me feeling icky. At least with vegetables I still feel like a good person after my meal. (Just kidding, I'm actually not a vegetarian for "moral" reasons but it's a nice jab to pull out sometimes.)

What's it like staying in hostels? Are there bedbugs, weird people and/or hot water?

Hostels are fantastic. Seriously. Every single one I stayed at was as clean as any mid-range hotel and the staff was incredibly accommodating. The atmosphere definitely reminded me of being in summer camp or living in a dorm at college but less screaming and more meaningful conversation. 98% of the other guests are people in their 20's who are down-to-Earth, self-sufficient and love to travel. What more could you ask for? Seriously, if I could live in a hostel I think I might. It was one of the only places where I've ever felt like I'd found kindred spirits, where people weren't in the least surprised that I'd quit my job to travel (heck, they probably did the same) and shared similar interests like hiking, being a weirdo who takes photos of food and sitting around drinking wine while recounting stories of the 2% of crazies who stay at hostels. The one time I "treated" myself to a hotel in Bologna was weird and pretty lonely. I met some really awesome people at hostels and will keep in touch with many of them.

What's it like traveling alone as a female in her 20's? Any bad experiences?

Being a naturally overly cautious person, I took more precautions than the normal person might. I didn't go out by myself after dark, I stayed in touristy areas and I often asked staff members for safety recommendations. I'm a pretty modest dresser by nature and even though I didn't necessarily dress like those fashionable Europeans, I had loads of people come up and ask me for directions in the local language so I must not have looked too out of place! I attribute that to my naturally occuring "angry and on a mission" look which people think only natives, brimming with locally induced scorn, sport around town. Little do they know that all New Yorkers, in or out of their habitat, have it too! The one time I had an experience where I felt a twinge of danger, I took a winding, roundabout route back to the hostel, befriended someone and ventured back out with them.

I ran into a few other travelers who experienced safety problems and both were traveling in pairs; two guys who were pickpocketed in Barcelona and two girls who had a purse stolen in Florence. Traveling alone almost seemed to be safer because I never let my guard down and I was suspicious of pretty much everyone. Okay, so I have trust issues, but I survived without experiencing any real problems. At the same time, I was exhausted from constantly being on the lookout. There was probably some middle ground in there but I never found it.

Any lessons you'd like to share?

My first lesson would be book it all in advance (except the trains, I think that whole Eurail pass thing is a crock) but be flexible. That means, plan on doing, say, 2 days in Brussels but change your plans if you're bored after 20 minutes. Last minute changes are pretty doable and can be more exciting and refreshing than sticking to your original plan.

That being said, my second lesson would be: Know yourself. Do you like museums? Or maybe you prefer sitting in a cafe and observing present day life. Do you make the best of less-than-ideal situations like boredom? Or maybe you have mini-meltdowns. Your family, friends, fellow travelers and everyone and anyone who can will give you advice about where to go, what to see, what to eat and how to take photos ("If you don't do the holding the Leaning Tower of Pisa thing, I'm never talking to you again!") Take them all with a grain of salt. Though your grandmother lives and breathes by Marc Chagall, perhaps visiting his grave in a tiny Provencal village you can only reach by public bus isn't the best way to spend your only day in France. If it's her dying wish, that's another story.

Oh yeah, what are you doing for a job now? Loll about the house and be a professional bane on society?

I'll get some sort of employment...eventually. Nathan and I head to Alaska to visit my good friend, Danielle, on August 10th and when I get back on the 21st the job search kicks into high gear! Yep. High gear. Or any gear. I told myself I could have the summer off from working and I'm pretty sure summer technically goes 'til what? Like November or something? That being said, if you'd like to employ me, let me know!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

From French Fries to Chips

There's nothing worse than a blogger who doesn't update often enough. Except maybe an airline who loses your baggage. But thanks to the persistence and, I suspect, numerous threats of American Express Travel Services I was only out of a bag for about 14 hours. Not too bad given the possibilities.

I could list my many excuses for not updating the blog recently but I'll skip the whining and get to the travel. I spent 4 nights in the city of Marseille - a place that many people warned me against visiting because of its "criminal activity." I never really learned the specific activities they meant but I found the city to be very warm and accessible if somewhat dirty. The hostel was located in the Old Port area which is filled with tons of restaurants and shops and nearly 3,500 boats ranging in size from tiny fishing vessels to replica pirate ships. I asked the hostel staff for safety recommendations and they just advised to avoid the Old Town area after dark. I followed the advice (actually I pretty much never went out on my own after dark anyway) and didn't have any problems.

I took a daytrip with two hostelmates out to the Calanques which are rocky, cliffside coves into the Mediterranean Sea. They were absolutely beautiful and incredibly peaceful even with nearby crazy dudes jumping off the cliffs into the waters some 20 feet below. I also took a less than successful daytrip by train out to the towns of Aix-en-Provence and Manosque. I had asked the hostel reception desk for "small typical Provencal towns - sunflowers, lavender, all that jazz" but neither town really delivered. It was also my first (!) day of bad weather on the entire trip so that definitely put a damper on things. Luckily the train ride provided some nice views of fields and mountains but somehow I still came back feeling like I'd wasted a day.

Bastille Day in France turned out to be very reminiscent of our 4th of July - parades, fireworks and all things red, white and blue. Less barbecuing though. And then, finally, the day had come to head on to Ireland! I had been counting down the days for what seemed like forever and was very excited to see Nathan after more than a month apart. I flew out Friday night and spent the wee morning hours in Gatwick airport - an experience which was interesting to say the least. I quickly learned that airports in the middle of the night are not unlike refugee camps. People are sleeping, or attempting to do so, anywhere and everywhere - floors, chairs or the much coveted benches -and eating any morsel of food they can get their hands on. I got 2 painful hours of sleep there before catching my 6 AM flight to Dublin. Why did I pick these flight times? I haven't a clue.

Despite the lost luggage, Dublin was great and the plethora of bars and old buildings reminded me a lot of being in college. We took a tour at the very modern Guinness factory and had a lovely tapas dinner. The next day we drove up to Belfast in Northern Ireland. There's no sign letting you know you've crossed the border but there are subtle changes. The speed limits are suddenly in miles per hour instead of kilometers and the warnings just sound more British. ("Give way" instead of "Yield"). I should add that driving in Dublin and Belfast as an American is absolutely terrifying - the driver sits on the right, drives on the left, shifts with their lefthand and OH YEAH they don't label any of their freaking roads! It's like someone has tied your legs together and is yelling RUN! but you're not sure which direction they mean.

Somehow we made it up into the slightly less terrifying country roads, stopped at the mindbending Giant's Causeway and Carrickarede ropebridge and made it all the way over to Mullaghmore, a tiny, tiny fishing village in County Sligo in western Ireland. The sheep and cows most definitely outnumber the human population here and it's perfect. We took an absolutely beautiful 2 hour horseback ride along the beach and through dunes and cattle fields this afternoon. Nathan, a second time rider, most definitely earned himself a Guinness or ten for putting up with the plodding Big Ted, his trusty though unmotivated steed. I, an experienced rider in my youth but a nonexistent one as of late, was overjoyed to be back in the saddle. I nearly teared up just putting the helmet on. The guide let me canter along the beach and walk into the surf and I'm pretty sure you couldn't have slapped the smile off my face if you tried. I delayed washing my hands afterwards for as long as possible to keep the smell of horses lingering.

So now you're all caught up and I have just 1 week left of my trip! We're in Ireland, heading down to Doolin, the Aran Islands and Athlone, until Saturday and then I have a few spare days until I fly out of London on the 27th. I predict my next update will be filled with sheep, neon green hills and Guinness aka more of the same.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The South of France!

There are so many places to visit here, ranging from coastal fishing villages to big cities to tiny mountain towns, that I had trouble deciding where to stay and what to do! I made a strategic decision to just stay in 2 places for 4 nights each rather than shorter stints like I'd done in Italy. This was meant to give my backpack toting shoulders a break and also to allow me to get a thorough impression of each place. It's worked out well so far, during my 4 nights in Nice I was able to do short side trips to Monaco, Vence, St. Paul de Vence and Cannes and still get a really good feel of Nice.

Monaco was exactly how you'd expect it to be - over-the-top luxurious, like Donald Trump is your bellboy and Jay Leno is your chauffeur kind of luxurious. The famous casino was very ornate, dripping in gold chandeliers, and I couldn't shake the feeling that at any moment I'd be discovered and promptly escorted out. I took the bus there which takes about an hour but is worth it because it follows the coastal cliffs the entire way and gives you a peak at each little coastal town. Unfortunately the bus back was packed and I couldn't get a seat but at least I didn't have to sit on the floor.

Vence and St. Paul de Vence were probably my favorite spots so far in France. I elected to visit them at the advice of two older Norwegian women whom I dined with one night and who said they were much more peaceful and picturesque than the more popular town of Eze. And they were so right. They're both small medieval villages set high up on the mountains and made entirely of stone. Each one is like a maze of cobbled streets and buildings, of course covered in vines and flowers (like everywhere in Europe), and you descend into these little caves of boutiques and restaurants. St. Paul resembles an old fortress and if I had to pick just one place for a quiet weekend away this would be it. Even with the other tourists milling about, you can hear the constant din of cicadas and the bubbling of nearby fountains all day long.

I stopped in Cannes earlier today while on my way to Marseille, my next big stop. I had to keep my backpack with me so I only endured about an hour in the heat but that seemed to be all one would need there. I saw where the film festival takes place, the port packed with luxury yachts the old town section and an imprint of Angelina Jolie's hands. What more could you want?

I didn't elect to take the boat trip to St. Tropez because P Diddy isn't in town until next week and what's the point without him? No, actually, I just didn't have time and it's so hot here it feels like you're on the beach all the time. I'm already tanner than a pair of leather cuff sandals just from walking around outside all the time.

On the food front, I actually had a really delicious sandwich the Cannes train station! It had super tangy goat cheese, garlicky roasted tomatoes and olive oil. Maybe I should dine at public transportation hubs more often.

In a totally unplanned coincidence, I'm going to be in France for Bastille Day! I'm excited to see what that entails!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Waiting, waiting, waiting"

In my head I've been singing this to the tune of the Dreidel song. All day long. First waiting for a shuttle, then a tram, then a train, then an Apple store appointment and now the train again. I know travel is supposed to be about the journey but this journey seems to flash from stressful! to waiting to crazy! to boring. This is the hard part of traveling alone. No one to share the burden of the stress and no one to fill the wait time with. The fun times of trying new foods, being on the beach or exploring new cities are easy to do alone and often easy to find a hostelmate to accompany. It's all the in-between times that are tough and that means I haven't really relaxed in a long time. I'm constantly on the lookout for danger and fighting my way through simple battles like finding the right bus stop. I will be so relieved one week from today when I meet up with Nathan in Ireland and will finally be able to take a breath. That all being said, I'm pretty proud of myself for how much I've accomplished on this trip given my solitude and my lack of language skills. I might just need a vacation to recover from this vacation, that's all.

So...France! That's where I'm at. I've been in Nice for the past two nights which is difficult to convey in print because the conversation usually goes like this -
"Where are you these days?"
"Nice, France"
"Where in France?"
"What's so nice about it?"

I would describe the city as kind of a cross between Miami and London. It has a really pretty old town district with narrow, winding alleyways that look like they're straight from the sets of Moulin Rouge. And of course the gorgeous blue Mediterranean water doesn't hurt the view. I have already mastered the public transportation system (I know how to take one line in one direction) and my language skills are superb. For some reason my French 1 course really stuck with me, well at least the fruit and vegetable lesson did, so I have lots of terribly useful phrases at my disposal, including "Ou est la pamplemousse?" ("Where is the grapefruit?") and "Zoot alors! Les haricots verts!" ("OMG! The green beans!").

My food goals for Nice were pissaladière and macarons. I've accomplished both and they were pretty good, nothing fantastic. I neglected to try the place with "the best macarons" because they were 20 EUROS each and that's just wrong. I paid 0.70 Euro/each for mine and that's a price I'm willing to pay for mediocrity.

Style alert! I apologize in advance because I thinks this trend is also happening stateside and I probably have some friends who are embracing it but WTF is up with these sandals with leather legcuffs?! Isn't the whole point of a sandal to let your legs and feet get air because it's HOT out? I don't think I've ever thought to myself, "Gosh, my toes are stifling hot but my calves are frigid. I could use some leather stockings right about now." Also, they're really unflattering. See: "prosthetic cankles."

Oh and if you're wondering how the Apple store appointment went, the great French Apple (aka Pomme) people confirmed that iLiana is dead as a doornail. And I wasn't going to pay 700 Euros to buy the 4G version just so you people could have photos in your blogposts. Welcome to mediocrity :)

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Five Lands

Cinque Terre is by far the worst place so far to not have my iPhone simply because it is so incredibly beautiful and I want to share it with everyone I know. Each of the 5 towns has its own character but they're all beautiful, old Italian villages built into the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I'm staying in Corniglia which is the most picturesque, most romantic (says the girl traveling by herself) and quietest, despite it being located in the middle of the others. Things start to get quiet[er] here around 9:00 even on the weekends. You can hear the sounds of insects and the waves breaking hundreds of feet below all day long. The air smells so...fertile? I'm not quite sure how to describe it other than a mix of flowers, dirt and ocean. Every direction you look, whether out at the enormous, uninterrupted seaviews or up at the colorful stucco cottages and the bright green terraced mountains, you're reminded of a postcard. People here don't put their cameras away - they just snap continuously all day long.

Now I know what everyone's waiting for - the food! Isn't the food amazing?! Like you've never had before?? Honestly, the food is great but nothing has stood out as OMGIwanttoeatthisuntilIdieandtheneatsomemore. I've had the requisite pizza, pasta and gelato out the wazoo but nothing has wowed me as being superior to the Italian food I grew up with in New York (shout out to Mama Marino's lasagna!). Maybe I'm just spoiled? But every place here offers basically the same things - tomato sauce, pesto sauce, caprese salad- and they're all good. The only thing I really dream about eating again (and probably will in a few hours) was vanilla frozen yogurt topped with fresh lemon juice, honey and nuts. Doesn't sound too exciting, huh? It was delicious though and their frozen yogurt here actually has the tang of yogurt unlike the vanilla ice creamy stuff we get in the States.

What I really miss are vegetables! They sell tons of fresh, local veggies at the markets here but their menus are strangely lacking. And I can't exactly roast them on the hostel's radiator so the market doesn't do me much good. I think I had hoped Italy would open my eyes (culinarily speaking) and maybe convince me to get back on the meat-eating wagon for good but it hasn't really. Sorry, guys. That being said, I'm heading to Bologna tomorrow and it's supposed to be a food mecca. I sure hope so!

Ciao for now!

Saturday, July 2, 2011


The dreaded day has arrived. The day when iLiana, my trusty iPhone, finally failed me. For the past 2 1/2 years she has been a faithful, though at times stubborn, servant and had served me so well on the first 2 1/2 weeks of my European adventure. Was it a coincidence that she failed me on the exact first day I was to travel solo? Somehow I think not.

I googled for answers on ways to repair her; I wandered the streets of Florence with tear-brimming eyes asking various electronic stores for help to no avail. She is positively dead. And I do not reach a city with an Apple store for another week. So until then, my blogposts are doomed to be exceptionally boring. I apologize and to make up for that fact, here are some random photos that survived the crash:

My first gelato in Florence! This was a combo of straciatella and hazelnut flavors.

Fake cats decoupaged to the walls of Academy Hostel in Florence. They scared me everytime I walked past them. Every. Single. Time.

Pasta vending machine at the hostel. Only in Italy.

Wine vending machine in hostel. See above.

The Pontevecchio bridge at sunset! This bridge is absolutely gorgeous. We watched a couple get engaged there just a few moments before.

So that's it! No more photos for [hopefully no longer than] a week. I sincerely apologize to my millions of dear readers out there. Let us pray that the French Apple store people can revive our long lost friend.