Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Virulently Vivid Venezia

Posted: 14 March 2011 in Europe, Italy

Venice is beautiful. Everything about it is romantic and awe inspiring, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Our first order of business in Venice was to wander aimlessly. It is the best city to just run around and do nothing. When we started to run our noses perked up. It was this unimaginably wonderful smell that wafted down from the heavens. Except in this case it was a crêperie right around the corner that made them right in front of us in seconds. I got mine with dark chocolate and powdered sugar and banana. It was to die for! We took time to thoroughly enjoy them while we sat on one of the canal stairwells. Do be careful though because you’ll be enticed by all of the gondoliers to take a ride. While picturesque and classic the gondola ride is also really expensive. If you’re backpacking, just take the regular ferry instead and have your friends sing to you.

When you waltz around you’ll notice masks. Masks by the thousands. On every street corner, lining every bridge. Carnival is big here, and a mask is an essential souvenir. If you’re thinking of spending around 10 Euro than grab a porcelain mask from any street vendor. It wont get much better, and they aren’t that bad. If you want to get a cloth and plaster mask that wraps nicely onto your face, expect to pay 40-50 Euro, and buy it from an indoor shop. Indoor shops typically house an artisan making the masks right in front of you. It is a testament to the quality of the artists, and it is pretty cool to watch. Once you’ve gone into a store and find one you like, just get it. We wanted to make sure to visit every single store … but discovered that the ones we had initially liked were the best, and there was no huge discrepancy with any of the other artisans. Clearly we could have saved at least an hour, and a frustrating “Wait … where were we?”

The flying rats of New York are the crême de la crême of the tourism market here. So head to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), whip out a euro, and buy your neighborhood pigeons some treats. You will be surprised out how fearless and eager these birds are. They wont hurt you and you can complain about the sanitation later. I highly recommend a video camera to capture your first attempt at getting the pigeons off the ground and onto your head.

It may sound obvious to go to the waterfront, but there are a few watery views that can’t be missed. The first is at the south end of town, where it opens up to the sea. Venice has a harbor like no other and is a great walk, lunch affair, or photo-op moment. The Rialto Bridge is fun to go over, under, and take photos upon. It is the largest and most tourist laden bridge, but a must do. If you happen to be taking the train in and out-of-town, be sure to look alive at the train station. Sitting on the steps of the station is an experience found nowhere else in Europe. It opens right onto the Grand Canal and lends itself to a leisurely afternoon of awe and interest. Wherever you do end up taking your much needed break, try the Spritz or the Bellini. Both drinks are classic Italian concoctions and both are a well deserved refreshment.

Treat yourself to a hotel. You will be surprised at the very reasonable rates even in the summertime. We stayed at the Hotel Bernardi, which had a great location, and a nice room. Although our bathroom was technically in the hall, it was still private, and these little perks will make any weary backpacker smile. 🙂


Not every trip goes as planned. Nor will it be seamless and without frustration or annoyance. I seemed to encounter all of these whilst in Rome. I know what you may be thinking “But it’s Rome?! The Colosseum?! Couldn’t you just die?!” Well in fact, I was ready to kill someone. Let me explain all the things that went wrong when I arrived in Roma and all the things you could do to avoid these pitfalls.

The mishaps:

Our train was late. Italian trains rarely run on time, and we didn’t arrive in the city until late at night. Thus the subways were closed. At least the one we were supposed to get on, so we got on the wrong subway. The bus we could have taken never arrived at the train station. After an hour of navigating Linea A vs. B vs. Bus, we settled for a cab.

The cab ride was a highlight. Partly because we passed the Spanish steps at night when they were picturesque and relatively people free. But we were tired and decided to head to the hostel. The Colors hostel was awful.  Small, overcrowded, and with only one fully functioning shower for thirty people! To top it off, all the restaurants were starting to close. Luckily we found a snack shop with amazing gelato! Congratulations Roma, you got gelato right 🙂

New morning. New day. Better day? Not so much. The Sistine Chapel was closed. So we went to St. Peter’s Basilica, not a total loss, just meant the St. P’s would be more crowded. Afterwards we stopped for an ok tasting lunch. Big mistake! Huge! Never, ever, ever eat by the Vatican. They charged us Vatican Tax! 40% on our meal! In case you are wondering there is no such thing as Vatican tax. And I knew it! Then I became one of those Americans… you know, the kind that throws a fit because they were trying to rip us off. And after they wouldn’t budge, they asked for a tip.

Luckily the Colosseum can hardly be disappointing. It was in fact the highlight for the day. The Spanish steps were a disappointment. There were so many people on them you could hardly see them, let alone walk up in a straight line. And I still couldn’t find a decent meal. Yes. In Rome I could find nothing I liked it, except for gelato. My pizza was burnt. Not crispy. Burnt. The wine was cheap and strong at the same time. They put meat on my tortellini. And I never had a redeeming slice of pizza.

How to save a trip from disaster:

A. Anticipate delays in travel, and have a fund specifically if you need to take cabs. Also estimate how much that cab might be. In Roma the cabs are 10-15 Euro if you are heading somewhere within the city. In Stockholm or London it can easily double or triple.

B. Read reviews for accommodations. Read all the bad ones and the good ones and look for intelligent reasons for why someone voted for or against.  Key components are cleanliness, space, facility upkeep, vicinity and friendliness of staff. No one wants a dirty, small, broken, off-the-beaten-path hostel with a bitchy staff.

C. If you are going to Italy during peak travel expect massive crowds. If you hate crowds go in the off-season.

D. Look up places to eat. Stopping in to eat anywhere can be hit or miss. If you have all week it is worth a gamble, but if you are only in town for a short time, look up where to go to ensure that you maximize your experience.

Florence is eye candy. The city itself is a work of art. It is the pinnacle of picturesque Italy that you’ve seen in movies and imagined in books. Every avenue and cove is an adventure onto itself. It is ideal for waltzing about with no particular agenda. It is obscenely close to Pisa, so if you happen to already be by the leaning tower, just hop the always arriving train for an hour and show up. Here are some ways to maximize the experience:

Visit the museums early. The Uffizi is Florence’s main museum, and houses The Birth of Venus. If you come in the afternoon, in the summer, expect to wait for hours for entry. If you come first thing in the morning, you are more likely to wait less than an hour. Off-peak travel is probably better still (though I was not fortunate enough to experience that…). After you’ve gotten your morning fix trot over to the Accademia. This is where you will find David. You don’t want to arrive too late in the day, because eventually they will cut off the line. Also be respectful about taking photos, because they will kick you to the curb. Buy a postcard. The photo will turn out better anyhow.  David itself is impressive. There is more thought and detail put into a single statue than I have ever seen. You can even see the veins. If he wasn’t unusually tall and pale, he could pass for a real person.

Stay at Hostel Archi Rossi. When we were in Nice we stayed at Les Camélias a 5th floor walk-up; snoring go-to-bed early roommates; bugs everywhere; toilet in the hall; small showers; and zero character. Archi Rossi was the first floor; a private villa in a courtyard; private lockers; beautiful design and more character than you’d know what to do with; no bugs; and Canadian roommates. Our overwhelmingly bad impression of hostels was washed clean by a much nicer and pleasurable experience.

Lastly like I mentioned before Florence is perfect for strolling. You really don’t even have to go into any buildings to see the art. Explore the bridges and alleyways, the river and the squares. And look alive because there are statues of naked people everywhere! And plenty of fantastic Italian food.

Pisa by dawn, pain by night.

Posted: 4 March 2011 in Europe, Italy

When we left Nice, we decided to take an overnight train to Pisa. We figured this was a great was to save money that would have been spent on a hostel or hotel for the night and “reclining seats” sounded perfectly acceptable. Here’s the problem: Italian trains suck. Yes, they do. We sat on a three person bench, which had a slide out seat, but no reclining back. The bench across from also sat three people and when both parties slid themselves forward our knees would collide. Needless to say, it was by far one of the most uncomfortable nights of sleep I have ever had. If you decide to go overnight on a train, I highly encourage you to book a couchette. Couchettes are bunk beds. You can lay flat and get a full night’s rest. The train to Amsterdam had reclining chairs, but since it was German and not Italian, they were more like cocoons that made it easy to rest. Much better than the first fleeting attempt at a Lazy-Boy, but not as good as our bunks to Munich.

Despite the awkwardly painful night–including scare tactics about being robbed in Genoa–It was certainly worth arriving to our next destination, Pisa, early in the morning.

I love Pisa for its simplicity. It is an unassuming town, with regular people, who just happen to have a legendary landmark in their midst. (I’m referring to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in case you grew up under a rock.) If you happen to arrive early in the morning, as we did (5:30 am to be exact….) you’ll be met with a crisp air and a serious lack of tourists. The good news is you will basically have private access to the grounds, and you can run around to take as many pictures as you want without having any strangers blocking your shot. The bad news is that the sun will be on the wrong side. That makes it more difficult to get the classic “look at me holding up this tower” photo. There is also a beautiful church to see on the grounds, and a nice coffee shop to take an easy morning at. It was the first time I ordered a cappuccino in Italy, and it was about the only Italian I spoke. It was great. Small. But not everywhere serves trentes!

Nice is nice? Pas bien sur.

Posted: 3 March 2011 in Europe, France

Be warned, Nice is an absolutely stunning city, the Mediterranean is breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s really painful and a bit dull. Yes, painful. First of all it takes a while to adjust to laying down on rocks. They are about the size of your fist, perfectly smooth, yet a little awkward at first. Sun bathing however is not the problem. The problem is getting out of the water unscathed. You don’t realize it from the beach, but it is actually quite a steep dip into the sea. Couple the steep slope and slippery wet stones that move around under your feet, and you are likely to have issues getting out of the sea. The water is very warm though, which is nice for a swim. It’s also an idyllic place if you want to lounge for hours, but if you are like me and want to feel more active, you’ll probably get restless easily (hence the dull comment).

Nighttime is a different story in Nice. The food is great, pretty much everywhere. Salad Niçoise is one of the more popular picks, though I went for the Margherita pizza, which was delicious. Nice has great clubs, we went to the MTV recommended Chez Wayne. At the time smoking in bars was encouraged, so I spent most of the night standing on the table with my face in the air-conditioning unit in order to clear the smoke out of my eyes! But the music was really great! We later went to Thor. A more low-key bar with less expensive beer. They served Stella and Amstel, both great choices if you are new to beer. They are light and smooth, and without an overpowering taste of hops.

I found that people were understood me easily when I spoke French, but they didn’t feel the need to make friends. Locals are also less than apt with directions. We were trying to find our hostel, and ended up not even two blocks away, when I stopped for directions. The man I talked to had never heard of the street. The street he worked two blocks away from. But we found it anyway, because we continued to walk on the same route.

Nice also has some great modern art, big open squares, lots of shopping. It’s a big attraction for tour groups, and cruise ships, so be warned. It will be crowded during the peak times of the year, and of the day. It is also home to the Matisse museum. This is a great way to discover that you do not like Matisse. It was also my first introduction to café’s with only a single waiter.

The Riviera is certainly a place everyone should visit. Bring your camera, and walk up to the clifftops, you’ll love the view. Just make sure you know you’ll be taking it easy when you stop there, and save your ziplining adventures for the next city.

It’s pronounced “Lester”, you know like Worcester is pronounced “Wooster.” No matter how much disdain you have for the spelling it wont take away from its AWESOMENESS! Leicester Square is basically party central! It has more clubs and bars than you know what to do with. Now if you’re by yourself, or with one other person, I highly recommend a pub crawl! Here is why a pub crawl is a good choice: A. It’s really easy to meet people, because once you’ve left the first bar, you know who you’ll be surrounded by the rest of the night. B. You get VIP access to every bar or club they decide to take you to. C. Most importantly you get free or discounted drinks. This is key! Because you can either spend $15 for the pub crawl, and most likely another $15 for drinks. Or you’ll end up paying cover charges, waiting in lines, and spending full price on each drink. So it could be as much as $100 vs. $30.  (And yes I converted it out of pounds for you).

So here’s where we went:

The first bar hardly counts. It was more of a meeting place. Get your wristband, hang out. If you get there early, you’ll have time to mill about if you need to get some quick cash or a snack. But don’t stray too far, you want to be there for all the good stuff.

Stop two: Verve. This was nice, because we had all just become acquainted, and Verve has very little to distract you from being social. It’s a well to do crowd that loves red lighting. The bar is hip and modern, playing popular music, with reasonable staff.

Stop Three: Ruby Blue. This bar was strangely shaped. We stayed near the entrance, because there was a lot of space. However, we realized the bartenders constantly had to run by us. The bar was also very short. It was more of a lounge place. Which made it inconvenient to grab drinks or talk to the bar tenders. They did have nice cider though. And it was quiet enough that you could almost hear each other.

Stop Four: Oxygen. This place was more rustic, with some really interesting shots. People were trying all kind of crazy things. I tried taquilla with tabasco sauce. It was kind of wild. But I would probably never have one again. At this point in the night, people started trying to use the restrooms, which was a mistake. Since there was only one stall, and a lot of patrons, people started peeing in the sink. So plan on not being able to wash your hands….

Stop Five: Zoo Bar. This was a great place to end the night. Their shots are very sweet tasting, like lemon drops and kamikazes and such. More importantly there was a big dance floor downstairs. It had a very techno vibe to it, with lots of light effects. This is the best kind of club dancing, because no one can really see you being ridiculous. Unfortunately there was no where to put your belongings.

A couple of tips. There are lots of people promoting their clubs. So if you get separated, just keep track of where your party was heading. Then keep your ears open until you run across the club promoter for where you need to be. They aren’t always a fan of being your chauffeur, but it makes navigating a cinch.  And keep a good eye on your belongings. If you happen to lose a wallet *cough*… odds are no one really wants your cards, just the cash. So check back later to see if its been returned. And if you want to budget for a taxi to take you home, that’s not a bad idea either. The tube closes this late at night, and walking will certainly be tiring.

Standing room is for kids!

Posted: 13 December 2010 in Europe, Sweden

I love hockey. I really do. I used to root against the Rangers, but since MSG is the only hockey-playing-channel I have, they eventually grew on me. So clearly when I head to Sweden and run into hockey fans, it becomes apparent that I need to make my way to a game. It just so happened there was a game to see in Stockholm our second weekend there. I’m used to sporting events costing a pretty penny, but these tickets were only $30! And they were prime location. Granted the arena is a lil smaller than Madison Square Garden, but that’s ok.

So here’s where it gets interesting. When I went to buy the tickets there was a section called “Active Seating.” It is designed for young, really excited fans, who want to stand, cheer, and sing, for three straight hours! Not kidding. We decided sitting down was ok for us. The little people (children) could stand in our spirit. They also warned non-fans, or people who supported the other team, should avoid this section. Now… knowing what happens at Raider’s games, I was convinced if we were found out as newbies to this game, we would probably get stabbed. Then I remembered, it’s Sweden so I’d probably be ok or at least end up with a small hospital tab.

Getting to the event was a task. Only because up to this point we had not taken the subway. The subway takes a minute to figure out. But we left with plenty of time, and we only circled the station for about ten minutes. Once we got on the train, it took all of ten minutes and we had arrived. Needless to say, getting home was cake. Once at the game, before they opened the arena doors, you could get souvenirs and hang at the bar. You know, the usual stuff. And the bar was actually pretty nice. It even came with bouncers. We weren’t entirely sure why they had bouncers… my mind wandered back to stabbings.

Now when they say that you’ll end up standing in the active seating for the entire game. They aren’t kidding. No, no, they stand. They sing too. There seems to be a fight song for every kind of play. There is also a cover of all major pop songs to be used as creative fight songs as well. All in all, it was kind of awesome. It’s certainly an experience. So when you go Stockholm, you should definitely keep a hockey game high on the list. Did I mention kids are free?