Nothing makes me happier than being surrounded by family, friends and food. So when my birthday was coming up, I knew that I wanted to do just that. Since my sister would be in town, I wanted something intimate, not too expensive or labor intensive, that would allow us to really enjoy our guests.Read More
One year ago today... Burning Man.
And so it begins, the journey to find yourself by losing yourself, in self.
Although packing and preparing for Burning Man took months and months, the decision to go came pretty easy. As simple as 'they're going, we should go' and the serious struggle of trying to lock down some tickets.
80,000 burners furiously trying to get their hands on 40,000 tickets, so they can return home, to be one with the dust.
Prep phase, read everything you can about what to bring, what not to bring, how to survive. Read nothing at all about 'the experience, what you'll come away with', because these are the moments that you get to define yourself.
Great resources: burningman.org and a subscription to jackrabbit.burningman.com
Ever remembered a place that you've been, years ago, and realized that you only remember the portions that you've re-seen in photographs? Someone told me once that that's the way the brain works, when we remember something - we aren't remembering it for the first time, but rather remembering the last time we remembered it.
I like to believe that new memories work the same way, if you go into a new experience with an idea of how it will play out, and what the outcome will be, you're almost certain to make that true.
If you go in, with some knowledge and an open mind, the possibilities are endless.
Perhaps the reason I enjoyed my first burn so much, was because as a designer, I've always loved anything I can interact with. And that's what Burning Man was for me, one giant interaction with people and sculptures and art installations and mutant vehicles. Everything demands to be seen, to be felt, to be held, to be climbed on. In a temple full of other people, their thoughts and their memories, you're able to be completely alone. In a crowd of 80,000 people awaiting the same flames, you're able to speak personally to a giant pile of sticks. In a tent filled with pillows and yogis, you can write a letter to the universe, telling it everything you've ever wanted to share.
No wonder they say this place is magic.
If you've never been to cinque terre, stop everything, quit your job and buy a plane ticket. I won't claim to have seen it all, but I will say with complete certainty that cinque terre, is one of the most gorgeous and unique places in the entire world.Read More
Hurry! The island is sinking, and if you wait any longer it won't even be there for you to go explore. At least that's what I told myself. The rumors are true, Venice is sinking, but the city is still very much alive, dealing with its issues, just like every other city in the world. Yes, it's expensive, and was quite out of the way on our journey but I had to see it, I just had to!
We stayed in an apartment outside of Venice, Via Col Moschin in Mestre, just across the bridge from the city center and near the train station. The cost difference between being on the island and just outside was huge, and since we were only there two days we look the bus in the morning and evening and spent our days touring the island.
I like to think I have a wonderful sense of direction. I get my 'Shami senses' from my dad and can almost always find my way back somewhere after just the first time of being three . I can find my way home simply by following my nose, and I rarely, very rarely get lost. All of that logic went to the wind in Venice. Venusian, as the Italians call it, is made up of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by bridges. It is located in the marshy Ventian Lagoon which stretches between the Po and Piave Rivers. The commune is divided into 6 boroughs and the Sestieri or historic city is made up of 6 small cities: Cannaregio, San Polo, Dorsoduro, Santa Croce, San Marco and Castello. Brandon and I agreed to explore the islands on our own for a bit of private time, and after buying him a 3 euro map, I joined a walking tour and we agreed to meet up at the well we started at around 3pm. Every walking tour we had taken up until this point had been about 2 hours and roamed the city in a circlular fashion before returning to the starting point. I should have known this wouldn't be the case in the twisted city of Venice.
We toured the city, first stopping at the famous Ponte do Rialto, overlooking the Grand Canal and finishing at Saint Marks Basilica in Piazza San Marco. Our guide was knowledgeable and adorable and taught us not only the history of the famed city but also a bit about its current polical standing. All in all, a wonderful tour. As we stood at the foot of the Basilica, watching the tourists feeding the pigeons and talking photos covered shoulder to shoulder in birds, I asked someone for the time.
"Quarter to three" they said, as my face flushed red and I realized I was 45 minutes late in meeting the only other person I know on this continent. "Excuse me!" I frantically called to the guide. "Are we almost back at the starting point? I have to meet my friend." She smiled as she told me this tour did not end at the starting point, and we still had 30 minutes more left in the tour. I asked for directions, and after some very confusing pointed and explaining, I thanked her, gave her my tip, and started running. For anyone that knows me, there are few things I hate more than running. In college, my boyfriend thought my running style so hysterical, he would run ahead of me on the track so he could turn around, run backwards, and watch me as my arms flail in no particular sync with my legs and faster than my actual speed. Still, what I hate more than running, is when people are late. It seems like a blatant disrespect for the other persons time, and I didn't want to be the one wasting anyone's time. So, I ran. Through the small crowded corridors packed with people, into every possible dead end, or street that just ended in a canal. I ran past ice cream stores, and Ferrari shops. I followed the river as best I could, and looked for any opportunity to cross a bridge to the other side. When I thought I had finally found my way over, I ran straight into a restaurant and nearly ended up in the water. I backtracked a bit, finally found my way, and just as I was about to give up, I emerged in a familiar quarter, and there he was, just where I left him. After a weekend of useless arguments a solo day to cleanse the feelers, I had never been so happy to see a familiar face.
"Sorry I'm late" I said as a haulted my jog and huffed out a sigh of relief, "Did you know not all the walking tours end where they start."
We stopped at a grocery mart on the way home, grabbed some juice box wine for the train and ended our Venice adventure on a positive note.
Bari to Dubrovnik: We knew getting from Italy to Croatia was going to be a struggle, but we didn't realize that we were attempting to tour Croatia at the very, very end of the season. Or that being out of season meant that everything was actually closed. But, we were about to find out. We took a bus from Naples to Salerno, a train from Salerno to Bari (on the east coast of Italy) and a $100 ferry on Jadrolinija Ferries from Bari, Italy to Dubrovnik, Croatia. Go ahead and say Jadrolinija 5 times fast. The bus and train situation went relatively smoothly. We followed the crowds and the small printer paper on the bus that told us we were headed in the right direction and had to run a little bit to not miss each one, but we made it to Bari with time to spare. A lot of time to spare. When we arrived it was light out so we walked around the town and figured we'd see what Bari had to offer. I don't want to show my ignorance too much here, but it's not a whole lot. We tried to find something to eat for hours, we walked up and down streets that were covered in Gucci and H&M, but not one restaurant. We sat in a park for a bit to catch our breathe and when we finally decided to just eat at the first place we saw, the universe spoke and we came across ANOTHER gyros shop. What is the deal!? Is this the only thing they eat in Europe? Brandon, happy as a clam, ordered his 5 Euros dinner, as I hangerly pouted in the corner and refused to eat another gyros. We continued on walking and finally came across a small chinese restaurant that looked closed, but agreed to serve us. Thankfully two couples soon joined and it felt less like we were about to get murdered.
As we wrapped up dinner, it was already dark and we had no idea where our ferry was leaving from so we walked towards the water, looking for a port. We were really far, but eventually we made it through the entrance, into the lines of the ferry, took the shuttle to the building where we had to get our tickets, a mile away, then back to the boat, and on to the giant ship. I don't think Brandon had ever been on a cruise before, and I've only been on one as a child, where our 5 family members all crammed into a room the size of my closet, with beds that folded down from the wall.This one wasn't much better but it was our home for the night, so there was no sense in complaining. We drank some wine with the guests, I took some sleeping pills and woke up in a different world. B woke me up around 6am, and said we were about 30 minutes from docking, so we went up to the deck and watched the sun rise over Dubrovnik.
So, we're here, but we have no idea where our apartment is. We went and had lunch and stole some wifi but realized we didn't exactly have the address of where we were staying. We had booked an in-law unit with an old couple that were adorable but didn't speak a lick of english. Our maps we're still in Bari and wouldn't load Dubrovnik so we couldn't see the star where we had dropped a pin. I remembered it's general place on the map, and we we're pretty much out of options so I just told Brandon to follow me and started walking in that general direction. Don't ask me how, but I followed my Shami senses and after walking through a small alley way, and up some stairs, through a school, I suddenly noticed we were on our street! Hallelujah. The home we stayed in belonged to an adorable couple, but unfortunately, that was the only good thing about it. We were meant to stay here two nights, but they were doing construction right outside our room, we had no wifi to research or book our next few days, and the sheets..were wet. Like damp, and wouldn't dry. It was hard to sleep and mostly just uncomfortable. So we paid, and bolted.
But not before spending the day walking through the Old City of Dubrovnik. "The 'Pearl of the Adriatic', situated on the Dalmatian coast, became an important Mediterranean sea power from the 13th century onwards. Although severely damaged by an earthquake in 1667, Dubrovnik managed to preserve its beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains. Damaged again in the 1990s by armed conflict, it is now the focus of a major restoration programme co-ordinated by UNESCO." For us, it was as simple as the fact that we'd filled our hours on the train with season 1 of Game of Thrones, and could not WAIT to walk through King's Landing. We stopped for ice cream, watched an epic sunset, and some crazy people jumping from rocks, and snuck through the old city walls where we had nice dinner before turning in for the night. I remember passing the church where the 'red wedding' from Season 4 was filmed, and having no idea what that meant, but I couldn't wait to find out. I also remember the sandwich sign outside the restaurant that said in huge letter "FREE WIFI" and just underneath in very small type... "just kidding...you might actually have to speak to each other". I love you Dubrovnik, I'll be back.
The year before, for my birthday, I had received a book called Gypset Travel by Julia Chaplin. Among the beautiful pages filled with her travel adventures were inspiration about taking the road less traveled. She spoke of her summers in Montauk, and the way things used to be, before everything was a Instagram opportunity. While planning this trip, it was really important to me to incorporate some of that attitude. As much as I wanted to stand under the eiffel tower, or see the London eye, I also was looking for a little quiet, some clarity, to make sense of it all. That's what I found in Otok Mljet.
We took a Ferry to the island of Mljet, just off the coast of Dubrovnik. The town we were staying in was named Polače, which is also the name of the street. That's right, there's only one. Polače is a village, and a port, in the western part of the northern coast of Mljet. It has just over one hundreds permanent residents. It has a couple of restaurants and cafes, as well as one super market. Well, maybe just a market. We only spent one night here, and one full day, but it was enjoyable. So relaxing. Some moments, I forgot there were another 98 people on the island. We ate dinner at the one restaurant down the street from our house, with the other 5 people who were out that night, as they explained that we were there on the very last night of the season and tomorrow they would be closing until the new year. As luck would have it. Every time we walked past someone we thought, they must all know each other, so they're just wondering who we are. The place we were staying was a families guest house, it had a small patio and an incredible rooftop, I've never seen so many stars in my whole life.
In the morning we walked to the ancient ruins that dominate the village, and hiked through the park until we found what we deemed as our own private beach. The water was so clear, the boats reflections mirrored underneath them. We watched schools of fish swim around, ate our salami sandwiches and took Julia's advice, to get off the beaten path once in a while.
Unfortunately, we couldn't stay in this fantasy forever, and before we knew it it was time to take the ferry back to Dubrovnik and the bus up to Split. Did you know you have to drive through Bosnia to get there? Did you know Bosnia is now called Bosnia and Herzegovina. Me neither. Split was gorgeous, the water was equally clear, and it was also very much a port city. We spent a day at the beach, drank some beers and took long walks around the island. It was hard to imagine that these beach cities that were relatively bare at this time of year, were the same, covered in a sea of people during Yacht Week, just a couple months prior.
From Split we went onto Hvar, and spent a few days in the rain, but somehow it didn't bother me. It was a nice change. I took a solo hike one day, up through the cities small streets, and passed every color door you could imagine. At one point, I found signs leading to the fortress. I met a little girl, dressed head to toe in pink and sparkles and her matching backpack told me she was on her way home from school. As I climbed up the maze of streets, we played a little hide and seek. Every few turns, I'd lose her, and then find her again. Finally, I reached a long stretch of stairs, and she joined me on my walk. She didn't speak a word of english, but she didn't seem to mind. We walked together and she told me - something. Maybe how her day had gone, maybe where she lived, maybe that she didn't understand a word I was saying. But it didn't matter. We walked together, and when we parted ways, she ran back and gave me the biggest hug. I like to think we became good friends.
I reached the top of the mountain, and entered the fortress, just as the storm broke. The clouds parted and I watched the sun set, over a sea of small islands, in Croatia. The world is such a beautiful place.
The next couple days went by like a dream. Traveling through the south of Italy is something you're not supposed to experience until your honeymoon. Honestly, sometimes I fear that not even my honeymoon will compare to how incredible the experience was.
From Rome, we took trenitalia to Naples, where we exited the train station and eagerly looked for pizza. But, were terrified by how dirty and sketchy the neighborhood we were in seemed, and re-entered the train station quite quickly. Train from Rome to Naples, $16.49, Train from Naples to Sorrento $5.07. Pasta in the train car that served food and alcohol $6.71. Woo, killin' it on the budget!
We arrived at Porto Salvo in the dark and the train station we were at seemed closed. There was a small window that looked as if a worker would either sell you some movie tickets or perhaps provide you with a map, neither of which we're going to happen tonight, as he was safely at home in bed. We had a minor panic as the station we got dropped of at was a few miles from where we were staying. But decided the best thing to do, was to start walking. So, we walked towards the noise until we found a bustling little street, which happened to be the center of downtown. The city of Sorrento is quite magical, the small streets are covered with street vendors selling all your favorite Italian delights, restaurants with open patios welcoming you in for 'just one drink', and gelato on literally every corner. Although we were tired, and carrying our backpacks, we walked around for a bit and got acquainted with our new home. In a small alley, behind the main road, we found a pizza place and each ordered a whole pie for dinner.We sat down on some benches and just watched as people walked back and forth, coming and going from their evening plans. It was at this moment that I decided, this is the place I'm going to retire. I could have that little shop, with a nice big pizza oven, and come out here every night and watch the tourists. My dad would love this.
I'm not quite sure how we found our way home. I think after walking past cell phone shops enough times, we connected to some free wifi and screen-shotted the map. Little did we know at the time, we'd be doing this walk quite a few times over the next few days. We arrived at Porto Salvo (Purple Bed & Breakfast) in the dark and we're escorted to our room. This was the first hostel we stayed in that was literally...just a room. "The bathroom is in the hallway; we all share", the gentleman told us, as if that was a totally normal thing. Our room had a sink and a large closet, and enough room between the bed and the wall for just our two pairs of shoes. We thanked him and went to bed, knowing we had a big day ahead.
When we woke up in the morning we realized just how incredible our hostel choice was. The small window in the corner of our room actually overlooked their large backyard, an apple orchard. Dogs and kids ran around screaming as two men stood on ladders trying to bring down the fruit, but still it was beautiful. Just ahead of us was what looked like a large acacia tree, perfectly positioned so the sunrise shone through it's branches, and a large cruise ship sat in the harbor.
We used Sorrento as a home base and explored much of the southern coast over the next few days.
Day 2, we took the intercity train to Pompeii, where we listened to a Rick Steves podcast as we walked the streets of the forgotten city, and relived the horror these people faced as Mount Vesuvius engulfed their lives on what seemed like just another day. After a few hours of touring the grounds, we grabbed lunch just outside the city, on a beautiful patio, with some delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice and grilled panini's. One month in and we might be feeling a little too comfortable with each other at this point. Why are you licking my face?!
When we got back to Sorrento, I went for a solo walk down the cliffs and explored what Sorrento really had to offer, at sunset nonetheless. I met some fellow solo walkers and we smiled as we passed each other, knowing that we were both in awe of the beauty that was set forth before us.
I checked a few menus of nearby restaurants and went back to the hostel to request Brandon's assistance in choosing one. Most nights we ate street food or cooked for ourselves to save money, so in each city we allowed ourselves one nice meal. We had no idea what we were in for this time around. The restaurant we chose posted their menu up on the street and after walking down a long driveway, and into what seemed like a YMCA, we took an elevator with the maitre d' and the cutest little girl I've ever seen, down...and further down. As the doors opened and we entered the restaurant, we realized we we're actually below the cliffs I had just walked through above, on a large patio, overlooking the port. We sat down and looked over the menu and decided, hey, we work hard, and sometimes we deserve to be spoiled. Save and splurge, right? That's why we're here. So we went big. We ordered a bottle of white wine, which they brought table side in one of those fancy ice buckets. We started with some ricotta stuffed squash blossoms, and ate all the free bread our hearts desired as we waited on our swordfish.
It took a little longer than expected but we were enjoying our time so we just kept drinking and eating the free bread. The moment the man started walking out with a cart and stared me straight in the eye, was the first moment the thought crossed my mind that the price we had seen in the menu, was maybe not the real price of the dish. Here we were, thinking we were being economical by sharing, when really we had just seen the cost (per pound).
Nothing we can do about it now, except watch in fascination as this gorgeous Italian man, prepared our dinner for us, table side. Until this point, I held strong to my denial that traveling through Europe with my best friend would not intensify the feelings I had so successfully suppressed. But alas, here I was, at what was sure to be the most romantic date I've ever been on, with the only person in the world that loves food as much as me. Good work, Stephanie.
As we strolled home, we stopped for a bottle of wine, sat down on a bench over looking the cliffside, and just talked; you know, about space and stuff.
Day 3: We spent the morning running errands, walked back downtown and found a place to do laundry. Bought some shampoo and conditioner and macaroni au four, just like Nonna makes it. Thinking we were going to Capri today, we packed our day packs and stood at the bus station, for hours. We must have watched 30 buses pass us, before someone told us, "they don't always come." Fair enough, Capri tomorrow. So, we bought a few bottles of wine, and spent the day in bed, watching Seinfeld, and dancing to taylor swift. Can't all our days be just like this?
Day 4: The island of Capri, an expensive ferry and some seriously sketchy bus rides but views worth every dime. Upon arriving at the port, we received a map of the island and tried to decide where we should start, and how much we could see in a single day. Staying on the island was so expensive so we knew we had to see as much as we could before the last ferry departed to take us home to Sorrento. As I tried to navigate, Brandon played paparazzi with the asian couple, that seemed to be having their own private photo shoot. We walked around the beaches on the shore before walking up small streets and millions of stairs to the centro, or center of town.
We had lunch in town and wandered through the shops before taking a bus, that drove way too fast on very small winding roads, to the top of the island, Anacapri. I'm still unclear how, but I convinced Brandon it was a good idea to take a seemingly unsafe chairlift to the top of the island. This, from the man that was scared of walking across a bridge made entirely of stone. And he was about to get scooped up by a 100 year old, rickety chair lift. Here goes. We stood in line, and I did not say one word, knowing that now was not a time for jokes, if I wanted him to go through with this. The weather was a bit overcast and we we're two white folks in a sea of maybe 200 asians traveling together with selfie sticks, but what an incredible experience it was. We took photos of each other back and forth from our chair lifts, and a million photos of the ground, as we got higher and higher into the clouds. Once we reached the top, we had views of the entire island on every side. B! Take my pictuuuure! The wind struggle was so real.
Spoiler Alert: we made it, and we didn't die. We took the bus and ferry back to Sorrento and packed up as we got ready for a quick stop on the Amalfi coast.
Day 5: Oh man, we're going to have to take a bus today. Not just any bus, an overcrowded, un air-conditioned bus, way too close to the edge of the cliff-sides between Sorrento and Amalfi bus. As we sat in the staircase, because there were no open seats, clutching our backpacks and each other for dear life, I started to feel sick. I remember Brandon being upset that I hadn't warned him of my motion sickness before our trip. As if he was somehow suffering with me. We made it through Positano and over to Amalfi, where we walked around for a bit before grabbing some lunch and sitting down, on the steps of the church in the center of town and eating our first meal of the day.
Brandon booked this one, so he took the reigns, we met our host Enrico at his men's clothing store, where he gave us the keys to the apartment and pointed in the general direction we were supposed to go, while spouting off vague directions, in the likes of, "go up the stairs until there are no more stairs, right, then left, past the big table and when you see the big door, you push, past the big table again, and on the left you find the stairs to your place, inside." Sure thing Enrico, we'll be right back. We're doing to pretend we understood anything you just said and we'll be back in about 5 minutes so you can come and show us to our door. Thanks!
We spent one full day in Amalfi, on the beach, and swimming. We shared two bottles of wine and lunch, which were all hard to come by, since everything closed during siesta. Siesta? These are our prime drinking hours! We don't own a cork screw, shoot. As Brandon went back up into town to try and buy us a cork screw and another bottle of wine, I took a little nap on the sand. I was rudely awakened by the shadow of someone standing over me. I was a bit startled but opened my eyes and asked, "yes, can I help you?" This boy, who could not have been over 20, sat down next to me and made himself at home over the next 20 minutes as he inquired about my life. "Do you have a boyfriend? Is he here with you? Do you have a boyfriend in the states? Do you want a boyfriend in Italy?" He then told me about how he just worked at the hotel to make some extra pocket money, but he had 3 homes in the south of Italy, and if I were to be his girlfriend he would let me live in all of them. Sweet deal! But really, can you leave so that I can get back to my nap? What could Brandon be doing that is taking this long? He probably forgot about the wine, and found some girl to flirt with that we'll never see again. This would be a wonderful time to show up, and also pretend to be madly in love with me. Queue friend. Nothing. The Italian boy eventually left, and Brandon returned, with two bottles of wine and a cork screw. Back on track. We finished the day with a drunken stumble up through the streets of Amalfi, into a mom and pop shop, where we bought some pasta and sauce, and returned to our little apartment to make our dinner. Brandon passed out around 7pm and in his sleep, asked me 'if I thought Tupac had ever been to Italy, because if he had, he probably would have rapped about it, and he doesn't rap about Italy in any of his songs.'
I'm about to take a large man who fears heights and small spaces on a 20 person plane from Budapest to Rome. Wish us luck! It's Thursday night and it's the first time either of us have traveled via one of these small inter-European airlines. They're very tricky. At first you think you're getting some kind of amazing deal, flying across multiple countries for 11 Euros, but wait, you haven't paid for your bag, or your seat, or the space above your head or below your feet. I'm exaggerating but that is pretty much how it works. By the time you tack on all the taxes and fees associated with your flight, those 11 Euros have multiplied into maybe 60-70 Euros. Still, not a bad deal, but an important travel lesson to learn. Budapest to Rome was our first stint that wasn't attainable by train. Bring on RyanAir Flight FR9417.
I had been to Rome once before, but not in many years and was eager to experience it as an adult, and not an uninterested adolescent being forced on amazing adventures with her family. This one would be quick though. We had to be in Sorrento by Saturday which only really gave us a day and a half to explore a city with an immense amount of history and culture.
When we landed in Rome, there were about 80 college students sitting on the floor of a very small room in the airport, seemingly waiting for whatever we were waiting for; the bus. The next one won't come for an hour so I get in line behind the other 10 people who are also waiting for the one employee to serve them some caffeine. When our bus arrives at the train station it's pretty run down, it's late at night and there are a lot of homeless people and beggers. As someone who started traveling back to Egypt alone at a very young age, I like to think that my intuition for dangerous situations is pretty spot on. So, this is the moment where my ears perk up, I hold on to my passport and wallet a little tighter and I'm very eager to figure out how to get home. We follow the crowd into the parking lot and are standing between a line of taxis and a bus depot. We walk around the train station quickly looking for a schedule, map or something to help guide us to our home for the night. At this point we've been traveling for most of the day, we're tired and we're hungry.
Brandon wants to get food, I want to get home, but we walk across the street and get some Shawarma for dinner. It's funny, only because through the course of this trip - whenever we've had a really hard time finding a place to eat, I've insisted we keep looking and somehow a Shawarma place has appeared out of the heavens like White Castle at the end of Harold and Kumar. Needless to say, I was not amused but agreed, because I wanted to get home. We get food relatively quickly and as we're walking across the street, we see a bus leaving the depot. We walk to it's sign to see when the next one will arrive and realize it's the last bus of the night...and we're stranded. Queue the first travel fight. My sister will attest to this, because we've traveled together before and because she's known me my whole life - if I am yelling at you at the top of my lungs and saying hurtful things, it's just an argument and I don't mean it, and in a few moments it will be over and the issue will be resolved. When you really need to worry, is when I've gone completely silent, not interested in working it out. This was, the quietest cab ride home, in the history of all cab rides.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Our stay in Rome was also pretty unique. We found a room in an apartment through airbnb, where a woman names Mirta hosted guests coming and going. She provided us with towels and hot water and tea, as most airbnb hosts did. But more importantly, she took the time to create a map/itinerary for her guests. On this small, fold-able paper was a city map, stating where the top 10 most visited attractions we're located, in comparison to us. And the schedules of the buses that would take us to each. Backpacking GOLD here people. We were very grateful.
We woke up very early, and went across the street to the Tabac store to buy some bus passes and we were off on our quickest adventure yet. First stop: Foro Romano. One of the favorite parts of this Euro trip was coming across places I had been with my family as a child. There is this unexplainable feeling, deep in your gut, triggered by familiarity in your surroundings that tells you you're getting close to a memory. Not as popular as the Colosseum (but located nearby), some say the Roman Forum is more interesting, and FREE! The Roman Forum is comprised of much of Ancient Rome's most important structures. The interesting part about Rome, much like Athens, is that the ruins are in the center of town. They have been preserved in small sections, and through the years, as industrialization has happened, the city has been build up around them.
After a quick mozzarella and tomato panini, we entered the Colosseum. We opted out of the tour because we were on our own schedule, but often ran into groups standing near by and listening in to catch some historical explanation of what we were witnessing. The massive stone amphitheater was commissioned around A.D. 70-72 by Emperor Vespasian as a gift to the Roman people. When it opened, officially known as a the Flavian Amphitheater, it hosted 100 days of games, including gladiatorial combats and animal fights. After four centuries of active use, the arena fell to neglect, and up until the 18th century it was used as a source of building materials. We walked up an down the maze of entries and exits, exploring each crevasse, and trying to make our way to higher ground to get some sweet touristy pictures for our instagrams. We used Brandon's height as a measure to show how large or small the doorways were. Small love locks and graffiti covering the walls throughout the ground floor. And as we both explored, we'd lose each other and end up running into a familiar face on the other side of a wall. After what seemed like hours of exploring, and hundreds of photos, we made a quick stop in the gift shop, posed with my dads favorite comic 'Asterix', bought out moms some post cards, and followed the crowd up a cobble stone hill. We didn't realize at the time but the Roma Pass we had purchased to enter the Colosseum also granted us access to Palatine Hill, one of seven hills of Rome, and one of the most ancient parts of the cities. It stands 40 meters above the Roman Forum, looking down upon it on one side and Circus Maximus on the other. The Palatine Hill is littered with ruins from ancient palaces and other buildings; among them the Palace of Domitian, House of Augustus, the Temple of Apollo and the Temple of Cybele. At the north-west end of the Palatine Hill are the ruins of the palace of Tiberius, one of the first botanical gardens in Europe. The garden was connected to the Roman Forum via several flights of stairs.
I wish I had a fit bit back then because we must have walked over 10 miles that day. After the Colosseum, we wanted to walk to the Pantheon. According to Google it's a 22 minute walk, about 1.8 km via dei Fori Imperiali. It even looks like a pretty straight line on the map, but I guess that is if you have internet, a smart phone, and straight streets, all of which we were lacking. So, after a very squiggly, round about, way of walking in the completely wrong direction, and a pit stop for the piatto del giorno, and some white wine at Pasta e Pizza, we stumbled into Piazza Navona. Not at all the landmark we were looking for, or thought we were walking towards, but Hey! it was gorgeous. The most important part of traveling is being nimble and adaptive to change. So, we adapted, we walked through the square, admired the fountains, took photos under the piazza signs and even chased a pigeon or two, all while dodging the men aggressively selling selfie sticks and fake Gucci bags. Piazza Navona is built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, built in the 1st century AD, it houses the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the four rivers) with an Egyptian obelisk in the center. Naturally, I felt right at home.
Knowing that our map was pretty useless at this point, we attempted to follow the signage on the buildings and the people in the street. And we finally found the Pantheon. Being lost, on a hot day, with a pretty bad cold makes for high temperament and exaggerated emotions. Brandon and I had had quite enough of each other at this point, we're tired of being lost, and we're too hot to have a rash conversation. When we reached the Pantheon, we went our separate ways and explored the area on our own.
Initially, I wanted to take this trip alone. 72 days of solo travel, planning and exploring and learning, on my own. I thought it would teach me something about myself that I didn't already know, challenge me in some way, help me to grow and be more self-aware. What I didn't account for, was that traveling with another human being, even your best friend in the entire world, is equally, if not more challenging. You're not just responsible for yourself, you're responsible for another person. The only person in fact, in the entire country, that knows your whereabouts, what your face looks like, and is conscious of your feelings at the time. That is a lot of pressure, and a lot to ask of someone. More often than not, I think I took this for granted. On this day especially, where I actually had to separate myself from my travel partner, I became very aware of how enjoyable it was to have him around. I really loved having someone to share all of these new experiences with, someone to reminisce about the memories with later.
As a sat in the pews of the Pantheon, I closed my eyes and I prayed. I'm definitely not a very religious person, but as a child I traveled a lot with my grandma, one of the most intelligent people that I know, and she taught me that every time you entered a new church, you should bow down onto one knee, touch your forehead and both shoulders in the name of 'le père le fils et le saint d'esprit', and that with your prayer you're allowed one wish. If my grandma said it, it must be true. So I sat, and I prayed, and I used my one wish - please let me find my travel partner, and find my way home.
We did find each other, and although most of our afternoon would be spent still in the heat, lost, wandering around - the moments I will remember about this day are definitely the resolutions over the arguments. I really wanted to see the Fontana di Trevi. I remembered it from my trip back in 2007 and it's grand allure, and I was eager to show Brandon one of my favorite parts of Rome. We were so close to it, we walked and walked and walked, went back and forth through small streets, stumbled upon a marketplace where I bought myself a nice ring, and a snack. And still, we couldn't find it. We walked for what seemed like hours, miles, and around monuments I was sure were not at all important or what we were looking for. Finally we walked through a small alley, stopped to make up over a cup of Gelato (the man knows the way to my heart is through my stomach) and down a large stair case, there it was. La Fontana di Trevi! or Trevi Fountain was designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi, its the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world. Unfortunately, on this particular day, it was under construction, completed draped off and unattainable by the public. The city had built a bridge you could traverse to see a small portion of it that had not yet been covered, and there were thousands of people in line to see that small square. Welp, ya win some you lose some. On to the next.
We had a wonderful Italian dinner together. Prosciutto pizza, a calzone, beer, limoncello and a small patio overlooking the moon. Our waiter made a nice joke about us needing a table for 3 because Brandon was going to eat enough for two, and we countered asking if he was planning to join us. We passed by a few bars, thought about partying, but since I was still pretty sick, we headed home to rest up for our day at the Vatican.
Our train to Naples wasn't until 4:30pm so we had one more morning to explore Rome. Feeling like we had the bus system down to a science, we hit the tabac store, bought a pack of tickets to last us the rest of the day and headed towards the Vatican feeling like we could take on the world. Two buses later, we were stranded on a tall hill, with gorgeous views of the city, but at what seemed the be the end of the line and the only buses that were coming past us, we're headed in the direction we came from. Shucks. Don't panic, don't panic. Take some photos from this epic lookout, and start walking. We finally got on the right bus and we're dropped off just outside the Vatican city walls. Ah, something familiar. I remembered from my previous trip that all the fountains in the street had clean water coming from within the Vatican so we drank, cleaned our hands and walked through quiet streets up into the Vatican City. Absolute chaos.
Brandon, hold my hand, I'm serious. Get a sandwich, we have to get inside. Cross the street, don't get hit. Watch out for that bus! Vatican City, officially the Vatican City State is a walled in enclave within the city of Rome. With an area of approximately 110 acres, and a population of 842, it is the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world by both area and population.
I entered Saint Peter's Square feeling pretty confident, since I had been before and even knew a bit of the history behind it. I showed Brandon the Obelisk in the center of the square and even made him stand on the dials
on the ground where all of the 4 rows of columns around the square magically form into one line. Ha! So cool. I know things. My confidence quickly dwindled after we saw the line to get in, and once we reached the front of it, the security guard told me I wouldn't be able to enter because I was wearing shorts.
Really Stephanie? Shorts, on the day you're entering the Vatican. This isn't your first Rodeo, it's not your first time traveling, it's not even your first time in this particular tourist attraction. The ultimate rookie move. As I bowed my head in defeat, and forcefully convinced Brandon that he should still go in, because it's an incredible thing to see and because I've been it before, I turned around and started walking back to the Obelisk where we planned to meet a couple hours later. As I was about half way there, a gentleman approached me and just as I prepared to shoo him away, he offered me a silk scarf for 5 Euros. Did I need a silk scarf for 5 Euros? Absolutely not, but could I use this scarf as a makeshift maxi skirt and swindle my way back into the Basilica? Now, we're talking.
After a few rounds of statues and some epic stained glass in Saint Peter's Basilica, I spotted the only 6'5 Jamaican in the place, and scurried up behind him in an effort to scare the crap out of him as he wondered who in Rome could be poking his butt. It's just me, B. Don't worry. We toured the Basilica together, fascinated by all the painted ceilings and lifelike statues. Designed by Donato Bramante, Michaelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter's is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture, and remains one of the two largest churches in the world. Now, I will admit, reluctantly, that for the majority of the time we were in Saint Peter's Basilica, we we're wondering if we were in the Sistine Chapel. Dang tourists.
As we exited the Basilica, we decided to see what the other extremely long lines were leading to, and one in particular caught my eye, as I remembered standing in it last time I was there but turning back after 3 hours of not moving. We determined it was the line for the St. Peters Dome, designed by Michaelangelo. Please, oh please Brandon. Can we? We checked our timing and decided to try and make it, little did we know what we were in for. We climbed what seemed like a million stairs, as my "skirt" flailed behind me, we lapped tourist after tourist as we we're in a rush, and they were slow. Brandon crouched through doorways that were too small, stairways that were too tight, and as we got higher, it got hotter. Finally, we entered the Dome, and it was 100% worth it. The frescos on the wall were unlike anything I've ever seen. We could see down into the portion of the basilica that we had explored earlier and it all became a little more real. It was gorgeous. We exited onto the roof and realized there was more to be seen. You could climb around the top of the dome to a much smaller dome, and see views of all of Vatican City, hell, all of rome. Although I knew he was scared, of the height and of the small spaces and I was too at this point, Brandon agreed to the adventure and we continued onward and upward. We got stuck behind crowds of people all headed to the same small place, through the same small stairwells, and we all suffered, together. Don't panic, don't panic. It's almost over. It wasn't, but we didn't know that, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. We finally made it to the top, took a huge deep breath of air, and took some epic photos of the views in front of us and all was right in the world.
Before we left, I remember Brandon sending me a Buzzfeed article about '20 travel hacks'. Amongst them were the usual: 'use a glasses case to keep your cords and headphones organized', 'roll your t-shirts into travel cubes to save space', but one in particular took me by surprise. The last one, in fact. It said, 'When you leave a country, and head towards a new currency, leave your change with the homeless'. Duh, why hadn't I thought of this before. We were, for the most part, staying within the Euro zone, but without a doubt would come across a country that had it's own currency. Budapest was the first one.
We arrived at the train station, without any Hungarian Forints, no idea where our hostel was located, and shockingly enough, no wifi to figure it all out. We went to the nearest McDonalds, swindled the lady at the door to let us use their restrooms, and fought with 3 or 4 different kiosks before one accepted our cards and we caught what we believed to be a bus headed in our general direction. This, was the first - of a few times - that I almost got us arrested. Each country really has their own rules for checking tickets. In San Francisco, we can use our clipper card, or pay at the front, or use a transfer, or ask the guy next to you. Not all places in the world, as this understanding. As the officer boarded the bus, I saw him make direct eye contact with me. Maybe it was the giant backpack I shared my small seat with that gave me away. He came right up to me, I handed him my ticket, which didn't have the proper hole punches, apparently. And he proceeded to yell at my in Hungarian and point towards the door. I'm still unsure what made him change his mind, either he was feeling kind, or I got to my stop before he kicked us out. Either way, I learned quickly that not all bus rides are equal.
Ever since I can remember, I've had this obsession with the moon. "La lune, la lune, mammy!" I used to call out as a child, every time we we're outside at night. In middle school, i can remember studying the phases of the moon, as if it were the most important lesson of all. And over the years, it's become a sort of 'check' in my life. No matter where I am in the world, no matter what situation has been thrown my way, as long as I look up, and the moon is there, there is no ego, no pain, just la lune. When we arrived at our hostel, 'Full Moon Design Hostel' I felt right at home. Our hostel was clean, and colorful, and it had a kitchen, and laundry, and the most exciting part of all - there was a club downstairs so we didn't have to go very far to party. Morrison 2.
We spent our first full day wandering through town, across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge which spans the river Danube between Buda and Pest. We walked up the cobblestone streets, through secret gardens and up to the Fisherman's Bastion. There are seven turrets in the fortress, to represent the seven Hungarian tribes who founded the present day country in 895. The entrance and balconies are free to roam, and a cafe on the terrace housed some adorable couples having an afternoon café or an early evening glass of champagne. Protected by the guild of the fisherman during the Middle Ages, the Bastion is well deserving of it's own special towel atop Buda Castle Hill, as it boasts views of Buda Castle as well as Danube riverfront and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
After scouring the towers of the fortress and pretending to be trapped in nearly every corner, we followed the crowd behind the castle through some incredible gardens, and crossed some seriously questionable bridges into Budapest castle. Now I know why they call this place a fortress. It took us longer to figure out how to get down than I'd like to admit, but in our defense, the elevator was broken and a lot of the exits were dead ends.
The next day, we took a walking tour, in which we ended being the only guests, and it rained. But it made for a pretty magical day in the end. I was feeling a bit under the weather and was trying everything not to let a cold ruin our trip. At the end of a long walk filled with historical horrors and the pitter patter of rain drops, we finally reached the thermal baths.
Although there are many thermal baths in Budapest, the Széchenyi thermal bath is the largest medicinal bath in Europe. It's water is supplied by two thermal springs. It may look like a baroque palace, but it's a great place to relax and enjoy the healing waters. Through the summer the Széchenyi bath stay open late allowing for some pretty incredible night swims, and on Saturdays some epic pool parties. On my worst days, I think about this moment and it still brings a smile to my face. One of those moments you touch, you connect, and you get lost in the moment. At the end of the swimming pool is another warm pool with 106°F waters. No matter the time of year, you will always find men playing chess in the steaming water. After 20 minutes or so, we went inside to check out the 15 indoor pools, each with their own size, temperate and character. Should you be brave there are even a few cold water pools, I skipped over those happily.
During our soggy walk home, we stumbled upon a few more historical landmarks and a pretty incredible meal. Then we headed to the airport and introduced Brandon to the duty free shop and an incredible small RyanAir airplane. See you in the morning Roma.
The only thing I knew about Austria, was that my mom had been there once before in 1983, and my dad had been there in 1981. Naturally they had tons of advice on where to go and what to see, all of which I assumed was no longer relevant. Sorry mom. Once in a while the universe deals you a good hand and about 3 weeks before taking off on this adventure, I agreed to house-sit for a co-worker. While touring their home I met two girls, about my age. We chatted over dinner while my co-worker explained where the dog food was and how to lock the garage, and it turned out they were visiting from Vienna, on a California coastal tour. What are the chances? Over the next few days we got to know each other, hit the town in San Francisco, and had some lunch on the water in Marin County and as I showed them around my hometown, they offered to show me around theirs.
Since we now had some friends to stay with and wanted to make the most of our time together, we stayed in Vienna for 6 nights, our longest leg of the trip in fact. We arrived on a Monday so naturally my friend Melanie was working but her roommate happened to be home to let us in and drop our bags after a grueling 7 hour bus ride. She also made us pasta for dinner! On our first full day we walked around town, stumbled upon some casual palaces, unaware of their names or history. We found a rose garden to eat our lunch in and wandered around what we later found out to be Museumplatz, a joining of a modern art museums, with a large courtyard equipped with ice cream and funky chairs, perfect for our afternoon nap.
Traveling with your personal trainer has it's advantages, none more than the guilt you feel for not hitting the gym in the morning. While walking through the main street near our apartment, we stumbled upon a gym and told them we had just moved there and wanted to test it out. Free two day pass, and we are the happiest humans! After about two hours of catch up workouts, we found a grocery store, bought some cheese and wine and a baguette the size of my whole leg and headed home for a relaxing movie night.
Day 4 and were ready for action! The girls were off work, and we have a full day of sight seeing ahead! We began the day with a metro ride to Naschmarkt, a.k.a heaven. With over 120 market stands and restaurants, it reminded me a bit of the farmers markets in Paris but even more delicious. Rows upon rows of merchants selling all my favorite things, from olives, to cheese, to ice cream. I even got a house-warming tapestry for my girlfriend Alicia, knowing I would see her in Madrid a few weeks later. After a delicious brunch all together, we walked to Schönbrunn Palace or Schloss Schönbrunn in German where we spent the majority of the day walking the grounds. The palace is the former imperial summer residence, boasting a mere 1,441 rooms. Casual. Naturally, it's one of the most important architectural, cultural and historical monuments in the country. Sculpted gardens, named the Great Parterre, separate Schönbrunn Palace from the Gloriette, a large structure atop a 60-metre high hill, which Maria Theresa decided should be designed to glorify Habsburg power and the Just War. Today it houses a café and an observation deck, and panoramic views of the city. We walked around the palace, took some prom-posed photos on the stairs and talked to all the horses. We even climbed the zig-zag path up the 60-metre hill, pass the zoo and tiergarden, and fountain, all the way to the Gloriette an took some selfies with the rest of the tourists. : ) On the back end of the grounds, are some secret pathways lined with forests to cut the heat, and gorgeous fountains. We could have stayed there forever. But alas, the nightclub awaits!
Before we headed home we made a quick pit-stop to see Vienna's treasured Wien Stephanplatz, and shared a light meal - more sausages! After a long day of sight-seeing we were ready to unwind with out friends. We had a small get-together and played some German drinking games, and sang American rap songs. Made memories of a life-time, and headed out to Ramba Zamba! If there is one thing that crosses language barriers and country lines, it's having some drinks and hitting the dance floor.
We woke up on Sabine's couch the next morning, quite mangled and far from home. We laughed about the fun times, told stories and recaps from the night before and with make-up streaming headed to what can only be considered a metro-of-shame, back to Melanie's apartment.
The next day we toured Mirabelle Palace, climbed on all the lion sculptures which I am almost certain you are not supposed to do. Walked through some incredible tunnels covering in trees and wines, Vienna really has this concept down. And listened to a street performer perform 'somewhere over the rainbow' on his saxophone. One of those moments that just speaks to your heart.
With our last day in town, we decided to make a bold move and decided to go out to Salzburg where Melanie was running in a 10K race. The best part of backpacking is freedom. The freedom to change the plan, the freedom to have no plan. So, we woke up in the morning and road-tripped out to Salzburg, caught the end of Mel's race and spent the day roaming around a nice city we hadn't planned on visiting. Fun fact, Sound of Music was filmed in Salzburg, and they have a love lock bridge, and basil ice cream. These are a few of my favorite things.
Three short days in Munich with so much to see and even more to do. Run Fast!
We arrived midday, with a general idea of where we were staying and some screenshots of our map to get us there. The first lesson learned while backpacking and relying on wifi, is that you don't have any during your transit between cities, or when you arrive in a new city and need to get to wherever you're staying. Queue the genius idea to screenshot your itinerary, your train ticket, and the map to get you from the station to your home. A lesson we learned quickly and forgot even quicker, but somehow we always made it.
This time however, we weren't headed for a hostel. We were lucky enough to stay with friends of friends, Sven and Sophie! Yes, actually the most adorable german names ever. After a bit of confusion on when they would be home, which button rang their front door, a few hotel hops to steal wifi, and some extra schnitzel we finally made it up the five flights of stairs to our temporary Munich oasis. Free stay, you say!? A backpackers dream. But that pales in comparison to the absolute treat it was to stay with these wonderful people. With a home that looked like it came out of an ikea catalogue, friends that cook and eat together every night, and directions to where I can purchase a dirndl for Oktoberfest, I was one happy girl.
We went to bed early and prepped for a full weekend. Although we didn't have much time in Munich we wanted to make sure we did a little tour of the city on Saturday, since Sunday was reserved for Oktoberfest. So, Saturday morning we borrowed some bikes from the neighbors and Sven, Sophie, Brandon and I took off on a cycling adventure. What a wonderful way to see a city. After having walked our way through Berlin and Prague, bikes were so much more...efficient. Not to mention the fact that Munich basically gives the right of way to cyclists. I'm still confused as to where the people walk, since all the sidewalks are bike paths.
First stop, Olympiapark. I must admit, Sven and Sophie knew so much about the history of their city, it made me question if I would be an equally awesome tour guide, if someone were to come stay with me in San Francisco. Nonetheless, I was thankful to have them and listened with open ears and a full heart, as we cycled our way through the city. Olympiapark was constructed for the 1972 Summer Olympics. It's located in an area of Munich known as the "Oberwiesenfeld" or "upper meadow-field" which is essentially what we biked through to get to it. My favorite part about the German language is that they simply smush words together, and are not phased by how long they become. I imagine it would make learning the language a bit simpler, since you can basically dissect each word into smaller parts. To this day, Olympiapark serves as a venue for cultural and social events. We rode all the way to the top of the hill (mountain), where Sven pointed out his apartment, as well as the view of the Schwimmhalle, park, pond and communication tower.
WHY does every city in Europe have a large communication tower? It's awesome. They all look a little different, but they all serve the same purpose; helping Stephanie navigate where the heck she is.
After cycling up that giant hill, we all agreed on one thing, we deserved a beer. Next stop was to the English Garden, or Englischer Garten, Munich's largest park area. Google says 417 hectares is 1030 acres, but I'm not buying it. Regardless the English Garden is larger than Hyde Park in London or Central Park in New York. We mazed through trees and rivers, over bridges and past tons of people seemingly headed somewhere exciting. They were right.
Welcome to Chinesischer Turm. Although I haven't been to all the biergartens in Munich, I'll go ahead and claim that this is the best one, because it was awesome. Named Chineseischer Turm for the Chinese Tower built by Elector Karl Theodor in 1790. Like most things it was destroyed in World War II, but was rebuilt a few years later. The Chinesischer Turm beer garden is the second largest beer garden in Munich, with about 7,500 seats. The food stalls offer traditional beer garden food such as Stecherlfisch (grilled fish on a stick), Hendi (roasted chicken), Schweinshaxn (roasted pork knuckle, YUM!), Obatzda and Auszogne. Watching Sven and Sophie try to translate to Brandon and I was quite hilarious, but if there's one thing we're good at, it's eating.We stuck to the classics and were pleasantly surprised to find that the pretzels are actually the size of your head. The beer is only €7 and you get to keep your mug! Well, I'm not sure if you're supposed to, but that's besides the point.
Post beer and lunch, Brandon and I continued to explore the city by bike, crossing rivers and bridges to unknown landmarks and finally ending in the center of town for some shopping, and a nap on a large plot of grass. Win.
Sunday came like Christmas. Oktoberfest had always been a bucket list item but I didn't think it would happen so quickly. Now, here I was, in Munich, at just the right time and with an traditional dirndl to wear. We began the day with a traditional Bavarian breakfast - boiled weisswurst sausages served with loads of sweet mustard, freshly baked pretzels and a refreshing Weissbier. It's not often that we get to have beer for breakfast, and I was all for it!
We rode our bikes down to the grounds and explored the fair a bit before landing in the most epic 'tent' I've ever seen. We sang, we drank, we ate, and we sang again.
German Lyrics to Ein Prosit
" Ein Prosit"
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit
OANS! ZWOA! DREI! G'SUFFA!
As I sat in the tent with Sven and Sophie and my crumpled up piece of paper with the phonetic spelling of Ein Prosit in my hand, part of me didn't want to leave.
Ayn praw-seet, ayn praw-seet
Ayn praw-seet, ayn praw-seet
Do we have to continue on, lets just stay a few more days! I love this place! But alas, the journey must continue, there's still so much adventuring to be done.