New Trip Time! Placement in Ghana

It is way beyond time for another major trip. And this time around, it’s more than just casual travel. This time, it’s a volunteer placement/internship in Western Africa, tied to my Master of Social Work program. 

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Yes, from September 28-December 21, 2013, I’ll be in Ghana! I’m going to be working full-time with International Needs Ghana, primarily with their Women’s Empowerment project in the Volta region (which borders the country of Togo). There, in the small town of Adidome, I’ll be working between the office and the community, in areas such as counselling and vocational training/micro-enterprise for local women. 

And . . . I’m getting pretty freakin’ excited. I know a whole lot more about Eastern Africa than I do about Western Africa, but I’m very ready to learn and experience. Can’t wait to see the culture and meet the people of Ghana! The Volta region, at least according to my current reading, is primarily made up of the Ewe people, who speak Ewe, so I’m trying to pick up at least a few polite words. English is, however, one of the main languages of the country.

Beyond my “day job”, I’m hoping to both get deeper into the community I’m staying in, and see more of the country during weekends and other time off. I’m hoping for festivals, and colour, and natural beauty, and more. Wish me luck. 

And for those who’ve talked to me lately. . . well, nope, it hasn’t been an easy time getting to this “almost there” point. Here’s my mostly tongue-in-cheek picture of what I’ve been through for the last 6 months or so: 

How to Get a Placement in Ghana in 15 Easy Steps

  1. Apply for the International Placement Program. 
  2. Get in, with Tanzania as a planned destination. 
  3. Celebrate! 
  4. Discover the Tanzanian placement isn’t exactly social work. 
  5. Desperately get contacts for any other agencies: talk to the school; talk to anybody you know who might have contacts somewhere in Africa; do Internet searches. 
  6. Gain contact with a promising agency in Rwanda. 
  7. Get all the documents signed, make it official. 
  8. Celebrate! 
  9. Discover you are not accepted for a Rwandan visa (the day before you are supposed to fly out). 
  10. Panic. 
  11. Cancel technically non-refundable flight; beg for credit; get it. 
  12. Super-desperately push for any previously promising contacts in Africa. 
  13. Get contact with that previously promising agency in Ghana. 
  14. Get all the documents signed, and visa in hand, make it totally official to start at a later date. 
  15. Cross fingers. 
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2 Walls… Part Deux

Well it took me long enough! But the second part of my south of France… was Provence.

The two walls part, referring to both Carcassonne (see previous post) and Avignon, which I made my home base in Provence for 4 days. Famous for its bridge (“le pont d’Avignon”… like in the song), which really has only gone halfway across the water since a storm in the 1600’s, and its one-time home of the Popes (which is where that tricky Pope situation came about where there were 2 at once… it got figured out. Mostly).

Day 1: I ended up on the same train as American Will, and we decide to taxi it over to the (same) hostel once more, but not before collecting another backpacker, Jorgen from Norway.  I arrived later in the day and relaxed on the balcony of my hostel-in-a-campsite overlooking the Rhone River before making my way into town for some much needed Internet, and a dinner (pizza… French style – including an egg that was apparently just cracked on top of the hot pizza, raw) on a lovely square – I later discovered it was Place D’Horloge, the central Place (square) of the city.

Day 2: After changing rooms, which my hostel made me do every morning I stayed here (punishment for not booking in advance or something? Either way, it was bizarre), I decided to “do” Avignon. This consisted of wandering mostly. I checked out the Palais des Papes (Pope’s Palace) and the Petit Palais (you can get this one), as well as a lot of lovely little squares… before taking a mini train up to a hilltop garden (in my defence, I was still protecting my delicate ankle and didn’t want to walk up). Awesome views over the city, especially of the famous Bridge – Pont Saint Benezet.

Next up  I walked on the bit of remaining ramparts of the old wall towards the bridge itself. *Insert thrilling music here*. I did the whole audioguide tour, which included the story of St Benezet who lifted a giant block to start the bridge (way too giant for any person to lift), as well as a mini museum dedicated to the “Sur le Pont D’Avignon, On y danse, tous le ronde” song. Interesting fact: The song was bastardized a bit… no one danced ON the bridge – “sur” (it was risky! some people even died crossing it when it was all wintery), they danced UNDER the bridge – “sous” (pronounced pretty much the same in French.) There was a little dance hall on the island under the bridge (which stretched a long way inland) at the turn of the 20th Century.

And then… I continued to wander, check out the Provencal shops, and maybe even eat. Including some ice cream.

That evening I met the roommates in my new room – 2 girls from Hamilton! Or, rather, Waterdown and Carlisle. Which are now included in the GHA, as I may as well call it. So we had a nice long chat, and had dinner in the hostel restaurant, joined again by Jorgen!

Day 3: Today was Aix-en-Provence. I had fallen in love with the city BEFORE going there, through a book called Ysabel (urban fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay –  who had planned to write an “other world” fantasy a la Lord of the Rings, but ended up setting it in Aix – say it like “X” – because he himself fell in love with the city). Because of that, I allotted maybe a bit too much time to a city with very few actual touristy places – it was the city of Cezanne as well, but not too much was there about that other than his studio (which I didn’t do). I did  do Cathedral Saint Sauveur, which was very interesting. It was built over a period of hundreds and hundreds of years, all at different stages! So the central section is Gothic, one side is Baroque, other bits are Neo-Gothic, there’s a baptistry from the 6th century, and it’s built on Roman ruins. Very hodgepodge, but to great effect.

I also ate some crepes, did some wandering… that sort of thing. I found the shops all a little too high end, and not so delightfully Provencal. Later on in the trip, I would talk to some French people in Paris who would complain about Aix, with a nose in the air gesture. And that’s exactly the problem I had with it: the beautiful city of fountains and Cezanne was simply too snooty for my tastes!

Day 4: Today was Arles day, and boy am I glad I didn’t skip my third “A” city in Provence. I started up at the market (every Wednesday and Saturday), and the fruits & veggies, nuts, meats & cheeses, and other food areas had such a delightful atmosphere that it took me a long time to get through. The flea market-y place was a bit tacky, but I managed to get some new undies out of a bin at a cheap price.

Afterwards I picked up a little guide of the sites of Arles at the Tourist Information. Arles’ biggest site it its Roman Amphitheatre, but  I had just been at the Colosseum a week or so before. The neat thing is that they still do bullfights in this Amphitheatre – mostly Provencal style rather than Spanish style, where the bulls don’t get killed – the “fighters” just have to get a ribbon off one of their horns. I also heard about one in the summer called “taureau piscine” (“bull pool”), where the bull apparently ends up in a swimming pool. I can’t understand the logistics, but I’d like to. Other Roman bits and pieces are scattered through the city, including a theatre (also still in use for performances!).

The real reason I picked up the flyer though was to find the Van Gogh “easels”. Van Gogh lived in Arles through many of the last years of his life (it was also where he was committed to an asylum), and did many of his paintings there. The lovely city of Arles has set up about 6 “easels” which show a painting by Van Gogh in the place it is of! It was very neat to see a painting that Van Gogh did in the 1880’s and then look up, and see nearly the same view over a hundred years later.

I was overall the most impressed with Arles than any of my other Provencal cities. Next time for Provence (you know, some day), it will be by car! Many of the smaller towns are very difficult to reach by public transportation.

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2 Walls Don’t Make a Right – My Version of the South of France

Whenever I told anyone I was going to the South of France, they would talk to me excitedly about Nice, Cannes, and the entire French Riviera…. well, since I didn’t really have much of an interest in watching rich people do rich things (okay okay, I’m sure it’s also beautiful there; but still!)….when I went to the “South of France” I started in Carcassonne, and then made it to the Provence region.

Carcassonne was my negotiation with myself because I was hoping to stay in one of the castle hostels of Europe… but they are all really out of the way (at least for this trip). So, I decided to stay not in a castle hostel, but in a hostel in a castle. Sort of. Do you follow me?

The explanation: the “Cité” of Carcassonne is a tiny medieval walled city on a hilltop. In short, it looks a lot like a castle, and the rambling alleys of the town with their big stone blocks didn’t really make me think anyway otherwise!

My first night I met an American guy on the train (Will, who was Virginian of some sort but had been posted – in the army way – to Germany for a few years. He also told me that only…. 8 percent… I think… of American soldiers had not been to Iraq or Afghanistan. He was of one of the lucky ones who hadn’t). He  was headed to the same hostel (there is really only one hostel worth staying in in Carcassonne – the one in the walls!), and then we promptly met a British girl as well (Debbie, or Debs, who had left her desk job in Manchester for a while and had just come off 3 weeks of WWOOFing in a tiny French village [Willing Workers on Organic Farms… you volunteer at an organic farm and get food and lodging in return])…. so we split a taxi and were treated to awesome views of the Cité on the hill all lit up for nighttime. Wow.

It was apparently firmly off season though, because when Debs and I tried to get a drink of some sort at any bar, no one was still serving. And this was a Friday night, and only about 11:30. We did end up getting one at, of all places, the front desk of out hostel, and sat and chatted.

The next day was perfect for me. It was beautifully sunny, and I could barely wipe the smile off my face all day ( did I mention I really really like castles? Not so much palaces…. but castles, oh yes). First I walked out the big stone gate and all the way around the walled part from the outside. It was lovely, I was the only one out there, and it smelled really field-y.

Afterwards, I wandered in the Cité, and checked out all the delightful shops: plenty of typical South of France stuff (like soaps, wine, paté), and then lots of shops selling medieval themed goodies – everything from real metal swords to kids’ shops (this was the first place I thought was actually really good for younger kids! I saw lots fighting with their new wooden swords or wearing their helmets or princess crowns). I was tempted to buy something ridiculous like a chain maille helmet… or bustier; or a floor length sweeping cape. But I restrained myself.

After the cheesiest pizza ever for lunch, I did the actual Castle (almost like a castle within a castle), Chateau Comtal. I got the audioguide and was very interested in the stories of the Albigensian Crusade against the “heretical” Christian sect the Cathars (the first and I think only time a Crusade was called by Christians – Catholics to be specific – against Christians, in  Christian lands). Carcassonne was very tolerant at that time, and where the Crusaders really focused on. Béziers, a town nearby (which I had passed through on the train), had been burned to the ground just before the assault on Carcassonne…. and the Catholic Church leader in charge apparently spoke the famous line when asked how to tell whether the inhabitants were heretics or good Catholics….. “Kill them all, God will know his own” And so the entire city was massacred by the Crusaders, even the priest saying Mass and the group of people huddled in the church listening. (All of this was made even more real to me by the book I had just finished that a Kiwi guy back in Barcelona gave me – Labyrinth  by Kate Mosse – which; though a bit Da Vinci Code tacky, was perfect for Carcassonne’s history).

The evening I made it out for a drink with Will (Debs had taken a flight home), and we made it in time to actually get served!

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4 Days in Space… I mean Spain

Barcelona was perhaps my favourite of the cities I had visited thus far. And it was hardly about “sights” either!

I spent great amounts of time rambling on Las Ramblas, which is the main street for walking, with only skinny little spots for driving, and a big grand tree lined alley for strolling. Other than the tons of people, there were also plenty of little souvenir booths, and the most impressive collection of “living statues” I’ve seen yet (those would be the people acting like statues…. if you aren’t familiar with the term). My personal favourite was the robot Michael Jackson statue who would spring into action with metallic sounding “he hee” and “Ow!” s if you put a coin in his pot.

There was also one section that they call the Ramblas of the Little Birds, which is apparently THE place to buy pets (and I heard Sundays are pet-buying days). No cats and dogs (many people are apartment dwellers, and these ARE just for sale in booths on the street!), but plenty of the usual little animals – mice, hampsters, rabbits, more chinchillas than I’m used to….. plus some different ones too. Like chipmunks! I pet one for the first time – the ones I have fed never let me pet them – very soft. I also tried to pet a chinchilla but it turned around really quickly and gave me a death stare, so I moved away really quickly. Another odd one was chicks…. odd because they turn into chickens! (which are probably not good apartment pets).

I visited the Placa Real (where my awesome hostel, Kabul, was located) as well as the Placa Catalunya, where I fed some pigeons my bread crust. I also spent several mornings navigating La Boqueria, the fabulously colourful market (lots of very fresh seafood and fruit, among lots of other things); and even made my lunch there a couple of times.

On the day after I sprained my ankle, I thought it would be a good idea to go to the beach. The laying down part and the swimming parts were fine… but getting out was nearly impossible! The tiny pebbly slope to get out was hard enough to navigate with my weak ankle, but light waves kept coming and knocking me back before I could get to the top. I eventually had to turn around, sit down, and shuffle backwards out of the water on my bum to get out. People were probably wondering what in the world I was doing. Although once I got out of the water it was probably pretty evident, as at this point one foot/ankel were huge and very “colourful”.

I also enjoyed some nightlife with increasingly large groups of people  I had met at the hostel, or in earlier cities (mostly solo travellers, strangely). One night was a not-as-good-as-others organized pubcrawl, another was just chilling in the hostel pub, and another was pub hopping on our own, including one place, El Bosc de les Fades – the fairy woods – a super creepy place that apparently used to be the horror section of the wax museum, and is in a haunted-looking castle area, abandoned mine-looking area, and haunted woods area – where all the trees had faces. Definitely different.

And… the sites I did see were the Gaudi sites. (The modernist architect!). First I hit his famous – and still famously unfinished – cathedral, La Sagrada Familia with its towers that look like they are melting. Then it was to Casa Mila, a housing complex he did in the 1920’s. I actually went in this one (that looks like waves and seaweed from the outside). One apartment was set up as it would have been in the days after it was built, and then there were some fantastic art deco pieces (and some for sale in the shop) as well as a museum on Gaudi’s pieces. The grand finale was the roof, which is as wavy as the sides…. unfortunately, it had just started to rain, and it was a bit slippery – combined with the fact that my stair climbing skills were still sub-par (due to the ankle!) and that the roof is ALL stairs; up and down…. well; needless to say; my appreciation of the giant helmet like protrusions was less than it usually would have been (because I thought I was going to die).

Anyway; the next day I was walking somewhat better, and made it to Casa Battlo, another Gaudi house (with animal-skull looking balconies, bone-looking railings, waves, and colourful mosaic walls). The bonus is that this is on the “Block of Discord”, so named because there are 2 other modernist houses on the same block other than Casa Battlo, which was lovely for my viewing pleasure.

My last day of Spain wasn’t spent in Barcelona, but partially in travel…. and partially in Figueres, a town about an hour and a half (by train) up the coast. Why Figueres, you ask? Well, it is the location of the “Theater Museum” of my very favourite (and surrealist) painter; Salvador Dali. The Dali Teatro Museo also says it is the largest surrealist structure in the world. I believe it. It is situated in an old theater; which on one end is bright red and gold and lined with giant eggs. Near the entrance; there is a statue bust with…. a statue bust on his head. And if you were able to see my pictures from Florence with the many groaning lion statues with pigeons on their heads, you would know how much I appreciate that sort of thing.

And inside…. ah. A great deal of Dali’s paintings; some of his installations and sculptures (including the room that looks like Mae West’s face – the lips are a big leather couch; the eyes are paintings….); and a good deal of random surrealism. Oh, and Dali’s imposing tomb in the basement.

So my Spain was modernism, surrealism, markets, and warmth (palm trees and all).

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When in Rome…

Oh yeah, nearly forgot about Rome. Hm.

Well, my first evening was not so great. I decided I’d head to the Colosseum which I’m into. I was amazed by it… but then I realized I had no other plans. I didn’t like my pizza dinner, and then was followed by a somewhat creepy Albanian (but Italian speaking) guy who wouldn’t leave me alone. Sigh.

The next day was a bit better, as I headed to the Vatican City, did the city sights – St Peter’s Basilica (with the remains of that Peter, as in the one who knew Jesus type Peter. Which is pretty intense), St Peter’s Square, the Vatican Museums – including the Sistine Chapel (very cool, but different than I expected), and – maybe my favourite because it added especially well to my travel collection – the post office. I’m collecting stamps from all of the countries I go to, to stick in my travel journal. A nice souvenir.

That night I did a pub crawl (er… I followed a pub crawl with one of my roommates without actually joining and paying the 20 Euro. That’s a bit much!) with a bunch of cool people who were also all fired up about Rome, and got fired up myself.

The next day I tried to do the walking tour… but had another money incident, and decided against it. Since it was pricey. Instead I did my own walking tour (out of my Rick Steves again), his “night walk” which was my “afternoon walk”, and I visited sites like the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Nice walk, which when it started raining I ended in the Spanish Steps Mcdonald’s, which was apparently one of the most glorious and big in the world… hm. And, yes, it was basically decorated as a Roman temple, with all marble and statues of people in togas, and fresh plants growing everywhere. Interesting.

The next day…. I went to Florence for the afternoon. Surprise! (I was picking up my Mastercard from a friend I had sent it to there)… but I chatted with him a bit, and hit the big German festival for some crepes (yep, random). I also checked out the fake David and other statues in one main square, checked out the Duomo and its bell tower, and the Ponte Vecchio (famous “old bridge” lined with ridiculously expensive jewellery shops)…. and then… I fell off the sidewalk (a regular occurrence for me), but this time I was unlucky and landed with the side of my foot between 2 cobblestones, and CRACK went my ankle.

I made it back to Rome for the night somehow after dinner, and figured out that my ankle was really and truly sprained. A bad one too. The next day I did my planned walking tour of the Colosseum anyway because I’m crazy… (slowly, with my special sock brace, and painkillers) – but skipped the other archaeological sites of the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum. I had already seen them from the railings at least!

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The beautiful Cinque Terre…. and a few other catch up items!

So I wanted to start this post by commenting on a few things I missed, and a few things that keep cropping up around my trip.

First of all, I rambled on and on about what I did at Oktoberfest, but forgot to set a scene for people who have never been there. Picture this: one massive “tent” (the top is thin material, but supported by massive wooden beams), with a wooden floor, long wooden tables (and some thin standing room tables), packed with thousands of people. Many of the people are in dirndls and lederhosen (despite the fact that many of these people don’t speak a word of German). There’s a big band full of brass instruments playing on a raised platform – about every 10-15 minutes they play “Ein Prosit mit gemuetlichkeit”, and everybody stands and toasts everybody in toasting distance with a hearty “Prost” – swinging the giant heavy 1 litre beer steins. (Some end up broken later on). And then the band, all in their lederhosen, also play a selection of other things – songs from 50 years ago seem to be popular, including New York New York, Will You Be My Girl, and – my personal favourite – Country Roads. Sitting with non-English speaking Germans belting out “Take me home, to a place, I belong!! West Virginia…..” is a surreal experience.

Anyway. Besides that I missed, a few of the constants. Every place has its own sort of beggars, (kids with notes that say they are from Bulgaria, old woman with scarves on their heads, men with one shrivelled arm… ), and I’ve figured out a system for dealing with them and not feeling guilty. I will rid my pockets of my under 50-Eurocent coins up to once a day. It works I think.

And the other… chains. I’ve been keeping up with my McDonald’s survey around Europe, and have found some interesting switches. Prague had the McCountry, which was the breaded fried cheese on a bun they call Smazny Syr (or something similar) – as well as an extensive menu including breaded shrimp. Italy has the McToast, as “toast” is actually toasted bread with ham and cheese… and that’s what it is. And then I think it was Germany that had a whole line of “America” Burgers (Los Angeles Burger, Chicago Burger, and so on.) As for other chains, I didn’t realize Pizza Hut and Burger King were so international, as well as Claire’s (the accessories shop).

So if you were waiting for my report on the Cinque Terre, here it is!

The first day I arrived late, got situated in my room, and grabbed some pesto spaghetti to go (pesto was invented in this region), and tried to locate a place to sit. I walked down the the harbour of “my” little town of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore, and found a lot of other people already set up on rocks to watch the sunset. Perfect. It was precarious climbing on the rocks with my spaghetti, but I made it, and watched. I toured Riomaggiore a bit and then, tired out, headed back to the room.

The room (“Affitacamere Patrizia”)  was almost like a self-contained hostel – 11 beds, sitting area, full kitchen, and bathroom all in a little apartment. Snug, but didn’t feel cramped. Jan, a 50-something Tasmanian (aka Australian) who was on the 3-month trip she wanted to go on her whole life, was already in the room, and offered to share her bottle of wine with me. Naturally, I accepted, and we went on to meet other roommates (Joseph, a sheep shearer from New Zealand working in England; Emma Jane who I thought was “Imogen” because of our competing accents – and she didn’t notice a difference – also from New Zealand, and Shawn, a girl from Seattle). We planned on a “pasta party” for the next night!

The next day I tackled the trails in the rain. The first trail, from Riomaggiore to Manarola is the “Via Dell Amore”, and just an easy path. So I decided to continue, from Manarola to Corniglia – some slightly tricky parts, but I made it in the 45 minutes it said it was (and used my guidebook’s advice to take the shuttle to the hilltop town of Corniglia, rather than walking up the deadly stairs!). I browsed a bit in the tiny town (only 200 people actually live there), checked out a couple cute shops, grabbed a gelato, and tried to use the public women’s washroom. But it was a pit in the ground with railings for propping yourself up…. and someone had already used it for a “number two”. Since I didn’t want to crouch over a poop to pee in a pit, I located a wheelchair washroom – with a toilet.

By this point it was actually spitting, but I went for the next hike (90 minute, “the wildest and most rewarding”) to beautiful (but very touristy) Vernazza. As I awkwardly shambled up rocky steps that were hardly steps and all, and huffed and puffed and took numerous breaks (while.. um.. regretting it a bit at some points)….. seniors (especially Germans) with alpine walking sticks and little dogs barreled on past me. Phew. But it was really beautiful views and everything, and I did feel very accomplished when I made it to Vernazza! I wanted to check out the little town, but it immediately started pouring so I headed back to Riomaggiore to get some dry clothes.

The pasta party was that evening (I brought the vegetables), and Emma Jane, Jan, Shawn and I had been joined by Dennis, a middle-aged American with a motormouth…. who also happened to be a very good cook. So we had our pasta (cooked by Dennis), and his soup as well, with some wine, and dessert!. Nice evening.

The next day I decided to tackle towns. Or, you know, browse and stuff. I started with Vernazza, browsed little shops and grabbed a slice of pizza to eat sitting on the breakwater facing the harbour town. Gorgeous. Also very touristy.

Then I headed to Monterosso, the “beach town”, which was really so much like many other beach towns I have been in, that it felt very familiar. I wandered this town a bit too, before rolling up my pant legs and wading at the beach for a while (I would have swam, but the waves were deadly – too deadly for me to be alone swimming in them, I thought), and then laying on my towel on the sand to dry off. Ah.

It wasn’t until the evening that I decided I still needed to check out Manarola. I followed my Rick Steves tour (again the best guidebook for the Cinque Terre), which led me up to a vineyard path overlooking the town (the hills are covered in terraces full of grape vines). It was also just about sunset, so I watched once more. It was beautiful.

Heading back down into town I realized I hadn’t had dinner, so I tried to locate a decent restaurant. I ran into Shawn, who was doing the same thing, so we found a place together and even split a bottle of the Cinque Terre white wine. Nice wine too!

All together, the five little villages of the Cinque Terre were beautiful – shambled pastel coloured buildings (some with peeling paint, which added to the charm), with plenty of laundry drying out the windows, all perched on rocky coasts with lush greens in the background and great views of the Mediterranean. Wow.

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Venetian Blinds – Venice

Venice was beautiful. Alas, I was stressed about my monetary situation for a great deal of my time there (therefore I was a bit “blind” to the city… Venetian Blinds, get it?)

Anyway. The first night I spent at my tidy little Venetian campground, which was a world of difference from my last campground. Instead of 200 roommates, I had…. zero. I had my own nice little hut (I had booked a 3-bed “dorm” cabin, but ended up in a 2-bed private – with just me in it – for the same price!), which was a welcome change really to sleep in a room by myself. The campground also had a handy bar, restaurant, supermarket… as well as a pool & hot tub (which I never got down to using). I ate a couple meals at the restaurant (Spaghetti Carbonara – really different than I remember at home – and a nice lasagna, before heading into Venice on the hourly shuttle bus into town the next afternoon).

Saturday afternoon I made it IN to Venice, and started on the Vaporetto (AKA water bus) “tour” from my Rick Steves guide (which again proved to be my favourite guidebook). It basically just told me what buildings to keep an eye out for at which stops. I was entirely impressed by the mansions along the Grand Canal, especially the fact that pretty much none of the first floors were in use, due to the fact that Venice is sinking, and they are probably all damp and mossy.

I took the Vaporetto all the way to St Mark’s Square, where I watched the people, watched the pigeons (and even attracted one onto my arm), and got some great views of St Mark’s Basilica from the outside, as it was closed for a special service on the inside.

Then, I decided to wander back to the bus station, following the signs and the hordes of tourists, at a leisurely pace. This was deceivingly easy, so I stopped for some dinner at one of the many squares. I had a full “menu”, or fixed price several course meal – with primi piatti (a big plate of pasta is their starter), secondi piatti (a piece of chicken), and a big juicy salad. With wine, of course. Alas, there was a problem with my Mastercard, so I had to use up all the cash I had on me to pay… leaving me with very little money.  I decided I’d keep walking back to the train station, but it was now dark, and all the daytrippers and cruise ship traffic (people traffic, not car traffic) had disappeared, and I couldn’t find any of the signs pointing me to the bus station!

I walked and walked… and it was getting dark, until I found a vaporetto stop. But now didn’t have enough money for a ticket! So I used my sad little maps from my guidebooks and the location of the stop to try to find my way back… and pretty much failed. I walked for a good hour, until I found myself entirely lost, and in the entirely non-tourist district, with no shops, restaurants, or hotels to pop in to to see where I was. I finally ended up seeing… a gap… behind a wall (a gap that was NOT filled with  houses), so I worked my way over… and found a cruise ship, on a real street, with buses and everything! I asked a guy at a random checkpoint where the Piazzale Roma (the bus station) was, and he pointed me in the right direction. Which was down this sketchy area of Venice – empty warehouses and abandoned train tracks, for about another half hour. Phew. But I made it!

The next day went a lot more smoothly. I walked from the train station to the same square I had eaten dinner in in a very short time, before continuing the tourist trail to the Rialto Bridge (and its market!). Then I continued on to St Marks Square once more, and was horrified at the line of people waiting to get into the (free) basilica. I decided instead to check out the Doge’s Palace, which I had heard (from my guidebook), also usually has a big line. Apparently everyone had decided to just go to the Basilica, because I just walked right into the Doge’s Palace and bought my ticket.

It was a grand old palace, but for me, the real thrill were in 2 things: 1) the art! The walls were pretty much entirely covered with the Venetian Renaissance Masters’ paintings (Tintoretto, Titian… others… including the Rape of Europa, which was probably the most famous), and I do enjoy the Venetian Renaissance style! 2) The Bridge of Sighs and the Prison (aka dungeon). It was the most dungeon-y dungeon I’ve ever seen. Very neat.

I also visited the Correr Museum (because the ticket was included with the Doge’s Palace), which had a lot of art from the Venetian Renaissance and prior to that. Seemed to be a great deal of Madonna and Child where at least one of them – either Mary or Baby Jesus – looked like they had something wrong with them. And always in gold leaf. Like, Mary with a giant unibrow and crazy eyes, or Baby Jesus with a giant head, one big eye and one small eye, and a tiny body… etcetera. I don’t really know when that style was popular…

And then, I did some more eating. Pasta, and some pizza off of a street vendor (very very thin, and probably the best pizza I have ever tasted in my life, despite the fact that it was only cheese – “Margherita”), and gelato a couple of times. I find I prefer the fruit flavours best (Pecha and Frugalo.. I think I have those names wrong, but Peach and Strawberry were fantastic! The chocolate is a bit much for me).

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Jess has a lot of beer and sleeps with 200 people – Munich

Despite having my wallet stolen, Munich was a lot of fun! Well I should really say Oktoberfest was a lot of fun, since I really didn’t see anything of Munich other than the Theriesenwiesen (that’d be the Oktoberfest grounds), and my hostel, The Tent. I planned to…but despite staying an extra night due to previously discussed incidents (i.e. my wallet being stolen, and needing to wait for my Mastercard to arrive), I didn’t!

To start, I’ll explain my hostel: it was indeed a giant tent, at a campground with personal tents too, with about 200 bunks in it. So, yes, one of my roommates probably stole my wallet (from out from under my bed while I went to the bathroom in the night. My own stupid fault? Partially). But they also do a campfire every night (unless it rains, which it did 2 of the nights I was there), and a delicious breakfast (you pay for what you take), and the price was super low. But.. it was colder than I had planned! They gave me 3 big thick wool blankets, and despite the tent being “heated” ( apparently giant tents don’t take too well to piped in heat), I slept in about 10 layers of clothes, including my coat and gloves. But… it had a great atmosphere, and it was easy to meet people! Lots of fun.

On my first night I planned to have a tea at the campfire and then go to sleep (ridiculously early – note, at this point I was ridiculously sick), but then I met some cool people and ended up staying at the campfire for another 4 hours or so.

Monday morning I felt decent enough to head to the tents. (The Oktoberfest tents that is!), and I tried to meet up with a couple of girls I had met in London or my CouchSurfing meetup, which were arranged for the same time and same place. Instead… I ended up alone (some confusion here or there I think), so I bravely headed to the Hofbrau tent (not to be confused with the Hofbrau beergarden which is around year-round in Munich), which I had heard was the “crazy tourist tent”, and I hoped to see people I knew.

I nearly immediately found people, 2 American guys and a group of Aussies I had met at The Tent (hostel)… and ended up hanging around with them, 2 Italians, a Belgian, 2 guys actually from Munich (who were the most extreme guys I had pretty much ever met, and preceded anything they said – especially Prost (“Cheers”) with “Mother£$%ing”), and a Kenyan (who I most definitely sang the song “Where can you find lions? Only in Kenya” to).

Tuesday my Couchsurfing meetup succeeded (due to good prior planning), and I met up with Carlos from Mexico and Dimago from Israel, and we hit the Lowenbrau tent (with a giant lion that roared “LOWENBRAU” outside), and then the Paulaner tent where we sat with a bunch of cool Germans around our age. Dimago suddenly became a magician, with some very impressive tricks (like he “loses” a coin and it appears under somebody else’s watch band), and afterwards it was time for seeing the fest outside the tents – playing some games, eating some soft ice cream…. but not going on any rides!

Wednesday was my personal D-day. Or Day of Death, when I discovered my wallet was taken and dealt with it all day.

Thursday though, instead of moving on to my next location, I was waiting for my Mastercard. Luckily, there were 2 Aussie guys, Matt & Lloyd, at the Tent that I had met back in Berlin, so I decided to follow them  join them at the Fest. We did a bit of tent hopping, a bit of food eating, and then met up with some other Aussies, after which I promptly got lost, and met some nice American armed forces types as well.

Hm.. other than the celebrations, not too much in Munich. Not even for the eating part! I had soft ice cream from the fest pretty much every day, but my appetite was so off (note: I was sick the entire time I was in Munich), I didn’t really have dinner, other than some awesome “happy pig stew”  back at The Tent (hostel). Sausages and fish sandwiches (apparently the core of the Oktoberfest diet) really didn’t have any appeal… so I didn’t eat them.

But… no worries…. I won’t waste away, because I’ve made it to Italy, where the food is as good as they say. Stay tuned for more of me talking about the food. Next episode: Venice.

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A bit of time in Salzburg

I realize it’s been a while since I really posted, but the internet is a bit sparse at the camping ground/giant tent I am in here in Munich. I will start by talking about my disaster of the day, which I really hope will be the disaster of the trip… I got my wallet stolen!

Yep,  last night I had my wallet in my purse, which was in my carry-on bag, which was under my bed… and while I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, someone apparently snuck in there and got the wallet part. So I had a lot of fun this morning with getting my cards cancelled and re-issued, but I think everything is going to be okay now.

So. Salzburg! In case you didn’t know, Salzburg is a city in Austria that is most famous for: being surrounded by the Alps, the Sound of Music, and Mozart, who was born and lived there. I decided at the last moment to add in one little night to go to Salzburg.

I got settled at my hostel (the Youth and Family Guesthouse, not so hostel-y friendly, but it was comfy and warm), and then headed into the town. I had heard that the hostel was right by the centre of town, so without a map, I just decided to follow the route that everybody seemed to be either going or coming from. A tourist mecca?

But no, not just that! I came upon…. a big festival, with rides, games, booths, food, and a giant beer tent spread out throughout the old town centre. Perfect! I wandered the festival, wandered the streets a bit more (saw Mozart’s birthplace), and then ended up perfectly in time for a “5-Uhr Konzert”. 5:00 concert. I headed in to see a guy playing the harpsichord. I enjoyed the music, I found it interesting to hear a harpsichord rather than a piano…. but the guy was just too ridiculous. He rocked and jumped the whole time, and at one point I thought he was going to climb into the harpsichord. He looked so surprised when he played staccato that I thought he was going to pass out. I could barely concentrate on the music.

But it did end… and as I walked back (chilly), I heard some oompapa music coming from the beer tent, and decided to go in – where it was nice and cozy because of all the people packed into it. I took a seat at the end of a long table. Somehow I ended up talking (in English, eventually) to the 2 middle aged ladies and the old man (all Austrian) at my table, and they decided I had to try all the drink specialties of Austria. Including the schnapps, which they bought for me and then clapped and cheered when I took the shot… which was obviously horrible. Ha. I felt like I really achieved something in connecting with the real people though!

There were also tons of people who had come down from villages in their authentic dress! I was entirely delighted, because I didn’t realize people still wore the traditional outfits some time. (I was to see even more once I reached Oktoberfest… more on that later). The festival was apparently the Feast of St Rupert, Salzburg’s patron saint and an annual party weekend.

The next day in Salzburg, despite having the very worst cold ever (you would have thought the schnapps would have cleared it up), I went to Mass at the Salzburger Dom (cathedral), where they did a Beethoven symphony with a choir of about 60, with one of their pipe organs, about 10 violins, and a few other string instruments. Wow!

I also somehow made it up the funicular to the Hohensalzburg Fortress on the hill. It was the perfect CASTLE castle rather than a opulent palace, and I liked it a lot. Unfortunately, I was really feeling my sickness, and couldn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped.

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Jess becomes a temporary Wiener

I could have been at the Opera right now, but instead this evening I chose to go down to the Staatsoperhaus, and watch the people who actually were going to the Opera… a just as fascinating time, I assure you; followed by that other Viennese institution: dessert. After a bit more wandering, it was blogging time.

Vienna is a great city for sitting on benches and watching the people, as there are so many benches in lovely parks, by grand old buildings, or inside lovely little parks. And although I want to say that I did this a great deal (because, well, I did) I also somehow managed to see a whole bunch of the touristy “sights” as well.

My first touristy site was to be the biggest letdown yet of my trip… (that said, that’s not too bad!). I kept seeing ads everywhere for a King Tut exhibit at the Museum fur Volkerkunde (that would be “ethnology”), and I figured, well hey, I would like to see King Tut and his stuff. Well…. King Tut wasn’t there, nor was hardly any of his stuff. It was an exhibit about him, but there were only a few scattered pieces about Egypt in general, some information about the discovery of Tut’s tomb, and not a single sarcophagus in sight. I even felt a bit voyeuristic with some of the things displayed… i.e. “this necklace came from ________’s mummy, who was wearing 28 similar necklaces.” Now really, if they went to all that trouble to get prepared for death, why are we stealing their jewellery and sticking it in glass boxes!?

One the way to my second sight, in fact, right in one of the courtyards of the Hofburg Palace, I saw an interesting thing. A big roped-off area (surrounding by milling tourists, as most of the area is), with inside – an honour guard and army band facing an open doorway, beside 2 police motorcycles and a black Mercedes with a small Austrian flag on the hood. I’ve seen enough political thrillers to recognize a Head of State vehicle when I see one! So I milled with the tourists, and when the band started playing what must have been the Austrian national anthem (sounded very national anthem-y), I got my camera ready, paparazzi style, as two men in well-tailored suits came out of the building, and got into either side of the back seat of the black Mercedes. It drove off escorted by police motorcycles and another black Mercedes.  Afterwards I Wikipedia’d Austrian government, and I’m pretty sure I just saw both the President and the Chancellor of Austria.

That was my biggest excitement of the day, but I did also enter the Hofburg Palace.  The 3 museums covered by one ticket started with the Imperial Silver Collection which is a vast array of… dishes and table settings that belonged to the Hapsburg monarchs. Impressive in how many pieces there were, but I moved pretty quickly through there! I made it to the Sisi Museum upstairs, a museum on the life and eventual assassination of Sisi (Elisabeth), the beautiful and melancholy wife of Emperor Franz Josef, the last truly great emperor of the Hapsburg monarchy. This was a very well done and interesting museum, and finished in the Imperial Apartments – decorated as they were in Franz Josef and Sisi’s time.

A couple more museums were added to my roster for the trip. The first was MUMOK, or the MUseum for MOderner Kunst (aka the Modern Art museum). Despite the fact that there were very few “big names”, I really enjoyed it (one of my favourite Magritte paintings was there though!)… and the exhibit on “Bad Painting Good Art” was pretty fabulous. One of my top sights was a piece done in that usual abstract style of circles and lines… but it was a carpet. It looked like something you could buy at Ikea, and it cracked me up.

The second other museum I went to was the Sigmund Freud Museum, kind of a must for a wannabe psychologist like myself. This was where he practiced and lived until the very last year of his life (which happened to be 1938, when he – as a Jew – was forced to leave due to the Nazis closing in). Unfortunately, only the waiting room here was furnished as it was then – the rest is in his London home where he lived for his last year. “The couch” wasn’t here, but even the waiting room was pretty neat. The rest of the museum was a little dry…

A lot of my time was devoted to wandering. I wandered the grounds of the Hofburg Palace, the area around my hostel on Mariahilferstrasse, Stephensplatz (the main square of the city, where I also visited St Stephen’s Cathedral, another of the grand gothic cathedrals of Europe), the shopping street Kaertnerstrasse, the ring road around the centre of the city, and anywhere else the metro dropped me.

I also had some food from the area! Vienna is a dessert capital, so to be authentic I tried several different  varieties. I tried “Mohr im Hemd”, a traditional Viennese chocolate cake with chocolate fudge sauce (I split this with Cara, a girl I had met from California… it was nothing too special, just chocolate cake!), apfelstrudel mit Eis (mm mm), and apple pie mit Eis (even more delicious). I also took in Vienna’s cafe culture with a hot chocolate or tea in a couple cafes.

As far as real meals go, I haven’t had any Wienerschnitzel! (I should be able to have some in Salzburg or Munich when I move on though). I did have “dumpling with sausage”… which turned out to be ground up sausage IN a giant dumpling (kind of heavy), and I had some meals on location. One location was the Naschmarkt, a bustling foodie market with fresh produce, olives & olive oil, nuts and dry goods, and a lot of little restaurant cafes. I went for Japanese, and had probably the best gyoza (Japanese dumplings) I’ve ever had, along with some sushi! (Strange that it’s Japanese that feels familiar and not Austrian)

I did also see a bit of the nightlife on a “Backpackers Party Night” (or what I would call a pubcrawl) which left from the excellent TravelShack, a backpackers bar. I’m pretty sure we did Travelshack followed by a bar called Coco and a club called Loco, which is kind of ridiculous, but… yep. Didn’t compare to the scope of the Berlin pub crawl, and the pubs are still smoke filled here (took forever to get the smell off my hair & clothes), but it was a good time. I was nervous to go alone, but then I discovered that 4 of my 5 roommates were also going (2 guys from North Carolina, 1 guy from Arizona, and 1 Australian-guy-living-in-Scotland [tricky accent for my poor hearing to decipher]), so we headed on down together, and I met lots of other people as well.

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