Monday, June 27, 2011

Daleks over Blackpool.

Our journey back into England took us along the coast to Blackpool. We stayed at a place called the Norberek Castle. I am not really sure if we mistakenly booked ourselves into a seniors home, or a weight loss clinic, or some kind of horrible combination of the two. It seemed as if we had found half of the English biomass and 3/4 of the country's age. There was a pool, a sauna, and a hot tub - the only saving grace of the horrible place. We watched the hockey finals in the lobby at 4 AM and chatted with some drunk Englishmen. They asked us what we were doing there and we said 'vacationing'. They told us we were insane to vacation in Blackpool, and proceeded to cheer for Boston. The only redeeming thing about Blackpool were the Daleks on the streetlights. Needless to say we spent as little of our days in Blackpool as possible, making day trips out and around the lake district of England. We visited a motoring museum, which included the record breaking car and boats of Donald Campbell. We also tried to visit the James Bond museum. This ended in horrible failure. The museum was closed permanently. However, there is more to it than that. The James Bond museum had been built right next to the pencil museum, and up against this stiff competition, hadn't stood a chance.

After Blackpool we ventured south to Gloucester for a few days. We used a 17th century farm house for our base of operations, making forays into wales. We traveled through Snowdonia national park, carnarfon, Angelsey and a lovely little town called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. We visited an old coppermine, and a tried to go to one of the oldest mines in England, dating back to prehistoric times, but it was closed.

Next up we visit Hay on Wye, and the coasts of Devon and Cornwall.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

It's good to be speaking the Queen's again.

We took a direct flight from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Stansted airport just outside of London in England. We rented a car at the airport, had our first burgers in a month and drove off to Norwich. We spent a few days in Norwich, visiting my cousins and their new baby, and generally puttering around. My brother and I took a day trip over to nottingham, and life was good.

Oh English pub food, how my arteries and I have missed you.

From Norwich we wound our way though the English countryside to Sunderland, near Newcastle. We spent our few days in this area puttering around Durham, Newcastle, Penshaw, and a fun little town called Beamish. Beamish's claim to fame is that they boast a sort of mining museum. Its more than that though, its a whole town, village, and mine, complete with tram and bus transport systems, permenantly rooted in the year 1913. It was great fun seeing all the old cars, and even venturing down into one of the old coal mine shafts (bituminous coal, if any of my geology friends are reading).

After Sunderland we drove north into Scotland, staying in Dundee. Along the way we visited Lindisfarne for some mead, auchtermuchty for some relative hunting, peterhead for the same, and drove through the highlands to soak up some scenery.

Next we head back down into England and Wales.

101 Dalmatian islands

After Venice we said 'arrivederci' to Italia, and headed on to new horizons, specifically Croatia! We left Venice and travelled to Trieste. From Trieste we took a bus towards our first stop in Croatia, Riejka, billed by the law of Rick Steves to be not worth a visit. Wrong again Ricko'. We found Riejka to be a great central point for our few days in the north of Croatia. The locals were friendly, the hotel was great, the food was amazing, and the lack of tourists after Venice was extremely refreshing. Our day trips from Riejka took us around the Istrian Peninsula to some sunny, senic beaches and picturesque hillsides.

From Riejka we retained our rented car and drove down to Split, mending our differences with our travel booklet and returning to the tourist trail. Don't get me wrong, Split is a gorgeuous, sunny city, with nice people and tasty food... but it is also back on the main tourist trails for all of Europe, raising prices and lengthening queues to anything worth seeing, which alsmost makes me prefer the ulgier, more utilitarian city of Riejka. The temperature was a toasty 30 degrees while we stayed there, making it painful to hustle around the city center with the rest of the mob. My best memories of Split involve lounging on the beach, and playing with some kittens that had decided to take up residence in our hotel's pool bleachers.

On the day we left Split for the island of Hvar it rained. Now, this may sound like a trivial thing to mention, but in the context of our very sunny vacation it was a momentous event. Not only did it decide to rain, it decided to rain. Everyone on the boat over to the island was soaked during the short walk from the undercover area to the ferry. Naturally the rain stopped after we got to the island, but not before soaking us all to the skin, despite our raingear. This was a poor start to our day on Hvar. We spent the night in a communist era hotel (read: no AC, no fan, no screens to keep out bugs, nothin') due to the rain the mosquitos blossomed. We had the window open for an unintelligently long time in a vain attempt to cool our room. This resulted in an infestation of mosquitos. My brother and I quarentined the main room; I slept in the hall, while jonn spent a rather uncomfortable night in the tub. You win this round mosquitos, and you lose Hvar.

From Hvar we went on to our final destination in Croatia, Dubrovnik: the Pearl of the Adriatic. Dubrovnik is a beautiful city. From our arrival in the place, things started going our way. Our taxi driver was a super guy, the kind of superior person that you really don't expect behind the wheel of a cab, but there he is anyways, brightening your day with his own contagious cheer. The hotel he deposited us at was great as well. The AC being the most glorious feature after the previous night spent in the sweating, infested, communist box on Hvar. The few days we spend in Dubrovnik brought nothing but delights, from wandering around the gorgeous walled old city, to sun tanning on the plethora of beaches that ring the whole city. Great food, cheap (cold) beer, and friendly people made this the best place we had been on the whole trip so far, and was a fitting end to our little odessy around the Mediterranean.

Endless beaches of Pescara, Endless crowds of Venice.

Sorry for the delay on these posts, but sometimes you just get caught up in the whirlwind of travel and can't seem to find a few minutes to jot down some thoughts. Alright, fine, I have just been lazy and criminally negligent since Naples. I am attempting to atone to some small measure now by the rapid fire publishing of three, count em, THREE ENTRIES.

Having left you in Naples (the publishing of Rome and Naples became somehow reversed... oh well) we travelled on accross the country to Pescara. Pescara is famous for... nothing really, and thats what made it so great. Pescara is situated on the central eastern coast of the Italian peninsula, and is basically one great, long, sandy, practically endless stretch of fine golden sand. Being famous for nothing in the wider context of the world meant that we had finally, FINALLY, managed to elude the gigantic crowds of lumbering tourists that we had encountered in many of the places we had been to date. What a refreshing experience to enter a restaurant that did not a) have english on the menu, and b) did not have anyone who spoke english to help us out. For the first time in the trip we had to roll the dice with what we were going to eat. This isn't a bad thing, it's Italy after all, what could go wrong?

Pescara consisted of lounging on the beach, and eating, which really is what a vacation is all about. We did take some time out from our busy schedule of lounging and eating to make a day trip to Ortona, where we hiked around and ate.

From Pescara we took a train to Venice, which is the polar opposite from pescara in the sense of tourism and notariety. Venice is achingly beautiful, but it is also achingly crowded, and horribly gaudy and overpriced. There isn't much that I can tell you about Venice that you probably don't know already, so I will save the effort on that score and sum it up as 'nice to see for a couple days'.

Also, pictures are still not working through blogger, so I am sorry for that.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

When in Rome, park as the Romans park

From Florence we took the train to Rome. I am constantly amazed at the size of the country, so small. The ride from one major city to another is sometimes as short as three hours by train, less than the distance from Vancouver to Kelowna or Vernon. The train station in Rome is vast, 30 some odd platforms which stretch endlessly from the terminal towards their various destinations. We took the metro to our hotel. The metro at the terminal is a subterranean maze of one way staircases, dead ends and oversized escalators. After a sardine style ride we arrived at Piazza Barbarini, the nice central square which our hotel was on. Unfortunately due to the location of the piazza, the noise of the 6 roads which converged there continued strong into the early hours of the morning. There was also a rather unpleasant odour of human waste. Not much of an issue though, because we were rarely at our hotel. Rome offered us a myriad of sights, tastes, and experiences. In three days we checked off the ‘must sees’ of Rome: The Vatican, Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Palatine hill, Spanish steps, the Forum, and more churches than I can name or remember. On one of our other days based in the eternal city we took a sojourn in a rented car to Anzio, and drove along the coast to the Roman port of Ostia. On foot and in the car one of the most striking features of the people of Rome is the way they drive and park. Motorscooters and motorbikes dip and weave through solid streams of traffic, narrowly avoiding fatal accidents and busses. I have decided to give three awards to the intrepid parkers of Rome.
First place goes to the man who decided that parking in the middle of a 4 lane road was a good idea. No flashers, no emergency, no smoke, just what seemed to be an honest attempt at a legitimate parking job.
Second place goes to the car parked on a corner, on the sidewalk, in a crosswalk, the wrong way on a one way street. This was also the only person I saw in Rome receive a ticket from the traffic police. Prior to this, I thought that any parking spot was fair game; on a corner, on a sidewalk, upside down, however you managed to stop your vehicle.
Third place is a tie to most of the other inhabitants of the city, those people parked on sidewalks, doublewide, and infront of clearly delimitated no stopping zones.
Roman food was quite good, but rather pricy. We had a hard time finding the small, cheap and delicious trattorias that are our usual haunts. We managed to stay well fed and afloat in a sea of house wine, and olive oil.
The last highlight of our time in Rome was going back to the Pensione where my father stayed for two months back in the 1960s (it is now an apartment building). It was fun seeing him awash in memories the whole time we walked around the city.

The home of pizza, Naples.

First thoughts about Naples are not flattering. This is a dirty city, the garbage crisis that started in 2007 shows no sign of ending. The people of the city just pile their trash on the sidewalks in a fashion similar to the larger and dirtier cities of India, but India has one advantage in that they burn their garbage piles every now and again to reduce their size and abundance. You can hardly go two blocks without having to change sides of the street to avoid a mountain of horrible smelling refuse. As if the city is the polar opposite of Rome, the hotel we stayed at was quite nice. The AC and TV worked, and there was even complementary internet. Joy!
The non-culinary highlights of our time in Naples with one exception focused on our daytrips to its environs. We took a subterranean tour of the Neapolitan aquaducts, which had been converted into air raid shelters during the Second World War. This was very interesting, wandering about hundreds of feet below the city in the cool tunnels, which would be the darkest pitch black except for the halogen lights. This is not a place for those with claustrophobia. Part of the tour involved squeezing through extremely narrow passageways with candles as our only source of light. Fun!
Our first daytrip took us to Pompeii and Herculaneum, and to Vesuvius, the culprit of their annihilation. It was extremely fascinating to wander around the cities with their walls, mosaics and in some cases frescos preserved. Climbing Vesuvius was great, being a geologist and having written a paper on the volcano for a class it was a real treat to peer into the steaming mouth of the mountain.
Our second daytrip was to the Amalfi coast. As they saying goes, sometimes life is about the journey rather than the destination. This is fairly true for the Amalfi coast, the winding roads and sheer limestone cliffs make for a memorable drive.
The best thing about Naples proper is its food, mainly its Pizza. Naples is where Pizza is from, and they know what they are doing. These are easily the best pizzas I have ever eaten, with fresh ingredients, and a crust like Greek pita bread, not hard, but soft and delicious. The pizza is the saving grace of the city, and made it an acceptable (if pungent) home base for our last few days on the Mediterranean before heading across the country to the Adriatic side.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Crooked towers, straight-laced galleries and curving roads

After the Cinque Terra we moved along to Pisa, made famous by its hordes of tourists and vendors selling souvenir junk. Wait, that’s not right, it’s famous for its failure of geological engineering! I actually found it more amazing that the tower hadn’t fallen over, than the fact that it was leaning at all. More interesting than the tower were all the people either pretending to hold it up or push it over. Very original. Pisa wasn’t a total failure though; we ate some pretty tasty lasagne and drank some nice wine.
After Pisa we took the train to Florence. Florence is famous for having the highest concentration of religious art in the world. Probably. We saw all of the musts; we met David at the academy, we saw the birth of Venus (aka naked chick riding a clam shell) in the Uffizzi, and admired some of what the Italians call ‘modern’ art (17th-19th century) in the Pitti palace. We also went to the best of the museums: the Science museum. That’s how we roll. Any idea what an astrolabe is? Neither do I, but those crafty old bastards from the 16th century sure did.
Because we have been eating a lot of gelato in Florence and our attention span has shortened accordingly with the amount of sugar, we needed a break from all the learning. We accomplished this with a couple of daytrips, the first to Sienna, and the second to Fiesole. In Sienna we received a little bit of a surprise. That day happened to be a portion of the Mille Miglia, a thousand mile, thousand car marathon of mechanical glory. We watched the seemingly endless parade of expensive or antique cars drive by over wine and pasta, from less than 5 feet away. I thought there were more cars than you could shake a stick at, until my father managed to wave his flag at every single one. Our second daytrip was to Fiesole, or Fiasolanum, if you happen to be a Roman. We went and toured around the restored amphitheatre and Etruscan ruins and the local archaeological museum (staffed by an amusing British curator who gave us a personal tour [we were his only visitors]). Fiesole has an enviable view of Florence, being perched on top of a nearby hill.