Saturday, July 31, 2010

In Which Ben Reaches the Apex of Foreign-ness

Spent yesterday walking the streets and walls of Dubrovnik and relaxing on the beach. Quite enjoyable, but not much to write about.

Today was a bit more interesting. I took a side-trip to Mostar, a small predominantly Muslim city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that was once an Ottoman stronghold. As I understood it going in, this would be a grand journey into strange foreign lands, which would astound my feeble western mind. That does somewhat overstate the case:
  • The bus trip lives up to the billing - hours of delays both way, 3 passport checkpoints, crowded hot environment, generally unhelpful staff, mysterious unexpected transfers. Beautiful scenery once the rain let up, though.
Photo of my bus, one hour after scheduled departure.
  • Mostar is predominantly Muslim, but very liberal - headcoverings are rare, mosques allow photos and shoes, no noticeable prayer calls
  • The bulk of the tourists appear to be Slavic, but everyone still speaks English. I had more communication issues in the south of France.
Still a worthwhile trip - the bridge is impressive, the cultural shift still palpable. Perhaps the most interesting element was the highly visible remnants of the Bosnian war; unlike Dubrovnik, which has repaired nearly all structural damage from its own struggle for independence, Mostar abounds with abandoned ruins, bullet holes, and the graves of young men.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beyond the Sea

A little more reflection on Rome:

  • It's a tiring city, in no small part because of all the necessary walking to get anywhere you want to go. The Metro is, well, pathetic (e.g., it was completely shut down because of a train accident yesterday)
  • Best hostel experience thus far - roomed with a couple Brits, a couple Czechs, an American and a South African.
  • Wine is expensive again (as of entering Italy, really); definitely miss that about Spain.
Anyway, got up Thursday, went to the Borghese (excellent Bernini, including the superb "Apollo and Daphne") and the National Museum (Roman celebrity sculptures), then caught the train to Bari in the early afternoon.

I was originally intending to stay on the deck, but they offered me a berth for about 25 Euros less than expected when I arrived, so I took it. A bit hot and stuffy, but the weather was great and the seas were calm. Met an Australian couple on board and traded drinks and stories back and forth.

Arrived bright and early this morning in beautiful Dubrovnik - got offered a room right after disembarking and took it - am currently typing this from a porch overlooking the old city and the Adriatic. Be jealous.

More pictures:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Quickie blog post - I've been running some long days in Rome and haven't had time to do much writing (also, the pictures need some cleaing up). But I want to put something up before I leave for Croatia tomorrow.

Arrived on July 26 in the afternoon. Since it was a Monday (most museums closed), I swung by the Santa Maria Maggiore (right by my lodging place) then decided to stroll the Appian Way into Rome.

Appian Way pictures

On July 27 trod a path through Ancient Rome - the Colosseum to Palatine Hill to the Forum up Capitol Hill to the Musei Capitolini, then over to the Pantheon, and some wandering about in the evening near the Trevi fountain.

Ancient Rome pictures

On July 28 went to the Vatican - the Museum and St Peter's, then down to wander Trastevere for the late afternoon/evening.

Vatican pictures


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Florence (7/25)

July 25

Florence is pretty chaotic to do without lots of prep in a single day. I hit everything I wanted to but there's always more.

Not a lot of pictures (spent a lot of time in museums), but I ended up visiting:

The Uffizi
(Da Vinci's Annunciation was another favorite)

The Accademia
Enormous and exceedingly impressive in person
The Bargello
The other David

The San Marco

The Pitti Palace
Boring, huh? Well, so's the Pitti Palace (relatively speaking, of course)
I would have liked to see the Duomo/Science museums would have been nice to fit in as well, but I got where I wanted to go. And I did take some pictures:

Cinque Terre (7/23-7/24)

Another long day on the road to get to the Cinque Terre: Arles -> Marseille -> Nice -> Monaco -> Ventimiglia -> Genoa -> Monterosso. Wrote those last two blog posts on the train, and remembered to take a few pictures.

Wore my sweet new FC Barcelona jersey on the train - got taunted by some AC Milan fans.

I bunked down in Vernazza, which is a pretty cool place - the only natural harbor in the Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre is beautiful - I spent the next day hiking from Monterosso to Riomaggiore, then took the evening train into Florence. Cliffs, beaches, vinyards, etc - just look at the pictures already, and don't go to Italy without visiting the Cinque Terre!

Cinque Terre photo album

Provence (7/21-7/22)

July 21: Arles

Got into Avignon late on the 20th after another long travel day - been having trouble booking high-speed rail. Barcelona to Carbere to Perpignon to Narbonne to Nimes to Avignon. Nothing available (unsuprisingly), so moved on the Arles and found a nice place on Plaza Voltaire.

Anyway Arles is a nice little town with a whole mess of Roman ruins. Doesn't quite look like how Van Gogh saw it any more:

Swung through the Wednesday morning market:

Then went over to the Ancient history museum for an overview of the artifacts and structures as they were 2000 years ago. Then off to see the Theatre and the Amphitheatre:

Stopped by the Reattu museum (bought the museum pass), but was largely underwhelmed - I'm TRYING to appreciate the modern period, but the signal to noise ratio is not so great.

Bonus fact:
- Some girl soliciting donations for a charity repeatedly poked me with her pen when I politely declined to donate. Fortunately, she gave up about 2 seconds before I slapped her.

Arles photo album

July 22: Avignon

Woo - long day. Took the bus into Avignon in the morning and saw the Papal palace and the old medieval bridge.

Sur le Pont d'Avignon...
The terrace and the big halls in the Papal Palace are kinda cool, but the entrance few is a little steep when the interior's been repeatedly gutted and redone over the past 3-4 centuries (most recent practical usage - Napoleonic barracks). There's a few small murals left, but it's largely barren.

I wanted to go to Pont du Gard to see the aqueduct, but the bus schedule is erratic and would leave me there for 5 hours. So, I thought, "I can bike it! The guide says it's 13 miles away, no problem!". Tourism office informs me the practical (albiet interesting) route for cycling is more like 70 kms. So after ~3 hours walking briskly about town, I decided to use my remaining 5 hours of available time (until the bike shop closed) to bike out and back.

The way out was great - some scattered downpours of rain (of course - second day of rain on the whole trip and it's when I'm biking 70 kms), but made great time to the aqueduct. The way back was another story - first ~10 kms was up and down hills (emphasis on the up), and my legs started to give out (yeah, haven't been biking much lately). Ugh. It got to where I was unable to sustain climbs and was inching my way uphill in short bursts. Finally got the point where I had no energy, 20-25 kms to go in less than an hour, and a series of unsuccessful attempts to hitchhike.

But! Shortly thereafter I crested the last hill - long gentle downhill slope for over 10 kms. Salvation! I cruised down (thankfully I shelled out for a good bike) and my legs managed to recover enough to keep me over 30 kms/hr for the final stretch. Got the bike back to the shop with 5 minutes to spare. Whew!

Avignon photo album

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Modernisme in Barcelona

Been away from the Internets for a while - I'm going to start catching up now. Doing most of the writing offline, but still takes some assembling.

July 19 was spent mostly in the Eixample, the modern 19th century boom expansion of Barcelona outside the old city walls. The highlight of which, is, of course the Moderisme architecture exemplified by Antoni Gaudi. (Paraphrasing from the guidebook - I knew little about Modernisme before arriving in Barcelona).

First stop - Casa Mila (aka La Pedrera / "The Quarry" for looking hewn out of a rock face)

The practicality of the ornamental structures is impressive - makes you want to be an architect.

Next - The Block of Discord (a few blocks south)

A line-up of contrasting facades

Had a nice sit-down lunch with an American couple from LA. The woman wants to introduce me to her niece in San Francisco.

Finally, the Sagrada Familia:

Can't add too much to the pictures - the building (still 20 years from completion) is immense, towering over the neighborhood, and crafted impeccably for 100+ years of construction.

Found a nice Enlish-language bookstore in the neighborhood - traded "The Name of the Rose" (finished just in time for ancient Roman country) for "Cryptonomicon" (not terribly relevant, but I've been meaning to read it)

Full album

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Phew - okay; last post of the "evening"; it's 2:00 am and I need some sleep.

Barcelona (on the Ramblas) has been perhaps the most crowded place I have been yet in Europe (aside from particular attractions and events).

Just masses of people everywhere.

Getting a hotel (arriving on a Saturday in July) was a little hectic - I called about a dozen places before finding anything. Definitely pushing my bookings a few days further out from now on; it's the low season in most of Spain and Portugal so I may have been lulled into a false sense of security. It's a tiiiiiny room, but the price was nice.

Walked down the Ramblas on the 17th, and grabbed some tapas for a late lunch. Catalonian tapas bars are nice and easy; take what you want and keep the toothpicks for the tab. Climbed up to Montjuic on the 18th to see the fort, the Olympic stadium, and the Catalan art museum, then came back down to the Barri Gotic to see the Cathedral and the Picasso museum.

Cathedral geese grant indulgences for bread

I've been making an effort to caption the pictures a little better. I'm also trying to take more interesting pictures (not just monuments); that's a work in progress.


July 16th:

Long day trip to Granada today. It's a 3 hour train ride, plus my ~30 minute walk to the train station, so up at 5:30 to catch to 7:00 train, and not back until nearly midnight. Whew. I am a master train sleeper now.

The highlight of Granada is clearly the Alhambra:

Nice if a little underwhelming - my expectations may have been a a bit high.

but I found myself with some extra time after running through the place (5:00 train was completely booked), so I wandered back through the town looking at various smaller sights. Some un-photographed highlights:

  • Exchanging commiserating looks about loud ATVs with an old man on a bench across a small plaza
  • Found an Irish pub with an Irish bartender who apparently spends his evening sleeping with American girls (being the only Irish bartender in a small Spanish city). An old gay Welshman bought me a beer.


4 days since the last post...triple feature tonight: Sevilla, Granada, and Barcelona.

July 15th:
Sevilla is an alright city; a little more rural than other places. For example, the public transportation is somewhat lacking; I ended up repeatedly walking the 2-3 kms to the rail station because the metro/bus coverage was lacking. I think (for future reference) one might be better served in the more rural areas of Andalucia.

Anyway, I spent the most of the day touring the Cathedral and the Real Alcazar:

More pictures

The evening was spent at a bullfight; I've decided to move that to a separate post because (a) you might find the material disturbing (I do myself, frankly) and (b) I have to edit some video.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Arriving in Seville

I was tempted to stay in Salema an additional day (didn't get any kayaking done), but decided I'd given the area a fair shake and moved on (1 more day elsewhere!).

(If anyone's curious, my naked people beach tally for the Algarve was 5 naked old men, 3 naked old ladies, and 1 topless young woman of aesthetic proportions. For those swinging from the other side of the plate, no dudes under 50 with their kit off. Yes, all naked people were apparently German)

So I spent most of the day riding buses back into to Spain and Seville.

Waiting for the bus. Check the hot new sunglasses...yeah...

Got into Seville around 6/7, so after checking in to my hotel (and soaking up a bit of A/C - no more ocean breezes :( ), I went out to catch a flamenco show at Auditori Alvarez Quintero:

Small intimate theater in an old manor house - quite enjoyable. Then off for tapas at El Rincón del Pulpo Gallego, a Galician bar nearby my hotel.

So far, I've largely been a terrible diner thus far on the trip - if I don't have a recommendation, I tend to wander around like an idiot, unable to translate menus and make a decision (doesn't help that I've been in Portugal and understand basically no Portuguese).

But this bar worked out quite well, even with me being the only person with any English in the whole place. I pulled a recommendation out of some guide, and ordered the chorizo criollo, mejillones al vapor, rollinoes(?) de la casa, and the pulpo - with a glass of sidra on the side - all of which was excellent (and reasonably priced).

Tomorrow I'm planning to tool around Seville, and then off to Granada and the Alhambra on Friday for a looooong day trip (it's ~3 hours away, but I don't want to have to deal with switching hotels), then likely off to Barcelona on Saturday.

More pictures from today

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Algarve

July 12: On the train down to Lagos, met and chatted with a few people:

  • Bruno, from near Lagos but working in London, on his way home on holiday
  • Savannah, American from Bend, Oregon (small world), on a work-exchange program in the area (okay, she was pretty hot - I think this is where I got distracted and misplaced my sunglasses)

Hopped the bus to Salema, checked into my room, and relaxed on the beach:

July 13: A day of mixed outcomes

Today was supposed to be a day of lounging around and rest, but I woke up with energy and decided to go for a short hike down the coast and check out some of the beaches in the coves.

Portable tripod mastery

Which was all well and good until I felt ready to continue down to the point, a good 3-4 miles down the coast from Salema.

Of course, I had only brought with me 750 ml of water, which is NOT ENOUGH for 6-8 miles in the midday sun in the south of Portugal. The last half of the walk back was a disastrous haze as my body started running out of fluids. Luckily, no signs of renal failure thus far. Less luckily, after laying down a good base tan over the last 2 weeks, I burned the crap out of my skin today (even many already quite tan areas).

Had a nice rabbit stew dinner (with PO-TA-TOES) and now off to bed. To Sevilla tomorrow (the final stop for which I don't have a guidebook) if all goes well.

Full photo album


July 11th: Started at the Gulbenkian museum (free today!), a fairly wildly varied collection. Lots of nice Chinese gemstone carvings, Turkish rugs, Ottoman books, and this bad boy from Rene Lalique:

Dragonfly Woman

Then onto the train to Sintra. (Missed the first train by less than a minute because the ticket guy gave me the wrong ticket).

Sintra is magnificent - the Pena palace and the Moorish fortress are two incredibly breath-taking buildings. Absolutely a must visit (maybe THE must visit) in Portugal.

The Pena Palace

Basically a brightly colored Disney castle sitting on top of a mountain -  filled with terraces and buttresses and so on. The interior is quite interesting as well - great example of Victorian design.

The Moorish Castle

Definitely leaning more towards "ruins" than "castle" at this point, the whole outer rampart on the cliff edge is still intact and walkable (and very cool).

Hiked down from here (after taking the bus up), and recommend hiking both ways - not that far, and the bus is crowded and expensive. Plus, you get to see the palace from the castle before arriving:

The National Palace is then a little out of the way, but it's a bit ho-hum in comparison anyway (although they were doing a bit of jousting in the yard when I was there).

Got back to Lisbon just in time to catch the World Cup final in the plaza outside the rail station and get myself a nice spot on the balcony:

Vamos Espana!

Full photo album

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Alright, it's been a busy couple days, no posts - expect more of that if and when Wifi becomes harder to find.

I think I left off after Wednesday...

Thursday (July 8):

Up early to the rail station to pick up my ticket to Lisbon, then off to the OTHER train station to get tickets to Toledo. Was intending to go to Toledo on Thursday, but instead went home, had a little siesta, then went off to the Royal Palace:
Raaaar! Look out, Juan Carlos I - your palace armory's extensive collection of medieval and renaissance weaponry will not save it from the ravages of Spider Jaryn!

Friday (July 9):

Off to Toledo in the morning - a fine example of Spanish architecture built on Spanish ruins built on Moorish/Muslim ruins built on Roman ruins. I'd been "enjoying" the triple digit daytime temperatures, but Toledo got up to a nice and toasty 109 F (43 C).

Finally, back to Madrid and hopping the night train to Lisbon.

Saturday (July 10):

Arrived in Lisbon - sans hotel reservation, on a Saturday, in July. Not the best idea - I'd been having some persistent phone trouble contacting the hotels I wanted, so I just decided to wing it. What's the worst that could happen?

After a little exploring, I found myself a bunk in a hostel - 2 guys in a six person room, not bad. And free breakfast and Wifi!

After I got my reservation, still had to wait a good 6 hours to check-in, so I went off into the city. Through the Baixa to the Castelo S Jorge and the Alfama, back to Praça de Comercia and on the trolley to the suburb of Belem for the Coach Museum, Jeronimo's monastery, the Descombrimentos monument, and the Tower of Belem. Whew.

Slacking on guard duty. This is the only guard post in which two Portuguese teenagers are NOT making out

Now to bed. Tomorrow's probables: Sintra, the Gulbenkian museum, further exploration of the Barrio Alto, then off Monday to the Algarve.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Madrid - Day 2

Madrid is awesome. I'm gonna need some earplugs to be able to sleep tonight, but nothing like being in a European capital when it goes to the World Cup final for the first time.

Today I went to the Prado and the Reina Sofia, which were quite nice, but clearly not the highlight of the day. In the afternoon I had a couple beers at a fine bar on the corner of Calle de Lope de Vega and Plaza de Jesus. Struck up a "conversation" with the bartenders (who spoke about as much English as I speak Spanish). They recommended I watch the game at the stadium, but I thought that might be a bit much, so I just went to a pub like a block away.

Where I met Sergio and Vanessa!

We had some drinks, witnessed the incredible chaos of Plaza del Sol (more pictures), had some tapas (alright, they bought me some drinks and tapas - huzzah for Spanish hospitality!), and I got some info on the north of Spain. Good times had by all.

Now I just have to get up early, go to the train station and confirm my reservation to Lisbon...Ugh.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Finally arrived in Madrid after a 15-hour day of rail travel. One of the (hopefully many times) I'm grateful for the 1st class railpass.

View Larger Map

Got to walk around Bayonne for a bit as well, which I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise.
Bayonne pictures

Notes about Spain thus far:

1. Fewer English speakers (compared to Paris; not really a surprise)
2. Sometimes, when the Metro ticket machine has a language button, its a ruse
3. Prostitutes EVERYWHERE. 15+ in the ~100 m from the metro to my hotel

Monday, July 5, 2010

Paris: Days 2 - 5

Off to Madrid tomorrow morning - failed to reserve my train early enough (they suggested two weeks) and couldn't go overnight. :( Fortunately, my train to Lisbon has now been successfully booked.

Overview of what I've been doing for the last few days below - busy. busy, busy. Hopefully I'll be able to compose something more interesting (and better laid out) than just album links on the next update - lots of thinking time on the train...

Day 2:
The historic core of Paris:
Notre Dame / Deportation Memorial / Sainte-Chapelle / Conciergerie / Louvre / Orsay

Day 3:
Napoleon's tomb / Army museum / Rodin museum / Champs-Elysee to Arc de Triomphe / Opera house
(Also a late night of drinking which I failed to bring my camera to)

Day 4:

Day 5: 
The Eiffel Tower and Marais