Home at last.
Home at last.
This is our last stop on our 10 week trip. It's been amazing and ending in Rome makes a great bookend with Stockholm as our start. The first thing we noticed were the crowds. Lots and lots of other people want to see this magical city. It's by far the most crowded city we've been to on this trip.
We bought a 3 day transportation pass and headed to St. Peter's Basilica after checking in to our hotel room near the train station. In the late afternoon, the lines were a half mile long, and it officially holds up to 60,000 people. They certainly don't let that many in, but we decided to visit at 7 am the next morning to beat the rush. And we also found out that even though the website says all tickets are sold for the Vatican Museums this week, we checked the counter there and they told us they sell tickets at the gate up until 4 and close at 6. So we decided to do that a few days later after most of the people left and there were no lines. In the morning, lines for this can easily be a mile long and a several hour wait, even with "skip the line tickets." Everyone has to go through security, so there's no such thing as skip the line anymore.
On Friday afternoon at 3:30, we walked right in. Inside, there were still a ton of people and tours, so there was no elbow room at all and you kind of had to go with the herd. We did get a good 20 minutes or more in the Sistine Chapel though. We use Rick Steves audio tours, which are free on his app. We pretty much hate guided tours because they make everyone so clueless. Seriously, few things make people lose common courtesy or common sense than being led around a city by someone with a flag. His app lets you stop or start when you want and provides good details. You can easily pay hundreds of dollars for similar info from a guide.
Over the next 4 days, we did a lot of walking to soak up the sites: The Trevi Fountain at night and during the day, the Spanish Steps at night, St. Peter's Square at night and during the day, the Vatican Museums, etc. Exploring the neighborhoods was fun. Our favorite was theTrastevere, which means "across the Tiber." It was less crowded, had no tour groups, and had more locals. The food was good, as expected. There are gluten-free options in many restaurants now, so I had my fill of delicious pizza and pasta dishes. Meals with wine are still cheap for an American, even in a tourist-filled capital city in Europe. Many times we had a hard time paying $50 for a great meal with wine for 2.
One shocker to me was that you can't sit or party on the Spanish Steps. 22 years ago, that was THE thing to do. From pre-teens to the elderly, you could just open a bottle of wine and chill out for as long as you want. So we brought a bottle of wine and a new liqueur for me, Liqueur Strega, and settled in. An American busker our age sat behind us and started playing the soundtrack of our lives. It was pretty great, and some of the best music we've heard on the trip. And then the cops walked around telling everyone to get up and leave. What the hell?! Granted, it was a little sketchy last time I was here, but sketchy in Rome is like DisneyLand in America.
On our last day, we had seen all the "must see" sights and were pretty much burned out on being a tourist. No more museums! No more crowds! No more tour groups! So we walked to non-touristy neighborhoods and strolled through the pleasant cemetery for non-Catholics (their term, not mine.) It was a peaceful oasis and we saw the tombs of Percy Shelley, John Keats, and Goethe. I haven't read any of them, but this might motivate me to. Later, I did the math with my pedometer app. We averaged 7.7 miles a day over the 10 weeks. Not bad, considering many days were spent on a train.
Our Eurail pass was the best investment we made. I can't believe what a great deal it is if you travel more than a few weeks and visit a few sites. The stats on our app tells the tale:
- 7 countries visited by train (we hit 8 with Helsinki, but didn't take a train there).
- 8,900 Km of rail
- 43 cities stopped or started by rail
- 4 days and 14 hours of rail time
For about $16/day per person, we did all of that. The pass paid for itself within 2 1/2 weeks. We didn't miss a train, even though we did run through stations quite a few times. Every now and then I'd check a rail site to see what a ticket would cost if we bought it the day of the train. In Italy, one half of our route on one day would have cost over $200!
I'm in Rome's Fiumicino Airport as I write this, waiting for our plane home. And all I can say is, I need a vacation.
More photos and videos are here.
St. Peter's Basilica https://photos.app.goo.gl/n3WCBXypraMhqaSs8
Rome https://photos.app.goo.gl/fdxApU6Q9KYipDXM6Read more
Sorrento is a great base for exploring the area. We hit the Amalfi coast yesterday and today, we took the circumvesuviana train to Pompeii. I gotta admit, I kinda like saying circumvesuviana. It's the private train line that links Sorrento with Pompeii and then onto Naples. There's a few tunnels between here and there and a few bridges with views of the Gulf of Naples. There were quite a lot of tourists on our trains since this is All Saints Day and the end of a 4 day weekend for Italians. The vast majority of tourists I heard were Italian.
What's there to say about Pompeii? You probably know the gist, but in 79 CE Vesuvius blew its top. The nearby port city of Pompeii held about 20,000 people and they think about 2,000 were killed by the gas or ash. The few bodies that were found left a perfect cavity in the ash that hardened and starting in the 1700's people poured plaster in the cavity and that's what you see in the pictures here. The bodies disintegrated into ashes after the volcanic ashes hardened. Ashes to ashes.....
It took 45 minutes or so to take the train near our apartment right to the ruins gate. The ruins are huge and there are lots of places to visit where there are hardly any people. We met an American physician named Tom who works for the State Department in Eastern and Southern Europe. He provides medical care for State Dept. staff and US citizens when needed. Not a bad gig. We had a lot in common as he was an avid traveler also, so we hung out together as we explored the sites. It was yet another great day.
Tomorrow, we check out of this amazing apartment. We've noticed the pollution getting worse in Sorrento over our stay. Today, we could barely see Vesuvius from our balcony, when the other day it was crystal clear. We have been smelling burning wood and plastic for 2 days. I'm not sure what that's all about, but it's time to move on. We'll take the circumvesuviana (I did it again) to Naples and then change to a high speed train to Rome, where we'll spend the last 4 days and nights of this amazing journey.
More photo and videos are here.
Whelp. We can't sit still for too long. There's a bus route along the cliff of the Amalfi coast that is pretty famous. It goes from Sorrento to Positano and Amalfi, two very famous towns. Why it's not called the Positano coast, I'll never know. That's a more popular tourist town these days. But from our balcony, I can see the train station and part of the bus station below and across the street. It's Halloween weekend, and that means All Saints Day is Tuesday. Italians get a 4 day weekend, and that's why it's been so crazy crowded here. I could see long lines for the bus from the balcony for a couple days, so we wisely decided to skip the bus route that hugs the coast and take an all day ferry cruise where we could stop at Positano and Amalfi for 3 hours each. Besides, seeing the land from the sea is better than seeing the sea from the land.
We left at 9:30 and were back by 6;30. It was again an unseasonably warm 72, which feels a lot hotter. Positano was absolutely packed with tourists. This was the last day for this boat tour. For the next month or so, the tour is shorter because the high season ends. And then the tourist boats pretty much stop, so our timing was lucky. We had no agenda in Positano, so we walked towards some stairs and walked up and up and up to get some views. Then we found the road, which is now a one way road, west to east, since it's so narrow. We walked down and past lots of tourist shops. You've seen one, you've seen them all..... But it was a pleasant experience, especially stopping for a dessert and wine. Three hours later, we were at the ferry port.
We hopped on the boat for the next leg down the coast to Amalfi. It was also crowded, but seemed to have a bit more room. We researched a place up a a few steps and near the church and grabbed lunch. It was delicious and not just a tourist trap like we experienced in Sorrento the day before. Afterwards, we climbed more steps and got wonderfully lost. At one point, we were in a tunnel and going up some narrow steps. A woman was doing laundry and looked surprised to see us? "Privado?" I asked. Yup. So we backtracked and circled around. And we ended up with the hordes of tourists on the main street and the requisite knick-knack shops and limoncello stores. We killed time as best we could and the sun set as we headed back to Sorrento on the boat. It was a great day. Tomorrow, we head to Pompeii. I was there in 2000 and it will be Deanne's first time.
More photos and videos are here.
From Verona, we took a high speed train to Bologna, where we changed to another one that took us to Naples. The first train was almost entirely in tunnels. That was probably about 90 miles of tunnels, the longest train tunnels I've been in. Both were very fast and at one point, we were cruising at 248 KPH, or over 150 miles per hour. When we got out of the train in Naples at lunch time, it was like we landed on another planet.
For 8 1/2 weeks we've been in North and Central Europe, where everything works and people are chill. Stepping outside, it was pure chaos. It was dirty and smelly and loud. But at least there was no garbage strike, and Naples is infamous for those. People honked to be heard over others honking. Ambulances were stuck in traffic and the siren just kept on going. Nobody noticed except us. Bike food delivery drivers screamed at each other on the sidewalk as we walked by. But the sun was shining.
We needed a bus to get to the ferry to get to Sorrento and you need to buy bus tickets at a tobaccanist shop and not on the buses. We walked quite a bit to find one and got bad info from Google maps and we never did find one. There was no place at the station to buy bus tickets either, so we went back to take a Metro to the ferry port. The lines to buy Metro tickets were long. Either there is no app, or locals don't use it because it wasn't just tourists standing in line. Long story short, there was no option to buy the Metro line 1 ticket on these machines. Finally, I went to a random store and asked to buy bus tickets and luckily the guy sold them. He was very nice about it. An hour after starting our search, we got on a bus that took us near the ferry. If we had taken the train, we would have been in Sorrento by then. E la vita.
I found a restaurant by the port with good reviews and it was amazing. We sat in the street which looked like an alley. It was a Saturday at noonish and families were out for lunch. Kids screamed at each other at the table behind us. Our waiters were good and fast and the bacalo (cod) meals we got were amazing. A bottle of Pinot Grigio settled us in.
From there, it was just a short walk to the ferry. Too bad we couldn't sit outside to get better views, but the ones we saw of the Gulf of Naples were pretty good. We hugged the coast until we got to the port of Sorrento.
Once there we hopped on a shuttle bus to take us to our apartment, at the top of the cliff and next to the train station. We REALLY wanted that boat trip. It would have been so much easier to take the train.
It's a steep city and there was no way we were walking with luggage. The bus only left when full, like in SE Asia or Turkey. We met our host at the apartment we rented for 3 days. Wow. It's definitely the biggest apartment we have stayed in on the trip, and probably the best. It's a 2 BR unit with a humongous balcony we have it to ourselves. It boasts great views of Mt. Vesuvius and the city and bay below.
The famous island of Capri is just a short ferry ride away, but this balcony is heaven. Who would come all this way and not go to Capri? Us. After 9 weeks of travel, we need to chill out in the sun instead of walking down another charming street. Capri will always be there, but eating breakfast, drinking wine, and reading on our sunny balcony is just what the doctor ordered.
We did get out and see the sights. We walked back to the port to buy ferry tickets to go to Amalfi and Positano. And we ate lunch at a restaurant. But this is the most touristy city we've been to on the whole trip. It sure looks like cruise ships dumped a lot of people here during the day. That's not our scene. So we went to the grocery store and bought food and wine for meals and enjoyed the balcony for the next few days.
More photos and videos are here.
The high speed train from St. Poelten whisked us west, towards Innsbruck, where we spent a few days just a month or so earlier. But the snow on the mountains was all melted when we arrived. It melted in 5 weeks in the fall! It was about 72 degrees when we arrived, which is well above average.
We grabbed a quick lunch and jumped on another high speed train heading straight south to Verona, through the Brenner Pass of the Alps into Italy. The mountain scenery was the best we'd seen since Switzerland.
It was smooth sailing with the apartment check-in. The hardest thing to do then was decide where to drink wine in the sun with a Roman Arena in the background. I noticed the cultural differences right away. Italians really do talk louder, often, and with their hands. Austrians, Germans and especially the Swiss are so reserved in comparison. It's not a bad thing, but very noticable when you were in a totally different environment just a day earlier.
We passed through Trento before arriving in Verona, home of the MYTHICAL Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare. Someone decided that a particular balcony was the one where "Guilieta" received Romeo. It's a PLAY, people. We walked by the busy street it's on and peeked in to look at all the people clamoring to take pictures. For a few extra euros you could go up to the balcony for Instagram photos. The line was long.
Verona is actually a very touristy city, and for good reason. It's well-preserved and has a complete Roman Arena that is used for live operas still. There are lots of quaint piazzas, markets, and restaurants. We skipped all museums and churches and spent a wonderful day and a half just walking around and enjoying the cuisine, wine, and coffee. That's what you're supposed to do in Italy, right?
More photos and videos are here.
Before getting on our night train from Berlin to Vienna, we got a pleasant surprise from Bogdan, our Polish friend we were just visiting in Wroclaw. He was in Berlin for work that day and would take the train with us, which passed throgh Wroclaw at about 10:22 pm. We met on the platform. We paid for a 3 person couchette and there was another gentleman in our compartment, but we visited Bogdan in a first class seating area he was sharing with a young Amercian woman from LA. Of course he brought his homemade limoncello, so we all had a good time before we headed back to our compartment. But not before we exchanged gifts of a bottle of limoncello for some German chocolates we bought for Beata and Bogdan.
There's not a lot of room in a couchette, but we each get a bed for a $55 supplement per person. We rang the porter, who set up the beds for us. It wasn't the most restful sleep, with all of the starting and stopping on the way to Vienna through Poland and Czechia. The train even stopped near the Czech border for an hour and a half for us to sleep and so that we could arrive at 7 in Vienna.
We had planned to take about 3 of these on our trip, but they sell out early. After this one, we were glad we didn't because we're not 18 anymore and because first class day travel is just so much more comfortable. We weren't in the best shape possible for visiting our friends Angela and Charlie. Deanne was an exchange student with Angela's family in the nearby village of Wachberg. It had a grand total of 4 houses. Deanne lived in Wachtberg 4 for about 3 months in 1977. Eight years ago, we visited them and since we're in the neighborhood, we thought we'd stop in again. Deanne was looking forward to seeing her "mutti" or mother, as this might be the last time we see her.
Angela picked us up at the train station in St. Poelten, the largest city nearby. It's a lovely looking city and I'm always amazed at how big European cities look to me. I looked it up. It's only got about 54,000 people, but looks much larger. That's probably because Europeans are always walking around and going to and from bus, tram, and train stations. I think cars and roads hide a city's true population and let people live farther from a city and keep them from interacting.
It was just a short drive to their village of Haunoldstein from the train station. They fed us well, and often. We walked around and visited a friend who had just moved into a house they built. What a treat to see some new and smart architecture. Out here in a village, people have more living room. We're used to cramped city apartments and hotel rooms, so it's nice to see not everyone lives like that.
Afterwards, we visited Mutti and her daghter in law Petra, and her grandchildren in Wachtberg. They live on a working farm and we got the grand tour of the operation. They have a small dairy farm, raise pigs for slaughter, make christmas tree stands in their "spare" time and have a few other operations going on. The kids all worked on the farm doing the chores and acted as tour guides. Mutti has memory issues but remembers Deanne and they shed a tear or two at the reunion.
Later, we visited Angela and Charlie's son Jakob and his family at their refurbished house. It was a work in progress when we met him years ago. The 120 year old former bakery turned home was beautiful and his kids were intrigued at the American visitors. We called it an early night because we had been struggling to stay awake all day. What great hosts Angela and Charlie are. We were honored guests. We will keep trying to get them to come to Madison to show them around there and Chicago. Someday soon, I hope.
In the morning, we hopped on a train heading to Innsbruck from where we'll catch another one going south to Verona, Italy, home of Shakespeare's fair maiden, Juliet. We were going to take another overnighter to Rome, but they were sold out. Instead, we are spending 2 nights in Verona in order to break up the trip.
More photos and videos are here.
This is our second visit to Berlin. We fell in love with it 8 years ago when we visited during the 25th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Wall. It will be hard to compete with seeing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra backing up Peter Gabriel singing David Bowie's "Heroes" with the Brandenburg Gate in the background, but we'll try.
We found an aparthotel near Checkpoint Charlie that had just opened and wasn't quite ready for visitors yet, but it worked well enough. It was near an Ubahn station, and that's crucial. We bought a week transportation pass and made good use of it. Even though we also bought a 3 day museum pass, this trip was about exploring neighborhoods and relaxing a bit. Berlin is such a chill place. It's got a great vibe. You see people drinking beer at all times of the day, and everywhere, including parks and subways. But nobody is ever loud or obnoxious or fighting. It's like having a coke here. I love it. I just feel like I'm getting away with something when we go to a kiosk and buy half liter cans of of good, inexpensive beer and walk around to enjoy neighborhoods. Certain ones like Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg are vibrant with restaurants, clubs, art scenes, and bars.
We revisited a few museums on "museum insel" or museum island. There are 5 full of glorious booty from around the world. The Germans are really giving the Brits a run for their money here. Our favorite was probably the Ishtar Gate, a blue-tiled gate taken from Babylon and now housed at the Pergamon museum. Another classic was the bust of Nefertiti housed at the Neues museum. On our last day, we visited the free and powerful Topography of Terror museum, half of which is outside. It explains the rise of Naziism and is located on the grounds of the former SS headquarters. We've seen this information multiple times in multiple countries and it's chilling every time.
Deanne has a friend from Madison who's also in Berlin at the same time. He is visiting his daughter who lives here. Andre recommended a show that is similar to Cirque de Soleil and we weren't disappointed. It's like a Vegas show. I was astounded at the dancing, music, and yes, acrobats who performed death-defying stunts. The technology was pretty amazing too. The floor rose up, tilted, rotated, and receded, only to be replaced by a shallow pool with fountains and then the pool sank and dancers that were tapdancing in a rainy pool started swimming as the shallow pond became a deep pool. Then it all disappeared for the trapeze artists. Somehow the producers of "Arise" managed to weave a simple plot into this spectacle. We didn't see any punk shows like last time, but had a drink in a metal bar in Kreuzberg, across from S036, the music club we visited last time.
We met up with Andre for coffee in Alexanderplatz, a large, central plaza at the base of the huge radio and TV tower that is an icon of Berlin. He used to live here and left 17 years ago. This was his first time back and said it's changed so much since then. We've also noticed lots of development in the 8 years since we've been here. But it's still got that edge to it if you peek under the covers. We ate a variety of food and we tended towards ethnic. We even found a nice, cheap Indonesian place in an apartment block. And I realized that we're soon leaving Germany for good, so we went to Max und Moritz, a 120 year old classic German restaurant for my Sauerbraten fix.
We had 5 nights here and that gave us the time we needed to revisit favorite haunts and explore new places. I could spend weeks here I love it so much. We actually took most of a rainy Monday off to just chill out at the room and relax. That's not something we do too often. We've got less than 2 weeks left and are starting to think of home. But the next stop is some small villages near St. Poelten, Austria to visit Deanne's AFS exchange family from high school. We'll spend one night there before heading to Italy. We'll take our first overnight train on Austria's OBB NightJet. They've made overnight train travel in Europe popular again. Low cost airlines almost destroyed this class of travel, but the green alternative of night train travel is appealing more and more to Europeans and Americans alike.
More photos and videos are here.
We found an apartment in Hamburg's Altona area. This used to be considered a suburb when it was planned, but now it's just a neighborhood on the west side. Our train took us to the Altona station from Wroclaw, as it was the end of the line, so that was convenient. Hamburg is not too well known in the US, but it's Germany's 2nd largest city and largest port. It's where most Germans who emigrated to America left from. The Elbe flows through the city and down into the North sea. There are canals off of the river, so you're always crossing a bridge when you're near the river it seems. It's got a great transportation network, and once again, we bought a 3 day city card that allows all transportation, including the city ferries, and reductions on museums.
The Beatles honed their skills here working up to 6 hours a day for most days of the week. In the late 50's Hamburg was a gritty port city with a seedy side in the area of St. Pauli. Prostitution, hard drinking, music, money? That's what drew the Beatles here from Liverpool. Even though Britain won the war and fire-bombed the city in 1943, less than 15 years after the war, Hamburg was where the money was, and not Liverpool. That firebombing of Hamburg by the RAF was in retaliation of a Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry. The damage here and lives lost was worse than the better known Dresden bombing.
But that's all ancient history and there's hardly any mention of the Beatles in town. There's a pathetic statue area near the bars they played at and some song titles in plaques laid in the ground. One night, we walked into the Indra club where the Beatles had a regular gig. There is still music here, but not when we arrived. A few photos of the Beatles on the wall is about all the tribute you'll find. Instead, it's a New Orleans-like atmosphere nearby, but much tamer and smaller in area. Granted, we were here on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but it wasn't too wild and nothing like Frenchmen or Bourbon St. in New Orleans.
We explored several neighborhoods and only went to one museum, a maritime museum. It was huge but mostly had collections that only a Navy fanatic would love. There were lots of model ships of all sizes. LOTS. And uniforms, and maritime art. The most interesting were model ships made of bone by French navy prisoners captured by the British during the Napoleonic wars.
There are several music clubs in the city and mid-week, there were a couple of bands each night to choose from. And lots of DJs of course, but that's not for us. We chose to go to the Knust Club. It's probably a spoof of "Kunst:" which means "art" in German. An american punk band called SamIAm was playing. We didn't know their music but went anyway since live music is so hard to come by in Europe, unless you're at a festival. The crowd was good and the music was OK. For dinner, we just split some CurryWurst at the stand out front. That's the famous Berlin ketchup mixed with curry powder on top of a sliced brat over fries. We've yet to find some that is as good as our first CurryWursts we had in Berlin 8 years ago.
We're getting a little tired of heavy German fare, so we opted for Vietnamese for lunch and Spanish tapas for dinner yesterday. There's no end of variety of cuisine here or most cities we've been in. In short, I'd say Hamburg has a lot to offer but we are definitely slowing down after 7+ weeks of travel and only scratched the surface a bit. That being said, we're still lapping everyone on the couch.
More photos and videos are here.
We met Beata and Bogdan Labaz at a festival in Madison this summer. They were surprised we had been to their hometown of Wroclaw before and we made fast friends. Beata is a soil scientist at the University here and was doing research in Madison. When we told them about this trip, they invited us to stay with them, so here we are.
Bogdan picked us up at the train station and whisked us away to his home. Beata had made gluten free desserts and bread for me. We'll be forever indebted for their hospitality. We were treated like a king and a queen. We went out to a jazz club for a Godfather themed night that night. The house band was really good. Afterwards, we walked around the hopping Market Square and had a nightcap of the local cherry liqueur.
Afer a huge breakfast, we drove south through Lower Silesia towards the Czech border to Ksiaz Castle. Poland has a long and storied history. This land was Polish, then Prussian, then German, then Polish again. The castle was built by a Prussian family, the von Hochbergs and the castle was their home for generations. It was furnished with period piece furniture and was perched high on a hill with amazing views.
Then it was off to the secret Nazi caves of Sztolnie Walimskie. The Nazis built a slave-labor camp here for prisoners and made them dig tunnels in the mountains through hard rock. Nobody really knows what the plan was. Was it a secret bunker for Hitler? A research lab for the V-2 rocket? The war ended before the tunnels could be finished. Afterwards, we got a taste of a delicious cheese that a woman was grilling and topped with a cranberry sauce. On the way back, we stopped in the town of Swidnica and had some humongous schnitzels at a Czech themed restaurant.
The next day, we had a Thanksgiving style feast at home. In the afternoon, we visited the Panarama painting celebrating the battle of Raclawice, where Polish peasants defeated an invading Russian force in 1794. It was led by General Kosciuszko, who 18 years earlier went to the American colonies to fight for Washington. He's the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, a crucial early battle in our revolution. Bogdan was pretty surprised to see a statue commemorating him when he walked through Lafayette Square in front of our White House.
We got to meet Michal and Kuba, the Labaz sons during our stay. Michal lives at home and works with Bogdan doing IT work and sound and lighting solutions for businesses. Kuba was on leave from the Polish Navy Acadamy on the Baltic Sea, near Gdansk. It was fun getting to know them and get their perspective on things. We sat around and talked about a lot of different things, which was fun and so different than what we've been doing for the last 7 weeks. Since Helsinki, we haven't seen any friends. But that will change soon. We're visiting Deanne's exchange family in Austria in another week or so. All in all, we had an amazing time with an amazing group of people. We hope to repay the kindness when Bogdan and Beata return to Madison next summer.
More photos and videos are here.