Thursday, November 23, 2006

No Casualities in Corfu!

The largest of the Ionian Islands, Corfu is just a short ferry ride to mainland Greece. As our first stop in Greece, it was incredible. Greece is already shaping up to be one of our favourite destinations on the entire trip! Flowers bloom all year rouond, it is still warm enough to swim in the sea, the locals are friendly (think Irish friendly), and, especially because it is off season, Greece has been quiet and relaxing. Corfu is one of Greece's lushest isles. It is practically covered in olive groves, orange groves and lemon orchards. There are incredible rock formations all along the shoreline and clear shallow water as far as the eye can see.

On our first day in Corfu, we decided to walk on the dusty road through the olive groves south of our hostel. The hostel's two dogs, who we affectionately named 'Lemon' and 'Squirt', apparetnly decided that it would be a nice day for a walk as well. We thought that they would turn around after we had gotten a little ways from the hostel, but they didn't. Assuming they were just the sort of pets that took themselves for walks around the friendly islands, we accepted them as our tour guides and followed them on the twisty roads. It may seem weird, but seriously animals just wander around most of Europe by themselves and make their way home when they are either bored (or hungry!). Anyway, our tour guides successfully pointed out every single living thing our paths crossed over the next four hours. They barked at hedghogs, tried to catch sparrows and chased several stray cats. All this while managing to dodge crazy Corfuians speeding along the narrow, winding roads. We were impressed at how well the dogs were behaving. As it usually goes, however, we spoke too soon.

We rounded a bend onto a little street with a small house with a chicken coop. By 'chicken coop' I mean the chickens were wanderig around the property, across the road and right towards us. These were free-range chickens. The otherwise well behaved 'tour guides' must have thought that it was just too good to pass up. So, there we were, having not been in Greece for even 24 hours, chasing dogs that weren't ours, while they chased chickens whose owners were (a) screaming at us in Greek and (b) angrily charging down the stairs, holding a thick stick. Feathers were either hanging out of the dogs' mouths or flying everywhere. Despite our pleas the dogs were having a jolly good time. The situation did not look good. We, however, were just praying that the chicken owner didn't intend the thick stick for us. As the dust (and feathers) finally settled, literally, and we dragged the dogs away and saw that there were no chicken casualities, we hurried off down the street hoping that there would be another route back to the hostel and that it wouldn't involve any more encounters of the chicken kind.

On the way back to town, after walking a little further down the road, we saw a foot path that would enable us to bypass the dreaded chicken coop. Apparently the term 'foot path' in Greece means 'tiny cut through the bushes with a space only two feet high that isn't overgrown with prickly things.' Oh, and it may also loosely translate to 'scaling along the side of a steep cliff face'. At this point, though, anything that avoided that cute little Greek house and it not-so-happy, stick-bearing owner seemed like a good choice.

By now the dogs must have grown a bit attached to us (traumatic experiences tend to do that sort of thing). As we were slowly and carefully making our way down the slippery rocks, the dogs would always come back and check on us, or wait for us a few feet ahead. It was really cute.

The path landed us right on the beach just as the sun was setting. Whoever thought that we would be watching a beautiful Greek sunset with our tour guide dogs, two other small puppies that randomly appeared and the beaches five resident cats. How can you not laugh picturing that?

The adventures in Corfu don't end there, though. Determined to see the most of this seemingly public- transportation free island as we could before heading to the mainland, we bit the bullet and rented ATVs! Yes, Pomes Family, take a minute to digest it. I, your favourite daughter, who can barely park the van without needing a three parking space buffer, rented an ATV and scooted around the island with no assistance (well, until it broke down, of course.) I think I should have a chat with Jeremy about borrowing HIS ATV when we get home!

Anyway, armed with a plan, a map and enthusiasm, we rolled out of the hostel parking lot. The morning went perfect. We drove through little hill-side villages, along the coast and down to some beautiful sandy beaches. Driving through the villages felt weird. I felt like I was ruining their perfect preserved old-Greekness by motoring through on my loud ATV. It was like the clashing of different times: ATVs didn't exist in the time the villages bring you back to.

We motored along to the stunningly cliffs and crystal-clear water of the beaches and coves at the north-west of the island. It was breath-taking. Locals stopped to chat and explained how hot springs keep the water warm all year long. We drove along roads so secluded that I thought that we were the only two people on a huge island of olive groves! The massive Mount Panocrator loomed above us, making me realize how small we were on the island. There were some beaches on the north-east end of the island that we had wanted to check out. Making our way to the main road to cut across the island, it became apparent that, no, we are not the only ones here. It felt like all 130,000 Corfuians were out on the main road with their cars as we were nipping along the shoulder of what was more like a highway on our little ATVs. I, Kristen, was petrified, which, annoyingly, amused Jonathan even more. Deciding that it may be better to stick to the small roads, we turned around to explore the south of the island instead.

Just as we were nearing the gas station we came to a gorgeous lookout over the countryside. Naturally, I turned off my ATV and dismounted it to set up for a picture or two or five. Now, those of you who went to school with me and remember my track record with computers will not be surprised to learn that my ATV had decided to stop working! I turned the key, nothing; Held the start button, nothing; Talked to it in soothing tones, still nothing. As a last resort I tried the kick start.

Jonathan to the rescue! On his perfectly-working ATV he scooted down to the hostel (thankfully we were nearby) and brought back an official ATV-fixer! Within a half hour we were back on the road again. We sped down hills, around tight corners, past the notorious chicken coop (we went extra fast past there) and towards what would have been about the fiftieth beach on our ATV excursion. Unfortunately time ran short and we didn't want to be late returning the ATVs. We made it back with thirty seconds to spare! The hostel's welcoming-committee, Lemon and Squirt, were there waiting to greet us.

That was our only stop in the Ionians. From here we are going to the Pelopennese.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Write this One in Your Calendars...

Today the Amalfi coast has left me, Kristen, speechless.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Popping into Pompeii

Again we were given ideal weather for sightseeing. Pompeii was the sight. Hands down, this was the most interesting destination on the Italian leg of our trip. Speaking of legs, Pompeii is located on the shin area of the boot.

In 79 AD the thriving commercial port of Pompeii ground to a halt. At noon on August 24th, nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted. This continued for eighteen hours straight. We know what happened next...sort of. Pompeii was engulfed and covered not with lava, but with ash. Eight feet of white-grey ash settled like snow on Pompeii. Two thousand Residents did not react quick enough and, thus became frozen (so-to-speak) in time. We viewed some of them. Some were praying. Some were protecting their head from the falling ash. On many faces we saw fear. Their eyes were wide and their mouths hung open in unbelief at what was happening. They were preserved, seemingly, at the exact moment their life flashed before them.

It was a town near to Pompeii, Herculaneum, that was buried in Vesuvius' lava. The morning after Vesuvius stopped spewing, its ash, pumice and gas collapsed and rocketed back to earth. The flowing red-hot debris, running at speeds approaching 100mph. In only four minutes the entire city was buried sixty feet in molten rock. When it cooled, it turned to stone, thus preserving Roman life back in the year 79. Those, my friends, are the tragic stories of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

We have our own short pompeii/vesuvius story. To visit Pompeii means to walk in hard to walk places. Do you remember the show Leave It To Beaver? I think it was during the closing credits that Beaver walked down the street with one foot on the road and the other on the sidewalk. Had he done that in Pompeii, I would hope Big Brother Wally would have known something about treating spinals and head injuries. There was literally a two foot drop from the uneven cobbled sidewalks to the chariots-only street.

Walking carefully around Pompeii rustles up an appetite. We sat on the chair-height side walk and ate our picnic lunch. As we ate, we read that Vesuvius was still an active volcano. On average it has erupted every thirty years and it has been sixty since it has last erupted. It is long overdue. After learning this we looked up from our bread and butter to see what looked like smoke billowing out the top! It turned out to be only a perfectly placed cloud, but still. I guess God does have a sense of humour! Nevertheless I questioned our intelligence: We are sitting under an active volcano that is over due to blow, touring ruins from a previous eruption, and thinking how awful it was to get stuck in Pompeii in 79. At the same time, if it really were going to erupt, what a way to go.

The other funny thing about Pompeii are its pets. The ruins are inhabited by several rather mangy looking dogs. They sleep on the streets and in the gardens; well, pretty much anywhere and everywhere, actually. They are completely undisturbed by the hordes of tourists trampling around the ruins. I actually don't even recall seeing any of them awake on our visit. Then again, if some of them didn't twitch in their sleep, I would have thought they were just really well preserved from the 79 eruption.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

...Do As the Romans Do!

Top 10 Things to Do...When in Rome!

1. Buy gelato by the tub, as opposed to single-serve cone, and store it in the hostel's freezer for easy and frequent access.

2. Count how many traffic cops are armed with semi-automatic guns.

3. Walk an hour to the Vatican only to realize that you forgot your guidebook and information back at the hostel.

4. Spend the afternoon eating your tub of gelato instead.

5. Wonder how you are ever going to fit into a bridesmaid dress after eating so much gelato.

6. Watch how angry Romans-with-a-car get if they need to slow down to the speed limit.

7. Walk confidently into oncoming traffic with your head up and body braced for impact.

8. When #7 seems impossible, always cross in the wake of a nun.

9. Never have enough small, or exact change for purchases. Watch the cashier huff and puff and proceed to throw (literally) your receipt, purchases or train reservations at you when you hand them a 20.

10. Try to use a magnet to collect the coins from the Trevi fountain. After realizing that euro coins are not magnetic, think again about the hundreds of thousands of Italian Lire the homeless guy was taking out of the fountain for 30 years before finally being caught in 2002 (true story).

Besides thinking of 10 'witty' things to do in Rome, we actually found ourselves in quite an adventure underneath the city. Christopher, a Passionist priest we had met while in Ireland with Gramma (who happens to be the cutest gramma in the whole world!), showed us Rome from a local's perspective. He toured us around churches and gave us entertaining explanations of the sites.

Christopher also invited us to lunch. He fed us a delicious (and huge) hot lunch at the monastery he lives at.

We even had the priviledge of exploring the remains of a second century neighbourhood beneath the church. Some of the rooms even still had frescoes painted into the walls, remaining from all those centuries ago.

We even went splunking! Under the monastery, it turns out, there is an extensive network of caves that is thought to have lead to the Colosseum, which the monastery overlooks. Literally, we went where no tourists had gone before. The caves are not a tourist attraction. Picture going down into a deep, dark, cold cave with a dripping ceiling and crystal blue sub-terranean pool, lit only by a weak flashlight. What an experience! It was such an incredible morning and we really appreciate Christopher taking a day out of his busy schedule to show us around, make us feel so welcome and give us the best meal we've had in months. Grazie, Christopher!

Did you know...the Colosseum's real name is the Flavian Amplitheatre. The Flavian was nicknamed the 'Colosseum' only after a 'colossal' bronze statue of the mean-old-emperor, Nero, was erected out front. Today, the statue is long gone, but the name still remains.

The Colosseum was a 50,000 seater stadium in its hey-day (80 AD). Today, it is just a deteriorated tourist sight (it probably seats about 200). If you decide to see a show tonight, you likely have the choice of a cartoon, comedy, action, romantic-comedy (blah), thriller, drama or horror. There is some variety. The Colosseum also had choice: man vs man, man vs beast or beast vs beast. Its entertainment was...violent. These weren't like a poorly-overdubbed King Kong vs Godzilla movie; these were REAL blood sports. The stadium was inaugurated with a 100-day festival. In that 100 days, 2,000 men and 9,000 animals were killed in front of capacity cheering crowds. Colosseum employees sprayed perfumes around the stadium to mask the stench of blood. Next time I go to the show, maybe I shouldn't complain about the raunchy popcorn butter smell.

The Ninja Turtles in Rome

Before they turned into turtles and learned karate, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo were artists (and human).

Leonardo's St. Jermome was on display at the Vatican museum, but it was patched. The reason? A shoemaker thought it would be smart to apolster a foot stool with part of the painting. He probably also thought it smart to wear a fannypack.

Raphael painted a pope's bedroom with the 'School of Athens'. It paid respect to thinkers and scientists of antiquity: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Euclid.

Donatello left us a wood carving of St. John the Baptist.

It was Michelangelo, though, who took center stage with the Sistine Chapel. The 5,900 square foot fresco was done between 1508 and 1512. Imagine craning your neck, while paint dripped in your eyes, on scaffolding six stories up for four years! You would think that might compromise the quality of the final product. It didn't. In true Italian style, the ceiling was dressed to impress. Or, in the words of Michelangelo, it was radical, dude!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Under the Tuscan Sun

When 'under' the Tuscan sun, it is hot. As soon as the sun goes down, however, it takes with it every morsel of warmth. This was especially apparent at our campsite in Florence. We had cots in a tent. Even when under four thick blankets and a sleeping bag, I was still freezing! It must have been at least -20°C! I really think Italy should consider a more equal distribution of heat throughout the day!

Other than the cold nights, Florence was delightful. From our view above the city, we could see endless red rooves, the Duomo, and hints of Tuscan countryside on the out skirts. Florence was really busy. I can see why people who only visit Italy's big cities may not enjoy their trip as much as they should. In big cities there are always lines (queues), pick-pocketers, crazy drivers and angry Italians. If the big cities are seen in between small towns, though, I find them much more enjoyable. We even splurged into the Uffizzi Gallery, which has rooms of famous pieces like Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Giotto, Titian, Parmaginino (like the cheese) and even the only canvas Michelangelo finished.

Florence, we heard, had Italy's best gelato. Obviously, we had to see for ourselves. Let me tell you about my extensive research. Pistachio is best with less pistachio-ness; the chocolate is usually like dark chocolate, with more cocoa than sugar; if banana is yellow, it is made from a mix (it is supposed to be grey coloured); if it is in a metal tin, as opposed to plastic, it is more likely to be homeade. Store owners let you taste flavours before you buy them (rice flavoured gelato?). Jonathan and I have very different tastes. And most importantly: you can NEVER get enough gelato!

On Our Minds

We are exhausted. Travelling is taking a lot more out of me than I thought it would. I am tired of bus and train 'schedules', my bag, my clothes, walking, Jon's beard, gross showers and, our staple meal: crusty bread and jam. Don't go feeling sorry for us though (I'm sure you weren't) but even though all of the above is true, I am still somehow having the 'time of my life'. I have just come to realize that 'time of my life' is much more of a 'travelling experience' (with huge ups and downs) rather than a perfect vacation. Anyways, in no particular order, this is what I would ask the genie for.

aka. Top 3 Things I (Kristen) would REALLY like right now...

1. A bed that is comfortable with soft, clean sheets, an actual pillow, a duvet in an actualy room (not a tent), which is very close to the bathroom (not a five minute walk in the dark, cold night).

2. Pancakes! or waffles with blue berries from the cottage (well, while I'm fetching blueberries, I might as well imagine being at the cottage too), whipcream, fresh fruit, PC syrup...oh and maybe chocolate chips (yes, ALL of that).

and...(drum roll please)

3. That Jonathan would shave his prickly beard and cut his winged hair...people are starting to look. I think they are going to start denying us entry into places. While we are giving him a makeover, lets give him new, clean, not-too-reeky socks. Sigh. Wow. That was a wonderful five minutes in my head.

Tuscany is beautiful and its small towns are charming. It is also, however, a big pain when you have to use public transport. Different bus companies run to different hill towns, so you can't get tickets or schedules in advance. You have to buy tickets at newsstands or 'tabbachi's', which aren't close to the bus stops. On holdiays and Sunday's you can barely get to a town. It is beyond frustrating it takes four times as long to get places, as buses and trains are infrequent, even on weekdays and often require hours of waiting in stations, clinging to your luggage. Er. Although I probably shouldn't complain as transportation here is probably better than it is back home. I guess it is all part of the 'travelling experience'. You just have to weigh it against things like watching the sun rise over the Tuscan hills. Is it worth it? Definitely.


More than any other travel accessory, fannypacks are predatory merchandise. Their buyers are the prey. Marketing lures in the unsuspecting vitim. Without ever having bought a fannypack myself, I can only speculate what the typical thought process is leading up to a fannypack purchase.

Risking sounding too much like a pessimist, my first thought is that fannypack buyers, leading up to their blunder-of-a-purchase, are terribly mislead by directing their attention only to the positive features of the fannypack. Score that a success for the fannypack marketing department and a loss for the buyer. The 'selling points' of a fannypack can be summarized as 'somewhere to keep all your valuables close to your person'. Legitimate enough. You can put all your valuables in a fannypack. With the monsterous size of most you cou8ld also put a small dog in there to guard all your valuables.

It is true that your valuables such as your passport (which is skinny), bank cards (skinny) and other important documents (again, most likely to be skinny). What, then, is the problem with the fannypack? Sorry, 'is the problem' implies there is only ONE problem, singular. That was the wrong question to ask. My bad. The proper question should be, 'What are the problems with the fannypack?'.

First, and rather ironically, they are desinged to accomodate not the careful traveller, but the careless one. Fannypacks are large enough to be packed indiscriminately. So, the fannypack owner thinks (i speculate), 'Why should I pare down my wallet and documents to only what is pertinent to my trip? I have lots of room!'. But, c'mon, do you REALLY need your Costco card? The careful traveller leaves all but the essentials at home. Because fannypacks are so large and accomodating, they are also highly visible to everyone. I do mean everyone: you, me, uncle Buck and every pickpocket, gypsy and thief from here to Vatican City. This is another reason fannypacks are predatory merchandise. They cannot be hidden under you clothing like a moneybelt can. Knowing every fannypack is plum full of presents, thieves, I imagine, target fannypackers.

The second problem with fannypacks is that, just as easily as they can be buckled tightly around your waist, they can be unbuckled. Yet another reason fannypacks are predatory merchandise. As if that it is common knowledge that precious credit cards and passports are hiding in there and that they are highly visible and theft-friendly is not enough, fannypacks are also easy to unbuckle. Hmm... The fannypack marketing department conveniently leases this tidbit out when selling their product. But don't fret, fannypackers, if your fannypack is stolen, you can be sure the thief won't sneak into Costco on YOUR card...


Let's play the Assisian numbers game!

Ninety percent of Assisi is motivated the dollar of tourism. Ten percent of Assisi is motivated by imitating Christ. One hundred percent of the town is proud of its spiritual past, namely its two favourite saints, Francis and Clare. Ninety percent of the tourisits to Assisi come to experience what one hundred percent of the locals are proud of, but what only ten percent of the town can be considered an authentic descendent of. The other ninety percent of of the town has come into being because ninety percent of the tourists come for the other ten percent. This ninety percent is the tacky exploitation of what only ten percent of the town has true roots in, but what one hundred percent of the town is proud of.

We observed the general store-breakdown of the ninety percent to be painfully souvenir-rific. These shops shamelessly sold shoddy rosaries, St. Francis figures made from cheap plastic to gawdy ceramics to expensive crystal and many other materials, too. Also crucifixes, guns, cross-bows, nunchuks (those were pretty cool, actually), chalices, plates, pope-wine, among other Niagara Falls-quality wastes of money. Another ten percent of the ninety percent were gelato cafes and the final ten percent were pizzerias/ristorantes. Together this makes the ninety percent one hundred percent lamentable and painful.

But the ten percent (which one hundred percent of the locals are proud of) that ninety percent of the tourists come for is not a waste of time. There are many churches that boast architectural feats and many that are architecturally humble. One hundred percent of the churches were visited by us.

We also observed that one hundred percent of Assisi's churches had prayer kneelers. Our knees, however, observed that zero percent of the one hundred percent of churches in Assisi had cushions on their prayer kneelers.

All in all we enjoyed Assisi and are glad that Francis (of Ruette fame) encouraged us to visit the small town. But what about all those numbers, you ask? If we were to process these numbers into a one to ten rating, one being a 'definite no-go' and ten being a 'quit your job and go now!', we give Assisi a 7.2.

Now, class, if there are any questions, raise your hand.

p.s. we know Assisi is not in Tuscany. It is in Umbria.

p.p.s. This is the sign we are looking at right now in the internet cafe. Can you make any sense of it?

Please without use internet you dont use the chair for sit .Eat or anything direction Thanks.

Commenting on the Comments

Well, Dad, I actually wish that that was my laundry hanging out of a window, having been done by some nice Italian lady, and being returned to me fresh and clean, as opposed to the stinky, worn out clothes that I wear EVERY day. Would I ever wear a shirt more than twice at home? No, but here, the shirt still feels fresh if I washed it only two days ago. Honestly, the highlight of my day yesterday was showering. Before I start losing friends, Im going to move on. Hi everyone at the Rainbow Bridge! Im glad to hear you are enjoying my adventures, even if you arent commenting (Doris) Just joking. I am so happy to hear that Jaime had her baby boy! I cant wait to meet little Ty! Finally, thanks for the thesaurus link, Bron and Dave!