My first stop in Kenya was the coastal town of Mombasa. I spent just enough time in the city to sip some coffee, explore a fort constructed by the Portuguese, and connect with Kenya's history in the World Wars.
I’m currently in Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya and East Africa’s largest city. In the two days I have been here the city has yet to live up to its “Nairobbery” nickname. I’m hoping that it stays that way.
Somehow it seems that I always end up with Australian travel companions. For the last two months my faithful padawan from Maputo to Zanzibar was Alex. During that time, I tutored him on the finer points of the English language and he worked to explain to me the details of the English Premier League. We both made significant strides in understanding, but have great lengths to achieving mastery. Alex abandoned me to return to work and Europe. Thus, I’m back to bringin’ da ruckus on my own to Kenya and beyond. We had a good run and I owe Alex a great deal for keeping me sane during many of the more testing moments of this trip.
Among the biggest inconveniences of traveling in Africa and Europe is the time difference between here and back home. It is terrible for sports fans. I am always envious of European soccer fans and their exceedingly reasonable start times and the fact that English soccer games are shown everywhere. Being in Nairobi with a decent internet connection gave me the chance to catch Game 4 of the Blazers-Warriors series on a live stream. This meant waking up early in the morning, but it was worth it. All season long this team has punched above its weight and it was fun to catch them live without too many interruptions today. Of course, a Blazers victory would have been much preferred, but it's hard to stop Steph Curry when he catches fire. There's still Game 5 to look forward to. Go Rip City!
As anyone who has visited this website in the last two months knows, I have been neglecting my blogging duties. My legion of fans can rest assured that I have not fallen ill, been kidnapped by pirates, or forgotten how to use a computer. The main two reasons for my inattention are poor internet connections and sheer laziness. At times using the internet here in Africa has become a greater exercise in patience than a lifetime of supporting the Mariners (this is the year we make it back to playoffs). I only have myself to blame for the lack of willpower to post updates when I have had the opportunity. I am now relaxing at Nungwi Beach on the northern tip of the island of Zanzibar. The weather here has tended to cycle from blazing sun to pouring rain. With the rain foiling any attempts to relax at the beach, I have finally run out of reasons to not write.
Here is a summary of the places I have laid my head since the last post. I will follow up with more details and (if I can get a decent upload connection) photos in the coming days.
-Tofo Beach, Mozambique
-Victoria Falls, Zimabwe
-Mfuwe (South Luangwa National Park), Zambia
-Cape Maclear, Malawi
-Senga Bay, Malawi
-Kande Beach, Malawi
-Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
-Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
-Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania
After a week and a half in beautiful Lesotho, I've made my glorious return to South Africa. I'm spending a day in Soweto before heading to Mozambique via Swaziland. It's an interesting, and incredibly important, part of South Africa. I've stopped into the Nelson Mandela House, Hector Pieterson Museum, and (unsurprisingly) Ubuntu Kraal Brewery.
Skiing Kosovo, Abandoned Lifts and All (NY Times)
It’s been years since done any snowboarding, but I can certainly appreciate a travel piece on Kosovo. I loved visiting the Balkans and in my brief time in Kosovo I found a place that was quirky, inviting, and optimistic. It also helps that “Americans are like Jesuses” to Albanian Kosovars, as stated by an Albanian Kosovar in the article. (Probably not the phrasing I would have expected, considering that Albanians are Muslims.) So for all my mountain sport enthusiast friends, make your way to Kosovo this winter. You’ll love the place, the people, and hopefully you can take advantage of some budget time on the mountain.
In honor of my recent excursion:
After about six weeks in South Africa I’ve finally made a break from that country and found my way to Lesotho.
Some background on Lesotho- if you look on a map Lesotho is the small country entirely surrounded by South Africa. It is a mountainous, mostly rural independent country. The lowest point in the country is nearly a mile above sea level, making Lesotho the highest country in the world. The Basotho people, the occupants of the country, were united under King Moeshoeshoe the Great in the early 19th century as they sought to defend themselves from Zulu and Boer attacks. In 1868 then-Basotholand became a British protectorate as a means of ensuring protection from the Boers. This established the current borders between Lesotho and South Africa. Lesotho gained its independence from Britain in 1965. By having maintained autonomy from South Africa and its antecedent states, Lesotho avoided the stain of apartheid that affected the country surrounding it. However, political turmoil was a regular occurrence from the time of independence until the early 2000s. Contemporary Lesotho is a relatively stable constitutional monarchy
The stretch of South Africa from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth that I visited was great. There were good experiences and great people everywhere I went. I would not have spent so long passing through if I did not enjoy it. The scenery, wildlife, and summer sunshine all lead me to believe that nature was on my side for this part of journey. I have been lucky to have had good company from both travelers and locals. I have been surprised at how much I enjoy the South African lexicon. It reminds me of Australian English in its peculiarity and casualness. Particularly, “Howzit” is a great greeting and I’d say it’s probably superior to “Whatsup.”
While traveling through South Africa was incredibly convenient on the Baz Bus, getting to Lesotho required slightly more leg work. It took nearly 24 hours, one mainline bus, two minibus taxis, one border crossing, and two city taxis, but I made it the village of Semonkong from Port Elizabeth. The area surrounding Semonkong is idyllic. Green fields and gentle, though deceptively steep, hills are everywhere. From a high point I can turn around and for 360 degrees the horizon is broken by mountains. There are no real restrictions on hiking anywhere as long as you’re considerate. It’s liberating to just pick a direction and go as far as my legs feel like taking me.
To pick up where Part One ended, my Ireland experience was not limited to simply the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is a constituent country of the United Kingdom, but if you were to travel between the Republic and the North without knowing better, you could easily fail to notice that you had made an international journey. The landscape does not change, no significant geographic features demarcate the border as you travel along the highway to Belfast, and formal border checkpoints are not in place. An inconspicuous road sign welcomes you to Northern Ireland and alerts you that speed limits are denominated in miles per hour rather than kilometers per hour. Other subtle signals let travelers know which country they sit in. Gone are the place names in both English and Irish, as in the Republic. Northern Ireland’s signs feature only English. Gone too are references to the Garda, law enforcement on this side of the border is handled by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The pound replaces the euro as the currency de jure. All these differences, even when taken together, seem quite small. It may be possible to experience Northern Ireland without feeling that it is all that different from the rest of the island. However, it is the unique history of Northern Ireland, the events before and after the island’s partition in 1921, that were of particular interest to me.
I visited the two largest cities in the Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry. While a few days spent between the two cities was not enough to experience them fully, which is a truism for nearly every location, it was sufficient to get a glimpse of what interested me.
The three decades of regular political violence in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles left their mark in both cities. In Belfast one of the areas that saw the most activity during the Troubles was in West Belfast where the Falls Road and the Shankill Road neighborhoods exist next to each other. Though both are working class areas, the neighborhoods are divided by sectarian identities. The Falls is a Catholic neighborhood, while the Shankill is Protestant.
I spent a day walking through both areas. Though the two neighborhoods sit right next to each other, they are separated by a barrier, sunnily known as a “peace line,” which has remained in place longer than the Berlin Wall. Clues like murals and flags make it clear which side of the barrier a visitor is standing in.
Located around the Falls Road are a number of places with significance to the Irish republican movement. A local Sinn Féin office, adorned with a widely reproduced mural of Bobby Sands, sits blocks from the Irish Republican History Museum. The museum exhibits uniforms, weaponry, political art, and handicrafts relating to Irish republicanism and the Troubles.
At the other end of the Falls Road is Milltown Cemetery. A number of significant Irish republicans are buried in a plot replete with memorials to their efforts. The most well-known burial is Bobby Sands, but along with him are numerous political activists and Irish Republican Army volunteers. In 1988 the cemetery gained attention when Michael Stone, a loyalist paramilitary volunteer, attacked mourners at the funerals of three IRA volunteers who were killed in Gibraltar. Stone used hand grenades and hand guns in the attack to wound more than 60 people and kill three. Stone was sentenced to life in prison, released in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and is currently back in prison for plotting to kill two leading Sinn Féin politicians. He has been celebrated in some quarters of the loyalist community.
On the other side of the peace wall are the same kinds of commemorations as in the Falls Road, but from the opposite perspective. Like the Falls, the Shankill experienced a disproportionate share of violence during the Troubles. IRA bombings and shootings targeting locations and residents of the neighborhood were common. Loyalist paramilitaries, notably the Ulster Volunteer Forces and Ulster Defence Association, were based in the Shankill and are still celebrated on a number of murals.
Belfast is also home to the Ulster Museum. As the largest museum in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum houses an impressive mixture of collections. A large exhibit is dedicated to the history of Northern Ireland. Other exhibits include natural history and art.
With a population of around 100,000, Derry is the second largest city in Northern Ireland. The name of the city has been a point of controversy between the nationalist and loyalist communities. Officially, the city is known as Londonderry. This reflects the contribution of London guilds to the establishment of the modern city during the plantation of Ulster. The area and an earlier settlement were originally known as Derry. While both names are commonly used to refer to the area, the decision to use one versus the other was traditionally interpreted as a reflection of a speaker’s identity or sentiments. Protestants or unionists would refer to the city as Londonderry, while Catholics or nationalists would refer to the city as Derry. Today Derry is more widely used in the vernacular, regardless of sectarian identity, but the issue remains complicated.
Derry’s old city is contained within a walled area. The city walls during the 17th century and are the only complete city walls within Ireland. Historically, the Protestant population lived within the city walls, while Catholics lived beyond them in an area known as the Bogside. With time the Catholic population has displaced the Protestant population within and around most of the walled city. The majority of Derry’s Protestants now live on the opposite bank of the River Foyle.
The 1960s Catholic civil rights movement was strong in Derry. Among the leaders was future Nobel Peace Prize and Derry native John Hume. This activism made Derry the setting of a number of the defining episodes in the preceding and early years of the Troubles. Most notorious of these is Bloody Sunday, an incident in which 14 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by British Army soldiers during a demonstration protesting the practice of internment. In popular culture this event was commemorated in the U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
As in Befast, a number of political murals exist in Derry. The most visible of these are in the area known as Free Derry Corner in the Bogside. From 1969 through 1972 this area was frequently barricaded off by nationalists and British security forces were prevented from entering. Bloody Sunday occurred in this area.
A small protestant neighborhood, the Fountain estate, still exists just outside the old city walls. The neighborhood is enclosed by peace walls on the sides not shielded by the city walls. British flags, painted curbs, and unionist murals leave no room for doubt as to the neighborhood’s identity.
Free Derry and the events of Bloody Sunday are documented in the Museum of Free Derry. It is in a small (and quite cold) space within the walled city while the permanent location in the Bogside is being renovated. The brother of one of the victims of Bloody Sunday guided visitors around the museum during my time at the museum. His personal experience and stories added to the museum’s displays.
Those sites related to the recent conflicts in Derry are hardly the only things that make the city worth a visit. As mentioned above, the city walls are a landmark themselves. They form a one-mile loop. Provided the weather is pleasant, which is asking a lot considering that it is still the island of Ireland, the walls make for a great walk and way to see both nearby and faraway areas of the city.
The Tower Museum, housed in a tall tower next to the city wall’s, gives the city’s history from early settlement to modern events. Another exhibit displays finds from a Spanish Armada wreck discovered off the coast of Donegal, just across the border in the Republic.
Northern Ireland shares the beauty, allure, and availability of high quality alcohol of its neighbor to the south. Beyond that, it has the tragic and muddled recent history that continues to shape it.
Keep checking back for the final post in this series- the one where I actually talk about Spain.
I have been neglecting to keep up this blog for a while now. With my days left in Europe numbering somewhere closer to the number of members of Five for Fighting than the Jackson Five, it seems that I should provide some updates.
I am currently in Algeciras, Spain. Morocco is the next destination and so my African adventure will begin with a few weeks in the land of Atlas Mountains, Berbers, the oldest American diplomatic property in the world, and the hash that contributed to Burroughs' state of mind as he wrote Naked Lunch.
In the last month I’ve seen the ancestral homeland of the Nussbaumers in Switzerland, looped around the coast of Ireland, and cast my eyes upon the continent of Africa from the southern extremities of Europe. In each of these places I’ve had unique experiences that join the long list of highlights of a journey that I can fortunately say has been consistently pleasant, stimulating, and varied.
In my last post I left off with my wild adventures at the unmissable Räbechilbi Richterswil. I have not attended any turnip festivals since then. That is probably for the best, as any other would likely pale in comparison. To recover from the excitement of turnips I headed to tranquil Zug. Zug is a welcoming place to people of all walks of life, particularly those that have luck to be corporations. (Need I remind you that corporations are people too?) As a particularly low tax locale, Zug is home to more corporations than humans.
My main draw to Zug, other than exploring if it was possible to start living as a corporation and save on my tax bill, was to see the land that my great-great-grandparents abandoned for America. Oberägeri on tranquil Lake Ägeri has grown in the 125 years since Benedict and Adelheid packed up and left. Yet, with a population of around 6000, it still feels sleepy and insulated from the outside.
One of the excitements of being in Oberägeri is the chance to see the Nussbaumer name plastered on more buildings, buses, and (in a morbid turn) gravestones than I have encountered in all my life. It’s enough to see why the orange haired wizard of Chapter 11 likes to put his name on the classiest steaks, board games, and bottled water ever seen in his commercial crusade to Make America Great Again.
Oberägeri and Zug, being surrounded by hills and situated at the lakeside, benefit from surpluses of verdant natural beauty simply unmatched by most of the earth. It could lead one to question why anyone would choose to leave. Then again, 19th century Switzerland was not the land of bankers and corporate mailboxes that it is now. I won’t complain, for as Lee Greenwood sang in that sweetly jingoistic jingle, I’m proud to be an American.
From Zug I made a brief stopover in Basel. At this point my rail pass had only a single day left on it. Determined to make the most of this, in an act of exuberance I made the decision to make the 45 minute trip to Freiburg, Germany, where I could enjoy one last German kebab and more than one German beers for a price that would not treat my wallet to a bit of monetary liposuction. Sure, Switzerland is gorgeous, but at least Germany feels affordable.
The next day I took my first flight of this trip since landing in Istanbul more than four months earlier, this time to Dublin. Considering that Ireland’s climate is fairly similar to that of Oregon, but a tad wetter, commonsense would dictate that November is not the ideal time to visit. However, considering that I was in Europe and that flights to and from the island cost less than a used textbook, commonsense went out that window and I have no regrets. In my two weeks on the Emerald Isle I managed to make a tour around the island, absorb the beauty of the land, and enjoy the local tipples
In Dublin I visited two local ethanol producers for tours and product familiarization. The first, a quaint operation known as the Arthur Guinness Brewing Company, is one of the icons of Ireland. Few things are more associated with this country than the dark stuff coming from the St. James’s Gate Brewery. Having checked out my share of breweries, this one is definitely the largest brewery I have toured. Much of the tour is the same as any other brewery, though it caters to a broader audience than the craft brewery tours I'm used to. You can’t expect much variation when a product only has four ingredients. However, being a large operation the Guinness Experience also covers the unique aspects of the company’s history, including their distinctive marketing efforts. The tour culminates with the opportunity to learn how to properly pour a pint. They insist it takes 119.5 seconds to do right. While pouring Guinness might be more involving than pouring standard swill like PBR, moving a handle and holding a glass at an angle is not rocket appliances. Whatever the marketing may be, the product is good and brand’s longevity is understandable.
The other producer of sweet liquid intoxicants I visited was the Teeling Whiskey Distillery, a relatively young enterprise and the only active distillery in the city of Dublin. Personally, I prefer beer to whiskey, but I appreciate a bit of diversity in my drinking portfolio and you won’t find me complaining if I have a well made Old Fashioned in my hand. Teeling was my first experience seeing the inner workings of a whiskey distillery and I did learn more about the process than I knew before. Like any proper tour, this one ended with the chance to try the product. I’m no expert, but, in short, I approve of Teeling Whiskey.
In the time I wasn’t learning about the transformation of sugar into sweet, sweet ethanol, I also sought out some of the city’s other attractions.
The National Museum of Ireland's Decorative Arts and History branch had an exhibit on the Irish at war. This focused both on the military activities of Irish in Ireland as well as abroad over the last 500 years. Considering the turbulent times on the island and the size of the Irish diaspora, a significant amount of information is covered. The role of the Irish in America’s military is devoted a fair amount of space. The museum building is also of interest because it was originally a military barracks and functioned in this capacity for over three hundred years before museum conversion in the 1990s.
Dublin is fairly unique in having two cathedrals, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church, in the city located within blocks of one another. I walked around the exteriors of both, but only took the time to see the interior of Christ Church. I think I can be forgiven for my impiety considering that both churches charge an entrance fee. The interior of Christ Church is not outstanding, though still interesting, in light of the countless churches I’ve seen in the past months. Fans of The Tudors may recognize it, as it has been used as a filming location in that series. Fans of Joyce may recall that in Finnegans Wake a reference is made to the cat and rat that were trapped in the cathedral’s organ and mummified. Admittedly, I’m a fan of neither, but signs on displays provided these interesting bits.
Trinity College Dublin has an impressive library which is most famously home to the Book of Kells. This intricately crafted manuscript containing the Gospels is impressive with its beautiful calligraphy, colorful decorations, and Celtic styling. Also impressive is the library’s Long Room. Long, as implied by the name, and narrow, it is lined with the busts of philosophers and writers through the ages. On display are an original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from the 1916 Easter Rising and the oldest harp in Ireland. The olfactory senses are treated to the rich scents of mahogany and leather bound books. Were it to be bottled, I might just start wearing cologne to increase my aura of sophistication.
Following Dublin made the journey to Cork, the third largest city on the island, with a night’s layover in Waterford. The University College Cork campus is one of the main sights in the city and beautifully kept. The city also has two quality brewpubs, Franciscan Well and Rising Sons, as well as the significantly larger scale Murphy’s Brewery. I enjoyed beers from all three. My motivation for visiting Cork extended beyond academia and fermentation and onto live music. Titus Andronicus, one of favorite bands, was on tour and in town. Considering that their album The Monitor was essentially the soundtrack to seven of the most frustrating, but character shaping, months of my life, I could not pass up this opportunity. The concert was in an intimate venue with a small crowd. Their sound lends itself well to a live environment where the richness of the music can assault the eardrums with full intensity. Of all the ways I could be reminded of my tinnitus, this is one of the most preferable.
Galway was the next stop after Cork. It was here that I got perhaps the best day of weather in my two weeks, though it was sandwiched between days of the typical wet and cold. I took advantage of the situation to go for a walk along Galway Bay. The sunny, windy, and brisk conditions call to mind more comparisons to Oregon while remaining distinct. I found myself refreshed in walking around town in the sun and appreciating the island’s beauty even more.
I will continue my final update from Europe in another post to follow shortly after this one. I still have my time in Northern Ireland and here in Spain to recount.
I would say that the past few weeks have been among the best of my trip as I have had the chance to reunite with several of the friends I made while traveling.
In Berlin we met up with my friend Sebastian, whom I met in Ukraine. Being a Berliner, Sebastian was nice enough to show Paul and I around the city. We got to see and do all the standard fare- the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate, and late night bars (though by Berlin standards we were done pretty early).
It was easy to spend a week in Berlin. It's also a surprisingly cheap city by European standards. Museums tend not to be exorbitant, a decent kebab can be had for under 4 euros, and relatively inexpensive beer from the market can be enjoyed on the street.
I went to Brussels for a few days after Berlin. There I had the good luck to run into Sebastian again. We checked out the Atomium (Brussels' overpriced vestige of the 1958 World's Fair), the European quarter, and met up with local friends of his to tipple. Belgium is worth the trip for the beer alone. The diversity of beers breaks up weeks of German lagers. As any enthusiast knows, they are also deceptively strong. It doesn't take many to feel their effects.
Being in Brussels also provided me the opportunity for a day trip to Flanders and few sites related to First World War. Ypres (Ieper in Dutch) was the site of some of the worst fighting of the war. The trench warfare and use of gas that typifies the Western Front was in full effect here. The fighting has been immortalized in the poem "In Flanders Fields" by the Canadian soldier John McCrae.
I visited the In Flanders Fields Museum and Menin Gate in Ypres and the Flanders Field American War Cemetery in Waregem. The museum occupies part of the Cloth Hall, an old Gothic building destroyed during the war and only completely restored in 1967. The Menin Gate commemorates all those British and Commonwealth soldiers killed around Ypres and whose bodies were never recovered, a staggering 54,896 names in total.
The American cemetery is the least visited of the three sites and the smallest American war cemetery on European soil. It's a tranquil and exceedingly tidy place.
The Netherlands was my next stop after Belgium. Taking the train between Brussels and Zwolle leads to an appreciation of just how flat the Netherlands is. The fertile green fields attest the country's role as one of the world's largest agricultural exporters.
Zwolle is off the normal tourist route. I spent three days staying with Anton, an incredibly hospitable, fun, and well traveled Dutchman I met earlier in Turkey. I was lucky enough to have Anton show me around town and introduce me to several typical Dutch foods. The best of these was stroopwafel, a delicious sweet made with two layers a dough and a syrupy filling. They are undoubtedly my favorite snack that I have discovered in Europe. Anton says that I am not alone in my affections.
Following Zwolle came the obligatory stop in Amsterdam. It's a very pretty city. Yes, the prostitutes and pot that fuel popular conceptions are easily found. However, by being sanctioned they lose a bit of their edginess. Amsterdam's red light district feels like a more honest, explicit, and paradoxically clean version of Vegas than the grimy red light districts to be found elsewhere with their local crackheads and heavy odors of despair.
Amsterdam offers more than sensual stimulation with its many museums. The downside is their consistently high admission prices. For a budget traveler like myself this means the need to be discerning. Following my interest in World War II and the Holocaust that has shaped much of travels so far, I visited the Anne Frank House and the Resistance Museum. The Anne Frank House is one of Amsterdam's most visited sites and incredibly moving. The individual story of Anne Frank is well-known and the feelings the house provides are visceral. What is most powerful though is the realization that the story of hiding, destruction, and dehumanization is one repeated millions of times across Europe. The Resistance Museum details the varied nature of Dutch reaction to Nazi rule. While focusing on the ways, big and small, that the citizenry resisted occupation, it also documents collaboration and complicity during the period. The museum seeks to present the moral, ethical, and practical questions that arise in the circumstances. It's an overlooked museum. The absence of crowds allows for more quiet reflection on the questions presented.
This all brings me to where I am now, Switzerland. After a brief stop in Luxembourg, I arrived via train yesterday. A few curious things occurred in the course of this transit that are worth mentioning. Some of the larger French train stations had a presence of uniformed and armed military personnel that I have not generally observed elsewhere. Upon arrival in Switzerland I had to pass through passport controls. This is not usual, being that France and Switzerland are in the Schengen area. I assume that this is all in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris the night before. These were fairly small things, but noticeable. The attacks otherwise have not seemed to impact daily routines in these parts. Though the sense of shock with what has occurred is obvious.
Here in Switzerland I had the chance to reunite with yet more friends. In Brussels I met two fellow Americans, Bianca and Emily. We realized in the course of discussing our travels that we would be in Switzerland at the same time. Further, they informed me that would be attending Europe's largest turnip festival in Richterswil. First of all, yes, there is such a thing as a turnip festival. For all I know, Räbechilbi Richterswil may be the only turnip festival in Europe. It is just the type of odd thing that makes traveling worthwhile. For the festival the town's residents hollow out turnips, carving designs in them, and place tea lights inside. With these spread everywhere, the town seems as if it's celebrating Lilliputian Halloween. What makes it great though is the parade through the main street of town. Floats covered with these turnip lanterns accompanied by bands provide entertainment for crowds squeezing to fit into the small town. My friends may have Sasquatch or Coachella to remember (or not remember), but I've got Räbechilbi Richterswil 2015 and that's pretty hard to top.
Thanks again to all the people I've met here in Europe who have made this such a memorable time.
It has been a while since I've made any updates to the blog, more than anything that reflects the hurried pace I've been traveling at, as usual. As I write this I am on a three hour train ride from Trier to Cologne, meaning that I finally have a block of time to string together a few sentences.
Since my last update I've moved considerably far north and west. My travels have gone from Zagreb, Croatia, to Budapest, Hungary, to Bratislava, Slovakia, to Vienna, Austria, to Mauren, Liechtenstein, to Konstanz, Germany, to Heidelberg, to Frankfurt. It's slightly overwhelming to think about all these places I've been in such a short amount of time. The reason for this pace is twofold, I'm maximizing my use of my rail pass before it expires in the middle of November and I want to be in Spain at that time so that I can hop a ferry to Morocco when my visa expires.
The places I've been to in this time have varied in so many ways, but there wasn't one that I failed to enjoy (I might have appreciated if Bratislava had been less heavy on the rain).
The time in Budapest, Bratislava, and Vienna was particularly fun because I managed to reunite with my Turkey travel mate Paul. As I've said before, he's a lot of fun and a lot help. He provides great entertainment on the road.
My rail pass has been of real use lately as I've explored this part of Germany. Most days I don't know where exactly I'm going to head until I'm on a train. It also makes it possible to squeeze a lot into a day and do otherwise frivolous things like heading to Cologne just to grab a Kölsch.
Venice is easily one of the most touristed cities in Europe, especially once you consider its relatively small size. The typical tourist fare from gondolas to the Piazza San Marco exists just as presented in guidebooks. As a visitor it is hard to be disappointed by the city. It draws nearly 10 million tourists a year for a reason.
Being on a lagoon, the city feels like it violates common sense for siting a human community. This is part of its magnetism and thankfully it does exist to be visited. You would be hard pressed to find another city that offers everything you find in Venice.
In keeping with a trend of other cities I've visited, Venice has appeared in three James Bond movies, making it one of the most frequented locales in the franchise. From Russia With Love, Moonraker, and Casino Royale all contain scenes in Venice. For what it's worth, my personal favorite is probably Moonraker's boat chase.
Despite all the museums, galleries, and churches in Venice, the best activity is exploring the city on foot and getting lost along its canals. The walkways are a labyrinth with seemingly endless permutations for getting from one location to another. For backpacker with limited means, getting lost is the most budget friendly activity in pricey Venice.
Exploring the city on foot can lead to some pleasantly surprising discoveries. Not all parts of the city are consumed with masses of people. It's also possible to find some green spaces. The Giardini Pubblici is the largest of these. The greenhouse along this park area is great spot to enjoy some wine and some shade.
The Piazza San Marco is the buzzing hive of tourist activity. Here can be found the Basilica di San Marco, the Palazzo Ducale, and more cafes and restaurants than can be counted.
At one time Venice was a true power. Just in my travels I have seen where this little city built fortresses in Montenegro and fought the Turks in Athens. Even though tourists flock to Venice today, the city’s glory has actually been on the decline for centuries. These days Venice is no longer a powerful republic in its own right, but another city in big Italy. The decline in power is not all that bad of thing though. As a visitor one of the benefits of this is the ability to visit the grand buildings from the height of Venetian prestige.
The most noteworthy civic building is the Palazzo Ducale. The palace, tucked next to Basilica di San Marco was home to the rulers of Venice (doges) starting in the 9th century. It also housed numerous government chambers and a jail. Inside and out, Palazzo Ducale is appropriately ornate. Statues, paintings, and all measure of small details are to be observed. Permanent exhibits provide an overview of the goings on of the Venetian government when the palace still served its original function. A temporary exhibition on the role the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s financial police, during World War I was on display during my visit and was fascinating.
Basilica di San Marco is one the symbols of Venice. The Byzantine architecture is eye catching and stands out from other Italian cathedrals. Construction of the church began at the end of the 11th century. The centerpiece of the interior is the altar containing the relics of Mark the Evangelist. Photography is not permitted inside so you will have to settle for a shot of the exterior. Photos of the inside can be viewed here.