The following is an account of my many weekend side-trips while “studying” abroad on the French Riviera. These are informal emails and do not adhere to my typically high standards of grammar and spelling, and are, for the most part, complete nonsense.
I'm writing from an internet cafe in
weird punctuation I might use, let me know if you actually get this. Plane ride was good; Scandinavian has these new planes with computerized touch screens that let you play games, watch movies, and the really cool part: see live video feed from cameras on the bottom and front of the airplane. The plane was less than half full... people were sprawled across entire aisles... probably paid too much... I got seated next to a business major from UNC. She was doing a study abroad in Paris (where she went to after Copenhagen), I tried to go with her but they apparently have fairly stringent rules about randomly switching flights, and my layover was all of 10 minutes... one of those things that I didn't really think out at the time, there was a flight to Heathrow that I could have taken with a 2 hour layover... then I might have had a chance to explore the fascinating Copenhagen airport. Given the option, never fly into Gatwick... buses cost 5 pounds instead of 70 pents. I couldn't find any magazine that tells what's going on in
Internet cafes are prolific in this
city... except when you're actually looking for one... it's been rainy and cold
for the last two days, so I'm trying my best to take refuge inside... 12 C in
the "dog days of summer", completely ridiculous! Just a few
more hours and I'll be escaping English weather forever and head off to sunny
Where did I leave off? Monday night, I wandered around Trafalgar, Piccadilly and
The Camden High Street Hostel turned out to be quite pleasant; it's situated over a bar that blasted classic rock all night long but the rooms were surprisingly sound-proof... there were around 6 people on 3 bunks in my room; the beds were ready-made with sheets and comforter, and we had 2 showers (with push-buttons that would spray water for 10 seconds) and 2 toilets (but not a single roll of toilet paper) to share... I slept better than I have in years, from 10 to 8 and awoke to Guns n' roses blaring down in the bar where I got my free breakfast of toast, jam and milk... not a bad deal for £9.50. The hostel I was at for the remaining 3 nights (only because of luggage constraints - never bring a huge bag when you plan on aimlessly wandering around) was somewhat less appealing... we had 12 people per room, 48 people per toilet/shower, and breakfast was once again toast.
On Tuesday I gradually wandered from
On Wednesday I grabbed my bus pass first thing and headed off to the Tate Modern where I saw lots of senseless junk that someone had decided to label "art"... among these were a canvas painted blue and a pile of garbage someone had pulled out of the river... I've decided that abstract artists would do much more good as writers or poets since they are able to spout out such convincing BS on what is clearly meaningless. Next, upon more random wandering, I discovered the exception to the "no cheap food in
Thursday morning I bought a subway ticket and went to the Natural History museum... the trouble with subways is that I come out of the ground with no frame of reference, so I usually end up wandering around for a time until I get my bearings. The museum was neat; big dinosaurs, dead animals... the usual stuff. Next I headed up to Little
Now, I'm checked out of my hostel and will be heading to the airport around 5... in the meantime I think I'll check out the British museum, the Theatre museum and browse Convent Garden (lots of live music and other festivities) some more... ah yes, rock climbing, I almost forgot - there's a 40 foot wall of ice that will be opened in one of the stores this Monday and there are a few free bouldering walls in outdoors stores around town... oh well, time's running out here, see ya later... don't get too paranoid if I don't write every day, bandwidth may be hard to come by in some of my travels.
Not to worry, I've survived
Allowing time for another subway blackout or getting on the wrong train and going to the other side of the country, I left for Heathrow 4 hours before my flight... they told me I was way too early and wouldn't let me know my gate number until 5 minutes before boarding (security reasons).
I arrived in Nice after and was greeted by palm trees and 85 degrees with high humidity -- had to check the sign to make sure I hadn't landed in TPA. There was a large crowd of French people holding up my name after customs and upon seeing that I recognized it, they went into a string of excited gibberish, grabbed my bags, and drove me to my new school... to their great surprise, it was closed at 1 in the morning, so they took me to my hotel.
There I stayed with a couple of stupid Americans -- they went to a discothèque, got horribly drunk, stayed up puking all night and remained in a semi-comatose state for the rest of the afternoon... luckily I was able to get them moved downstairs and checked-out before we got charged for another night, this was no easy task because they each had five massive suitcases (with an iron and boom box among other things) and had rung up $27 on the hotel phone.
In a desperate attempt to get away I called my new flat-mate to see when I could move in... she showed up within half an hour with the rest of my roommates (currently 6) and we all went off to Cannes to take a friend's boat out to St. Martinique... the boat broke down (I know, a broken motorboat, hard to imagine), so we all went to the Cannes beach instead... the beaches here are sandy (except in Nice) but are only about 10 feet wide, there's actually a train within 30 feet of the water... we had crazy wind this weekend and the sea was full of sailboats, windsurfers (who had to be going over 30mph), kitesurfers, and surfers(about as common here as at Siesta).
The apartment is quite nice with 4 beds(American size)/2 bath, porch, washer (air dryer), and full furnishings... it's on the 5th floor and sits on top of a big hill... there's nearly a 180 degree view of both ocean and mountains. Apparently my roommates all work at one company (Amadeus - travel databases) that recruits people from all over the world... Jocelene, the leader of the bunch is a South African who came here 9 years ago to study French, there's also 2 French guys... a Phillipine girl (who oddly sounded just like an American) just moved out. Jocelene took me to a discount food store where I found super-cheap couscous -- in the absence of grits and oatmeal, this is now my staple... we also went to something called a "hypermarket" which is roughly 4 times the size of the typical Wal-Mart and has anything you could possibly imagine... they sell snails for 12 bucks a kilo (these are the things that crawl around off the sea wall... that's one business venture I never tried, I could have collected those things and sold them off to French people for a fortune... a bunch of the critters were boiled up for dinner; I only had one and found that they probably won't be my favorite French dish... they taste a lot like oysters but have a thicker consistency... I'll have to cook some up when I get back.
I went to French mass Sunday morning where they spoke entirely in French... it was a little hard to follow but I'm guessing that they said the same exact things they do back in the states. The flatmates took me and a bunch of coworkers on a picnic up in the mountains... it was about a 30 minute drive to a rocky cliff dotted with medieval villages, waterfalls, winding roads, natural tunnels and rock climbing; from one point, you could see the entire Cote d' Azur, and on a really clear day, Corsica as well. When you think of a picnic, images of a sandwich and maybe a piece of fruit come to mind... this is not the case in France... course after course would just appear as if out of thin air... 3 types of seafood-pasta salad, several meats, 6 varieties of berries and melons, cake, juice, and on and on...
Monday I had my first day of orientation and did all the usual administrative stuff... I figured out that I am the only American in the engineering program (the other 30 are in business), I’m hoping that the courses will still be in English as promised... I arranged to have a French aerospace engineering class so I could preserve my 5 day weekend; hopefully there are a lot of cognates in that field. One of the kids in the American program is actually a German going to school in the Netherlands (don't ask, even he doesn't know why he's there), he has a car, but the rest rely on bus and train... I’m thinking of getting a moped, since they're cheap and apparently have no laws governing them what-so-ever; the only downside would be that I'd probably kill myself pretty quickly, especially since you actually have to know how to drive around here... they have traffic circles, hills, it's a scary place... It looks like other Americans have Eurail passes as well, so if they don't all leave on Tuesday night, I might be able to organize some trips...
With my schedule still in limbo, I went into school on Thursday to sit through the Circuits class that I didn't intend to take; as it turns out, the same horrifically boring guy teaches both Digital Logic and Circuits, so I think I've made the right decision in switching into a technology and the environment debate course. At some point in daydreaming through a 3 hour review on power sources and resistors, I decided that I wanted to go to Paris... so after finally finding my way back to the apartment around 8, I packed a few clothes and went down to the Antibes train station... there was an overnight train to Paris leaving at 9.
Theoretically, sleeper trains are a very clever idea... you get on, you sleep, and when you wake up, you have the full day to explore wherever it is you're going... this plan, however, relies heavily on the misconception that you'll actually be able to get any sleep on a rock-hard cot that is constantly shaking back and forth and accelerating and decelerating. Another critical factor is that it take all night to get to your destination... a train to Paris only takes five and a half hours... what exotic locales we explored for the other six hours shall forever remain a mystery to me...
I got into
Probably the neatest spot in
From here, I made my way up a few more streets -- as the weekend progressed I started to get the impression that I was going in circles - not only did I see the same stores, but I would often see the same sequence of stores in several spots (I saw the Mickey-dees, seafood restaurant, kebob house, bread house, pizza place, Indian restaurant combo at least 4 different times) -- I encountered a few serious street markets, most sold cheap fruit and fish - unfortunately when you're traveling on foot, your purchasing options are basically a banana or an orange... I'm no expert, but I gather that you can't just bite into an uncooked trout. One market sold every sort of exotic bird and chinchilla... I never figured out how to eat these either.
I eventually got to some place
called Parc de la Villete that was filled with a lot of
really big, really oddly designed buildings, including a giant
geodesic dome and an old submarine... this was apparently some kind of
huge music venue, the Cite de Musica was a museum which would
house a tribute to Pink Floyd in October but nothing of interest
now. After sliding down the giant lizard tongue slide (even bigger
and more elaborate than the one they so cruelly removed from
Next, it was on to the Champ Elysees... on the way I passed a theatre presenting something called "Monty Python 2" - I was devastated to learn that it was entirely in French... what is British humor without the accents?? This was the case for all the Parisian theatre I encountered... even the current blockbuster movie "Bruce Tout Puissant" (starring Jim Carrey) had lost its original dialogue. I followed the main drag out to La Defense... this is probably the best mix of crazy, far-out architecture anywhere... I got to the La Grande Arche just as it started pouring down rain and was forced to take the metro (though I had eagerly anticipated the 5 mile jog) back to the hostel.
The hostel wasn't bad (1 toilet/shower per 24, a decent ratio) but my room was full of middle-easterners who couldn't really speak English but tried shouting it at each other at 2 am regardless... at one point during the night, this little old man played funky Indian music and sang along for a few hours... in the morning I checked out and found a new place with fewer annoying people.
My first stop of the morning was
the Louvre... every time I've heard anyone mention
Next of course were the Arc de Triumphe, du Trocadero, statue of liberty (I seem to remember this being somewhere else), and Eiffel tower - nothing better after a hard day of walking than a quick set of 600 stairs. The tour montparnasee offered a similar view but kindly provided an express elevator. Perhaps the neatest sight of the day was a family on segways... I'd never seen one in the wild before, but to see three of them curiously bobbing about, engaging in their gyroscopic dance was awe-inspiring!
I ventured into the
In the morning, I went to Mass
at Notre Dame where the priest delivered a highly
emotional, energetic homilee entirely in French. Apparently the
first Sunday of the month is free museum day (which I discovered after the
Louvre), so I had to choose among a plethora of cultural
experiences... Picasso, Rodin, etc... In the end I elected to go to the
aquarium and so began another cross-town trek. On the way I visited
Jardin de la Plantes which was full of crazed dueling wallabies...
I caught a ride on the TGV direct
Random Observations about French culture:
1. There are no public toilets. I once believed that the rampant public urination in this area was just because Europeans are a dirty and disgusting people, but now I see that it is because of the sick and twisted society in which they must live. Stores (even many Mickey-dees) would have you believe that they have no bathrooms - there's always a door that says something like "prive" or "admittance interdit"... the 40 cent public toilets all require exact change and often won't let you in even after you deposit it. I once considered boarding a train to the next town over just to use the toilet.
2. French are firm believers in nap time. Everything closes between and ... banks, shops, restaurants (who wants to eat at , anyway?).
3. Every meal comes in
courses. It's impossible to just get one plate of food in
4. I look just like a native Parisian; 7 people stopped and asked me for directions during my trip, and strangely, they usually repeated their request in English when I asked.
That's it for now... depending on the train schedules and what other people are doing, a trip to the Benelux might be in the works... stay tuned for more (hopefully shorter) reports.
Information systems that we take
for granted in the states, don't seem to exist here in any consistently
accurate or consistently English form, so my strategy for getting places
continues to be to pack a bag, run down to the train
station Wednesday night and see what's going where. As luck would
have it, there was an overnight train leaving
Upon arriving, I went to the
tourist office and asked what I should do with my 9 hour
stay... the woman simply handed me an 8x11 sheet containing a complete map of
the country and said "everything".
I got into Namur, the capital of
the Belgium Ardennes, a little after 9PM; I had attempted to make a
reservation for a hostel but had only received a completely Flemish and
unintelligible email in return, so I really wasn't sure whether I had a room
or not. The tourist office gave me a map but explained
that the hostel I was looking for wasn't on it, and drew in an X on the
map border in the middle of the river... so I set out into the dark
streets of this strange town looking for an underwater hostel that may or
may not be holding a bed for me. By holding a series of half-Italian, half-French, two-thirds
mime conversations with locals, I was able to find where I was
staying, which much to my relief, turned out to be off to one
side of the river; they didn't have my reservation but there were
only 3 other people staying there. In the morning,
while twiddling my thumbs awaiting the start of breakfast, I scrambled up
a series of rocky embankments to get to the large fortress and scenic
views at the top of the town...
In the port city of
I got on a train back to Brussels, and since there was no nightlife I could identify, returned to the hostel; out of all the places I've stayed at so far in my travels, this was by far the best -- each room of 12 had 4 American-style showers with knobs instead of buttons, and breakfast included whole-wheat toast, applesauce, yogurt, ham, cheese, cereal... all for only 13 bucks a night... unfortunately, they were fully booked for Saturday night so come morning I found myself wandering the streets again. I had picked up a map for 50 cents that showed a fair chunk of the city and found the hostel that I had booked for Friday -- it only cost 10 bucks a night but was missing many of the amenities of the first (one of the most notable was the absence of any sheets on my bed), the rooms encircled an outdoor courtyard and in order to get to the bathrooms or showers, you had to walk a good ways outside (which was quite annoying at 6 in the morning when it was 10 degrees out).
Saturday morning I had no idea what
to do (since I had yet to find any sign of tourist brochures or guides), so I
set out on a long trek to reach the huge metal orbs known as
"Atomium" that dominated the city skyline. After several
kilometers, I reached this ridiculous relic of a past world fair and also
visited such random sights as the
Sunday morning in Brussels was bitterly cold; I made my way quickly to the train station where I tried to figure out the best way to get back home... apparently there was only one train leaving for the Cote d'Azur around 9 and it was fully booked(trains in Europe work on a ticket/reservation system... my pass acts as a ticket, but a separate reservation is often required to arrange to have a seat)... since this was my ride home, I got on anyway and just moved whenever someone came along with a ticket for my seat... for the 8 hour train ride, the conductor failed to make a single ticket check.
After about 5 hours of sitting
on the train, I was getting a little bored... I recognized the
I had around an hour to explore
They don't make it easy to get to
This weekend's trip started with a semi-comatose stumble to the train station around 6 am Thursday morning; it was here that I discovered that the high-speed to Ventimiglia (northwest coast of Italy) was broken and I would have to wait and take a series of city-hoppers along the mountain course to Turin; in Europe, everyone has a train station -- why walk to the corner store when you can just catch the train from your front porch? -- most of the connecting stations have no signs or schedules of any kind - you just hop off the first one and jump on the next that appears to be going in your general direction.
I had an hour to wander
A small time later I was in
Arriving around lunchtime, my
attention turned to food as I explored the main streets and squares.
There are quite a lot of Gelato shops here -- about 2 for every 1
person, and appropriately, 99% of people were busily
snacking on one or more cones of the stuff; I'm still not clear on what it
is or why it ranks above air, water and shelter in the local
lifestyle. I inadvertently ordered a cheeseless (and everything-else-less)
pizza; I think what threw me off was the word "pizza" in the
menu description; there should be a point when a food loses that distinction
and becomes "tomato-covered bread." I followed the
After a quick 5 hours of sleep, I
was off to climb the nearest mountain; this happened to be HarderKlum, a
piddling 4000 ft. peak on the north edge of town. Hiking up a steep grade
for 2 hours proved to be much more of a challenge than I had expected; there
were points when I questioned whether I should have done something to prepare
or brought some sort of supplies or had some form of contact with the rest of
the world; the fact that everyone who passed me wore spiked boots and carried
ski-poles was a little intimidating. At the summit, I had a great
view of the whole town, the two disturbingly blue lakes from which it gets its
name, and all of the surrounding villages that covered the mountainsides; the
snow-capped peaks of the
From here I followed a confounding network of "to Interlaken" signs that led me along a series of fitness trails and through the one-street towns of Ridderswig and Goldswil; I circled a lake complete with rope swing, diving board, and a line of six running army tanks on one bank, armed and ready for the imminent attack on the neighboring cow pastures. Getting back to the train station, I caught a boat to explore the western lake; for whatever reason, this particular boat was shaped like a large dragon; passengers would sit in its jaws and view the landscape through gaps in its teeth; this boat is a bit of a local legend, and as we cruised along the lake, all sorts of sailboats and zodiacs would come racing up beside us.
I arrived back at the station just in time to catch a train up to Lautterbrunnen. I followed a trail through a valley flanked by frequent waterfalls on both sides where a constant string of parachuters rained from the sky. At one spot, I climbed up a steep gravel "path" to get within an arm's reach of one particularly impressive cascade, and at that point discovered that the only way down was to surf a 200-ft rock slide, trying desperately to stay on my feet so as not to wipe out and go the rest of the way on my back - this was one of the more terrifying parts of the trip but was still quite fun.
Every tourist guide I've read has
raved about Gimmelwald, a world apart from modern-day life; what
all of them failed to mention, however, was the intense 1000m vertical
hike to get there. There was not much to this town; a bunch of cows
(probably about a 10:1 livestock to person ratio), one or two shops selling farm
goods, and the Sleep in the Straw hostel - where you can pay 20
francs to spend the night in a barn - the fact that this was the only
budget accommodation gave me the strength to hike up the hill
to the next town. Murren wasn't terribly exciting; it
was here that I first discovered the Swiss love for giant chessboards - with
2-foot tall rubber pieces - I suppose this is useful if you ever want your
chess moves to be visible from space. The plan was to catch an 8:30
train into Bern (since I had to start my Eurail day for the dragon
ride), since it was around 7:30, I decided to take a lazy
ride in a cable car rather than try to sprint down the side of the
mountain; I would have made it in plenty of time but at some point in
the descent, the car was detained by a herd of goats that had wandered
onto the track. So I was left with the last train of the night
- 9:30; this gave me a chance to explore the main drag of the town;
my favorite point was Hooters Interlaken, which was more or less identical to
the American version - even the menu was exactly the same, item for item,
only translated to German and francs; I thought about downing a
plate of greasy wings while fondly reminiscing about home, but I elected to
save my 30 francs for the local flavors... the Switzerland Franc is an
even more worthless commodity than the French Euro... a small MickeyDees
hamburger costs 3.30 -- if you exchanged this for dollars and went to
America, you could buy four such hamburgers... bananas cost around a buck a
piece... most Swiss food has the "bio" label attached - this
translates to "twice as expensive for no good reason". Next to
the station, a rock band was playing "Johny b. Goode" and other
classics... after soaking up as much of this alien culture as I could
handle, I hopped on the train and was on my way to
I got to the capitol around 11 with no bed reserved and only a vague idea where I could find hostels... this was a really dumb idea - as I walked through the station, I tried to pick out a quiet, comfortable aisle of seats where I could catch a few hours sleep. The first hostel I got to was already closed, the security guy there directed me to a dark alley along the river where I might find another one... I got there 5 minutes before it closed and was able to reserve a bed... as it turned out, this was closer to a cheap hotel than a hostel... I had my own room and was given two towels along with my bedding... the absence of the usual din of snoring and people tripping over things in the dark made sleeping a challenge, but after 2 mountains, I still crashed before .
In the morning, after checking
out of the hotel with no free breakfast, I went and reserved a room at the
normal hostel... it was here that I discovered the little-known bonus
Switzerland has an excellent network of bike paths -- hundreds of miles that go through just about every city; I don't really understand this affinity for biking - unlike Holland, this country really isn't suited for it at all... one-way trips in the right direction can be a lot of fun, but round-trips are almost always a pain. I could have ridden 40 km to the lake I had cruised across the previous day, but I managed to make it only 8 km to the next town over, Belp. This was a typical one-street town surrounded by cow pastures... in a nearby field a flight school was launching public glider rides; at 25 francs, this was the one reasonable deal I found (not like the 300 for skydiving in the Jungfrau region), but I've never been one to sit idly in empty fields, so I continued onward.
I got back to Bern,
traded my bike for deposit and license, and set out to experience the
night scene... this was basically non-existent... no lively squares, no
live music, nothing... but given that I had been out biking all day, I was
perfectly happy to find my bunk and pass out around 10. In the morning, I
caught the first train to
This city on the lake had a few
interesting sites... a cathedral, a castle, the Olympic museum... I managed to
find the only catholic church in town (quite a change from the 2-3 per
I eventually got to Geneva and had 30 minutes to explore the area around the station before going to Lyon part deux; I had an hour in the sequel to the city of Lyon... it turned out to be one big shopping mall, which was completely closed because it was Sunday... at 6 I caught the last train to Antibes, and, for the third week in a row, I arrived home at 10:30.
Random cultural observations
Even more toilet humor: While
Smoking: Somehow, there is a Europe-wide initiative to put huge white and black stickers on every cigarette box that say in bold letters "Smoking kills" (or "Fumer tue" or whatever that is in Spanish/German/Dutch/etc., Belgium boxes seem to have encyclopedia articles that cover the entire box and explain step-by-step how it kills) This has had no impact on the French; to be French is to smoke... I'm fairly sure French babies are given cigarettes rather than pacifiers... there are non-smoking areas, but these are usually taken as mere suggestions, and the intent to eventually leave a non-smoking area is sufficient to light up (my favorite was on the long staircase out of the Louvre)... yesterday I went to office hours with a professor who proceeded to smoke 3 cigarettes while explaining a problem to me.
All-you-can-eat: The French do not believe in this concept; their understanding is that you should be ripped off at the same rate for whatever quantity you can eat... one salad bar I encountered offered a "plate" of salad for a given price, so naturally I piled a mountain of food towering into the sky upon one plate... only to be told that it was a "super-plate" and would cost twice as much.
School: The average French class is 3 hours long - easily 2 and a half hours longer than my attention span... what is more disturbing, the professors feel compelled to ask you questions and make you come to the board to work out problems, thus making it very difficult to get the recommended daily allowance of 8 hours sleep.
So for the first time Wednesday night, I packed a change of clothes and headed down to the train station to try the grand experiment of traveling with other people. The Americans were divided into two groups - the first of 3 girls and 1 guy, equipped with eurail passes, showed up 5 minutes before the train departed with backpacks and some notion of how to tackle a weekend on the rails - unfortunately, I didn't know them and had made arrangements with a second group of 3 girls who showed up an hour beforehand with wheeled suitcases and a stuffed bear. At the end of my last trip I noticed that I had a first-class pass (and yet had been sitting in coach for the 3 trips thus far), since the rest had opted for sleeper cars, I made my way to the first class section - for whatever reason, these more expensive seats seem to be designed to torture their unsuspecting passengers... I tried to escape to second class but found that my car was locked off from the rest of the train, and upon asking the conductor to let me out, he said "no, no, you have first class ticket - I let you stay here".... when we reached Marseilles at around 1, I hurriedly jumped off and into another car where I found a decent few hours of sleep.
We reached Barcelona around noon and made our way to a fancy hotel on La Rambla (the main strip) ... learning that I was to pay 17 bucks to sleep on the floor in a European-sized room, I made my way across Placa Reial to one of "Europe's 5 Famous Hostels" - I don't really understand the source of this prestigious title, but having stayed at 3 of them, I can only guess that it's an honor based on the dilapidation of the buildings and the utter lack of personal space/facilities (i.e. atmosphere). The group was getting hungry so I suggested that we seek out authentic Spanish fare (over the course of the trip, I discovered that every restaurant - even burger stands and kebab houses - served many flavors of paella, starting at 6 bucks), but another suggestion won out: "Why don't we go to McDonald's and plan out what we're going to do so we're not just aimlessly wandering around" - this sentence single-handedly contradicted everything I believe in and ripped wide open the rift that had begun to form with the taxi-ride into town and the swank, private accommodations - in the sudden fit of insanity that ensued, I raced to the nearest market to haggle for a culturally-rich alternative... when I returned to MickeyDees, they were gone.
With the abrupt disappearance of my travel group, I was left to explore the city alone... I headed down La Rambla toward the port. Probably more than any street in any city in the world, this road defines Barcelona - 24/7 it is packed with hordes of tourists and locals, musicians, artists, human statues, bird vendors (you can buy a whole chicken here for a buck - a much better deal than the $6 headless, featherless alternative at the local grocer), and every other type of culture imaginable. After wading through the craziness that would begin and end all of my expeditions, I reached the harbor of Barceloneta, where a string of massive cruise ships were readied to depart for the Balearic isles, and from there ventured onward to the extensive public beach.
Once I was done reflecting on this abomination, I made my way to the Arc de Triomf -- it's so hard to find an original monument nowadays. Next was the Parc de Cascade with a big fountain and a wooly mammoth, and the museum of chocolate with an exciting account of the origins of... I forget what. I went to the hostel to pick up some guide books and found that at 6PM, 10 people were already sleeping in my room -- when I returned to go to bed at midnight, the room was completely empty; Barcelona has quite a unique schedule - lunch is from 2 to 5, dinner is from 9 to 2, the nightlife typically runs from 12 to 4 or 5 or 6, and since people are somehow up and about before 8, there is never a time when there isn't a crowd flowing down La Rambla. Upon exiting the hostel, I ran into the first (slightly more interesting) group of Americans; I joined them in their current quest to find something to eat; on the way, they were awestruck by the presence of a Starbucks and posed for a picture... in the very same establishment, the second group of Americans happened to be having some coffee; we all left together to find a restaurant, but the second group couldn't keep up with the first and fell back, dragging me with them. They decided to eat at a pizza place with an English menu -- this had decent food but the waiter refused to serve me tap water; later when I neglected to leave a tip, one of the other group members chastised me saying "But that's the way the Spanish are"; this led me to wonder whether upon visiting America, if a European group encountered a waiter who brought them the wrong food and ignored them for hours at a time, they would leave a generous tip, remarking "But this is America, they're supposed to be grossly incompetent."
After dinner, we set out to find the magic fountain... using my trusty map, I was slowly guiding the sangria-saturated group towards the fountain when one screamed out "I've got 2 credit cards and a passport in this purse, I don't need you making us look like tourists in the middle of the night" and confiscated my map; I'm no expert but I don't see how this was conducive to not getting mugged. So we aimlessly wandered through the dark for a while and they would periodically demand that I tell them where to go next... I found that it was much better to confidently point in a random direction rather than explain that I had no idea where I was I going because they took my map. Luckily the huge spotlights eventually tipped us off to how to get there; the fountain rivaled any show in Vegas - the spouts and lights danced to a classical soundtrack, and from the top of the adjoining museum steps, it was possible to take in the whole of the city along with the water and flames. After reflecting on this awe-inspiring spectacle for a while, the group took a taxi back to their hotel - I defiantly walked with map unfolded, down the darkest alleys I could find, humming patriotic tunes.
Friday, I went to Montjuic - a big hill on the west end of town with massive cactus gardens and some sort of castle with a good view of port and city... here also were a few Olympic stadiums and a couple of art museums. From there, I made my way across the city to Parc Gieull - a bizarre mix of nature and Gaudi statuary surrounding the artist's equally strange house... defying probability, I ran into the second group of Americans here (about 4 km from the hotel), content to keep our respective paces, we discussed our day thus far and went our separate ways. Next, I followed the modernism tour path to the hospital (never thought of a hospital as a tourist attraction but this one had an unusually cool design), and on to a few "Gaudi-ized" apartment buildings that stood in sharp contrast to the adjoining right-angled shops and residences.
At some point I had picked up a weekly guide to the city -- this thing gave me nothing but trouble... it highly recommended a free concert Friday which turned out to be cancelled after a late-night walk halfway across the city. I was left to explore the alleys surrounding La Rambla - these offered more guitar, skate and drug paraphernalia shops then anywhere else I've seen - one was selling acoustic guitars for 10 bucks, but like all the other useless junk that I've been tempted to buy on my trips (including a $20 clown bike) I was forced to pass this up in the interest of not hauling it around for the rest of my days.
Saturday morning, the skies looked quite ominous, so I decided to cancel my plan to hike up to Tibidabo, the highest point in the city... instead, I explored the gothic quarter and its impressive churches, and then set out to find random acts of culture. The event that really intrigued me - the Star Wars exhibition - turned out to be in a mall miles outside of town. I walked up to the Plaza de Toros hoping to find a bull fight, but these apparently only occur on Sundays. My guide had recommended science and comic book museums (the only ones among the city's generous museum offering that caught my interest), but these turned out to be closed. It was when I was furthest from the cover of my hostel and the museum district that it began to rain - the first rain I've seen in all of my travels thus far -- naturally I was not prepared for this at all, and got thoroughly soaked... I tried to gradually make my way back across town, darting into random internet cafes and stores for the particularly heavy downpours. I found a Chinese restaurant that offered excellent four-course meals (including Chinese flan) with a cold water (also offered were wine or beer, though interestingly enough, water is the most valuable of the 3 - you can get a liter of wine for 24 cents and a beer for 50 but a bottled water will set you back at least 80) for 5 bucks... this offered the opportunity to learn all sorts of useful Spanish vocabulary (like roasted frog ribs), and I could watch a dubbed Simpsons while I ate.
The next rainy day stop was
the barber shop -- I figured I stood a better chance of not getting my
ears cut off than I would in France... the price was also much lower,
though greatly perplexing -- 4 bucks for women and twice that for
men. Even without knowing a word of English, I think these
people understood me better than anyone I found in
All that was left now was to jump
on a train back to
Arriving at the
my way out of the network of underground tunnels
that connects the station to random parts of the city, I headed down
the hillside to the first serious tourist trap of the day: the
Emerging from the subterranean tunnels, I found that the storms had once again caught up to me, and I once again became thoroughly soaked. Despite this annoyance, I ventured down to the port where I beheld the remains of the Monaco Yacht Show - a display of the most ridiculously large and luxury-laden boats from around the world... I was one day late for the main festivities of the internationally-renowned event, but was just on time for the lesser-known, though no less impressive Monaco Stamp, Coin and Postcard show.
Next, I made my way to the famous casinos where I found that due to recent legislation I was actually old enough to gamble (despite getting carded every 50 feet), but never one to leave my fortune to random chance (insert ‘99 stock market bubble comment), I spent most of my time here watching cars - this is quite a switch from the sub-compact junkers of Antibes; Ferrarris, Lamborghinis and even SUVs are common-place here.
After traversing the abandoned beaches, I climbed up to the top of the big rock where the palace, aquarium and usual assortment of churches were perched. Upon soaking up a sufficient level of culture, I headed back to the train station and found it to be completely abandoned; all of the schedule screens simply flashed the French phrase for "It is forbidden to board the train at this time"; after an hour or so, I caught what seemed to be the only train passing through the station that day and returned safely home.
This past weekend, I set out to go to Venice... upon inquiring at the station, I found that a rock slide in Monaco had cut off the route from France to Italy... so in order to get from here to there, it is necessary to take a train to MC, take a bus to the MC country club and catch a ride on the one 4-car train still in service on the stretch from the club to Ventimiglia. Despite being on the Riviera, Ventimiglia is one of those annoying practical towns that doesn't really offer anything to the tourist stuck there for a few hours in the middle of the night, so I was left plenty of time to figure out which train car I was supposed to get on (in order to confuse things as completely as possible, TrenItalia combines multiple destinations into one train - in this case, half the cars went to Rome and half went to Venice - with no indication of which parts go to where (which can lead to some very annoying surprises when you wake up after an all-night ride)).
The return trip was no simpler; my train went to Munich, Geneva, Zurich and Ventimiglia; fortunately the cars were clearly marked and I got to the one Italian destination with no problem... for some reason, they saw fit to make the 5 hour train ride into a 12 hour trip... in Genova, they put our train on an unannounced track and turned off the power for two hours while all the personnel went for breakfast or a nap or something... I was awoken at 5 am by some guy trying to rip off my highly prized, free map of Venice... he stuck his hand in my pocket and when I woke up and looked at him, he just said "sorry" and took a seat on the other side of the cabin (as if he had meant to reach into his pocket but had stretched across the room to go into mine by mistake), only semi-conscious and not able to think of a good course of action, I just stared at him incredulously until he left. The media has really upped my expectations for crime - most every movie shows an evil genius with meticulously crafted plans to pull off some grand, earth-shattering scheme... true crime is a little Hispanic guy who nearly made away with a guide to the #52 water-bus route. All there was to do then was to sit in the dark til the train started moving again at 7 (and naturally this was one of those where it is forbidden to use the WC stopped in a station (due to their wonderfully simple plumbing - if you need a diagram, just ask)). During this time, I had a thoroughly amusing conversation with the British guy next door who was convinced he was in Switzerland... after my explanation of the fascinating train-splitting phenomenon, he simply said "interesting", and with an amazing degree of composure, got off the train and boarded another to take him 10 hours in the direction from which he had just come.
A front was moving in Sunday
and the entire Riviera was going crazy... the typically flat waters of the
Mediterranean were filled with huge whitecaps, and 8 foot waves were breaking
on the rocks, sending spray up 20 or 30 feet in the air... all the surfers
in south-east France (all 15 of them) pulled their neglected boards and
wetsuits out of the closet to spend the day at the beach. The city
of San Remo was fun - I looked through a dozen massive churches with
impressive artwork, climbed up a big hill to get a great view of the
water and mountains, looked at some forts, saw a
five-star hotel offering a "salt-water swimming
pool", and went to the beach to be blown around by
the gale force winds... this was the final day of the Italian road rally -
unfortunately I found it quite impossible to distinguish the competitors from
the rest of the Italian drivers just going about their Sunday
errands. The only problem was leaving... somehow my train managed to
be an hour and a half late (even though one's scheduled every half
hour)... I had planned to visit Menton on the way home but was
quite convinced that if I got off the train, I would never see
It seems doubtful that I would have dumped a single lira into the Trevi Fountain (or that, with my level of coordination, anything I threw backwards over my shoulder would have hit its mark), and yet at Saturday morning, I found myself once again at Station Termini. The overnight train was as always a shaky proposition - it was quite unsettling to board the exact same 10PM train that had delivered me to Venice the week before - fortunately, falling asleep and missing tell-tale signs like "Milan Centrale" was never really an issue... my first cabin-mate was a middle-aged Italian man who repeatedly asked that I be his friend, gave me his whole life story, and showed me pictures of his wife and kids; since this was clearly a psychopath who would steal my socks while I slept, I fled to an empty room... when I had nearly dozed off, some old guy seated himself across from me and proceeded to speak to me in Italian for 2 straight hours - I can't say that I was holding my own in this conversation, but he seemed to enjoy hearing himself talk.
Since I was seeking relief from the
frigid weather of the Riviera, I was quite disappointed by the 15C temps at 7
in the morning, however by midday it had become ridiculously hot and I could
once again laugh at all the silly tourists who had packed more than
my standard supply of a pair of shorts and a few t-shirts. As always
the first step was to find a place to sleep; I was not impressed with the
hostel situation in
Following the previous trip, Aunt Barb had given me a mandate to actually eat something on my travels, so I gave up my usual diet of milk and orange juice to sample some of the local flavors. Since there were no Italian restaurants within several kilometers of my hostel, I went into an Indian place and asked for a menu... the waiter handed me one, invited me to sit down (it being around 6, I was the only customer), and then proceeded to close the door, lock it, and push a bench up against it (this may have freaked me out anywhere else, but I found this to be fairly typical of Italian sales tactics)... beginning to eat, the owner decided that I was doing it all wrong (I think it was my use of silverware), and eventually resorted to getting a plate of food for himself, sitting across from me, and demonstrating how to eat like an Indian... this was quite refreshing considering that whenever I asked anything of an Italian waiter, I'd get a response like "What do you mean what size is the pizza?? It's a pizza!" or "you ordered tap water, there's supposed to be stuff floating in it!"... convincing him that my meager portion of lentils and pickled peppers (this sounded far less repugnant in Hindu) was not sufficient to adequately practice this new skill, I managed a few free refills... but after the 4th helping, he decided I was hopeless and cast me out to live my life eating like a stupid, spoon-dependent American.
At night I followed the crowds from the Trevi Fountain to Piazza Navona, to Campo de fiori and on to the pantheon. I passed by the hard rock cafe and planet hollywood that seemed to be the extent of the landmarks that I could recall from my first trip... the dunkin donuts that I so fondly remembered had been replaced by a gelati store. As usual, the streets were filled by performers, purveyors of useless stuff, and thousands of drunken tourists. I had been looking forward to haggling with the pushy, roaming merchants, but found that they were selling nothing that I could even pretend to be interested in... the laser pointers and switchblades that had been the hot items of my last trip had all been replaced with fish-shaped bubble guns.
On Friday, I explored a bunch of
random parks in the Salaria district and made my way
to the enormous Parc Borghese...
this thing offers many kilometers of trails with no fewer than 80
museums, statues, picturesque lakes and fountains, as well as the
city zoo. They were just completing construction on Shakesphere's
Globe Theatre (apparently
Next it was on to Piazza del Popolo and down through the tourist-packed alleys to
the Piazza di Spagna... as
always, about half of
Next I climbed up to the adjacent Gianicolo park which offered many great views of the city... for Friday night, I made the rounds of all the major squares and found them about twice as packed as Thursday. I was amazed by the sheer number of downright pitiful street acts I encountered... there was a tap-dancing mime, a clown whose only gag was putting a glove on wrong, a guitarist who's entire repertoire was the first couple notes of the James Bond theme, and perhaps the saddest of all, a cd-walkman hooked up to an amp (I don't know how or why this got there, it didn't appear to have an owner in the vicinity and it was getting no spare change in recognition of its tireless performance of the latest pop hits). Probably the best I found was some guy playing a saw with a fiddle bow (good entertainment is hard to find).
In an effort to get culture (as in Paris, my efforts to see a Monty Python performance were thwarted by a language barrier that would no doubt cause the show to take on a level of nonsense greater than even the twisted creators intended), I went to the massive Basilica de San Ignacio for a free orchestral concert... the explanation was all in Italian so I really never figured out who these guys were, but it was a bunch of people with a bunch of different instruments backed by a choir full of kids... this held my attention for around 5 minutes before I set out to find a performance by a Dire Straits cover. Though I've only ever heard one song by the band (that this group never played), they were fairly entertaining... one annoyance I found is that Italian rock groups don't seem to have the endurance of American bands... much like in their work day, the band leaves to take a 30-45 minute nap half-way through their hour-long set.
Saturday morning, I decided that I
had seen most of what the tourist association had mandated for the city, and
not wanting to be bound by the narrow scope that they had laid out for me in
their map, I set out beyond the San Giovanni city gate. I hiked for
quite some time down a major thoroughfare in search of a video
game/pinball machine show that I never managed to find... though in my aimless
wandering, I did happen upon a neat little church called San
Paulo... I believe this is the one which offered absolution from your
sins in 2000 by walking through the front archway... it also has the
distinction of being the only church in
From here, I spent a good long
time trying to get back to city center... I got the opportunity to see
For dinner, I found a great Eritrean/Ethiopian place, where I got the usual fare of ingeira (magical, flexible pancakes - if I could ever figure out how to make this stuff, I'd give up on silverware forever) and spicy veggies... I love Italian food!
In another attempt to get culture, I went over to the San Salvator church to see the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra... these guys were quite good and the acoustics were much better than in the venue of the previous night... still, I had to take off after 30 minutes to catch my 11:30 train back north.
Every tour book I've read has said that the Cinque Terra is a critical part of any Italian voyage and highly recommends making a five hour hike through the five villages... so when I arrived in Genoa at 5:20, I hopped off and prepared to board another train in the opposite direction... this one however, never showed up (I later discovered that there was a national railway strike and most of the day's trains had been cancelled - I think we give Europe far too much credit for their rail system), so I wandered around Genova for 3 hours waiting for the next train to Ventimiglia... Genova turned out to be a big city that offered some cool harbors, churches and palaces, but it was fairly dull at 6 in the morning. After the usual maze of trains and buses, I got back to Antibes around 2 and took a much-needed nap (due to the joys of night trains and waking up at 6 in the morning regardless of when I go to bed, I probably got around 15 hours of sleep in 4 nights).
The weather of the Riviera appears
to have lapsed into the season that non-Floridians know as
"winter"; temps are consistently around 12C, and Christmas lighting
has been strung up alongside Halloween decorations; I've been hit by
a sudden cold epidemic that has infected every person in town (probably
because they all go around kissing each other), and not too keen
on the notion of using drugs with unintelligible directions and side
effects (i'm still not convinced that the
"savons de toilette" that I've been using
as bath soap aren't in fact some type of bowl freshener), I
opted for heading south in search of a warmer climate.
What I failed to realize however, is that
I left for Nice around
7 Thursday morning with two other American guys from the school to catch a
boat at 9 to the
We had the day to explore Nice, and since they had brought massive pieces of luggage with several weeks' supply of clothes, and I only had the standard backpack with two t-shirts and toothpaste, I thought it would be fun to climb a mountain. We scaled the Colline du Chateau next to the port and found the world's most dangerous playground fixture - a 10 meter-high network of metal wires that would shake violently with every step (for kids 7 and over); naturally we climbed to the top of this deathtrap and proceeded to try to shake each other off. The park also offered great views of the city, coast, calm waters of the sea, and our boat - clinging steadfastly to the safety of the wave-free harbor.
At 2:30, we boarded the Mega Express II, a "ferry" equipped with 6 restaurants, gift shop, arcade, and swimming pool; what they didn't have was seating for the passengers, so we spent most of the six-hour trip passed out on the floor as to avoid trying to walk while the ship violently pitched from side-to-side.
We arrived in
Bastia is right on the edge of the Cap Corse peninsula; this area offers tons of hiking, rock climbing and scuba diving, but since heavy winds were making the weather particularly miserable, and I was unprepared to make use of the many camp sites along the trails, I opted to head south. The rail system here is quite different from on the mainland; there are only 3 lines and 5 trains (consisting of 1-2 cars each) on the island, and for any pair of cities, there are two trips a day; the trains wait for each other at the connecting spots (which is a very good thing since they all have engine trouble and are routinely 30 minutes late). The preferred mode of transport, hitch-hiking, was recommended to me by both hikers and the local tourist offices. I got off in Central Corsica in the hopes of hiking part of the legendary GR-20 (a 200km north-south stretch of highly challenging trails typically done in 15 days) and the other two went down to Ajaccio to check out the World Rally.
The mountain town of
The trail continued on indefinitely, winding from mountain to mountain... mist-shrouded peaks loomed far above the raging waters of the river... the neatest part was an old footbridge that spanned the imposing gorge - many of the planks were missing and those that were left were broken or rotting, the wires supporting it were for the most part frayed or already snapped; the turtles that looked up expectantly from the waters far below were not quite as terrifying as the crocodiles form the movies, but the jagged rocks were enough incentive to choose my steps carefully.
From what I surmised using my excellent orienteering skills, the trail was supposed to hit a refuge (where I could find food and water) then loop back to Corte just after the bridge, but I found that it simply continued in the same direction along the opposite bank of the river, and three hours into my journey, with daylight rapidly fading and no sign of refuge or loop, I was forced to double back (Reflecting on my map later, I found that I had actually only gone about 1/3rd the distance I had guessed). Soon after crossing back over the bridge of death, a cold wind with icy rain started up and I began formulating a plan to spend the night in a cave that I had passed earlier where there were some discarded blankets and supplies, and hope that the bear that had devoured the former inhabitants would not come back for me; luckily the weather never got too much worse and by the time I reached the cave, it was far more appealing to press onward. Hiking on a cloudy, moonless night proved rather difficult; the trail markers became completely invisible and only dim outlines of rocks kept me from tripping over the side of the cliff. Eventually, I rounded the last mountain and could see the lights of the town in the distance; I finished the return trip in only 2 hours without twisting an ankle or being attacked by any giant, nocturnal, hiker-eating creatures.
I celebrated my narrow escape from
death with a huge plate of "wild boar stew" at a local
restaurant; far from the French "if you want a full meal,
you order two" mentality, they gave me roughly an entire pig, and I
was quite relieved that I had opted out of the formulae meal which
included a boar pate appetizer and boar flan dessert (ok, they didn't
really have boar flan). The nightlife of Corte wasn't nearly as exciting
as I would have expected for a crazy college town; the only entertainment offered
seemed to be the cinema playing Bad Boys and American Pie, which, despite the
titles, had no English involved (I guess Garcons Mals
just doesn't have the same ring to it, though French people probably
pronounce it "babu"). Out of all
the places I've visited,
I was staying at a hiker's refuge a km outside of town which turned out to be the guest house of some old woman who lived on a remote hillside with a herd of angry sheep; it seemed to be completely on the honor system since the building and rooms were unlocked, and the only way to pay for your room was a long confusing debate with the owner who didn't speak a word of English and didn't really seem to understand why you were there. Here, I talked with several German and Dutch hikers who all thought it was hilarious that I was trying to see the island in 2 days; they claimed that the weather had been perfectly warm and sunny up until the day I arrived and gave me enticing descriptions of coast-to-coast hikes with a full range of geography as well as a myriad of pigs, deer, eagles, and other creatures (I didn't see much in the way of animals on my hike, but I did encounter a new variety of dropping with every step so I surmised that they must be around somewhere).
In the morning I went to a travel
agency to see if it was still possible to leave the island; they had
cancelled all the French ferries for the rest of the week and the
only chance to leave before the following Saturday was on an overnight
We had made some guesses as
to how the ferry managed to take 11 hours to complete a
trip that had previously taken six; the leading notions were a sail or
possibly hundreds of sets of oars, but the truth was far more devious.
The boat didn't actually move from the harbor until 11; they only made everyone
board at 8 so that we would be forced to eat dinner at their "Spaghetteria", shop at their gift shop and play
in their arcade (while we waited, there were no fewer than six
announcements to remind us that these establishments were indeed
open for business). Since we hadn't bought any accommodations, we
slept on the couches in the restaurant, and awoke moderately refreshed in the
The weather was slightly improved
on Sunday, so I went with my roommate and her friends on a challenging hike to
the top of a mountain; the local park service provides free guides to
hundreds of well-marked trails around the region, and so it's
quite easy just to pick a route at random from one of these and drive
for half an hour for whatever elevation or level of difficulty you're
looking for. When we reached the summit, a line of clouds was
rolling up and over the mountain and completely obscuring the promised
view of the entire
Though this weekend's trip to Corsica was in many ways a massive failure, it did give me a taste for an island that offers a seemingly endless range of athletic adventures... some day when I have a little more time and the weather's better, I'll have to return to attack the epic GR-20, dive in the waters off Calvi and Ile Rousse and scale the cliffs of Cap Course. With only one Eurail day remaining and the weather becoming increasingly abysmal, my crazy travels seem to be nearing their end for now... I'm thinking of a day trip to St. Tropez later this week, but after that, I may be forced to actually spend some time in this "French Riviera" place I've heard so much about.
After comparing our respective
travel logs, my dad and I found that the only countries within striking
distance that we had not covered were
Despite everything I had observed about European driving, I was fed up with train travel and decided that we needed to rent a car to make our 7000km journey. But I was soon to learn the error in this, as a plethora of one-way streets, traffic circles, and stoplights that may or may not apply to you, turned the trip from school to apartment into a life-threatening ordeal. My belief that one car would be cheaper than two train tickets was thwarted by the typically European notion that the $3 per gallon in gas taxes should be supplemented by a 10 cents per mile toll system and ludicrously expensive parking.
The first random digression of
the trip was the Camargue in southwestern
Montserrat was the first stop on the itinerary; it's a big, oddly-shaped mountain north of Barcelona with a monastery precariously perched on one side... the road to get there was an 11km series of hairpin curves that overlooked a few-thousand meter drop-off. Upon reaching the top, we visited the church, made a few random hikes, and then coasted down the winding road to the base.
We spent our first night in Tarragona, a modestly-sized town with roman ruins, a great beach and an excellent "buffet libre" - the literal translation for libre is free, but the Spanish interpretation of such enticing signs as "free parking" or "free lunch", is that you're welcome to use it as much as you want - as long as you pay for it; at any rate, this buffet had a hundred varieties of Catalan cuisine - the only downside was that none of it was labeled, and I really had no idea what I was eating; naturally this didn't deter me from taking the obligatory five heaping plates. We stayed at something called a "Hostal" which is apparently exactly like a hotel - we had a huge room with 3 beds, a full-bath, and a large cabinet (which to our chagrin did not contain a big-screen tv and stereo).
In the morning, we took off down the coast (somehow we failed to notice Universal Studios Mediterranea which was apparently right outside the city); upon perusing the guidebooks, we decided that Valencia - Spain's third largest city - would be a good place to stop for a quick tour of its myriad monuments. After driving through dozens of tiny streets, and asking ourselves over and over again what constituted a legal parking space, we eventually found ourselves in a lot with an hour max next to a massive castle-like structure that we surmised would make our car easy to find. We walked into the center of town and found the very impressive cathedral and climbed a few hundred half-meter-high steps to a tower that provided a view of the entire city and its 300 spires. Next we walked into a side room to see the Holy Grail, and with our hour exhausted, darted out into the streets in the direction where we had cited a huge castle-like thing. After reaching it, we learned that there were in fact, two such towers in town and our car was parked next to the other one, so we arrived fifteen minutes late to find some guy in the process of writing a ticket... we promptly got in and drove off, and hoped that this come back to haunt us later. We searched a while for another space, but upon consulting a parking cop, we learned that every parking space in town was in fact illegal, and with no desire to wrestle our car back from a Spanish-speaking impoundment yard, we had no choice but to leave town.
A few hours later we arrived in
Granada, and with only the limited guide book map to get us
where we wanted to go, we drove aimlessly through Friday night
traffic... after following signs for "Centro Ciudad" and
"Alhambra" in big circles for 2 hours, we eventually stopped and
asked directions, and were able to dump our burdensome car in a parking garage
so we could attack the city by foot. We located another cheap hostal that provided not one but two full bathrooms
right down the hall. We explored winding alleyways in the area that
were home to Arab crafts shops and packed tapa
bars (there's apparently a fascinating phenomenon in Granada that
I never got a chance to explore - if you go into a bar and order a
drink, they bring you food for free - this is clearly a concept
that should be more widely adapted). We ate at a Tunisian restaurant
where the owner grabbed a microphone and serenaded his unsuspecting
customers with the most obnoxious tunes
The next day we went to
We left Granada around 6:00am
with the belief that traffic would be minimal then; though Saturday
morning was much quieter than the previous night, it amazed us to see
hordes of teenagers still walking around, the city's nightlife still
in force at dawn. Our next destination was Seville; we arrived there
around 9 and went to the cathedral which was in the Guinness Book
for having the largest area of any church anywhere; apparently
when the funds were first set aside for it, the archbishop pronounced
"let us build a church so big that we shall be thought to be insane";
it had multiple alters and Mass was terribly confusing as the procession
randomly wandered from one to the next; luckily there was a big
screen tv that switched between multiple camera
angles so you didn't miss any of the major plays. After church, we met
up with Grant, a member of the
It had occurred to us, that once we
were on the southern coast of Spain, we were really only a
stone's throw away from a whole new continent, and since the opportunity to
take a 30-minute boat ride into an entirely different world doesn't come along
every day, we were not about to pass it up. After failing to find a
decent parking space in the busy
We traveled 800km south through the desert to the foot of the Atlas Mountains, and arrived in Marrakesh around 8:30 where we set about finding breakfast... we soon discovered that we had arrived in the middle of some obscure Arabic holiday known as Ramadan that forbids everyone from eating, drinking, or doing anything else between sun-up and sun-down... we sought out an American hotel that provided an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet in blatant disregard for the local religious beliefs. After filling up on enough dates and corn flakes to last us until dusk, we sought out the tourist office using a very limited map that we had gotten at the station - after wandering around in circles for half an hour, we just gave in and paid a taxi a quarter to take us there (it turned out to be about half a kilometer away). Frommers had advised us to hire a guide to show us the city and so we paid 15 bucks to some robed guy named Omet to take us deep into the medina. As it turned out, the tourist office guides, like everyone else in the country, were out to take as much money from us as possible... Omet no doubt got generous cuts from the taxi drivers whom he instructed us to pay 4 times what the meter read, and from the many stores where he dropped us off for lengthy sales pitches. The medina, or kasbah, or old-town, or whatever it is they call it, was a fascinating place; it was full of craftsmen creating every sort of drum, shoe, turban, mask and lamp imaginable... there were fruit stands selling fruits that were split open and covered in flies, and meat stands selling delicious-looking sheep-heads (which seemed like a profoundly appropriate gift for a certain uncle)... I made the grave mistake of using a WC in the heart of it; the old, toothless caretaker poured me a bucket of water and directed me to a hole in one corner of the room - I'm not really sure how the plumbing in this country works, but nearly every store/restaurant/etc. uses the bucket method; the flies and stench suggest that whatever means of flushing is used, it's not particularly effective. Omet eventually led us out of the maze into the giant square that typifies the zany, over-the-top "Moraccanness" of Marrakesh... everywhere there were snake charmers (who would sling cobras around tourists necks and only remove them once a hefty fee was paid), guys with monkeys (I didn't get close enough to figure out what they did with the monkeys), tooth-pullers, and street fighters.
After we'd had our fill of this freaky festival atmosphere, we started wandering around the city looking for monuments; we didn't manage to find anything particularly interesting at any of the map-recommended "palaces" and were fearful of entering the mosques that were quite likely closed to infidels such as ourselves... we eventually headed back to the old-town and got lost for a few hours in the maze-like streets... school was just letting out and we had to guard our bags against a swarm of 7-year-old pick-pockets and several kids offered to guide us to a variety of places where we really had no interest in going... we did manage to find one tomb that had some elaborate ceiling etchings, but the universal sentiment was "it's nice, but it's no Alhambra."
Shortly before sundown we returned to the main square where we found hundreds of booths set up cooking food for the feast; it looked like a crazy time and I wanted to stick around for sundown, but I was out-voted on the grounds that we didn't want to be anywhere near the kasbah after dark, and so we went to meander the empty streets around the train station. For dinner, we found another great restaurant that served special Ramadan soup but sadly, did not offer the city's signature dish of pigeon potpie that I had heard so much about, so it was couscous once again. We caught the 10 o'clock train back to Tangier; this time, we opted to pay the $8 supplement for the first class sleeping car; this was much better than what I had paid $20 for on the way to Paris - we had huge pillows, comfortable cots, and a sink down the hall with actual running water... additionally the conductor locked the car after us, so we could be sure that a goat wouldn't be moving into the vacant bunk below me in the middle of the night.
We got back to Tangier around 7, this time we waited to get off until we reached the ultra-modern Tangier-Ville station; we explored the city, went out to the beach (where we briefly considered renting a camel), and went to breakfast at the only open bar in town - we all had something called "Krock" which is basically an egg on toast; the coffee was of course, not as good as Granada's. Next we explored Tangier's medina, this was the time for a shopping spree since we only had a few kilometers walk to the boat and back to our car... buying anything in Morocco is tons of fun because bargaining is not only accepted, it's required -- a shopkeeper may expect no more than 5 bucks for an item, but that doesn't stop him from offering an opening price of 200. This is a country without price tags; food, transportation, lodging, major appliances, gas - all completely up for debate; even the vending machines have special programming to initially demand 4 bucks for a coke and then gradually lower their prices as you repeatedly press the buttons. With our dirhums nearly exhausted, our arms full of useless crafts, and our boat due to arrive soon, we decided to grab some lunch; the only spot open was naturally a Pizza Hut, so we all had personal-panned veggie pizzas with french fries as our final experience in Moroccan cuisine. When we finished, we had only half an hour to race back to the port; we were all sick of taxi drivers so decided to simply walk as fast as we could... we could have made it to the boat with a few seconds to spare, but they made us go through some silly security checkpoint, and when we finally got out to the loading area, the ferry had pulled off a few more feet than we could jump with all our accumulated junk. So we were stuck at the port for 3 hours waiting for the next boat; luckily there were some video games in the cafe downstairs that cost a dirhum (a dime) a piece. One of the games was Metal Slug 2 (which is strangely all about Americans with modern weaponry blowing to smithereens backward Moroccans armed only with scythes and monkeys); with my one remaining dirhum, I played this game for about 45 minutes and drew quite a large crowd.
We arrived back in Tarifa shortly after dark and wandered around the city,
climbing on ancient fortifications and exploring the deserted beach; this was
one of the more pleasant stops on our trip, it was one of those lazy coastal
towns that are nearly impossible to find in
We got to
Next, we made our way up to Rhonda - one of Spain's many white villages; it seems everywhere you go in this country, you can see clumps of buildings on lush, green hillsides that appear to have been bleached... these are almost as prolific as the odd black bull billboards that show up everywhere along the nation's highways (Can anyone explain this?? what is the purpose of a 50x100m cardboard bull??) This particular town is known for its bridges which span a massive gorge... we hiked down a few hundred steps through a "water-mine" down to the river - naturally we all wanted to kayak it, but as usual there were no boats close at hand.
We then took off back towards Seville... there we made our way to the home of Grant's program's advisor... she chewed him out in Spanish for about 45 minutes, while I sat and wondered why I was still there. After returning him to his host family's house (who didn't seem to notice that he had left), we made our way into the city... it took around 4 hours to park the car, so we didn't have much time to explore... we checked into another Hostal and quickly crashed.
Early the next morning, we set out
for Italica, a large set of Roman
ruins east of town... the locals used this place as a jogging track and
shortcut to school, but it also served as a perfectly good tourist attraction
with lots of old walls and fields and such. From here, we
made our way up to
The original plan was to find a
kayak rental place in the morning and explore the rocky inlets around the
coast, but when we got up, it turned out to be really cold, so we opted instead
to make our way back towards
Sunday was a fairly conservative
travel day; we opted for the quick hop over to
I had planned to take it easy for the last few weeks of my stay in France - go to classes, study for my exams, and enjoy the sights and sounds of Antibes, Cannes and Nice; however, as daily I plodded the 3km to the bus stop, sat on the bus for 40 minutes, dozed through a couple of 3-hour long classes, and made the long, boring trip back home in the freezing temperatures, pouring rain, and gale-force winds that had become the unceasing reality of the Riviera forecast, I felt quite inclined to be somewhere, anywhere else. So I took a train down to the Nice airport and set out to find a standby flight - I went to each airline in turn and laid down my situation -1.doesn't matter where I go, 2.doesn't matter when I leave or come back, 3.have no luggage, 4.am willing to ride in cargo space or overhead compartment, 5.will wash dishes, hand out peanuts, or demonstrate use of life jackets and emergency exits, 6.don't want to pay over 100 euros... though they all had seats available, this win-win proposition was too much for their French minds to handle, and all they could offer me were ridiculous, last-minute fairs (ex. 2300 one-way to JFK, or 400 to Amsterdam), so I was forced to take a train back for another weekend of doing more or less nothing.
Next, the heat in my apartment stopped working and since I had yet to sign any contract or put down any security deposit with the residence, I was not inclined to ask for service; additionally, the city had installed an enormous blinking Christmas display right outside my window that sent intermittent bursts of blinding light straight through my curtains from 6PM-7AM each day. So, with new levels of desperation, I turned to the local travel agency for help; asking for someplace warm and exotic, they offered me a flight to Tunisia from Marseilles, a week at a 4-star hotel, and buffet-style breakfast and dinner for 170 euros; this seemed too good to pass up, but the schedule overlapped with my exams... so I went to my teachers one by one and tried to explain to them my simple theory that because of my grades and work ethic, I should be able to get away with anything I want - including skipping all my exams and fleeing the country; somehow this logic went right over their heads. So I negotiated with TunisAir to get me a flight in between these silly tests for 150... I did miss one graded exercise session, but the teacher explained to me that because it only counted for 20% of my grade, an F would be lost in the round-off... this was a clear example of French math, but since it was for once working in my favor, I went along with it.
Knowing nothing about
Yeah, I made that last part
up... we were on a modern airbus jet and made the trip in a little over an
hour... as we whizzed over
at Tunis-Carthage, I immediately set about getting some of the
local currency, the dinar (about 1.2 to the
dollar, or 1.5 to the euro (how fondly I remember the times when these
were more or less interchangeable)). To my great annoyance, I found
that I had forgotten my pin number for the ATM and discovered how
truly dependant I am on that little card in my travels. I
changed over my emergency supply of pounds and dollars and contemplated how I
would survive for a week on 50 bucks. Dodging the onslaught of taxi
drivers, I grabbed a bus into town; it dropped me off at the Place du Republique next to
the massive Jawa Sandcrawler Hotel. The
modern city of
The weather was no better at this beachside tourist hotspot, so I began a desperate search for an umbrella; the first store had no prices, and upon inquiring into the cost of one, I received the somewhat inflated figure of 570 dinar... this seemed a tad unreasonable so I continued to a MonoPrix (department store - translated as "one price" - how such a place is permitted to exist in this society, I have no idea) and picked one up for 4 bucks. Having had some time to think on the train, I had remembered my pin number and went to the nearest atm to gleefully extract a pile of money to carry around with me in the middle of the night in this third-world town.
I went to a restaurant recommended by the guide and grabbed a four-course meal for around 4 bucks - the food here isn't nearly as good as that in Morocco (or maybe I was just following my French guidebook too closely) but you can't complain about buck sandwiches/salads and $3 menus... 90% of what I ran into was some form of spicy couscous, but tuna salads and something called a brick (a crepe wrapped around an egg and deep fried - about the least healthy thing you can imagine) were also common... I was forced to give up on my plan to avoid meat - every meal, whether vegetarian pasta or fruit salad, had a big chunk of lamb in the center of it... it was very handy to know some French in randomly picking new things to try - it never failed that right below menu items like rice and spaghetti, would be the delectable "tete d'agneau", or head of lamb.
I returned to the train station to try to once again get aboard the midnight train to Djerba, but ran into a similarly useless ticket agent... so I gave up on seeking out better weather to the south and sought out some place to stay in the over-priced beach town. What I understood to be the youth hostel was about 4 km from city center - its signs were entirely in Arabic and the reception was closed - the only sign of life was a bunch of kids practicing judo... it looked as if I would be forced to stay at a real hotel. I first tried one featured in my guidebook, it was 14 dinar, but in order to get to the shower, it was necessary to walk about half a mile across the medina. Next I found one that was 12 dinar, but here the clerk adamantly refused to let me see the room in advance - this was somewhat disconcerting. Finally, I settled for a place that charged 20 dinar... it wasn't the type of 4-star resort you'd expect to get for 16 bucks, but it did have two beds and a shower in the room... the owner turned the heat off at around 12 so the room was freezing cold for most of the night - I tried to negotiate a refund because of this, but apparently Tunisians' love of bargaining ends when you hand over the money.
In Muslim countries, the first call
to prayer serves as a town-wide wake-up call at 5:25 in the morning - perhaps
this is why Islam never really caught on in our part of the world - at any
rate, I was out the door early, and exploring Sousse,
the 3rd largest ville in the country; the beach was
nice, though somewhat covered with trash, and not without a touch of that
raw sewage smell that accompanies any body of water in these parts of the
world. I wandered up to the port where a line of massive
sailing ships with elaborate figureheads were readied to take
tourists on whimsical voyages to parts unknown. I wandered
The real fun began when the souks opened, offering countless shops full of mass-produced Berber crafts with irritating salesmen who open every round of negotiations with their "really good price" of a million-gagillion dinar. Somehow these people had learned how to rip people off in every language imaginable, but they never managed to nail down my nationality - they would always start with Arabic (after I finally gave up on the khaki shorts and donned jeans and a toboggan, I apparently looked just like a Tunisian), then French, German, Dutch, English - they never guessed it right (out of the 355,000 tourists each year, under a thousand are American; I guess Morocco's closer); even after I told them, they refused to believe me, and converted all their prices to sterling pounds for my benefit. The trouble with souks is that although you might be able to get a stuffed, musical camel or bejeweled fez for 1 or 2 dinar, these are not things that anyone has any use for, and it is practically impossible to discern the actual value of anything - I would start all my bids off at 5 dinar regardless of what I was bidding on, though once people started accepting these offers, I had to drop it down to 2 for fear that I might actually end up buying something.
After I had had my fill of being harassed, I made my way out to the catacombs; apparently there are around 5 kilometers under the city, but they only let you into about 100 feet of them; this provided a good 3 minutes worth of entertainment. Next I searched for the souk du animaux where I planned to pick up a camel or water buffalo for 5 dinar to carry me to the neighboring towns, but it is only open on Sundays so I was forced to resort to more traditional means of transportation. I located the louage station - louages are collective taxis where a driver waits until a carload of people are going to his chosen destination and takes them there; a sheet in each car displays the governmentally-mandated fees for traveling between any two cities; unfortunately, the names of the towns were always in Arabic and I never really had any idea what the right price was. The Arabic language is one of the major pitfalls I've encountered in my North African travels; everywhere else I've gone, whether it's Germany, Holland, Catalonia or Flemish Belgium, I've been able to make some sense of the language, but Arabic is complete gibberish - worse than that, it's gibberish written backwards; most signs are written in French as well, but bus destinations and any other documents offering critical information, were written solely in the native alphabet; to make things even more confusing, the "come here" sign is an overhand wave, and the word for yes is "nya". At any rate, by running around aimlessly, shouting the name Kairoaun, I was able to find the right louage and get to my intended destination.
Kairoaun is one of the 4 holiest cities in the Muslim world - my guidebook claimed it was necessary to get a guide in order to see the myriad holy spots in the city; though I had planned to ignore this advice and rely on my usual style of aimlessly wandering around and running into neat stuff, one particularly irritating local had other intentions.
I'm not sure how I acquired the services of Mustafa, the 25-year old, non-english-speaking, cake-salesman/guide extraordinaire, but regardless of how many French versions of "get lost" I could come up with, I couldn't seem to free myself from his unsolicited tour. First, we visited a particularly holy spot where a camel walked in circles around a well and operated a system of pulleys that lifted water up for visitors to drink for good luck; certain that drinking water from a Tunisian camel well would bring me everything but luck, I was content to take only a picture as a souvenir. Next, it was on to the mosque of the three doors... this was a building which had 3 doors... and after that, two other mosques of no particular interest (certainly nothing to compare with the crazy 3 door phenomenon). The final stop was to a huge tub of water; my guide was unable to offer an intelligible explanation of what it was used for so I had to go with the twenty questions approach; apparently it wasn't for swimming, boating, or washing the dog. Following the chain of monuments, we set into the souk to visit all of Mustafa's friends' shops; after each successive stage of bargaining, the shopkeeper and guide would talk about me in Arabic - this introduced a whole new element to the already ridiculous process. In another attempt to get rid of him, I said that I needed to get something to eat, so he led me to a restaurant with a menu entirely in Arabic and sat and waited silently as I ate who knows what... finally, in desperation, I decided to catch a bus 2 hours earlier than intended; after following me to the station, he announced his price for bugging me for the past 4 hours - 10 dinar; I bought my ticket, threw 2 dinar his way (if nothing else, he did a lot for my French-speaking skills) and ran out and jumped on the bus.
Buses work quite differently
in this part of the world; none of them have toilets, so they simply
stop on the demand of any passenger, or whenever the driver has a craving
for a roadside snack. About 20 minutes into the trip, we stopped
alongside a line of pastry and craft vendors, and
everyone jumped off the bus to grab a cup of tea and some candy - I
was left sitting on the bus for 10 minutes, not really sure of what to
do. After around 4 hours and 200km of dirt roads, we arrived in
the oasis of Tozeur at ; this town rests on the edge of the
I began the trek out to where I believed the desert should be, bypassing a herd of horse-drawn carriages ready to take me there in style for 5 dinar... I stopped at a camel/horse rental place that claimed the fixed price for a camel was 10 dinar/hour, this seemed somewhat hard to believe, so I kept going; some random kid who was bathing in the stream alongside the road chased me down and offered to let me ride his camel for 3 dinar - this seemed like a decent deal so I followed him out to the edge of the desert. On the border of the seemingly infinite wasteland stood some sort of strange, free campground; it had hot springs, a playground, and of course, an 18-hole golf course; there was also a huge metal bird and a big rock with faces carved in it - I climbed to the top of this rock for a great view of the oasis of Tozeur and the vast nothingness that bounded it on all sides. Afterwards, I followed the kid back to his tent where he lived and worked with a bunch of old Berbers, and was given my mighty camel steed.
When I imagined renting a camel, I envisioned galloping through the desert at high speeds, leaping over dunes and trouncing anything that got in my way; unfortunately the actual experience was more like what you might find at a petting zoo; a guide slowly led my camel along well-worn paths and let him stop to chew on shrubbery ever 5 feet - in an hour's time, we had probably gone all of half a kilometer. When we returned to camp, I tried to pay him with a 5 dinar note, but naturally he had no change (this turned out to be a reoccurring theme); he tried to convince me to take a 6km ride into the desert and stay in a Berber tent overnight and eat couscous for 17 dinar (probably 7 with the right negotiations), but 6 hours on the back of a camel didn't appeal to me, so for the extra 2 dinar, I negotiated a kilogram of dates, two wooden necklaces and a carriage ride into town; I left feeling as if I had ripped this kid off - it's a vicious society here, and in the end it's not the conmen or the tourist who suffers, but the poor, toothless, illiterate kid who meets up with the tourist, who is battle-hardened by the onslaught of conmen.
Next, I trekked into the endless
groves of date-bearing palms; everywhere in this town the streets were lined
with these things with hundreds of different species of dates, but I could
never figure out how to reach the fruit, or whether it was legal or safe to eat
them; everywhere street-side vendors would sell them for no less than 2 dinar per kilo, so I figured there had to be some trick to
it. After walking for several kilometers, I found the
Apparently Douz is an exceedingly small and boring town, with its singular attraction being when all the Berbers come in on Thursday morning to sell their goods and animals; the locals couldn't stop talking about this amazing experience that I had apparently missed by only a few hours. It's also known for its Festival of the Sahara which takes place at the end of December and features what are perhaps the world's only sanctioned camel fights; it might be worth the airfare from America to catch this. When I got into town, the rain had completely flooded the streets and the only way to get around was to leap from brick to brick on paths that had been laid across the roads. I was inclined to louage right out of this underwater village, but found that I had no money and the only ATM in town was out of funds, so I was forced to stick around for a time. I got a room at a motel for the student rate of 3 dinar; I wasn't at all sure whether the kid who showed up to hand me my key actually had any affiliation with the motel - he spoke a fast French/Arabic/English mix and sounded remarkably like that one coach from The Water Boy - but in the end, I got a room, he got 3 dinar, everybody won; my room had a double bed as well as two single beds, and other than the door not closing all the way and the impression that nothing had been cleaned in a really long time, it was not a bad little place; I didn't get much sleep because someone had just sent me an email assuring me that my bed would be infested with scorpions.
In the morning, I set out to find the desert and the Grand Dune d'Ofra. I fought my way through countless offers to rent a camel (there are over 1800 available in this town), and trudged out in the sands; the grand dune wasn't all that big - maybe 10 meters high - if you really want to see a lot of sand, I recommend the 100m sand dune on the Outer Banks. I wasn't terribly sure what to do in the desert... there were no real destinations, since the dunes continued out for a few hundred km on three sides; I grabbed a stick and starting rooting around in little holes in the sand to try to find scorpions and pit vipers to take home as souvenirs… probably better that I was unsuccessful in this effort. I visited a small oasis and tried chimneying up some palm trees to grab some dates, but this too proved impossible. The sun was finally out, and it began to feel remarkably like one of those movies where someone is crawling through the sand, searching desperately for shade and water, so I grabbed a taxi for the 2km back into town (for one-half dinar) to check out the souks. These markets were rather unusual since they offered what appeared to be fixed prices; I would go into a store and inquire into the price of a camel-hair jacket; the owner would say 25 dinar; following the usual pattern, I would say "trop cher" and walk out; after repeating this process for the 4th time without being stopped, I began to suspect that this might be the actual price. Feeling a little uneasy shopping without constant harassment and nonsense prices, I went to the station and louaged to the hub of Gabes.
It was on this ride that I
met up with an English couple fresh out of law school; they too had
been tricked into thinking that
I had been told that the bus for Gabes left at 6 in the morning, so I decided I would have to skip the hotel's free "petit dejeuner" (which started at 6) and make my way to the station; however, when I got there I found there was no bus, and a nearby store clerk informed me that it didn't actually come until 6:30; some creepy old guy offered to take me in his truck for 10 dinar, but I thought it better just to wait; so naturally I raced back to the hotel in the hope of grabbing some food; I don't know why I go to so much trouble for hotel breakfast over here; it's always just coffee and bread; I guess more than anything it's just a morbid curiosity to see just how pitiful it is. So I downed a liter of milk and half a baguette in about 5 minutes and ran the km back to the station (this was really dumb)... I arrived just in time to see my bus pull away; the next one wasn't scheduled to arrive until 7:30, so I jumped in a louage (oddly, the same one that had brought me into town), and since he was really bored this early in the morning, he was willing to take me by myself (rather than waiting for 7 more people) for no additional charge.
I had to find transport onward to Djerba; it
seemed no one really wanted to go there, so I ended up waiting in an
8-person louage for a good 45 minutes before we
set out. I was sure I would have to change cars at
some point, but the van simply drove to the harbor, boarded the
ferry, and after getting off, continued to the island's main city of
The isle of Djerba is the hotspot of the Tunisian tourist industry; it has lots of beaches, souks, forts, and an active sponge trade. Arriving at the station, the first stop was the famed fish market; here three old men hold out fish and auction them off to the gathered masses; there's a restaurant next door that will take whatever you buy and cook it for lunch; this was very tempting but proved impossible for me to do since the auctioneers were shouting their prices in Arabic (or possibly auctioneer French), so I really had no idea what I would be buying or how much I'd be paying for it. Next it was onward to the various spice and handcraft souks; the salesmen of Djerba are really messed up (perhaps this has to do with being descended from the members of an isolated island community) - every one of them is cross-eyed, and when speaking to you, will inadvertently shift from English into German midway through a sentence; I tried to explain to them that English-speaking people don't necessarily speak any German and tried to force them over to all-French, but had no luck; eventually I just started alternating my responses between English and Klingon - this scared most of them off. The goods here were mostly overpriced and my only purchase on the island was a quarter-kilogram of somewhat fly-infested dates for roughly a dime - strangely, this turned out to be a poor decision, and put an end to the perfect health that I enjoyed up to this point; the bathrooms in Tunisia are much better than those in Morocco - most have a bowl rather than a hole in the floor and have real plumbing instead of just a bucket of water; however, they are still universally disgusting - whether you're in an upscale restaurant or fancy hotel, the odor and appearance is worse than your worst porta-pottie tale from the states; I don't know why this is the case, since most of the bathrooms have full-time maids - it's as if western civilization possesses some profound cleaning technology that remains hidden to these people - every cleaning procedure I encountered here consisted of simply sloshing a bucket-full of water over walls, floor and bowls.
My next stop was the port; here there were motor boats disguised as pirate ships and other touristy vessels, as well as fishing boats filled with thousands of clay pots (no idea what these were for)... my guidebook recommended that I commission a fisherman to take me out to the nearby islands of flamingos... perhaps this would have been possible had I known French, but either way, it didn't seem like a terribly smart idea. Near the port was a rather impressive fort of some kind.
The plan was
to catch the bus/train back to Tunis around 9 that night; like
everywhere else on this trip, Homt Souk had a whole lot of nothing going on at night; all the
Arabs gathered in cafes to drink the a la menthe and smoke the chicha (this is a type of tobacco; most cafes offer water pipes
for rent); so I was left to wander up and down the coast; going through the souks, I noticed that all of the ceramics and sandstones
that were offered for thousands of dinar during the
day were simply left out unguarded during the night - this gave some indication
of their true value. Towards 8, I proceeded to the station; it was here
that I met the only American that I encountered during the whole
trip. He turned out to be a hiker/sea kayaker from
The bus took us as far as Gabes, following the same road-ferry-road routine as
before, and then we boarded the overnight train; this
was easily more comfortable than anything I’ve ridden in
Next I set out to find the Bardo museum about which the other American had raved for some time. It was filled with thousands of square feet of elaborate mosaics covering walls, ceiling and floor, along with many sculptures, jewelry and an exhibition of Italian silverware. From here, I made my way to the Parc du Belvedere and the zoo that lay within; this place was in a state of utter lawlessness - people were tossing food to the baboons to make them do tricks, little children were pelting the hippopotami with tiny oranges, an old homeless woman had taken up residence in the duck exhibit (or perhaps ducks had moved into the old lady display), and a group of teenagers snuck in by scaling a 20 foot, barbwire fence. The animals were fairly typical: lions, bears, seals, elephants... sadly the one animal I had wanted to see, the camel, was strangely absent. Once again there was a rather extensive pigeon collection; the pigeons that flew about freely just beyond their caged comrades must have found this most peculiar.
It's not really possible to
aimlessly wander the streets of
Sooner or later, I made my way to the TGM station, which is a sort of metro that crosses the water to the towns along the coast; I went into Carthage and explored the Punic ports; unfortunately it was getting dark so I couldn't make out the rest of the ruins, but from what I've read, there's not much left of them; the town is nowadays mostly a bunch of high-end residential complexes.
Returning to town, I went down the main drag to the old city; the Medina was rather scary at night - all the stores and restaurants were closed and no moonlight was able to penetrate its thick shell; I inadvertently made my way into the Kasbah’s red light district - a series of narrow walkways where lines of men peered through open doors at large Arabic women posing seductively in full-length robes and facial scarves - tres bizarre. Sooner or later I found the hostel once again and settled in for the night.
Giving myself plenty of time to get to my flight, I left the hostel around 5; my initial plan was to catch a taxi, but although it costs around a quarter a km for any other destination in the country, it's about 10 dinar to get to the airport. I had to take my chances with the all-Arabic bus system; I asked around and boarded a bus that supposedly went to the airport; after about 10 minutes, they apparently changed the designations, and moved me to the next bus in the line; another 15 minutes passed and they transferred me to yet another bus; this one eventually left, did several loops around town, and arrived at my terminal around 7. Thinking that there would surely be plentiful ble-ble or glop for breakfast near my gate, I immediately checked in and went through security; much to my dismay, I found that they only had ultra-expensive cookies and coffee, and worse yet, all the prices were in Euros. Luckily there was an unscheduled breakfast on the plane, and by pitifully staring at my empty plate and at the stewardess, I was able to get a second helping despite the language barrier.
When I arrived in Nice, I grabbed
the direct bus to school - it costs 10 euros to go this 20km, roughly the
same price as it costs to go 400km in
So ends another zany adventure; I'm going to take a little time off for the holidays, but stay tuned in 2004 for another series of daring escapades to the farthest reaches of the earth.