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Travel Log

I. London and Arrival 1

II. Paris. 9

III. Benelux. 15

IV. Switzerland. 22

V. Barcelona. 31

VI. Monaco and San Remo. 38

VII. Rome. 42

VIII. Corsica. 49

IX. Spain and Morocco. 56

X. Tunisia. 71


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. London and Arrival

Hey, I'm writing from an internet cafe in Camden town... I apologize for any
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
London - apparently it's a periodical you have to buy called Timeout that comes out on Tuesday.  The bus dropped me off at Victoria, where as it turns out, they have no luggage lockers... so I had to haul my bag all the way to the Hyde Park hostel... that was incredibly painful.  After reserving for that hostel for the remaining 3 nights and dumping my luggage, I checked out the Notting Hill Carnival... more or less a mob scene.  They had some weird parade with some kind of Caribbean theme... also had a lot of food stands... food in this city is ridiculous... it would be ridiculous even if it was in dollars instead of pounds... I eventually found a place called "Camden's Best Kabobs" that gave me a pita with hummus and salad for 1.80 quid... was pretty good... Also went by Regency park; that place is cool, might go for a run there in the morning... I think the heat wave is over, never got above 70 today... Internet access is 1 pound an hour and after 9 you get a free drink... actually fairly reasonable... Well, I can't sit down for much longer... the Scandinavians played this clever trick on us... they served us dinner, turned out the lights around 10, changed all the clocks, and turned the lights on and served breakfast around 7:00 (1:00AM)... so I'm working off of 1 or 2 hours... I'm going to check out what comedy shows are going on at Piccadilly, see ya later.      


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 France where the heat wave is alive and well.

Where did I leave off? Monday night, I wandered around Trafalgar, Piccadilly and Leinster - quite amazing at night... one square had massive 3D posters of Terminator 3 and Tomb Raider, but I was deterred from catching any movies on this trip by the 10 pound price tag.  I missed the comedy show (the first of many) because of poor directions and traffic... this trip has been a great lesson in orienteering... I have meandered all over this city and after a week am finally starting to get a basic sense of things.

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 Camden to Hyde Park.  On the way, I spent a whole 5 minutes in the national portrait gallery.  Ran around Hyde for a while... it amazes me that there's better running in the center of one of the most populous cities on earth than anywhere in Gainesville or Sarasota... I had some trouble with British people running on the wrong side of the path, but I intimidated most of them into getting in the right lane.  Went to the Science Museum; a fairly neat place, it focused a lot on the history of invention... one of my favorite exhibits was a rather prominent wing with the marquee "Canada in Space" - apparently they sent one or two people up on the American shuttles over the years.  Next, I somehow got lost in some borough called Chelsea that wasn't on my map... I passed a "football" stadium swarming with fanatic English people.  I had heard that there was a play on at the globe that night and ran for 2.5 hours across the city... I showed up just in time but learned that it was sold out... this is when I gave up the theory that running is the quickest way to get around a big city.

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 London rule"... I discovered a market selling bananas 10kg for a pound... if I could only have devised a use for 10kg of bananas, I would have snatched up this deal in a second... instead I just got a few dozen clementines.  I went to the matinee of Taming of a Shrew (put on by some all-women group) at the Globe Theatre... I got a groundling "seat" for 5 pounds - this is the only way to experience the globe; you're a few feet from the stage and get to interact with the players... I only regret that I didn't go to one of the shows where they shot pig blood out over the crowd, and that they no longer sell tomatoes for you to throw. That night I saw that there was a comedy show playing in EC2... having no idea where that was, I got on a bus to Earl's court (I later found out that it was actually about 7 miles across town)... in trying to get back to the city, I jumped on the wrong bus and got taken to Fulham which is apparently a borough an hour outside of London... this is when I vowed to give up bus travel.

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 Venice... apparently there's 50 miles of canals running through the city... might be a good kayaking trip.  After that, I jumped a train to the Imperial war museum where they had stuff on all sorts of disputes from the last century... it was interesting to see their perspective on a lot of the stuff... they had a special exhibit on MI6 that was supposed to be "more unbelievable than fictions like 007" but all there was were pens and briefcases with bugs inside, and no jetpacks or munition-filled sports cars.  That night I set out to go to a show at the Dominion Theater in Tottenham.  There was some sort of blackout that got 250000 people stuck on the rails (the one day I buy a train ticket)... this was very inconvenient, the buses were stopped, foot traffic was clogged... I had to crowd surf a few miles down Oxford to the theatre where I saw "We Will Rock You", a musical by Queen... the music was great, but in the end, it was a musical, and the story and plot were fairly inane... check it out at

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 London... there were times when I thought I would never find my way back to city center and would be wandering the cold, rainy streets while my plane left for sunny France, but my superior sense of direction prevailed and I made it out alive.  On my last day, I visited the British museum which had far more artifacts than I could possibly handle, and the theatre museum which was extremely pointless except for this very odd exhibit on dancing psycho clown robots -- a 15 minute "performance" where grinning puppets with knives twirled around in weird lighting while a creepy soundtrack with wicked laughter played. 


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 midnight 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...



II. Paris

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 Austerlitz around 8, and since it was a Friday, set about finding a place to stay.  Since I was quite likely to fall asleep if I sat for more than a minute or two, public transportation seemed like a bad idea and I chose to attack the city by foot.  After somehow getting trapped on a narrow concrete path bordering the Seine, and getting in a scenic river walk, I managed to gradually meander towards the center of the city; around Place de La Republique I picked some random hostel with a French name I can't remember, dumped off my bag, and set off in a north-westerly direction. 


Probably the neatest spot in Paris that you've never heard of is Parc de Buttes-Chaumont -- here, there's an island where you can climb through a series of caves to reach a pavilion at a high peak which offers a view of the whole city; there's also a stalactite-filled cavern complete with large waterfall.


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 Jungle Gardens), I headed west along some canal.  One mile's walk and one massive hill later, I arrived at the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur and got another amazing panoramic view of the city.


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 Paris, this place has been brought up in the same breath, so I thought I better check it out.  Apparently in Paris, they actually charge you money to go to museums (unless you're under 18 or an art student - I tried to argue that both of these were just a matter of perception but it didn't fly), so after paying full price for admission, I began the seemingly endless task of navigating the miles and miles of rooms.  Much to my chagrin, it turned out to be just one huge art museum, and though it was slightly more interesting than the Fishguard tapestry museum, it offered nothing for my taste except for one artist who dressed monkeys up in people clothes.


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 Latin Quarter which was oddly enough full of Greek restaurants... the owners stood out in the streets and tried to entice people into choosing their establishments, two of them started smashing plates on the ground.  At night the Seine was all lit up, full of dinner cruisers and flanked by hundreds of pedestrians and portrait artists... I crossed over to the Ile de la Cite where the main square was full of street performers, the "Fire Show", where some guy waved around burning things, was the only thing I saw in English the whole trip.  


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... Paris is a silly place.  The Bois de Vincennes offered gondola paddles out to a few islands, as well as a Tibetan cultural festival which was full of people with no shoes sitting on pillows eating rice and watching movies about mountains and sheep.  When I finally got to my destination, the attendant explained to me that "free museum day" was just something they made up to lure stupid tourists into going to their museums and demanded that I pay full price... they wouldn't give me the number of the American embassy and I had to catch a train, so I gave up on seeing any free fish and made my way back to the center of town.


I caught a ride on the TGV direct to Antibes and got in around 10:30... in the morning it was back to the daily grind of the Riviera.


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 11:30 and 2:00... banks, shops, restaurants (who wants to eat at noon, anyway?).

3. Every meal comes in courses.  It's impossible to just get one plate of food in France... even pizza places have an "Express Menu" which includes an appetizer, the pizza, a desert and three glasses of wine.  Breakfast, however, is usually just one, 3-foot piece of bread

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.



III. Benelux

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 Antibes for Luxembourg, and luckier still, it had normal seats in addition to the misnomered "sleeper" cars.  So, by sprawling out across three or four reclining chairs with a few limbs dangling in the aisles, I was able to sleep for most of the night (with the notable exception of a few hours following a stop in Marseilles where the train was stormed by angry old men, one of which, for whatever reason, had a ticket claiming the exact same seat that I had reserved).  


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".  Luxembourg City consists of a circular center where all the culture and tourism resides; the center is surrounded by abrupt cliffs which give way to lowlands filled with parks, a river and villages, and finally, level and joined with bridges to the center, are the modern commercial and business zones.  A medieval fortress forms the base of everything, and semi-modern houses and shops are simply thrown into the mix of ancient towers, walls and bridges.  I spent my day meandering around the various fortications, visiting the palace, the national library (which offers free high-speed internet access), and an ostrich farm (yeah, I was surprised too), and wandering through the valleys filled with streams, waterfalls, and mini-golf courses.  Rock climbing is quite plentiful here but people seem to get kind of funny when you start scaling their national treasures.  One point of interest is the 30 km of underground tunnels that I can only assume were built by 3-foot tall subterranean gnomes with extremely small feet (once again I found myself unable to read most of the signs explaining everything -- there are three official languages in this country but none of them are English).  I opted out of the city's sightseeing tour which was based out of a tiny train that I could outrun at a casual stroll, but I am satisfied that I saw more or less everything -- outside of the center is a fairly typical European town, the most fascinating piece here was a U.S. army surplus store that sold Florida license plates -- I eventually headed back to the train station and grabbed a train to the next country over.


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... Namur is quite a cool city, but unfortunately it was the wrong one... I had apparently passed by Dinant, which was home to the kayaking and caverns for which the region was famous; at any rate, the front desk informed me that they didn't run the 21km Lesse river kayak trips on Friday, so after one more tour of the town, it was back to the train station and on to Brussels.  


Brussels is a city packed full of huge churches, palaces, other crazy works of architecture, and a plethora of museums, but for whatever reason, they don't want anybody to know about them.  Upon going to the information station, they gave me a map of a few blocks surrounding the train station, and pointed in the direction I should head that would sooner or later lead to the hostel where I had reserved a bed.  There was no sign of the mounds of complementary maps and attraction guides that I had come to expect in London and Paris.  My first stop was a hostel near the station (I figured I would probably never find the one I was looking for)... reception claimed that all the hostels in town were fully booked - this was slightly disconcerting.  So I continued to wander aimlessly through town, stopping to look through some impressive churches, and touring a collection of hundreds of cows of every material and design that had taken over the city.  On a trip through one of the large public parks, I encountered an excellent rock/polka band, and was inclined to just stop and listen and forget that I had no place to stay for the night.  Sooner or later, by asking a few random hotel owners (people don't speak English here either), I managed to find what I thought was my hostel; they had lost my reservation (which I later discovered was partially my fault since the place where I had reserved was actually down the street), but they had plenty of beds available (my room was only half full).  After getting this matter cleared up, I headed over to the Brussels-Nord station (there are about 6 stations within a few kilometers that all go to exactly the same places) and left for a day trip to Bruges.


Bruges is the ideal tourist town; like most of Holland, it's filled with canals and has more bike paths than roads; it is also home to more churches, and more waffle, chocolate and gelato shops than anywhere else on the planet.  I explored for a few hours, and completely overwhelmed by Belgium-style tourism, headed back to the station; it was at this point that I discovered that I was only 15 minutes from the sea, and hopped on board the next train north.


In the port city of Oostende, I was greeted by a harbor full of massive sailing ships and a stretch of North Sea beaches and fishing piers that seemed to go on indefinitely.  My favorite cultural oddity here was the concept of dog toilets; every sewer drain had an icon to indicate that this is where dogs should relieve themselves; there were also fenced areas next to major buildings where they could discretely do their business... human toilets were still nowhere to be found.


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 Japanese Tower and Chinese Pavilion.  Upon my return to the city, I encountered something known as "bierfestival"; I'm not sure what I expected from this, but it turned out to be one massive, unmoderated flea market of a magnitude and level of junk that would put any American flea market to shame... it seemed every family in Belgium had cleaned out their attic and was selling every piece of useless crap you can imagine... there were also marching bands (some with firing cannons), carnival rides and food vendors hawking everything from hamburgers to quarter escargot.  From here I found my way into the "grand market" which is apparently the tourist center of town.  The main square is made up of ornate government buildings, a variety of live music acts, and a tourist information center that was selling guides to the city for a minimum of $2.50; everything radiates out from here, I followed the crowds to a tiny, unassuming corner of an intersection of two small streets and found the symbol of the city -- the tiny whizzing boy, who was dressed in some sort of Scottish costume... I really expected there to be huge neon signs pointing to this thing, but I would have missed it had it not been for the sharp increase in whizzing-boy shaped chocolates and candies in the surrounding shops.  Shortly after I arrived here, some sort of marching band started a parade... I joined in and followed the music through town; I think that fast-paced parades like this one are an excellent way to see any city... you pass by all the major sights, all traffic automatically stops for you, and hundreds of random tourists from around the world immortalize you in their photo albums.  After the parade ended, I walked up and down the main streets of the area, saw many more cows and dropped in on a Mass that had conveniently just started in one of the ornate churches of the area. 


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 name "Marseilles" so I jumped off at the station there to see what sort of place it was.  This turned out to be a dirty, run-down city full of thieves and conmen... every 100 feet or so, someone would come up to me and say "give me money", and I would say "No", and he/she would reply "ok, fair enough" and walk away; it saddened me to see people with such little passion for their profession, I began to wish that someone would make a legitimate attempt to rip me off instead of these unimaginative requests.  I explored the harbor, climbed up to the top of Fort Saint Nicholas, visited a palace overlooking the sea, and walked out to the beach... the section of town bordering the water was of course far more scenic and less crime-ridden than that around the train station.  Upon returning to the station, I found that it was hours until the next train to Antibes... anxious to be anywhere but Marseilles, I hopped a train to Hyeres (via Toulon).


I had around an hour to explore Toulon which turned out to be a typical mid-sized Mediterranean town. The highlight was a McDonald's with a live band; I was inclined to hang out here the whole time but they kicked me out because I didn't meet the dress code (These are apparently very high-end establishments around here, Big Mac Value meals go for around $7.50 and are of course served in 3 courses).  I circled the town and walked around the waterfront... nothing particularly spectacular but a nice town nonetheless... around 8 I caught the last train of the night into Antibes.



IV. Switzerland

They don't make it easy to get to Switzerland; there are no convenient overnight trains, and all the obvious routes are blocked by rather large mountains; as a result, one must travel a hundred miles out of the way and make a half a dozen connections just to get across the border.  


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 around Cuneo, the "green capitol of the piedmont" (not to be confused with Turin, the "capitol of the piedmont").  There was nothing terribly interesting here; one long, arcaded street and a bunch of random historical landmarks you've never heard of.  On this particular day, the Italian president happened to be visiting the city, and thousands of people had flocked from hundreds of miles around to line the streets and see him do whatever it is Italian presidents do; I had to leave before I found out what this was, but I can only assume it must've been pretty darn cool.


A small time later I was in Turin; here I needed to figure out where I was going next and how I could get there.  No one in northern Italy speaks English, especially not those in the travel and tourism industries, so I spent quite a while running in circles through the train station's 5 "Uficios de Informazion"; after waiting in a lengthy line, I would hold out a map and point to Switzerland, each time the guy would mutter something in Italian and point to the next station; I eventually gave up on this and went to explore the city.  Northern Italy is a much more practical place than coastal Italy and France; business typically doesn't come to a standstill for the 11-2 period, and the Euro, which is nothing more than colorful monopoly money on the Riviera, actually has some value here.  Wandering around Turin was quite a challenge because unlike in other European cities where pedestrianism is king, there is no distinction between sidewalk and road; a narrow, shop-side walkway is a free lane in the eyes of a frenzied Italian truck driver.  


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 Po River around, climbed up a big hill to some kind of church and panoramic view, checked out a park with a castle of some kind, and eventually headed back to the train station.  Interlaken is due north of Turin but the only route I was able to piece together took me due east to Milan and then northwest to get me there around 11:30.


Interlaken is the town built by backpackers, and was surprisingly active and accommodating in the middle of the night; everyone spoke English with an American accent, and a long series of signs led me to a hostel decked out in Christmas lights.  This and every other hostel serve as the gateways for every conceivable adventure activity - skydiving, parachuting off mountains, white water rafting, rock climbing, and everything else - for a few hundred francs you can arrange for a taste of the extreme outdoors without lifting a finger.


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 Jungfrau seemed to be within striking distance.  Hiking down a mountain proved to be much tougher than expected; the giant, indestructible, gyroscopic, elastic hamster ball that I have yet to invent would have been of tremendous help here; I found running(rolling/falling) down the rocky slopes was much more fun (though profoundly dangerous), and I got back to the base in half an hour.


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 Bern.


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 midnight.


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 of Bern - free bike rentals.  With a 20 franc deposit and a driver's license, you can rent a bike from 6am to 9:30 pm... and these are not what you would expect from free bikes, but 24-speed hybrids with gel seats, lights and helmets.  With no knowledge of local traffic laws, I took off into the busy streets of the city... when you have no idea where you are or where you're going, it doesn't really help to be going really fast, but I managed to navigate to all the major sites in record time.  The famed bear pits offered three bears, which were doing exactly what you have ever seen any captive bear doing - sleeping; the adjacent tourism center offered a dramatic multimedia history of Bern - a talking chair was the highlight of this exhilarating show.  Next, I headed for a park that turned out to be an extensive public zoo -- if you think spotting the animals at a normal zoo is tough, try it while racing by the exhibits at 15 mph.  I rode along the river where I saw many native Bernians engaging in the strange custom of jumping in the freezing water and swimming through the middle of the city. 


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 Lausanne.


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 block in France).  I went down to the port and discovered that there was a ship leaving for Geneva, not too anxious to sit on the train for longer than necessary, I jumped onboard... this was a great ride, we cruised alongside a sailing regatta and hopped from dock to dock in a string of towns... at some point I discovered the downside to this plan - the boat ride would take 2.5 hours longer than the train and I would miss my connection in Geneva... so in an act of desperation, I jumped off at the town of Rolle and inquired as to where the train station was... the first person I talked to said the nearest one was a 2 hour walk away... the second and third gave seemingly contradictory directions in French... when I eventually found it, it turned out to be more of a post alongside the rails... trains would pass by every few minutes, but none would ever stop... when I finally caught one, I had already missed my ride to France.  


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.  


In short, Interlaken was amazing, but I would suggest flying.


Random cultural observations


Even more toilet humor: While in Turin I had the privilege of using a "toilet" that consisted of two foot shaped pedestals straddling a hole in the ground -- I had heard tales of such things, but I always imagined they would be in aging huts in undeveloped forests rather than a modern supermarket.  Swiss toilets all have "Roll-a-lets" where you deposit a franc and are allotted a given number of sheets of tp.


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.   



V. Barcelona

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.  


Barcelona's beach is in many ways far superior to those found on the Riviera - it has actual sand rather than thousands of little rocks, and in most places it's several hundred feet wide instead of just broad enough to fit a lawn chair - the one thing that ruined it for me, however, was the abnormal abundance of naked old people.  I was always disappointed that I had missed the days on Lido Beach prior to the minimum swimsuit laws, but now I abruptly became a dedicated advocate for the cause of public decency --with the absolute least discretion possible, these senior citizens were sunbathing, swimming, running, arobacizing, with nothing more than a pair of flip-flops; I spent the majority of my beach trip staring directly into the sun - this being the far less painful alternative.


From the Beach of No Shame, I wandered up through the Olympic village and onward to the Temple de La Sagrada Familia -- this is truly organized religion gone amok.  The elaborate curved spires and other insane architectural abnormalities characteristic of Gaudi architecture makes this the most impressive (and by far the most ridiculous) edifice I've ever encountered, but the black hole of tourism that it has spawned is downright disgusting -- this "church" is surrounded by ticket booths charging 9 euros admission, and radiating out from these gates, are concentric circles of souvenir booths, street people posing as biblical figures, and Sacred Family burger joints.  


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 Durham and included in the salon's soundtrack was a Sweet Home Alabama remix... from now on, I'm getting all my haircuts in Spain.


All that was left now was to jump on a train back to Antibes... I got in around 7 am and not wanting to waste my travel day, jumped on board another one to Monaco... so as to avoid exceeding anybody's mailbox quota, I think I will save that story for another email.



VI. Monaco and San Remo

Arriving at the Monaco station, I was immediately greeted by the intriguing English message "The track is broken, no trains can depart;" I opted to ignore this and hope that the track fixed itself while I explored the country.


Eventually finding 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 Exotic Gardens.  Here, I got lost in a labyrinth of mountain paths winding through what must be the largest collection of cacti on the planet.  In addition to the overwhelming excitement of this prickly foliage, the park offered an anthropological museum which was oddly filled with the skeletons of ancient goats.  As if this weren't enough craziness for one day, within the same gardens, was a large cavern where a tour descended 300 stairs into rooms full of impressive stalactites/mites/other stuff that typically appears in big caves... the guide spoke only in French but I wasn't completely lost because a helpful bilinguist in the group took it upon himself to translate every single cognate.


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)). 


Venice was amazing; there are really no words to describe it.


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 Antibes again, so I simply took the train followed by the half-mile walk, followed by the bus, followed by the second train back.



VII. Rome

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 6:30 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 Rome... I pulled a list of 50 places off the internet and sought out the highest-rated one... they wanted 20 bucks and all they were serving for breakfast was a croissant and coffee!  Naturally, I left in disgust.  The second one was located deep in the Termini neighborhood where it was nearly impossible to find a single sign written in Italian, or even its character set... the hostel was only advertised as a label in a series of 20 doorbells next to a non-descript door... it turned out to be the 4-bed/2-bath apartment of some Greek guy who appeared to be the sole employee and slept on the floor in the reception (this actually seems like a great idea... all you need is a low-rent apartment in a big city with no zoning codes, and you can make a killing!)... this was the same price and had no breakfast.  The "bed and breakfast" I stayed at the second night cost 3 bucks extra and sent me to a bar down the street for a croissant and coffee.


Rome is a dangerous city for wandering... I found that I would set off in search of one monument, and on the way I would be distracted by several dozen other monuments, ruins, churches, etc... I first reached San Giovanni that was to be the first in a seemingly endless series of ridiculously huge, elaborate basilicas.  From there meandered around Aventino, following signs for a big pyramid and a church at the top of a hill... next was a stroll down Circo Massimo and through the Roman Forum and the Coliseum for a dose of more ruins than I was prepared to handle.  I finished out the day's monumental circuit with a trip to the really big San Maria Maggiore.  


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.


Crossing the Tiber and scouring the dark streets of Trastevere, I managed to find a bar called "Big Mama" where a Rolling Stones cover was playing at 10.  They were quite good, though I found it amusing that they didn't seem to speak much English... whenever they said anything outside of the songs - even to announce the titles - they did so with thick Italian accents... I'm sure not understanding a word of what you're singing adds a whole new challenge to the cover business (not that anyone can claim to really understand the lyrics of 70s rock songs).  Following a powerful encore performance of Satisfaction, I headed back into the cold streets, and made my way a few kilometers back to the hostel... the neighborhood was scary enough in the daytime and was downright terrifying at 1 in the morning, yet like most major cities, the streets of Rome are much safer in the middle of the night than they have any right to be.


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 Rome is not content with their ludicrous number of monuments and have begun pirating those of other cities).  The edge of the park offers one of the better panoramic views of the city.


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 Rome was sitting on the Spanish Steps, for reasons that I'm sure no one really understands.  Crossing a bridge, I came upon Castel San Angelo... with an inconvenient craving for food at 5 in the afternoon, I found that the only places open were the hordes of pizza by weight shops (these are pretty much 24/7... I had to resort to a slice of anchovi pizza at 8 in the morning when I discovered that my hostel expected me to feed myself)... I was thoroughly amused that every single one of these offered both pizza bianca (plain bread) and pizza patata (with french fries).  Following the random pizza digression, it was onward to the Piazza San Pietro, where I discovered the reason why every single person in town was wearing long pants despite the sweltering heat... the guy who's sole purpose in life was to judge the decency of tourists' clothes, decided that my cargo shorts were not appropriate and wouldn't let me into the basilica (he was not impressed by my efforts to fashion pant leggings out of the maps in my pockets)... I'm amazed that with all the street vendors lining the sidewalks in this area, not a single one was selling snappable pants... fortunately, this is the only place where I ran into this problem; I can only hope that 3 years ago, I bothered to pack the right garments to get into this amazing spectacle (that I don't remember at all).


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 Rome with its own public WC and snack bar.


From here, I spent a good long time trying to get back to city center... I got the opportunity to see parts of Rome that most tourists miss, like a lengthy stretch of shady bicycle and lawn furniture shops.  I eventually found my way back to Porte Portese, walked across Isola Tiberina and into the city... finding a church for Mass turned out to be surprisingly difficult... apparently every single one of the city's 300-some churches have weddings Saturday afternoon... I eventually settled upon Maggiore which has about 5 services going on at any given time every day of the week. 


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).



VIII. Corsica

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 Corsica, far from a tropical paradise, is just a little bit north of New York City.


I left for Nice around 7 Thursday morning with two other American guys from the school to catch a boat at 9 to the port of Ile Rousse on the north coast.  While on the train, we noticed an abnormal level of surf off the typically tranquil beaches but failed to anticipate that a little extra chop would bring French shipping services to a standstill - due to an iffy weather forecast (despite the sunny blue skies over the port) they cancelled our boat, and the only other option was to wait and take a slower Italian ship to arrive in Bastia 9 hours later than planned.  With this news, I was ready to give up and spend the weekend on the Cote d' Azur, but the other two were determined to get to the island, so I figured I had better go along to protect them from being eaten alive by the wild Corsicans.


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 around 9 and jumped on the first hotel we ran into; this actually turned out to be halfway decent - departing from most European cheap-hotel stereotypes, we each had our own bed, and in the very same room, there was a functional bathroom and tv.  Despite the freezing-cold wind, we spent a few hours wandering around town (this was the decision of the other two who each had several layers of clothing and was probably revenge for the earlier hike up the mountain).  We ate dinner at a place where the walls were covered with pictures of Elvis (though the selection of music seemed to be off the Space Jam soundtrack).  Afterwards, the other two managed to find a playground with several things that spun around in circles; this kept them amused late into the night.


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 Corte is home to the University of Corsica and has 4000 students out of a total population of 6000.  I found that the GR-20 was about 30 km to my west so I picked out another random trail in the vicinity.  I had hoped to pick up food and some kind of warm hat for the journey through the arctic hills, but as usual, I arrived right in the middle of the 4-hour lunch break and was forced to set out hungry and hatless into the Tavignanu river valley.  At the start of the trail, there was a rock with a bright orange arrow pointing in one direction, and another more faded arrow pointing down another trail perpendicular to it; I figured that the faded paint suggested a more travel-worn route and started down the latter path.  This was quite a challenging hike; I had to scramble up rock faces, edge along cliffs and squeeze through narrow gaps that would have been impossible had I had lunch that day... it was often impossible to tell when I was on the path and when I was just improvising; I failed to see a single marker or other hiker for the entire time (though I did see two cows - no matter how difficult the journey seems, I am always humbled by the cow that made it before me).  After about 2 kilometers, my "trail" rapidly climbed a thousand feet to join the main, well-marked, well-trafficked path.  


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, Corsica had the least English speakers; I think this is because everyone is compelled to learn the Corse language... I can't see how this is at all worthwhile since every single person who speaks it is also fluent in French.


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 from Ajaccio at 8 that evening.  So I hopped on board the next train and took a scenic ride down the mountainous center and back to the coast.  The weather here was quite good, so I spent the day exploring the town and seeing all of the typical monuments, fortifications, churches, etc. that you come to expect from a French coastal town.  I called up the other two guys who had rented a car and were sitting on the top of a mountain somewhere watching cars go by; they couldn't leave until the rally ended at 7:30, but then managed to hurtle themselves back to the lowlands in order to get to the boat by it's departure time.


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 port of Nice at 7 the following morning.


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 Riviera, but it was a fun trip, nonetheless.


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. 



IX. Spain and Morocco

After comparing our respective travel logs, my dad and I found that the only countries within striking distance that we had not covered were Spain and Ireland; after a quick visit to, the sunny Iberian Peninsula was elected as the destination for our epic 10-day road trip.  The general "plan" (which changed from one road sign to the next) was to circle the country, starting in the Costa de Sol around Barcelona, continuing down into the Costa Blanca of southwestern Spain, picking up Morocco and/or Portugal if time allowed, continuing up into Madrid, heading northeast through the Basque country, and cutting across the center of France back to Antibes.  In retrospect, this might have been a little overly ambitious; the general pace of this trip made my Luxembourg/Namur/Brussels/Bruge/Oostend/Marseille/Toulon weekend look like a leisurely stroll; as we passed signs for towns on the return to France, we found ourselves constantly saying things like "Did we go there?"


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 France - a huge national park that promised white horses, black bulls and birds of every kind; we could choose among hiking, biking, kayaking or horseback-riding, but the freezing winds led us to admire the landscape from our heated car as we headed for the border.  Due to the rise of the EU, the border station had been completely abandoned, and all hopes of getting a Spanish passport stamp were lost as we sped through the gate at 130kph.


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 North Africa had to offer.


The next day we went to Spain's #1 tourist attraction, the Alhambra.  But I would be greatly amiss if I launched into a discussion of this amazing spectacle without first speaking of what my dad considers to be the true highlight of the day (if not the entire trip) - we went to a bar for breakfast which apparently served good coffee - coffee so good that I was to hear about it each of the remaining days; every morning there would be something like "this coffee's good, but not Granada good;" how good can one cup of coffee really be anyway??  As I was saying, the Alhambra was some kind of huge collection of Arab architecture with elaborate carved walls, ceilings, and tiles; it was set on one of the city's three hills and the fortress towers offered great views of the surrounding monuments and countryside.  After having wandered through all the palaces/gardens/etc., we made our way back to the city to visit the Cathedral and the rest of Granada's overlooked attractions.  We made our way up one of the other two hills (that was inhabited by hordes of cave-dwelling gypsies) in an attempt to find the monastery at its peak, but as the sun began to set, and each “path” dead-ended in dense brush or a high cliff, we were forced to give up and descend back into the city.  We spent that night looking around a few more churches, shops, and squares - we found one plaza with people dressed as Disney characters selling balloon animals - and then, needing a break from all the culture, we went to a fast-food restaurant and shopped for cds (after finding that our rental car had a cd player and that Spanish radio was generally not all that intelligible, this became an ongoing quest) in the immense Corte Ingles department store.


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 Lumber River canoe club who happened to be studying abroad in Seville... unlike in my experience, he had actually learned the native language and was of great help in interpreting the locals' gibberish as we toured southern Spain.  Apparently, he did not have permission to go with us, and as he was only 17 was really in no position to dispute what the program allowed him to do, but in flagrant disregard for his academic future, we made him skip school and travel with us for a quick thousand miles. 


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 port of Algeciras, we ran over the neighboring mountains to the quiet surfing community of Tarifa.  This was apparently a hot spot for every kind of water sport - wind-surfing, kite-boarding, etc., and most of the signs in town were geared toward international, English-speaking types.  The town also provided a super-fast ferry across the strait to the Moroccan port of Tangier, so we hopped on board and ventured over to the great Dark Continent to the south.  


Morocco's is a completely alien culture that is apparently built entirely around ripping off tourists.  When we stepped off the boat into the port, we were immediately attacked by a horde of taxi drivers offering to drive us wherever we wanted to go and were followed by a number of people who apparently had nothing better to do with their lives than tell us to reset our watch and offer us directions to various landmarks in town.  It's a strange phenomenon here that just about every random person you pass in the streets wants to be your best friend, offering you advice and telling you all about his origins and background, and it's rarely clear whether that's because he's trying to sell you drugs, pickpocket you, or is just really, really bored.  As we exited the port area, hotel owners shouted offers for $8 double rooms at us but we had plans to take the 11:00 train to Marrakesh (my dad repeatedly referred to this as the "Marrakesh Express" but I'm convinced that this term has absolutely nothing to do with trains and instead refers to the intestinal condition that results from eating the meat that is included in the popular "vegetarian" couscous dish) and so set out to find the train station; we got many sets of contradictory directions from many different people; we later discovered that this was because there were two different train stations - one in the center of town, and one about 5km out in an industrial district filled with the scent of raw sewage - guess which one we found first.  After exchanging our entire meager supply of dirhum (the local currency, about 10 to the dollar) and several euros for 3 overnight train tickets ($18 per person), we grabbed a taxi to the nearest atm and found a restaurant to kill the two remaining hours.  Taxis tend to be extremely cheap in this country (around a quarter a kilometer) but each driver comes up with a new reason for you to pay several times what it says on the meter.  The restaurant we happened upon was quite amazing (though fairly typical of what we found throughout our trip); for $4 bucks I got a paella better than any I've had in Spain, a nicoise salad better than any I've had on the Riviera, a 1.5 liter bottle of water, a basket of wheat bread, tomato dipping sauce and french fries with cheese dip.  As a general rule, seldom-praised North African food is worlds better than the highly acclaimed French food; the strengths include: 1.No grease, butter, or fatty sauces 2.Wheat bread instead of flavorless, nutritionless white bread 3.Massive water bottles unlike the standard 12 ounce European size 4.Random extra food that doesn't show up on the bill 5.No caterpillars (more on this later) 6.About 1/5th the cost for twice the portions.  After dinner, a crazed cab driver got us back to the station in record time, and shortly after 11, our train rolled in... it's hard to express exactly what I had expected from Moroccan trains - I envisioned sharing a cabin with a couple of toothless old men who smelled of camel dung and screamed out bizarre chants all night long, and there was no doubt in my mind that at least one of them would be accompanied by a goat.  The actual situation, however, was better than most of my experiences in European trains... we had just one woman, who in lieu of renting a U-haul, had chosen to move all her worldly possessions using only this one compartment; though this meant that we were all wedged between massive bags and boxes, there was very little room where additional people could sit, and the woman said something in Arabic that scared off anyone who tried (probably that we were infected with some terrible American disease). 


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 France, Florida or anywhere else.  We left around 6 am the next morning; sadly the 24-hour ice cream parlor across the street didn't live up its name so we were forced to seek out breakfast somewhere else.  We had picked up a 2-cd "Best of Morocco" compilation for $3.50 in Marrakesh, and we blasted it as we cruised along winding mountain roads and Grant played along to the tunes with his new fish-skin drum.  


We got to Gibraltar shortly before 8 and raced up the rock to catch the feeding of the apes.  The Barbary apes are one of the best examples of marginally safe, human-accessible wildlife in the world today; the walls and trees were covered in these big hairy monkeys who didn't seem to care at all that you were there... you could put your arm around one for a picture, or back over a few in your car, and they would sit unperturbed... they did get rather annoyed, however, when we tried to share their mix of oranges and bananas, so in the end, we went into town to get breakfast.  This city is a rather odd interjection of English culture in the middle of the Spanish coast; the main attraction seems to be the "English breakfast", for 4 quid you can get eggs, bacon, and beans on toast - not quite Shoney's, but still a nice switch from France's rock-hard baguette.


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 Toledo; this was a neat place with tons of narrow winding streets, an impressive cathedral, lots of El Greco artwork, and restaurants that served deer and quail stew.  We stayed at a pension run by a little old lady and her rat dog... a double room for 20 bucks - can't beat that outside of Morocco.  The next morning we had the brilliant idea of heading back to the coast around Barcelona via a road through Madrid - the error in this plan was that we had to go through the biggest city in Spain right around rush hour; after sitting in traffic for a few hours, we turned around and went in a big circle through the countryside... for lunch we pulled off the interstate, and drove for a few kilometers into some random town that just happened to have a restaurant that just happened to serve excellent Catalan dishes like cave fish.  Later that afternoon, we arrived in some beach town with a name I can't remember... we hiked along trails somewhat reminiscent of those in Wales, where we meandered along rocky cliffs that dropped off precipitously into the waters below.  My '96 guide book had said the biggest town in the area that offered the best chance for lodging and food was a fishing village called LaFranc - this turned out to be completely dead, and so we returned to the booming beach-side city of Plat d'Aro which apparently came into being sometime in the last six years.  


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 France. We drove all the way to Montpelier where we stopped for lunch.  This is a busy college town that offered a restaurant with around 200 varieties of crepes (all described in French of course), and a bizarre work of modern architecture known as Antigone.  Shortly after we got back on the interstate, I fell asleep, and failed to notice as my dad drove 200 km in the wrong direction; when he finally woke me up to inquire why he hadn't seen any signs for Marseille in the last two hours, we discovered our mistake, and 3 hours and $25 in tolls later, we were back on the right course.  We got back to Antibes around 8 Saturday night.


Sunday was a fairly conservative travel day; we opted for the quick hop over to Cannes because we concluded that this was our best shot at seeing an English version of the new Matrix.  We ate lunch at a fancy French restaurant where I discovered a caterpillar in my nicoise salad (what is the procedure for this? in the States it would seem this would be grounds for a refund, but our waiter just brought me another salad, which I really had no appetite for (of course, I cleaned my plate anyway)).  Next, we took a boat out to Ile St. Marguerite where they kept the man in the iron mask.  In addition to the prison, this was a great place for hiking around beaches and through deep underbrush.  After returning to the mainland, we raced over to the theatre to get to the English (with French subtitles) Matrix Revolutions... it seems they have no previews in this country, since even though we were only 10 minutes late, it already seemed to be sufficiently far into the movie such that we were completely lost (or maybe this is inevitable with Matrix movies).  Afterwards, we returned to Antibes, my dad left to catch his flight back around 4 the next morning.



X. Tunisia

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, 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 Tunis, I opened up an account at the local library and checked out a couple of French travel guides.  Tuesday morning, I packed these, along with a few liters of water and a fresh roll of toilet paper and grabbed a train to Nice.  When I got to the Cote d'Azur airport Tuesday morning, I located the TunisAir representative who was holding up a sign in the main lobby - they directed me to "Terminal 2", an unmarked trailer bordering an overgrown field... here I bordered a twin-prop and found my seat on one of several wooden crates.  Through the course of the flight, we had to get up periodically to shift our seats to rebalance the weight, and we would take turns herding the livestock from one side to the other... for our in-flight meal, they gave us a stick of jerky of unspecified origin that was supposed to help with the motion sickness.  


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 Cannes within 30 seconds and passed by Corsica in the first 10 minutes of the trip, I questioned why I hadn't embraced the wonders of air travel earlier in the semester.


Upon arriving 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 Tunis is basically just one big street, Avenue de France, I followed this to the train station where I attempted to buy tickets for the overnight to Djerba.  Supposedly, there was a special card that would let you travel all around the country and get into all the museums for 7 days for 25 dinar, but everyone I spoke to seemed inclined to keep it hidden from me so that I would have to pay the full fares; the tourism office, ticket cashiers, and information booths all spoke no English and were behind huge glass shields sans mics so as to make any communication completely impossible.  Frustrated, I set out again into town... I skirted the edge of the medina - a massive labyrinth of narrow passageways containing countless shops, houses, restaurants, mosques, etc. - about 6 sq. km in area, without the proper precautions it is quite easy to become lost in here for a lifetime.  It soon began to rain, so I raced back to the station and grabbed a train two hours south to Sousse.


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 through the Medina which was surprisingly navigable at 6 in the morning, and saw the ramparts and grand mosque.  Breakfast is hard to come by in Tunisia - the countless cafes only serve coffee and bread - but in the major cities it's easy to find one of two morning staples: the first is "ble-ble" - chunks of bread covered in chickpeas and drenched with olive oil and harissa (spicy chili paste), the second is "glop" - I really have no idea what this is, but it's somewhere in between coffee and oatmeal and looks roughly like how it sounds.


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 10PM; this town rests on the edge of the Sahara, but contrary to the usual images of dryness and heat that this name conjures up, it was cold and pouring rain.  A helpful cabbie offered to drive me to my hotel for 2 dinar, pointing down the road, and claiming that it was 2km away; walking for a while in the indicated direction, I eventually asked directions and found that it was actually about 50m the other way.  The guide-recommended hotel was mostly outside, and getting to the shower involved walking a ways through the freezing rain; when I tried to pay at the reception, the desk guy simply said "no money" - this didn't seem like an effective way to run a hotel but I went along with it; as it turned out, he was actually saying "no monnaie" or change, and when I tried to leave in the morning I found I had been locked in; I had to knock on random doors until I found someone with a key; he in turn, had to knock on some more doors until he found someone who could change a 10 (my two-bed room cost 5 dinar)... eventually I managed to escape and was off to explore the town.


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 Garden of Paradise, which might have been very interesting had some of the flowers been alive; next door was the Zoo of the Sahara with highlights like the pigeon and camel.  Leaving the park, I continued down the road that supposedly made a loop back to town; after walking 3 or 4 kms, I became convinced that I'd be lost in the date palms forever, but then I encountered the first sign of civilization, a laser light show; sadly, there were no lights during the day, but they did give me directions back into town.  Back in centre-ville, I grabbed some lunch (regretfully I passed up what may have been my only opportunity to eat camel couscous), and ventured into the maze of the old town... I tried to seek out the various mosques and other attractions, but got completely lost in the tiny winding streets, and eventually gave up; the souks didn't have anything of much interest; there was one sculpture made up of a stuffed monitor lizard eating a stuffed viper - they wouldn't accept my offer of 5 dinars; I went to a butcher shop and attempted to buy a cool-looking set of curly horns - the guy only spoke French so I wasn't able to get my intentions across; even in English this would have been a terribly awkward conversation.  So without any sort of souvenir dead thing, I went to the station and louaged into Douz, the true door to the Sahara.


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 Tunisia offered sun and warmth, and were following much the same circuit that I was.  When we got to Gabes, we sought out another louage to the ancient hill town of Matmata.  On the road in, one could see a Hollywood-style sign saying "Welcome to Matmata" in French, Arabic and English; the streets were lined on both sides with cave dwellings built into the hillsides with signs advertising "troglodyte houses".  To escape the harsh extremes of the desert climate, thousands of Matmatians live underground; they've constructed extensive networks of tunnels to go among the houses and stores.  We stayed at one of three troglodyte hotels in the area; for 12 bucks, you get to sleep in a cave in a hole in the ground, and though the hole had no roof whatsoever, this was by far the warmest place I stayed the whole trip.  After getting moved in to our respective hollows, we set out to explore town; every person who approached us first addressed me in Arabic, and had I known how to say much of anything in that crazy language, I would probably have been able to pass myself off as the tourists' guide and thus escape the inevitable harassment.  As it was, we got a slew of offers from children to visit their houses for 6 dinar (this could probably be a very profitable venture for Jessie and Michael; I'm sure there are plenty of northerners who would pay 6 dinar to see how real Floridians live); every kid we ran into had a very limited English vocabulary - following the offer of the tour, each would ask in the exact same sequence "do you have a pen?", "do you have gum?", "do you have money?"; pens are apparently an exceptionally valuable commodity in this part of the world - I could never figure out why.  We visited one of the other hotels "Sidi Driss" which was used as the Lars family homestead in ‘77 and again for Anakin's home in ‘99; the holes joining the rooms had been fitted with the typical space-age, rubberized door frames.  Next we walked up to the Matmata sign and I tried to convince the Englishman to jog over to the neighboring mountain to take my picture behind the giant letters, but he was too lazy so I had to settle for a picture of "atamtaM" and the surreal landscape that unfolded beyond it.  The Brits returned to the hotel and I was left to explore the village on my own; when not accompanied by the obvious tourists, I was allowed to pass through the streets unhindered; I could see the glowing eyes peering out from the recesses of the caves, but none of the little cloaked devils made any advance; my disguise was so perfect that someone stopped and asked for directions - I didn't understand where they were trying to go so I just grunted and pointed down the road; hopefully I didn't get them too lost.  Eventually, I went back to the hotel for a massive family-style dinner of soup, couscous and bricks with the other tourists, and since the town offered nothing terribly exciting in the way of nightlife, settled in for the night.  


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.


In Gabes, 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 Homt Souk.  For some reason, we encountered police stops on both sides of the channel; at the second one, the cop singled me out, asked me a long string of questions, and called up and reserved a room for me at a local hotel (though I had no intention of staying overnight).  


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 San Francisco who was over in Sicily for a family event and decided to grab a boat to Tunisia since he was "in the neighborhood" and had heard it was a warm and sunny place.  While we were waiting some random guy walked up to us and said "police, passport?", we naturally asked to see an ID... the man simply chuckled and walked away; he came back a few minutes later with what appeared to be a legitimate badge, so we handed over our passports one at a time, and much to my surprise and delight, got them both back. 


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 Europe, and so when we arrived in the capitol at 6:30 in the morning, I was practically well-rested.  The other American checked into his hotel by the station, and I continued into the medina to try to locate the hostel.  After wandering through the convoluted passageways for an hour or so, I finally found it and dropped off my bag; it was quite an impressive place with elaborate designs carved into walls and ceilings and a massive skylight overhead; it turned out that I was, for the first time this trip, sharing a room with 2 other guys, the hostel's only other patrons, and despite this lack of privacy, I was paying the unusually high price of 7 dinar.  I spent the next few hours wandering through the old town, trying to get some sense of bearings but failing miserably; I did manage to meander by the grand mosque, national library, and several other impressive sights; when I finally escaped into the light of day, I found myself on the side opposite from where I had expected and was forced to walk several kms around; the town's catholic church(one of 7 in the country) is one of the most impressive structures in the town's skyline and stands as a mighty cut by western culture into the heart of this alien world; I attended one of its two Masses (it was in Italian, the later one was in French).


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 Tunis, since at every corner there are a half-a-dozen heavily armed police.  These people were obviously extremely bored and each group felt compelled to stop me and ask where I was from, where I was going, how I liked Tunisia, what I did for a living, if I played any sports, if I could be any animal what would it be - more than anything, I think they just enjoyed testing my French; I was eventually persuaded to give up on my ambling and grab a bus.


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 8:30 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 North Africa.  I got off the bus and into school less than an hour after landing and arrived just in time for my first exam - what a rush.


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.