Monday, August 27, 2012

Yelp Love

I love sharing my opinions.  Unfortunately, not many people like hearing what I have to say, at least not constantly.  Luckily, since about 2006, I've had other outlets for sharing my perspective besides just pestering those sitting next to me.  In 2006 I wrote my first review and, as of today, exactly 3 people have found that review helpful.  Clearly worth the effort.

In 2010, looking for an outlet for my opinion about my new home in Dundee, Scotland (and having no friends nearby nor very responsive in email) I stumbled upon Yelp.  The Yelp community in Dundee is small (I believe there was only one other Yelper in the area), but it was an outlet and I enjoyed it.  However, my relationship with Yelp didn't really blossom until I relocated to London in 2011.

The London Yelp community is awesome!  They throw amazing free events, have an active online community which also meets up in person for drinks and events, and the people all seem to be really friendly and happy.  Last summer we only got to experience a small sampling of how great this community is so upon our return to London this past July of course we picked right back up with them.  There has already been a Meet the Owner event and a couple of nights out with various members of the community.  We're meeting new, awesome people and having a great time!

Yelp is exactly what I needed after 2 years of solitude in Dundee!  I feel like I've got friends again, and a full social calendar, and people read what I write and send comments.  I love that socialising in person with the people you meet online is actively encouraged with Yelp sponsored events.  Yelp is perfect not only for an ex-pat (because most in the community are Americans) or recent transplant but for anyone wishing to shake up their usual routine.  I wish I'd been more active in the Seattle Yelp community before we left.  Happily, I won't make that mistake again and am already looking forward to joining the NYC Yelp community come January.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Amsterdam

I thought Amsterdam would've been one of my first European experiences.  As it is, it wasn't.  Of course, that's mostly relative because in 20 years I'll look back at my second year living abroad and remember I went to Amsterdam and think, "that was one of my first European cities."  However, presently, closing in on the end of my two years living abroad and Amsterdam coming midway through the second year, let's just say I thought I would've seen it by now.  Nevertheless, it is the first European city I've visited with friends, so that's something.

The Netherlands is a bicycle riding utopia.  It is everything anyone who has ever commuted via bike could ever dream of: dedicated bicycle lanes (everywhere, including along highways), right of way (cars stop for bikes), respect (everyone moves when the bell is rung).  Heaven.  Thanks to my friend's itinerary recommendation, we decided to rent bicycles for a day for a self-guided windmill tour outside the city which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.  If she hadn't made the suggestion, due to the budget nature of my travels, I would've opted out of this particular experience and just spent another day walking around Amsterdam, not even seeing a windmill.  That would've been a travesty.  If ever in doubt, €13 for a 24 hour rental is a killer deal and worth every cent (and the sore butt). Do it!

Although the Dutch are famously tolerant, I found that, in Amsterdam at least, this does not necessarily translate into good-natured, polite, nor particularly friendly.  My experience left me with the impression that Dammers are honest, blunt, and perhaps not terribly inclined towards sarcasm.  I imagine they are lovely people once you get used to their ways.  Unfortunately, since I was in town for less than a week, I didn't have time to test this theory, though I still left believing I liked them more than I didn't.

Amsterdam is very picturesque.  The canals are gorgeous.  The cute, crooked houses are adorable.  The small streets, especially The Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes), are worth a day's meander.  But, the Red Light District (De Wallen), especially at night, is not fun at all unless you like stag parties, ogling crowds, and a tense atmosphere.

Amsterdam is very disorienting.  I doubted my compass on many occasions because I was certain north was not where it was saying it was.  But, the compass was always right.  Never doubt the compass.

Amsterdam is a lovely city and The Netherlands is a lovely country.  I'm glad I finally had an opportunity to visit and look forward to exploring the country further.  Shout out to my buddy T-Bird for joining me on this adventure.  Especially when travelling on a tight budget, travel can become routine.  It's fun to inject a new perspective and I hope to have her perspective on many trips to come.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Baltimore

Baltimore has a terrible reputation. Lonely Planet’s website - our default tourist information outlet - states “B’more, Bawlmer, and the less flattering ‘Body-more’ (if London had this town’s murder rate there’d be 3560 bodies floating in the Thames every year), Baltimore dares you to visit.”  Additionally, The Wire, a popular “cop show” (quotes are theirs) set in Baltimore, probably does not help with this perception.  Though I haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure my friends were warning me when I told them I was going to Baltimore and they responded, “have you seen The Wire?”.  Thus, having had limited experience beyond the above, we landed in White Marsh, MD - a suburb of Baltimore and where the Megabus from New York City deposits you - on a lovely June afternoon mentally prepared for a pretty rough stay.

The Tripadvisor Baltimore travel forum had instructed us to take the #35 local MTA bus into Baltimore, picking up near the White Marsh Park & Ride where the Megabus stops.  Our first observation upon unloading was that the Maryland Transit Administration doesn’t really want you to use their system.  The park & ride, which you think would have plenty of maps and signs to show you where the various buses pickup as well as their destinations, was absolutely devoid of any type of signage.  Not only are there no maps or signs but one must look very hard for the actual bus stops.  Additionally, there are no sidewalks in the area, which makes walking along the busy street rather dangerous.

Luckily, the travel forum had equipped us with pretty good directions and a foreknowledge of the lack of pedestrian protections, so we ventured away from the park & ride, across a busy street and through a business park, finally arriving at the Hampton Inn where the #35 stops.  Upon arriving, due to the aforementioned poor signage, we were confused about which direction of travel we needed.  Fortunately for us, there was one other person waiting at the stop and we asked her for help.

Our first interaction with a Baltimore local proved to be emblematic of our overall experience.  She was exceedingly helpful, very friendly, and even asked for our email address in order to make sure we got to where we needed to be (which she has since done, also asking about our experience).  We were gobsmacked by her level of assistance, interest in our plans, and attention.  We immediately began to adjust our preconceptions.

When we got on the bus - the correct one, thanks to our new friend - the bus driver was helpful and another passenger even struck up a conversation with us, asking if we’d just taken Megabus, which was apparently evident by our suitcases.  Of course, the ‘If you mess with an MTA employee, it won’t end well for you’ sign placed near the driver (accompanied by an image of a fist and handcuffs) was noticeable but many cities have similar warnings.  In actuality, this seemingly routine bus ride from White Marsh to Broadway & Madison would prove to be the extent of our experience of the rough side of Baltimore.

When we checked into our hotel in the Midtown area, near Mt Vernon, we were told of the free city bus which picked up right across the street and would take us into the Inner Harbor area within minutes.  A visit to the Tourist Information Center would enlighten us to the whole system of free buses called the Charm City Circulator and, although struggling slightly with timing issues, this proved to be an amazing service utilized by both tourists and locals alike.  If nothing else, the new, air conditioned buses were a welcome respite from the early June heat.

We spoke and otherwise interacted with many locals and rarely in a service capacity.  These were just people going about their day and after each exchange (seriously, EACH exchange) we were overwhelmed by the kindness and friendliness we received.  We had considered the possibility that we’ve just become accustomed to the inconsiderate nature of the Brits and that we were experiencing the equivalent of people simply saying ‘excuse me’ and ‘please’; normal and expected behaviour.  But, even our friend from Washington DC, who had come to visit us for a few hours, was equally charmed by the people and also commented on their amazing kindness.  Now we understand why Baltimore is nicknamed Charm City (we had previously assumed the nickname to be sarcastic).

We utilised the Charm City Circulator often during our stay, sometimes just for sightseeing (return trip to Fort McHenry) but usually for transportation (Penn Station, Federal Hill).  The view from Federal Hill was lovely and the Inner Harbor area was diverting.  We were also fortunate to be in Baltimore immediately preceding the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations; it was nice to see the decorations and preparations without having to deal with the crowds.

Baltimore is a lovely city and the people of Baltimore are definitely charming.  The Charm City Circulator makes getting around the city very easy and pleasant but, being a rather small city (comparable in size to, and reminiscent of, Seattle), walking is also a viable (and pleasant) option.  We enjoyed our time in Baltimore and felt relatively safe throughout.  Although the reality of Baltimore, as seen by The Wire and Lonely Planet, may be bleak and disturbing, we experienced nothing resembling those realities.  We definitely wouldn’t mind returning to the area and are looking forward to the possibility.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Journey: Edinburgh to Amsterdam to Brussels to New York City to Baltimore and Reverse

On a Saturday in early June, we experienced the best travel day ever.  We took the train from Dundee to Edinburgh and, to save money, we walked about a mile (with our bags) to the stop for the local bus to the airport (£1.40) rather than the Airport Express bus (£3.50), which picks up right outside Haymarket rail station.  We've done this once before and it was pretty straightforward but this time, due to construction for Edinburgh's tram, it wasn't as clear cut and we wound up getting lost.  We arrived at the airport less than 30 minutes before boarding.  Luckily, we were flying KLM (instead of one of the discount airlines) and we got the VIP treatment (escorted to the front of the line to check our bags) upon arrival.  We cruised through security and made it to our gate with time to spare.

Schiphol Train Station
The flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam took us only about an hour.  We waited longer at the airport, for our bags and the train to Brussels, than it took to get there.  We grabbed the train (€25, first class) from Schiphol to Brussels Central (an excruciating 2.5 hours) and arrived at our flat in Brussels about 30 minutes earlier than expected, around 11PM.

The trip from Brussels to New York City wasn't as pleasant as our first leg because a) the Brussels airport is shit and 2) our flight was connecting rather than direct, but the flights themselves were fine.

Comte de Flandres metro station
Getting to the Brussels airport is pretty easy (subway and bus, €3.50) and Air Canada was a nice enough airline.  We could've done without the 1.5 hours in Montreal but the flights only cost £230 so if the connection made the trip £500 cheaper then it was well worth it. We arrived into LaGuardia and took the bus to the subway to our hostel in the Bowery ($2.50).

For our trip to Reisterstown, MD we had to get creative.  We took the Megabus from New York to White Marsh, MD ($9.00), a suburb northeast of Baltimore.  From there we took a local MTA bus ($1.60) into Baltimore where we then grabbed the subway to Owings Mills ($1.60).  Our only option at this point was a cab and, luckily, there's a taxi rank right outside the Owings Mills station.  The taxi from the station to our resort cost $30.00.

Happily, we made a friend over our weekend at the resort willing to drive us into Baltimore.  We forced $20 on her for the inconvenience though, since she would've been travelling in the completely opposite direction otherwise.

Megabus, Baltimore to New York City
To get back up to New York we just reversed the above; local bus to White Marsh and Megabus into New York City.  Once we got to New York we had to make our way to JFK which required the subway ($2.50) and the AirTrain ($5.00).

Our flight back to Brussels was uneventful.  This leg was on Brussels Airlines and, besides the flight staff seeming rather surprised to be there, the flight seemed short and the seats were the most comfortable we've experienced in quite some time.  We arrived in Brussels an hour later than expected, around 7AM.

This next portion was one of our worst travel experiences ever.  We had hoped to simply reverse the above but the bus ticket (€3.50) is only good for a free transfer to the subway within an hour from purchase and we were stuck in a Brussels traffic jam for just over an hour, missing our free ride to Gare du Nord.  Not wanting to pay again we decided to walk, venturing forth with a compass, no map, and luggage.  We eventually got to Gare du Nord around 10AM and checked in for our 12PM Eurolines bus to Amsterdam (€9.00) only to be told that it was going to be late and not to expect it before 1PM.  It eventually showed up at 1:45PM.

We arrived at Amstel station in Amsterdam almost two hours later than expected.  Furthermore, for some reason our Google map had placed the distance from Amstel station and our flat at a mere 1.4km.  The reality was that Amstel station is 5km away from our flat, which makes a huge difference.  Had we known the actual distance we would've sprung for public transportation.  As it was, we just walked.

The train from Amsterdam's Centraal station to Schiphol airport was €4.05 (including €0.50 credit card fee because only Dutch bank cards are accepted for no-fee processing).  Schiphol is a wonderful airport but we didn't have much time to explore before boarding.  Our KLM flight back to Edinburgh was uneventful and we were home shortly thereafter, 17 days after beginning this journey.

This trip had many legs and, though the return trip from Amsterdam to Brussels and the bus ride from Baltimore to New York City were very long, it didn't feel as though we spent a huge chunk of time travelling.  Even at the end of the trip, the two solid days of travel (from Baltimore to Amsterdam) had almost been completely forgotten, though I fear the horrible Eurolines experience will stay with us for quite some time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Fife Coastal Path: Leven to Elie

For our last ramble in Scotland, we chose to explore a different section of the Fife Coastal Path.  Our experience this past September was so idyllic, we really hoped to duplicate it whilst seeing something slightly different.

On a recent Sunday, we paid £9.50pp for Dayrider Plus bus tickets, transferred in St. Andrews, and were in Leven before we knew it.  Due to our previous experience, we expected to encounter many cute pubs on our way to Elie so we packed a lunch sans drinks and resolved to turn this 12-mile ramble into a coastal village pub crawl.

Our first stop was right off the bus in Leven, on the high street at The Windsor Hotel.  We weren't terribly impressed by Leven, or The Windsor Hotel, so we didn't linger.  After a relatively fast round of drinks, we made our way to the water to begin our ramble.

The Fife Coastal Path is very well marked and, since this portion has many sections which skirt the water's edge, also has a High Tide Alternative which we wound up taking more often than not because we found we do not much care for long distance rambling with sand in our shoes.

Our next town was Lower Largo where we encountered our favourite pub of the day, the Railway Inn.  We lingered over our drinks whilst watching the locals enjoying their sport on the telly (we couldn't see the TV but we could see and hear the crowd).  When the sun started shining through the window we decided it was time to get back outside.

The weather was of the classic Scottish 'four seasons in one day' variety.  The weather, sand, and rolling hills actually proved quite tiring and as we approached Earlsferry (no pubs), we began looking for a bus stop to take us back home.  Unfortunately, the first bus stop wasn't until the neighbouring village of Elie and we arrived just in time to watch our once-per-hour bus depart.  Luckily, Elie does have a pub and we were able to warm ourselves at the Station Buffet Bar (Scotland's Pub of the Year 2008) before catching our bus back to St. Andrews.

We had wanted to walk all the way to Pittenweem for the full 12-mile section but had to call the game at just under 9-miles.  This section of the Fife Coastal Path was also slightly disappointing.  There was a lot of garbage (see garbage sculpture, left) along the path and the villages weren't as cute as previously experienced (save Lower Largo).  Overall, we still prefer our previous experience and, though Lower Largo was the highlight of this walk, would recommend Anstruther as the place to go along the Fife coast for a day out.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lake District

Ravenglass estuary
In February we purchased a voucher for a 2-night stay in the Lake District National Park from KGB Deals for £79 (including breakfast). With train tickets from Dundee to Ravenglass only £34pp return, this trip to England was an effing steal and a perfect birthday present for Husband.  Last week we redeemed our voucher and had perhaps the most perfect holiday ever.

Our voucher was for The Pennington, a gorgeous hotel in Ravenglass, a charming coastal village on the west coast of the Lake District in Cumbria, England.  We arrived on Thursday morning too early to check-in (around 11am) so we dropped our suitcase off and started to explore the area.

The village is super small so we made our way along the main road to the neighbouring tourist attraction of Muncaster Castle.  We had planned to spend Friday exploring this area but we had nothing better to do and it was still relatively early so we decided to enter (£11pp).  This would prove to be the first of many correct decisions made on this trip.

Muncaster Castle
We rambled a bit through the gardens, up to Bluebell Hill, and then back down to the castle.  We started the castle tour just after 1pm and were done before 2:30pm.  The castle is still occupied by The Penningtons and it's their voices (parents, daughter, and son-in-law) who narrate the audio tour.  The tour is lovely and the castle is beautiful.  They've made it charming and comfortable but it's still definitely a drafty, old castle.  I do not envy their maintenance or energy costs but they've done a marvellous job of refurbishing and I wouldn't be averse to spending a summer in their shoes.

In addition to their lovely grounds there is an owl reserve on their land and at 2:30pm they put on a very entertaining bird show.  We got to see a common buzzard, barn owl, and eagle owl in action and learn a bit about their plight here in the UK.  Afterwards, we made our way to the actual sanctuary where they house many more varieties, all available for adoption.  The owls are fed dead chicks, which we got to witness, and then at 4:30pm the leftovers are fed to a rather large but patient group of wild herons.  The whole experience at Muncaster Castle was magical and easily supplanted Glamis Castle as our new favourite in the UK.

After the heron feeding we made our way back to Ravenglass via Public Footpath, passing fields of grazing sheep with their newborn lambs.  The return trip didn't take very long and we were quickly back at our hotel.

Day Two saw us rambling 6 miles into the park to the town of Boot, along the River Esk.  One of the great things about the UK is the fact that one can probably get anywhere via Public Footpath.  We hadn't known that there was a trail from Ravenglass to Boot but we knew we wanted to go and assumed  we'd eventually hit a trail so we just started rambling.  Public Footpaths, Bridleways, and Right of Ways (all free to use) are definitely lovely perks of the British countryside.

Our 12 mile ramble took up the bulk of our second day but it was a lovely way to while away the hours and we thoroughly enjoyed the scenery.  The highlight though was the surprise ending when we popped out of some trees to discover we were at the top of a hill, in a pasture of grazing sheep, with an amazing view of the estuary.

The rest of our time was spent sampling local real ales from the various establishments we stumbled upon, resting at our lovely hotel, and walking along the pebble beach at low tide.  We left Saturday afternoon with giant smiles on our faces from a weekend well done.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Perth & Kinnoull Hill

I love Perth!  It's a beautiful city with lovely people surrounded by amazing countryside.  I haven't spent nearly enough time there over these past 15+ months but yesterday I tried to remedy that.

Kinnoull Hill is an 11 km (6.9 miles) circle route, easy for those taking public transportation because the trailhead is just outside Perth's city centre.  The peak at 729 feet is reached fairly early making the bulk of the ramble rather leisurely.

The path skirts the cliff edge to the summit and then winds its way down the backside through fields of grazing horses and sheep, eventually hitting Coronation Road, the historic path of kings and queens of Scotland travelling from Falkland Castle to Scone, the traditional location of coronation.

Leaving Coronation Road at Milkboys Path, outside Scone, we followed neighbourhood streets back into Perth.  At the River Tay, the Sculpture Trail finishes the route by meandering through a few riverside parks back to the starting point.

We had envisaged spending the day in Perth but after our four hour ramble we were wiped out and increased our speed, leaving the Sculpture Trail a bit early, in order to make the return train home.

Although the day wasn't clear and we were hit by a few bursts of mist, we enjoyed this ramble immensely.  The ease of access, friendly locals, and amazing views were well worth the effort and, once again, we were reminded of how every other place in Scotland is miles more enchanting than our ever more disappointing home town of Dundee.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Scotland Highlights

With just 3+ months left in bonnie Scotland, I thought it would be nice to relive some of the highlights of our nearly 2 years here.

St. Andrew's Cathedral
St. AndrewsUpon first arriving in Scotland, back in Aug 2010, we were instantly enamoured by our neighbour to the south.  We've only been a few times since but each time we're amazed by its loveliness.  The residents may be a bit posh (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did both attend university here) but the scenery is unbelievable.

Coastal Paths: We've only done two (Seaton Cliffs and Fife Coastal Path) but we can pretty much guarantee that all of Scotland's coastal paths would make for amazing day trips.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh: Of Scotland's two main cities, Edinburgh is by far the more impressive.  With the castle, festivals, and Arthur's Seat, it just can't be beat.  This is not to say that Glasgow isn't a nice city (because it is) but, as far as uniqueness on the world stage, Edinburgh is worth travelling for whilst Glasgow is worth seeing once you're here and if you have an extra day to kill.

Glamis Castle: Unlike Edinburgh Castle, Glamis Castle is still a functioning residence (with a recent link to The Royal Family).  It's super cute and fun and, to this date, our only fully functioning, non-ruin castle experience.

Rambles: Our rambles have been the best part of our time here.  They've forced us out and about and provided us with memorable experiences to cherish.  Including the aforementioned coastal walks, our countryside rambles (PitlochryBlair Atholl, and The Hermitage, to name just three) are definitely something we hope to replicate wherever we call home.

Since we're leaving a year earlier than planned, it's true there are things we wanted to do and see before leaving which we no longer have time to do, but we think we've seen a lot in these two years and we'd rather leave too early than too late.  Although our stay in Scotland has not quite jumped the shark it's perilously close and no one wants to read stories about our adventure once that precipice has been reached.  Thus, we begin the next adventure not completely averse to the notion of returning to Scotland in the future but happy we're leaving to experience something different.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Inverness

I went to Inverness in February and, though it's a lovely town, have been thoroughly uninspired to write about it.  If you're really interested, read my rant here.

For more pictures, please visit my Facebook album here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Rome For Less Than €42 Per Day (per person)

view from the roof top terrace
RENT: €1297
Our studio flat in the Monti District was amazing!  We had plenty of room, a secret passageway, a roof top terrace (with a view of the Colosseum), and a super cute piazza right across the street.  We were close to everything and the neighbourhood was adorable.  We couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the city.

FOOD: €380, Dining Out + €208, Groceries
Our most expensive meal throughout the trip was at the Amsterdam airport on our return (€52.34).  Our most expensive meal in Rome (and also our favourite), however, was only €33 (including drinks and dessert).  Most of our meals were only €12 (including wine or beer), though.

Groceries were expensive.  We did find 1 litre boxes of wine for €1 (it met our standards) and the Limoncello was only €5 for a bottle but the food options were disappointing.  There were no freshly baked breads, no pastries, no soup.  The prosciutto cotto and salami were reasonable at the deli counter (and offered us an opportunity to engage like locals) and we did find some ready-made chicken cordon bleu which we paired with noodles but, otherwise, our meals didn't really vary much; pasta most every night.

Vatican Museum
ENTERTAINMENT: €47
We went to the Borghese Gallery (€29) and Vatican Museum, which only cost us €18 because the nice guy behind the counter applied Mike's student discount to both of us.  Otherwise, we entertained ourselves by visiting all the free churches and piazzas and just wandering the picturesque city streets.

TRAVEL: €50
We visited the Lido di Ostia twice (€8), Tivoli (€8.60), and Castel Gandolfo which was only €3.80 but should have been double that.  We bought two one way tickets, assuming we'd buy the return tickets at the Castel Gandolfo station if we couldn't grab a bus back (like we did in Tivoli) but the station didn't have ticket purchasing facilities and there were no buses.  Thus, we jumped on the train and crossed our fingers.  No one came to check our ticket, so our return trip was free.  We also rode the Metro a few times (€1 buys you a ticket good for 75 minutes) and the airport transfers cost us €20.

GIFTS: €40
It cost us €1 for 20 postcards but €31.15 for postage (we'll be rethinking this practise in the future).  I also bought a few gifts for colleagues back home.

GRAND TOTAL
The grand total for our trip was €29.35 per day for expenses and €54.04 per night for accommodations, totalling €41.69 per person per day.  Another budget trip to be proud of.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Roma: Highlights and Disappointments

HIGHLIGHTS:
San Giovanni in Laterano
Churches - The churches in Rome are as varied and plentiful as in Paris and everyone has a favourite.  My favourite is St John's in Lateran, with St. Peter's in second, and Santa Maria in Aracoeli rounding out the top three.

The churches are free to enter.  If you like what you see, please leave an offering to help maintain the site for others.

The Spanish Steps - If you need to rest your feet and are anywhere near the Spanish Steps you should tough it out until you get there.  The Spanish Steps provide you with an excellent perch for people watching, a sunny spot for rejuvenating, and relative peace for contemplation.  I enjoyed it often and always with some wine and salami.

If you need something besides wine to drink, the water spewing from Bernini's boat at the base of the steps (not that Bernini but his father) is said to have the sweetest drinking water of Rome.  I thought it was okay.

Colosseum - It is everything you think it'll be and more.  I didn't go inside the Colosseum, so I can't speak to the virtue of that aspect, but the exterior is overwhelming.

If you can get to the hill at the back, by the Arch of Constantine, there's a couple of spots to perch and people watch (another spot I enjoyed often, usually with wine and salami).

Piazza Monti
Piazzas and Fountains - I had seen maps of Rome and, after observing the lack of green space, assumed the absence of parks would be a bad thing.  On the contrary, though there are lovely parks, mostly outside the city walls, the plethora of piazzas more than make up for the lack of lawn within the city walls.

Additionally, the art of every single fountain, the larger ones being located in the piazzas, is breathtaking.  What was originally just a way to get running water to the people became something else entirely when it was decided to create art for something so practical.

Vatican City - Not a place I expected to be impressed with so it makes it even more surprising that it's one of my favourite spots.  St. Peter's is beyond impressive (don't miss the Papal Tombs, they're a bit tricky to find) and the Vatican Museum is akin to the Louvre.  After you visit the Pope's Apartments and the Sistine Chapel (in that order), don't miss the contemporary arts section (seriously, it can be easily missed).  This section was almost completely devoid of other admirers, leaving us alone with Salvador Dali, Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Otto Dix, Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, and Max Ernst (among others).  We kept pinching ourselves when we would turn a corner and come face to face with another masterpiece; completely unexpected and amazing.

Lido di Ostia, last sunset of 2011
Beach - The easiest beach to get to from Rome, Lido di Ostia is beautiful.  The beach is long and wide and the sand is lovely.  We whiled away many hours on this beach, even forgoing the much-hyped Ostia Antica for some wine drinking whilst ensconced in sand and the sounds of crashing waves.

Cheap Travel - Everyone I talked to about Rome before I left had mentioned that train travel is cheap in Italy, but I didn't actually believe any of them since my idea of cheap is entirely different than most anyone's.  However, in this instance, I should have trusted them.

It cost less than €6 for a return ticket to Tivoli, less than €4 for a return ticket to Castel Gandolfo, and €2 for a return ticket to the beach.  Had I expected travel to be so cheap I would've researched other day trips, perhaps even forgoing 25 days in Rome, opting instead for a few days exploring other areas of Italy.  Lesson learned.

Pantheon - Yes, the Pantheon is a church but it is also so much more than that and really is in a class of its own.  It's amazing.

DISAPPOINTMENTS:
Borghese Gallery
Borghese Museum and Gallery - This is one of those 'must-sees' but for €15 for two hours (each ticket comes with a two hour window with mandatory departure) and only one breathtaking piece, Bernini's Pluto and Proserpina, it's not worth it.  Bernini's Apollo and Daphne and Canova's Pauline Bonaparte do deserve honourable mentions, and I'm glad I saw them while I was there, but three pieces and a small palazzo do not justify more than I paid for the Louvre.  I want my money back.

If you insist on going, buy your ticket at the museum.  Contrary to all reports, you don't have to buy the ticket online and you'll save €3 if you buy it in person (you will most likely be buying for a future date, however).

The crowd at Trevi Fountain
Crowds - I was not prepared for the crowds.  I expected Christmas and New Year's to be low season but, obviously, I didn't take into consideration the number of religious tourists.  Apparently, Rome is big with the pilgrims during this time of year; something to do with the Pope and a Christmas message, I think.  Regardless, from 26 Dec to 6 Jan I was surrounded by people, ass to cheek.  I was not mentally prepared for that.

Additionally, one cannot go anywhere in Rome without being accosted by myriad aggressive street vendors. There are a few legitimate kiosks, and I strongly encourage you to patronise these, but the (mostly) men with the pashminas, scarves, glass cubes, tripods, and sunglasses were the bane of my days in Rome and may be the reason I was so disenchanted so quickly with the city.

If you're not sure if the vendor you're dealing with is legitimate, wait until a police car rolls around.  If the guy doesn't run, he's good to deal with.  If you can't find him, it's because he ran far and fast while you were pondering that purchase because the penalty seems to be pretty terrifying and definitely not worth the €2 you were going to pay for that scarf.

Admission Fees - The only thing free in Rome are the churches and that seems to be in some sort of limbo since the 'Offerta' signs are pretty egregious.  Some churches are completely dark unless you put money into a machine which then produces light (I'm looking at you, Popolo).

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
The aforementioned Borghese Gallery was €15, the Colosseum was €12 (I think, I didn't partake), Ostia Antica had an admission fee (I bypassed it in favour of a free day at the beach), everything recommended in Tivoli costs (which leaves nothing free to do in the entire town but sit in the piazza), and none of the museums are free.

The Vittorio Emanuele II monument is free and the Vatican Museums are worth every penny but everything else just makes you feel dirty.  The only place in the entire city where I felt clean was in Vatican City.  St. Peter's doesn't whore itself for your €0.50 and even has a free exhibition about Gaudi's Sagrada Família which was interesting.

Food - The only street food kiosks are located at the tourist sites, making them extremely expensive. There are no cheap rotisserie chickens (€3 in Paris, £4 in London), no cheap falafel stands.  Besides the tourist sites, there is no street food.

Pizza is cheap, usually sold by the etto (I may have seen some tourist shops selling them by the slice, though).  Panini can be cheap if purchased away from the kiosks and tourist sites.  That's about it for variety.

Vino della casa, or table wine, was typically €4 for a half litre but rarely seen (I had expected every restaurant to have table wine).  Chinese food is available and cheaper than Italian, Indian food is available but much more expensive.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Rome: Further Observations

Rome is small - I had expected Rome to be comparable in size to London, Paris, and New York - probably because those cities are often mentioned together - but it's not.  It's quite a bit smaller.  Or, at least it feels quite a bit smaller.  Without much effort at all I saw the Colosseum, The Forum, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps within just a few minutes of each other and just by wandering aimlessly.

Tourists and Beggars are everywhere - Everywhere.

Trains are cheap - Want to go to the beach?  €1 on the metro, Lido line.  Want to head to the hills?  €2.30 on Tren Italia.  If you're tired of the tourists and the beggars, you can escape the city for just pennies (though you'll still encounter both at the beach).

The last sunset of 2011
The beach is close - Did you know Rome is basically on the Mediterranean?  In less than an hour you can be in Ostia, enjoying a beautiful beach.

Lunch is €12 - I've enjoyed pizza with wine and panini with beer and it always equals €12 for the two of us.  Dinner has varied from €20-35 but the a la carte lunch seems to always equal €12 for us.

Loud - Rome is a very noisy city.  Horn honking occurs at all hours, street cleaning, window rattling, merriment; it took a good week before we were able to sleep through the night.  Now, we could probably sleep through a train crashing through our bedroom door.

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