Rome and Athens

Back to Sept 8-Sept 14: Florence

Wednesday, September 15th, 1999

The next morning we woke up and had cereal for breakfast. We went to the grocer next door and bought museli with chocolate chips and a pint of milk. Tara had her cup from the plane (that Fokker!), and I cut the bottom from a Fanta bottle to make a little bowl. It was great to sit in our room and eat cereal.

There were a ton of things to see in Rome, but we only scheduled 3 days, so we got right to the sights. We started with the Coliseum. It was giant, fantastic from the outside, but most of the marble seats were gone. We joined a guided tour hosted by a loud native English speaker. She seemed obsessed with the number of people and animals who died in the Coliseum (thousands of people over 400 years).

Next we climbed up to the Palatino, the upper garden area near the forum. It was nice enough, but mostly just hedges and benches. The forum is mostly in ruins, and has been undergoing restoration since 1915 or so. They just keep digging, uncovering more and more stuff. The nicer statues they find they bring to the Vatican Museum, so this area was mostly piles of cool-looking rubble. After an hour or so here, we walked back to the Capitol Hill (Piazza Venetia) for some daytime photos, then to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is amazing, a huge domed building called the best preserved in Rome. The inside was spotless and ornate, like a super-church, filled with mosaics and statues. The roof curved up but didn't quite meet at the center, leaving a hole for the sunlight to come in. It was great. There were at least 7 distinct kinds of marble used on the inside, and the entryway had the typical 25 giant columns.

The next item on our agenda was the Piazza Navona, where we found the famous fountain surrounded by two platforms of bizarre music equipment. The German Orchestra was setting up for a performance, and had costumes and apparatus unloaded from semi-truck trailers. The stage was a long oval, with strange bronze horns, pediments, and clamshells decorating it. We anticipated a great show, and made plans to come back tomorrow night, as it was a free concert.

We passed by Trevi fountain, which was the second-best fountain I have seen on the trip, and were surrounded with tourists.

We were worn out. My camera was nearly full, and so was my brain. We headed back to the hotel around seven p.m. to get a nap, but ended up staying there all night. It began to rain and thunder, so we stayed in and got a ton of rest, ready to tackle Vatican City the next day.

Thursday, September 16th, 1999

With my camera empty and batteries recharged, I set out to see Vatican City with Tara. Just down the street, protest against something was brewing, and cops in riot gear and cameramen were there. We got some attention as we walked through. The rainy weather had probably kept some protesters at home.

We took the ancient Roman subway to Vatican City..alright, it wasn’t ancient, it was just really old and crappy. There were signs pointing to St. Peter's and to the Vatican Museum. We hit the museum just as the rain started to really come down. It seemed that everyone who entered was primarily interested in seeing the Sistine Chapel. I didn't have any idea how much art we were going to see that day. The place was huge, and loaded with artifacts. It was set up in a one-way walk-through, leading up to the Sistine Chapel. There were at least 40 signs that pointed the way to "capella sistina", which I suppose was more to discourage loitering than to provide direction, because there was almost never more than one way out of a room. Someone on Vatican museum staff must have seen how the Guinness brewery encouraged a quick exit with the promise of free pint at the end. The Vatican had ten tons of Roman marble statues: Gods, animals, athletes and rulers. They also had modern art. There were plenty of sculptures and paintings from the last century. For example, they had two Dalis and a bunch of minimalist and expressionist work that I didn't expect to see at all. By the time most people got to the modern items, they had been on the Sistine trail for an hour, and were practically running to see the thing. On the way was the Rafael room, where the infamous cherubs with their heads in their hands are. I didn't spot them however. I didn't realize they were in there until later. Oh well, maybe I can spot them at Z gallery when I get home.

Finally I made it to the Sistine Chapel. Photos were allowed (no flash) through the whole museum except for in the Sistine Chapel. I was ready. Others were chastised, others were reprimanded, I was super-stealthy, and snapped away. They came out kinda dark. The room itself wasn't as big as I expected, but there was a lot to see up there. It is one of my top-ten favorite ceilings of all time. I wish I had brought a laser-pointer. The staff would have gone ape-shit trying to figure out who was using it. No! Even better, if I had brought a can of spray paint and started shaking it, producing that click-click sound. Ha ha ha ha!

It was amusing looking at everyone staring up at the ceiling.

There were a few more rooms, and a chance to go into the center courtyard with a giant modern sphere sculpture. I had lost track of Tara almost an hour back, so I was happy to locate her near the end. We got pizza and lasagna on the way to St. Peter's Basilica. It was still raining.

St. Peter's was probably the most amazing thing I have seen on the trip, or at least it ties with Rome's capital hill. It is a super-giant church, with no seats. It is composed of the biggest arches I have ever walked under, and almost everything seems to be made of marble, gold, gilded marble, or marbleized gold. There are great big statues of all of the popes, well, I don't know if they were of all the popes, but they were of a lot of popes, and each one was posed differently, showing, I guess, what kind of pope they were. One pope had kids around him, and another one was carrying a big pope-staff, chasing evil or something. Some had their hats off. It really gave them personality, they were excellent. Michelangelo's Piéta was in there too. It is nice, but we were super far away from it because of some scaffolding in that area.

Photographs were allowed, but it was a bit dark, so I didn't get many good pictures.

After almost an hour of wandering around inside, Tara and I went onto the roof, and then up inside of the cupola, which is the little dome at the very top. The climb was up some wacky stairs that curved along the inside of a dome. 320 steps up from the roof, which itself was 280 steps from the floor. People were stopping to take a break from climbing, but Tara and I charged past them, our immense new leg muscles bulging. I joked about these being the stairs to heaven. At the top, you could see for miles, it was amazing, and the rain had stopped. We met a guy who was very afraid of heights up there. There was some graffiti up there, including a big heart with Dave Williams+Dave Milton, Paris '99 in it.

When we left, my camera was nearly full, so if you are looking at the pictures of this trip, there are a lot for today.

On the way back to the subway station, we stopped into a comic book store, there was a celebrity of sorts signing autographs. It was Jerome Blake from Star Wars, Episode One, which had opened the night before in Italy. He played the tall Viceroy on the spaceship, Rune Haako. Remember at the beginning, with the Asian sounding voice, the newt-looking guys? He was the newt with the good hat. See picture 127, the tall bald guy in the middle. Anyway, he was cool, and he was happy to chat with us, because we spoke English. He was even looking for a ride to a nearby theatre for a charity showing of the movie. He joked with us about the Italian pronunciation of Jedi sounding like "Jerry". We couldn't help him with his trip to the theatre.

That night we watched the presentation from the German orchestra and it was a disappointment. The stage and the costumes were promising, but there wasn't really any music, and it was hopelessly slow and boring, with extended speeches in Italian or German. Maybe our expectations were too high after seeing the setup the day before. It just sucked.

On the way home we stopped by a packed Irish bar called Trinity College and had a great time. We got home at 3am and had to wake the innkeeper to get back inside.

Friday, September 17th, 1999

In the morning a crowd of Germans were checking in, and waiting for us to vacate our room. The maid opened our door twice to see if we were in there, and the Germans opened it once. Nobody knocked, they just barged in. After that, we locked it. We ate cereal in the room before checking out at exactly noon.

On the way to the train station, my camera display started acting squirrelly. It was as if the vertical hold was off. It was scrolling. The camera was still working, but I couldn't use the display. These same problems happened to the first camera I got after one week. This one lasted a year. It is still under warrantee.

We were bound for Athens, Greece, and the first leg was a ticket to Brundisi, at the bottom of Italy. The train left at midnight, so we had a day to kill in Rome. We checked our heavy bags in at the station and went out to explore more of Rome.

We bought bus tickets at a nearby kiosk before getting on board. It seemed like a funny way to do it, but when in Rome...

We checked email, walked to the river, and tried to figure how long it would take to get to Athens. We ate a nice fettuccini dinner, hung out at Trevi fountain, and added some zeros to a cell-phone sign, and generally wasted time until it was time to go. We were pretty touristed out after our previous day.

Our train left from the wrong gate, so we had to run full-charge to catch it, but our seats were reserved, so we had a place to sit once we got inside.

Saturday, September 18th, 1999

The train was crappy, because there were no couchettes. We had to sit up, and could only sleep between stops. We arrived an hour early, at about 7:30 in the morning, and in our morning fog, Tara and I almost missed the stop, but we managed to get off of the train in Brundisi. This was the first train that we almost missed AND almost didn't get off at the right time.

We arrived in the tiny town of Brindisi and walked out of the station and right across the street to get a ferry ticket across to Greece. The ferry that has a discount for Eurail pass holders left the next day, so we gave up this discount to get moving to Athens as soon as possible. It took two days. Most of it was spent waiting around in Brindisi for our boat to leave at 7pm.

Tara had to do laundry, so we checked our luggage at the station and went looking for a cheap place to do it.

There wasn't any place. We asked at a couple drycleaners, and they could wash the clothes, but couldn't get them back to us today. We asked if there was a place to do the laundry ourselves, but there just wasn't anyplace in this town to do it.

There was an Internet connection however, so I uploaded photos and checked my balances. Tara was amazed by the amount of money she was going through.

Oh my god, this was by far the most boring town we came through. We walked around and tried to read the graffiti.

There was a dramatic moment when a firefighter funeral rolled through town.

We had a simple spaghetti-combo lunch, where I took that photo of my salad.

With only three more hours to kill, we went to the train station to get our luggage and re-integrate our unwashed laundry. We chatted with 2 hitch-hiking German girls on the way to the Rainbow festival in Greece, and with a guitar-wielding Italian guy. He played Hotel California for Tara. This was a town where travelers wasted time.

Finally it was time to get on the boat, and we left Brindisi, Italy, bound for Patras, Greece.

We spent US$40 each for the overnight trip. We sprung for expensive couchette seats ($6 more), and ended up with our own little cabin on the boat. We met two great Australian women who did the same, and we congratulated each other on our well-spent money.

Tara was so excited to finally get to the Greek food that we ate on the boat. We didn't really have any idea how much the food cost, because we were using our new Drachmas, but it was pretty good food.

We stayed up late talking to the Aussies, and fell asleep expecting to wake up late and be in Greece at 10am.

Sunday, September 19th, 1999

We woke up to find our ship was still sailing, and wouldn't land until 2pm. We waited. I watched all-CGI Transformer cartoons dubbed into Greek, and yearned for my home computer. The ship had slot machines. My favorite was called "cherry master".

When the ferry landed, we said goodbye to the Aussie women and headed to the train station with the other backpackers. This time the timing was on our side, and we only waited about 5 minutes for the fast train to Athens to arrive. The train took 6 hours to reach Athens. It was another dirt train, but the views were often breathtaking. We passed over a very high gorge, at perhaps 500 feet up, my heart almost stopped. As we approached the city, the view reminded me of Morocco. It was arid land with concrete-block housing. We passed by a number of large white tents with red crescents. This was the Muslim version of the Red Cross: Emergency tents to house people needing shelter after the earthquake. We also saw houses marked with either a red or green "X", which I assumed was to show whether a house was fit for habitation or not. I hoped that there was some housing left for us.

My housing fears were allayed by the most aggressive housing offers yet: accommodation salesmen boarded the train a few stops before Athens and began handing out fliers for 2 hostels in town. Before the train had even stopped, we knew where we were going. The hostel Aphrodite was only 2000 Drachma, (US$6.45) each, and looked close to everything. Almost every backpacker lined up outside the train station behind either the guy in the black T-shirt from Aphrodite or the hippie with the headband from the San Remo. Athens was wet from a day of rain, and darkness was setting as the eight of us walked into the Aphrodite. Tara and I were in a nice room with 10 beds. It was half full, and I was the only male in the room.

We trotted off to find an ATM machine and found one nearby. The city looked poorer than I expected, somewhere between Spain and Portugal, and it was hard to tell what construction was earthquake inspired and which was Olympics inspired. A few signs said Athens 2004, which made us wonder if this city could possibly be ready to host the Olympics in 4 years. We ate satisfying, but lamb-packed Greek food for dinner. Tara was excited to have me try different Greek foods. On the way home, we found a mysterious looking, ornate red hotel lobby. We asked some nearby Greek folks, and got the blushing answer that it was a brothel.

We also found the delightful late-night baklava place. Tara described it as "The best baklava I have had in my entire life".

We went to sleep, and found the only problem with the Aphrodite was the squeaky beds. It was like sleeping in a crate of rubber duckies.

Monday, September 20th, 1999

On Monday we explored Athens. We walked through the marketplace, which was chock-full of cool hardware merchants and fruit sellers. I stopped at a few hardware stores, but mainly we were on-course for the looming Acropolis. It was, of course, all uphill. By 2, we had reached it. The Acropolis has 4 or five different structures on top. It had a large theatre, the Parthenon, and a couple of smaller temples. Upon entering, I was handed a glossy brochure advocating the return of the authentic "Elgin Marbles", that were stolen from the Acropolis by British Lord Elgin in the 1850s. They were one of the things I missed in the British Museum, but they sounded pretty nice. The Acropolis was neat, but it was being refurbished, so there was plenty of construction equipment and scaffolding around. Everything was made of white marble, and the reconstruction efforts meant that there were also stacks and stacks of new marble around also. The views were impressive, with Athens spreading as far as the eye could see, in every direction.

On the way back to our hostel, we still couldn't find self-service laundry, so we had no choice but to spring for the hostel's service. The Aphrodite had strict rules against eating or doing laundry in your room.

We bought ferry tickets to our first island, Ios. It left at 8am the next day, so we were going to miss the National Archeological Museum. We though we might hit it on the way back.

We found an Internet café, and logged on until it was almost dinnertime. There was one vegetarian Greek place in our guidebook, and we spent the next hour locating it. It was great. It was a real restaurant, with tablecloths and everything, and we splurged a bit, spending US$10 each. I had tofu lasagna, and Tara had a fantastic stuffed eggplant. We were satisfied, and walked home to bed.

Tuesday, September 21st, 1999

Tuesday morning we woke up to the squeaky beds at 6 am. This was very lucky, because our damn wake-up call came late at 6:30. Six of the people in the room were getting up and ready, and the other four must have hated us. We were very loud, or rather, the beds and the door were very loud.

We were all six getting ready for the same boat, so we caught the Athens subway together and sleep-walked into our big ferry. Before departure, they started the engines, and the large ship rattled like the space shuttle preparing for liftoff. Tara expressed her concerns about seasickness as the boat lurched forward. The sea was fairly calm, but the ride was still rocky. She went upstairs for air. The kid near me didn't make it.

I typed out the battery on the laptop and watched people stumble across the room, trying to stay on their feet. This was my first exposure to Greek dancing.

When we arrived at the little island of Ios, we were greeted by no less than 15 innkeepers, hawking their rooms. I approached them with gusto, asking whose room I could eat in, and who had electricity. We agreed on one place charging 4000 Drachmas for a double room. This is the same price we paid in Athens, but here we got a deluxe private room. The room had beautiful white marble floors, new wooden furniture, and was strikingly clean. We had our own bathroom. $6.50 each. It was amazing. We found out later that the earthquake in Athens had cut Greek tourism dramatically. This was the reason behind the low room prices we enjoyed.

Ios was a small island with a tiny tourist town. Four bars faced each other at one spot with a common courtyard between them. This was called the town square. About half of the stores and buildings were closed for the off-season already. It was like a ghost town. Luckily there were a few other tourists around, so it wasn't totally boring.

We got some dinner at a deserted café and planned our departure. Our guide indicated that the club scene didn't get going until 2am, so we went home to take a nap first. The island was very clean and beautiful, with smooth white houses, stone walls and dramatic brown hills.

We woke up and got ready to go out at about 11pm. The shower was cold. We walked around, from empty pub to empty club until we found the city center, with a few people at the tables. We went to each until we found one that had cider. The earthquake had not affected the beer prices. They were US$2.60. As time went on, we made it to each club, searching for the best music. The square was nearly full of people, and we had a pretty good time. Tara went home around 2:30, and I stumbled back a bit later.

Sept 22-Sept 28: Greek Isles and the journey to Vienna | Index of Weeks

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