Episode 14 - Traveling the Southern Coast of Europe
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July 6, 2006
Well, the Bobs and I have made it as far as Romania and I think we may just stop right here. We are in Sigisoara, the heart of Transylvania and the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, better known as Dracula. Vlad was born in 1431 in what is now a small restaurant promising to "suit all of your touristy needs" and, aside from the plastic picture of a bloody-toothed vampire in the window, the building doesn't seem to have changed much since Vlad lived there. In fact, Romania seems to be strangely and wonderfully stuck in the past. Taking the train here from Bucharest, we saw farmers haying their fields with sickles and people using horse-drawn buggies as a mode of transport. Here in Sigisoara, the houses are ancient and crooked, smooshed together and crumbling in places and almost painfully beautiful. It is quiet here too, as Romania doesn't feature on most people's trip itineraries, but I don't know how much longer that will last.
Anyway, we started this trip on June 1, and are traveling the continent on unlimited 60-day Eurail train tickets. In theory, this means that we can hop on any train, any time, anywhere within the 18 allotted countries. As it turns out, tho, most trains require reservations and with that comes a fee, so it's not quite the deal we were expecting, but it's a deal nevertheless. Our travels thus far have brought us through Spain, Morocco, Italy and Greece, with a brief jaunt through Bulgaria on a smelly, sweaty night train where we shared a compartment with a chain smoker.
We started our trip in Barcelona, which was incredibly beautiful with ornate, dusty old buildings and wonderfully laid-back people. But as it was big and expensive and we are not really city folk, we sped through there and Madrid rather quickly. We landed in Grenada, which was, to us, the most beautiful place in the world. It looked like it had been created as a set for a movie—winding cobblestone streets flanked by beautiful whitewashed houses with brightly colored shutters, all huddled close together with no room for yards or cars or anything else. From there, we went south to Tarifa and took a boat to Tanger, Morocco. On the boat, we met three guys who turned out to be our traveling companions for the next three days. They were a dentist, a bellhop and the owner of the only exclusively greencar dealership in the country (greencarco.com, if you're interested). Together, we took a night train down to Marrakech, and only managed to keep our own compartment on the train by stacking bags to make them look like people and keeping the lights turned off—sneaky and unfair, yeah, but we thought it might allow us to sleep, though it didn't. We arrived in Marrakech early in the morning, checked into a cheap hotel right in the medina—the old town—and got a great breakfast of coffee and fresh-squeezed OJ and crepes with honey for 1.80 apiece. We spent the day wandering thru the market, checking out the monkeys in suits and snake charmers and barrels of spices and neon-colored sweets, and then treated ourselves to Turkish baths. Tho I can't speak for the men, my experience was pretty crazy: I laid naked on a tile floor while an equally naked woman with gigantic breasts scrubbed the daylights out of me till all my skin peeled off, and then she violently brushed and washed my hair while other women sat around chatting and shaving their nethers. I came out of there red and shiny and clean as a whistle, and it cost only 6 bucks and I got to keep the washcloth.
Anyway, at night the square on the medina turns into a type of circus with belly dancers and boxers and acrobats and dozens of vendors selling delicious food for next to nothing, so that is where we ate dinner and spent the evenings milling about and trying our best not to make eye contact with anyone, as they take that as an indication that you want to give them money. After two days in the suffocating heat (made worse by the long sleeves and pants I had to wear, for it's a Muslim country) we made it back up to Tanger where, overconfident from all the successful bargaining we did in Marrakech, we tried to get a taxi for 20 Dh and were told to put it up our ass. So we paid 40—but obviously not to THAT dude—and made it to the port (where the security guard sat immersed in a crossword puzzle while weary passengers pointlessly passed their bags thru the x-ray machine) and back to Spain. We spent a couple of nights on the east coast—in Cadiz, a pretty nice beach town—before making our way over to Italy.
Our first stop in Italy was Cinque Terre, a little cluster of five perfectly beautiful villages built on cliffs overlooking the ocean and connected by hiking trails. From there, we stopped over in Pisa just long enough to look at the tower while eating salami sandwiches, and then on to Florence, which didn't impress us too much. The problem with Florence is that all of the beautiful art is trapped inside buildings you must wait hours to get into, and we were only there two days, so it was a bit of a blur and a disappointment. Venice, tho, was our next stop and we were pretty much blown away when we walked out of the train station and saw that the roads are indeed made of water! I don't know why this surprised me, but if you've ever been to Venice you know that it is pretty much just like in the romantic pictures, tho a gondola ride is over 100 quid and nearly twice that if you want him to sing. And there are tourists, yes—wall to wall, in fact—but there are no cars at all and this, to me, is a fair trade.
We spent only one night in Venice before catching a train to Rome (with a brief stop in Naples for the best pizza in the world and beer) and, just as we were amazed to walk out of the station in Venice and see a river instead of a road, we were equally amazed to walk out of Rome Termini and see a pile of trash instead of a sidewalk. Rome is dirty—so very, very dirty—and while we were there it was also hot as hell and it pretty much sucked. The Colliseum was cool, tho for sure lost a bit of its splendor amidst the smog and traffic and rows of trinket vendors. At the end of the day, our feet were black where the sandals didn't cover, so the next day we decided to try an inside activity and ended up at the Vatican. It was pretty damn cool. Two points of special interest: a) they have an ancient statue of Bill Clinton—see above—and b) his weener—the statue's weener, that is—is in a special room in the Vatican, a room FULL of stone weeners. It's true! Some hundreds of years back, the ultra-conservative homophobic holy men in charge ordered all of the penises removed from the statues, but they held onto them (!) and now there is some discussion of attempting to reunite the statues with their missing manhood. Bobby's thinking about applying for the job.
After Rome, we could not have been happier to end up in Positano, a little village on the Amalfi coast near Sorrento. My cousin Will told us to go there and now I tell you to do the same. It's amazing. The whole village is built into cliffs—houses on top of houses, just looking like they may topple into the ocean at a moments notice. Our stay there was absolutely perfect, save for the fact that our hostel was overrun by wheely suitcase travelers, as in a gaggle of loud, giggling girls making fun of other girls who weren't there for having bad tans and cellulite. Luckily, they left after two nights and we decided to stay an extra day just to wallow in their absence.
After Positano, we went east and hopped on a boat to Greece. We got on the boat a day late, and so spent only one night in Athens before heading up to the island of Skopelos. My aunt Vi was just there doing an artists’ residency and loved it, so we decided to check it out. It was amazingly quiet and very beautiful, and we had a room with a kitchen, and a balcony overlooking the village and the ocean, for only 35 Euro a night. And Angela, the landlady, cooked us enormous cheese pies for breakfast, bigger than our heads and we ate every bite because she was watching us. It hurt, but they tasted really good at the beginning.
So there you have it. It's been pretty overwhelming to have seen so much in such a short period of time, but it's also been surprisingly relaxing. Every day is a new adventure, and I can't even count the times we have said, “Now THIS is the coolest place ever!” So, although it seems like a cliché to say it now, Sigisoara IS the coolest place ever, and cheap to boot, so do yourself a favor and get here before they decide that maybe Draculand's not such a bad idea after all.