30 March 2013

marching down Egypt

Flying into Cairo was an experience.  The flight was fine but jetting over endless golden brown was different. Cairo houses an astonishing 23 million people or so.  Buildings, basic and packed together, amidst the sepia-toned sprawling desert with an occasional cliff interruption is something I've never seen before.

I landed in Cairo Saturday evening and fumbled my way through getting my visa--having to go to the right desks in the right order.  I was driven from the airport to the tour group hotel which was a crazy one hour drive.  The experience reminded me of Bali.  We were speeding along, weaving in and out of lanes wherever we fit, flashing the headlights to tell those in front to speed up or move over.  There was technically four lanes but at times traffic was six cars wide.  Indicators are sometimes used as are headlights and I think they have their own unofficial road rules so somehow the system more or less works.  The hotel was really nice.  It was called Oasis and came across as one.  I settled into the room I was sharing with another girl and then we went to the briefing.  It was an overload of information and I found it hard to process.  Most of it would be repeated as we approached each day of the itinerary anyway.

Sunday we were up early for a great banquet breakfast and then piled into the minibus to head to Giza.  I didn't realise it was so close to Cairo.  It's practically a part of Cairo.  We first stopped Sakkara to visit the step pyramid and heard about the architectural evolution to get the pyramids to their classic shape without collapsing. There was a man walking around with a pretty beat up donkey there calling "Taxi. Taxi."  That was amusing.  It was also amusing when one of our group went for a ride on it.  At Giza I wandered around with my roomie snapping photos and taking in how huge the pyramids are and the individual stones that make them.  My roomie bargained a camel ride for us down to the Sphinx and we made the slow, wobbly trek without falling off.  A satisfying experience for Egypt.  My young camel driver even 'proposed'. "Two hundred dollars and I come with you to Australia."  Ha  ha.  I didn't take up the offer.  After our Giza visit we went back to our hotel to shower, hang out and eat some tea before we moved on.

Cairo traffic can be a bit unpredictable I think.  Either ok or insanely busy.  That's my explanation for arriving at the train station 1.5hrs early.  We weren't quite sure what to expect of our train.  My expectations weren't that high but they weren't as low as my roomie's.  It was a little on the grungy side but not too bad with an excellent amount of leg room in my opinion.  The toilet, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.  Our guide suggested we go in pairs as the lock didn't really work.  I only went once and then planned to only go if I got absolutely desperate.  It was disgustingly smelly and gross and hard to balance--coz I wasn't gonna sit on the seat--with the way the train rocked around.  It was hard enough standing just outside while you waited.  And the flush was a lever on the floor you stepped on and it opened a trap that released the contents to the passing tracks below.

As a matter of fact, Egypt's environment quite surprised me.  For a civilized westernised culture it wasn't much as I expected.  It's African, for the most part Islamic and very much a desert region so I was expecting it to be different from all the European countries I've been hanging out in but it had such an air of third world. Crazy traffic, beat up roads, rubbish-lined streets and waterways, deserted, broken or incomplete buildings and other signs of poverty everywhere.  Drugs are common and not so hidden and people smoke anywhere and everywhere, inside and out.  A country struggling with a history of poor government.  For me it was a totally new experience.

The government offices below burnt in the recent protests in Cairo

My roomie and I were entertained our overnight train for the first while by a cute little 1-2yo boy in front of us.  My roomie was playing peek-a-boo with him as he stood on his mum's lap and looked back at us.  He was loving the attention and soon started trying to climb over the seat to us.  He did eventually come over and my roomie held him while we played.  He wore my hat and we played more peek-a-boo.  I did wonder what the parents thought with us hyping up the boy.  They struggled to get him to sleep later even at 11pm.

We arrived in Aswan mid-morning on Monday and were taken to our hotel to relax for a couple of hours before our afternoon tour.  We went and saw High Dam, the building of which created Lake Nasser.  It gave the ability to control floods and provide water for irrigation and generate hydroelectricity.  From there we took a boat ride out to an island to visit Philae Temple dedicated to the goddess Isis.  There were so many names and dates thrown at us I didn't take much of the info in.  Perhaps this was also influenced by the heat and tiredness.  This was the case for the entire trip.  I relished the heat though, even with most days between 37º & 43º C.  It's been so long since the weather has made me feel hot and the sun was glorious!  And even with so much sun, I never once got burnt.  I'm a little proud of that.  Philae Temple was actually moved to its current location since the dam plans were going to flood it's original home.  It was taken apart piece by piece, carefully noting where each belonged and then transported and reconstructed just the same as it was.  Egyptians were fond of covering their sacred places with hieroglyphics -the sacred script--and images that often told stories or what they hoped to happen.  They were a very symbolic people.

Most of the group went to the Nubian dinner which was an extra you could pay for.  The Nubians are the darker skinned (typical African image) people of the south and they used to have their own territory before all was combined into current day Egypt.  A few of us just went back to the hotel to chill.  The hotels we stayed in throughout our trip were very western and rather comfortable.  It was a nice balance to have with our non-hotel nights.

Tuesday morning was relaxed.  We slept in, ate breakfast, packed our bags and waited for the few who went to Abu Simbel to return.  When they did we loaded up and headed down to the docks four some Nile time.

27 March 2013

marching around Rome, Italy

It only took a couple of hours on the train to get to Rome.  My hostel wasn't far from the station so I grabbed some tea and headed there to settle in and research some tours online.

Tuesday, 5th March I caught the metro over to the Vatican City area and wandered around and lunched until it was time to meet my tour group.  Then I left the country.  We only got to walk around the Vatican museum and courtyards.  Unfortunately, due to the previous Pope resigning, the Sistine Chapel closed just as my tour started so they could make preparations for the process of electing a new Pope.  Therefore, I didn't get to go into it and all I saw of it was a close up of the unimpressive outer side wall from one of the windows from the museum.  Each Pope has his own emblem and the emblem in the photo below is the one that represents the papal vacancy.  Does that mean I visited a country with no leadership??  Three hours of walking around viewing the type of art I'm not so interested in with a guide I found irritating to listen to and I had had more than plenty of the Vatican.

My Wednesday activity was how I spent most of my time in the city--wandering.  I had my map of Rome and chose some places that were highlighted as touristic places to see.  I went to visit Trevi fountain which is quite impressive for a fountain and I liked the more waterfall aspect of it rather than the typical spurting up water types.  I also visited the Spanish Steps and then wandered randomly until I got sick of being drenched and retreated to the hostel.  I spent each night chilling at the hostel organising myself for the next day, surfing the web and reading.  Since it rained quite a bit during my stay in Rome I was happy to relax in the warm, dry place.

Thursday morning, hoping for no rain, I went to do my tour of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.  Our guide was interesting, full of information and stories.  The Romans were a crazy bunch.  Their entertainment a bit gruesome for my liking.  Fascinating to hear the stories though and see the remains of where such things took place.  WE could see cells where prisoners would have been kept and small cubicals along the centre where it was likely that a new "contestant" entered the show via trap doors.  They've rebuilt some of the arena flooring to show where it was and give a snippet of visual.  We also saw where the emperor would have sat to see the show and heard the "thumbs up, thumbs down" myth.  Our guide told us they believed the soul was in the thumbs so "spare him" was signaled as a fist with the thumb protected inside.  The opposite was signaled as an open palm; the soul 'freed'.  It would also have been easier to differentiate between the two from a distance.  It was all about the entertainment level really and if it was an entertaining fight the gladiators were often spared.  Gladiators were mostly barbarians (foreigners) and easily identified by beards--the Romans being a clean shaven bunch.  But some Romans from the massive poor and struggling to survive social group chose to be gladiators.  They grew beards so it never looked like the regular Julius was down there risking his life to entertain and they could more easily imagine it was just some lesser being.  The gladiators were trained at schools in one fighting style and usually unevenly matched for a higher level of entertainment.  There was wealth and fame for those who fought well and survived many fights.

Outside the Colosseum we saw the Arch of Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome.  This arch was built quite fast compared to other structures due to the fact that Constantine had bits and pieces pulled from other monuments to construct his arch; saving both time and money on the artwork.  We then walked along the Sacred Way, one of the oldest and major Roman roads, and entered the Roman Forum where we could still see traces of the layout and remaining structures.  We heard how events in history used and changed what we could see--most of which I don't specifically remember.  We also climbed Palatine Hill which is the hill believed to be where Romulos began Rome.  There was also some more remnants of fantastic buildings up there.  After my tour I decided to go and find the Pantheon.  I passed a few plazas on the way and snapped photos here and there.  The Pantheon is an unusual circular building that was built as a temple for all the Roman gods but has since been converted into a Catholic church.  It has an impressive marble floor and of course wallpapered with typical biblical paintings.  From there I wandered back to the Spanish Steps with the intention of climbing them.  However, when I arrived I did so at the top, so I walked down them instead. I stopped for a late lunch/early tea before catching the metro back to the hostel.

Friday was my prebooked day trip out of Rome so I was up rather early and off to Plaza del Popolo.  The guide we had was super informative--not sure how he stored all that information.  He shared with us throughout the day not only about the actual places we went to see but also things we saw along the way and a bit of random history.  He was full of stories which I think makes it much easier to listen to.  I was thrilled to discover as we headed toward Pompeii that they'd started the summer season routine that week.  I thought I was going to miss out on one of the activities that drew me to pick this tour.  So instead of just going to a museum, our fist stop was the infamous Mt Vesuvius.  We drove up as far as we could go and then made the 20 minute climb to the crater.  I was buzzing just to be walking on an active volcano which was good because it dulled my disappointment about the low thick cloud that kept us from seeing anything except the volcanic dirt beneath our feet.  I never saw the crater even though I stood right next to it.  The cloud was also very moist as my fringe soaked up a stack of it just by being in it.

We then went to Naples for pizza; the place where pizza originated.  The pizza choices were the classic ones and very simple.  That seems to be the case for Italian food.  A few quality ingredients that blend well.  We heard the story of the margherita that was made for the queen who insisted on trying this raved about peasant dish.  A new pizza was created especially for her with Italian patriotism--red (tomato) white (buffalo mozzarella) and green (oregano).  I had prosciutto and mozzarella (ham and cheese with no tomato sauce) and it was delicious.  Such delicious simplicity.   Then we went to the main attraction of the day being the ruins of Pompeii so well preserved by the destructive blast of Mt Vesuvius in A.D.79. Pliny the Younger, a man on a nearby island saw a cloud like an umbrella tree and that the earth shook and that the top of the mountain blew off.  Small pebbles fell over Pompeii and those who were wise enough left.  Day two after the eruption had volcanic gases blowing over the city while the ash and rocks continued to fall.  Most of the residents were killed and buried where they were.  Because the ruins there were quite in tact compared to what I'd seen in the previous days, I had to keep reminding myself that these were actually older than Rome. There is a huge city of ruins there too.  We saw such a small part but it also poured rain on us so I was content not to wander around much longer.  We saw there an ancient gladiator school, theatres, shops, brothel, temples and a stash of found and collected items including some plaster casts from real human molds that would probably still contain their bones.

Upon returning from my day trip I readied myself for my mid-morning departure for the airport to farewell Italy and jump countries.

24 March 2013

marching around Florence, Italy

March 2013 has been my travel month.  It's the final travels fo my UK adventure.  Though technically it all started on Thursday 28th February.

Before the sun had stretched its beams and yawned its awakening over London, England, I was already riding the underground taking my 'Gelert' backpack on its first adventure.  I landed in Florence, Italy in the early afternoon to sunshine and 13ºC.  It felt like summer.  A welcome change from London's February weather of 2-5ºC.  I was buzzing with nerves and excitement having left my visa behind in England--figuratively speaking--and a month of exploring adventure ahead of me.

My first impression of Florence was unimpressive.  I was to amuse myself for the afternoon until my couchsurfing host had finished work.  I basically just roamed the streets, though the random ones I chose happened to be dirty and smelly.  Turns out I never went near the city centre.  I stayed with a wonderful lady in Pistoia which is actually a 45-50min train ride out of Florence.  She was a great host.  She provided nice accommodation, rides to and from the train station and meals.  The fist night she cooked me roast rabbit.

On Friday I had a  day tour booked and spent the day being shown around Tuscany.  We visited Siena and saw Piazza del Compo where they have the crazy palio horse race twice a year that they are fanatic about.  Siena built its wealth in business, particularly money loans and exchange, and did very well being a major stop along the route to Rome.  We saw there the oldest, still-in-use bank in the world there.  We also visited the Duomo of Siena which is a church that was interestingly designed with a mix of different architectural influences.  The typical gothic style of Europe  definitely some turkish or middle eastern and I can't remember the others.  Aside from the Segrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, this is the most different cathedral I've seen in my time traipsing around this patch of Earth.  Atypically, the floor is the highlight of this place with its amazing pictures and designs created with marble.  There was also a room that houses ancient scripts which for hundreds of years was sealed up.  Now at certain times of the year it is opened for viewing.  These books, their pages and the artwork of text and pictures that fill them have been very well preserved from the effects of oxygen meaning the colours are still vibrant.  Even the room itself was a work of art.  We stopped at a winery for lunch where we had a four course typical Italian meal, each course accompanied by a different wine.  It was delicious.  After lunch we visited nearby San Gimignano which is one of Tuscany's best preserved medieval towns.  There was beautiful views of the village and surrounding countryside from the park atop the hill.  It was here that I visited Gelateria di Piazza to try some award winning icecream.  The final stop for the day was one of the have-to's of visiting Italy--Pisa!  Here, of course, the highlight was the famous leaning tower.  We hung out in the Field of Miracles--where the leaning tower along with a basillica and baptistry reside--for the whole time we were there really.  I wandered and shot stuff, including myself numerous times.

On Saturday I wandered around Pistoia town centre squeezing through all the markets and taking photos of eye-catching buildings.  I made my way to Florence to join an afternoon tour that I'd booked but never found at the time and location mentioned.  After a little grump I set off to do my own thing climbing the hill to get to Piazzale Michelangelo for a view over Florence.  I also found Ponte Vecchio, lined with shops, which is the oldest surviving bridge in Florence.  I had planned to visit Uffizi Gallery but the massive line up deterred me and I went and had some thing to eat and drink instead.  Feeling almost done for the day I decided to quickly check the gallery again and the line was gone so I went in.  I wandered round the halls rather quickly as I'm not really into renaissance art and get bored after a short while.  There was one painting, however, that caught my attention, perhaps due to my line of work.  It was, again, of Mary with baby Jesus but this one had a toddler John the Baptist leaning over his sleeping cousin to kiss his cheek.  It was such a natural child-like pose rather than the deified look the others all seem to have which I appreciated.  I also noticed a number of paintings with Mary breastfeeding which I'd not seen the likes of before.  Finally catching the train back, I went out for tea with my host and her friend for some delicious pizza.

On Sunday we went road tripping to Cinque Terre.  I had expressed my thoughts of going there myself by train but upon checking routes and times and costs I'd decided I wouldn't put that idea into action. However, over tea the night before I realised that my host and her friend were making plans.  In the end they decided to drive.  I never really knew what we were doing and just tagged along and they paid for almost everything. I just went along with it.  I didn't have a lot of say in it as they did all the planning and decision making in Italian.  I was happy to do so though.  It was a cruisy, pleasant day.  We drove about 1.5-2hrs and then caught trains through the mountains to the little seaside towns built on the cliffs.  We visited Riomaggiore and Vernazza and both were picturesque piles of colourful houses.  I really enjoyed soaking in some sunshine, observing the various rocks on the shore and eating more gelati.  It was a really pleasant day and so nice of my host organise.  When we got back to Pistoia we ordered and ate the largest pizzas I've ever seen. Her neighbour, who is quite a character, and his girlfriend joined us.

Monday was my favourite experience in Florence.  Since Italy is so much about the food I had booked myself in for a cooking class and it was fabulous.  There was just two of us which made it more personalised.  It began with a tour through the markets which was informative and delicious.  We stopped at a couple of places for taste testing.  Saw some interesting butcher displays.  Things I would not think of eating--like cow's hooves.  There was also a horse meat shop.  At the cooking school my highlight was making fresh pasta.  Italy is a suitable place to do this for the first time I think.  We also made bolognese sauce and tiramisu.  We made tow types of pasta.  One to go with the bolognese sauce and one filled with cheese.  And we drank wine and ate our work afterwards.  Yum!  Our chef was great too, not just assisting but teaching.  From there I headed to the train station to farewell Florence.