Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rome day II part I

The girl I was traveling with had an emergency and decided to go home, so that pretty much killed the morning and early afternoon.

I decided to try and make up for lost time and headed towards the Coliseum. I thought I'd try and pretend to be an EU until 25 since you get it free, but the lady wasn't having any of it even though I showed her my university of London id. Oh well.

Me in front of the arch of Constantine:

Had a look around the Coliseum, then headed over to the Forum where there's infinitely more stuff to look at. It's rather like an ancient roman junkyard.

I did the Rick Steve's self-guided tour in fits and spurts, dodging this way and that to avoid large tour groups. Several people approached me and asked me if I wanted a tour guide, expats and art students trying to make a few tax free euros, which seems very noveau grand tour to me, and appealing in way, but not enough to make me want to try it myself.

I rushed a bit through the last of the Forum to try and get to Palatine hill before it closed.

No luck there, so off to St Peter's in Chains:

Saturday, January 26, 2008

All roads lead to Rome (Day 1)

Let's see. Rome. Rome. HOW AMAZING IS ROME??? Seriously. Even the name. Rome. Like Home, only with an R. I love R's. See, I can't even talk about it sensibly it is that cool.

I know its sounds ridiculous, but Rome is like a classic novel or movie or Harry Potter or such… It gets so much hype that you don't really expect too much in the end, because seriously can anything be THAT good? You just sort of have a vague sense of you should see it/read it/go there and see for yourself but it's not a priority because you're off discovering new and undiscovered things for yourself and this old classic, standby, will always be there, ready and waiting for you to pick it up. And when you do, you're absolutely blown over in amazement, and you suddenly realize that THIS is why there was all that hype to begin with, and you can't believe you've waited this long but at the same time you're glad you have, being older and more experienced and more able to appreciate the wonder and the beauty and something else I forgot.

More accurately, the things IN Rome are like classic novels and movies… Individually they have this effect. Put them together and… wow.

So yes. I liked Rome.

Where to begin. The day was not auspicious. There was a ridiculously early wake up call, and, as is my wont before early morning flights, I did not get enough sleep. Fortunately I am very near the Stansted express these days. I dragged Charley out of bed and off we went. Tried to doze on the train and failed. Checked in, waited aaaages in the security line when all I wanted to do was have a lie down. This I did at the gate, but didn't sleep until in the air. When we woke up we were in Rome. Rome!!

Passport control. The ONE time there is a huge line in the non-EU side I am traveling with an EU passport holder. Charley waited on the other side looking smug. We walked into the tiny budget airport and I was amazed to find there isn't an ATM. I am constantly being amazed when there isn't an ATM. Perhaps at the Republika Srpska bus station in the outskirts of Sarajevo it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise but in Rome? Never-mind. I had a few euro coins from Slovenia or somewhere and Charley had euros. We bought our bus and metro tickets and set off.

In what seems like no time we were dumped off at what looks like a shady flea market but it actually the metro stop (or at least doubles as). We were amazed because my guidebook said it takes 40 minutes. Pessimistic Rick Steves! (I shouldn't be so quick to judge I find out on the way back.)

Happily we tromped onto the metro, commenting happily on the speed and difference between this and the Underground. "I love how the train doesn't stop all the way before the doors open," Charley said. "These seats are so slippery!" I said, sliding into Charley and then, less comically, into the Roman woman sitting beside me, trying her best to ignore our banter.

We got off at Termini station, emerged into the sunlight, and blinked like blinded rats. I wished I'd brought my sunglasses. I stared at the map then stared at my surroundings, and wished I'd brought a compass. Eventually, thanks to my excellent deductive and map reading skills, we found our way to the hostel. I stared longingly at a gelateria we passed by, but soon enough we were stepping through the galactic-age automatic door to the reception at Yellow Hostel. (For more on the hostel, see my review – grr it's not published yet.) We got our keys, chucked our stuff in our room – including our coats, whee sunlight – and headed out to a nearby pizza joint recommended by the guy at reception.

Several slices of pizza loaded with tomatoes later we stumbled again into the sunlight, basking in the warmth, practically twirling in delight. Ah, London, what you do to my sanity! Anyway. We rushed onto a bus, feeling very clever for figuring out how, and jerked and jolted down into the center of Rome, getting off one stop too late.

And so it was that we passed through Piazza Navona on our way to the Pantheon. It reminded me of my visit to Brussels, and stumbling upon le grand place. Only in Rome, you keep stumbling, square upon square of amazing places, till you feel like Alice tumbling into Wonderland. But with the ability to stop for gelato!

We stared up at the eons-old Pantheon while I finished my cono, taking pictures from the outside and grumbling about the McDonald's presence on this sacred square. Inside for a history lesson from our guidebook and gaping up at the dome. We trotted to near-by Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and stuck a 50 centime piece into the slot to look at Michelangelo's Christ bearing the Cross, then through to the Church of San Ignazio. As Rick Steve's suggested, we sat down to gaze up at the Baroque ceiling. "Is that a helium Spiderman balloon?" I asked. It was.

We left the church and followed the tide of people along the busy narrow streets to the sound
of running water and soon found ourselves face to face with the Trevi fountain. Amazing! It's a myth that if you throw a coin into the fountain you ensure yourself of coming back to Rome. I'd already seen enough that I knew I wanted to come back, and besides, I love stuff like that. So in went our coins (a bit complicated as we'd already used ours for lighting candles in San Ignazio so we had to use some of Charley's English money – I hope it still counts!) and after sitting awhile admiring the view we walked on.

Wander-ers all, soon we found ourselves near the Cappuccin Crypt, decorated with the bones of 4,000 monks, and decided to go there. It struck me as the kind of place my mother would have loved – incredibly creepy. You're not allowed to take pictures but I bought some postcards and gazed a while at the scenery. I wonder how I'd feel at my bodily remains being used for such a purpose. I suppose if you're dead it doesn't matter, but…. "You will become what we are now," indeed.

Walking up the Via Veneto I suddenly thought I was in Beverly Hills. Palm trees and villa-style buildings… ahh, the US embassy! But what were all these police doing there? They were really out in force, hard to believe it was just normal security. Maybe it was some sort of cop meet-up place. Feeling a bit foot sore we decided to try one of the cafes along the Via Veneto, but they were all a bit too posh looking for our pockets so we gave them a miss for one down a cozy side street, pleasing in both its friendliness and thriftiness.

Strolling back an hour or so later we suddenly found ourselves embroiled in a huge anti-war protest outside the embassy. Ah. Hence the police. Head lowered we maneuvered through the crowd but the solemn mood couldn't last. Rome at dusk is a beautiful sight. A slight chill descended necessitating the need to return to the hostel to fetch out hastily discarded coats, but that hardly signified. Laughing as we ran for our lives in front of speeding traffic to cross the busy streets, we dodged the flocks of birds rising to the skies from the trees around Termini, disturbed
from their resting places, and skipped back to the hostel. Stopping to chat with some fellow travelers (Aussies celebrating Australia day), we got back on the bus and went to Campo de Fiori with the help of directions from some passers-by. We ate at a restaurant in the guidebook, before realizing we could have eaten at a cheaper restaurant off the square since it was too cold to sit on the square and enjoy the atmosphere, which was half the point. But the food was so good it was difficult to care!

Our intention was to go on the night walk across Rome, but we'd inadvertently done it, practically, earlier in the day and were exhausted from the early start, unaccustomed amounts of walking, and all the excitement, so after wandering around the square some, we decided to catch the bus (joy riding because we couldn't find anywhere to buy tickets – but don't tell the inspectors!) back to the hostel and call it a night.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

How to plan a backpacking trip #3: reading advice and seeking advice

You've spent the last half hour staring at the map and you're ready to pack your bags and go! Unfortunately a backpacking trip requires a little bit more pre-trip planning than that. In this article you will learn how to find and get advice specially tailored to your needs.

As you are about to embark on extensive research of your destinations and your trip in general, you're going to need a ton of help. I have done a lot of travel research—it happens to be one of my most favorite forms of procrastination. Most likely you are going to be using a ton of resources to help plan out your trip. Thankfully, there is a lot of information of there for travelers. Of course, some of it is better than others.

Below are some of the websites and other resources I find most useful. Hopefully they help you as well!

Rick Steves is the ultimate Europe travel guru. It's so interesting to read his perceptions about what he sees and where he goes. There are tons of useful articles on everything from ways to save money to packing. You'll find a lot of answers there. There's also the "grafitti wall" where other travelers post their own advice.

Crawl on over to the Lonely Planet website. You can order guidebooks online, read articles, but make sure you check out the forums, the thorntree. Here you have great advice on every part of the globe and more general travel issues such as safety and eco-friendly travel. Search the country forum for your destination and see what's been said already. If you have a question that hasn't been answered just ask! Tons of experienced travelers are reading the forums right now, ready tell you about the best hostel they stayed at in Amsterdam or that vegan restaurant in Milan. We'll get really heavily into packing later… it's almost a fetish for me and I LOVE this site. Read the entire thing. You'll be hard pressed to find better packing advice anywhere.

STA Travel is a great website, if you are a student. You can order your ISIC card and check out student deals on flights as well as booking hostels and buying travel insurance. (Your ISIC card comes with some travel insurance coverage so think about if you really want to pay extra for more.) Student universe is another student travel website, but in my experience STA has the better deals. I almost always get transatlantic tickets from STA.

Skyskanner. EasyJet, Ryanair, Wizz Air, Sky Europe… is your head aching just at the thought of comparing prices and flights on all these different airlines? This site does the hard part for you and finds the cheapest flight available for almost any destination (the focus is on within Europe). You can search entire countries and for entire months, too.

You can join websites such as Couchsurfing or the Hospitality Club. This is a great way to save money and meet new people. Even if you're not comfortable with the idea of staying with a stranger, you can still meet up with someone for a meal or a drink, or get local advice on what to see and do in a particular city.

Hostelworld: You can book online and read reviews for hostels before you decide to stay there. There are tons of hostelling sites and this is just one of them. It's not a bad idea to google the name of a hostel you are thinking of staying at, just to see what else comes up! The more reviews you read the better idea you have of what a hostel is really like.

Bootsnall is another travel networking sites. You can read blogs and ask for advice on the forums.

In your pocket guides

Let's go isn't my favorite travel publisher, but you can still get plenty of good information on their website and their guidebooks for western Europe are not bad.

If you're planning on traveling by rail you can get lots of information from the man in seat 61. If it's just straight train schedule you're looking for, the ever-efficient Germans have put the entire schedules for Europe on their website: die bahn. Find out more about Eurail passes at the Eurail website.

If you're planning on traveling by bus, Eurolines have a lot of routes. Busabout is like an independent bus tour: you can hop on and off as you like, but there is a specified route.

Are you a member of an online networking site like Facebook or LiveJournal? Probably there are groups for travelers already established. You can join and then your research doesn’t have to be anything outside of your normal daily routine. You can join groups for travelers on online networking site like Facebook or LiveJournal

Whatever you do, do NOT go onto a forum board (or other advice-seeking arena) and ask a questions like:

I want to go to Europe. How much will it cost?


I want to go to Europe. What should I see?

You will look like an idiot. And you will either be ignored or made fun of. Probably if you make such a post it's only because you didn't know any better, but people really need more information than that if you want advice from them. Try to include as much information as possible, such as things you are interested in doing (museums, beaches, clubbing, etc), and what kind of traveler you think you'll be (ie, you don't mind sleeping in train stations— or you plan on going shopping everyday). If you're not sure about something, say so! This will help people know what kind of advice to give you.

How to plan a backpacking trip #2: Decide on a destination

You've spent the last half hour staring at the map and you're ready to pack your bags and go! Unfortunately a backpacking trip requires a little bit more pre-trip planning than that. Here is some advice to help you along the way to the airport. In this article you will learn how to choice a destination that is right for you.

You're sufficiently pumped about your trip and the money is starting to roll in, slowly but surely. Now it's time to move on to the next phase of planning your trip.

First of all, you have a homework assignment that will help you with this step and following steps in your backpacking planning. Head to your nearest Triple A. Pick up a few regional maps of places you're considering going so you can get a better mental image of how the land lays. These maps will either be free or very cheap depending on your membership. They also make great wall decorations and are handy for crafts!

So where are you planning on going? Probably you have an idea based on what inspired you for your trip, but you'll have to figure out a generally area, and then get more specific from there. Probably you'll be heading to Europe. Why? Because it's what most people do. That is not a reason in and of itself—it just so happens that there are plenty of reasons WHY most people do.

First of all, it's a great place to travel. There are tons of sights, great food, and friendly people. There is a great diversity within a relatively small geographic scale. Most people are familiar enough with Europe that they know automatically what they want to see and where they want to go, so they have a head start on research. It's an easy place to travel. There is a ton of infrastructure for travelers: public transportation, hostels, etc. You will most likely meet other travelers in your same shoes. People are helpful and used to having foreigners poking about their national sites. There is a lot of information readily available for the region. It's a relatively safe place to go.

I'm not saying you should definitely head for Europe. I'm just saying that's what you'll probably end up doing. And, quite frankly, I don't know very much about backpacking in other places so that's what I'm going to focus on. Hopefully that will soon change—and hopefully you'll still find this article useful even if you are heading to Asia or South America.

But there are also drawbacks. It's what most people do—and that means Europe, particularly popular cities like Paris, London, and Venice, can get very crowded in the summer. You can avoid this by going in the off-season or shoulder seasons, but summer might be your only time to travel if you are a student or a teacher. The deluge of tourists means that a lot people have become disenchanted with tourism and can be less then welcoming, particularly to Americans who, thanks to a few buffoons, have gained a less than reputable reputation abroad. (You can help counter this by being charm itself while you are traveling.)

Also, going to Europe is not very original. You probably know tons of people who have been to London and Paris. London and Paris are great but maybe you are aiming for something a little bit more unusual. In addition, Europe is very expensive. At this particular moment in time, the dollar is, how shall we say, at the bottom of a Turkish toilet. It won't get you very far in Provence, so that means you'll have to sacrifice even more trips to the mall to pay for your trip, and you'll have to pinch those euro-cents even tighter while on the road.

That said, London and Paris are not the be-all and end-all of Europe. You can find unspoilt, affordable places to visit, and you can suck in your tummies and your wallets to see the sights of Barcelona. Overall, Europe makes a great destination for beginning travelers because it's not to challenging. The culture shock isn't too great. Most likely you studied a bit of a European language in school, and most Europeans speak some form of English (though it is polite to at least attempt to speak the language of the country you're in).

If you're looking for more adventure and value with fewer tourists, you can head to Eastern Europe. However, with the expansion of the EU, (and euro) and subsequent expansion of tourism, Eastern Europe is quickly losing its east-ness. So my advice is go to Krakow now before it become the next Prague. Countries such as Poland, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria still offer beautiful sites and a great value for money with friendly citizens not too worn out with tourism to be friendly to visitors. They can be a bit more challenging for travelers but maybe you'll feel up to it after conquering Rome.

However, the real point of this article is to say that you can't "do" all of Europe (or any continent) in one trip, unless that trip is a year or longer. It's simply not possible. You'll need to decide what you really want to see and stick to that region, or go crazy spending every night on an overnight train. (If that's your thing, great, but I'm afraid I've never been able to understand it so I don't have any advice for you. If you're determined to see 10 countries in 3 weeks you don't need to heed my advice about plotting efficiency around one or two regions.)

What holds the biggest draw for you? What do you really want to see? For example, if it's Roman ruins that interest you, but you also like sitting on beaches, you might fly into Rome before training around Italy and taking a ferry to Croatia. If you love art museums, big cities and nightlife, you might try London to Paris to Berlin or Madrid. There is a lot of long distance train travel there but you can balance it out by spending plenty of time in each city in between. Don't make the mistake of trying to do too much of you'll end up doing nothing at all. Pick a few cities that are near to one another so you can plot out the most efficient way of getting around.

Basically, just figure out what you want to see, which cities offer that or interest you the most and where you want to spend your time. Ideas will spring from there, and it's not set in stone, you can always change your mind later. But you need a starting point to approximate how much money you'll need (that's another thing to keep in mind—you'll spend a lot more on a day in Paris then you will sitting on a Bulgarian beach) and where to start doing you research.

If you're really not sure, there are tons of ways to start figuring it out. Open up the front of any Lonely Planet regional guide and there are suggested itineraries based on different interests. You can use one of those as your starting point.

So now that you've decided (vaguely) on your destination, it's time to start your research!

How to plan a backpacking trip #1: Inspiration and saving money

You've spent the last half hour staring at the map and you're ready to go! Unfortunately a backpacking trip requires a little bit more pre-trip planning. In this article you will learn how to get inspired (if you aren't already) and start saving money.

For some people, backpacking through Europe is a once in a lifetime experience. For others, it's a regular summer activity. No matter which of these groups you will eventually fall into, planning a backpacking trip for the first time can be daunting, especially if you are planning on traveling alone. I've been there and I've learned from my mistakes, and you can too!

This advice is presented in a step-by-step order, but a lot of these steps will overlap as you are doing them, especially as your trip gets nearer.

The first thing you need is inspiration. Probably you got the idea for a trip of your own when you heard someone you know talking about their trip and showing off their envy-inspiring pictures, or reading a book like Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There (that did it for me). Suddenly traveling around the world seemed like something you not only want to, but MUST do.

Or maybe you are just thinking about it and you're asking yourself whether you really do want to backpack. In that case the answer is yes, you just don't know it yet. Start by picking up a copy of Bryson or another travel anthology. Browse some travel websites and read other travelers' stories and advice. Even if you're not planning on taking a tour, look at tour descriptions of destinations and activities. Watch the Travel channel. Buy a guidebook and open it up to a random page. Tack a map on the wall and stare at it. Pretty soon, if not instantly, you will start to feel that wanderlust bubble inside you. Now you're ready to start planning.

The second thing you need to do is start saving money. Travel can be cheap and fun and easy but it's not free and there are lots of initial costs, especially if it's your first big trip. You'll need a plane ticket, a rail pass, a backpack and gear. This may sound intimidating but it IS doable if you are determined.

There are tons of ways to save money and lots of advice to be had. Here is what works best for me:

First, get a job. Obviously, you have to have some sort of income before you can start hording away for your Eurail pass. Put your paycheck into a special travel fund bank account that's separate form your daily expenses. That way you'll think twice about dipping into your trip fund for a night out.

Which is related to the second point. Every time you take out your wallet, ask yourself: "Do I want this or do I want to go to Europe?" If someone held an ice cream cone in one hand and an airplane ticket in the other and asked me which one I wanted, you can be pretty sure which one I'd take. After all, it's not like an ice cream and a plane ticket cost the same. But it's hard to remember that all those little expenses add up and eat away at money that can be used for your trip. So try this, for example: when you are standing at the ATM of the bank which holds your travel fund, before you withdraw $40 ask yourself, "do I want to have a night out now or do I want to have one in Madrid?" I think you know the answer.

By cutting back on your expenses, you really can fund your trip! Try making your lunch instead of buying it, taking turns making dinner with your friends instead of eating out, watching a movie at home instead of going to the cinema, and getting books from the library or websites like Bookmooch instead of buying them (this is a real problem for me!).

If you do have a problem with shopping, pretend you are in a war and you have to save precious materials for the war effort. (I know this is nerdy but it works!) Read Slavenka Draculic's How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (get it from the library) to see how people used to get by on so little when there was nothing available. You will realize how much of the stuff you buy you don't actually need. Keep in mind that you can buy a new shirt now or you can buy one in Paris. But you'll never get there if you keep buying new shirts!

Thirdly, do you have a big occasion coming up which means you will be receiving lots of money or gifts? If you are graduating, send out announcements and hopefully your relatives will be so proud that you have obtained a degree, they will send you nice checks that can go into your trip fund bank account instead of being spent on things like iPods.

Fortunately, graduations are also seen as big milestones, and a point in life at which is might be appropriate to do something that might otherwise be somewhat questionable, such as spending three months in Eastern Europe. Of course, you and I both know that spending three months in Eastern Europe is an entirely normal and healthy way to spend your time and money. ;-) But not everyone sees it that way. If you are lucky enough to be graduating, people will probably forgive what might otherwise be considered an unwise choice. So take advantage of that! One the other hand, maybe you are lucky and you have friends and family who are entirely supportive of your travel dream. In that case be sure you blast your plans loud and clear and they will be more than willing to help.

It's likely that you'll have a birthday and/or Christmas in between when you start planning your trip and when you finally take off. You should take advantage of these holidays to help you prepare for your trip. You don't have to ask for plain cash, although that's great too. Instead you can put on your wish list things you'll need for your trip that you don't already have (look for one of my next articles on the ultimate backpacker's packing list). An REI gift certificate is always welcomed by a travel enthusiast and will be particularly useful for the first-time traveler. You can drop subtle hints that guidebooks make great presents. If one of your gift givers is feeling particularly generous, or if a couple of them team up, you might even be able to score a backpack, Eurail pass, or plane ticket!

Now that you are longing for gelato and the church bells of St Mark's, and your travel fund is growing fast enough to pay for these things, you are ready to move onto the next step. Look for my next article on how to plan a backpacking trip: deciding on a destination for your trip.

Note: I was originally posting these articles on Associated Content but I got bored of them constantly rejecting my original and brilliant articles so here they are. If you really like it, however, you can head on over there and rate it for me!