Nine hours in London

The trip starts with a stressful layover in Newark, NJ that included waiting for a 3-hour delayed flight, a thunder storm, circling above our destination, landing at the wrong airport in Hartford CT, and then finally getting lucky because my connecting flight in Newark was delayed enough to allow my first flight time to take off again and get there.  After the redeye to London Heathrow, even though it is delayed by several hours, I am excited to exit the airport for some fresh drizzly air, some non-airport food, and a little touring around with my good friend Nabihah.

It is almost too convenient to take the Tube into London, where I first get off at South Kensington to meet Nabihah for lunch at a pub where I consume some local cuisine of fish and chips, a beer, and a coffee.  Following “lunch” (the quotations are there because my body is a little confused what meal I should be eating at the moment, but the clock shows a late lunch), we walk around and find some delectable cookies to take with us on the Tube to our next destination, Big Ben.  We walk all around Big Ben and proceed towards Buckingham Palace, because no trip to England is complete without seeing at least one soldier with a black fuzzy hat.  Finally, before we part this great afternoon together, in true English style, we stop at a fancy afternoon tea spot and enjoy some hot tea and scones (scones is pronounced with a soft “o” in London).



Although only in town for a couple short hours, Nabihah showed me around her hometown of London all the while pointing out spots from her childhood memories.  I am now ready for my second redeye in less than 24 hours as I head onwards to Ethiopia to visit my great college friend, Harya.

Altiplano Lakes

The landscapes today are inspiring.  The rains of yesterday deposited snowcaps to the Andes Mountains that surround us, and the crispness of the air compels my trigger finger to keep taking pictures.  From the day’s start with the flamingos at Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama to the Lagunas Miniques and Miscanti, each site rivals the last.

Monumento Natural El Morado

Today, we wake up at Cascada de Las Animas and hike to the base of the El Morado Glacier.  The combination of the shadeless heat, the steep grade, and the length of the hike makes for a challenge and a sense of accomplishment.

Raftin’ & Ridin’

On our first full day in Chile, we pack our things and head off to Cajon del Maipo, a stunning gorge that starts just 25 km southeast of Santiago.  We head off early because we have a date with the Maipo River at 10am, and we are not confident that we won’t get lost along the way.

After experiencing the Maipo river at its highest level of the year and therefore at its fastest, we grab a quick bite to eat and continue on to horseback riding along side of the Maipo gorge.

Pace del Mela

We leave Sciacca, but before heading to northeastern Sicily, we drive through the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. Gabe and I really appreciate having Becky here because as she explains what we are seeing, we better understand the importance of the seven monumental Greek temples all constructed in the Doric style during the 6th and 5th centuries. These temples are considered the best preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece.

Valley of the Temples

Our second two nights in Sicily are spent in Pace del Mela (Peace of the Apple), and although that city’s name would be p’unny when translated into English, there is unfortunately no pun present in Italian. Calling Pace del Mela a small town is an understatement. With its population of slightly more than 5,000 and its one central piazza, this town felt like home. Gabe’s father grew up here until the age of twenty-two when he left for Venezuela, and Gabe has lots of aunts, uncles and cousins still here. From his annual summer visits while growing up, everyone in town still seems to recognize him. Their reactions as they greet Gabe and tell us of times past is what small town Sicily is all about. Although there are not many people of our age, there were still lots of kids full of energy, always ready for a delicious meal, and never refusing to go the beach. After meeting Gabe’s aunt and settling in with a large full smile-shaped slice of watermelon, we venture to the town piazza for some gelato. Unique to Sicily, we enjoy our gelati in a brioche. The brioche absorbed the cream and the sugar and was a perfect end to the snack. In talking with Gabe’s family, ordering the gelati, and just generally getting by, English is not a very popular language in Pace, so Becky and I are forced to use and improve our Italian.

Gelati in Pace del Mela

We eat a both very delicious and very filling dinner at Gabe’s aunt house. His aunt does not believe when we say that we are full, so by the time we stand from the table, we are probably full two times over. After dinner, I spend some time with Gabe’s aunt’s 3-yr old granddaughter, Katerina. We both sit on the couch, and Becky and I do a dramatic reading of Cappuccetto Rosso (Little Red Riding Hood) while she listens. Conveniently, when I say a word or phrase that I don’t understand, I get Katerina to point to the referring image or object on the page and learn a little Italian. After dinner, we venture to the slightly larger nearby town, taste a little more gelato, and walk along the coast before retiring for the night knowing that the next day would be busy.


We start the next day in the same bar that we had purchased our gelato the day before in the main piazza (there aren’t too many choices of restaurants). There’s a dish that gives kids an excuse to have gelato for breakfast, so I decide that I can use the same excuse. For breakfast, the three of us enjoy granita, ice cream, and brioche. While we are still on our sugar high, we continue on to Taormina. Other than having an in-use Greek theater overlooking Mount Etna and much of Sicily, Taormina is a charming town with a couple too many steps. It would be a surreal experience to watch a live performance in this Greek theater with its well-designed acoustics and fabulous vista. I realize that if my Sicily visit ends here, I would be more than satisfied, but there is still a packed 24 hours to go.

Greek theater in Taormina

We drive back to Pace del Mela for lunch with the cousins. Again, I play around with my Italian replacing the words I don’t know with their Italian-ized Spanish equivalent, which means making sure to end works in vowels and pronouncing certain letters slightly differently. While waiting for the finishing touches of lunch, Gabe gives me a tour of his cousin’s house, which is the same house that his father grew up in. He also tells me a story of when his grandfather was sent out to purchase some cement for house work but ends up returning with a brand new television, the first television in the town. As it was a rough time for the whole town, his grandfather set up the television outside of the house, which is located near the central piazza, and at least 100 people would come to watch together. In my short time in Pace, I already started feeling the history and the community among all its residents.

Lunch in Mela del Pace

After spending the hottest part of this 40 degree Celsius day at the beach, we return to Gabe’s aunt’s for dinner, and later join the entire town in front of the church for some sort of celebration. There is music, food, a little karaoke, and a lot of dancing. The diversity of ages all congregated on the dance floor can only happen in a small town like this one. As expected, everyone knows each other and we all have a great time.

Gabe and Katerina

Our last morning comes much too quickly as I feel so welcome and am not ready to leave all of Gabe’s cousins and family. They all wake up early to say goodbye and we enjoy a last granita and brioche together at the central piazza bar.

Back to Italy ’til The End

We get back to Rome, again. Our plane arrives late enough so that we miss the bus back to the center of town. Cheaper than taking the train is sharing a cab among four people, which means that I try to find another lucky two to join Gabe and me in a taxi. The first two I find probably assume that I’m trying to hit on them although I’m not, and in retrospect, I can see how that might happen. However, I feel like “would you like to share a cab with us into Rome’s center” is a weak pick up line. That said, by starting with this awkward question, we eventually get to talking while waiting a very long time for our luggage, and once the bags finally come, we split ways and I gear up to try again. Gabe and I walk outside and I find a couple sitting with their stuff and enjoying a cigarette. I approach them, and in my broken Italian, I ask if they want to share a taxi. We have success, and are on our way into Rome.

Rome at night

The taxi drops us all off somewhere between our two apartments and because of the nice heat and humidity of Rome, Gabe and I work up a shvitz on our way back to Sam’s apartment. We are greeted by some delicious dishes that Sam has been working on for his culinary school final. Dinner is served with some of Sam’s “house wine”, which may or may not come in a bag, but nonetheless is perfect for the occasion (and much better than bags o’ wine I might find stateside). Post dinner, we head out for some gelato (of course!), and to a mojito bar that Gabe and Sam frequent regularly. With strong mojitos in hand, we venture down to the Tiber River.

Now in its tenth year, the commotion near the river known as Lungo Il Tevere Roma offers bars, clubs, snack stations, and of course souvenir shops. There is live music everywhere and access is easy and free. In short, we end up spending a bit too much time here and enjoy a fun welcome back into Italy.

A Miscalculation

A perfect storm of small miscalculations leads to a wonderful twenty-four hours in Geneva. Our layover, if you can call it that, is just long enough to be awkward, the weather is to include thunderstorms and heavy rain, and Geneva may be one of the most expensive cities in all of Europe. However, having said all that, luck is on our side. A friend of Gabe’s friend lives in Geneva and is willing to host us for the evening. She and her family live in a beautifully refurbished farm house just outside the city center. As Gabe and I are nearing the house, we are not clear as to where we are heading and especially when we leave what looks like the main residential areas of Geneva, but eventually we get to the driveway of a farm and just hope that we are in the right place. The exterior of the house, although clearly well kept still resembles the humble farm house from times past, but the interior of the house is fabulously modern, thoughtfully decorated, and very comfortable.

Near the farm house in Geneva

Immediately after arriving, we enjoy a nice dinner outside in the backyard. (Maybe the heavy rain forecast was incorrect.) We get to know the family better, taste some delicious swiss chocolate, and eventually hear what seems like a very powerful storm from the comforts of our beds. The next morning, we wake up to clear skies, an espresso, orange juice, and cereal. Gabe and I make sure to wake early in order to say goodbye and thank you one more time before our host leaves for work. After breakfast, we spend the rest of the morning walking around the farm and the nearby area. We find sports fields to complement the wheat fields, and fancy cars to complement the sheep. Thanks to Fiona, our wonderful host, our stay in Geneva will now be another highlight of our adventure around Europe.

Chess in the park

We leave the house a little before noon and walk into Geneva’s old town. Upon strolling through a park on the south side of the old town, we find almost life size chess boards and distract ourselves playing games for several hours. As it is Friday afternoon, we find many others, including business men in suits and mothers and fathers with their children enjoying an afternoon playing chess in the park. We eventually continue on through the old town and find Geneva’s symbolic and beautiful lake. Because we are not yet interested in purchasing a swiss watch or opening a new bank account, after finding the lake, we make our way back to the train station and then to the airport. Although short, Geneva is very memorable.

Geneva Lake

Magyar Bor

French wines I knew a little about and Italian wines I knew a little about, but of Hungarian wines I knew nothing before arriving. This may be because their wine export levels are very low, but whatever the reason, Hungarian wines are very historied dating back as far as Roman times from when there are extensive records of vineyards. Today, the best known wine is Tokaji, the dessert wine. While touring the Budapest castle, Gabe and I spot a wine museum/tasting, and figure that it doesn’t hurt to explore further. We enter the museum, and maybe because the temperature was so nice in the cellar, maybe because they offered student prices, or maybe because we hadn’t enjoyed a degustation recently, we decided to tour the museum and try the wines. We sign up for the cheapest wine tasting including only three wines, but after making friends with our pourer, we received tastes of four great wines. And by tastes, we actually tried four full glasses of wine. As a result, we were more than ready for lunch upon leaving.

Budapest wine cellar

The whole event increased both our awareness and appreciation for Hungarian wines. I will attempt to provide at least a sense of the diversity and magnitude of these wines here. Within the country there are twenty two wine regions with Eger and Tokaj-Hegyalja probably being the most famous. Located in the northern part of the country, Eger produces the well known Egri Bikaver, or bulls blood of Eger along with some good whites (like the rest of the country). That said, Hungry’s most famous wine region is hands down that of Tokaj-Hegyalia located in the foothills of the Zemplen Mountains in the far north. The region provides the perfect conditions for noble rot to take place. Noble rot is caused by the friendly grey fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Under certain conditions, this “rot” can be quite harmful, but at other times, if picked correctly, grapes covered by this fungus can produce concentrated sweet wine. These botrytized, late-harvest grapes make the sweet wine that is so famous in this region. Know as Tokaji aszú, this wine was famously christened by Louis XIV of France.

Days of Many Steps

All over Europe, but in particular Prague, Gabe and I walk, walk, and walk some more. We also take our share of metros, trams, and buses, but walking is a great way to see any city. In Prague, we are staying about a three to four kilometer walk out of the Old Town, Stare Mesto, and from there, it is probably another kilometer to the famous Charles Bridge, which is a couple kilometers from the Prague Castle, Prazsky hrad. Although no single stage of our journey seems like a large commitment after walking to and from the castle, our feet are a little sore. And this does not include the walk to the USA Embassy to show our support on the 4th of July, the walk to the club and back the night before, the meander around the Jewish quarter, the stroll around town during the walking tour, and the train station adventure.

Near the Charles Bridge at night

We need to find the train station in order to purchase tickets for our overnight train to Budapest the following day. And to find the station, Gabe and I think that we are being smart by looking at a map, finding the largest collection of tracks, and heading in that direction. We find many railroad tracks just northeast of the city, and although the weather is drizzly, we put on our raincoats and start walking. We get near the tracks, start looking for signs or large train-station-looking buildings. We find nothing. Eventually, we again pull out the map, and find another slightly smaller although still large collection of railroad tracks. Luckily, we are able to see the comedy in the situation and laugh even as we continue to have to walk through the rain. When we near the second grouping of tracks, we again do not see many signs, but at least we see a building that could pass as a train station. We walk in and it is darker and gloomier than we had expected. We maze through the station until finding a ticket counter. There is one window open that reads “International Tickets” above it and we reserve two seats on a train. After about 20 minutes of fiddling with my credit card, the man behind the counter finally gets it to work, we get our tickets, and we ask from where the train will be leaving. He lets us know that the train will be leaving from a station about 100m down the road. We are a little confused and decide it is best to explore this other train station now rather than tomorrow night. We get to this other station, which again is not very well marked, we enter, and we are presented with something more like we had expected. There are convenient stores, more ticket counters, escalators, and a level of cleanliness much greater than that from our first station.

In other words, between walking all over town, walking to Prague nightlife, and walking to the wrong train station, we calculate that we probably covered about the distance of a marathon in 48 hours in Prague.

Prague's famous clock

From inside Prague Castle

Friend or Foe

We are in Prague for about two minutes before Gabe notices someone across the bus (which takes us the long distance of about 100m from plane to airport terminal) that is wearing a Cal Bears sweatshirt. We are discussing which baggage carousel is ours when Gabe loudly enough declares that we need not worry because we are following a Cal Bear. That gets their attention, and we soon get to chatting as we wait patiently for our baggage. Unfortunately or fortunately, it does not take long for the conversation to devolve into me spouting some Big Game statistics. For example: Cal gave up more points to us last year (48) than they had in their five previous games that year at home in Memorial Stadium. In addition, the Bears were only a last minute, trick play away from matching the largest one-sided loss in this rivalry’s history dating back to 1930 when Stanford beat Cal 41-0. After getting Big Game talk out of our system, we again became more cordial and ask the usual questions of where each other is from, how long we are traveling for, etc. And before we know it, our baggage comes, we exchange contact information, and we part ways.

After Amsterdam and a day of travel, Gabe and I feel a little tired and decide that tonight is a good night to take it easy, get a couple beers at a corner store, change into comfortable cards, put on some tunes, and play cards. We get to the stage of playing cards, when the computer rings with the modern equivalent tone to AOL’s “You’ve got mail.” We check, and it’s Tracy and Christina from the airport asking to see if we’re planning on going out tonight. We unabashedly admit to our current state of beers, pajamas and cards, but are also open to evening activity suggestions. They proceed to describe Karlovy Lazne, which is advertised as the largest club in central Europe. We research what comprises central Europe and several sources, including the very reputable Wikipedia, describe it as Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland. The biggest club of all these countries might be worth exploring, so Gabe and I rally, put our faces back on, and walk across Prague. Karlovy Lazne is five stories tall, and each story plays a different genre of music. We enjoy the oldies (which is now music from the 1990’s) and the pop music floors. The beers are inexpensive, the music fun, and the company good. It is easy to call our first night in Prague a success.

The timing then works perfectly that when we arrive back at our apartment, I call California where my extended family has gathered to celebrate my Grandma’s birthday! It is wonderful to hear everyone’s voices before I go to bed.