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Fishing village on Lamma Island, Hong Kong

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Italy and Austria again

We were in Venice, Italy, earlier this month, but this southeast coast of Italy is another world. Our boat from Barto, Greece landed at Bari, a city near the heel of Italy and we boarded the first train to Vienna, Austria. We were amazed that the train literally followed the entire coast, showing off its wonderful beaches that lined the coast. There were small breakwaters that ran about 100 meters long and 10 meters out from the shore so it created a very safe, calm bathing area. Most beaches had bathers on it, but it was only a few people per beach. What a great place to spend a holiday. The water was as turquoise as the Greek Island beaches so they looked particularly inviting. As I was gazing out the window at beach after beach, Don was reading the map of Italy. He got very excited and showed me that we could get off the train in Rimini and we would only be a few miles from San Marino, another country to add to our list. We saw that the train to Vienna ran every three hours enough time to see San Marino. We hopped off the train with our luggage, went to the ticket office and booked another train to Vienna, asked where to catch a bus to San Marino, how long it would take, and asked for storage lockers. They didn’t have any! We going to have to carry our two suitcases, one backpack, a satchel and food bag! We can do it! We found the San Marino bus stop near the station and only waited a few minutes before it showed up. We climbed on, grateful that there was a luggage compartment under the bus. It took just 45 minutes to reach the top of a mountain, the country of San Marino. What a beautiful view of Italy far below the cliff edges, overlooking the sea in the distance. It is only 61 square Km! We asked the bus driver if there was time to get out and walk around and catch the next bus in order to reach our 9:00 train. He shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t understand a word we were saying. Everyone exited the bus and while we were debating whether to get off or not, a line formed at the front and the back door of the bus. The crowd grew. We decided that we had better stay on the bus instead of taking the risk. Don and I gathered our things from the back seat and moved to the front of the bus. This time we were going to have the best view. Just as was I gathering my things, the doors of the bus were opened. Don had the front seat secured, but I was tossed like a leaf standing in the aisle, with the onrush of new riders. I struggled to get to Don in the front and they still kept coming! After much pushing and shoving and dragging of the backpack, I made it to the front of the bus! Whew! That was like fighting for the last pair of panties at the opening day of a sale at Macy’s.  We made it down in plenty of time to grab a $6.00 burger at Burger King, that was actually a $10 burger in Italy! We caught our 9 o’clock train with a certain amount of pride that we had been in 3 countries in the last 24 hours. Yahoo!  We caught the night train to Vienna and were a bit disappointed that we had to share our sleeper with another person. It was already late and we were tired so we went right to sleep, Don on one bottom bunk and I in the other. The “stranger” was on the top bunk, very quiet. In the morning, our steward brought us “breakfast”, two croissants and coffee that was so strong we couldn’t drink it. Our bunk mate was from Afghanistan, looking for work in Vienna. He had spent 5 years working in England so his English was fairly good. He was a pretty nice man and we wished him good luck.

I am so excited to be in Austria. Rashawna was a student her freshman year of college at the University of Vienna. It is so nice to be roaming the same streets she may have roamed, riding the U (underground), eating Kebaps on the street, and the beautiful old buildings. After left our luggage in storage at the station to explore the city of Vienna for the day with a train reservation for that evening to Prague. We crossed the Danube River, wandered around the Hofburg palace, saw Mozarts statue, and beautiful ornate buildings.  We visited one of the many museums in the area named Kunsthistoriches. It was an amazing building, probably more interesting than the exhibits themselves. There was a group of murals by Klimt on one side of the entryway that I had read about in my art classes. There were marble columns with gold leaf on the decorative capstones.  The floors were decorated in large black or white stone tiles. The ceilings were painted in subdued colors, complimenting the marble columns. It was hard to take my eyes off the building and concentrate on the art.  We also saw one of the largest collections of old coins and medallions. That was really good! Downstairs was a collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities that was incredible. Then a collections of old Austrian jewelry etc. It was a great show in an even greater building.

The most amazing thing that happened in Vienna was that we passed by the Lipazzaner horse stables and saw a poster advertising a show for that evening only! I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Don bought the best seats that were left in the house and we chose to ignore our 4 o’clock departure time for Prague. We returned to the station to get our luggage out of storage and found a hotel, thanks to our taxi driver. We took quick showers, dressed in our best travelling clothes, went back to the Lipazzaner show. I couldn’t believe that my dream came true. The Lipazzaner horse show in Vienna, Austria! And it really was great. Those horses are beautiful, white, strong stallions. Did you know that they were born black and slowly turn white by the time they are around 8 years old.  They performed their dancing and high kicks in the air and we all cheered. Don bought me stirrup earrings, the program, a video and a book to remember the night. I am married to the best guy ever! I slept a very happy night’s sleep.

We got up the next morning and went to the train station to see what train we could get to Prague ( or Praha, as they say). There was a train leaving in 40 minutes. Good timing! We had a wonderful 4 ½ hour ride, talking the entire way with a couple from the States, Barbara and Don, who were combining work with play ( he was working, she was playing, my kind of combination!) We were in Prague before we knew it. We found the train station in Prague was set up to help visitors like us. We asked at the information booth for a hotel and she hooked us up, gave us directions for the subway and sent us on our way. We found the hotel with help from just one person. Not bad. We figured we had until midnight to see this city that Rashawna had told me so much about. It was just as she said. BEAUTIFUL! We will be coming back here some day and spend more than 4 hours exploring. In that short time, we ate in the oldest Pub in Czech Rep.( that Mozart ate in), we walked across the St. Charles Bridge, bought some handcrafted earrings,  roamed the Prague Castle grounds that also has the St. Vitus Cathedral, an amazing Gothic church. We probably walked 5 miles and returned to our hotel at 11 PM ready to sleep. We woke up early and roamed the old city a bit more, photographing almost every building we saw! This place is wonderful. This is where the word Bohemian comes from, and it is indeed very bohemian. So many arts and crafts, marionettes, cloth, and glassware. I could have bought the town up! One peculiar thing was that the beggars would crouch on their elbows and knees and bow their heads with their hands out for money. It was so strange, and disturbing at the same time. We gave in and put some money in one of the beggars cup. He said “Thank you” and once we had moved on he got up, took his dog and met up with his girlfriend. Well, that was nice! I am sure we gave him just enough to buy those drugs! Reinforcing my rule not to give to beggars!

Another moving sight that we saw was a memorial to three Czech hockey players who had died in the recent airplane crash in Russia. There was a stage set up in a large square with the three men’s photos, hockey sticks, and hockey shirts hanging from the stage. In front of the stage must have been several thousand red glass containers with candles burning. Some candles had flowers and notes attached. There were two young men with their heads down, crouching in a prayerful stance, as they mourned these men’s death. Maybe he was a friend of one of them. It was very moving. What a shame that 44 young athletes died in a plane, just two surviving, with their bodies covered with burns. They probably wish they were dead!  So sad.

Speaking of deaths: We just read on CNN that Zanzibar was mourning the deaths of a ferry crash. We crossed from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar and returned by a ferry. The first trip was fine but the return trip was a bit disturbing. We had been out of port only an hour when the engine suddenly shut off and the captain did not come on the loud speaker and explain what was happening. Don promptly bought a 6 pack of water, not knowing how long we would be stuck. We drifted for about 15, twenty minutes and then the engines started up again. We did make it safely to Dar, another 1 ½ hours away without any other problem. I did not like that helpless feeling at all. However, I could see the shore of an island a couple miles away, close enough to swim to with a life jacket. Hopefully, we will be able to hear the details of this crash.

There is risk in travelling but the other option is to stay home.

4:41 am edt 

Love that Greece!


A true authentic Greek town, tucked up on the side of Bella Mountains, just on the other side of the Bulgarian border. We got off the train at the last Bulgarian stop to a very desolate station. We hailed a taxi and asked him to take us to the border of Greece. At the border, we asked the exiting Bulgarian border patrol where we should stay for the night, and she answered “Definitely in Greece!” She gave our taxi cab driver the name of a hotel in the next Greek town and off we sped. Once we got to Serres, the taxi cab driver asked a passing car where the Hotel Agnantio was. The driver motioned us to follow him and again, off we sped, following the red lights ahead of us. We wound through narrow streets in a quaint little town and headed up the hills. We soon saw the warm lights of a hotel, surrounded by orchards of olive trees. Now this looked like a great place to stay! Yes, they had a room and we settled in to a long-awaited restful sleep.

The next morning we went exploring. We were only 3 Km from town, and it was all downhill so we decided to walk. It was one of our best days in a long time. The town was so sleepy, since we arrived in the afternoon, their siesta time. In the middle of town was a huge rock face that supported the Iron Castle, our destination. We found a road winding its way up the back of the rock and quickly reached the top by taking a shortcut through a Greek church. We did not meet a single person on our walk and it was wonderful. We explored the ruins that were truly ruins. No one had tried to restore this old caste. We roamed a bit more before returning to the waking up town. We found a pizza shop that was not quite ready to take our order, so we wandered to a Greek Orthodox Church.  There was woman after woman entering, each one carrying an identical homemade cake. Our curiosity got the better of us so we also went into the church. A priest was singing in his Gregorian monotone and a woman was reading scripture beside him. The women continued to enter the church, kissing the pictures of Mary and Jesus then put their cake on a table in front before taking a seat. We tried to figure it out, making up stories or rituals we thought was the reason for these cakes but with no definitive solution so as we left, I asked two girls in the back of the church what the occasion was. They explained that the cakes are brought once a year for a special service that is held to thank God for losses or hopes for a good future.  After the service they walk around town and share a piece of cake with those people who have had losses. Nice idea!


We arrived at the abandoned looking train station in Serres with apprehension. We knew that Greece had declared bankruptcy and that the EU was bailing them out, so we feared the trains may not be running after all. The station slowly filled up, and we became more hopeful. The train arrived, half hour late and was tagged by graffiti artists who were not that artistic at all! But we were pleasantly surprised that the train was clean inside, and had A/C. This trip won’t be as bad as we feared.  It only took an hour and a half to reach Thessaloniki where we switched to another graffiti decorated train that was even newer than the last train. We had a cabin in 1st class and it was very nice. We shared the cabin with one other person, who spoke perfect English so our conversation made the 5 hour trip seem so much shorter. This trip took us through the range of mountains that still have patches of snow on them, even in August. It was a beautiful ride, hugging the side of the mountains, overlooked rivers and farmland.  I had booked a hotel in the town center of Athens so it was nice to know where we were heading and how much it was costing us. However, on our arrival, the hotel told us that they were full and did not have us on their reservation list. After my insistence, he did find our reservation. That was a relief! Then he took us to the 5th floor and opened our door for us. He explained a few details and then left.  First thing we did, as usual, was turn on the A/C but it did not work. We called the front desk and he came to our rescue, finding that someone had unplugged it, so that was easily resolved. After he left, we booted up our computers to find that we could not connect to the internet. We tried for a full hour before calling the desk and they discovered that there was a problem and they hoped it would return. In desperation, we turned on the TV but had no picture! GRR!  Again, we called the front desk and he graciously came up and figured out how to connect the cable to the TV that someone had removed.   Not a great experience for either the staff or for us!  BTW, the internet did come back on but after midnight, too late to begin emails!

We wanted to see Athens but first we needed to go to Piraeus, the port, and check on getting tickets to one, of the Greek islands. It was just a public bus ride away, which is always a good way to get a feel for the local flavor. We found the bus stop, right at the end of the metro. The X23 bus was just pulling away when we arrived, but there was another right behind it. We got in and sat, and sat and sat. The bus leaves when every seat was occupied and the aisle was full of standing people. That took some time since it was a regular size city bus with the accordion in the middle. That is one way to curb waste when your country is bankrupt!  Piraeus is a suburb of Athens, a fairly modern city on the Mediterranean Sea. We found a travel agent who booked us on a boat to a little island in the middle of the Cyclades Island group and set up a hotel for us as well. I love it. Our next two days are planned and I didn’t have to do a thing but say yes!  Now that our trip is planned, we have about 5 hours before the boat leaves. We get back on the bus and return to the metro that will take us to the Acropolis. We wander around the hill, snapping photos of the Parthenon (that is under reconstruction with scaffolding everywhere!) and the xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxignacius????? Hill. The breeze is fabulous and the view of the city is wonderful. We decided to pass up on the Parthenon this time since it was pretty costly for a quick look. We will catch it on our way back.


The boat ride was uneventful (of course!) and we arrived to a throng of people holding up plaques of different hotels, camping or car rentals. It was like getting off the bus in Africa! However, these people were very polite about asking us if we needed a hotel. When we said that we had one they asked which one and someone called our hotel to let them know we had arrived. How nice! Everyone knows everyone else here. Another small town on a small island. We ended up spending three nights on the island. It was so peaceful that we really didn’t want to leave. We found some good restaurants, great beaches by walking several Kms out to the lighthouse and some other ruins by following the path along the sea. Don rented a motor scooter and we explored more of the island, ending up at the marble quarries.  Those were amazing! We walked through one cave as far as we felt comfortable. We could see where they had carved out large chunks of marble; it is so strange to know that men, 2000 years ago, had stood at the same spot as we were, speaking another language, patting each other on the back, congratulating themselves on a good days work. We found a second cave that was more defined as a mine, and descended into the bowels of it. It was dark and I was glad that I had brought my headlamp. There was Greek writing on the ceiling, with the date of 1884. Maybe the last time they had mined for marble here. We read in our book that the whole island of Paros is made of marble. Wow. We found a very nice large piece of marble that Don picked up, put in the seat of the motor scooter and shipped back home. It cost quite a bit to mail 13 kilos of marble, but it is very cool to have a piece of an island found in an ancient marble quarry.

In the evening, the street following the sea is blocked off the traffic and becomes a walking street, with cafes on either side of the street. It is so romantic to sit at a table overlooking the ocean, watching the sun set turn the windmills orange in their glow.

We looked at the beautiful turquoise water and sandy beaches and thought about swimming but didn’t until the last day. There was a very secluded beach that I could see from our hotel window and it was just wooing me to come swim.  It was warm and so clear that you could see every rock and pebble as clear as if I was in my tub at home. The water was turquoise for a hundred feet out before turning a beautiful Prussian blue. We built two sand sculptures (a submarine and a turtle) which the kids loved. It felt good to play in the sun.

Loving Paros so much prompted us to see what other islands we could see. We walked to town and an agent booked us on three other boats to see Crete and Rhodes. It was hard to leave Paros but we really wanted to see more of the islands.



We arrived in Herklias fairly late and took the first taxi that approached us. We asked him to just take us to a three star hotel. He took us to Hotel Krasto, a very nice hotel in the older city with streets that were incredibly narrow. We slept well in our very modern room. It had tucked headboards that went to the ceiling! Breakfast was included so you know I was down there eating as soon as I awoke. Don isn’t a breakfast eater so he had coffee. We decided to go to the port and check out the ruins that we could make out in the dark the night before. We found a breakwater that also served as a dock and walked the entire length, the whole 3.5 km each way! We were so tired when we got back. That pier/breakwater has got to be the longest in Europe! We found dinner in a little café not far from our hotel. It was where all the locals hung out so it was a lot of fun.  They served you one dish at a time that Don and I shared. So first there was Tzitzhi and bread. Next came the fried vegetables. Then the fried zucchini balls then finally the souvlaki chicken. It was so good. Then the owner brought us grapes and a drink that was pretty good and strong! It is called Araki, a hard liquor that goes down easy. There was no charge for the grapes and liquor so we gave a good tip. We are finding that Greeks are very generous and really do want us to enjoy their country!

We went to different churches and other antiquities and ate at little restaurants. This culture is quite different here. We were there on a weekend so the young people come out and sit in the coffee shops (Yes, Starbucks was packed!) and sit and talk and really enjoy being with their friends and being seen. They dress to the nines and are a beautiful people. Many of them have blue eyes, fair hair and skin or the olive skin and are stunning. Many of the streets are designated as walking streets which makes shopping or just strolling so enjoyable. However, the town becomes a ghost town around 2 pm as everyone goes home for naps to return in the evening.  A wonderful way to live!

Don rented a scooter here as well and went across the island, crossing the high pass of mountains that still had a little snow in the shadows. He hustled back since our boat was supposed to leave at 3:30. We had enough time to look up some hotels in Rhodes then headed down to the wharf. I thought it was close enough to walk but it was a very bad idea. The wheel on my suitcase froze and wore itself to a nice flat over the mile or so of cement sidewalks. Don was sweating huge beads of sweat, not real happy with carrying both suitcases at this point. We were surprised that there were no people in the ferry depot. I walked over to the desk and asked about the ship to Rhodes. He grunted and pointed to the sign Rhodes: 22:45. What, a 7 hours delay. Why did everyone know but us! His explanation was that by the end of the week it is really behind schedule. What a crazy deal. We cooled down, threw our bags in a storage locker and walked back to town. Now what to do? We wondered around town, argued with each other and ate comfort food. Then it finally dawned on us. Now that we are 7 hours late, that means that we will arrive in Rhodes by 11 am, instead of 4 am! Happy campers again! Then we boarded the boat. It was a little shabby looking but once we were in the ship, it really did look bad! Our rooms was fine, and we even had an outside window, so that was good but it was a no frills boat. People were lying all over the floor, under stairwells, across any expanse of clear floor or chairs. I was really thankful for a room. The carpets were black from the salt being tracked in from the sea spray on deck and then dirt clung to the salty carpet. It looked horrible! Everything was so old and used. You couldn’t look out of the windows it was so dirty.  All the ferries we have been on in Europe have been miniature cruise ships and we wanted to go on a regular boat and pay low prices so here this is what you get! Think we will stick to the nicer boats!


This was my favorite island and I really didn’t know anything about this island other than Paul in the Bible came here. I would love to come back and spend two weeks really exploring the island. We got off the boat at noon and were greeted by a sweet older lady who asked if we were looking for a room. We have never gone with anyone promoting themselves, but she seemed different. Her English was broken but fairly good and she looked like a neat person so why wouldn’t her place be a good one to stay in. She quoted us a price and she pointed to the old city as where the rooms were so we followed her. We said we would look and if we liked it we would stay. Since the wheel on my suitcase is now square, poor Don had to carry both suitcases and they are heavy. Foula called her husband and he met us with their only form of transportation: a scooter. He piled the backpack and one suitcase on his scooter and took off. We continued our walk to the old city. Soon the husband returned and took the last suitcase and Don was completely unencumbered. It was a hot walk but we followed the brisk steps of our hostess who didn’t seem to notice the heat. She and her husband live upstairs and they have built 4 units to rent. It was all whitewashed, inside and out, the walls 3 feet thick. It was perfect for us and we knew we would be happy here. We were right in the old part of the walled city so we were within walking distance of the main ruins. We headed out to find the old wall and fortress and grab a quick lunch. We saw the restaurants in the square but they seemed so touristy so we meandered down an alley. We found a nice little quiet place with just locals and we sat down and asked for a menu. The women looked at us and said “No” but another older lady said “Yes, what you want?” We just pointed to her plate and told them to bring us the same. Evidently, this is a local bar, not really serving food, but the family had been out fishing and was cooking fresh fish and octopus over a fire. The food was so fresh and good. A man would bring us two muscles freshly cooked or a leg of an octopus hot off the grill. We had such a good time with the mother (who might have been a bit drunk). She handed me a bracelet and told me it was mine. We tried to pay her and she refused and gave me 4 more bracelets! They were beautiful and I didn’t quite know what to do but she kept putting her finger to her lips telling me not to say anything so I shoved them into my pocket. What a wonderful lady and so loving to us. It was a delicious lunch and we felt like part of the family.  What a beautifully preserved fortress. The old city has a double wall all around the back side of the city and we walked through the moat from one side of the sea to the other. We could see the medieval castle in the middle of the grounds and other buildings. We walked until it the sun was setting and we were ready for a shower and a light dinner. We found a man roasting corn at the corner and bought two delicious corn on the cob. Now for the shower and bed.

Don got up early and rented a scooter for the day and headed south towards Lindos. I slept in another hour (Ah…..) and packed our bags and put them in the courtyard to store until we left for our boat at 5 pm. (Most hotels have luggage storage and will keep them for you for the day, even though you have checked out. We use them all the time!) Don said that he had a great ride and took the main road around the entire island. I wish I was a better passenger and ride with him, but I would ruin his day: telling him how to drive. watch for that car or this thing. He would want to drop me off about half way through the ride! 

We left the hotel, with hugs and kisses to both cheeks, and headed for our boat. It was already waiting for us and once we were shown to our room, Don crawled under the covers (it was only 4 PM) and was fast asleep! Now this is a much better boat and we are happy to be on it

Athens Again

We found it very comforting to come back to a place that we had already been. We knew what metro lines to take to get to the Parthenon or to the port. How nice it feels to be “experienced” when every day we are somewhere new. It feels rather good!

Our goal was to see the Parthenon, the Acropolis and whatever else we could squeeze in and then continue our trip up north that evening. We only have 5 days left on our Eurail pass and our destination is St. Petersburg and we are still in Greece! We talked about it and decided that instead of taking trains up Greece, then have no other option than the “wonderful” trains in Eastern Europe, to take a boat across to Italy and go up the east coast by train. We found a train to Patras, the west coast of Greece, that late afternoon that had a port to Italy. We were set! We stored our luggage in a locker at the subway (no lockers at the train station) and we headed out. We had 5 hours to see the antiquities of Athens. 

It was a beautiful day, not too hot, and not a cloud in the sky.  The Acropolis was crowded but we still marveled at the splendor of the Parthenon, in spite of the fact that one side was under netting and scaffolding. It is an amazing structure!  Don had never seen it before and he had to pause several times to catch his breath and digest the majesty of it. There truly is nothing like it in the world.  Something not to be missed. It is wonderful that the EU is helping fund the restoration of the Parthenon and the Athena Nike temple to preserve it for generations to come. We still had time to visit a few more places and our ticket to the Parthenon covered 8 other places as well so we asked how we could see the most interesting places the next three hours.  Two of the places were on a hill so far away to walk that it looked impossible to reach but the other 6 were downhill (that is an important consideration) and grouped together. We voted the latter choice! We walked down the hill and found ourselves in a large group of scattered ruins of temples and buildings from the far past. We meandered through a museum, the Hadrian Library another fairly complete temple. This whole area must have been amazing in its heyday! We had to stop for lunch and sat at a steetside café, sitting out under the umbrellas looked up at the Acropolis. It is hard to believe that we are really here! Once we had finished lunch our time was up so we walked just a few meters and we were at the metro. Two metro trains and we were at our luggage. Two more metro trains and we were at the train station. Plenty of time!   The train arrives and we hop on to a very crowded train, standing room only. This can’t be right, but a passenger said we were on the right train. But we have to ride for an hour and a half! Oh well. Maybe the train will clear out. No, stop after stop, we seemed to be adding people, instead of dropping people off. Again, oh, well. We reach the end of the line and a bus is waiting for us. Another 2 ½ hours and we will be at our destination. The huge bus followed the water on narrow, many times single lane roads, through some of the most beautiful countryside. What a varied and beautiful country Greece is! Mountains just rose out of the water and we saw canyons that just begged to be explored. The villages were dotted along the water, with an occasional single swimmer soaking in the cool waters. What a peaceful area! We reached Patras in the late evening. Don sat on the island the bus dropped us off on and I walked up and down the busy street checking availability of hotel rooms. I found a perfect one and we put our bags in our room and Don went looking for dinner. It was pretty late so he tried the restaurant on the roof top of the hotel while I settled into bed to get caught up on emails. Needless to say, I fell asleep instantly and Don had to wake me up to let him in around 11:30.  I was asleep in the next 5 minutes, catching up on those z-z-z-zs.

We both woke up early and wanted to see something of this town. We could see a hill in walking distance and it looked like there was an old structure on top.  We followed the city streets to the hill and found a gate to the old medieval castle. It was mainly in ruins but still interesting and there was no one there to disturb us. No tourists in this town! There were some young men setting up a stage and we asked what they were doing. They were preparing for a weekend festival in support for the Communist party. What? I didn’t even know that anyone believed in that party anymore. Wasn’t the fall of the USSR  good enough evidence that it won’t work if humans are in charge?

Our boat for Italy left since we were unable to book a room, we wanted to board as soon as possible to put dibs on a nice couch for the night. Once we had located a nice sectional for the two of us, Don put our name on the waiting list. I was getting all geared up for an all night Canasta game and 10 cups of coffee when they called our names. Yay, we got a room! We gladly gave up our sectional to a family, and smugly found our room and sighed a sigh of relief at the sight of two bunk beds.  Staying up all night and drinking 10 cups of coffee sounded more like a stomach ache and the jitters than fun anyway! Italy, here we come, rested and ready for an Italian train ride.

4:36 am edt 

Riding the CIIAVHN BALOHN or the BDZ

The letters are almost the same but some should be backwards or upside down but that is the name of the train line we are travelling from Budapest to Sophia. We had been riding on a rather poor train line from Venice to Budapest but this line is even one class below that. Like the other train, there is no dining car or even a vending machine. That means that there is no food to purchase and NO DRINKS to buy. The other train at least had water and toilet paper in the bathrooms but this one does not. The last steward spoke broken English and brought us cappuccinos and cookies for breakfast. Our present steward does not understand one word of English and got very frustrated with us because we didn’t understand his Hungarian when he was telling us our berth number. This should be an interesting ride!

 I had been asleep for a few hours, when our steward banged on all the berth doors yelling “Passport, Passport” I had set them out the night before and got them ready, with the lights on dim.  The border patrol came on board and started with our room, thank goodness. He turned on the bright room lights, matched our faces with our pictures and stamped our passports. I thankfully closed the door, turned off the light and went back to sleep for another 15 minutes, before we entered Serbia. The Steward did the same process, waking us all up. Again, the border patrol started with our cabin, and did the same procedure. I closed the door when we were done but did not go back to sleep right away. I heard the border patrol tell the Arab family next door that they needed a visa to enter Serbia, which they did not have.   The family had to get off at this stop and were told to return to Hungary immediately. The pregnant mother woke up her son, who only cried for a moment, cheered by his father’s cajoling and they exited the train, at who knows what dark hour it was. I wondered where they would sleep for the rest of the night because there was no train coming through at this hour. At least it was a warm enough night and the dad seemed prepared to make it into a game. How many times had he tried to take his family through the border without permission? Where were they headed? Were they refugees from one of the Arab countries in upheaval?  I fell back to a disturbed sleep with no answers. Even as an American, knowing that we have all our papers in order, it is very unsettling to hear shouts, rough voices, speaking in another language, demanding your prompt attention. You can’t tell them you are sleepy, and please go away. They won’t understand you, nor would they tolerate your request! I later learned that they had also kicked off a grandmother in a wheelchair and her 6 year old granddaughter. Obviously they were weeding out who they wanted in their country! Pretty harsh!

As the morning progressed there was a knock at the door, a little more gentle from last night’s knock. It was our steward and he had brought us half a loaf of bread, a can of pork and beans and two Pepsis. He then proceeded to open the can with a knife, empty the contents into a metal bowl and cook it over a propane burner on our table. Once it was hot, he took the bowl off the burner and with a clumsy jester, encouraged us to eat. It was around 10 am and even though it was not what I would call a breakfast, it did cure the hunger pangs. After we ate, I returned the single bowl and single spoon that Don and I shared and the two Pepsi bottles to his office, along with some chocolates from Paris. He was not there but came by our room a few minutes later and asked for some money by shaking his pant pockets. Of course, he didn’t have a bill, nor did we know if he was looking for a tip or if he was asking for money for the meal. I gave him all that was in my pocket, almost a Euro ($1.65) and he was happy but Don just knew that was too little. So we gave him 10 Euros and he returned with change of 5 Euros. So our Pepsi, pork and beans and bread cost us, including his tip about $9, which is about ¼ of what we have been paying for lunch in Europe.

We know we are in another part of Europe, the poor Eastern Europe! It is so weird to see the poverty of Serbia, Hungary and Bulgaria, when they look like our brothers and sisters. We expect to see poverty in Africa or even areas of South America, but to see the their homes falling apart from lack of finances and the joy of life gone from their eyes is unsettling.  Once, while I was out and about, Don was dozing, upright in our berth with his eyes closed so that it appeared that he was asleep. He had left the door open and was aware that someone was at our  door. He ever so slightly opened his eyes, to find the steward standing in the door, checking out all of our belongings spread around the room.  Don didn’t move and the man eventually went away after taking inventory. I wonder what that was about.  After that little visit, we cleaned up our room and buried our more precious things, like our laptop and camera, out of sight. It is better not to tempt people, especially those living in poor countries.


 The trip to the bathroom:

This isn’t the usual story to tell, but It was amusing enough to share. After hours on the train, nature takes place, whether you have had your coffee or not! I had seen another person with a roll of toilet paper when she returned from the bathroom, so I dug out my emergency roll from Africa and headed to the restroom. I inspected the one at the end of our car and it looked rather dirty and the toilet was a standing pit kind.  I tried the next car and it looked pretty clean, all considering. The toilet seat was missing, but it didn’t look that bad. And there was toilet paper! Two pieces! Score! I used the toilet, noticing that I could see the railroad tracks below and saw sparks when he put on the brakes.  I tried washing my hands in the sink but there was no water. So I headed down to the next car. That bathroom had all but been destroyed, with the mirror in the sink. That won’t work!  Down to the next car (there are only 6 cars on this train and I am running out of bathrooms!) and sure enough, the bathroom had water in the sink and a bar of soap! Hooray. I gleefully washed up and trudged my way back, pulling open the train car doors, blackened with years of use and no cleaning, making my hand washing pretty useless!  I had started out my return from the bathroom with clean hands but by the time I reached our berth they were dirty again.

4:33 am edt 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Budapest or Bust

August 24 (Happy 81st Birthday, Dad!)
We left Venice by train in the evening, starting our journey into Eastern Europe, getting a sleeper room for the night. Our steward was a nice young man who took our train tickets and our Eurail pass for the night checks as we passed through Slovakia and Hungary’s borders. I had read that they took our passports and our Eurail pass so I wasn’t that concerned and I thought that I was glad that he let us keep our passports. But there was a reason for that. He didn’t warn us that we were going to be rudely woken in the middle of our sleep to show them at each border. We had only been asleep a few hours when there was banging on the door. The train was stopped somewhere in the dark. We opened our door to hear men talking in loud bravado voices. What is going on? I fumbled for the light and couldn’t find it. The border patrol came to our room, turned on the bright overhead light and harshly asked for our passports. I scrambled to find them since I was in the bottom bunk. My heart was beating so loud! Don was grumbling, half asleep, about the bright light that was next to his face on his bunk. They stamped our passports and disappeared as abruptly as they had appeared.  What a rude awakening! This was repeated twice for each border, 4 times by the time the night was through. We are no longer in the European Union! Back to reality!

I remember a woman from my childhood who was from Hungary and she couldn’t sing enough praises about her homeland. She told me how beautiful the countryside was and how there were wonderful mineral pools to relax and soak in. So I was anxious to see this country I had heard so much about.  The country side was very pretty, but the houses were so poor and run down. The cars were very old, unlike in the EU where it seems everyone has a relatively new little car. We saw remnants of warlike towers that looked like WWII and more recent.  I was really disappointed once we reached Budapest. I had to remind myself that coming in on the train to any city is usually the worst introduction.  It certainly would be to any of our cities and it held true of our arrival into Budapest. However,the train station was beautiful beyond belief, the prettiest station we have seen so far. You will find out later why we do not have any photos of it. It was obvious that they were in the midst of a major facelift, with large beams of wood propping up the ceiling in the ticket office. However, once we stepped out of the station, we were greeted to grafittied sheets of pressed board that covered an entire city block.  Very unwelcoming! Before we left the station, we decided to take another night train, working our way down to Greece by way of Sofia, Bulgaria. We should be arriving there around 6 pm and I will be ready for a real room!  With no water or food service, I will be glad to get off, though the scenery has been interesting. We had bought some food that we brought along and we certainly could (should!) skip a meal or two, if need be.  Our first clue that Hungarians were having a hard time was when we tried to get our ticket for an overnight train to Athens.  The ticket lady came unglued!  She insisted she could only book us to Sofia, just as the lady at the information counter had told us. “We don’t know other train schedules!” they told us very rudely. Our ticket lady slammed down her ticket book, wrote out our ticket furiously to Sofia, and told us she didn’t have change for our money (even though she was able to get it after all.) We were not feeling warm and fuzzy about Budapest one bit!

Now I am getting side-tracked! Since we only had an afternoon and evening to see Budapest, we were glad to see that they had a Hop On, Hop Off bus tour. We grabbed a bite to eat at Burger King (I know, it is not Hungarian, but we do need the taste of home every once in a while!) and hopped on. We were told that the city of Budapest was the joining of two cities spanning the Danube.  One was Buda, named after the brother of god and the other city was Pest, which means “oven” and it truly was an oven today! We learned that the city was almost totally destroyed in WWII, leaving only 20% of the city standing. No wonder the people seem down and out. The city has been rebuilt, much of it in the old style, but they had been under the rule of others until 1989 and have not done much to improve their standard of living since the Hapsburgs of Austria left.  The citadel and other old fortresses and statues were amazing.  Budapest is able to claim the first suspension bridge built in Europe which crosses their Danube. We jumped off the bus at the river to catch the ferry  not too far from the stop.  As we were standing by the river with people on bikes rushing by us, we took out our map to check the direction. We found the dock and started walking toward it when Don stopped in his tracks. “Where is my camera?” It was not in his pocket, where he always kept it. I looked through my bag just in case he had given it to me. His camera was not there either. We couldn’t believe it! While we had been reading our map, someone had  zipped by on a bike and just pulled on his camera strap and pulled it out of his pocket, without Don even feeling it. Those guys are smooth operators! That is the third camera we have either lost or been stolen! That hurts! At least we still have my camera.  I am so grateful that I had taken the time to down load all of Don’s photos from his camera that morning, all 986 of them!

 We took the river cruise, a little sadder than when we started the day, but we wanted to experience the waters of the Danube and get a better look at the opulent parliament building built right next the river. It was well worth the ride and we did catch some cool breezes off the water. We got off at the street that led straight to the railway station, not more than 2 miles from the river. We started our walk and came upon a walking street, that was lined with the best stores…Calvin Klein, YSL, Cartier, Rolex, etc. We followed the walking street, amazed that all the shops were closed at 6 pm and there were very few people wandering about. This would not have been the scene in Amsterdam or Paris! We did stumble upon an outdoor restaurant that looked popular so we sat down and ordered dinner. It was very classy!! They projected a beach scene with waves crashing on a building across the narrow street, with huge trees hanging their branches over us.  Behind us a chef  was grilling fresh fish over a barrel of heat. Our dinner of trout wrapped in bacon strips, stuffed with potatoes and mushrooms was superb!  While we ate, we listened to a long, white haired mistro on the harp that plucked out very lively tunes. It put a different mood to our previous disappointment, giving us a wonderful Hungarian experience.

We wandered back to the train station and arrived close to 9 pm. Another 2 ½ hours to wait for our train. I dosed off a couple of times and Don walked around the station to stay awake. It was a long wait so you can imagine our disappointment when they announced our train was 30 minutes late. Ugh! We patiently waited. Don as drawing one of his doodles and I was reading my book, a biography of Paul McCarthy, when I had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I looked up and the station was almost empty. Where did all the people go that were waiting for our train? I got up and walked back to the schedule and the sign had changed the arrival information. Our train was on track 11, and it was here, ready to go in 1 minute!!!  I ran back, warning Don of the change, grabbed my bags, and Don pointed me in the direction of Track 11.  I took off running!  I found the train around the corner of the station, hidden from our view.  Luckily the conductor was out smoking near the train steps, not in a hurry at all. Whew, they were on Eastern European time (not that prompt) and we got there in plenty of time!  Our train pulled out a few minutes after we boarded. We were shown to our berth, a three tiered bunk bed with room for hanging clothes and a table. Good space and our beds were already made up! AH! We settled in for a night’s sleep.

This time we were prepared for the mid night passport checks
4:02 am edt 

A View of Venice

 August 23  I need to make one thing clear before you continue reading. We only spent 24 hours in Venice. Both Don and I had been there before, so it was not a huge draw for us, but we thought it would be very romantic…..and it was on the way to Greece, so why not. We are so glad that we did but we were also very ready to move on, after just one day. We loved seeing St. Mark’s Square again. Don showed me the places that he had walked 28 years ago and I showed him where I had listened in awe to the symphony that played in San Marcos Square just 42 years ago. We made a point to try to see things that were new to both of us. Don woke up early the next morning and walked a few miles down the canal and found real communities where real Venetians lived, void of tourists. I wish I had woken up with him. Venice was FULL of tourists, even more so than Paris. There were so many tourists that it was hard to see the sights without jumping up and down to get a photo over their heads. We had enjoyed the evening before, watching the sun rays move lower down the ornate Roman buildings. We saw the Bridge of Sighs which they were working on so it was covered by a hideous advertisement printed on the netting used to protect the buildings on either side. There were several such advertisements on different buildings in San Marcos Square, and it really cheapened the timeless beauty of the old buildings. I am sure that the advertising companies paid BIG Euros for the exposure and helped with the cost of the repairs.  But really!  A 30 foot by 30 foot photo of the Marlboro man does not belong on the front of a Roman Church! One church that we did enjoy was where we listened to some opera singing with an orchestra. They sang and played famous songs from different operas so we enjoyed the cream of the crop. Don purchased the front seats, so I wouldn’t fall asleep, but it really doesn’t make a difference. I still fell asleep, for a few moments. I am not a big fan of opera but the music was well performed and I really did enjoy it. The problem is that if I watch the singers, or orchestra, I get distracted by their facial expressions, or the way they hold their instrument, if their hairdo matches their face, and the list goes on. So I have to close my eyes so that I am not distracted, and I really listen to the music. Ah, it is lovely, listening first to the oboe, then the violins, then the voices, what a beautiful blending. Then I get tired, soothed by the music and then it is history for me. Luckily, we clapped after every song they performed, so I didn’t really miss that much. I am very glad we went! It will be a good memory of Venice. 

We attempted the Ca’Pesara Museum of Modern Art and were very disappointed that it was closed. We don’t keep track of the days, and had no idea that it was a Monday! It is a worldwide phenomena that museums are closed on Mondays

I think what I like the best about Venice were the canals and bridges. We only saw two bridges over the Grand Canal but there are lots of bridges over the small canals. One place I took a photo of 4 bridges that spanned two canals where they met. Another thing that I didn’t realize was that there are little alley ways just like in Morocco. I did prefer these little walkways because we were not competing for space with motorbikes. In fact, we didn’t see any vehicles of any sort. That was pretty nice! There were tons of boats though. By evening, the grand canal was congested with ferries, water taxis, gondolas, and personal boats, with an occasional police boat. The police wander the streets as well, which felt reassuring with all the crowds. But watch out if you are an illegal street vendor selling counterfeit purses! They are right on you. These men that sell the counterfeits have learned to be quick. I watched two men ( immigrants from Africa) selling purses on one end of the bridge and by the time I reached the top, I saw two policemen coming from the opposite direction. The vendors must have eyes in the back of their head, because they had picked up the 10+ purses and were gone within seconds and the police never caught them. Hard job, for both parties!

We did not go on one of the gondolas. When we asked, it was in the evening and the canals were totally congested and it didn't look romantic at all. We did ride on the ferries to our hotel and the train station and ended up doing the whole Grand canal. I am sure the gondolas would have been more romantic but our timing just was not right.

We had been looking forward to sunshine, since we have been under a cloud for close to three weeks in northern Europe and the UK and we certainly got the sun in Venice. In fact, it was stifling hot! And drippy humid! Another good reason to keep going. I doubt it will be cooler in Greece, but we are heading that way anyway!

3:17 am edt 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I didn't know there were Canals in Amsterdam

August 20
Amsterdam is a city of contrasts.  It is beautiful and old. It is beautiful and new. It has busy steets and quiet canals. It is a big city with small communities. It has a huge red light district, that we accidently went through to get to another section of town (hmm, Don was leading the way). It has beautiful churches and many of them. It has more Arabic restaurants than any European city we have visited.  There are more bicycles than people, I think.  Definitely more than cars!  There are many beautiful canals throughout the city and countryside.  The old city is shaped like a half circle with the streets going out like spokes of a wheel with canals dissecting them. There are people living in houseboats on these canals. We were snapping photos like crazy! I had circled the places on a map that I really wanted to visit. Don had been to Amsterdam before and we would have skipped it but it was a place I had never been and really wanted to see. I just wanted to see the windmills and dikes. I never did see any dikes, that I know of, but saw a few windmills and more, much more. One of the places I circled was Rembrandt’s home and museum. We found Rembrandt’s home and ate brunch in a restaurant next door before going in. Of course the restaurant was called Rembrandt’s Café!  Rembrandt’s house was great. It was 5 floors of living space, his studio and instruction room, as well as his own art collection. I didn’t know that Rembrandt was an art collector and art dealer and that he died a poor man. It was a pretty house. His beds were in decorated wood boxes, like closets, so that the doors could be closed when no one was in it. The beds are also very short because they believed that if they would lie down, the blood would rush to their heads and kill them in their sleep. Weird! So they sat up to sleep. He had a wonderful collection of etchings that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would love to learn how to do etchings! The docent gave a demonstration of how they made paint in Rembrandt’s day. I got to rub the stone over the pigment and oil mixture to make a smooth paste. Then they would use what they could and store the rest in a pig bladder. Lovely! Glad that we have other options today.

The Van Gogh exhibit was also great, seeing some pieces I had never seen. The show was very informative, educating us on what materials he used, what they found by x-ray under his paintings, and his life progression to his death.  Another show of 5 floors of art. Loved it!

We tried to see Anne Franks’ house, but the line was so long it was down the street and we didn’t have enough time to wait. We had walked through a park earlier in the day and stopped to listen to some good music that was being performed on a small stage so we used up a good part of our time. I am glad we stopped to listen and didn’t mind giving up the Anne Frank house one bit. The music we heard in the park was in English, even though they were a Dutch band. She even introduced each song  in English even though the crowd was local people (except for us).  We have been seeing and hearing so much English in our travels.  Everywhere we have been we have seen English writing:   names of restaurants, fashion stores, bars, and especially on clothes.  We see “San Diego” and “California” on shirts all the time, yet when we talk to the person wearing the shirt, they have never been there, but they like it because it is American.  English really is the world language! I am so grateful that we speak the popular language since we don’t speak any other language but AMERICAN ENGLISH!

3:45 am edt 

Extraordinary English Experience

August 18
I never thought I would ever go to Oxford. You are right, I never attended one of the many Oxford universities, but I did get to explore the city of Oxford. It is an amazing city. It is so rich with history, especially in literature, so you know Don was a happy man! We found a great little hotel near the station that was one of the best hotels we have stayed in.  We started the day fairly early and started exploring. We had found the Eagle and Child pub the night before but it was closed so we returned for lunch. This was the pub that CS Lewis, Williams, JRR Tolken , the Inklings, would get together once a week to talk about their work. Great pub and they make delicious sandwiches as well. The hostess gave Don a menu as a momento of our visit. We then wandered over to the Magdelen College where we saw CS Lewis’ office (the windows have geraniums growing in the boxes). He had taught there for 29 years.  We went to Blackwells bookstore, a huge store of 4 floors of books, books, and then some more books. Don went on to see the church that CS Lewis and his brother, Warnie, attended, the Holy Trinity Church. Don got there just as the caretaker was closing up but he offered to open it up and gave Don a personal tour of the grounds, showing him the grave of CS and his brother,and the pew that CS Lewis would sit on in church. He would sit behind a pillar because he liked being unnoticed and would sneak out just as the last song was being sung.  Don then went over to the Kilns, a conserved area where CS Lewis lived. Don said that it actually looks like Narnia, all wooded with paths and a fence around the many acres. It used to be out in the county but there are houses built up all around it now so they have made it into a conservancy to preserve it. While he was out Lewising, I chose a spot to do a drawing. I found a beautiful bridge over a cobble street that joined two buildings of a college across from the Trinity University. Once I completed the drawing, I found that it was a copy of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice! No wonder I liked the bridge!!

On to London by train, arriving in the late evening, exhausted from all the walking we had done that day in Oxford. We slept in a small rundown hotel near the train station, on the fifth floor.  However, we woke up refreshed and since we only had the day, we decided to do the Hop on, Hop Off bus tour. We were so glad that we did…….London was fascinating! There is so much to see, just like in Paris. We saw Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Piccadilly, 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, London Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the Gherkin, Hyde Park, Margaret Thatcher’s house, Wellington Arch, Westminster Abbey,  and The Globe Theater, (a remake of the original). Don went  to the Tate Modern Museum while I floated down the Thames. I just had do that! We spent an hour in the post office sending home items we have collected along the way. We thoroughly enjoyed London and again, wished we had a week to explore it!

We left to Dover as late as we could. In fact, we were supposed to be on the 6:40 train, but ended up on the 7:15 instead. We didn’t realize that we needed to take an inner city train to get to our 6:40 train to Dover, so we were late, even though we had arrived at the wrong station at 6 pm. Our ticket was flexible (which we didn’t know) so it really didn’t matter what hour we left. We do try to get into our destination as early as we can in the evening so we have time to find a room before they are all gone. It hasn’t been that bad, but it can be difficult in the resort towns. We went straight from the train to the nearest hotel, which was a pub downstairs with the rooms upstairs. We loved the man who owned the place, a salty old guy, so we figured the room would be fine. It was old and tired, but clean. Again, we had a wonderful night’s sleep, waking up refreshed, ready to go. We ordered a full English breakfast (He apologized that it was going to cost 4 pounds! If only he had seen our 12 pound continental breakfast elsewhere he would have charged us much more!) When it came, our mouths dropped open. This breakfast was huge! It had bacon, two sausages, blood pudding, potatoes, white beans in sauce, scrambled eggs, two pieces of toast, and a cup of coffee. I have never eaten so much meat for breakfast. I felt like I needed to go plow a field or spear a whale, or something very manly! So with our bellies full, we walked to town. Our first goal was to see the white cliffs of Dover. Once we hit the middle of town, we headed for the beach. There were a few people out on the beach, but at a closer look, the beach was made of round pebbles the size of cherry tomatoes. Didn’t look too comfortable, and the sun was not out, but in England, I think you have to take the summer days any way they come.  We followed a sign that pointed up a road that said something about cliffs. We walked by a house that had the name of a poet on the door frame. Don asked the lady who was sitting on a chair on the front porch if this was the poet Matthew Arnold’s house. She was an elderly lady, and lived alone and she really enjoyed telling us her life story, including the one about how Matthew Arnold had stayed with his fiancé in this very house and wrote this poem.  We really enjoyed talking to her but had to move on. The cliffs of Dover are truly WHITE! They are made of chalk, that rubs right off onto your hands. We enjoyed walking along the edge of the cliffs, looking out over the bay. There were several small groups of people eating their lunches on the grass above the cliffs. Looked very inviting! That is where I would be for lunch if I lived here!

Then we headed over to the Dover Fort, a structure that had been there since the 1100s. We took the self guided tour and decided to visit the underground tunnels, one tour being the hospital used during WWII. It was fascinating. Imagine living underground while bombs are going off above you! Bet they were thankful for those tunnels. The fort was pretty interesting as well. We enjoyed the tower that looked out over the bay, the town of Dover and the meadows beyond. We found Dover a very nice, sleepy little town, just the kind we like!

Our boat left from Dover just as it started to rain. We were glad we were inside! The crossing was so smooth, in spite of the weather and we got to Calais, France just as the sun was setting. We didn’t have a room booked so we just asked the taxi driver to take us to any hotel he knew of. The Holiday Inn wasn’t a bad choice. We ended up spending two night there, tired of the daily going, going, going. So we quietly spent our 10th Anniversary in Calais, France, watching a great movie “Melancolia” and nibbling on 2 pounds of Tobblerone, dark chocolate. I had bought Don, for our anniversary, a new Swiss knife that does EVERYTHING: It has a clock, alarm, flash light, altimeter, barometer and all the regular knives, pen, screw driver, etc.  I ooh’d and aaw’d over my new pearl bracelet that Don bought me. Occasions are so much fun!!! We were able to see the English Channel from our room and we enjoyed watching the tide go in and out of the little harbor across the street from our hotel room. When the tide went out, the little boats would sit on the bottom of the bay and wait for the tide to come back in and right them up again. The tide must have risen 10 feet twice a day. And yes, it rained here for two days too. What is up with August in Europe?

Now off to Amsterdam!!

3:05 am edt 

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Welcome to the website


Mimi Lamp


It all started here, a little gallery in Idyllwild, no better place on earth. Or so I think.  My husband Don and I are on our way around the world this year. Watch my website for new drawings, sketches, watercolor washes of places we visit.

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