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The Final Stretch

We got on the bus and headed off on our four-hour bus ride to Fes. The ride was pretty, but rather uneventful- other than Jamie stopping to go to the bathroom at one of the stops along the way, and seeing the most disgusting toilet that has ever been known to man. Jamie’s dad had said the photo of the bathroom looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since he was in Morocco in 1973!!!

Grossest. Bathroom. Ever.

We arrived in Fes and shared a dilapidated taxi with an Australian couple who was on the bus with us from Chefchaouen. The taxi dropped us off right outside the medina and we walked up to the first hotel we saw and checked in there, as it was super cheap, yet again. Once dropping our bags off we went out to explore the medina.

We stopped off at one of the first restaurants that we saw and each ordered a salad. We saw the meal being prepared ON THE FLOOR!!! They were using plates and bowls, but not a counter. After we got our delicious floor food, we remembered that Rick had told us to only eat cooked food. We dove in anyway, hoping for the best.

Diarrhea Diner

After we ate we started to walk around. The medina was a huge maze filled with shops selling everything one could imagine from touristy paintings and jewelry to shoes to illegally burned copies of DVD’s. We spent some time wandering around. As it started to get dark, we figured we’d stop by a place closer to our hotel where the locals were all drinking mint tea. We spent quite a while here sipping our tea and people watching, when all of a sudden we saw our friend from Tarifa and Tangier, Robin, just wandering by. Natalie ran over to him and chatted for a bit, and we found out he was taking the 2:30am train to Marrakech. He was with some new friends and was off to find food, but said that if we decided to take the overnight train, he’d see us at the train station. After much thought and realization that our hotel was a giant dump, we decided we’d eat the $7 and take the overnight train too.

Fes' Medina

When we got to the train station at 2am, we saw Robin writing away in his journal and we set up next to him and talked about our adventures of the past few days. When it was time, we boarded the train and headed out. We quickly discovered there was no heat on the train, and spent the night shivering and trying to get some sleep. Once the sun came up, the train quickly warmed up and was much more bearable. We arrived in Marrakech around 10:30am and were so happy to finally be somewhere sunny and warm!

We grabbed our million bags of stuff and got off the train, with a minor setback…there was a huge gap between the last step and the ground and Natalie was holding her bags in such a manner that she couldn’t foresee the giant gap and fell down and twisted her ankle. Robin ran off and found her some ice, which we were ever so grateful for. After sitting and icing a bit, Natalie braved it and got up and managed to hobble the way with us to the taxi. We were all in such awe as the taxi weaved his way through the Djamaa El Fna (the main square)There were monkeys on leashes, snake charmers, women offering to paint henna tattoos on hands of tourists, men singing, dancing and playing instruments. In addition to all of that, there were hoards of people walking, riding bikes, motorcycles and cars. It was unlike anything we had ever seen before! After being dropped off by the taxi driver, we found our hostel easily off on a quiet side street. We checked in and were thrilled with how nice this place was (in comparison to what we had been staying in, at least).

Main square madness

We took a while and relaxed and each enjoyed a nice, long, hot shower. It was a little slice of heaven there! Jamie and Keriann decided to brave the crowds and try to find some lunch for us, while Natalie rested her quickly swelling ankle. There was a Film Festival going on in Marrakech and on the way back, Jamie and Keriann saw a famous American actor/ producer, Fisher Stevens, a face you may recognize from Lost, Numb3rs, Ugly Betty, Always Sunny, etc. Using Jamie’s fine photography skills, we snapped a quick photo and headed back.

A donkey. And Fisher Stevens!

We enjoyed a nice lunch of chicken kebabs, tuna and fries. And decided it was time to check our bank accounts. This proved to be quite devastating for Jamie and Natalie. Keriann had pretty much enough to get by for the rest of the few days, but after our spending spree in Chefchaouen, we had far less than we had imagined. When we had transferred funds into our accounts, we hadn’t accounted for spending as much as we did on gifts and it takes three business days for the funds to transfer from one bank to our Schwab account that we’ve been using while on the trip to avoid any ATM fees. It was Saturday, so by the time any money would transfer we would be back in the States.

After eating, we headed off with the guy from our hostel to a Sahara Excursion office to book our Sahara Desert Excursion. We had hoped they would take credit cards, however their machine was supposedly down, but the woman told us they would take US dollars (which, we luckily had some). We booked our excursion for early the next morning and wandered off into the maze of shops. We spent some time wandering around, picking up odds and ends along the way and then met Robin for dinner. At 5pm everyday, the Djemaa el Fna fills up with tons ands tons of stands selling food. We walked through getting harassed to come try nearly every stand, just to settle on an extremely packed stand with nobody harassing people to come try their food. It was a simple set up, with 10 workers packed inside cooking up sausages on the grill. They were so great, and were served with a tomato salsa, which was also heavenly.

Sausage dinner

 After dinner we walked over to the big movie screen that was set up for the festival and playing an old Tarzan film, in French. We watched for a while, and then said our goodbyes to Robin and went to bed, as we had to be up bright and early for our desert adventure the next morning!!!!

The square at night

We stored our luggage at the hostel, as we decided we would stay there again on our last night in Marrakech. We got to the excursion office, were introduced to our tour guide, Mohammed, paid and were on our way. Mohammed was a nice guy, but he told us absolutely nothing about what we were doing the entire two days we were with him. We headed off in the van, just the four of us. We didn’t know what was going on or where we were going. Little did we know the next 36 hrs were going to be a complete blur of uncertainty and mystery. Mohammed was the fastest, craziest driver we’d ever had the pleasure of riding with. We were driving through the mountains, which are incredibly winding on their own, but with Mohammed’s driving we felt like we were riding The Scrambler! We stopped off at a very touristy (and expensive) rest stop for a bathroom break and to get our bearings back. Along the way, Mohammed would stop and ask if we wanted to take photos, but wouldn’t tell us about anything. We would ask questions here and there, but he offered up very little info.

Pretty view of the mountains

Around noon, we stopped again and went into a restaurant where Mohammed told us to order food and we’d come back in 40 mins and eat it. It was much more expensive than we were planning on spending for lunch (as just dinner and breakfast the next morning were included in the rate for the excursion), so we just ordered two meals and split it. Mohammed then walked us around to some shops and simply said “Walk around and come back and eat in 40 mins.” We followed his orders and walked down untill we came to a man outside a shop who (like normal) asked where we were from, and managed to wrangle Keriann in to write a “Thank you” note to his friend, James, as he claimed he couldn’t write in English. We figure that’s how he gets people into his shop to buy things, but went in anyway. Keriann wrote as he dictated while brewing up some tea. The man then dressed us up in the traditional Moroccan garb while we drank tea and he showed us his jewelry, in hopes that we’d by some, but we didn’t fall for it (this time). After telling him his stuff was very nice but we just couldn’t afford it we had about five minutes to see the rest of the town and head back to lunch.

Moroccan outfits

Lunch was fine, nothing special and certainly not worth what we paid, and hopped back into the van to our next unknown destination. We pried out of Mohammed the name of the city, Aït Benhaddou. We learned (from Wikipedia) that the neat looking houses we saw outside the shops are beautiful examples of kasbahs, which are types of traditional Moroccan houses.

Moroccan houses

Unfortunately, these kasbahs sustain damage during each rainstorm. Most of the residents of the town now live in a more modern village at the other side of the river; however, there are still ten families live within the ksar. We drove for a few more hours stopping occasionally for photo opps and bathroom breaks. Later in the afternoon we were dropped off with a few other travellers and some camels. We were assigned camels, and after picking out names for them (Simba, Nala, and Ornery Oscar- he threw a fit when Jamie tried to get on!), we were on our way.

Camels!

We trotted through the desert in our line of camels, riding off into the beautiful sunset….well, away from it, rather. Camels give a surprisingly bumpy ride and our bums are actually still recovering from all the fun!

We arrived at our desert campground for the night and were led by our guide to a tent we had all to ourselves. We hung out for a bit, and were joined by our camel tour guide, Hussein, for some tea. Hussein didn’t speak any English, and we don’t speak any French or Arabic, so our tea party consisted of a pseudo-game of pictionary in order to find out if there were any snakes or scorpions in the desert we had to worry about. There weren’t.

Awkward tea party

After tea we had a delicious Moroccan dinner and then joined the rest of the gang around the bonfire. Several excursion groups had met up at the campground and all the guides met up to sing, play drums, and even dance around the fire. It was so great to see a performance of some real Moroccan traditions, and we really enjoyed taking part in the fun! We got ready in the desert bathrooms (read: over the sand dune) and headed to bed.



Fun around the fire

The next morning we woke up bright and early for a traditional Berber breakfast (bread, orange spread, and some tea & coffee) and got ready to remount our furry friends. Simba, Nala, and Oscar were pumped for another ride back towards town, but our ride was cut a little short when Mohammed picked us up early along the way. We hopped in the van where we proceeded to fall asleep and/or get nauseated by Mohammed’s crazy driving. We prepared ourselves for backtracking the 7 hours back to Marrakech, but Mohammed must have been eager to get back, as we made it back in less than 6. He said “Okay,” let us out of the van, and we parted ways. We headed back to the hostel then went back into the market to spend the last of our trip money on some Moroccan goodies. We headed back to the same stand for a cheap but delicious sausage dinner, taking in once more all the insanity of the medina- monkeys, cobras, dancing, hassling, shouting, kids standing up on the back of motorbikes, and the overall feeling that you could get run over or trampled to death at any second! We headed back to our hostel to work some magic and somehow fit all our crap into a backpack and a newly added carry-on bag, and called it a night.

Snake charmers!

The next morning we enjoyed our last breakfast and were accompanied by two hostel employees to a cab they had arranged for us. They were so nice and carried all our luggage, but unfortunately we had more than the cabbie had expected (we barely fit, really!), so the charge was upped by 20 dirham. We had spent every last dirham cent we had, but luckily he took a couple American dollars to make up for it! We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, bidding farewell to Morocco, its warm weather, blue skies, and palm trees, knowing full well we knew what we’d be getting into upon arrival into Chicago….

See ya soon...

So there we have it. 20 countries, 109 cities, and 127 days of travel. Our trip was an amazing, eye-opening, challenging, educational, exciting, refreshing, frustrating, breathtaking, surreal, and life-altering experience with a bittersweet ending. We are ecstatic to be back with our families and friends but will absolutely miss the joys of the traveling life. Thanks to everyone for following us around Europe. We appreciate all the support along the way!

Check in on us from time to time, updates to follow…

Moroccan Out

We learned on the bus about all the flooding going on in Morocco. Apparently it barely rains in Morocco except for in December, and here we were heading to Morocco on Dec 1st! But considering the weather throughout our entire trip, we had come to expect nothing less and were fully prepared! We arrived in Tarifa and made the trek to the port, where we had to wait nearly 4 hours until the next ferry. We hung out in a bar, enjoying some Coke Lights and the company of our newfound Dutch friend, Robin. We boarded the ferry for our 35 minute trip to Morocco. Standing in line for the passport control we really started to feel the waves, and feeling a bit pukey, we were advised to sit near the center of the boat. Unfortunately for us this is where everyone who was tossing their cookies also sat! Jamie toughed it out, but Natalie and Keriann spent the rest of the trip in the bathroom, bidding adieu to their delicious supermarket dinner.

We hadn’t planned on staying in Tangiers, but having to take the later ferry, we were getting in too late to go anywhere else. While exiting the ferry we met a guy whose father owns a hotel right in town, so we jumped on the free minibus and checked right in. We settled into our one bed room (which was okay because it was freeeezing!) and headed down to the hotel’s bar to join our new friends for some drinks. We danced and mingled before retiring to our igloo of a room, where we snuggled through the night.

Dancing the night away

Due to miscommunication Jamie had to argue back down to the agreed price of our room at checkout (we were cautioned that people in Morocco will state one price and then charge double or more later). Once that was settled we headed off to find a “petite” taxi (we were told they were the only cabbies to be trusted) to take us to the bus station. We bought our tickets to Chefchaouen and headed over to a local restaurant to get an early lunch or rather, late breakfast, for only $3!

Yummy food

Then it was back to the bus station for a complicated check-in process of weighing our bags and placing them on the bus. After dealing with a testy Moroccan baggage handler we boarded the bus to arrive in Chefchaouen three hours later! We wandered in the uphill direction in search for the medina, the city center. Not completely sure how close to the medina we were, we checked into a hotel for 180 Durham, $21 total.

 

 

Our hotel receptionist pointed us in the right direction for the medina and we headed uphill once again. Along the way we stopped to take in the site of pack mules parked in a field amongst locals’ homes.

Donkeys hanging out

Arriving at the medina we entered the old Moroccan inspired doorway and headed into the small cobblestone streets peeking into the local shops that are smaller than most sheds back home. There is barely enough room for the salesman and his products so you place your order from the street. We walked into a little larger shop with jewelry and Moroccan souvenirs and started talking to the shopkeeper’s son, Abdul. He told us about the regions around Morocco and what they are known for. He told us about the weaving done in the Chefchaouen area and asked us if we wanted to see a free demonstration at his father’s shop. We were hesitant, but decided to take in a little of the area’s culture. Hamid, Abdul’s father, welcomed us in and showed us the weaving looms and a weaver in action (who made each of us a wool good luck bracelet).

The weaver man

While sipping on complimentary “Moroccan whiskey”, also know as mint tea, we were given a demonstration explaining the dying process for the wool (they use natural dyes such as saffron), who produces the products, what inspires the designs, and how the quality varies. The shop was three floors high and each room was stacked to the ceiling with multiple colors and sizes of rugs, blankets, djellaba (long hooded jackets), etc. Before we knew it a couple of hours had passed and we had made new Moroccan friends. We were on our third pot of mint tea when Abdul offered us a plate full of delicious Moroccan desserts.

Moroccan whiskey & treats

Once we were fully updated on Moroccan culture and the art of weaving Abdul offered to be our personal chauffeur around town (being the #1 customers of the day has its perks!). Being that it was now dusk we took him up on the offer. Abdul, who is originally from Chefchaouen, showed us all around town. We first went to see where the water flowed down from the mountain and where the Berber women came to do their laundry (Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa). The buildings in Chefchaouen are covered in different shades of blue, which almost glowed at night. Abdul says this has been the city’s tradition since long before his time.

Everywhere you look, blue!

Walking into the main square there was a stand surrounded by locals. We went over to take a look and saw everyone enjoying bowls of escargot. Abdul dished out four bowls and we dug right in using safety pins as eating utensils.

Escargot first-timers

Topping off the night we went to his family friend’s restaurant for couscous, tagine and brochettes. We were escorted back to our hotel where we prepped for the next morning’s bus to Fes…

Spain Again

The bus to Sevilla was nearly completely full and Natalie was lucky enough to have a nice (weird) seatmate who fell in love with her. Luckily Jamie’s seatmate didn’t speak English and Keriann’s slept the whole time! We made our way through the Sevilla bus station at 4:30am, in the pitch black to a taxi. We made sure to book a hostel with 24 hour reception, and luckily they let us come in and crash on the couches until 9. We got in a few quality hours of sleep, enjoyed a comlimentary breakfast, and prepared ourselves for a fun day sightseeing Seviilla!

Our favorite way to start our days in a new city is with a free walking tour. Luckily our hostel had a tour at 2:50pm. We walked around for about 15 minutes picking up fellow travelers and stopped in a small square to get a rundown of Sevilla’s history. Our tour guide was from Morocco and studying in Spain. He was very knowledgable, but also extremly long winded. After a 20 minute introduction we started the tour and went to admire La Catedral and its tower, La Giralda.

La Giralda tower

The tower was named after El Giraldillo, the weathervane at the top, and was part of a previous mosque. The cathedral was built after the tower and is the 3rd biggest in the world and the biggest Gothic cathedral.

Fun Fact: Siesta does not (only) come from the Spainards being lazy but more so because it gets so hot in the summer that it is unbareable to work outdoors during the midday! We learned that there is an urban legend that says the Spanish lisp, as in “Barthelona”, comes from commoners copying King Ferdinand’s speech so as not to offend him.

Square in the Jewish Quarter

As we continued on, there was a torrential down pour, soaking even us with rain jackets and umbrellas…but that didn’t stop us we continued on to Plaza Espana, which was built for 1929 Exposition. This plaza appears in Star Wars Episode II and was gorgeous. The rain had started to let up and we saw the brightest double rainbow any of us had ever seen, it was just stunning!

Plaza Espana

After the longest 2 hour (real time a whopping 3 1/2 hours) tour of our lives we headed to a place recommended by Lonely Planet for some dinner, and finally had the awesome tapas we’d been waiting for! We shared an array of tapas, including duck, salmon, and cheesy deliciousness and also had some great paella and a farewell pitcher of sangria. We headed back to the hostel for free sangria and chatted with some fellow travellers, including an American who hasn’t been home in 7 years (don’t worry moms, we’re not getting any ideas!)

We got up and headed to the bus station for the 9:30am bus to Tarifa, where we’d get the ferry to Morocco. We got there with pleanty of time to spare, but they wouldn’t take credit cards, so we went to the two ATM’s near by…but neither of them would take our American credit cards. The man working behind the ticket window was of no help, whatsoever. We ran around like monkeys with our heads cut off trying to find another company’s ATM, we finally did and ran back to the ticket window and out to the bus, only to have missed it by four minutes (go figure, the first bus in the history of Spain to leave early). Defeated, we bought tickets for the 2pm train and walked back to our hostel where we enjoyed some breakfast and spent the afternoon lounging, yet again, in the common are until it was time to leave. We made it on time for the next bus and rode three hours to Tarifa…

Storm rollin' in...

We got into Lisbon after a backbreaking night’s “sleep” on the train, freshened up, and decided to head out for the day (we couldn’t check into the hostel and couldn’t hang out without paying a “day use fee”, so we didn’t really have a choice!) As it was the final day of our 3 month Eurail pass, we decided to train out to a couple of Lisbon’s neighboring towns that we had heard good things about. We quickly found out that Lisbon was not the place to try to scam the public transit system, as there were 2 men on the bus (aside from the driver) checking tickets, and a whopping 7 people walking thru the trains to make sure everyone’s tickets were legit. Our first stop was Estoril, a nice beach town about 20 minutes outside of Lisbon. We walked along the beachfront, enjoying the views and trying to stay out of the way of the throngs of jogging locals. It was a cute town but like many places we’ve been to, pretty quiet at this time of year. It had a great beachfront and seems like it’d be a happenin’ place during the summer months!

Fun on the rocks!

We hopped back on the train and stopped at Cascais, another 10 minutes further out. It was more lively than the last town, and we had a good time just wandering along the seawall, getting a great view of the harbor and the town. We walked through a couple markets, finding some great handcrafted Portuguese souvenirs and jewelry (Natalie found her favorite ring in the whole wide world!) We parked on a bench overlooking the harbor and had lunch, watching the group of people learning how to kayak in late November, wondering what the weather was like back home…

Lighthouse!

We trained back to Lisbon and checked into the hostel, did some free laundry and went to bed super early, making up for the previous night’s lack of sleep.

The next day’s torrential downpour kept us inside for a better part of it. Once it let up, we made our way to the bus station to buy tickets to Sevilla. We walked around Lisbon’s newest area along the water and had a great view of the Vasco de Gama Bridge spanning the river.

Ponte Vasco de Gama (you have to look reeeeaaally close!)

We stopped at a supermarket to grab some things to cook for dinner, and when complimenting ourselves on our culinary skills and the cheap find, Jamie summed up our delicious meal with “Yeah, it was only 3 euro, plus we get to chew for hours!” Our hostel had no heat, so we kept warm under the space heaters on the top floor until calling it a night.

We packed up the next day and headed out for our last day in Lisbon. We went to the western Belem neighborhood, seeing the city’s harbor and Jeronimo’s Monastery. We then headed over to the city’s free pop art museum, where we wandered around for hours, pondering the surely deeper meaning behind artworks such as Plaster and Paint on Cardboard.

Just pondering

After our fulillment of  “art”, we trammed it over to Lisbon’s oldest neighbrhood, wandering around, seeing the sights, and perusing some shops.

We metro’d back to the hostel, managing to ride on every color line the city had to offer, as we missed our stop. We grabbed our things and headed to the station for our overnight bus to Sevilla….

Headed to Sevilla!

Spain’s Capitals, Old and New

Happy Thanksgiving!!! We arrived in Madrid mid-afternoon after a few hour train ride from Barcelona and found our way to the hostel via metro. We dropped our stuff off at our hostel and Natalie & Keriann decided to go out to Spain’s former capital, Toledo. Jamie decided she would just stay around Madrid and explore the town.

Jamie here! I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in Madrid, as we had never heard bad things about the city, it was simply that everybody said they liked Barcelona better. I wanted to just wander around the city and see what Madrid had to offer, other than being Spain’s capital. I headed out down the street towards Parque de El Retiro. I was pretty hungry so I stopped inside a small restaurant called Museo del Jamon, translates to “Ham Museum.” There was meat lining the walls and a little bar area where people were lined up enjoying small sandwiches, meat & cheese plates among other items. Luckily there were pictures on the menu, so I pointed to a half chicken and hoped for the best. It came out quite tasty and at an exceptional price! Turns out this is a chain in Madrid, and they are really tasty and cheap!

Museo del Jamon

After my chicken “Thanksgiving Dinner” I headed over towards the park. Turns out Retiro Park is not just one but one of many parks. I wandered aimlessly through the parks, enjoying the peacefulness until I made my way into Retiro Park. There was a large statue and colums around a big pond and I made myself comfy on the steps and enjoyed the sunset. It was starting to get dark, so I figured I should probably not be alone in the park after dark, so I headed out onto the streets.

Lion Statues at Retiro Park

I came across a huge arch at Puerta de Alcala, did my duty as a traveler and snapped some photos of it and continued on my way down Calle de Alcala (a main drag in Madrid). I walked past an awesome race car made by Citroën being loaded into a truck, snapped a few photos of that as well and walked on. I walked through another major plaza and noticed that there seemed to be an awful lot of police men out directing traffic, but figured it was just normal for rush hour. A few minutes later I kept hearing what sounded like fireworks. Nobody around me seemed interested in this mysterious loud booming, but I picked up the pace in hopes to find out where the fireworks were coming from. After walking a ways further, I saw what I thought was a parade and I thought “Oh how fun!” After further inspection, I realized it was not a parade but rather a riot / protest of people holding signs (saying things that I could of course not understand) and blocking off traffic from going down a few streets. The bangs were of the protesters lighting ground fireworks just to be obnoxious. I watched in awe for a few minutes, but once I saw a group of police men with shields running out into the crowded, I figured it was best I continued on.

The Arc at Puerta de Alcala

I walked more down the street into Plaza del Sol, one of the major plazas and there was another protest of sorts going on there as well. I walked down one of the main streets and heard Christmas music and saw Christmas lights and it just brought a huge smile to my face. It was so crowded, everywhere! I still don’t know if it’s always that busy on a Thursday night, or if there was a special occassion, but it was fun, none the less. I continued walked through the crowds and made my way to Plaza de Espana, walked through some markets and headed down towards the Palacio Real (the Royal Palace of Madrid), the largest palace in Western Europe, with 2,800 rooms! I then saw a few churches and continued on. At this point I had been walking for hours, and my dogs were tired, so I decided I would head in. I finally made my way back to the hostel and hopped on the internet to book our hostel for the next few nights. The girls came home just a few minutes after I did. We chatted and Natalie skyped with her family and then we headed to bed.

Palacio Real

Keriann and I made our way into Toledo around 4pm. It was a little later in the day then we had hoped to arrive, but fellow travelers told us this was a “must-see” city in Spain and beautifully lit up at night. Anxious to get inside the city walls, we hopped on a bus that took us to Plaza de Zocodover in the center of town. From here we decided to walk uphill to the Cathedral de Toledo. On our way we were slightly distracted by a sign in a local shop which said “chocolate con churros, 2 Euros!” We had heard that these donuts dipped in hot chocolate pudding were a Spanish delicacy so we decided to stop for a late afternoon snack.

Chocolate Churros!

Then we got back on track and went to the Cathedral, which Rick Steves says is the “best in Spain.” We followed Rick Steves’ self guided tour of the Cathedral and were stunned by the lofty interior, gold plated high altar (one of the country’s most famous pieces of Gothic art), and the choir (known for it’s carvings in wood and alabaster).

The Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo

From here, per Rick Steves’ advice, we took the number 12 bus to do a complete circle around the city to admire the 10th century city walls and castle-like buildings. To our surprise the bus stopped about half way around the city where the bus driver made a hand motion to signify “finito!” Toledo has Spain’s most confusing medieval street plan, so we decided it best to just wonder around. We found a park on the edge of town that had a great view of the valley and then walked uphill through the streets in search for the perfect place to have Thanksgiving dinner. We found a pleasant little restaurant offering a three course meal that fit right into our budget. After the overabundance of food (just like Thanksgiving at home) we headed back into the winding streets to try to navigate our way to the outdoor escalators. Not entirely sure where we were most of the time, we followed our sense of direction and luckily found our way to the bottom of the escalators. Toledo sits atop a circular hill so there are a series of escalators that run outdoors, giving travelers and residents a free ride up into town. We took the escalators about halfway up to admire the view of the city lit up a night. We snapped some pictures and then decided we better head back down to catch the last train headed back into Madrid. Instead of taking a bus we opted for the 30 minute walk back to the train station where we got an amazing view of Alcazar, the former imperial residence built on the site of Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish fortresses.

Riding up the outdoor escalators

The following morning we each enjoyed a single bowl of cereal and packed up our things to check out of our hostel room. We hung out in the Moroccan inspired common area at our hostel while doing some much needed laundry and blog updating. Here we had a very interesting conversation with a fellow traveler who is doing a 7 year tour through Europe, making his way as a professional poker player. We exchanged city recommendations and talked about the things we find fascinating about European culture. Once our laundry was complete we stored our backpacks and made our way to our last free New Europe walking tour. We saw the Viaducto bridge, also know as the “suicide bridge.” The alleged story attached to the bridge says that a women from the upper class fell in love with a poor man. The women’s family forbade their relationship so she leapt off the bridge only for her large dress to act as a parachute and let her gracefully sway down to the ground. The woman walked away with only a broken arm, her family reluctantly welcomed the couple’s relationship and they had their happily ever after. Regardless to the truth of the story there is now a large glass wall along the top of the bridge to prevent further suicide attempts.

The Viaducto Bridge

Next we headed over to Palacio Real de Madrid, which is the official residence of the king of Spain, but is now only used for state ceremonies. Fun fact: tapas was invented by a Spanish king. He was served a drink covered (“tapa” means to cover) with a piece of ham used to keep the flies out, he then started to eat a piece of ham with every drink so he didn’t get too drunk. He liked this so much that he made it mandatory to serve food with drinks, hence today’s tapas! Along our tour was stopped by a ham museum, which Jamie described earlier, and saw the oldest restaurant in the world that is still in business today.  We walked past the beautiful Almudena Cathedral. When the capitol was changed from Toledo to Madrid in 1561 it was decided that a cathedral needed to be built. However, in true Spanish fashion (our tour guide explained to us that the Spanish take their time and are in no hurry to do pretty much anything), it wasn’t until 1879 that construction actually began. Construction was finally completed in 1993 when Pope John Paul II concencrated the cathedral.One of our last stops was at the statue of Cervantes. He wrote Don Quixote, the first fiction novel and was voted the 2nd most influential Spaniard ever (2nd only to current king who resisted anarchists’ attempted takeover in ’80s). After thanking our tour guide we headed over to the Prado Museum, which has the largest collection of Spanish paintings in the world. We made it just in time for the free entrance! We enjoyed European art from the 12th to the early 19th century and saw works done by Velázquez, Goya, and Bosch, just to name a few. On our walk back to the hostel we stopped by a restaurant and shared paella, fried mushrooms and pitcher of sangria for dinner. We then picked up our bags, hopped on the metro and boarded our overnight train to Lisbon.

The Almudena Cathedral

Barthelona

We arrived in Barcelona around 8 at night and found our way to our hostel. We had been warned by numerous people (and would continue to be warned during out stay) that Barcelona is the city of choice for pickpocketers, so we were already prepared with our totally unnerdy “safety satchels, ” as we’ve dubbed them, a thinner version of a fanny pack that goes inside your pants (comfortable and an interesting sight when you need to pull out money…).

Jamie modeling her safety satchel

We made it to the hostel with all our money and freshened up, wanting to check out the town for the night. We headed over to La Rambla, the city’s main boulevard, finding a number of shops and restaurants. We stopped at a place for a sangria and tapas deal, and chatted with the bartender about our plans for tomorrow’s Anti-Karaoke night (more on that later). We walked around some more and back into the Barri Gotic, the Gothic District where we were staying. Not as much was doin’ on a Monday night as we had hoped, but we had fun checking out the bars in the area.

Tapas and sangria

The next morning we joined some people from our hostel for a free tour of the Gothic district. We saw St. Maria del Mar, a beautiful basilica completed in 1383 and only financed by Barcelona’s working class. Every stone of this church was carried from surrounding land on the back of a worker. We also saw remnants of Roman walls & towers, along with the Town Hall & Palas de la Generalitat.

Built by the People

We walked up Carrer D’Avinyo, the street who’s former brothel gave Picasso his subjects for Ladies of Avignon (not ladies from Avignon, France, as is a common misconception!). At the end of the tour the whole group even held hands and performed a mini Sardana dance (a ritual dance performed by the people of Catalunya.) During the tour we learned that Catalunya is a very independent area in Spain, with its own unique history, culture, and even language. We even saw flags hanging from balconies promoting its independence from Spain.

After the tour we warmed up with some cappucinos and planned out our next few days. We had already decided that we wanted to stay one extra day (we thought that as soon as we got off the train really!) There is so much to do in Barcelona and with so little time, we certainly didn’t want to take the just-wander-around-and-see-what-we-come-across approach that we often do. After sorting out the schedule we followed Rick’s self-guided tour of The Ramblas/ La Rambla/ Las Ramblas (we’ve seen and heard all three). We started at the central Placa de Catalunya, looking at the fountains while dodging the hourds of nasty pigeons. We headed down the street, being entertained by the dozens of street performers. There was a man dressed like a gladiator in Barca colors, a beautful golden angel, a couple of headless people, a man dressed like a fruit stand and even a man painted and clad in all white….sitting on a toilet. These people literally just sit there in position, doing a whole lot of nothing, until you drop a coin in their bucket. The fruit stand guy came to life, swinging his fruits around, singing, dancing, and stoppig to pose for a pic. We decided this must be a pretty lucritive business as there are always so many people on La Rambla and these performers return every day with their fancy pants costumes!

Keriann and her Favorite Street Performer

We drank from the Fountain of Canaletes to ensure our return to Barcelona, then went into La Boqueria Market, which was packed with stands of great fresh produce, juice, candy, dried fruits and fresh meat (coulnd’t find any juevos del toro though, sadly). We continued past the Columbus Monument and ended the tour on La Rambla del Mar, the pedestrian bridge into the harbor, stopping to watch it pivot to let out one of the giant sailboats.

La Boqueria Market

We headed back into town to go inside the Cathedral of Barcelona, which oddly is free only from 8:00 – 12:45 and then again from 5:15 – 7:30. We took another self-guided tour (thanks Rick!), admiring the peaceful chapels and going into the cathedral’s cloisters, which have always been the home to 13 geese (they were the alarm system back in the day!) In the basement we saw the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia, who was tortured 13 times and martyred at the age of 13 because of her Christian faith amidst a Roman community.

Geese inside the Courtyard of the Cathedral of Barcelona

We went back to our hostel to ready ourselves for the night, and for another bar’s promotional 1 euro dinner. You had to buy a beer, but the giant plate of rice and some sort of curry was a good deal for us ever-poorer travellers!

We then made our way over to Club Apollo for this Anti-Karaoke night we’d heard so much about. Mandy had first raved about it and once the previously mentioned bartender overheard us, he insisted it was a must, as it was sure to be a fun time. Still not entirely sure why it’s called Anti-Karaoke, it was extreme karaoke with a stage, and full-on lights, smoke (the host would even sporatically throw confetti into the mix). Novices should be advised, there are no cues as to when to start singing and the only lyrics were on a piece of paper in the front. Most people didn’t need these though, as they were dancing all over the stage and clearly make this a weekly occurrence. And the best part is that they were all American songs! (Mr. Bartender said typical Spanish karaoke consists of only Spanish songs, another reason why this might be anti-karaoke…) So we enjoyed the show (not pro enough to sing, obviously) and danced the night away…

Anti-Karaoke!!!

We woke up in the morning smelling like we had each rolled around in an ashtray (so happy there’s no smoking in bars back home!), cleaned up then enjoyed the free breakfast from our hostel. We went out on another free tour, this time seeing the work of Barcelona’s famed Antoni Gaudi. We were the only ones on the tour that day aside from one other guy, so it was like a private tour (which was nice until the end when it was just us 3 paying him for his last 2 hours of work). We walked around the city, learning about and viewing from the outside the Palau Guell, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo, and Sagrada Familia. All of Gaudi’s projects are so unbelievably creative and unique, it would take forever to describe everything we learned and saw that day! Even today these works are unmatched and he is world reknowned, having paved the way for art noveau in Catalunya as well as much of the world.

Gaudi's Casa Mila

After the tour we went into the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece. This church was started in 1882 and is estimated to be complete by 2030. There are 3 facades, only one of which Gaudi saw in his lifetime, and the last of which was only started in 2002. When complete the Jesus Tower wil reach 170 m, only 5m shorter than Barcelona’s highest point (Gaudi didn’t think that anything he built should surpass the work of God).The Nativity Facade has over 100 types of plants & animals as Gaudi’s biggest inspiration throughout his life was nature.

Us in Front of the Sagrada de Familia

 The interior of the church is awe-inspiring, lit beautifully with natural light through stained glass windows and a vaulted ceiling that gives you the impression you are not inside a church but peering up through trees.

Inside the Sagrada de Familia

After the church we walked through Gaudi’s Parc Guell, enjoying this creative twist on a city park and getting a god view of Barcelona. We perused the goods of the vendors and artists scattered throughout the park and then made our way back home.

Parc Guell

We had signed up for a tapas/sangria/flamenco night deal at a nearby bar, so we had some sangria before being escorted to the venue for the show. It was so much fun to see a live show, and the flamenco dancing, the live music, and singing were all awesome! The woman moved her feet so fast, it was amazing!

Flaminco Dancer

We then went back to the bar to enjoy our tapas and endless sangria. A couple pitchers in we actually saw how much alcohol was put into the sangria (or wasn’t put in, rather) which explains why after 5 pitchers we left with only a sugary stomach ache where our buzz should have been.

Enjoying our "Sangria"/Sweet Juice

We had fun regardless, and then headed back to our hostel where we donned pretty much everything we own in order to try to fall asleep in our meatlocker of a room…

The next day we toured the inside of Casa Batllo. Gaudi was commissioned to give the Batllo family’s house a bit of a facelift, and gave them an incredible work of art, designed with a marine theme and using techniques and designs way ahead of the time. Every sqaure inch of the house is detailed, thought out, and far out of the ordinary. Gaudi was such an incredible artist and our descriptions will certainly fall short, so be sure to peruse our pictures!

We also wanted to see the Dali Museum, so we trained out to Figueres, a couple hours outside of Barcelona. The museum was great, displaying many different styles of Dali’s art from soft sketches of his beloved wife to cubist oil paintings to his bizarre sculptures, and everything in between. However, we were a little disappointed as most of Dali’s famous paintings like “The Persistence of Time,” etc., are housed elsewhere. We saw the Homage to Mae West room designed after Dali’s painting, where the sofa lips, fireplace nose, picture frame eyes, and drapery hair all fall in line from the viewpoint to create Mae West’s face (the original painting is at the Art Institue of Chicago, a fun little fyi).

We were in the museum until closing time, then grabbed some dinner for our 2 hour ride back into the city. We had hoped to do some laundry but we didn’t make it back in time. Exhausted from our big museum and trainride day, we retired to our meat locker to rest for the next day’s journey to Madrid…

 

I think we’re becoming good at long distance train rides. Ten hours of training in one day is a long time, and people often ask what we do to fill our time. We draft up e-mails, put our pictures on the computer, write the blog, chat, listen to music, play Scramble on Jamie’s iPod, sleep and just look out the window enjoying the view. The time somehow never really seems nearly as long as it actually is. So, needless to say our train ride to Nice went just as smoothly as ever. We got in about 30 mins late, and headed out to find our hostel. It was a nice 15 min walk, we got to the hostel excited for free tea, coffee, soft drinks and biscuits (One of the main reasons we booked this specific hostel). There were none to be found, but the reception was closed so we figured we would find them in the morning. We got into our room and noticed the toilet did not have seat on it. This is unheard of back in the States, but so many restrooms that we had used all over Europe were missing toilet seats….but never in a hotel or hostel we’d stayed at. So, we were starting to see that this place was not exactly what they advertised themselves to be on Hostelworld.

We started to settle in and another roommate, Mandy from Canada, came in. It was a nice enough night, so we decided we’d all take a walk around town. The city was really nice at night, with great views of the coastline.

A perfect view of Nice

We walked along the boardwalk down the beach and then came across a section of the city with tons and tons of restaurants and bars. We picked the grunge bar, figuring they’d have some semi-cheap drinks. We enjoyed a glass of wine and some jams from the live band and then headed back home.

80' & 90's American cover band

The next morning we got up and decided to head out to Monaco, the second smallest country in the world with about 30,000 residents. We found out that November 19th is Monaco’s National Day, we figured it was something like America’s Fourth of July. The three of us and Mandy took the 30 min train and arrived in Monte Carlo, Monaco and it was a beautiful day. None of us really knew what there was to do in Monte Carlo, but it’s total size is less than a mile square foot, so we figured we would just start walking. The city was very gorgeous, and we came upon the Monte Carlo Casino.

Outside Le Casino in Monte Carlo

Unfortunatly, it didn’t open until 7pm so we just took some photos from the outside and went on our way. There was a fair going on down by the marina, we figured it was for their National Day, so we took a walk through it. It was just like any fair we’d see back home- with rides, food stands and games. We realized we could just walk down by all the huge yachts and we were hoping our stunning good looks would land us a free ride on somebody’s yacht. However, many of the yachts looked like they were closed up for the season and the only other people around were people working on the yachts, not the actual owners themselves. Had the owners been around, we’re sure we would have been able to get a ride!!!

Monte Carlo's harbor

After that, we figured we had pretty much seen all of Monaco that we needed to so we headed back through the fair to go back to the train. On the way we picked up some yummy fair food and Keriann and Natalie decided they wanted to race down a large slide that was set up for the kiddies. It was quite entertaining!

Awesome fair slide!

We hopped back on the tain back to Nice and headed back to our hostel. Shortly after we came back our new roomie, Ross who is actually from Arlington Heights (what a small world), came in. We decided we would all grab some wine and head down to the beach. It was quite lovely just hanging out on the ocean, chatting with new friends and enjoying some 2 euro bottles of wine!

Enjoying some Wine on the Beach

After the wine was gone, we all had to use the bathroom so we headed back to the hostel. Our two Australian roommates had made it back and were making the largest sandwiches ever! We bought some more wine and all hungout in our room playing games for the night.

The next morning was rainy, and we had intended on going to check out Cannes, but decided we would just sleep in and book our next hostel. The Australians got upgraded to a new room, so they left us and Ross and Mandy went out to explore the town, and the three of us were still slowly getting ourselves ready to go out. We finally realized that with the crappy weather, it would be best to just stay in Nice and see what we hadn’t seen yet. We finally gathered ourselves together and headed out down the boardwalk again. The light was perfect and Jamie was getting some great photos, but then her new memory card decided it would just delete the photos…so only a few were saved. We continued down, and made our way up this large hill into a panaoramic view of the city. There was a huge park up there that we wandered around a bit, until a park worker came around ferociously blowing his whistle to warn us that we must leave immediately, as the park was closing.

View of Nice from the top of the park

It was raining, so we were OK with that and headed out to fufill our sushi craving. We had some good sushi complete with a creme brulee desert. We finished off the night with a little walk around the old town, and just decided to call it a night and head home. Ross and Mandy came home a bit later and told us that they had gotten locked up in the park on the hill! They had to climb over this large fence and get out. We were glad that we had gotten the whistle warnings to get out. Climbing that fence did not sound like a good time! We then called it a night to get some rest for our early 10 hour train ride to Barcelona!

Up in the Alps

We got into Lucerne late and walked straight to the hostel. We settled into our 10 person dorm and were awakened the next morning by our 7 dormmates chatting and shuffling around (with that many people, once one person’s up, everyone is!) We enjoyed our Korean-style breakfast of a fried egg and fried rice (very good and quite a change for us!) then packed up and headed out to see the town. We walked along the river back to the train station to stash our bags, then walked over the Chapel Bridge to the other side of town. The bridge’s Water Tower, built around 1300, is Lucerne’s trademark and Switzerland’s most photographed monument. So here it is….

Switzerland's most photographed monument

Across the river we saw the inside of the ornate Hofkirche, then made our way to the “The Dying Lion of Lucerne” monument, which was dedicated to death of Swiss mercenaries in 1792 and what our very own Mark Twain deemed “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world.”

The Dying Lion of Lucerne

We walked through Lucerne’s Old Town and behind the Musegg Wall (part of rampart walls from 1386), and back over the Spreur Bridge that had 67 paintings representing the “Dance of Death.”

Musegg Wall and Towers

Back at the train station we encountered the most expensive Mc Donald’s we have ever seen. The Swiss franc is currently at $1.02 and it was 11.30 CHF for a meal, even the last favorite of all the meals, the fish sandwich meal, rang in at a startling 9.90 CHF! They even charged 2 CHF to use the bathroom, but don’t worry, we had the ingenious idea of using the bathroom on one of the parked trains (putting that expensive Eurail pass to good use!)

We went shopping in a supermarket located right in the train station for lunch on the train. Side note: We have implemented a self-imposed “Swiss diet” that we decided was very necessary after Italian Carbfest 2010, and that we also heard wouldn’t be too hard to do, as Switzerland supposedly has some of the worst tasting food in the whole of Europe! So we loaded up on veggies and came out of the store only to see that our hourly train was departing in about a minute and a half. We booked it to our lockers, grabbed our backpacks and huffed it to the train, barely making it on after the final boarding whistle. With our daily workout out of the way, we were off to Interlaken!

Traditional swiss army knives

A freezing rain had started to fall right as we arrived in Interlaken. We donned our finest rain gear and hiked through town to the hostel, passing a herd of cows grazing in a random patch of grass placed right in the middle of town!

Animals in the midst of the city

We got to the hostel where we remained for the rest of the night, leaving our cozy temporary home only once for stuff for dinner. We took care of some housekeeping (did laundry, updated the blog, pics, returned emails, researched flights, all that jazz….) and tried to plan a fun day for tomorrow. We came to find out that the following day’s weather report was 100% chance of rain, 100% chance of clouds, and 0% chance of getting a great view of the mountains, which put a damper on our plans as we were planning on taking the gondola into the Alps and hiking around. We made some dinner (falling into our “Swiss diet,” of course), relaxed, made some Skype calls, and turned in for the night.

A peaceful night of sleep with the sound of cowbells in the background lead to a lazy next day. We enjoyed our hostel’s free breakast while watching sleet and rain fall outside. It seems the weather reports in Switzerland are extremly accurate. We watched the live feed from the top of the Alps on tv and decided we better wait out the snowstorm that was currently taking place. The following days weather report showed signs of improvement. Now that our day was clear we continued on with our housekeeping from the night before. We decided we needed a little rest and relaxation after all the rushing around through Italy. The afternoon approached quickly and the weather hadn’t seemed to let up. Jamie decided to be brave and venture out into the wet and cold to take a stroll aroud town. Before leaving the hostel she asked the girl at the front desk what there was to see around Interlaken. Her response was “not much.” But Jamie wandered for a couple of hours around the small town anyway, checking out the local architecture and stopping in a few shops.

A church in Interlaken

She came back to the hostel empty handed due to Switzerland’s extremely high prices on everything. We made another vegtable medley for dinner and decided to rent a dvd from the hostel. We met some fellow travelers from Vegas who joined us for the movie and ended up talking with well into the night. Somewhere around 1:30 am we decided we would head off to our six person dorm to get some sleep before tomorrow’s adventure.

The morning approached quickly. We knew we would be heading up into the Alps regardless of the weather since this was our last full day in Switzerland, but we woke up anxious and headed straight to the window. To our suprise there was a small fragment of blue skies through the clouds. We packed up our belonings and bundled up for the cold weather (we each wore an average of 10 articles of clothing and Natalie and Keriann sported produce plastic bags in their shoes to keep out the snowy wetness). We boarded our first train to Lauterbrunnen and then transferred to a gondola which took us up to Grutschalp. At this point we were only 4,879 ft above sea level and we were already awestruck by the views.

A view from the gondola to Grutschalp

It seems we finally lucked out with the weather and the snow storm the day before was a blessing in disguise. Everything on the mountain was even more picturesque covered with a layer of fresh snow. From Grutschalp we trammed over to Murren. Murren was a lovely little town set in a valley in the mountain with small streets and romantic chalets.

Snow covered Murren

It is currently between ski and summer seasion here so the town was mostly shut down and the streets were still covered with snow. It was quiet and peaceful here, a perfect place to take in the sites.

A view of the Alps from Murren

From here we took another gondola down to Stechelberg and then buses back to Lauterbrunnen.

A rainbow caught in the waterfall

We decided at this point that we wanted to see more of the Alps so we took another train up to Kleine Scheidegg. At this point we were 6,762 feet above sea level and had a beautiful view of the mountains on all sides of us.

Looking out from Kleine Scheidegg

We followed the footprints in the snow of fellow hikers and walked, while slippping and sliding, up to a look out tower. We took pictures here and then walked back into town to grab hot chocolates before taking the next train to Grindelwald.

NJK on top of Kleine Scheidegg

Grindelwald was a much bigger town then the rest and was definitely more of the happening ski resport town. We walked the streets and stopped into a couple of shops before boarding the next train back to Interlaken. Once back at the train station we decided to book our overnight to Nice. Never having a problem getting a train in the past we figured booking the train the night of wouldn’t be a problem. However, the gentleman behind the window seemed very disappointed in us for being so unprepared and explained to us that our overnight train was full and we would have to spend the entire next day getting there. We were disappointed to say the least, we prefer spending our nights on long travels and saving the money on a hostel. We walked back to our hostel, re-checked in, made up our beds and unpacked for the second time. Our friends from the night before were hanging out in the movie room so we joined them for a couple movies and then headed off to bed.

We woke up the next morning, enoyed our free breakfast and took off for the train station. 10 hours of trains ahead of us and then we’ll be in Nice!

Hello blog readers.  We wanted to send out a quick blog update to let you all know that we added a new link to our blog site.  It has been mentioned that we should include a map with our travel route through Europe in our blog.  Thanks to a thunderstorm freeing up some time, we did just that!  At the header of our blog we now have a link ”Route Map.”  You can see how we traveled around Europe and even click on the cities to get more fun facts if you’re interested!

Another relative of Jamie’s, Mattia, picked us up fom the train station in Sondrio, as it was near his work. Again, Matia had never met any of us before but was more than happy to clear his weekend schedule to be our personal tour guide (thanks again Mattia!) We walked around Sondrio a bit, making a pit stop in a shop owned by a friend of Mattia’s that specialized in bresoala, a specialty of the region. We got some free samples then headed back to Berbenno to have dinner with the family. Mattia’s parents, Giulia and Alfio, graciously took us right in, but we were not entirely prepared for the feast that was about to ensue. The meal started out with the best lasagna we have ever had, only to be followed up with lots of bresoula and prosciutto, and even more bresoula and prosciutto stuffed with cheese and goodness, blocks of cheese, salad, bread, wine, and fruit and tortas as the grand finale. Induced into a food coma, we relaxed at the house, showing pictures from blog and looking at pictures of Mattia’s travels as well. Afterwards, Mattia took us back to our nearby hostel he picked out for us and we retired for the night.

 

Dinner with the fam: Alessandro, Alfio, Jamie, Giulia, & Mattia

We enjoyed breakfast at the hostel before being picked up by Mattia for our personal tour around Lake Como. We fought sleep (well Natalie & Keriann couldn’t help but give in in the back seat!) while we drove to the first town, Laglio. We stopped first for a little pick-me-up of moroccinos (we know these as mochaccinos) and cappucinos (Fun fact: Italians only order these as their breakfast coffees, not throughout the day as tourists often do).

Cappucino & moroccino to start the day!

Then we were on to find George Clooney’s lakeside villa. We drove past his villa , L’Oleandra, and hoped to get a glance of the gorgeous actor, but decided that he was probably in sunny LA at this time of year. We peeked around and saw his boat garage as well as the separate house where he puts up all his workers (we weren’t really stalking him, we promise!).

L'Oleandra

We were then on to Como. The views from the lakeside cities were wonderful– a placid Lake Como, surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains, with a calm fog lingering overhead. It would have been great to see the lake in the summertime, but it was very peaceful to experience it without the throngs of tourists. Even Mattia had never been to Lake Como when it was so quiet.

Peaceful view of the lake

We walked through the town a little bit seeing some monuments, including one dedicated to Alessandro Volta, the brains behind voltage. We watched planes pull out of the Como Aero Club and take off from the water, and walked past the villas, admiring their classic architecture and even their personal boat garages built underneath!

Water plane

After Como we drove up to Bellaggio, the city right on the split in the lake. We walked through the town, admiring the nice shops and fancy restaurants, but like many places we’ve visited, most of the town was in hibernation for the winter. We stopped to eat at a panini place, gazing at a framed picture of George while we ate. From Bellaggio we loaded the car onto a ferry and cruised over to Verenna. The ride over was a bit chilly but provided a great view from the lake.

Ferrying to Verenna

We walked around the town, but all tuckered out from the day we soon loaded back into car and drove back to Berbenno. We took naps to refresh then prepared for a fun night of dinner and drinks with Mattia’s friends. We ate at one of their local favorites and like the night before, left absolutely filled to the brim. The meal went something like this: wine, 4 kinds of meats, fried cheese balls, pickled veggies; venison-filled ravioli and cheesy piyyoccheri (a local specialty, and a new fave); venison filets (they couldn’t think of the word for “deer”, so they told us it was “Bambi’s mom”); sorbetto, digestive liquers, and finally, coffee. Phew. So filled up and energized we headed to a local bar for a drink. We then headed to another club and shortly after went back home, preparing for another full day of eating ahead of us.

"Bambi's mom" was delish!

The next morning Mattia picked us up to join the rest of the family for lunch. We went to the ginormous and beautiful home of Pina & Bruno, more distant relatives of Jamie’s. When we got there, Bruno was making polenta on the old-fashioned stove in the garage.

Bruno stirring the polenta

Polenta is another specialty of the region, consisting of corn flour, water, butter and cheese, and has to be stirred almost consistently for one hour. In between watching Bruno prepare his delicious dish, we got a tour of the cantina, or wine cellar, below the garage. Pina & Bruno make their own wine, and the cellar was filled with giant barrels and bottles for wine– it was so neat! They grow their own grapes, peaches, potatoes and even make their own lemoncello.

The cantina

Some more relatives joined and over our delicious lunch (including the best Italian sausage we have ever had!) we looked at some old photos of Jamie’s mom when she had visited the family years back. It was a lot of fun, and even though we depended on Mattia a lot of the time to translate, the whole family was so nice to all of us, more than happy to include us in their ritual Sunday family lunch. [Thanks to everyone again for taking such great care of us, it meant so much!!]

Jamie with the family

After having dessert, coffee and some spumante, it was time for Mattia to take us back to the train station. On the way we stopped at a gelateria for one last gelato fling, then said our goodbyes to Mattia as we boarded the train to Lucerne…

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