In which Sarah, Colleen and Maddie venture to France, Italy and Greece; have things to do, people to see, shady vendors to avoid and a trade-up is made from buses to airplanes.
When I’m at home, my spring breaks are pretty unremarkable. Some people go off to Florida to swim with dolphins, some people go on the service trips my school offers to help the needy. I usually go back to my house to hang about and play with my cats. Since that’s not really an option here in Ireland, I had to make an alternative plan: going on a breakneck-speed tour of three big European capital cities.
You know, you work with what you’ve got.
Hostel: Absolute Paris
Hostel Roommate: Will
Points of Interest Seen: Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Champs de Elysees, Arc d’Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge
Paris was the first stop on my trip with fellow study abroad students Colleen and Maddie. We had a long bus ride to Dublin Airport, but got through our flight with relative ease. Our hostel was small and everything about it was rather closet-like from the room to the rattling elevator. Aside from an exciting episode with a cockroach discovered in the sink (scooped out with the trash can and thrown out the window) our stay was pretty comfortable. The shower had hot water and the breakfast would prove to be the best we’d get at a hostel throughout the trip. Sharing our room was Will, a laid-back guy from Australia who had apparently quit his job to go roaming around the world. We chatted with him a little in the morning and at night, but otherwise didn’t see him much.
Our explorations of the city were mostly on foot, with some use of the Paris metro (almost always managing to get on the wrong tram or off on the wrong stop). The buildings were beautiful and the weather was too. Even the graffiti and trash in the streets didn’t detract much from the beauty of the City of Lights. With our first stop at Notre Dame, I was almost tearing up because it was so hard to believe I was really in Paris, standing in front of such a well-known monument! That disbelief kept hitting me again and again: seeing the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo in the Louvre, our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, realizing just how big the Arc d’Triomphe really is. We even ventured out of our hostel in the evening the second day to see the Eiffel Tower at night and were in the right place at the right time to see it sparkle with flashing white lights – up until that moment, we had thought the flashing models in the gift shops were just gaudy junk, but it looked just like them!
Aside from the big sights we were obligated to hit, we had other miscellaneous adventures along the way. Watching pigeons doing mating dances outside the Louvre. Maddie getting pushed out of the way by an aggressive Asian tourist taking a photo by the Venus de Milo. Wandering down a very steep, very dark and rather scary pathway through a park trying to get to the Eiffel Tower at night and practically stumbling over a sleeping homeless person. Going to see the Sacre Coeur started as just a tourist thing, but we got an unexpected bonus: walking right into Palm Sunday mass. It took us a minute to figure out why all the other “tourists” around us had foliage in their hands. We also sampled local cuisine including crepes, terrine du canard and baguettes…lots and lots of baguettes.
Incidentally, people really do walk around carrying baguettes or bags with the bread sticking out of the top like you see on sitcoms.
Hostel: Legends Hostel
Hostel Roommates: Tristan, Beck, “Samoa”, That Chinese-German Guy, Makeup Girl
Points of Interest Seen: Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colusseum, Pompei, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon
The main thing I can say after experiencing Rome during Holy Week is that I’m glad we weren’t there on Easter Sunday. Regardless of any opportunity to see the Pope and his Popemobile, the crowds would have sent me into stress fits. Rome was very crowded and busy! Our first two stops, the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, weren’t too bad because they were mainly large, outdoor areas. As with most areas where tourists congregate, both were clogged with street performers and people trying to hawk useless souvenir toys to the masses. We saw a guy playing “O Solo Mio” on glasses down one street by the Pantheon and shifty guys selling imitation designer handbags were everywhere. The most persistent were the people trying to get us to join tours while we were waiting in line to go into the Vatican. We (mostly) politely declined and 20 questions to pass the time.
The Trevi Fountain at night was beautiful. Colleen’s friend Katie, who had joined us for the Rome part of the trip, said that she had heard people say it was a letdown to see in person. After seeing it, none of us agreed. It was like a white stone waterfall full of statues of gods and winged horses and we stayed long enough to see the fountain lights go on, illuminating the falling water. We tossed Euro pennies over our shoulders into it, which is supposed to ensure that we return to Rome someday.
The Vatican and Sistine chapel were gorgeous, but probably my most stressful times in terms of the crowding and small spaces. It’s a long maze through rooms full of incredible statues and tapestry displays to the actual Sistine Chapel. I must say, it seemed weird to have statues of Roman heroes and gods in the Catholic capital of the world. The stone menagerie (just what it sounds like, lots of animal statues) was very cool though. The Sistine Chapel itself was surprisingly small and monitored by guards who took the opportunity every few minutes to shush the crowd and remind them of the mandate “NO PHOTO!” So of course, everyone was talking and taking pictures on the sly.
Our hostel roommates were a little more interactive this time, at least some of them. Tristan, who was actually on break from the same school that Katie is studying at in Grenada, joined us for the journey to Naples to see Pompei. Beck was an Australian teacher on her own sojourn who chatted with us at breakfast about sights we’d seen. The remaining bed in our room got a new occupant every night, starting with some guy of undetermined nationality whose name sounded kind of like “Samoa”, a guy who looked Chinese but was from Germany, and a girl who we only really saw emerge from the bathroom carrying more makeup than anyone staying in hostels should really need.
Pompei was a day in itself and required way to much time sitting on the floor of a train. By the time we got on the train, there were no seats, so we huddled in the connecting corridor between cars and had to move every time someone came out. Somehow it was still fun, and we did make it to the huge expanse of ancient, half-walls that is Pompei. We got to see some of those famous preserved people and even had the opportunity to try limoncello at a stand outside the city (sort of like highly alcoholic lemon syrup). Unfortunately most of the day was spent in transit rather than actually in the city, but it was quite an adventure.
Our last day’s experience was probably my favorite: St. Peter’s Basilica. It was huge, so not so much crowding. The sounds of a choir singing somewhere within also kept people from being too noisy. The basilica really is magnificent, full of beautiful sculptures, a carved list of all the popes ever, and even of few of said popes in glass boxes. Go figure that one. It was even all decked out for Easter service and it was easy to see why that high dome over the altar is supposed to represent heaven.
Almost as exciting to us as seeing all these amazing things was the sight of a certain kind of shop, selling a certain kind of sweet treat: gelateries. We made it our mission to try five different kinds of gelato each before leaving Rome and ended up with seven or eight. My favorite was the one I had first, Ciocciolato. The prize for most creative name, though, goes to Viagra flavor gelato (bright blue, but mostly just tasted like vanilla). If you make it to Rome, look around the Pantheon for the shop that sells it.
Hostel: Athens Backpackers
Hostel Roommates: John (Fruit Loop) and Linda (Space Cadet)
Points of Interest Seen: Acropolis, Parthenon, Lycabettus Hill, Hadrian’s Arch, Olympic Stadium, Changing of the Guard
Athens was the shortest part of our trip, but definitely my favorite. Why? It was less crowded than Rome, cleaner than Paris and you could get a gyro and a soda for dinner for less than €3. Weather was the characteristic Greek blue sky with few clouds in sight. Athens Backpackers had helpful staff and offered a €5 walking tour, so we took advantage of that. Our guide was fantastic, telling us all sorts of neat things about the stuff we were seeing (this was the first time we’d actually taken a tour on the trip) and answering every silly question we came up with. He told us history behind monuments (like how Hadrian’s Arch is a combination of Roman and Greek style arches and the old participant democracy system of Ancient Greece) and told us where to go for fun and food. He was so nice I actually gave him a tip later even though he didn’t ask. I don’t mind when I feel it’s well deserved.
We appreciated the architecture of the temples even more after the tour and later went down from Acropolis Hill to see the Changing of the Guard across from Syntagma Square. If you don’t know anything about this, search it on youtube. It’s one of the weirdest things you’ll ever see. And if you feel like laughing at the pompoms on their shoes, consider that their original function was to conceal knives.
If the hostel was nice, our roommates this time were certainly an odd pair. Linda (40-something) seemed just a little off in the clouds and John (29) seemed kind of opinionated but okay – up until he started going off about how Obama is a Muslim and the justifications for racial profiling of Muslims. Colleen and I were afraid that Maddie was going to punch him in the face, so we suddenly found it very important to go do something ELSE. Luckily for us, they were up and away early in the morning to catch a flight so we had no further encounters with Fruit Loop and Space Cadet.
The last event of our trip was to venture out at midnight to witness Easter at a Greek Orthodox church. We found one easily (they were everywhere) and watched as the priest came out and read/chanted while people gathered in the street and lit candles. Right at midnight, the bells started chiming and loud fireworks started going off VERY close to us. They sounded like gunshots, but since nobody who actually knew what was going on was panicking, we figured we were okay. It was amazing and the perfect ending to our spring break tour.
Our trip home required almost 20 hours of flying, layover and bus riding before we made it back to Limerick sometime around 4 A.M. And strangely, after being away from it for so long, Ireland seemed like home.