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Family and friends in Ljubljana

On my way to Ljubljana from Spittal, I made one of those major train errors which have always seemed to happen to other people, but not to me. In my excitement to board the train that would take me to see my family, I failed to realize that not all cars on this train were headed to Ljubljana. Only after I had settled comfortably in my compartment, window seat overlooking the green Drava river to my right, did I notice the paper which read: SPITTAL-VILLACH-KLAGENFURT-WIEN. Uhh, wait a minute. I was traveling southeast to reach Ljubljana, but Klagenfurt is almost directly north of Ljubljana, and Vienna is way northeast of Klagenfurt. Shoot. I walked my way back down several cars (leaving my heavy backpack behind), climbing over luggage left in the aisles, until I reached a car with LJUBLJANA printed on its timetable. It was quite a ways back. Great. I would just need to return to the front car, grab my backpack, then find a new seat in this car.

Except everyone was now leaving their seats and compartments and clogging to aisles to disembark in Villach, which was quickly approaching. I clambered past, trying to make it back to my original car. I did not want to be stuck in a different part of the train when the cars separated and went in their respective directions from the train station! Luckily, I reached my car in time, grabbed my backpack, jumped off the train and ran to the Slovenia-bound car in time to get a seat before the detached trains started moving. Travel is a humbling experience.

I was excited to see my mother’s cousin Majda and her daughter Katja waiting for me at the train station in Ljubljana. (Katja joked to me that they just had to look for the tallest person getting off the train in order to find me!) It was amazing to see the sheer number of backpackers getting off the train. I have not been to Slovenia in six years, and the majority of the time that I have spent here was in 2000-2001, before Slovenia adopted the Euro and before it became a major tourist destination. I braced myself to see some huge changes when I went into the city.

Back at the house, my mother’s cousin Anka and Majda’s husband, Rudi, welcomed me back and got me settled into my usual sleeping quarters: Katja’s old bedroom just off the landing of the staircase. The tiny room has tall wooden cabinets, paintings covering the walls, and a huge bookshelf built into the wall over the twin bed. This is where I have stayed every time I have come to visit, and it feels like home. I was so happy to be back.

The night before school started, I went into the center (of Ljubljana) with my “cousins” Katja and Suzi. We parked in the underground parking lot beneath Zvezda Park where Katja works and saw the town on foot. The bus lines have COMPLETELY changed since I was a student at summer school here, and streets that were once full of traffic have now been pedestrianized. The banks of the Ljubljanica River have always been lined with cafes, but now those cafes stretch farther than ever before to an area where steps and footpaths have been built along the river. I wistfully thought, “Man, 21-year-old Becky would have loved this!”

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IMG_3721.JPGSuzi and Katja along the Ljubljanica

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Never thought I would see a hanging klobasa sign, but hey, it works.

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For the next two weeks, I would be taking Slovenian language classes at the Faculty of Arts. (More on this in another post). My typical plan was to take the bus to and from school, arriving back home in time for lunch, the main meal of the day. Majda and Anka cook fantastic meals (mostly using vegetables from their huge garden out back), so I definitely never went hungry. I was, however, concerned about my waistline when most of my favorite dishes were potato-based! Mmmm, so delicious.

IMG_3770.JPGLunchtime with the fam (Rudi, Suzi’s son Črt, Suzi, Anka, and Majda)

IMG_3755.JPGCheese and potato dumplings, zucchini and potato fritters, and cucumber-potato-onion salad: the makings of a food baby

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Katja informed me that shortly before my visit, the cat gave birth to five kittens in the garage. I would visit them almost every day (if mama cat would allow me).

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IMG_3916.JPGNo, not a cat, but a visitor that Katja found in the yard

I was able to visit with my mother’s father’s side of the family, too. We went for a lunchtime visit one afternoon (with more delicious food!). My mom’s cousins Helena and Anka (yes, lots of Ankas here) also took us for dessert at the cafe at the top of the nebotičnik, or skyscraper, downtown.

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There are so many people from my home town of Cleveland that are now living back in Slovenia. I got to visit my friend Monika and her husband and meet their little daughter Ema, who has inherited Dad’s musical talent.

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A friend of my family, Mark, has opened a burrito restaurant in Ljubljana. My mom joined me and one of my classmates for lunch there after my last day of school. Check out Burrito Loco if you happen to be in Ljubljana. Good stuff, Mark!

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Other friends of my family, Nande and Meta, now spend half the year living in Florida and the other half of the year in Slovenia. Majda, my mother, and I visited them at their house in the hills overlooking Ljubljana. I looooove their house (and the view doesn’t hurt either!) It was so good to see them again.

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View from Nande and Meta’s house at sunset

In between all these fun visits, I *did* have to get some studying done. More on than in my next post.

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Seeboden

After Salzburg, I only had a few days before my Slovenian language course started in Ljubljana (Slovenia), but I decided to break up the relatively short trip there and stop for a night in Seeboden, which is on Lake Millstatt in southwestern Austria. This is not a typical town on most Austrian travel itineraries, but it has a special significance to me because it is the place where my mother was born.

My mother’s family, like many other Slovenian families, fled into Austria after the end of WWII. They lived in a displaced persons camp in nearby Spittal for several years before emigrating to the US. During this time, my mother was born in a local maternity ward -formerly a villa- in Seeboden that was later converted into a hotel. (She was three years old when they came to the US). I was luckily able to see this hotel on my first trip to Europe 20 years ago, but as those memories are fuzzy, I thought it would be nice to stop by again since I was in the neighborhood, so to speak. Sadly, the old hotel was razed and has been replaced by a modern hotel and recreation center (which wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if it wasn’t so garishly designed. Boo).

I stayed on the main street running through the town and was able to walk around the whole town in about two hours. I passed by many beautifully decorated homes and guest houses, all with the signature carved wooden balconies and flower boxes that I have come to associate with Slovenia itself. There was a Friday night festival going on right across the street from my hotel; live music played while vendors sold wooden handicrafts, baskets, and local meats, cheeses, and honey. I also spent some time in a small park that is right across the street from the site of the old hotel; I spoke to an older woman (who was walking both her dog and her cat!) who remembered the presence of the hospital there. I was actually in search of a bridge that is infamous from one of my mother’s stories: while living in the DP camp in Spittal, my grandfather had worked as a bicycle delivery man. He would work at outside farms that would pay him in produce, which he would then take by bike back to Spittal to sell. (It was illegal to go outside a 50km radius of the camp, but my mother states that my grandfather didn’t care and even convinced one of the policemen into loading his bike onto a train so he could travel to more distant farms for work!) Apparently he was taking a crate of 13 dozen eggs from a farm back to the camp when his bike crashed and fell on one of the bridges in Seeboden. My mother says that he always claimed that the eggs survived the fall unscathed, save two, which suffered only small cracks.

Here are some scenes from the picturesque town of Seeboden.

IMG_3661-0.JPG View from train between Salzburg and Spittal-Millstättersee

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This is what the front portion of the new hotel looks like. Notice how it blends in so nicely with the rest of the town’s architecture. Ouch.

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These are a few of my favorite things

Word to the wise: buy a Bayern ticket -unlimited day travel- if you will be traveling from anywhere in Bavaria to Salzburg. The Austrian town is so close to the border that the German rail system considers it part of Bavaria, which will save you a lot of money if you depart after 9:30am. Since the ticket is good for the entire day, several people at the train station in Salzburg approached me and asked to borrow my Bayern ticket to return to Germany!

Salzburg. How has it taken me this long to visit? It’s such a perfect and quaint little city. I fell in love with it the second I arrived. After a rest in my hotel, I spent the first night exploring the town.

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These are a few of my favorite things:
1. Travel
2. Bike riding
3. Singing
4. The Sound of Music. OK, it’s not technically on my favorites list, but I do love this movie. I can recite whole sections of it by heart. When the movie was shown on TV every year on a Saturday night as I was growing up, I would stay up as late as I could to watch it and then sob when little Gretl had to go to sleep. I have been known to claim that Christopher Plummer’s Georg von Trapp is my ideal man. I once sang “The Lonely Goatherd” at a karaoke bar in South Korea. I’m a fan.

So when I heard of something called Fraulein Maria’s Sound of Music Bike Tour in Salzburg, my inner geek nearly lost bladder control in my excitement to book a spot. It made for one of the best days of my trip thus far.

We met near the Mirabellplatz gardens in the morning. There was a forecast for rain in the afternoon, but we were fortunate enough to have a beautiful sunny morning for our tour. I was also lucky that there were several other movie geeks on the tour. When I would take what might otherwise be an embarrassing tourist photo during the tour, it was always followed by some relieved person saying, “Oh thank God you wanted to do that, too!” and then taking the same shot :). It was a fantastic mix of Salzburg history, movie anecdotes, current city culture, and the nearby natural environment. And I swear that I was only singing “The Lonely Goatherd” in my head as I sped along. (OK, maybe just a little yodel here and there).

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Tea with jam, jam and bread

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I have confidence in me!

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Our tour guide, Claudio, was fantastic and even suggested an idea for a video for anyone interested. So of course I accepted.
CAUTION: the video you are about to watch contains gratuitous dorkiness. It may not be suited for cool people or agoraphobics. Viewer discretion advised.

[My apologies for being anticlimactic and not being able to post this video at this time.  I have been having video issues again with this site but was delaying any further posts until the problem could be fixed.  But I’m tired of waiting!  Please try to visit this post again in the future, and I will do my best to provide the aforementioned cheese :),  ]

After the tour, I had arranged to meet Peter, my train buddy, for lunch and coffee at one of his favorite places near the river. I got to watch some of his video footage of a recent trip he had taken to Mongolia. We then took an elevator ride up the side of one of the cliffs and leisurely made our way back down to the city. Thank you, Peter: it’s always nice to get a local’s perspective!

IMG_3642.JPGMcDonald’s in Salzburg (not where we went for lunch!)

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Love locks on the bridge

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That evening, I went to see a show at the Salzburger Marionettentheater. Puppet shows are not typically a “must-see” for me, especially in a town that I would only be visiting for one full day, but this was highly recommended. The calendar showed that the evening’s performance would be Die Fledermaus, but I was happy to find when I arrived at the theater that the show had been changed to Die Zauberflöte, or The Magic Flute by Mr. Mozart himself. I have to admit, it was incredible. I was amazed at how fluidly the puppets moved. It was difficult to perceive how large they were due to the setup of the stage, so within minutes I began to feel as if I were watching life-size marionettes. (I was also getting major flashbacks to Being John Malkovich). What a shock came at the end when the proscenium lifted, showing the puppeteers above the stage and their puppets only about two feet tall!

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Before returning to my hotel, I stopped for a drink at a floating bar that was docked along the river. It was one of those moments where every inch of me felt gratitude for being able to enjoy a day like this.

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Nach Deutschland

Julia came with me to Roma Termini to see me off. In the attempt to make the most of my travel time, I had booked an overnight train from Rome to Munich. There, I would make a quick connection to a train to Frankfurt, and then a second connection to Mainz, where I would be spending the next few days staying with my friend Karola from high school and her family.

I boarded the train and began to look for my wagen and platz. Already not 100% enthusiastic about the prospect of trying to sleep on a train (I have had some rough times on night trains past; see also SARAJEVO TO BUDAPEST 2006) I had treated myself to a 4-person sleeper car. I *had* slept well in such accommodations on a night train from Paris to Barcelona back in 2002: booked by and shared with my college roommate, our compartment had four wide, comfy beds, a little sink, and collapsible tables. I looked forward to a similar experience.

I passed by several cramped 6-bed compartments (whew, glad I didn’t reserve one of those!) until I reached the end of the car and found my seat number. Inside were three fellow passengers… sitting in a cramped 6-bed compartment. Uhhhh…? It took me a minute to see that yes, this was the correct seating arrangement, and that technically we were still a 4-person compartment even though there were two empty beds squished between us. (Amy, if you’re reading this, I don’t know what kind of magic you worked when you reserved that awesome Barcelona train, but thank you). In the cabin with me was an African man who was currently residing in Naples, a pregnant woman from Eritrea who couldn’t have been much more than 18, and Peter, a filmmaker from Salzburg. When I mentioned that I would likely be passing through Austria on my way south to Slovenia, Peter and I exchanged information and agreed that we would try to meet up if our schedules allowed.

Also on the train were a slew of rowdy German-speaking teenagers who appeared to be on their way to either a camping trip or a festival. They screamed and shrieked in the hallways of the train car and occasionally lifted the outdoor curtain to see inside our compartment. Thankfully the compartment door blocks a lot of the sound once it’s closed! I busted out my dinner, took some photos of the sunset through the train window, and actually had a decent night’s sleep.

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I love the intercity/express trains in Germany. So clean! So quiet! Bathrooms that don’t make you want to vomit! Train travel is one of the best parts of travel itself. I arrived in Mainz without a problem around noon. As my friend and her husband wouldn’t be home from work until 5:30 or so, I had some time to kill. I chucked my backpack into a locker at the train station and headed into town. I had been here two years earlier and had already seen many of the “must-sees” (the famous Cathedral; the Gutenberg museum, so named as Mainz was the site where Gutenberg first used the printing press; Chagall’s modern stained glass windows in St. Stephan’s church), so this year I planned to just relax. And relax I did, sitting on a park bench for several hours and finishing The Casual Vacancy just before my iPad ran out of juice.

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It’s always a pleasure to see Karola (one of my best friends from high school) and her family. She and her husband Harvey graciously welcomed me to their home again. Their daughter Solveig is not quite three and already exhibits the brains and imagination of both mom and dad. Shyness aside, she immediately crawled near me on the couch and announced, “Ich bin eine maus!” (“I am a mouse!”) I always find it so funny to hear little children, especially children of English-speaking friends, speak another language. It’s one of their primary languages, of course, but my first reaction is always to think, “Wow: this kid is so smart!.” And then I sheepishly have to ask mom to translate what they’re saying for me :). In addition to other mice, Solveig likes: gymnastics, going down the slide, swimming, and bratwurst.

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Jasmin and Chris were also able to take the train from Dortmund to visit me on Friday evening. We met for drinks, dinner, and ice cream, then wandered the square a bit watching the Germans pack the outdoor cafes to watch the World Cup matches. It was strange to see each other in street clothes (aka non-Camino gear!).

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My next stop in Germany was to visit my friend Doug who is working in Bayreuth for the year. Bayreuth is famous for its yearly Wagner music festival, although I’ve heard that these tickets are nearly impossible to come by. On my first full day there, we took a long bike ride through the neighboring towns, stopping at a local restaurant for some schnitzel and beer for dinner

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Bayreuth is a quaint little city. I spent a lot of time just wandering around the streets. There was a street festival going on while I was there, which only added to the World Cup madness.

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On my last night in Bayreuth, I went out to dinner with Doug and two of his friends. Because the weather had taken a turn for the worse and I was not properly dressed, I passed on going with them afterwards to try to find someplace to watch the Germany-Brazil match in favor of going home, warming up, and packing for my early departure the next morning. As I sat in Doug’s apartment later on, I heard a roaring from outside. It sounded like something from a battle scene in Braveheart. Here, Germany had defeated Brazil 7-1, and the entire town was going nuts. I missed one of the biggest German World Cup match victories of all time while I was in Germany. Doh!

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I wish that I could lie and say that all this wasn’t my food. (OK, the pretzels were shared amongst the table, and I *did* take half of my spaetzle home to eat on the train the next day. But that is still a lot of food!)

Doug dropped me off at the train station the next morning. Austria was next on my itinerary.

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Pompeii yes, Pompeii no

One of my major regrets from my trip to Italy 15 years ago is that I never made it to Pompeii. As somewhat of an archaeology enthusiast, I think I made a terrible mistake. So this time, I decided to take a day trip from Rome to visit the city and nearby Vesuvius, the volcano which erupted and buried the town so many years ago. I took an early high-speed train (yay!) from Rome to Naples and listened to an impromptu Italian music playlist on my iPod. I soon remembered that I have next to no opera on my iPod as the playlist proceeded directly to my awesome Italo Disco Party mix. Say what you will about Eiffel 65 (yes, I am aware that they they wrote songs about blue aliens and PlayStation and that you think they’re “dated” or “cheesy” or “having no musical talent whatsoever”), but I like them, and I still listen to them on a somewhat regular basis. Embrace the cheese! I also will never get tired of Gigi D’Agostino.

I had a little bit of spare time in Naples before catching the Circumvesuviana train to Pompeii, so I did a quick walk around the block of the train station in search of a grocery store to buy some inexpensive snacks and lunch to bring with me. However, this was easier said than done, as most of the area around the station was filled with rinky-dink souvenir shops, tobacco shops, and black market salesman. The streets appeared especially grimy and filled with garbage. I’m sure that there are other parts of Naples that are much nicer, but this area was pretty dingy and borderline creepy. Color me unimpressed.

I caught the Circumvesuviana, which was jam-packed with locals and tourists alike. Upon arriving in Pompeii, I realized that I had no plan. Again, I had failed to do much additional research on the site, and I had no guidebook with me, leaving myself at the mercy of the swarm of tour guides at the train station. I met a Scottish couple about my age, and they told me that they were taking a bus tour to climb Vesuvius. The staff at their hotel had recommended doing the climb first before entering the Pompeii ruins. “Eh, why not?” I said, and shilled out the €22 to join them on the bus. Now, a smart person would have turned her head slightly to the left before paying any admission fee, noticed that the peak of Vesuvius was shrouded in a thick veil of fog, and declined the offer.  But as I am not a smart person, I went ahead, taking a comically turbulent bus ride up the side of the volcano to an unpaved parking lot, where we were released into the fog.

It took another 15-minute walk up a slippery gravel path to reach the summit of Vesuvius.  Not that I could tell much of a difference between the view into and from the volcano.  Fog to the left.  Fog to the right.  The views of the Amalfi coast are supposed to be spectacular on a clear day, but this was a no-go.  The small summit cafe was selling overpriced drinks and weird knick-knacks made of volcanic rock.  (Anyone want a glittery blue lava dragon?  How about a turtle?  I didn’t think so).  I killed some time taking Monty Python-themed photos  We were supposed to spend an hour up here? The wind whipped us around, and I was thankful that I had brought a long-sleeved shirt.  I loitered near the top for as long as I could, but after about 20 minutes, I headed down to catch an earlier bus back into town.image

Fabulous view into the volcano

Fabulous view into the volcano

What is your name?  What is your quest?  What is the capital of Assyria?

What is your name? What is your quest? What is the capital of Assyria?

image The rest of the afternoon, I explored the Pompeii ruins, kicking myself for wasting so much time at Vesuvius when I could have been avoiding the bigger crowds at the ruins.  I underestimated how much time it takes to see the ancient site, but I still was able to view a lot of it.  My audioguide was a bit tricky to follow:  the numbers at each point of interest did not always correspond with the directions given by the audioguide, so I found myself making a lot of wrong turns.  Even so, the ruins were amazing.

Roman baths

Roman baths

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City block

City block

Sitting in the amphitheater

Sitting in the amphitheater

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Exiting the city gate

Exiting the city gate

I needed to catch the Circumvesuviana back to Naples in order to make it back to Rome that night, so by late afternoon, I started to head back to the train station.  As I walked along the street to the station, my jaw dropped in disbelief when I saw a familiar face.  “Spencer?”  I asked.  It was a classmate of mine from dental school!  We had not seen each other in over eight years.  He was currently on vacation with his entire family in Italy.  What a small world to run into a schoolmate near some Roman ruins!

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It would have to wait until I got back to the hotel....

It would have to wait until I got back to the hotel….

 

Back on the the train, I was dumbstruck by the beauty of the Amalfi coast.  Tell me again why I decided to stay in a big city instead of on the beach?  I enjoyed a slice of traditional Neopolitan pizza at the train station before returning to Rome, anxious to wash my dirty feet and sandals after a long, long day.

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When in Rome

My flight out of Santiago left at 6:45am, but the buses from town to the airport don’t run that early. Since I really didn’t feel like sleeping in the airport overnight (which several pilgrims did; no thank you!) I splurged on an early-morning taxi. I almost had a heart attack going through security at the airport. Something kept on scanning in my carry-on bag, and the woman who worked there repeatedly asked me with suspicion what I might have that was setting off the sensors. “A knife?” she asked warily. “No, I don’t carry a knife,” I answered, confused. I frantically rummaged through the compartments of my daypack to see what the offending item could be. To my horror, I slipped my hand into a small interior pocket and pulled out my little Swiss Army knife. “Oh nooo…” I moaned, knowing that it would probably be confiscated. I have no idea how my knife could have gotten into that pocket (unless I had maybe placed it there for the Finisterre trip in case we decided to buy supermarket food for lunch). Luckily, she measured the largest blade, and somehow it was small enough to fall into what must have been the “bread and cheese” category and not the “serious threat” category, and I was able to keep it. (I still do not understand the rationale behind this, but I was not about to argue with her; I like my knife!) I sheepishly threw it back in my bag, knowing that I was now That Stupid Passenger At Security that I had always mocked before, and headed to the gate.

My flight was not direct but flew through Madrid, where I had a few hours to kill. The design of the Madrid airport is gorgeous. Airy and modern with plenty of natural light, it puts other airports to shame (ahem, Boston Logan Terminal E).

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On the flight, I had to begin the process of switching the Spanish in my head to Italian, which proved to be no easy feat. I sat next to a Spanish woman who for some reason tried to converse with me in Italian even though it was apparent that neither of us spoke it well. She would also proudly answer me in whatever English she knew. I would offer her something while speaking in Spanish, and she would accept, perk up, and beam, “THENK you VER-y MUCH-a!”

Once in Rome, I took several trains to reach the subway, which took me to the neighborhood where I would be staying the next four nights. I had booked a place online at booking.com (which, by the way, I quite like. They offer the option of looking for a single room for one person- including or excluding dorm beds in hostels depending on your preference- and frequently allow cancellation or changes in reservation at no cost). I had reserved the most reasonable accommodation I could find; no 10 Euro pilgrim albergues here! The place was a casa religiosa, which appeared to be a mix between a school and a seminary with conference rooms and a large chapel inside. When I reached my room and saw a crucifix and picture of the Annunciation on the wall, I smiled: it felt like I was still on the Camino.

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I had been in Rome 15 years earlier, so my goal was just to take it easy but see some of the sights that I had missed the first time around. My first night, I took the metro to the Spanish Steps and sat there eating a piece of pizza and a Coke. Gelato in hand, I wandered past cozy restaurant patios and came upon the Piazza Populo, where a MASSIVE free concert was going on. I was amazed at the relatively relaxed security: I was able to walk up the street behind the stage and watch the show from amidst the statues on the nearby hill. In the US, my guess is that the whole area would have been roped off and guarded, so I appreciated the opportunity for a good view!

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On Saturday, I took a bus down the Via Appia to the Roman catacombs. The tours there are brief (around 30 minutes) and are offered periodically in several different languages. Even though we only saw a tiny fraction of the underground passages, I can understand why they do not allow entrance without a guide: it would be nearly impossible not to get lost! The cold subterranean tunnels also provided a welcome break from the heat of the afternoon. Many members of my tour group were priests and seminarians from Nigeria, so I spoke to them for a bit after the tour. On the way home, I decided to take the scenic route, buy a gelato, and walk past the Coliseum on the way to a different subway station. It was kind of pleasant to sit next to Roman ruins and just read a book!

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So I had dropped the ball when it came to planning my Rome trip. I had intended to go to the Sunday Papal Mass but didn’t realize until it was too late that you need to reserve a ticket to even get in. Oops. I settled for going to St. Peter’s on Sunday at noon to hear the Pope pray the Angelus. I got there around 11:40, which was not nearly early enough, because the square looked like this:

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That square gets crowded, man! I was forced to decide between two options: a direct view of both the Pope and the scorching sun, or a spot beneath the columns in the shade that was in, uh, earshot of the Pope. I thought like a dermatologist and stayed out of the sun but was able to get this shot by extending my arm around the column that blocked my view:

20140730-231528-83728492.jpgYayyy, Papa Francesco!

[Fast forward: Two days later, I returned to the square and was able to take a normal tourist shot of myself without the massive hordes of people:]

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But those hordes were all there on Sunday, when I waited in line for 45 minutes just to get into 5pm Mass. I had forgotten just how enormous St. Peter’s Basilica is. Beautiful, but enormous. It’s like a holy airplane hangar. Sometimes I can feel almost overwhelmed in such a large space, so I focus on little details. It helps keep it in perspective for me.

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Back at the hotel, I had met another solo traveler at breakfast, Julia from Russia. As much as I like to travel alone, it is always nice to have someone to share a meal with. We went to dinner at an inexpensive restaurant around the corner from the hotel. The waiter brought us our silverware, glasses, and one lemon-scented wet-nap.

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When Julia kindly reminded him that there were two of us and asked if he could bring another, we ended up with this:

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We went shopping for souvenirs on my last day in Rome. In addition to the standard Rome/Italy offerings, there was a plethora of Pope-related memorabilia for sale: some of it pious, some of it funny. I saw delicate rosaries and prayer cards, but in the same store I also saw cigarette lighters of the Pope giving the thumbs up sign like the Buddy Christ :). Satisfied with our purchases, we stocked up at a grocery store (note to self: prepackaged salads are cheaper in Spain) and, with the addition of some of Julia’s leftover pizza, had a feast for lunch back at the hotel.

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In addition to all the fun in Rome, I took a day trip to Pompeii. But that’s a story for another post :).

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Post-Camino Santiago

I had given myself a few days in Santiago after finishing the Camino to recoup, repack, and plan the following few weeks of travel. While I had been walking, it had been difficult to think about anything further into the future than reaching Santiago, so I whipped up a tentative itinerary, booked my major transportation, and emailed the friends that I would be visiting in Germany. I went to the post office to send home as much as I possibly could without completely breaking the bank (goodbye, compostela,, trekking poles, guide book, and hiking socks!) FYI, the people who work at the Santiago post office – and actually, at all of the post offices that I had used in Spain- are incredibly helpful. A big thumbs up and thank you to them for helping me lighten my backpack!

“Business” stuff aside, it was nice to be able to spend a few days in one place again. I was staying at the Hotel LaSalle in a 4-person dorm room. I had sworn up and down that once I was off the Camino, I would not stay in dorms for the rest of my travels, but this room was actually very nice. It had a bunk and two single beds along with a large bathroom in a cheerful orange color. Every afternoon when I arrived in my room, I would be the only inhabitant and hoped that it would stay that way. But when I would return every evening after dinner or going out, a new roommate would be asleep in the neighboring single bed. Luckily, all of the roommates I had in Santiago were considerate and very friendly. My first roommate Giordi was a barista from Italy (haha, yeah I know) and accompanied me and Jasmin on the bus to Finisterre. On the night that I returned to Santiago, I met Jin, a woman from South Korea who has been traveling solo in Europe. We shared a long brunch together at a nearby bar before she had to check out.

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The last night, Jin’s former spot in the dorm room was occupied by Maria, a student from Italy. She and I joked that you can sometimes tell a person’s country of origin from their shoes. On the Camino, you could always distinguish the pilgrims from the other tourists because the pilgrims would be wearing hiking socks with Teva sandals or Crocs. “In Italy,” Maria said, “when we see people wearing those sandals, we know that they must be German, because no Italian would wear something so ugly.” LOL.

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Arya, my Camino friend from Finland, sporting a well-deserved Camino shell necklace and coordinating-colored Crocs (which actually look pretty, compared to my ugly beige hiking sandals)

Maria and I enjoyed a good dinner of tapas and beer. I marveled at the differences between tapas offerings throughout the country. Galicia is famous for its seafood, so every restaurant and bar claimed to have the best pulpo, or octopus, in town. I tried a little, but it’s not really my cup of tea.

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Maria enjoying her pulpo

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I walked around town a bit on my own, too. I visited the Franciscan church, which is also distributing special compostelas as this year marks the 800th anniversary of the pilgrimage of St. Francis of Assissi to Santiago.

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Of course, I also wanted to buy some souvenirs. I told myself that if I finished the Camino, I would treat myself to a shell necklace and a Camino-designed Buff. (For those of you who are not familiar with Buffs, you can look at two-thirds of the photos of me from the Camino. The green or purple headbands that I am wearing are not actually bandanas but Buffs. They are lightweight, can be worn in a dozen different ways, and are on my list of Indispensable Travel Gear. I don’t leave home without one!) Like any other touristed city, Santiago has a myriad of shops selling jewelry, rosaries, shell memorabilia, and t-shirts. I do think that the Peppa Pig and Sponge Bob (or in Spanish, “Bob Esponja”) pilgrim shirts take it a bit too far.

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Sadly, these were also the last days that I would be seeing many of my friends. Colin, Jürgen from Austria, and I searched for a karaoke bar on Sunday night, only to find it closed.

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Jasmin, Colin, and I said some emotional goodbyes the night that Jasmin left, but I wasn’t too sad, since I would be meeting up with Jasmin and Chris once again while visiting Germany.

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You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose

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Finally, we WERE able to find a karaoke bar that was open. And we hit the jackpot: TONS of great songs, both in English and in Spanish (although the DJ was kind of a jerk. No need to be snippy, dude). Any place that has Arctic Monkeys is A-OK in my book. 🙂 The funniest part was the presence of two little girls who couldn’t have been more than six years old. Accompanied by their moms (?) they sang Christina Aguilera with very thick Spanish accents: “Ohhhh-WAH-oooo-ohhhhh! Ay-ee just wanna feel thees moment!” So cute. But it was one o’clock in the morning! I know we were on Spanish time, but do these kids not sleep?

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My flight out of Santiago departed just after sunrise on Friday, June 27. After a wonderful month and a half in Spain, I was flying to Rome.

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It’s Finisterre (and I feel fine)

No sooner had I arrived in Santiago and had a good night’s sleep did I pack my bags to leave. I would be returning the following day, but Jasmin and I had decided that we would travel to Finisterre, or land’s end, and spend a day there. Frequently, pilgrims who have just completed the Camino continue to walk either to Finisterre or to Muxia, both along western (or northwestern) coast of Spain. It usually takes about two days, but Jasmin and I opted for a much shorter two-hour bus trip to save time :).

Again, after walking, it felt really strange to be traveling so fast on a bus. From the window, I could see some pilgrims walking, but it felt good to be able to relax and passively watch the scenery pass by.

We arrived in Finisterre around noon and immediately sat down for some lunch at a German hippie restaurant across from the bus stop. They had delicious lentil soup with Indian spices but also a really funny menu. I love translations on tourist menus!

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I had booked a room at Pension Mirador for us, which was a good walk up the hill but had an amazing view. We immediately changed to head to the beach. After weeks of needing fleeces, long pants, and even hats on some days, the idea of the weather being warm enough for a bathing suit was tantalizing. Unfortunately, the water was still freezing (duh. It is the Atlantic) and the sun disappeared not too long after we arrived, but it was still pleasant to lie on a towel and read in the sand.

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A rainstorm was imminent. Since the faro (the lighthouse at the coast which marks the end of the Camino) was a four-kilometer walk away, we agreed to stay in that night and walk there the next day.

The weather was much better the following day. We walked for about an hour down the road and came to the cliff past the lighthouse. Many pilgrims take the opportunity to burn some of their belongings on the rocks to mark the end of their Camino. Since I would be continuing on my travels after leaving Spain, there really wasn’t a whole lot that I would be willing to burn. (You could see the charred remains of hiking boots as you scrambled over the rocks). The one item that would have been nice to get rid of was my pair of nasty liner socks that I had worn daily beneath my hiking socks, but these were not only made of synthetic fabric but were also so permanently saturated with Aquaphor ointment that I didn’t think that an open flame anywhere near them would be a good idea. I opted to burn a paper that had point-to-point Camino mileage and elevation listings instead.

Jasmin and I enjoyed this official last day of the Camino sitting on the rocks, listening to REM on her iPod, and then stopping in the cafe of the lighthouse for a celebratory gin and tonic. Satisfied, we retrieved our bags and boarded the bus back to Santiago.

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Quick summer update

Hello everyone,

So it is probably fairly obvious from the length of time between my most recent posts that I have had some trouble keeping up :). I finished the Camino on June 22, which means that I am ridiculously behind in writing! The past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind of travel, so I have not sat down to write as much as I would have liked. I am currently in Slovenia studying and visiting family, so I hope to catch up on the posts here in between my homework, after-school activities, and exercise (which I need to work off all this awesome home-cooked food).

Thanks for your patience! More stories to come!

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Day 42: Lavacolla to Santiago

Distance walked: 6.5 miles

Due to the lack of albergues at an intermediate distance from Santiago, I had splurged a bit and stayed at a hotel in Lavacolla. The place was not much to write home about, although they did have a good wifi connection in the common area of which I took advantage to watch the season finale of Game of Thrones. Priorities! I was getting strange looks from other patrons as I sat there in an armchair near the bar with my headphones on, whimpering and gasping and occasionally squirming and squealing during the fight scenes (did you watch this episode? Crazy!) Finally the bartender came over and looked over my shoulder at my iPad to see what the heck was my problem. “Ahh, Juego de Tronos,” he nodded sympathetically.

I had trouble sleeping. I had all of my stuff for the next morning laid out on the table, just like I would the night before a triathlon or a big trip. Even though it was going to be a very short day of walking and I had been doing this exact same thing every morning for four weeks, the sense of anticipation was so much greater now. I intended to get up relatively early, since I wanted to get into town before the hordes of pilgrims that were traveling from farther distances.

A good omen: it was sunny in the morning! My first sight of Santiago arrived when I had walked several kilometers: all I could see was a lake of fog covering the valley in the distance. I stopped for a mini-breakfast at Monte de Gozo, the sight of a large monument. (Apparently, I missed the sign for the actual pilgrim monument that overlooks the city. I would have had to walk about 500m off the course of the Camino to get there, but in my excitement I must have overlooked this. I kept thinking to myself, “Wasn’t there supposed to be something else here?” Oh well. Nothing that I can do about it now!) The anticipation was now palpable.

As the Camino descended down the hill and into the city, my legs went on autopilot. I sped through the outskirts of the city, passing by a British family that I had met in San Xulian. “Wow, you are flying!” commented the grandfather of the family. It didn’t matter to me: I wasn’t missing anything by walking quickly through the more modern parts of town.

Entering the old town of Santiago seemed surreal to me. I know that that word is overused, but the expanse of time between leaving Monte de Gozo and entering the cathedral felt almost trancelike. I followed the golden shells embedded in the concrete under the arch and arrived at the Plaza de Obradoiro, my final destination. I realized that it was the feast of Corpus Christi. A tremendous feeling of accomplishment rushed through me as I turned to face the cathedral, which was covered… in scaffolding? Nooo! Nevertheless, I had made it (and made sure to take the obligatory backpack-over-my-head photo to commemorate it).

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No sooner had I snapped some photos and taken several minutes just to absorb everything did a deluge of pilgrims flood the square. I was happy that I had planned to arrive early and have a little more solitude there. For the last time, I folded up my trekking poles, stuck them in the pocket of my daypack, and entered the cathedral. Maybe it was because I had just spent the last month and a half preparing to come here, but my visit to the cathedral was a very emotional one. I will be realistic here: I was basically bawling all day. I cried when I reached the city; I cried when I entered the church. I cried when I went to confession (I’m sure the priest just loved me). I cried when Mass started. I cried when Mass ended. It was mildly embarrassing but extremely cathartic. I felt fantastic at the end of the day and slept like a rock ;).

I had timed my arrival to be able to explore the cathedral, stop for another coffee-and-croissant breakfast with John and Vanessa, and still have enough time to find somewhere to sit for the Pilgrim Mass at noon. I had heard rumors that today they would be swinging the botafumeiro, which is a huge incense burner (or thurible: vocab word of the day!) which hangs from the ceiling of the cathedral. It takes up to eight men to swing it but is not present at every celebration. I was thrilled to see it hanging over the altar when I found a place to sit. Mind you, I was not sitting in a pew – these were already full over an hour before the Mass started- but there was a stone ledge at the base of a massive column which gave a sufficient view of everything. This place gets crowded! Several times before the beginning of the Mass a lector had to come up and ask everyone to be quiet. Also, they requested that everyone please not take photos or videos during Mass.

So of course, right after Communion, when the choir began to sing and the tiraboleiros stood up and took their places to begin swinging the botafumeiro, I looked around me and saw everyone on my side of the church poised forward, cameras and iPhones in hand, like the paparazzi anticipating the British royal family’s exit from the maternity ward. (I could get into a nice rant about how disrespectful I think this is, but I won’t). So, lifting my gaze to avoid the flashbulbs, I watched as the botafumeiro swung higher and higher, sailing through the air until it appeared like it would fly off on its own. It was a truly special ending to a long journey.

After Mass, wandering through the streets of Santiago felt like a reunion. Many pilgrims stay in town for several days after finishing the Camino, so I ran into a LOT of people that I knew who had finished earlier. I looked into getting my compostela at the pilgrim office, but the line appeared really long, so I decided to check into my hotel instead.

At the Hotel LaSalle, I found my extra bag, which I had sent ahead from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, waiting for me. It was like Christmas morning as I opened it. Non-hiking clothes! Bras that are not sports bras! Flip-flops! Makeup!!!My time on the Camino showed me what is a necessity and what is a luxury, so man, did this feel luxurious. I showered, napped, put on my luxurious cotton dress, my luxurious flip-flops and MASCARA -woo-woo! – and then went out to meet Jasmin, Colin, Garrett, and Lynn for dinner. We realized that we had all met within our first 48 hours of the Camino. Garrett and Lynn were the American couple from my first night in St. Jean who had commented about the weight of my pack. Jasmin was one of the Germans whose invitation for a drink I declined from my bunk bed in Roncesvalles, and the next morning I had met Colin in a grocery store. The fact that we had finished within 48 hours of each other was very meaningful to all of us (but we were still sad that Chris and Lukas couldn’t be there too!)

While passing by the pilgrim office after dinner, I saw that there was no line. I hopped in and had my compostela in hand within five minutes. Not bad!

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It was a wonderful day (even though the karaoke place that we tried to find later that night was closed 😉 ). I am so grateful for my time on the Camino, which I can easily say was one of the best experiences of my life, injury and all. Thank you for all of your prayers, kind words, and well wishes during the last month and a half. I am already thinking about when I can return to walk again….

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