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Andy Steves Does Europe! Part 1

The European Adventures of Andy Steves and Alex Matteson — Graduation Summer, 2005

Hi from Andy

Hello everybody! My name is Andrew Steves. Yes, son of the Rick. Thank you for your interest in my trip. To save up for this trip, Alex and I put in long hours after school. We have budgeted somewhere beween $3000 and $4000 for this 45-day trip. We plan to stay in hostels, and sleep on trains to save on hotel costs. We'll use a two-month Eurail pass to take care of all our transportation. We'll fly in to Amsterdam a day after graduation on June 21st, and fly out of Rome on August 5th, in time to get ready for college. So, let's get our seat backs in the upright and locked position, and rock and roll! Hope you enjoy it.

Alex's Pre-Trip Thoughts (June 1, 2005)

What's up? My name is Alex Matteson and my friend, Andy Steves, and I are about to go on the trip of a lifetime. I honestly can't fathom that I am going, let alone with my best buddy.

It's annoying how people keep asking over and over again where in Europe we are going. It has been interesting to watch adults' reactions when I mention we fly into Amsterdam. They can't stop smiling or laughing. I wonder why... The other annoying thing is girls getting all worked up and worried when I tell them I am running with the bulls in Pamplona. They get scared that I will get gored and die. But I'm getting stoked beyond belief to do it — regardless of what women say. Guys just tell me to take a picture and see how close I can get to the bull. That is probably a good reason that men for the most part have the accidents all thanks to that most dangerous phrase, "Watch this!"  

Most likely the trip won't sink in until I am sitting on the plane with Andy. However, I am rather scared about how we're going to eat. I mean Andy and I aren't really cooks, I can make a mean PB&J sandwich but beyond that I'm kind of useless. That's why my mom is trying to teach me to cook. I tried to make bean dip today and it literally took me over an hour. I'm hoping that when we get over there either Andy will turn out to be a five star chef, or the better option is we meet some hot girls in the hostels and they "teach" us how to cook. That would be sweet!

How it Started — Alex

The whole idea of this trip started early this year at lunch. We were talking with our friends (Alex, Drew, Garrett, and Patrick) about what would be a fun trip of a lifetime. I jokingly brought up back-packing through Europe like our parents had done when they were our age. We talked about it a little bit, but not seriously. Then, after the college search and application process slowed down,  we realized our dream of a European trip was feasible. And we made the decision.   

As we had limited time before college, we needed to be selective. We chose countries that Andy hadn't been to yet, trust me there are only a few...actually only Spain. Then we listed countries that we both loved. Because I've only been to Europe once before and that was to Italy, it was a no brainer: Italy was our focal point of the trip. Rick made a good point that we should start in a country that was more 'travel friendly' for first time travelers and then work our way to the "harder" countries to travel in. So we started in the Netherlands and finished in Italy. The other countries were chosen because...well it's hard to describe what made them stand out...they just seemed right: France, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic and even their names sound cool. Now the problem was how to finance it.

Andy and I got a pretty sweet deal with our parents who agreed to pay for our plane tickets as a graduation present. We had to cover the everyday expenses. Our goal: $50 dollars a day. I know, bold move. Therefore, we had to make around $2,500 in about 4 months while juggling classes, college stuff, girlfriends, and most importantly, senioritis. I worked at Lexus of Seattle and Andy taught piano and worked at his dad's travel business.

It's such a relief to finally have the necessary money for the trip in the bank. I worked my tail off at Lexus of Seattle washing cars. Every time I'd get sick of the work, I'd pull out a picture of the Cinque Terre from my wallet and think of trip and suck it up. Every car I washed brought me one step closer to Europe.

Packing — Andrew

Right now, we're in the final stages of preparation for our trip. Because we are young and impressionable, we don't want to nail down too many hostel reservations. We could hear about one thing or another that would draw us in the opposite direction of where we think we want to go now. The two-month rail pass we have will be perfect for any last-minute decisions like that.

This last weekend, Alex and I had a meeting with my dad to discuss our packing lists. We've decided on these items to last us through our 45 day trip: 5 pairs of underwear and socks, 4 pairs of undershirts, 3 T-shirts, 1 long-sleeve shirt, 1 dress polo, 3 pairs of light shorts, 1 pair of nice cargo khakis, 1 pair of running shoes, 1 pair of hiking sandals, 1 pair of flip-flops, 1 evening sweater, toiletries, notepads, guidebooks, reading material, a camera, mp3 player, and power adapters. That pretty much takes care of everything we plan on bringing. We have one week left before Alex and I depart and everything seems to be coming together.

Day of Departure — Alex (June 21)

Well well well. Today is it. Andy and I are about to leave for the airport and I have that feeling that I forgot something but I can't remember what it is. I hate that, but I'll let you know what it was when I think of it. I just called all my friends and made them save a message from me so they could listen to my voice if I die running with the bulls or something, ha-ha. Well actually I am getting rather scared. I think it's the bulls — maybe it's the trip. Whatever. I am about to get into the car so, until Amsterdam, see you later!

Amsterdam BABY!!!!! — Alex (June 22)

The 8 hour flight to London went by fast because we each had personal TVs with 8 different movies to choose from. However, at the end of the flight it got rather bumpy and I left the airline 2 nice little presents in the form of barf bags.

When we landed in Amsterdam it was a breeze. We got off the plane, validated our train tickets at the train info booth and purchased phone cards. We then took the train and I noticed for some reason a lot of people here don't wear shoes in public; it's kinda weird. The train ride was fine and at the one station we had to switch trains and ended up following a guy, who had no idea we were following him. We followed him because we heard him say Haarlem — and that's our destination. Once in Haarlem we went to the tourism office and asked about the cool night spots and good day trips. They gave us addresses and information for free.

I swear, all the bikes that people throw away and don't use end up here; I've never seen so many junky bikes in my life! Also, while walking in town I smelled my first marijuana smell. As I was typing this email in the cyber café, I got a bad headache because it smelled so much of pot. Well, we are about to eat dinner and then lay low for the night and have the comforts of MTV put us to sleep.

First Days in Europe — Andy (June 24)

These first couple days I've grown an appreciation for my dad. From coaching on transportation to having friends in nearly every corner of Haarlem (the first town we're staying in). I thought his book was just another guidebook. But now I really can see where all his hard work goes.

Anyway — yesterday Alex and I went into Amsterdam. While there, we visited the sex museum (quite an interesting exhibition of the history of pornography...haha), walked through the red-light district, and had a high-class tour through a diamond polishing factory. Back at our hotel, we ate apples and peanut butter for dinner. I wonder how much weight I'm going to lose on this trip. At around 8:30 we fell asleep until midnight, but couldn't get back to sleep until around 4:30 a.m. Jet lag sucks.

Today, we rented bikes at the train station in Haarlem and biked to the beach with the tips from Hans, a local B&B owner.

To Smoke or Not to Smoke? Here I am, in the center of the marijuana universe, the Mecca of hippies, and one of the best places in the world to party. Why aren't Alex and I out there in the clubs and bars? That's one of the most profound questions I've had in my head since the minute we arrived in this place reclaimed from the sea.

I'm an 18 year-old kid that's grown up in suburbia with probably about 80% of my friends who have smoked at least once. I, on the other hand never have; this is something that confuses me a little. And when I can finally do it legally, I just don't feel the need to.

Why, you may ask? I don't know for sure, but there are several possibilities that come to mind; jet lag, being in a strange land, dad. He has an interesting pro-legalization stance on marijuana, and when I think about it, this could have also pushed me farther away from trying it. I admire him for many things, but at the same time, I believe he has some characteristic quirks that make me want to deliberately do just the opposite. He drives a 1991 car. Mine is 2003. I like to be at home, he spends a third of the year away from it. He likes orange juice, I hate it. These are some of the things I've noticed over the years, and the subject of marijuana and whether or not to smoke it here in Amsterdam may be yet another subconscious need to contradict my own father's actions.

Ethnic T Shirts — Andy (June 27)

Hey everybody! I'm writing on a French keyboard so I apologize for any typos. Over the past couple days, I've noticed something interesting; American stores sell shirts with French phrases on them, and French ones do just the opposite. It's kinda funny. Today I walked past a young French girl — her T-shirt said "kiss me." And I can always tell people who are American when they wear a shirt that reads "je t'aime" (I love you). I'll write more when I find a good keyboard.

Finishing Amsterdam, Starting Paris — Alex

A highlight in Amsterdam was the brewery tour. Andy and I took the Heineken Experience tour at the Heineken factory. It was the best 10 euros I've spent so far. It included 3 beers, a self guided tour complete with rides and cool stuff, and a free Heineken glass — well worth the money. Oh, and the best part is that a lot of American tourists our age take it so there are young people to talk to in non-broken English. You have no idea how refreshing that is.

We left Amsterdam yesterday at 9:56 on a bullet train to Paris. It took four hours and we met some interesting people. There was a couple from South Africa sitting next to us and we got into a discussion about Christmas trees and snow of all things. (We learned that they grow Xmas trees down there as well and the woman hadn't seen snow in more than 20 years.) It's random stuff like this that makes the trip even more interesting then I expected.

When we arrived in Paris, we took the metro to our hotel and walked right to the Eiffel Tower where we paid 3 euro to walk up 490 stairs to the second observation deck. Let me tell you, it is amazing! I swear this is the spot where I will propose. (I guess Tom Cruise got it right.) Across the street there was a half pipe and grind park for skaters. It was pretty cool to watch. To save money for dinner, when we got to our room I just ate out of my peanut butter jar for like four minutes and that was dinner!

Bike Tours in Paris — Andy (June 29)

Last night, Alex and I went on an evening bike tour. We met at the base of the Eiffel Tower. During orientation, I was handed a neon jersey and deemed "ass-man" or "derriere," the one who rounds up the back of the group. This three-hour tour of the City of Lights was quite enjoyable. I'd recommend it if you think running red lights and stopping at green ones in the middle of downtown Paris at twilight while it's raining is having a good time. I do, so I had a blast. There were infrequent stops at famous places like the Notre Dame and the Louvre. The tour finished with an hour-long cruise of the Seine. That was fun, especially since they handed out wine to all their guests. I, personally, am not a fan of wine, but Alex downed enough for both of us. For €28, I thought it was a good value for a night of fun entertainment and light exercise.

Something I gotta mention — one of the most random things ever in my life happened to me. As Alex and I waited for the tour to start, two Arab men cam up to us and said  "D'dop d' wah'tuh" or what it sounded like to me. After a moment of gestures and deliberation, I realized he wasn't asking for some water but a "G'doup photo". So we said OK and one sat in between us while the other took a couple steps back and took a picture. While they were saying goodbye, I checked my pockets, for my watch and anything else I had on me. Nothing was missing and it left both of us just stunned by how out-of-the-blue the whole ordeal was. Tonight we leave for Madrid on a night train.

Parisian Pick-Pockets — Andy (July 8)

Here we are, Alex and me in the Paris Metro after a long day of museums and walking. So in this slight daze, we made our way through the underground system. We got to our platform uneventfully. Exhausted, we stood there in silence. Suddenly, I see this kid of around 16 running at me. This shook me out of my daydream. The words "He has my wallet!" seemed to be chasing him towards us. Out of instincts and reflexes I may have gained from football or attending a public school, I swung my right fist and connected with this young man's forehead — similar to Barry Bonds' bat with a baseball destined to be driven out of a ball park. He reeled back, dropped a hunk of folded leather and crumpled to the ground. With my class ring a little bloody, situated on the middle finger of my ride hand, I gave the wallet to an overweight American man and his wife. They thanked me profusely and then gave me a couple of €20 bills.... I wish.

Everything happened as I said, but instead of reacting, I found myself just watching this kid run past me well within an arm's length and right off the platform. All the while, this man was screaming that his wallet had been stolen. Before those words connected with me, the kid was gone. You gotta have quick reflexes over here if you wanna be a hero.

Paris Sight-seeing (July 1)

For those of you interested, Here's a list of the sights we saw when we were in Paris: Sunday: Eiffel Tower (Quite enjoyable and bigger than I remembered), Trocadero (fun skating competition, great Eiffel Tower views).

Monday: Military Museum and Napolean's Tomb (cool WWII section), Arc de Triomphe (Wish I was here during the Tour de France), Champs Elysees (nice shopping, in other words boring 'cuz we don't have any money to spend!).

Tuesday: Notre Dame (really pretty, but we didn't get a chance to go upstairs), D'Orsay (eh), Bike Tour (funny information with wine on a boat cruise later).

Wednesday: Sewers (smelly and long), Louvre (saw Mona and the Crown Jewels, then left), Catacombs (kinda creepy), another pass on the Champs.

Goodbye Paris, Hello Spain — Alex (June 30)

The best part of our Paris bike tour was the boat ride that was included in the package — and that included wine. As it turned out, Andy and I have been really boring the past few days and I needed to spice things up. No one was drinking the bottles and our bike guide, who is 25, told me to help I did. After several glasses it was time to get off the boat and take the three mile ride through heavy Parisian traffic in the pouring rain back to the bike shop. Let's just say it was an experience I'll never forget!  

Last night, Andy and I took a night train to Madrid. We left at about 11:00 p.m. and when we got on the train we settled in and finally found a place to squeeze our bags. Then a guy came in and wanted to put a surfboard — of all things — on the floor. Long story short, I ended up sleeping with a backpack next to my head and a bag the size of a small person at my feet on a miniscule bed that seemed about 18 inches wide. To top it all off, I woke up in the middle of the night to the smell of old rotten goat cheese, which was actually the man above me. I didn't get much sleep in the middle bed of that triple bunk. After 8 hours we hit the Spanish border and (because tracks are different widths) had to switch trains. That second part of the trip to Madrid was 5 hours of torture. They had American movies playing and you could see what the actors were saying but it was dubbed in Spanish! It drove me crazy, so we both decided to go to sleep because we were getting headaches due to the fact that no one spoke English and we couldn't understand anything.     

Looking out the train window, I have decided that Spain is like desert. It's nothingness until you reach a place where someone figured it was a good place for a city...that would be Madrid. Madrid

Well, we made it to Madrid! Both Alex and I were quite intimidated by Spain because neither of us had ever taken a bit of Spanish in school, and also, coming from Seattle, the heat around here could be quite intense for us. It's our first full day in Madrid today, and we visited the Royal Palace, the Prado Museum, and the Royal Botanical Garden. I'd say all of them were worth while.

Big Gay Festival and Parade (July 2)

Madrid welcomed us with a huge Gay Day festival. The president here just legalized gay marriage and adoption and you can feel the enthusiasm here. We were just chilling in a park when we heard drums, and walked down to the sound. First we saw a little boy with his mother who was carrying a small rainbow flag, then turned the corner and there it was: well over 150,000 people in the streets of Madrid. Standing on the street we saw around 50 party floats parading by. A non-stop line of flamboyant gays, black leather and chains gays, pretty-boy gays, big gays, big drag queens, freaks dancing on stilts, pretty ladies in cars (or so I think), sailor-boy gays, girly gays, and so on. There were huge firecracker blasts in random places in crowd, the loudest music I've heard ever — techno with American words. Sensing tonight is not the night for heterosexuals, we're heading to Barcelona on a night train.

Madrid — Alex

Yesterday we met up with 2 girls from the University of Oregon (Yazman and Marie). We actually met them when I was doing my last blog entry. They were sitting next to us and we started talking. We were going to go out for a drink that night but when we met up at 10:30 we were all so tired we decided to get ice cream instead and call it a night. We all went to the market yesterday and bought enough fixings for breakfast, lunch and dinner for €7.24. Not bad! The funniest thing was we went to eat lunch in a park in the middle of the city and the guy sitting next to us was definitely smoking a joint!!!! He explained it's no big deal here. I expected that in Amsterdam, but not in Madrid. I suppose it makes sense because these people literally party 24 /7. They don't really start until midnight but go until 6 a.m. They are crazy! We all sat down at a garden and had a discussion about pot in Amsterdam and I learned that weed in food gives you a different type of high. I did not know that! :) We took the metro to get ice cream and I was wedged in between a sweaty, hairy, old man and an old woman with bad B.O. and very, very, hairy arm pits!

Yazmen had a family friend that lived in Madrid. He is about 65 or so, and wanted to take us around and show us the city. Andy and I were a little bit apprehensive about it because we figured it would be walking and him saying things like, "this was an old church..." and boring things like that. As it turned out, we all met at 8 and had one of the best times so far. He brought his 24-year-old daughter along and we went restaurant and bar hopping all night! The coolest place we went to was a little Celtic restaurant that was tucked back down a narrow alley that only locals know about. When we got inside we sat on old wooden stools in a corner and drank wine out of what appeared to be soup bowls all while munching on fried squid and mussels. It was great.

We then walked around the main drags in the city and it was really funny because the daughter didn't speak English that well and the dad and daughter would get in fights in Spanish over what streets to take and they would both walk in different directions while the four of us didn't know who to follow. It was interesting.

We said our goodbyes and the four of us went to a main street and sat outside drinking beer, rum and coke, and eating pizza. We stayed out there until about 2am. The funny part though was drinks are really expensive in main restaurants (rum and cokes for €5.70!) so Andy and I went looking for bars on side streets. We were a little tipsy and got into what seemed like a long conversation with a slimey looking guy trying to get us to go into a strip club. All we wanted was some alcohol, nothing else, but he didn't understand and kept trying to push us into the club! They get pretty forceful over here! We finally found a bar and as soon as we gave the non-English speaking bartender our order everyone stopped talking and just stared at us — I swear! It all worked out and I ended up taking shots next to what looked like an 8-year-old kid sitting at the bar wearing Harry Potter glasses. Weird night!!!!

Barcelona — Alex

Well, I have to say that the one city I wish we could have more time in would be Barcelona. What a cool city. We took a night train from Madrid to Barcelona and it would have to be one of the worst rides so far. We had to sit up the whole time in lumpy chairs next to a traveling couple that had just finished sleeping in hostels filled with mice and what not and they smelled. Anyway, I probably got about 3 hours of total on and off sleep that night. We arrived in Barcelona at about 8 that morning and made it to our hotel but of course it wasn't ready because it was too early. So they said come back at 10, but the problem was my mom's friend had a son (Ryan) who spends the summer in Barcelona and we were meeting him at 10 to tour the city (he speaks fluent Spanish and is going to be a sophomore at a liberal arts college in Ohio). So, I hadn't showered in 2 days and had been in the same clothes as well. Needless to say, we were both gross. We finally were able to get into our room at about 9:40 and showered, changed and made our rendez-vous with Ryan. We saw some of the sights but the best part was he took us by train to his host family's house in one of the suburbs of the city.

It had to of been one of the best days so far. The family doesn't speak a word of English so there were a lot of hand motions between them, Andy, and me. But Ryan acted as our translator. They offered us lunch and we accepted thinking it would be a taco or something small. As it turned out they made a huge deal out of it and went out and bought fresh ice cream and new bottles of wine. We had a great meal! The only problem was we were so used to eating light that when we finished we were starving for dinner because our bodies were not accustomed to that type of meal — that sucked! But besides that it was great learning about their culture and travels.

After the meal the father invited us to see his gun collection. Wow, wow, wow, wow — is all I can say! At first it was impressive because he had a small case with old pistols from pirates and from the 1600's. It was cool stuff but we had seen all that in museums before. Then, after he showed us his book collection dating back to 1602, he pushed a button and the bookcase moved out and there was a secret room filled to the brim with guns. Then came his gun tour. He had rifles from the Napoleonic era, the Spanish civil war, grenades from WWII and loads of other things, from pistols to assault rifles! We weren't allowed to take pictures or really talk about what we saw because he said he could get in a lot of trouble with the government. All I will say is he could have his own army and invade a small nation with what he had.

After the guns, Ryan, Andy, and I then went to the beach and swam and laid out for a few hours. Andy and I caught the train back to our hotel, read a little and went to bed because we had an early train to catch to Nice in the morning.

Nice and Monaco — Alex  (July 5)

Well, I have a new favorite place — the French Riviera! Andy and I arrived yesterday in a town called Beaulieu. The coast is full of small towns like this, and it is beautiful. We were only able to get a day train from Barcelona so we missed an entire travel day but it wasn't too bad. We had a pretty mellow evening last night. We checked in to the hotel, walked around a little, ate some peanut butter for dinner, read and went to bed. Today we got up at like 8 so we could get out and see stuff. We first went to a fresh market where we bought the day's food, apples, bananas, and peppers. Then we caught the train to Monaco! Wow! Just walking out of the train to the train station is amazing, all marble with views of the harbor and ocean everywhere. We walked outside and the first thing we saw were yachts that could be small ocean liners. Some were at least 200 feet long (they had 2 smoke stacks!).

This is a very, very, very, very rich town — it has the highest income per capita. We walked around the harbor and gazed at million dollar boats and cars. Andy and I agreed that we would never bring our wives here if we didn't have money because we would feel like failures compared to some of these guys. The town itself is beautiful though. We bought a bus ticket and went to the royal palace. me I found the Bentley and Aston Martin parked outside to be more interesting. Ha ha! Actually, there were more guys taking pictures of the cars than of the building and views. We are in Nice right now because it has the cheapest Internet connection; Monaco wanted €9 euro for half an hour! We're about to meet up with a group from our old high school. It will be fun to hang out with Americans besides Andy for a while.

Budget Examples — Andy

For all of you interested or wondering, here's a sample list of our expenses over these last couple days. Thursday June 30 in Madrid: €19 train tickets, €41 half of our hotel room, €5.50 dinner, €1.50 ice cream, €1.50 Internet.

Friday July 1 in Madrid: €1 Botanical Garden visit, €1.80 Ice cream, €3 Prado museum, €3.50 Royal Palace, €1 Internet, €6.67 food for the day, €6 Tapas, €8.50 Drinks, €41 half of our hotel room. Saturday July 2 Barcelona: €2.50 Internet, €8.50 food, slept free on night train Sunday July 3 Barcelona: €35 half of hotel room, €5 sandwich, €5 metro, €8.50 food, €9.50 train. Monday July 4 Nice: €6.50 McDonalds, €1.50 Internet, €32 half of hotel room. Tuesday July 5 Nice: €8 food, €3 bus, €32 half of hotel room, €1.80 Internet. So (with a Eurail pass and groceries rather than restaurants all the time) it can be done!

Cinque Terre — Alex

Ok, well Andy and I ended up taking 6 hours of train rides to get from the French Riviera to the Cinque Terre, even though it looked like half an inch on the map. Anyway, we are staying in one of the five towns that make up what you know as the Cinque Terre. The town is called Monterosso. We got in rather late and settled in our hotel room and then went out. The funny thing was, on the train ride over, by complete luck, we ran into one of the tour guides we met up with back in Amsterdam and we got invited to dinner for free! If there is any place better place to propose to someone I want to see it; the vistas from where we ate were breathtaking at sunset. Just picture sitting on a rock terrace eating pesto in its birthplace on perfectly cooked pasta all while looking at the sun set into the sea. That's kind of sappy, but it was awesome. After dinner, we went back to our town, and as it turned out there is live music every night for this entire month. We were still with the tour guide, Ben, who is about 28 or so and one of the coolest guys ever. We went to a bar and got some drinks and listened to the music. After we had sucked our glasses dry, Ben and I bought a bottle of wine and shared it. Andy hates the taste of wine with a passion so he didn't really have any.

At this point it was about 11:30 and most places were closed. We didn't want to go to the bars because a rum and coke was 5 euros! (much cheaper to buy your own stuff at a store and mix it). So we went into the only place open and we ran into a group of 7 or so kids from Ohio studying in Florence and taking a break. We all bought beer that looked like the size of a liter of coke for like 2 euro and went on a walk on the beach. Andy got tired and went back to the hotel while I stayed out and chilled with our new friends. When we parted ways we set up a meeting spot for the next day and we were going to meet at 1 p.m. but we went there today and no one showed up. I'm hoping that they were just drunk and didn't remember because otherwise it's rather sad that they ditched us. Well, that's about it for the exciting stories so far. Tonight Andy and I are headed to the Blue Marlin. Playboy rated it the best spot in Europe to meet girls, which is just a few minutes away in the next town. Hopefully I'll have some more stories for you then :)

P.S. I really hope anyone reading this doesn't think that we are drunks and all we do is drink, because we go to a lot of museums too, ha ha.

Looking Forward to the Tour de France — Andy

For those of you that don't know, I'm a huge cycling fan. I've spent many a Sunday afternoons watching cycling races. We are about half a days travel from the southeastern part of France. And fortunately, the Tour will be making its way through that area in several days. This morning I spent over an hour working out train reservations, and the tough hotel reservations near the French ski resort town of Courchevel. I've been so fortunate to meet Matteo, one of my father's friends, at Hotel Pasquale in Monterosso. He spent much of his time talking in Swiss, French and a little Italian to help me out. I was prepared to spend near 150 euros a night, but Matteo landed us a place for only 50. Lucky! Ah well, we leave the day after tomorrow from the beautiful Cinque Terre at the ugly hour of 5 o'clock in the morning. We hope to get quality pictures as well of extraordinary experiences to relate to all of you reading. Thanks, Andy.

Long Train Rides — Dirty Alex (July 11)

Well, Andy and I left Spain for the the Cinque Terre and now we're back in France to catch part of the Tour d'France bike race tomorrow. After this long series of train rides we are really tired. And, when we got into town today I looked in the mirror and I couldn't stop laughing. First of all, for some reason I had goat cheese all over my shirt and yogurt on my shorts and enough crumbs in my beard to feed a starving family. I looked like a homeless man! Actually this would explain all the strange looks I got when we passed through Milano today — the fashion capital of the world. I can't even begin to explain how much I am looking forward to a hot shower in my own bathroom and a haircut.

Tour de France — Andrew (July 15)

We made the long journey from the Cinque Terre in Italy up to a small town called Brides-les-Bains in SE France. The train took a good day as we had our first train at 5:19 in the morning, but we made it, and what we were about to see was all worth it.             

Last night, as Alex and I were out exploring the town and looking for dinner, I noticed a strange thing. As in all of Europe, the menus of restaurants are posted outside. But the menus in Brides-les-Bains were different, next to the prices on their menu, each item had a calorie count. As the night progressed it became more and more apparent to me that we had stumbled upon a diet town! From the expansive recreation center to the spas on every corner, all the signs were there. While this doesn't seem so bad to most people, it's kind of a scary to a hungry 18-year old young man. In the end, however, we survived.

The next day, Alex and I got ready for this once in a lifetime chance — to see Lance Armstrong in a mountain stage in probably the last Tour de France of his career. Our town an alpine ski resort: the world famous Courchevel. I guess. Haha, I never heard of it. Anyways, we were about 20 kilometers from the top of the hill, where the stage ended. The riders were expected to pass around 4 pm, so we started hiking up at noon with a couple baguettes, nutella and bananas. We set out hitch-hiking. One guy told us that what we were doing, putting our thumbs straight up, meant f-you in French and we should point it down. Not knowing any better and hoping for a change in luck we tried that. All that resulted was funny looks, so we decided to point them sideways and play it safe. After around 40 minutes of hitchhiking, we were picked up. Two Belgian brothers, and two Taiwanese invited us into a 5-seater car. The older of the two brothers, a 24 year-old Belgian spoke flawless English and translated everything said in the car into two languages as soon as he heard it, including announcements and other information on how the race was going that was being broadcast from loudspeakers along the course.

After 20 minutes we stopped and found a place next to a switchback, so we could watch the riders both coming and going. Once we got settled, everybody broke out their food and shared it all around.

All of a sudden, they started speaking rapidly back and forth until they told us "On y va," "Let's go!" We piled back into the tiny car and headed farther up the mountain, into the final kilometers passing the 10, and 5 Km balloons. All the while we two Americans added significant weight to the already over-loaded car and the older brother was much better at speaking English than using a clutch. They were blasting some Beethoven symphony while the two brothers sang along. I was just chilling in the back, taking up half a small European back seat, smelling burning clutch, singing along to a wordless song, passing rainbows of bike fans and enjoying glimpses of the French Alps.

Aww man, I still get chills thinking about out Tour de France experience. So we parked the car, and took two gondola rides up the mountain to within a kilometer of where the stage was going to end for that day. All this time, we were talking about everything from our new friends' bike trip they planned to start the next day, to how Bush is messing up the world. It was actually the older brother's birthday as well. We found our home base on a high bluff giving us a view of several switchbacks down the hill, as well as an opportunity to get right along the barriers for a close up photo. We got there around 2 pm so we had about 3 hours to kill before the actual riders came by. You could feel the tension and excitement in the air. All over there were campers with crowds around them watching the fast-approaching race on satellite TVs. At other times, we would just relax with our friends and learn more about French culture they never taught me in French class in school.

Finally, the publicity caravan started making its way past our positions, letting us know the race was about an hour away. The Belgians explained to us that the more noise you make, "zee better to chance to get som-fing." We gladly followed their hysterical examples — with great success. By the end I personally had 4 noise makers, 3 hats, 4 water bottles, cheese and crackers, 2 pieces of dark chocolate, and several key chains. All monetarily worthless, but hey, this is the Tour de France!

Then came what we were waiting for, I could see the bikers passing where we first stopped, earlier that day on the satellite TV, and I heard the TV helicopters in the distance, slowly making their way towards us. The excitement levels of the crowd were directly correlated with the volume of the helicopter blades. From our perch, we finally saw 8 motorcycles speed around the corner, and then several cars stacked with bikes blaring their horns. Then came the first group of cyclists. Among them was the king, Lance Armstrong. As soon as I saw them, I took off to get a spot along the fence, with my camera ready. I got an unbelievable view of these riders' sweat-salty faces. And within 15 seconds they were gone. I was close enough to see the color of Lance's eyes. Lance was doing his dance, with a kind of concentration I've never seen in a person before, but for which he is famous. Five hours of waiting was so worth the 1.5 seconds I may have been within 10 feet of this hero. Aww man, I hope to never forget this either.

Armstrong went on to easily win the yellow jersey that day, and further declare that he is still no old fogey to the world of cycling.

Tour de France, Tour de Switzerland — Alex

Well, in the last couple of days, Andy and I have seen the Tour de France, gone biking up mountains, paragliding, and hiking up the Swiss Alps. The Tour de France was so cool We ended up getting a great spot a kilometer from the finish line and had to wait about five hours for them to go by us. It was just a huge party all around. They had caravans going by all day just throwing free stuff out and getting the crowds pumped. When they finally rode by us Andy almost had a heart attack! I mean Lance Armstrong was about one meter away! It was a great day all around. On the ride back we all started singing songs and talking politics. Oh, the first thing I told them by the way was that we didn't like Bush. Having said that, everyone lightened up and relaxed. That was a key move!

Next we headed over to Interlaken, Switzerland where we stayed for only one night. But that one day was the most intense so far. We arrived late, got a bite to eat and hit the town. Someone told us that there was a good nightclub to go to and we went about midnight. As it turned out, the club itself was amazing (it used to be an underground military bunker but now has a bar and dance floor). But there were about 4 girls and 30 or so guys that all had the same mission as Andy and I, so we didn't really stay long. It probably would have been great on a Friday or Saturday, but not a Tuesday.

The next morning I woke up late, missed breakfast, and was only able to grab a piece of bread before we started the day. The owner of the hotel, Fritz, took Andy and me out on a 4-hour bike ride through the mountains. We gained about 3,000 feet of elevation. That may not sound impressive, but for someone who doesn't bike at all it was intense. When we stopped for water at the top, I was sweating so much that it had turned to salt and I had white lines of salt all over my face and basically everywhere on my body. You might think that after a ride like that you could stop for something to eat or a shower, but no, that wouldn't be the Swiss way. As soon as we got back we hopped in a car and went to the top of a mountain and went paragliding.

Wow! It was amazing. Andy and I were each strapped onto a pilot and started running down a grassy meadow and right before the meadow hit a cliff you sat back and let the air just lift you up. I've never experienced anything like it. We flew — lashed safely to our expert pilots — for about 45 minutes and had the time of our lives.

Once again, as soon as we landed we started out on a hike up one of the Alps looking for Ipex (goat-like animals that are about 100 pounds and have huge horns). We hiked for a few hours, it was after 8 pm by this time. At the top of a mountain, we just sat there...looking at groups of these animals grazing and listening to the beautiful sound of silence.

We hiked back down and Andy and I went to a neighboring town, Gimmelwald where we are staying in a really cool hostel. I was woken up this morning to the sound of cow bells and goat cries and looked out my window and had a perfect view of the icy mountains all around us all while listening to Bob Marley's greatest hits playing in the background. Life is good.

Fun Day in the Alps with Fritz — Andy (July 17)

A couple days ago, we arrived in Interlaken, Switzerland from Brides-les-Bains in France. As we checked in to our hotel, Fritz at Hotel Lotschberg recommended a place to eat, as well as one to socialize. So we set out to check them out at around 10:30. We had a great dinner (one of the best beef fajitas I've ever had) and then started our crawl to Hooters (very American I know), and to Balmer's Bomb shelter.

When we got to Balmer's, there were 3 bouncers on the way in, all pointing us in the direction of muffled bass beats. The tension grew as well as my excitement as I looked forward to a scene my dad has raved about for years. We descended into an old bomb shelter with foot-thick walls, and dark passageways, turned a corner and we were there! There were disco balls turning and a live DJ as well as TVs and a full bar. Great! Except we soon realized Tuesday night is not the night to find a bumpin' party. The selection was great, if you are a girl — around 25 guys and maybe 4 or 5 girls. So after a bit, we turned around and returned to our comfortable hotel at around 1:30, looking forward to the next day of fun Fritz had invited us on.

Fritz promised us "a little bike ride, with some gliding, and maybe a little hike after." Neither Alex nor I had any idea how hard could be. We took our time getting ready, because our appointment with Fritz was at 12. Alex skipped breakfast, and I caught the tail end getting some bread, and some real Swiss cheese (Fritz actually has a cow he collects milk to make his cheese from). I cycle a little bit. But that's on a road with a nice-fitting bike. Fritz met up with us decked out in spandex, biking cleats and an actual wrist watch altimeter. This was the first sign that this may not just be a "little ride" like he said. We saddled up and started making our way out of town. He says "Yes, today, we do one thousand meters, up the sdjokedeberdenhilkly and around the somethingorothermountain." "OK, I say." Long story short, we go all the way up a gosh darn mountain in the thin Swiss air. We made it, but just barely.

He hurried down the mountain for our paragliding appointment. We had time to pick up a Snickers candy bar but nothing else. Many times, Fritz has offered to take my dad up, but he's either too busy or chicken. Missing out! This was one of the most incredible things I've ever done. You just take a couple steps forward and WOOSH, you're up in the air as free as a bird. It was a beautiful 40 minute ride with 360-degree-big-as-you-can-get views. I only wish I could do this over my home town, so I can see everywhere like a bird. Anyways, I learned from Fritz that you can tell where the thermals are by looking at the clouds forming above a point of a mountain. So we would circle around the same area and gain up to 20 feet per second. Fritz said any more, and "We would risk a collapsed wing," something I'd take his words for.

The only thing not beautiful about our flight was our landing. Fritz told me to run when we touch down, so I tried but was tugged back and into my seat. I quickly fell over, turned over, was stepped on by Fritz, and then dragged by a re-inflated parachute. So if you go parasailing — run.

In Fritz style, we quickly packed up the 'chute and we were complaining of hunger so much, he said "fine, I take you to eat." (We stopped for maybe eight minutes in the bottom floor of a supermarket.) We walked back to Fritz's place and "now we go on a hike." By this time, it was around 6:00 with the sun starting to hover over the horizon. We loaded up his car, and left town, again heading up a trail.

During our 45-minute drive, I learned that Fritz is an interesting pile of contradictions. We started talking about his aggravation with farmers' attitudes towards everything from tax-refunds to roads. I asked him "do you consider yourself a city person or a country one?" "Oh, nobody knows these hills better than me, I grew up out here." Yet he owns a hotel in the city, and every five minutes he'd say "look as this grass, you know, farmers are paid not to cut it, then cut it; not to make milk, to make milk, etc." As he says this, we pass some fundamentalists. "Ah, earth-mamas, always trying to tell us what to do, wool socks and wool dresses." This leads us to his explanation of his new gun license. It took him four years to earn it, and he is already preparing for his first season of hunting starting in September. This lead to discussing the private farming roads that the state paid for. I'm a little confused about the issue, but I guess you're supposed to have a license for driving on these back roads. But Fritz says, "I have not and will not ever pay to drive on these roads tax-payers like me paid for. Look at these farmers — how much taxes have they paid? And they get to use them."

Ah well, regardless, Fritz is a warm guy, with so much energy it has earned him a reputation region wide.

Later we arrive at a little grassy spot, park and head up yet another mountain. We reach the summit just in time for sunset, with a herd of Ibex not 15 yards from us. It was a surreal scene with Interlaken far below us, with a man that can name every mountain in sight and brag he's climbed up and skied down nearly everyone of them too.

Fritz later drove us to the gondola station below Gimmelwald. Exhausted and hungry, we arrived at our hostel, grabbed our sheets and dove into them. If you're going to have a "day of fun and adventure" with Fritz, make sure you've had good sleep and a lot of food in your belly. Something of which Alex and I had neither, but nonetheless, I will never forget our day with Fritz.