Amalfi: Italian for "Paradise"
On this Friday morning, I boxed up my bike again and headed to the station for what is sure to be an awesome weekend. I had to get up at the ungodly hour of 6:45. To me, there are times when I'm tired — and then there's being painfully tired. Well I'm the latter right now, as I type this up on the train. A bunch of my friends were going to Sorrento for the week, but I had been there already and wanted to stay on the real Costa d'Amalfi. I wrestled my bike box into the storage place on the train and had to use my packing tape to make sure it didn't fall out.
On the train, I listened to two young Italian girls singing rhymes in Italian, and tried to catch their meaning. At Naples, a small family got on and sat next to me. Their young son wanted to eat his panino, but apparently they had just eaten so I listened to the kid beg for twenty minutes until the parents gave in. The train finally arrived in Salerno at about 10:00 a.m. and I hopped off the train and started to orient myself. This place just felt like Southern Italy; dirty streets, clearly no one paying attention to emission laws, beautiful women, strolling grandmas, and so on. I asked at the TI where to buy tickets, and hopped on the bus to Amalfi town. Fifty minutes later, I grabbed my bike out of the belly of the bus and made my way to Atrani where my hostel was, bike box under my arm.
After I checked in, I threw my bike together and headed out on a ride. I turned around about 20 miles out, a little past Positano. On the way a car labeled "Amalfi Driving School" passed the other way. I had to laugh. If you learn to drive there in Amalfi, you can drive anywhere in the world. I wonder if they have "I-drove-off-the-cliff" insurance. The next day, I got back on my bike and headed all the way into Sorrento. This is where I stayed with my friend back in 2005. We thought we were on the Amalfi Coast, but really hadn't touched it, and had no idea that this magical coastline was just around the bend.
On Sunday, a friend and I rented a moped and toured the same craggy cliffs over the stunning blue waterscapes that I had biked the day before. From our vantage point, we could make out the smothering smog cloud over Naples. I would not want to live in that city. Before long, we had to make our way back to our Amalfi hometown in order to make the bus connection back to the Sorrento train station. There, we experienced the worst traffic ever, causing an hour delay, and putting us into town too late to catch the train. So we missed our train and had to wait for the next one. That was okay except for an obnoxious Italian who was never silent the entire two hours we waited. I can still hear his lispy accent, high voice, and endless stream of vulgar jokes. Here, I see truth in the saying "those who talk the most have the least to say." Besides the crummy end of the trip, it was great to be immersed in the pure beauty of the Amalfi Coast.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 17, 2008
First Itineraries are up!
Hey all, just wanted to thank everyone for keeping up with the blog. This is coming to you, realtime, November 15 from Notre Dame. A couple weeks ago, I made an entry on my new website and it's newly-launched status at www.andysteves.com. This site will serve college students with free travel tips and ideas. But primarily, it will be to provide supplementary itineraries to their travel plans, available for download. Well I just uploaded the first few itineraries along with a bunch of new photo albums. Check em out! Here's the . If there are any graphic designer out there, how does this read? And to the English teachers, any grammatical errors? Cartographers, let me know if I'm off in any spots. Thanks a ton, and we're only about half way through my semester, so keep checking back!
Posted by Andy Steves on November 15, 2008
Selling the ‘Rello on Ebay.it
The end of our semester was approaching. My friends were saying "only a couple weeks more," and things like that. To me that meant it was time to sell my bike. So I went down to Porta Portese to ask the bike dealers if they were interested. Porta Portese is the Sunday flea market where all the illegals sell their stolen goods won from the previous week. Besides the temporary market, there are a few more-legitimate pawn shops, bike shops, and motorino shops lining the street. I wanted to see if I could get an offer for my bike and just be done with it.
The problem was that my bike was nicer than anything else in these second-hand shops. So no shops were interested. I then put the bike up on Craigslist. The next day, on Ebay.it. That is a nerve-wracking experience — you have to make sure you read everything on each page and that the right boxes are checked. Otherwise, you could sell a €1000 bike accidentally for €20. It's scary enough when the site's in English. I made a bit of a mistake setting up the timing of the auction because it's ending right now as I'm writing this on a plane coming back to Rome from Dublin. Hope it's going well.
Right before I made the auction, I climbed up onto my roof to take some glamour shots. Imagine that, me coming out onto my little porch with the large frame of my dear bicycle over one shoulder. Clambering up onto the travertine railing I can see the street six floors below. I do a tightrope turn and slowly walk up the incline part to step over the ridge of the roof of the apartment. I make it up without any tragic accidents and am able to take my pictures with the shining dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the background. After my photo shoot, I sling the bike back over my shoulder and repeat the process in reverse order.
My first auction ended with the price at €300, so I contacted the buyer and told him I couldn't sell it for a price that low, and that my minimum is €500. I've explained my situation to a few Italians here in Rome, and they've all told me I wouldn't have trouble selling a bike up north in Milan, or Torino, but Rome and the South is a different story. It's strange to think that in the capital of the nation, they really don't have much expendable income. As Italians don't see any possibility of buying real estate due to the exorbitant prices, they wear their paycheck — they don't think twice about spending the equivalent of $200 on a pair of pants.
I decided to redo my auction so I took some more detailed pictures, expanded my description and ticked the "ship anywhere" option. This time my auction started at €475 with a buy-it-now at €750, and I set the length of the auction for seven days. Several days later, I received a message asking if I would sell it for €500. I responded yes. We talked over the phone a couple times and it became clear he was from where I was headed the next weekend, the Cinque Terre. He could meet me at the station and we'd make the transaction right there.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 14, 2008
Fighting to Keep a Home
The day after landing in Ireland, I met up with Sean at his country house about an hour outside of Dublin. That was an experience. As he welcomed me inside he said "Be careful, this place isn't built to common human elevation." It wasn't. He had built it on his father's property ten years ago as a project and learning experience. The ceilings were built to his stature and weren't any taller than 6'4". That being said, I've never been in a cozier place. It was heated with a peat stove, and the house came with Mary, his mother, who was a classic pint-size grandmother. She peered out from her bright Irish eyes set deep in her weathered face. She was wearing a white-and-pink jumpsuit and sported it well for a 75-year-old. She carried herself like a teenager in the way she walked and interacted with the world around her. She never spoke above a whisper, and with her accent and the random subjects she discussed, I understood about maybe half of what she said. Her astounding hearing was matched by Sean's who would laugh at what sounded like mumbles to me. Her relationship with Sean was more like a beautiful friendship complete with teasing and bantering. Sean told me stories about how he would send her into the butcher's shop asking for hammers and nails.
Sean took me on a tour of the Wicklow Mountains, the region where his little house was with Mary. On this tour, I looked down on the Guinness' family's property with a lake where they imported white sand for their private beach. We continued up and over into the next valley where it was hailing and looked absolutely uninhabitable. Occasionally we would pull over and get out for a photo op. Asking Mary if she wanted to get out, she'd respond "I've seen these mountains my whole life" opting to stay inside the car. Each time, Sean would tell her, "Okay mom, keep quiet, and don't cause any trouble."
We passed a burnt-out shell of an old English fort once built to control the people in these IRA-stronghold valleys. The rebels waited and watched while the fort was built. The night after it was completed and the garrison was installed, they came down and locked all the soldiers inside and burnt it to the ground with a couple of hundred British inside. Count one for the Irish. At the entrance of each valley was a large, car-sized stone on end with the area's predominant families' names and dates. We passed one with 1774 chiseled into the rock. The history of the island is engrossing. Throughout the day, Mary explained her family history, traditional Irish songs, and hatred for organized tours, her soft voice broken up with frequent napping. She would fall asleep mid-sentence, and wake up ten minutes later and either finish the thought or switch to a completely different topic. Her rambling style is the reason I don't remember much of what she said. I was concentrating more on following her in the moment.
We stopped at a pub for a burger and a pint. Sean had come into this particular pub years back dressed as a priest. To this day, the man behind the bar still greets him as "Father." After our snack, Sean let me drive back down the country roads to his house. It messes with your head to drive on the left, shift with your left hand and look right first. But I made it without incident. Along the way we stopped at a small organic grocery store to pick up jelly for his mother. Inside, Sean saw some honey that was supposed to be especially good for you and asked why to the clerk. "Probably because it's organic" he responded. It's sad how you can find slices of Southern California across the globe these days.
The next day Sean and I went to Kilkenny. On the drive, he explained that the legal trouble he had referred to earlier had to do with his house. He had built it ignoring all rules and regulations. It was built to his standards and nobody else's. He didn't build it for money or an investment but for himself and his mother. Well, he was found out by the county council, and they were threatening to tear it down for numerous code violations and he was knee-deep in wading through the legal system. He had been talking to all his contacts in the area to try and get past the paperwork. The law in that part of Ireland states no one can build unless you were born there. Sean wasn't but built anyway on his own land. The other day, he had gone to the priest to explain his situation and see if he could do anything. The priest didn't like the council so immediately wrote up a page saying Sean was a native. From there, Sean may be able to keep the house. Sean laughed, "And I thought priests were good for nothing." Through my travel I've come to learn it's really about whom you know. With contacts you can get into, around, or past anything whether it be nightclubs or county ordinances.
At Kilkenny, we wandered through the small streets and Sean said he knew nothing about the place. So we went into a pub and had a few pints, grabbed some chicken curry and got back in the car to return to Dublin.
On Sunday morning, Sean took me on a short tour of Howth, where I bought a €15 hamburger at a pub for lunch. Howth is the peninsula you fly over when coming into the Dublin airport. It would have been simpler and cheaper to just drink a few pints. We had good timing, showing up on the morning of the monthly market. There, they had all sorts of honey, meats, vegetables, and fresh fruits. They also had a creperie van there with "Probably the best crepes you've ever tasted" painted in bold letters across the top. Well, we waited in the line, and once we got to the front, they had run out of cheese and chicken. I had wanted a savory crepe for lunch, obviously, but they were missing half the ingredients I wanted. I swear, that region of Ireland was having a dairy shortage that day — the hamburger stand next door was out as well. That's when we tried to find some cheap (but not pub) grub. The next morning I caught my flight back to Rome in time for class that afternoon.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 12, 2008
Flying to Ireland
On Thursday, I sat fidgeting through my Italian class because I couldn't get my upcoming trip out of my head. I was returning to the Emerald Isle again this evening. After class, I bolted to catch the bus home and finish packing. My Ryanair flight only allowed 10 kilos for my carry-on so I did without a second pair of pants and my nice shoes. My flight was leaving out of Ciampino, Rome's secondary airport, so I took the metro to Termini and hopped on the connection bus that took me straight there. I was originally supposed to meet up with my Irish friend Sean until he told me he had to cancel a few minutes before my flight, and was coming back to Rome at the same time I was leaving.
A little bummed and confused as to what I was going to do for the weekend, my mind was busy with coming up with a new plan on the three-hour Rome-to-Dublin flight. The perpetually crying two-year-old English boy in the row behind me that already had a full vocabulary of swear words didn't help. Earlier in the terminal, he had been running around just having fun. I feel old when I say this, but when kids run around like that they're just bound to crash and hurt themselves.
Well, there I was reading a trashy English newspaper just relaxing and I see him out of the corner of my eye running on a course to just barely miss me. His foot catches mine and he goes sprawling, landing on elbow and knee. A moment before he started crying, I got the surprised and pain-filled look that just screamed "why did you do that to me" through his eyes. I felt terrible. Kind of. And said sorry to him and his mom and went back to reading my paper.
Turning on my cell phone is the first thing I do when my plane lands. Immediately it signaled a new text message, which was from Sean. It read "Legal trouble. Staying for the weekend. We'll meet up for a pint."
Posted by Andy Steves on November 10, 2008
A Ride to Geraci
Saturday I woke up and cooked myself an extra egg. I had a feeling I was going to go on a long bike ride that day. I picked a town in the interior of the island about two and a half inches away from Cefalu. Well that town turned out to be 38 miles away with about 30 being uphill, but I'm a very goal-oriented person so if I tell myself I'm going somewhere, I have to get there. I made a point to stop in each town along the way to pick up something to eat or drink.
Out of Cefalu, I headed towards Messina for a couple miles until I took a right and headed up hill. The next town I hit was Castelbuono, where I grabbed a banana and a blood orange and ate them outside a café. There an old man recognized me from the day before and asked me where I was headed. I asked him where I should go and where the best roads were. He proceeded to tell me everything about the roads in the surrounding area. This was interesting because back in my freshman theology seminar I wrote a research paper about the Sicilian Mafia and how it has crossed paths with the Vatican over the years. In my research I learned that from childhood, Sicilians were taught never to give directions to strangers for fear that the stranger may be a hit man searching for his victim. In Sicily, revenge would extend all the way to the direction-giver and his family. I asked him about the town I had previously picked out and he said the roads were good so that's where I headed.
I continued on for another 15 miles to Geraci, where I had a cheese-and-spicy-salami panino. The interior of Sicily is absolutely stunning. Its majestic mountains and dramatic landscapes seem to say "Don't mess with me, I'll hurt you," reflecting the dark undertones of Sicilian culture. Continuing uphill, I rode past the first real-life shepherd I've ever seen in my life, with a cane and all dressed in wool. I've seen little eight-year-old ones at Christmas Mass every year, and I was probably even one once, but this was the first shepherd I've seen really doing his thing. A little later I saw huge chunks of dung and wondered if a goat could have done the job. On my way back I almost hit some cows hanging out in the middle of the road and then it made sense.
On long rides you have a lot of thinking time. Well, this time I got to thinking about how all these small hill towns that I was riding through got started. They're 20 miles away from anything else. Initially, I'm guessing all the towns in Sicily, and around the world in general tend to line the coast. Over time, they spread inwards and the founders of these towns would have had to carry all belongings on their backs and with mules. And today, nobody moves into these towns, which means everyone who lives there has family roots a long ways back, probably close to a thousand years. It's amazing to think about such continuous life, generation after generation in these small towns perched on the top of mountains: weddings and funerals, births and baptisms, schooling and working all there in these little towns, carried out in lifetime after lifetime. Along with that, each town, as close as six miles from the next, has a distinct dialect and people have to concentrate to understand another. It just goes to show how isolated these towns really have been throughout history.
Seven hours after I left, I made it back to Cefalu and struggled up the stairs with shaky knees to the apartment where I immediately put on some water to make pasta. It was a great day.
That night was Frank's 21st birthday party. Except it wasn't really much of a party. There were just six of us who went out to dinner, then only four wanted to go find the rumored discoteca that was only open on Saturdays. Again, one does not discuss the details of 21st birthdays, but Frank was having a good time. I decided to give him a unique gift. On the way over to the club, I gave him the gift of drunk driving. This is the only safe kind though: bumper cars. There was a small carnival park on the side of the road and I figured why not. It was a great time. We never made it to the disco. Instead, we just tucked Frank into bed and crashed ourselves.
On Sunday I went on a very short recovery ride and spent most of the afternoon cleaning up the apartment inside, which broke my heart because it was such a beautiful day. I packed up my bike and realized I had misplaced my train ticket to return back to Rome. In the end, it turned out to be nothing more than a headache and an extra €40. I said goodbye and thanks to Carlo and headed off to the station with my classmates that evening to catch my 7:30 train. It was a good spring break.
I thought I wasn't going to have anything more to say; just another night train and probably another awkward encounter with a middle-aged Italian. The train ride was relatively uneventful: I got my bike up on the baggage holders, we had some people peeking into our room, and I tried to fall asleep. I was having a hard time until about 2 or 3 in the morning, then the next thing I knew I was shaken awake by my friend. "Andy, we're here." But we weren't here. It was broad daylight and there was no train station around. My friend and I and another Italian all had overslept the Roma Termini stop, and they had moved the train to the outskirts of Rome to the train depository. So here we were, at 8:30 in the morning, pretty much stranded in the middle of nowhere. Why hadn't anybody woken us up? Where was the conductor? He hadn't had a problem waking us up while we were sleeping to check our tickets for the second time. But I guess he was too lazy to do the same when it really mattered. It wouldn't have been as much of a pain except I was still carrying around my bike in a box and really didn't feel like carting it the three miles back to the station.
Eventually, we found somebody to ask for directions to the exit, and we caught a tram heading in the right direction. While the man was telling us how to get there, another person came up, and both told us to keep an eye on our wallets. That was the first time ever I've had Italians tell me to watch out. A bit daunting, but in the end, nothing happened on the tram. Once we saw the red metro "M," we were home free. And that's where the story ends. It was a good spring break.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 07, 2008
Friday was the day we decided to rent mopeds. It looked clear until the moment after we signed the paperwork and it started pouring. I almost passed on the day but then figured why not and went with it. I knew it was going to be a long day when my friend, right off the bat, rode his scooter into the wall. He wasn't hurt and the scooter still worked so we kept going. The place only had four scooters to rent, two 50cc's and two 125cc's, so one of the 125s always had two people on it and we set up a rotation. We headed to Castelbuono, where I had ridden to on Tuesday. On the way there, it was all uphill so there wasn't really much danger of sliding out. I was driving a 125 and my friend was clutching on and we were shivering like Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber on their way to Aspen.
We got to Castelbuono and sloshed into a café where we had some of the thickest hot chocolate ever, and tried to dry ourselves out. After that, we asked where we could get some pasta, and the woman there sent us over to her friend's around the corner. Once we sat down and took off our jackets, the owner rolled in a space heater and turned it on to help with the drying process. I was so glad I put on my thin, wool long underwear that morning so I could lose my cotton T-shirt. It's kind of sad though, having to wear long underwear on a spring break trip in the Mediterranean. We ate well and apprehensively put back on our semi-dried jackets and helmets and returned back to our motorinos.
We decided we had had enough and started back to Cefalu to return our scooters. Now it was time to head downhill and it was still raining hard. The four of us would spread out along about 200 meters of road so we'd lose sight of each other around every turn of the windy road. And around one of these I came upon Mark getting up off the ground and picking up his moped. He had slid out around a turn, but because the roads were as wet as they were, he wasn't hurt and his ride only picked up a small scratch or two. We continued along until we found a turn out and scoped out the damage. We didn't see anything so we kept going, and pulled over to wait for everyone at the very bottom of the hill. We were missing Frank this time. We waited for a few minutes then sent Mark back up the hill. He came back a minute later with Frank who had gotten too close to the wall and fell into it on the right side, hurting both his pinky and right side of the moped. All our hands were numb from the cold rain and he couldn't tell if his pinky was broken or not. So he got on the back with Mark on the 125 and I switched to Frank's 50cc that now had a newly broken mirror and stiffer steering. That accident would end up costing Frank €172.
Now we were going along flatter ground along the coastline, and we could see Cefalu in the distance. I was careful never to let myself get too comfortable with my motorino skills but I think others weren't as careful. A quarter mile after we turned off on the Cefalu exit, we pulled over again to wait for everyone to catch up. This time Joe was missing. We waited some more, then I doubled back to find him. I came across him at the turnoff wincing in pain. He had slid out on the main road at about 40 kph and slid into the other lane. Luckily there was no oncoming traffic, but he said three or four cars had pulled over ready to take him to the hospital. Again, because the roads were wet he wasn't seriously hurt, so he passed on that, but he had skinned his wrist, ankle, knee, and thigh as well as grinding away his mirror and the right side fairing. That accident would cost him €145. He didn't feel like driving anymore so Frank got back on my ride, and I switched to the 125cc that Joe had been driving.
Once we were back in town, we picked up some groceries, then headed to the gas pump to fill up before we returned the mopeds. Once we got back, the owner did the routine check on all the mopeds: We had crashed three of the four he had rented to us and he knew it. A fork was shot, two mirrors were broken, and there was some serious cosmetic damage. He wasn't too happy. He went back inside and wrote up the bill for Frank and Joe who had to pay immediately. It would have been awesome any other day with better weather — and cheaper. I'd definitely recommend renting, just don't do it on a rainy day. Or you can be like me and just not crash at all. That night we compared bruises, abrasions and stories over beer pong late into the night.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 05, 2008
Playing Bocce 2.0 with Grandpa Carlo
On Tuesday I decided to ride inland and uphill to Castelbuono. It was a beautiful day, and the views were amazing. People have asked me if I saw evidence of Mafia activity during the time I've spent in Sicily. The Mafia is careful not to attract any attention to itself so as an outsider, it is very hard to notice anything. That day though, as I was tooling around through this little hill town, a brand new Mercedes passed me and turned around the next corner. I thought it was strange because all other cars were the kinds you'd expect in a poor rural town with not much of an economy except agriculture. I didn't really think anything of it until I caught up to the silver Mercedes in the narrow back alleys of the town. At each storefront, the car would stop, and shop owners came out and passed an envelope to the driver. They'd then chat for a bit asking about each other's family and friends. The shopkeeper would then thank the driver profusely and return back inside and the car would continue on. Of course I don't know exactly what was going on, but one could make an educated guess.
That night we had dinner at the girls' apartment on the other side of town. As far as cuisine goes, Italy is definitely the place to study abroad. Each of my friends have picked up a different recipe to add to their repertoire, and it feels like every night is a feast. That night we had Chicken Marsala and a simple, spiced whole-wheat pasta.
On Wednesday, I picked a town called Geraci to ride to. On a map, when the road gets squiggly, it means the road is steep. I kind of knew that from before, but now I have a true sense. Distance-wise, I didn't go very far, about 15 or 16 miles. But in that time I climbed over 3,000 feet, most of them near the end. I bought a €3 panino in the local and only grocery store of this mountain town and ate in the town's only piazza. I sat next to a couple old men who were shooting the breeze like they always do and I tried to listen in on their conversation, but I could only pick out maybe 10 percent of what they said. They were speaking in such a strong dialect that it seemed like another language to me. After a while I interrupted them and began a conversation in Florentine Italian about life in Sicily and how they've liked their life in the town. Only several hundred live there now and it was fun hearing them talk like they knew the life stories of each inhabitant. I bet they did too.
Nothing really worth noting happened on Thursday except for that evening's dinner and post-dinner activities. That afternoon, we invited Carlo over for dinner. He brought a raw artichoke salad and a pack of sardines. Neither was very good, but it was great having him there. He was born in Sicily but was raised in Milan. His wife is Milanese and they've spent most of their life up there until now. He's retired and involves himself in the marine equivalent of Italian boy scouts. I didn't really catch it all, but he told me about it, and showed me pictures of teaching kids how to sail. After dinner, we roped him in for a game of beer pong. His wind up and toss, I could tell, were derived from a lifetime of bocce ball. His team was way behind until Carlo found his groove and sunk three in a row to win the game. With all of us standing stunned, Carlo said one game was enough for him and went to bed.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 03, 2008
A Rainy Monday: Bike Meets Car
We got into Cefalu at about 8:30 in the morning. The day after a night train is always horrible. You're painfully tired and your eyes ache all day. It's kind of like jet lag all over again. On top of that, it was drizzling, and Carlo, the landlord gave me a funny-looking phone number that I wasn't sure would work. Well I called it a few times and finally he picked up and gave me some directions. There's one street that goes from the train station and continues all the way through the small town until it makes a "T" just before the water. We had to get to that T and that's where he would be waiting. So the eight of us started our hike in that direction, me with a huge bike box. Of course, Sicilian eyes are expert stare-ers and they were performing just fine that morning. In the early morning, there were already dozens doing their work—staring at the new arrivals in town.
We got there and that's when we first met Carlo. Carlo was a smiley, short, balding, white-haired man with a small potbelly who liked to talk through his rotten teeth. His breath reeked of something indescribable that morning. That afternoon, I would find out why.
We followed him down the street to the left and up into our apartment. It was a beautiful place with a view of the water, and plenty of room for eight dudes. After my friends moved in, they all laid down to take a nap. I was going to do the same, but then the sun came out and I couldn't wait any longer. I decided to take my bike out of the box, assemble and head out on a ride.
I took the direction to Palermo and enjoyed the new pavement, which was "partly financed by the EU." It wasn't an especially warm day, but my layers were adequate and I felt like I was riding through a cyclist's paradise. I made it about 20 miles out before the rain clouds came up on me and started dumping. That's where I turned around and began the second half of my ride.
On the way back I was heading down the same two-lane highway where I came upon two cars turning left. The first one pulled out a little bit in front of me but wouldn't have been a problem. But the second misjudged my speed and followed the first. The driver saw me coming and instead of doing anything, failed to make a decision and just stopped, blocking my entire lane. I had already clutched my brakes and was sliding at an angle on course to hit him. Somehow I made a flying leap out of my clipless pedals and managed to stay on my feet while my bike hit the deck hard. I put my street Italian to use and the driver sheepishly climbed out of his car as I looked over my bike. There was no serious damage except for my bent handlebars that I could fix with a multitool. I went through the regular hand gestures while fixing my bike and kept going. I made it back to the apartments and showered off, thankful my bike and I were both still in one piece.
Posted by Andy Steves on October 31, 2008
Back in January, we knew we needed a place to go for spring break. We were considering Greece, Tunisia, Sardinia, and Sicily. So we shopped around online looking for apartments to rent for a week in any of these places. We found a nice one in Cefalu, Sicily, where I had studied two summers before, and quickly got in contact with the landlord. There were two adjacent apartments available with four beds each, so we committed and booked them. For the next month and a half we didn't really think about it much. We had places to go and things to do.
Posted by Andy Steves on October 29, 2008
Skipping School for St Paddy's Day in Ireland
I was supposed to fly back to Rome at 2 in the afternoon on Monday but on Saturday I asked myself how many times do I have the opportunity to be in Dublin for St. Padd'y day and bumped my flight back to Wednesday for €35. Not bad.
At noon, the parade started promptly with the Irish military marching by me. The rest of the parade didn't come so fast, and I waited around for 20 or 30 minutes before I saw the next floats. I have never seen such an eclectic random mix of anything in my life: dancing pieces of grass, prancing ants, giant Harleys, flag throwers, mambo dancers, really scary-looking monsters, and mad scientists with boiling pots of unknown liquids. I left an hour later without seeing a truly Irish participant. Stephen told me the parades in New York and Boston are more Irish than the one you'll see in Dublin.
I was really anticipating the Irish activities to follow later that night so I wasn't too bummed. But first, I wanted to check out an advertised party on the other side of town. I was going to head over with some friends from Notre Dame studying in Dublin for the semester who I met up with randomly while watching the parade but quickly lost in the crowds. Never saw them again. After an hour en route, I came across this huge block party on the other side of St. Stephen's Green where cultural music was blasting in Gaelic.
At first there was plenty of room, then by the time I left, it was packed. There were moshing teenagers up close to the stage and little girls farther back putting their Irish step-dancing skills on display. It's the cutest thing ever to watch two of them go around in circles with their heads bobbing in syncopated rhythms, laughing and spinning up a storm. I was standing up on a raised area with small trees just enjoying the scene and pack after pack of freebie chewy candy. When I had my fill of both I made my way back to the hotel to rest up for what was sure to be a long night ahead of me.
Stephen told me to meet him and Vicki across town for dinner, but I slept through it in my nap and did without a meal that night. Not to worry, Guinness is like a loaf of rye bread. To the poor student, drinking in Dublin is not a particularly affordable activity as you may have guessed by my thievery the previous day. So I bought a small bottle of vodka at a convenience store before the real party started that night. And I brought it into the dance bar where the party was. After a legitimately paid-for pint, I got a cranberry with ice and headed to the dude's bathroom with the vodka in my jacket. I returned with a suspicious-looking pink drink in my Guinness pint glass and got back to the business of socializing. Twenty minutes later I saw some interesting flailing of arms and swirling of colors so I headed towards it. I met a group of French girls teaching French to Ryanair flight attendants. So I started dancing with them, green beanie with white foam horns and all. I ended up crashing on their couch at their house 20 minutes outside of Dublin later that night. I don't really know why but that's just what happened.
When I woke up, three French girls had already gone to work, and another just told me what bus to take to get back to the center of town. I went back to the hotel where I was staying with Stephen and Vicki. Unfortunately, they had already left for Derry when I showed up. So I took a nap, showered, then checked out of the hotel to wander Dublin for the rest of the day. I went to a really interesting "History of the Irish Military: Domestic and Foreign Service" exhibit at the National Museum. I had a lunch of salami and cheese on a baguette, and then went over to St. Stephen's Green to take a nap. I called the French girls after five and took the bus back out for some dinner. We compared musical tastes over dinner sharing iPods and I tried to teach them the Soulja Boy dance. I'll be the first to tell you I'm terrible at it. But seeing these girls made me feel a bit better. We had a simple salad and pasta dinner. I was planning to detox that night until one of them busted out a bottle of anise and I couldn't say no. I just love how it turns from clear to cloudy once you drop some ice into it. Some chemist needs to explain that to me some day. Once it got late, and I was tired, I dismissed myself, cleared off my plate, and went back to the couch. Meeting these girls was clutch because once I got home to Rome the next day, I had €16 in my pocket and I had slept for the last two night for free at their place, and with Stephen the previous four. I don't know how I could have worked it any other way.
Posted by Andy Steves on October 27, 2008
Defying Gravity…for a Guinness
We made our way down to Dublin on Saturday. On the way we took a detour through Belfast. Stephen wanted to show me where the real Troubles happened. In that city, it looked like there was another Berlin Wall running right down the middle separating the two parts of the population. Protestant churches had cages round the windows and even the doors, making them look more like fortresses than religious buildings. Along each side of the wall was a small No Man's Land. On the Protestant side was a wide road, but on the Catholic side, the houses went right up close to the wall. Each of the houses had ground-to-roof metal cages around the patios. This was to protect against bricks and bottles lobbed over the wall from the other side. This was so they could relax if they wanted to have a coffee or a smoke outside without worrying about being beaned by a stray brick.
Driving through this city felt like driving through an Irish version of South Central L.A. I think of Belfast as the physical example of human stubbornness. While I definitely side with one, I can see both sides to the story- but I feel like I would eventually get tired of the struggle. The Protestants were planted there by the British to Anglicanize the Irish. Today though, Belfast is all they have known, and it's where they've lived and grown up for many generations. And the Catholics had always been there but had their homes and rights taken away when the British showed up.
On Sunday afternoon we made it to the Guinness brewery. I had been there two years ago with my family at 10 a.m. and it just wasn't that cool. This time we showed up at 2 p.m. and didn't leave again until about 7 p.m. With your admission ticket, you get a free pint up at the Gravity Bar. The entire museum is shaped like a giant pint glass of Guinness, and you pass through seven floors of history before you enjoy your pint at the top. Usually. This time, Stephen, Vicki, and I went straight to the top where we used up our first ticket. It was then when I began practicing my pint-swiping skills. It sounded like Stephen was intending to stay a while, and I was thirsty, so there was no other option. When a pint of Guinness is poured at the bar, it is poured about three quarters of the way up and then it sits until it settles enough to fill it to the top. Well the bar tenders would put these mostly full pints out on the bar for the settling or for the taking. And so I took and took and took again. By 6 p.m., I thought I had it down to a science, smoother after each drink. I thought I was smooth, but I'm sure I was much less so in reality.
We left without ever being caught and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Luigi Malone's, an Italian restaurant just off Temple Bar. An Italian who works at Stephen's hostel up in Derry joined us and sighed "you're so American," after I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. When she ordered a plate of lasagna, I chose not to say anything.
Posted by Andy Steves on October 24, 2008
Touring Bloody Sunday
This year for St. Paddy's day, I figured that since I was in Europe, why not go to Dublin. So I blew off school the Thursday beforehand to catch a Ryanair flight at noon. On the plane, I realized I forgot my ATM card back in my apartment and would have to subsist on the €220 cash I brought with me in my backpack. I knew I could make it. Once I arrived, I was supposed to meet up with Stephen McPhilemy, a guide who does tours in the summer in Ireland for my dad's company. He's from Derry, but was in Dublin doing some business with his partner, who runs his own tour company called Paddy Wagon Tours and a hostel in Dublin. This weekend, both the tours and the hostel were packed with a couple hundred Australians, a handful of South Africans, and a couple Canadians. When I met up with Stephen at the bus stop, he said "You now Andy, you're gonna kill me, but we're gonna head back to the airport after I run some errands and catch a flight back up to Derry for a couple days." He explained that the government believes Irish citizens have a right to fly between cities, so flights are subsidized, making them cost the same as a bus ticket. Unfortunately, Stephen remembered a couple of minutes later that his passport was back at his house in Derry. So, we ended up taking a three-hour bus ride to Northern Ireland.
That night we met up with Vicki, his French-Canadian fiancée, for dinner at a grill restaurant under their apartment. After dinner, I dropped off my bag upstairs and we went out for a pint. I learned this weekend that "a pint" is never just a pint. Instead, at a minimum it's three pints and a nightcap of a shot of Jamesons. The first night was pretty chilly. We met some strange kids from Indiana studying in Derry for the semester. Derry's a cool town, but I wouldn't want to spend several months there. The girls there thought they could Irish dance as well, which was just embarrassing enough to watch.
On Friday morning, I walked around with Vicki, going into the museum and taking a tour of where "Bloody Sunday" actually happened. It was disgusting to hear about the British occupation and the Trouble years that have only recently ended. I had heard about the segregation of Northern Irish cities but it never really hit me until I saw it with my own eyes. The British lived inside the Derry castle walls on the top of the hill looking down at their Catholic counterparts. For years, young Catholics would have skirmishes with the stationed British military. People were killed with plastic bullets the size of saltshakers. One Sunday, inspired by the civil rights movement going on in the US, the Catholics were having their own march. The peaceful demonstration turned into a massacre of 14 Irish civilians — most of them teenagers.
While Vicki and I were touring, Stephen was supposed to catch a flight to London to meet up with a tour group and bring them across the water on a ferry to Dublin for the weekend. Well, he ended up missing his flight and on the way home picked up some Domino's Pizza, my first American-style pizza in months. This was a pretty American-style night. After that, we headed down to the movie theater and caught a showing of In Bruges, a movie with two Irish actors where they just rag on the cute Belgian city for two hours.
After that we met up with a friend of Stephen's at the pub. His name was Roighry, the Gaelic spelling for Rory, and he was the first Irish person I've ever met who doesn't drink (he sipped on a nonalcoholic Beck's). That night, Roighry was headed to a small BYOB house party and offered to take me along. After a few, Stephen handed me a key to his hostel, told me a few rooms were vacant, and said I could crash there after the party and he went back with Vicki.
Before we left the pub, I met a man with intense eyes, and a strong jaw. We started chatting as Rory left to get another "beer." Somehow, Cuba came up and we discussed Che, and other Cuban exports like rum and cigars. At that moment, he got really excited and started rubbing his thigh vigorously. When I finished what I was saying, he was like "Aye, aye Cuban cigars, rubbed on the thighs of fine young maidens." Switching gears, I mentioned how I had visited the memorial and the museum, and had seen the murals of Derry. Immediately, excitement returned to his eyes, which then turned into a look of hatred as he made it clear he despised the "feckin' British." He told me how he had carried the dead body of his friend in his arms, who had been shot in the head by a British bullet. Back in 1973, he was 23, his friend, 20. He continued to tell stories of that day until Rory came back. Just before I left, I shook his hand and whispered "F the British" into his ear, and the crazy look came back into his eyes again.
Once we got to the party a few blocks up the road, I found the fridge and deposited my beer contribution, keeping one to consume then. I tried hide the other cans among the fruit and vegetables and yoghurt, but in my gut, I knew that was a bad idea. When you're a poor student and someone takes your beer, it can ruin an evening. Well, the three beers I left in the fridge did get taken. Anyways, I got over it and started socializing. There were Germans, French, Japanese, Italians, and a Pole there — I think I was the only American. European house parties are different. They seem more intellectual, more mature. It's the kind of partying I want to be doing in 15 years. Not yet though, not yet.
Posted by Andy Steves on October 22, 2008
Alright, so about half way through my semester I noticed something was missing from the study abroad experience. Every weekend, almost everybody would take off in groups ranging from 2 kids all the way up to 30 in every direction. In each group, there was usually somebody who went ahead and made the reservations for hostels, who did the research on flight or train information and basically went through the headache of taking care of all the logistics for going somewhere. For most people, it was their first time in Europe, and yeah they had guidebooks but they weren't geared specifically to them. Most had my dad's, and it's great for art history and orientation walking tours, let's admit it, he lacks a little on the nightlife and hostel listings in his book. Others had Let's Go which tends to be out of date and is packed with hostel and club listings that have shut down years ago.
That's when it occurred to me, there's nothing out there that is targeted specifically to this market, the college student abroad who has exactly from Thursday afternoon when classes get out, till Monday morning when classes resume. We all want to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience and to do so, we take advantage of the student discounts for trains and the budget airlines to go to as many different parts of the continent as possible every weekend. So I thought, why don't I start a one-stop all-encompassing free online resource for college students abroad. In it you'll find travel tips for transportation, trip planning, an online forum, itinerary ideas, my personal travel philosophy and my travel blog from the last 4 summers, exciting travel links and more. This site will be packed with the kind of tips and advice we need and can use.
While there's still many broken links and no uploaded itineraries, you should check it out. Let me know what you think along with any suggestions and pass the word along to any one currently abroad or considering it. I just launched it and guess what it's called? I got creative and went with AndySteves.com
Posted by Andy Steves on October 21, 2008