Back from a 20-day soujourn in Europe. Started off in Rome, then headed to Paris, followed by Switzerland, then on to Greifswald in northern Germany to participate in GriStuF 2005 (which was awesome, by the way), then finally a couple of days checking out Berlin before I flew back to Cairo.
Spending 3-5 days in each country doesn’t exactly allow one to get “off the beaten track”, but it is enough to see the sights and do your tourist thing. And, well, you work with what you’ve got, cramming what would ideally be a 2-month backpacking trip into 20 days wasn’t that bad, in fact it turned out great.
Arrived in Rome on May 26th at 23:30. Apparently I was too late and the shuttle service to downtown has stopped. So I take a taxi who from Fiumicino Airport to downtown Rome, setting me back 30 Euros (So much for budget travel!).
I had no hostel reservation. I thought: no big deal, who the hell needs a reservation for a youth hostel where you stay in a 12-bed dorm room and wait in line for a shower every morning anyway, right? Wrong! I got to a hostel that was recommended by a friend and they said they didn’t have a bed for the night…and so did every other freaking hotel I went to in Rome that night!! I even went to some of the nicer 3 or 4 star hotels willing to pay extra for the first night to get a room. No luck. After about 3 hours of roaming the streets of Rome in search for a vacant room/bed, I went back to the first hostel and said to the guy behind the reception desk: “listen man, just give me a place to crash till the morning…I got my blanket, I can sleep in the kitchen or something”...to that he replied “Sorry…we already have 5 people sleeping in the kitchen! Write down your name on this list and come back at 7:00 am, we might have a bed then”. “What do I do now?!” I said. “Go to Termini” he replied.
Termini is the main train station in Rome. Luckily it was only a 2-minute walk from this hostel. So I went there, found what appeared to be a “safe” spot to sleep, and then tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep. I was tired and really wanted to sleep, but couldn’t…what if I wake up and I don’t find my luggage? It would really suck to get my stuff stolen on the first day of my vacation. When you’re travelling on budget, “roughing it” in cheap hostels and hitch hiking for transport, your backpack is your life. Later on I met a guy from Turkey staying at the same hostel who had his backpack stolen from the luggage storage room. Major bummer. I cram all valuables inside my coat, use my day pack as a pillow and tie my rucksack to my belt. Problem is, those who know me know how deep my sleep is, and if I did go to sleep there- even with the “security measures” I took- a mildly determined thief will have no or neglegible trouble stealing everything I have.
I get about 10 minutes of sleep before I decided to give up on the idea alltogether. I saw an open sandwitch shop, got something to eat, and walked around the station checking other unlucky travellers and homeless people out. Something interesting about homeless people in Rome: a lot of them have very healthy and even well groomed dogs, its like the dogs get more food than they do. It was around 4:20 am when I got really bored, decided to get out of the station, and just walk. 200 meters down the street I ran into a bunch of half drunk American students, and asked if they had any idea where I can find a place to stay. One of them was like “Dude..the whole city is fully booked for a week at least! You should’ve made a reservation”, ther others had this smirk that said “Heh, you’re screwed”. Okay, thanks for nothing.
I walk back to the station, and just spent the next 3 hours reading and listening to heavy music. 7 o’clock sharp I was at the hostel. The guy from last night was gone and there was this knock out italian girl behind the counter, Gabriella. I say my name is on the list and ask if anyone has checked out yet. She said that 2 people were checking out and that I could have a bed. Great! I quickly drafted a mental plan for the day: Get about 5 hours of much needed sleep, then go and check out the city. I pay for my bed, Gabriella quickly briefs me on the hostel rules and where everything is “Your dorm is one floor up on the left, bed number 6, showers are on the right, kitchen is over here, TV room is over there, pay before 9:00 to extend your stay….” I am listening but not really aware of what she’s saying as my attention is focused on her big and round…eyes. “...and you can’t use the room except after 3:00 pm”. This hit me like a giant hammer, and I was about to shout a torrent of obscenities at anything that moves. But Gabriella was too nice for that, so I just threw my backpack in the luggage store room, and went back to the streets of Rome.
By now I was dead tired, and was tempted to just lay down and go to sleep right there on the street now that I (relatively) didn’t have to worry about my luggage. I think to myself “Hey..you’re not travelling to spend your time sleeping in hostels anyways! Stop complainig you wimp and start checking Rome out!”. I meet Kam, an Iranian-American student who was also tired and sleepy and also couldn’t get his bed before 3:00. After 45 minutes of aimless walking we see this park. Trees, shade and soft grassy earth; Perfect, I am getting some sleep!
I spend the next 2 days checking out all these “must see” places in Rome: The Collosseum, Vatican City, Trevi fountain, the Piazza Di Spagna ( which is a really cool place to just hang out and chill) The Roman forum, catacoumbs, etc. The architecture is amazing in Rome. Ancient ruins are cool and everything, but when you come from a country that has 1/4 of all the ancient ruins in the whole world (Egypt, that is)..ancient ruins just don’t impress you anymore. Then we see this Ferrari souvenier store. They had a Ferrari Formula one car inside and I go crazy with my camera on it.
Lots of street vendors in Rome selling all kinds of stuff. Counterfiet designer clothing, bags, sunglasses…mostly sunglasses (by the way…what is it with Italians and HUGE sunglasses?!) I see a guy with a bunch of camera tripods, I thought it’d be cool to get one for, you know..I don’t know, it’d just be cool to have one. So I pick this medium size tripod, ask how much was it and he says 15 Euros. 2 minutes of bargaining and his final offer was 10 and mine was 6. Okay buddy, looks like you’re not in the mood to do business today. I was just about to hand him back the tripod when one of the other vendors shouted something, to which all of them, including the guy with the tripod, instantly disappeared. Turns out that there was a police patrol and apparently a run in with the police can ruin their day. I stood there, tripod still in my hand, amazed at the speed at which these guys just disappeared. Poof!, gone..just like that. I was brought out of my daze with a tap on my shoulder “Take it..you win!” said another tourist with a smile. But being the righeous, clean-handed person that I am, I stood there and waited 5 minutes for the guy to show up. He didn’t. Then I thought “I’ll give 2 more minutes, than its rightfully mine. He does show up, I hand him his thing back and say “See, i waited for you, I could’ve just taken it and walked away, right? Now I’ll take it for 6 Euros”. “No. 10 Euros” he said. You little @#$%. That’s what I get for being decent to you, you filthy street vendor scum!
The next day I hook up with with some people staying at my hostel. We do a lot of walking around. In the evening, I went to Termini to validate my Eurail pass and make a reservation for Paris.
On the way to Paris, it hits me that I forgot to make a reservation for a hostel. Should Paris be is as packed as Rome was, then I was going to spend a significant part of my vacation sleeping in train stations. Which was fine with me, life is too short to worry about comfortable accomodation on trips to Europe. I get off the train, my eyes already scouting the station for a good sleeping spot in case I couldn’t find a hostel bed. I found a hostel right across the street from Gare De Lyon and I got a bed. In fact, my dorm room was empty, not for long though. I shower and go out to get some food, come back and meet my new dorm-mate: Kyle from Canada. We go check out Paris. What’s the first thing you go to when you visit Paris for the first time? Right…the Eiffel Tower.
So we hit the Big Heap of Scrap metal. To get to the first floor its 4 Euros, to the second its 7 and to the very top its 10. Who cares about 1st and 2nd floors! We go straight to the top. The view from up there is great. We actually spent a lot longer ascending and descending from the tower than enjoying the view.
More sightseeing and aimless wandering around Paris followed. I postpone the visit to Le Louvre until my last day in Paris, which happened to be a Tuesday. What I didn’t know is that Le Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. One reason to visit Paris again.
Went to Switzerland with no plan as to what to do or where to go. But that’s the great thing about having friends where you’re going. Throw yourself in and they’ll take care of you.
The scenery is amazing in Switzerland. The lakes, the green hills, the mountains..just beautiful. Ski season was over, so the next best sporting activity was swimming in the 13-degree waters of the Aare river. Actually, in the water it was OK, when I got out it was a little bit windy and I was freezing!
GriStuF 2005 was amazing, albiet unstable weather and an unexpectedly large number of “no show” participants. Arriving in Greifswald’s trainstation, I was met by a bunch of GriStuF’s org-team, who accompanied me along with other participants to the Mensa for check-in and host assignment. The program was packed: workshop discussions, lectures, presentations, parties, etc. I ran into a whole bunch of people from GriStuF 2002, ..I even ran into the guy whose bags were stolen in Rome!
Only spent a couple of nights in Berlin, but loved this city. Met up with my old buddy Marc, we rented bikes and cruised all over Berlin.