A Travellerspoint blog

All Roads Lead To...: Back to Roma

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

As hard as it was to believe, my I-finally-have-a-PhD trip was coming to an end. The ship was back in port and I was disembarking for the final time. Fortunately, my flight did not leave until that evening, so I still had one day left to explore Rome. To take full advantage of the little time I had left, I booked a full-day tour with Rome Driving Tours. My tour guide, Luca, picked me up from the port and would later drop me off at the airport. Luca was a fantastic guide. His enthusiasm for the history of Rome was apparent as he shared his extensive knowledge while driving me throughout Rome.

My first stop was the Vatican Museum. I had elected not to hire a private guide for the Vatican, but was still able to get inside without waiting in line because Luca had already purchased the ticket. I could have literally spent days exploring the Vatican. It was incredible, although I had to repeatedly remind myself of the reasons why all of that history was in one place. The highlight of the Vatican Museum may be the Sistine Chapel (where, of course, one cannot take pictures), but truly the entire Vatican is one giant piece of art.

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Typically, in order to access St. Peter's Basilica from the Vatican Museum, one must either exit the museum and then wait in another really long line or be with a tour guide who can exit from the Sistine Chapel and go straight to the Basilica. I did not want/have time to wait in line, so Luca had suggested "mingling" with a tour group as they left the chapel. That I was willing to break a rule speaks to my desire to see the Basilica - not many things can entice me to do so. Of course, the group I happened to mingle with was from China. That may not have been the most subtle choice. I just nodded my head and pretended to understand Mandarin as we exited the chapel. Despite my less than successful attempt at blending in, I was able to get into the Basilica unaccosted by security.

It was so worth breaking the rules.

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After a whirlwind tour of the Vatican, my next stop was one of the catacombs. Pictures were not allowed to be taken inside, but it was a fascinating tour. Plus, it was a great opportunity to get out of the heat for a bit.

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We drove along the Appian Way, getting to see what little is left of the original road. My tour guide, probably sensing my nerdy excitement about history, added a couple extra stops to my day. One such stop was the Church of Domine Quo Vadis. There is a legend that the church was built on the spot where Peter met Jesus while fleeing persecution in Rome. The footprints (which are now a copy of the original footprints), are said to be the miraculous footprints of Jesus, although there have been other explanations, as well.

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Another bonus stop was the Pantheon. Being there on a rainy day, I got to watch raindrops fall through the top of the dome.

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For lunch, Luca took me to one of his favorite places in the Campo de Fiori. It was a bit too rainy to enjoy strolling the market, but my sandwich was delicious nonetheless.

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After a final stop to take in one last view of Rome, it was sadly time to head to the airport.

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I can highly recommend Rome Driving Tours, whether you are spending a day in Rome or looking for an option for a shore excursion. My guide was knowledgable and clearly passionate about history. I had one last, perfect day in Rome to end an amazing vacation.

How does one sum up a trip that included 18 days away from home, 7 countries, 6 flights, 5 time zones, and 1 eleven-night cruise? Honestly, I do not know how to adequately end this series of posts, although it certainly took me long enough to write it. As I have reflected on the trip during the months since it ended, I've realized that in many ways, the trip marked a time of transition in my life - certainly a time of endings, but hopefully new beginnings as well. And so, I end this post with another beginning: I am making a change related to my blog. Lately, I've been more thoughtful about travel and especially about what it means in my life. To more fully explore this going forward, I am beginning a new blog. It will continue to be focused on my trips, but will have an increased emphasis on my philosophy of travel and ways to make travel more meaningful. I hope you will continue to read my blog at thewanderingmind.net.

Posted by cgplatt 3/3/14 18:39 Archived in Italy Tagged tour europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To...: Naples

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Anyone who has ever travelled knows not every day is wonderful and not every moment is one to be remembered. Fortunately, most of the time I can look back on the less than fun times and remember the enjoyable parts, or at least find something humorous to share. Unfortunately, there will be no such redemption for my day in Naples. It was really and truly a horrible day. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that the highlight of my day was the extra strong vodka cranberry that the bartender at the pool bar made for me. Repeatedly. I actually mean that - I was in Italy and the best thing that happened to me that day was a generous pourer and a quiet spot by the practically deserted pool because pretty much every other person on the ship was in Naples having a better day than me.

There are many potential ways to spend the day when one is docked at Naples. You can take a ferry to nearby Capri, spend the day along the breathtaking Amalfi Coast, or even visit Pompeii. I fully intend to do all of those things one day, but Naples was a port where I elected to keep it simple (and save money) by exploring the city on my own for the day. Obviously when I made that plan I was imagining that I would have actual fun doing so...

One place I was especially excited to see was the National Archaeological Museum. To add insult to an already injured-to-the-point-of-death day, the majority of the exhibits, including some in which I was especially interested - for instance, the exhibit on Pompeii - were inexplicably closed. And the tickets were in no way discounted because of this. I refused to buy a ticket simply out of protest and perhaps because I was in a bit of a bad mood. So, I crossed the number one thing I wanted to see in Naples off my list.

By this point, I was just done with Naples. Honestly, I could not even develop an adequate opinion about the city due to the fact that my entire perspective was tainted by things completely unrelated to the place I happened to be that day. It is not the fault of Naples that I had a miserable day, well, at least not entirely. Maybe if the museum had really been open… I guess my only option is to revisit the city in the future and give myself a better opportunity to appreciate what it has to offer. Ideally, that visit will include plenty of time in the museum and lots of pizza. Fewer tears would be nice, too. In the meantime, enjoy a few pictures from around the city.

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Thankfully, the trip would end much better than this day ended (or began, for that matter) with a fantastic tour of Rome. Although I did not enjoy my time in Naples, I am so grateful for the opportunity to travel. If forced to choose between never traveling and enduring the occasional unenjoyable day while traveling, the latter option wins every time.

Posted by cgplatt 3/2/14 10:09 Archived in Italy Tagged cruise port europe_2013 Comments (1)

All Roads Lead To...: Mykonos

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

When I decided, "I'm on Mykonos, I should rent a scooter," I was picturing something like this: Me (about 15 pounds skinnier and a shade or two more tan) easily zipping along the scenic coastline, my air flowing gracefully in the ocean breeze. I would stop at any place that caught my fancy - perhaps a hidden beach or a quaint seaside restaurant. Some cute Grecian guy might even hit on me, you know, because me on a scooter would be just about irresistible (please note the sarcasm if it is not readily apparent). It was all very glamorous… in my head. With that (obviously unrealistic) fantasy in mind, my first stop on Mykonos was one of the many rental shops near the port. Perhaps I was too distracted by the bright blue ocean to make a good decision.

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Needless to say, the reality was just a bit different than what I pictured in my head as a signed on the dotted line and handed over my drivers license to the cantankerous old man running the shop. In fact, the fantasy wore off about the time I couldn't even figure out how to start the darn thing. Then there's the fact that I'm far (far) too anxious to zip anywhere and to forgo the admittedly less than sexy helmet. Picture instead me hanging on for dear life, constantly torn between trying to enjoy the moment and utter panic. And driving very slowly around the curves. All this when I was even more relaxed than I would have been otherwise after time in the spa that morning (remember the facial I won?). Armed with a map, I stopped at practically the first place I could relax for awhile. Thankfully, that place happened to be here:

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Throughout Mykonos, there were beach clubs where one could rent a palapa for the day at a reasonable price. As a bonus, I could sit and stare at the ocean while someone brought me something strong to drink to help me recover from the drive. It was a really low-key day once I arrived at the beach. I mostly read and enjoyed the view. The sand was much coarser than what I was used to and the ocean was freezing, but it was absolutely beautiful.

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As relaxing as the beach was, the day was somewhat tainted by the necessity of a return trip, the thought of which ever lingered in the back of my mind. Unfortunately, there really was no other way to get back to the ship other than again risk my life (and, let's be honest - the life of pretty much anyone else on the road at the time) on the scooter. So I did. Spoiler alert: I made it back safely. I even got up the nerve to vary just a bit from the shortest route back. I was on Mykonos, after all. I will admit, and I am sure this will be shocking, I was beyond relieved when I returned to the rental shop and both the scooter and I were in one piece. I celebrated by exploring the more of the town, on foot of course. What an incredible place.

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My day ended like so many evenings before - with the sunset.

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The following day would be the final day at sea before the final port - Naples, Italy.

Posted by cgplatt 2/15/14 15:20 Archived in Greece Tagged cruise port europe_2013 Comments (0)

All Roads Lead To…: Athens

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Athens, Greece is a city that needs no introduction.

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However, in many ways, Athens was quite different than what I had imagined. Dirtier and more covered in graffiti. Although to truly explore a city like Athens takes far more than a single day, I maximized my precious few hours with another private tour. I was especially impressed that the tour company went out of their way to reschedule and be flexible when the cruise ship had a last-minute change in itinerary due to expected protests in Athens the day we were initially scheduled to dock there.

Like all good tours/days/hours should, this one began with coffee. I'm fairly certain that my tour driver was slightly hungover, so he did not complain when I requested to make a quick stop for coffee (and yes, I had already had coffee that morning, but obviously it was not sufficient). Fortunately, being (possibly) hungover did not seem to affect the quality of the tour. And there was coffee. So far, so good. I sipped my gloriously caffeinated beverage as we made our way from the port to the city, which was located a few miles away. As we drove, my tour driver pointed out various points of interest.

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The view during the drive from the port of Piraeus to Athens included a beautiful coastline dotted with expensive yachts, made more beautiful by the anticipation of seeing Athens for the first time. One thing to note is that I hired a tour driver, which meant he could not actually come into the historical sights with me. The tour company offered the services of a tour guide for an additional fee. This seemed typical across all tour companies and has something to do with how Athens licenses for tours - one can be a tour driver or a tour guide (who can enter sites), but not both. I thought my tour driver provided plenty of information while driving between sights, which I supplemented at the major sites with previously downloaded walking tours from Rick Steves.

My first stop was the Acropolis. A collection of Classical Greek temples that built in the 5th century BC, the Acropolis was impressive.

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Although there were many temples, such as the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheion, the highlight was certainly the Parthenon. I had of course seen the Parthenon in pictures, but I never appreciated the scale of the building until I was standing next to it.

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There's even a reconstructed ancient theatre (the Odeon Theatre, I think?) where concerts are still held today. How cool would that be?

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Then there was the view. Because the Acropolis was so important to the ancient Greeks, it commanded one of the highest hills in Athens. From there, you can practically see the entire city. And from that perspective, the grime and graffiti so evident from below are non-existent.

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The next stop was the Temple of Zeus and the Arch of Hadrian.

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I saw the Panathenaic Stadium (incidentally, there seem to be about 5 million ways to spell this, so I just picked one and went with it), which was built for the first modern Olympics (and by modern I mean 1896). However, a stadium had existed on the site for centuries and was where the ancient Olympics were held. The stadium's most recent remodel occurred in 2004, when Athens again hosted the Olympics.

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Another stop on my see-as-much-as-I-possibly-can-in-one-day tour was Mount Lycabettus, atop which sits the Chapel of St. George. I didn't walk all the way to the chapel. After all, it is the highest point in an already hilly city, but I did enjoy the incredible view of Athens, including the Acropolis, from partway up the hill. Athens really is best viewed from a hilltop.

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Before lunch, we made a quick stop at the Parliament building to see the changing of the Evzones (the ceremonial Presidential Guard unit) in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The uniforms, though unusual, have a long history. They are based on the traditional clothing of the klephts - a people who lived in the mountains and who fought the Ottoman occupation of Greece for generations. Apparently, the soldiers accepted as volunteers for this duty must have a certain, um, physical characteristics. I can personally attest to that.

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After a busy morning, I was dropped off at the Plaka to explore on my own.

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I found a taverna for a delicious lunch before strolling though the crowded, cobblestone streets.

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With something to see around every corner, a couple hours had passed before I knew it. The amazing part is that I actually found my way back to the place where I was meeting the driver. On time. Without getting hopelessly lost. Wonders never cease.

On the way back to the ship, I enjoyed a few, final sites of Athens. And the air conditioning in the car. That was at least one way in which Athens fit my expectations - the ever present and oppressive heat. Despite not being exactly what I expected, I still had a great day in Athens. Getting to finally see a place I have repeatedly imagined visiting is always an incredible experience.

That evening, I had a low key dinner and then, surprise, viewed another incredible sunset. I do not think I could ever tire of sitting on my balcony each evening, watching the day slowly fade into a sky full of stars. Even though the trip brought some difficult moments, I knew my day would end with peace and beauty.

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The next day would be the final stop in Greece - Mykonos.

Posted by cgplatt 2/2/14 09:51 Archived in Greece Tagged cruise port europe_2013 Comments (0)

Home

Update: All new posts can be found at http://thewanderingmind.net.

Fair warning: This post is a teensy bit sentimental. And only tangentially related to travel. And has nothing to do with my trip to Europe. I still have much to share about Athens, Mykonos, Naples, and a bit more about Rome. I might actually finish blogging about the trip sometime this year.

Home. It is incredible that such a small word could be so much on my mind lately. Perhaps because this song has been stuck in my head (not that I’m complaining – I love this song). Or maybe it’s because I’ve moved as many times in the past 6 months as I have in the past 6 years. But more likely it’s because my life has been turned upside down and the people and places that have been “home” to me for a long time have lost that designation, so I’ve been left questioning what home means to me now.

Not that I am the first to ponder this topic. There is much that has been said about home:

  • “Home is where the heart is”
  • “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
  • “There’s no place like home.”
  • “Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to”

But I am still left wondering how I define home.

I realize this is a departure from the typical content for my travel blog. On the other hand, as much as I love to travel, that love has always been counterbalanced by a draw toward home, toward a safe haven in my often stressful world (although admittedly a certain level of that stress is self-induced, e.g., grad school). The challenge lately is that I don’t really know where or what that is. Strangely, it took a little bit of traveling to help me figure it out. On a recent trip to Arkansas, a place that was home for most of my life, I had some time to reflect on the meaning of home.

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I lived in the moments where I felt that mix of comfort and familiarity that signaled that this, this moment, is home.

There was the drive into my hometown as the sun was setting over the Ozark Mountains, accompanied by the sense of peace that settled over me as I reveled in being away from the city for a few days.

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I drank my morning coffee while drinking in the view from my parent’s backyard, hearing nothing but the rush of the river and the occasional bird or squirrel.

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I spent time with my dad as Sydney and I explored the land behind their house for the first time (after living there for more than 15 years my parents finally cleared off the land behind their house in order to access the river). As I walked/climbed down the bluff, I marveled at the beauty of the cold morning.

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I ate my all time favorite breakfast – my dad’s unbeatable fluffy, blueberry pancakes. The taste took me back to comfortable, childhood Saturday mornings. Regardless of what else was going on in my life, I knew that I could count on Saturday morning pancakes. Although they would be somewhat less delicious when my parents were on an intermittent healthy kick. As an adult, I know that when I visit my parents, there will always be blueberries waiting for me.

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I watched the sunset over the river, feeling calm sink into my soul.

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I spent time with family, for whom the simple fact of me visiting was a sufficient reason to get together for a party. These are the people who still want to spend time with me and are proud of me despite having seen me at my worst, and that includes the big, red glasses (seriously, what was I thinking?) and snotty teenager eras.

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I ate some of my favorite foods while catching up with the people who love me the most.

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My friend made another batch of his always delectable “experimental cookies” – so called (by me) because no two batches are ever the same, yet that is what makes them wonderful.

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I spent time with friends who reminded me that I am loved. I had some happy moments and some sad moments. I revisited places where some of my best memories and strongest friendships were made.

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I had coffee at the coffee shop that’s been my favorite for more than a decade and where countless late night granitas have been consumed with both laughter and tears.

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I did something entirely new, in this case getting my ears pierced, just because I could. And because my best friend made it that much more fun to get a needle punched through my ear lobe.

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I played board games and video games (with a 7-year-old who pretty much always beat me). I was surrounded by a sense of belonging and a certainty about my life that I have not felt in a while.

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Home is a tenuous idea that may be easy to recognize, but is difficult to define. I realized that, for me, home is family and friends wrapped up in tradition and expectation and love. Home is a place of profound familiarity that gives me the strength to explore and take chances in an unfamiliar and sometimes scary world. It’s a place of comfort that I carry with me as I learn and change. It is the peace of nature that soothes an aching heart and eases the anxiety that creeps into my life day after day of living in a city. Home is where I feel comfortable enough to joyfully celebrate and privately grieve. It is a place toward which I feel an inexorable pull, even as I long to travel to entirely new places. Home was a place I found over and over throughout my time in Arkansas. Now, as I work toward rebuilding a home in the place where I live, these are the things I must create and find.

Posted by cgplatt 1/22/14 16:10 Archived in USA Tagged arkansas Comments (0)

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