Thursday, August 28, 2014

Throwback Thursday: University of Virginia

Source.

The University of Virginia's Rotunda building, designed by Thomas Jefferson, and located in Charlottesville, Virginia.  This throwback is in honor of my alma mater's season opener against UCLA this Saturday... Wahoowa! Go 'Hoos!


These last two photos were taken during half-time against Georgia Tech in 2007.  We won!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Splashing around the Schlossplatz (Stuttgart)


My love affair with Germany began in July 2010.  Granted, my fascination with the country goes farther back, but I didn't truly meet Germany until we landed in Frankfurt and began our train journey to Stuttgart.  It was there in Stuttgart that I first fell in love with everything German.

It was a hot day, and we had been deposited in the Schloßplatz (Castle Plaza) to "walk off" our jet lag.  We roamed through churches, window-shopped at various upscale clothing stores, admired the castle facade, and dipped our toes into a few fountains to cool off.  It was a great start to a wonderful honeymoon.












The Mercedes factory!

You're in wine country - Riesling wine, to be precise!

Have you visited Stuttgart before?

Linking up with Bonnie Rose & other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Public Transportation in Italy


I was really impressed with Italy's public transportation system.  Like, really impressed.

So impressed, in fact, that my mood flew the whole gamut while on vacation in Italy: frustration, annoyance, quiet resignation, maniacal cursing at the transportation gods, profuse sweating combined with nervous, high-pitched laughter, and eventually a dazed admiration that a transportation system could be so unreliable that one could actually rely upon it... for being late or delayed! 

Perhaps I've been overly spoiled with my previous experiences of transportation in other countries.  Flights have been delayed, but never canceled.  Trains have been five or seven minutes late, but never more so.  Buses have been mildly odorous, but never rank.  And I've yet to suffer through the nightmare of traveling during a strike.  (I know, I know; I've probably jinxed myself with these last five sentences.)  Beyond a few obnoxious advances from a pimp in the DC Metro ("Hey ladies! I'm an entrepreneur!") to the usual pieces of gum stuck under a train table in Germany, I've never had any major complaints.

But Italy was different.  We landed in Naples and after gathering our luggage and purchasing tickets for the bus station shuttle, we made our way out into the streets to locate the bus stop.  Unlike the tour bus services and other city bus stops, which were conveniently in front of the airport entrance, the stop for the Napoli Garibaldi shuttle bus was several hundred meters away, located around the corner and in front of a McDonald's.  We finally figured this out (after Danny asked a random van driver idling on the side of the road if he was the transport service; undoubtedly his thoughts were, Turisti stupidi...) and got on the bus with no other incidents.

The ride through Naples was eye-opening.  Traffic laws, schmaffic laws.  The laws of the jungle would be more appropriate.  Bigger vehicles take the right of way, whether it's legally theirs or not, and Vespas zip through red lights with hardly a by-your-leave.  As Rick Steves remarks in his guidebooks, red lights are "discretionary" in the opinion of most Italians.  Chaos rules.  Sidewalks end at busy intersections with no marked pedestrian crosswalks; simply stare boldly at the face of impending death, er, drivers and high-step it across the street.  Be quick, though, as drivers will be right on your heels.

The shuttle dropped us off at the Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi, which was nothing more than a glorified concrete island in the middle of where several busy roads intersect.  When asked which way to the train station, the bus driver pointed some 600 meters away down a busy street lined not with sidewalks, but with jersey barriers, leaving a scant 6 inches of shoulder space to walk along with the traffic.  Hearts sinking, we prepared to run the gauntlet.

Let's just say that you feel very much alive after power-walking down the road with mere centimeters between you and espresso-fueled crazy Italian drivers.

Once in the cool underbelly of the Napoli Centrale station, though, we experienced even more of what Italy's public transportation had to offer: the cattle-train enterprise cleverly disguised and advertised as the Circumvesuviana train line.  Imagine what a sardine feels like when packed into a tin can -- only make the outside temperature 100'F and don't expect any air conditioning!  Granted, we arrived in the middle of the afternoon commute, but I certainly didn't anticipate that my first impression of Italy would involve the fascinatingly curly and sweaty arm-pit hair of the Italian gentleman crammed beside me on a train.  Buona sera, Signore. 

I could say that we had a more pleasant experience on the Circumvesuviana two days later when we went from Pompeii to Sorrento, but that would be a lie.  The train schedule alleged that it would take thirty minutes, but we should've known better than to trust anything even in print!  We spent an hour enduring the boisterous yells, catcalls, and hoots of some rowdy Italian youths en route to the beach.  With no air conditioning.  But thankfully the return trip was quieter and, well, almost enjoyable.  My bet is that all those youths were too drunk to return to Naples.  Or maybe they drowned.  At any rate, we actually got to sit down on the train!

And don't even get me started on the transportation fiasco with our Mt Vesuvius excursion... granted, it wasn't public transportation, but when you're spending 22€ a person, you expect that the transportation would have the decency to be punctual.

To add insult to injury, all the fretting over tardy transportation back from Vesuvius ended up being a waste of energy since the train from Naples to Rome ended up being over an hour late in leaving.  As in, we sat on the train for an hour with no explanation as to why we weren't moving.  The train conductor better have had a serious case of the runs to justify such tardiness.

Admittedly, there were a few bright spots in Italy's transportation system.  Maneuvering the metro system in Rome was a breeze (minus the scam artists who hang around the ticket machines), and the trains were more or less on time.  Most of the cars were new, and we rarely had to stand or feel like we needed to sanitize ourselves from head-to-toe after exiting.  And there was a really friendly fellow on the Circumvesuviano train who helped me hoist my luggage onto the car.  If you're reading this, Signore, I'm sorry I thought you were a scam artist at first.  My bad.

The most reliable form of transport! :)
The train from Rome's Termini station to Fiumicino Airport was also on time.  But Italy's public transportation system couldn't end our trip on a good note: our plane to Stuttgart was delayed for almost an hour.  Oh, well.  It's the Italian way!

Have you been to Italy?  What was your experience with their transportation?







(This was a rather tongue-in-cheek account of our experience with Italy's public transportation.  If you can't find humor, no matter how sarcastic, in the mishaps and obstacles, then you might as well give up traveling altogether!  That being said, I hope you don't interpret this post as my condemnation of traveling in Italy as a whole.  The public transportation flaws certainly didn't make our trip, but it didn't break it either!  Be sure to check out my posts on Pompeii, Sorrento, and Mt Vesuvius for positive highlights, and stay tuned for my future (glowing) reviews about Rome!)


Linking up with the #SundayTraveler!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tiptoeing around Mt Vesuvius

Mt Vesuvius and Mt Somma loom moodily over the ruins of Pompeii.
As we ascended the final six hundred meters of Mt Vesuvius, wiping sweat from our faces and praying for a sweet sea-breeze, I felt rather like a Lilliputian tiptoeing over the slumbering form of Gulliver.  Please don't wake up, please don't wake up! a running mantra of thoughts in between my panting breaths under the hot Campanian sun.  I'd had a fearful fascination of Vesuvius for as long as I could remember.  After all, in spite of an army of seismological equipment and venting monitors, no one really knows when Vesuvius will stir again - I just sincerely hoped it wasn't while I was there!

The 4x4 transportation
On our last day in Pompeii, we decided to squeeze in a quick visit to the volcano before catching the train to Naples and on to Rome.  While several tour companies depart from the Pompeii ruins to Mt Vesuvius, we chose Busvia del Vesuvio, intrigued by the all-terrain vehicles pictured on the brochure that would bring us most of the way up the 1,281m (4,203ft) high summit.  The brochure promised that in the span of three hours - one hour up, one hour on top, one hour back - we'd receive a brief history lesson of the volcano from a park staff member, stare down the maws of Vesuvius, perhaps see a few wisps of steam, have a stunning view of the Bay of Naples, and finally be deposited safely again at the Pompeii train station.  We barely had enough time before catching our trains, but couldn't resist the opportunity.

Looking down at the yellow-flowered bushes from the top.
The journey up the volcano was uneventful, but full of stunning scenery.  The forest floor is blanketed in pine needles, at once both alluring and foreboding.  And as the vehicle climbs above the tree line, your eyes are met with yellow-flowered bushes blanketing the mountainside.  We learned later that these bushes grow only on volcanoes and potentially could've served as a warning to the Pompeiians of their beloved mountain's true nature.

After zigzagging our way up the national park's access road, we were deposited roughly 600 meters from the top and warned that we had 50 minutes before the truck would return to take us down the mountain.  "Be on time!" the driver warned in heavily-accented English as we got out.  It was ridiculously hot outside, and I was glad we'd thought to bring water with us, although we had forgotten the sunscreen!  Heat and humidity notwithstanding, we eagerly set up the dusty trail to the top, passing and being passed by others along the way.

The trail afforded stunning views of the Bay of Naples, Pompeii, and even Sorrento far off in the distance, but our primary focus was on reaching the crater.  After laboring upwards for 15 minutes, we reached the park ranger station and finally - the mouth of Vesuvius!

Below and at the base of the mountain (on the left-hand side of the picture) are the ruins of Pompeii.  Herculaneum is just barely beyond the picture to the right-hand side along the coast, and the point jutting out near the top of the picture is Sorrento.


While in Pompeii I couldn't shake the menacing shadow of Vesuvius, but from the top of the volcano looking down into the crater, it all looked so... ordinary.  Just a depression, albeit quite large, on the top of a dusty old mountain.  It wasn't anticlimactic, though.  If anything, the commonplace appearance made Vesuvius seem all the more dangerous.  While Mt Etna in Sicily is unmistakably volcanic, putting on regular Strombolian eruptions (i.e., lots of lava!), Vesuvius is the silent type that erupts rarely.  By the time the Pompeiians realized that Vesuvius was a volcano, it was too late for many people.  In fact, other than a few wisps of steam rising lazily from the side of the crater, you could fool yourself into thinking that Vesuvius really isn't a sleeping giant.
The deceptively innocuous-looking crater.
An English-speaking park staff member gave a short history lesson on Vesuvius.  Apparently, the current crater known as Vesuvius was not the volcano that destroyed Pompeii.  Technically, the volcanic chamber that roared awake in 79AD is known today as Mt Somma, which embraces the north and north-east side of the current Vesuvius and is only 1,132 meters tall (you can see the peak of Mt Somma on the right-hand side of this post's first picture).  The force of the eruption that destroyed Pompeii was so great that the mountain collapsed into itself and the modern day Vesuvius grew out of the collapsed caldera of Somma.  He also reminded us that Vesuvius erupted in 1906 (killing 100 people) and in 1944.

"There are currently almost one million people living in the shadow of Vesuvio," the park employee said.  "One day she will wake again, and everyone will need to evacuate."

I can't even fathom how such a large-scale evacuation could take place swiftly and efficiently (especially when I have such a dubious opinion regarding the efficiency of Italians in the first place!).  And why would anyone want to live so close to an active volcano anyway?  As if reading my thoughts, a private tour guide nearby told her group, "When people ask 'why do you live so close to a volcano?' the response is always 'why not?'"  I could only smile and shake my head at her words!

My volcano-hiking outfit.

Sea-mist creeping in over Pompeii and clouding views of Sorrento.

Making clever use of the surroundings for safety's sake.

It was eery how the clouds crept up the mountain and then down into the crater.

"Smile! You're standing on top of a ticking time bomb!"

Fifteen minutes before the bus driver told us he would return, we began to make our way down the crater, pausing to collect a few volcanic souvenirs along the way.  We arrived at the parking lot on time; unfortunately, the driver did not.  We waited forty minutes in the hot sun for his return, then waited another forty minutes at the bottom of the mountain for a different driver to bring us back to Pompeii.  If you're on a strict time schedule, budget at least 4-5 hours for the whole experience and not the 3 hours that the brochure promises!  We made it back in time to catch our trains, but we certainly stressed ourselves out on the top of Vesuvius and then again at the bottom while waiting on transportation.

If you are looking for a more strenuous adventure, it is possible to climb from the national park entrance all the way up to the crater.  I'd guess that it would take at least four hours from start to finish (and that may be a low estimate!).  There are also numerous hiking trails through the park if you want to spend even more time on Vesuvius or to go explore a little bit of Mt Somma.

Have you visited Mt Vesuvius?  What did you think?



Cost:  22€ a person.  This includes the entrance fee to the National Park itself and the Busvio del Vesuvio 4x4 vehicle drive to the summit from the entrance.  The company provides free shuttle service from Pompeii to the National Park entrance.
Time Needed:  A minimum of 3 hours, but I'd recommend budgeting 5 hours for delays.
Websitehttp://www.busviadelvesuvio.com
Accessibility:  From Naples, take the Circumvesuviana line towards Sorrento.  Exit at the Pompeii Scavi - Villa dei Misteri stop.  The free shuttle bus services meet right in front of the train station next to the walls that surround the ruins.
Tips:  Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring water, sunscreen, and a hat if visiting during the summer.  It was very hot at the summit until cloud cover alleviated some of the heat.

Linking up with Bonnie Rose & other bloggers for #TravelTuesday!