A Night in Ayutthaya

It was May 11th, and I had just arrived to Ayutthaya from Bangkok by the local train. It was 4:20pm and I begin my walk from the station down a road with some small stores and restaurants on both sides. It was hot and the sweat immediately started to trickle down my back as soon as I stepped into the sun. I walk up to a dock by a brown river and look across. I wasn’t quite sure but the city center seemed to be just on the other side. I didn’t see any boats but I did see a bridge to the left of me in the distance and wondered if I had to cross it. I backtrack and decide to eat something first.

I sit down in a patio restaurant and was greeted by a Thai woman that wasn’t too welcoming. I sit, say hello in Thai and she plops a menu in front of me. I flip through it looking at the pictures but before I even order, I saw a western girl sit at a table right behind me. She was skinny with long brown hair and was wearing a trucker hat. Something about the way she dressed told me that she was American and I just had to know. I turned around and said hello to initiate some small talk. She spoke English with a slight accent and was quite friendly, so I asked if she wanted to join me. She smiles and sits in front of me. Her name was Lauréline and she was from the French part of Switzerland… I was off. She had large light green eyes and a kind smile. We order some food and talked for a while exchanging pleasantries. I had some Pad Thai and she a Papaya Salad. We pay after our meal and thank the lady whose mood had changed. Lauréline finds out that I didn’t have a place to stay for the night and recommends me the hostel that she was at. We walk back to the dock and find a brightly painted longboat with a long tail boat shaft coming our way. We pay 5 baht each to get across and on the other side she unlocks a bike that she had by a side street. We stop at a small guesthouse by the river, so I could have a Thai tea but also to ask for pricing on a room, since it looked nice from the outside. A small Thai lady shows me the private room she had available and it was decent enough but I decided to see Laurélines hostel first.

Lauréline leads me to Allsum Hostel on Bang Ian Road where she was staying. The hostel was very clean and modern, so I paid 400 baht for two nights, which is about $12.70. The place had several floors, some common areas, had breakfast included and even some bikes to rent. I lock up my bag in my dorm, rent a bike and we went to a popular weekend night market in town. It had just finished raining and it was already dark, so we quickly ride down two long streets, pass some roundabouts and reach the market that was next to some ruins. We lock our bikes under some trees in the front and begin to walk around. There was a long stone path that wrapped around a small creek flanked by tall leafy trees with hanging lights on both sides. Along this path there must of been more than a hundred bamboo stalls selling all sorts of very delicious looking Thai street food and delicacies: All kinds of skewered meats grilling over binchotan charcoal, crepes, vegetable curries, coconut desserts, insects, ice creams, teas, sodas and other regional foods I didn’t recognize.

The path was illuminated by the hanging braided bamboo lights which gave the entire area a beautiful glow. All the locals were out and about and some of the young kids would stare at us, as Lauréline and I were the only foreigners there. The night was warm and everyone was smiling and enjoying themselves. We strolled by a little girl singing Thai pop music on a karaoke machine and other vendors selling handicrafts. They would smile at us and say hello from their stalls, saying “Sawatdee Ka” and giving a slight wai. I felt that Thai people were friendliest people in the world that night and it gave me a really good feeling about my upcoming journey through their beautiful country. Feeling curious, I walk up to one of the stalls and a buy a semi-sweet coconut dessert that was green in color. It came in eight pieces and it was delicious but kind of chewy. I share some with my new friend and we talk back in forth in English and in some French. Her English was quite good but at times she would have to say some words in French, which I would understand…despite my mediocre command of it.

We reach the end of the long path and ended up at a small square. There we saw some teenagers dressed in classical Thai costumes performing a show depicting an ancient Siamese battle with warriors, kings and demons which was very entertaining. They all fought against each other with swords and had elaborate make-up. One even startled everyone by quickly drawing a pistol that let out a very loud and unexpected bang. One side emerged victorious and the crowd gave a hearty applause after they all bowed. We leave the square the same way we came and then bike back to the hostel in the dark. We stay up and chat for a while before calling it a night. Lauréline was to leave the next day and I had plans to see the town. I had read that the historic city of Ayutthaya was once the capital of the Siamese kingdom and I wanted to learn much about it.

AYUTTHAYA


Bangkok: City of Dreams

On May 8th I woke up from my bed and rose to my first real day in Bangkok. The sun was peering through my window and I was ready to explore everything that the city had to offer. In my dorm I met Joni, a young guy from Spain who was also traveling through SE Asia, yet was on the last leg of his journey. I decided that if I was going to be in Thailand for at least a month that I should get a sim card for my phone. I get dressed and head out to a nearby Tesco-Lotus store a couple of blocks down Rama I. The day was hot and humid and the streets were noisy with rushing traffic. Inside on the third floor was a Dtac cellular kiosk and there I purchase a data plan for a month with a Thai number, which was around 400 baht ( $15.34). I return back to the hostel and download an app called Grab, which is like an Uber but for Asia, and then set out to see the city with Joni.

On the street Joni teaches me how to use the app and we first head out to Wat Phra Chetuphon, also known as Wat Pho to see the stunning architecture and the famous Reclining Golden Buddha statue. On the way there I noticed images of the new King; King Vajiralongkorn or Rama X, all over the city. Just a couple of days before was his coronation. After getting dropped off, we make our way around the temple perimeter looking for the entrance and of course some tuk-tuk drivers stopped us and assured us that the temple was closed. One tried to sell us a tour around Bangkok to see the other temples but I knew that the temple was open and that this was a very common scam in the city. We smile and walk away. Towards the back we find our entrance and pay 100 baht to enter the grounds. We pass through some groups of Asian tourists and make our way towards the Reclining Buddha, marveling at the Thai architecture around us. Completely golden and massive, it was a breathtaking wonder. The statue was resting on two box-pillows covered in glass mosaic and the Buddha had a slight peaceful smile with a relaxed posture. At 15 meters high and 46 meters long, it’s one of the largest statues of the Buddha in Thailand. I’ve seen many pictures of it in books but I was happy to finally be in his presence and the serenity of the statue filled me with good fortune. Circling around the area, Joni and I took some photos and paid our respects to the Buddha before exiting the building.

We continued walking around the temple complex taking in all of its splendor and entered the main hall, Phra Ubosot. Inside there was another gilded Buddha statue sitting on a tiered pedestal and under a tiered umbrella. The Phra was constructed by King Rama I in Ayutthaya style and then later reconstructed in the Rattanakosin style by Rama III. Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples and has been around even before Bangkok became the capital of Thailand. The temple contains many Phras and also houses over 1000 Buddha images, which is the largest collection of its kind in Thailand. There is also a school of Thai medicine and the temple is also known as the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage, where it is still taught and practiced today. In addition, it’s also considered to be the earliest public education center in Thailand. The entire complex is filled with exotic Thai architecture and it is a definite must if ever in Bangkok.

After Wat Pho, Joni and I head out to Bangkok’s Chinatown to try out some of the famous street food there. On Yaowarat street, everywhere I looked there were signs in Chinese, traditional-herbal medicine shops, restaurants and food carts. The traffic was dense and crossing the roads was a challenge. To do so, we would wait and then jump in front of traffic with two or three others, passing quickly as tuk-tuks and mopeds swerved around us instinctively. In the street all kinds of food were being sold from the stalls: Thai curries, brothy noodle soups, dumplings of every variety, skewered BBQ pork and fried chicken, coconut desserts, fruit juices, jelly teas and of course the infamous durian fruit. Joni and I shared some skewered chicken with sweet chili sauce and dumplings. We spoke with the locals and continued to get lost in the alleyways in search of more interesting and delicious food. We then came across what I had been looking for: Insects. By the side of a small street I found a lady with her cart catering to three other local ladies snacking on the crispy bugs. Upon seeing it I was in awe. It was something I had seen many times on travel food shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and I was excited to see it. At first I was a bit hesitant, but I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

All of the Thai ladies were staring at me and upon seeing my curiosity, egged me on to try some of the insects. On the cart were crickets, grasshoppers, scorpions and fried caterpillars. Joni and I look at each other laughing and he tells me in Spanish that the fried caterpillars were good, so he has heard. I pay for a little mix of the crickets and caterpillars and she hands it to me in a small styrofoam bowl. I grab one caterpillar and slowly bring it to my mouth. I crunch on it…and to my surprise it wasn’t that bad. It had a salt and spice mix on it and it reminded me of the small Pik-Nik shoestring fries that we use on Cuban sandwiches back home. I then try the cricket and it flaked off into pieces in my mouth and it felt like a was chewing on a thin piece of bark, which was unpleasant and had no flavor. Joni then filmed me trying the black scorpion on a stick and although the gross factor was there, I wasn’t too fazed out by it. I move the arachnid to my mouth, pause and bite down hard on the claw. I was expecting some kind of meat inside, yet it felt like I was biting into plastic. It had no taste and was hard to eat. It was obviously just an exoskeleton and a novelty food item directed towards curious foreigners. I don’t know how much of a delicacy it actually is in the region but I’m sure some eat it. We explore a bit more and I try a lemongrass jelly drink that I found in a dark alley from the only stall in the area, which was quite tasty and refreshing. We also end up finding a small sweaty stall in another alley that was selling noodle soups. We have one each and pay the young girl before going to Khao San Road.

We get there around 6pm and begin to walk up the infamous road. To the left and to the right of me there were hotels, cheap hostels, restaurants convenience stores and massage parlors all with glowing signs. In front of these buildings there were all kinds of stalls and food carts selling all kinds of exotic foods drinks and treats. One was selling crocodile meat that was skinned and skewered and grilling over some coals. Along the street, hawkers paced up and down slowly selling everything from selfie sticks and scorpions on a stick to small portable electric fans and silly tourist glasses. Joni and I sit at an outside table at a bar called Khaosan 1986 to have couple of beers and people watch. I sat there taking it all in and gazed at the ebb and flow of people from all walks of life and of every description: Hippies with dreadlocks sporting Hindu tattoos and wearing elephant print harem pants, young Europeans on holiday from school with oversized Osprey backpacks and hiking boots, bearded Israelis that had just finished their IDF service wearing velcro sandals and filling the air with Hebrew, old couples navigating through the craziness with Lonely Planet books in hand, groups of Chinese or Korean girls wearing beautiful flowing dresses and floppy sun hats, Thai punk rockers, ladyboy performers, soulsearchers, drunks, musicians and lost travellers tired of the west. Everyone was here it seemed.

I went to the restroom quickly and when I returned there was a street magician at our table showing Joni some tricks. The magician guessed all of our cards from a shuffled deck and did a rope and ring trick that was absolutely amazing. From the bottom of a thin rope tied at both ends forming a circle he would slide a metal ring up halfway with the string inside the ring and not touching the sides. Naturally, it should have fallen to the table once he released it but when he did, the ring would tie with the rope and not fall. He performed it may times and it left us completely baffled. We chatted him up and he performed some other good tricks, so we leave him a tip and pay our beer tab.

Joni and I then walk across the road to Charlie’s massage parlor where we get an hour long Thai massage for 250 baht, which comes out to around $8. The ladies take us in, wash our feet and give us some light clothes to change into. The lady lays me down on a thin mattress on the floor and Joni was laying on the adjacent one with his masseuse. They closed the curtains and played some light Oriental flute music. The whole hour was very interesting and relaxing. She massaged my entire body using her fingers, elbows and forearms to hit all of the pressure points and used her body weight to twist and crack my spine using her feet. She was very pleasant and we would make light conversation but she really went to work on body when she got to my neck and back, massaging me vigorously and working out any knots and sore spots. When the time was up Joni and I thanked the women, changed into our original clothes and headed back to the road feeling great.

It was nighttime and the road was buzzing with activity. Live music from the bars and the sound of travelers cheersing over Singha’s and Chang’s filled the air. Thais mixed with the foreigners on the streets conducting business and haggling on prices. Everyone seemed free and happy to be here and I was no exception. We walk towards the end of the short Khaosan Road and decided to head back to downtown. On the ride back I began to think of how happy I was to be in Thailand and I thought of all of the travelers that had been here before me. Of all of the people that came from faraway places arriving here for the first time. How excited they must’ve been, as I’m excited now, to be starting in Bangkok and to pass through the famous Khaosan Road… To make the first big step of a long journey. “And now I’m finally here”, I thought to myself.

It was my turn.


Thailand: Enter Bangkok

From Lucca my father and I went to Venice and spent a couple of days there. Although, to our misfortune it was rainy and windy, but we did make the most of it and enjoyed our time talking and having some delicious food in various restaurants, like La Profeta. Yet, this is where my father and I parted ways. He had decided to fly back to Spain and I decided to begin my Asian trip by flying into Bangkok. From the Venice Marco Polo airport my father was to head to Barcelona and I to Frankfurt, where I would then fly to my destination. At the airport my father wished me luck on my journey and I gave him the biggest hug. It was a fantastic month traveling with him and I am truly glad to have been able to spend time together backpacking. It was really nice to be able to share crossing the Atlantic and exploring Italy together. But this was the end.


In the Frankfurt airport, I began to grow excited as I was eating some currywurst and enjoying a cold German beer. Finally, the country and region of the world that had eluded me for so long and the land that had been the subject of countless hours of daydreaming was approaching. I was finally going to Thailand. The mysterious land of Muay Thai, misty mountains, delicious cuisine and friendly natives. The land of smiles was just 10 hours away and on the plane I was smiling the whole way. Next to me were a young couple originally from Bangkok and they gave me the in’s and out’s of Bangkok and Thailand in general. They explained to me some cultural norms, some basic greetings and food recommendations. The flight was a bit long, but after some movies and a quick nap, the plane was just two hours away from the capital.

After landing, I collect my bag and thanked all of the flight attendants for their hospitality. I walk off the plane, into Suvarnabhumi airport and pass through customs and immigration. They stamp my passport and I had one full month to explore their beautiful country. I had no real plans on how to go about my travels but I did have a rough outline of the places that I wanted to see: Bangkok, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and Pai. I know from my previous travels that I almost always deviate from any original plan and go to a lot of small towns in between and learn about sites that shouldn’t be missed. Or sometimes, I find a place that I like and stay there for longer. My aim is always to travel slow, talk with the locals, eat local, soak up as much as I possibly can and write down a good amount in my journal.

I take the Airport Rail Link, and make my way to the center of town by transferring to the BTS Sukhumvit line and get off at the Siam stop on Rama I Road. I had no cell phone service and no pre-booked hostel for me to stay at, so I walked into a large shopping mall called the Siam Center and come across a bubble tea kiosk on the second floor called The Alley. Here I had my first bubble tea in Thailand, a delectable brown sugar and milk concoction with tapioca pearls. They didn’t have wifi, so I took off looking for another spot. And of course I found a Starbucks and used their wifi to connect and find a place to sleep for the night. I settle on a place called Lub d Hostel, which was right up the street on Rama I and close to the National Stadium. I check in around 5pm, receive my key and was shown my room that had four beds in total yet was empty. The hostel was clean, large, had open air patios and was mainly blue in color. I get some much needed rest, since I had been non-stop from Venice and later in the evening do my laundry, because my filthy clothes desperately needed it and I was on my last pair of underwear.

Later in the evening I go out for a walk to explore the town by night and to find something quick to eat. I was on the hunt for my first street stall noodle soup and whichever would have been perfect. I stroll along the streets taking in the facade of Bangkok and was elated to have finally made it. The buildings were old, lacked paint and had weeds growing from the cracks. Everywhere I looked, there were telephone wires crisscrossing and gathering into knots and locals making their way in and out of restaurants. The night was damp and the moped traffic was fierce, which made crossing it a challenge. Each small restaurant that I passed by was like a little window into their business and world. The experienced elders would cook and the younger ones would take the orders. From the stalls that dotted the streets, vendors would be chopping meat and all kinds of greens with their heavy cleavers making a loud “chop chop” sound or straining fine noodles into a bowl of steaming broth filled with morning glory and beef. All of the aromas filled my senses and I struggled to settle on a place, yet finally did.

A young girl no older than 15 approaches me as I sit at a small steel table and on a low plastic chair. “Sawadee ka” she says smiling and in a low voice. “Sawadee krap” I said and returning the smile. I then point to two plates on the plastic menu. Minced pork and tofu soup with some fried shrimp cakes on the side and a spicy lemongrass sauce for dipping. She jots it down on a paper pad and runs off quickly. Thai, which I have only heard on occasion back home, now filled the air and it was melodious and exotic. Some would stare at me and some would smile as I ate, as I was the only foreigner there. It was all delicious and I pay the bill after thanking them. Thailand had always captured my imagination and I always wanted to experience it for myself. And I could only dream back then. Every time I would hear stories from others that had been there, it only made me want it more. I craved Thailand. All of it. And now I was finally here. No real plan. No real idea of the city. No real sense of direction. And no knowledge of Thai. A guest in a faraway land. Alone and out of my element. And exactly where I like to be.

Shhh…there’s a place called Lucca.

On May 1st, we left the beautiful  La Spezia and took a train to Pisa to check out the touristy Leaning Tower and to see if we wanted to spend the night there or to go to Lucca afterwards. We missed the Pisa San Rossore stop and arrive at the Pisa Centrale Station. There we grab a quick bite to eat at the stations small food hall which had a cafeteria, a pizza oven and a McDonalds. I grab an espresso and a diavola pizza for myself and my dad a burger. We then make our way towards the famous tower. At first, my impression of Pisa around the station looked kinda rundown but as we continued walking down Via Cesare Battisti and crossed the Ponte della Cittadella bridge I began to find it quite charming. It had some nice shady areas, parks and some street art.

We pass by a cathedral made of bricks and walk down some streets that were lined with cafes and restaurants. As we approach closer to the Square of Miracles, the amount of tourists was becoming very noticeable, which was a very stark contrast from where we were coming from. At the square there are four religious buildings which are owned by the Catholic Church: the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistery, the Campanile (Leaning Bell Tower) and Camposanto Monumentale. The whole area is actually fairly big with bright green grass all over and the four beautiful white buildings. Obviously, the star is the leaning bell tower and everyone there was trying to take a thousand photos of it with their hands leaning up against it, many of them teenagers and mostly standing on the surrounding columns to get the perfect shot…So, of course I tried to squeeze in and get my own shot.

After taking a couple of photos and admiring the beauty of the square, we stroll around a bit blending in with the thousands of other tourists there and decide to head to Lucca. I kinda wanted to climb up the bell tower but there was a three hour wait, so we walk out of the square and look back at it one last time. We go through an outdoor market selling all kinds of cheap souvenirs, hats and leather goods. I actually found a good belt there for 8 euros. We walk into a small restaurant nearby where we have some cafe corettos con sambuca and begin our way to the Pisa San Rossore train station which wasn’t too far off. We pass some fences and buy two tickets for the next train to Lucca and out of the annoying tourist zone. We wait around for a while for the train and in thirty minutes we arrive in Lucca.

At the Lucca train station, we walk to a small shady park and look for a place on our phones to stay for the night. We settle on the Eurostar hotel which had a great price, wasn’t too far and had breakfast. We begin our walk and realize that the historic city center is completely surrounded by a large stone wall lined with trees and with people walking and cycling around on top of them. Next to the walls there were large grassy areas, tall trees, old statues and a small moat encircling the city. We walk along the city wall down to a roundabout and a highway and continue to Viale Europa where the hotel was. After walking for 50 minutes and getting a bit lost we finally find our place. We were greeted by a friendly guy a the reception named Francesco who spoke very good Spanish. We check in and he explains the city a bit and how to enjoy it the best, which is by bicycle. At the room we rest for a bit and go out later that night to a Turkish spot, since there was some kind of holiday going on and most everything was closed. We chit chat about how beautiful Italy is and how hospitable everyone has been to us. Which made me reflect a bit…

I’ve been to Italy a couple of years back when I was traveling with my girlfriend at the time. She was a beautiful and kind girl from Tehran and we had met in a hostel in Istanbul years earlier when I was living there. For our trip we had started in Milan, then went to Venice, Bologna, Florence and ended in Rome before we flew to Barcelona, Madrid and then Porto. We had a wonderful time seeing the sites, doing some museums and enjoying some of the cuisine (although she didn’t care for pasta, crazy I know.) I remember having to get by with my basic Italian and although some were nice, some of the natives seemed to be a bit indifferent. Not rude at all, welcoming enough but not as helpful as I had hoped for. But I definitely cannot say the same thing this time around. Quite the opposite in fact. On this trip just about everyone was extremely polite, helpful and engaging. Everyone was always saying “Buongiorno” with a smile at a restaurant or cafe, making us feel welcome each time and some young kids even called us a taxi on the streets of Rome because we were lost. And of course we will never forget our kind host Samantha in La Spezia, who made us feel completely at home in her B&B and in Italy. You can easily see that the Italians know what they have and that they are proud of their country, their culture, their food and their work; whatever it may be. Waiters, baristas, taxi drivers and anybody else on the street. They all shared that same sense of pride.

The following day I took one of the bikes and went to the center of the city. My father went at his own pace and decided to walk instead. I bike down the street and through a tunnel specifically for bicyclists and pedestrians, where I come out the other side of the street and right in front of the city center. I bike through it and see what the small village has in store for me. Inside the city walls there were locals walking around, other bicyclists, vendors selling all kinds of meats and cheeses, small cafes selling espressos and Aperol spritzes, boutiques and little vintage shops. As I bike through the labyrinth of Lucca I come across this one area called Piazza dell’Anfiteatro which was circular and had restaurants all around offering regional cuisine. The center of the plaza was completely empty, yet there were two musicians playing contemporary music, one with an accordion and the other with a muted trumpet.

In Lucca one would find some tourists surely but definitely not a lot. Lucca is the perfect escape from Rome and other big cities where the tourist route can be a bit suffocating. It is a true breath of fresh Tuscan air and it’s where you visit Casa di Puccini, the house of the Opera composer or climb the Guinigi Tower, where you can get a gorgeous 360 view of the entire city. Here you can try authentic local cuisine with delicious pastas and seconds while sipping on a glass of fine white wine and waste the day away in leisure or as the Italians sometimes say, “Dolce far niente.”

Which is exactly what I did.

Lucca is a definite if ever in Tuscany.

It’s my little secret.

And I know I’m telling you now…

but please do not tell anyone else.

But I will leave you with some pics.


The Magic of Cinque Terre

On April 28th, my dad and I left Florence from the Santa Maria Novella train station in the morning and set out to La Spezia, a port town in the region of Liguria, which lays to the northwest of Italy and the jump off point to see Cinque Terre. The train ride was 2 hours and 30 minutes from Florence to La Spezia Centrale station and was about 18 euros for a one way ticket, yet can range anywhere between 15-25 euros. Once we arrived we set out walking towards the port; going down a set of stairs, crossing some intersections and strolling down Via Fiume and then down Via del Prione. At the port we crossed a suspension bridge and circled around the port watching the boats and ferries go by and talking about maybe one day owning a sailboat.

At the entrance of the port there was a long line of people waiting to get inside a seafood restaurant called Dai Pescatori, so of course we join the line to see what the deal was. Turns out it was more like a self-service place with different seafood dishes, calamari, pastas and salads. Everything was freshly caught and they were only open for 3 hours starting at noon and then open up again at 7pm for another 3 hours. We order some calamari, fried merluzzo (cod), seafood gnocchi with langostines and a large Moretti beer to share; and then pay a lady sitting nearby. At Dai Pescatori, they serve everything on styrofoam plates, give plastic utensils and then seat you in a patio with plastic covers but with a view of the marina. Everything was around 10 euros and it was a cheap and very decent place to eat. The gnocchi was very soft and delicate with a light yet creamy seafood sauce. The fried cod was actually served cold but they were thick pieces of fish and were really nice with a squeeze of fresh lemon. The calamari was very good, being hot, crispy and fairly soft, unlike a lot of calamari which can be ridiculously hard and chewy. Overall, it was a nice little spot for Ligurian specialties at very affordable prices and recommended if you’re ever find yourself in La Spezia. I actually later learned that it’s quite the popular spot for locals, despite all of the foreigners that were there.

Afterwards we approached a small kiosk that sold boat trips around Cinque Terre to ask for the schedule and prices for tomorrow, since they had nothing that day due to the choppy waters. We then grab two cafe corettos, which is a shot of espresso with a dash of liquor, usually brandy, grappa or sambuca, from a small stand alone cafe called Chiosco delle Palme . We get ours with sambuca, which I’ve become really fond of and then sat down to look for a hostel to stay for the next couple of nights. As we searched, I reflected on the surroundings of La Spezia and our trip so far…

In short, from the Azores, we docked for a day each in Malaga and Cartagena in Spain. It was nice to revisit and stroll around Malaga again since the last time I was there. We enjoyed the city and had some small beers called cañas at a popular bar called El Pimpi and walked up the very steep ramps of La Alcazaba, which is a Moorish fort from the 11th century and the best preserved in all of Spain. We then climbed the castle of Gibralfaro which offers a wonderful panorama of the city. In Cartagena we walked all over the city as well and had some very regional and tasty Churros con chocolate, this being long fried pieces of batter covered in sugar and served with cup of very dense and rich hot chocolate meant for dipping. Here we also visited the Punic Wall of Cartagena, which is a defensive wall built buy the Carthaginians in the 3rd century BC. From Spain we finally docked in Civitavecchia, Italy on the 20th. From there, which is just on the outskirts of Rome we took a train to Termini station and enjoyed The Eternal City fully for the next three days; The Colosseum, The Roman Forum, Altar of the Fatherland, Fontana Trevi, The Vatican, The Pantheon, Piazza del Popolo…almost everything, but Rome is MASSIVE and there is so much to do really. And I don’t even have to bring up of how delicious Roman cuisine is…Although, I would really like to… Ok, let’s keep moving.

From Rome we went to Perugia, which took about 3 and a half hours from Termini to the Perugia train station. Perugia is an old Etruscan town and is the capital of Umbria region of Italy. It happens to be a very cultural and artistic city, known for its universities, jazz festivals in July and world-renowned chocolate. Honestly, what I really enjoyed was the quiet and medieval feel of the town with its ancient architecture and cobblestone roads and stairs that criss-cross all over the city center. The days were bright and had street vendors selling all kinds of artisanal goods from meats and cheeses to quality soaps and textiles. Here we actually spent three nights amazingly and on the 25th we left to Florence, probably my most favorite city in all of Italy just for the history and the amount of art alone, not to mention the decadent food and the friendly hospitality of the locals; especially when you make the effort to connect in Italian. Which that being said, I must add, in my humble opinion…for any traveler that decides to go abroad and become a guest in another ones country, it would be wise to research on local customs and learn some very basic key phrases before going. For not only will it be easier for you to be understood more efficiently but it will also make your trip much more engaging and memorable. For speaking in another persons language makes the interaction more intimate and enjoyable. It softens the heart and opens people up, and with doing this, your trip will prove to be much more rewarding. Dig it? Cool. Anyways, in Florence we went to the Galleria dell’Academia which houses the Statue of David in all his glory and other exceptional works of art and instruments. We did the Duomo, Piazzale Michelangelo, Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi museum-which is very rich in Renaissance art, housing Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Caravaggio, to name a few. Obviously, I could write about Florence till my hands cramp up…but I won’t. But I will say this, it is definitely not a city to be missed if ever in Italy and if you’ve already been there once, go again.

We stayed three nights in Florence and then went to La Spezia, where we pick up again. La Spezia is the second largest in Liguria, after Genoa. It’s located about halfway between Genoa and Pisa and has a large Italian Naval base. Next to the port and suspension bridge there is a boardwalk of sorts that extends along the pier and a park with large shady trees adjacent to it. Along Via del Prione there are restaurants, cafes and some small bars, along with some small plazas with statues. Everything was pretty much open yet, I saw only a moderate amount of people walking about, which I found strange since most people come here to see Cinque Terre. Maybe they all go straight there afterwards, or there may have been some kind of holiday going on. Either way it left a sleepy port town impression on me. We booked some nights at a B&B called Il Faro through the phone and began to walk towards our destination, about a 40 minutes walk from where we were. We walk down Via Nicolo Fieschi and arrive around 3:30pm. There we were greeted by a very nice Italian woman named Samantha, that spoke very little English. To communicate I had to use whatever basic Italian I’ve learned form the last time I traveled Italy, and we actually got by. Samantha was a very gracious host and took care of all our needs and even drove us to the port and to the train station in the end. We had a nice room to ourselves and a separate bathroom. We settled in and rested since traveling to get there took up our day, yet went out around 10pm looking for a Turkish restaurant nearby. The next morning we had a light breakfast at our place and Samantha drove us to the port. It was a chilly day but we bought a one way ticket to the last stop of the Cinque Terre route…Okay, now I know what you’re wondering…”Benny! What’s Cinque Terre, goddangit!?” Why thanks for asking! (Inhales a deep breath) Cinque Terre, in Italian means “Five Earths” and its basically a coastal area west of La Spezia and is made up of five seaside villages: Monte Rosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. All of this goodness along with the surrounding hills make up the Cinque Terre National Park and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it is a beaut! It’s been around since the 11th century and the area is known for it pastel-colored houses and buildings, local cultivation of grapes and olives, pesto and the seafood heavy cuisine. Every turn in any of these towns is a sight to behold in terms of sheer pleasant beauty. And I really mean it… Old restaurants, bars, cafes & gelaterias. Vines creeping around old houses and gardens, antique street lamps and vendors selling fresh produce. Fisherman bringing in their daily catch. Hiking trails from village to village that offer breathtaking scenery of the Mediterranean, small beaches, zesty local cuisine, beautiful people, lemon trees, seagulls…just look.

The Azores, Sao Miguel-Portugal

On the 14th, our ship docked in the city of Ponta Delgada in the Azorean island of Sao Miguel. My father and I decided to go to sleep earlier the night before, so that we can get up at a good time, have a quick breakfast and head out into the city center. After breakfast, we go towards the gangway to exit the ship and picked up a map of the entire island. At an ATM nearby we withdraw some euros and make our way up some stairs out of the port, passing some locals on the way trying to sell us some tours of the island. We decide to walk around the town first, since it was still early and quiet. We make our way up the main street of Rua de Sao Pedro and pass by a small church by the same name. We mosey around for a bit aimlessly, passing by another church, cafes and small stores that have yet to open up. We then come across the Portas da Cidade, which is a gate with three arches fairly high and made out of black and white volcanic rocks; like most of the citys’ buildings and streets. We take some photos and passed under the arches, which according to local legend, if you pass through under them it’ll ensure that you will one day return to the island. We continued walking through the sleepy town, barely seeing anyone out and about. We pass by a small park and the Cultural Center that had some local kids artwork on display expressing the dangers of global warming but was also closed. Being that there wasn’t much to do, we head back to where the tour guides where and decide to take one around the island. We knew that there was some natural beauty to be seen on the island, but we had no idea to what extent. And to be honest, I’m really glad we did.

My dad went back to the ship quickly to get his sunglasses that he forgot, and I stayed to haggle around with the guides to find a good deal. I first spoke with a man named Thiago and he was offering a tour for 35 euros to see Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde, next to Sete Cidades in the north-western part of the island, along with some other points of interest on the way. I thanked him and began to walk away, when he then offered me 30 euros if we could get six people together. I then spoke with three other guides and they all more or less offered me the same price but to see other parts of the island, like Ribera Grande, Lagoa, Lagoa do Fogo and Lagoa das Furnas. When my old man came back with his sunglasses, I saw two old American couples talking with Thiago. I led my dad to the guide and decided in my head that if we don’t leave quickly we may lose the day, since we only had about 6 to 7 hours till the ship left. After settling on the 30 euro price, we introduce ourselves to our new group and find out that they were all from Florida like us. We all climb into Thiago’s van and take off towards the caldera, with Thiago telling us facts about his island in very decent English.

In the Azores there are 9 islands in total: Flores, Corvo, Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Graciosa, Terceira, Sao Miguel and Santa Maria, with Sao Miguel being the largest and most populated at 744.7 sq. km and 139,699 respectively. And at length from east to west, Sao Miguel is 62 km long. The islands are west of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean and are part of Portugal, yet there is a distinct Azorean identity. The island of Sao Miguel has lots of churchs, unique volcanic architecture, lakes and lots of very green natural beauty, filled with pastures, high rolling hills, peaks and pine forests throughout. From Ponta Delgada we first head northwest passing some forests and other lush flora as we climb higher and higher to our first view of the caldera facing Lagoa Verde at Vista do Rei. The view of the two lakes caused by the volcano was breathtaking. One was green and the other one was completely blue and here we where at one of the highest viewpoints in the island and surrounded by fairy-tale like greenery, with ferns of different species, hydrangeas, towering trees and large rocks covered in bright green moss. The day was crisp and chilly with the sun poking in and out warming our faces and a slight sea breeze that would flow all around our bodies. It was a really peaceful place to be and I was amazed with how beautiful and vibrant the island truly was, it was almost idyllic. And now that I think of it, it really shouldn’t have surprised me, since I know how enchanting Portugal can be from my prior travels. After Vista do Rei, we make our way to some other viewpoints, passing pastures filled with grazing black and white cows and small parks with stone tables and chairs. We see another side of the lakes from Sete Cidades and then walk into a small church with little works of art depicting Christ on the wall. Afterwards, we all go into a small cafe nearby and take the chance to have a quick coffee and use the wifi available. I have an espresso and text my sister and some friends back in Miami and talk with my brother; since we had been without internet for the seven days when we were out at sea.

From there we go to another viewpoint. It was inside a park with some walking trails throughout and a high steep path leading to another gorgeous view along the ridge to a fantastic viewpoint. I then began to think about of how special and remote this corner of the world really was… It being an island and belonging to a small group of other islands, alone in the Atlantic and surrounded by insanely beautiful vegetation and calderas; and many people don’t even know that they exist…

After taking many photos of the lookout point ( I went by myself because the others found it to high) we then go to Lagoas Empadadas, which strangely enough also had two lakes, yet was covered in blooming azaleas. We then pass by Lagoa do Carvao and go through the town of Covoada. We stop by a pineapple plantation, where they show us some greenhouses used to grow the Ananas, which is a local and much smaller and cuter pineapple. Not like the big ones that we all know, which they call Abacaxi. We make our way back to the port and thank and pay our knowledgeable guide. At this time there were a lot of people out and about, but they were mainly tourists. We all split ways but my dad and I walked into a small restaurant to grab a quick bite. There we had something called Bolos Levedos, which was like a Portuguese-style hamburger, yet with an airy and sweet bread and garlic mayonnaise; and typical of the Azores. I order one for each of us and a round of Imperial beer using my shitty Portuguese. Afterwards we get back on the ship, and head for Spain…

“Allons!

whoever you are come travel with me.

Traveling with me you find what never tires.

The earth never tires,

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature

is rude and incomprehensible at first,

Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things

well envelop’d,

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful

than words can tell.

Allons! we must not stop here,

However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,

However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,

However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us

we are permitted to receive it but a little while.”

-Walt Whitman

from “Song of the Open Road”