A crowd of tourists waddled around with their heads tilted back and mouths open like penguins feeding at the zoo. Their volume ebbed and flowed. From a whisper, it grew toward crescendo until a guard would yell, "Be quiet!" and send their volume back to a whisper. Immediately, it began to swell again, repeating the cycle indefinitely.
Another guard noticed a man with a camera. “No photography!” echoed from across the room. The man continued taking pictures.
“No photography!” the guard yelled even louder while stepping closer.
“Come on dude, don’t you see all the no photography signs?” I thought while hiding my camera under my hat, waiting for an opportunity to sneak a picture.
I watched as a different guard spotted another infraction. He puffed up his chest and stormed over. The tourist moseyed around staring at the ceiling and grinning, unaware he was committing a heinous crime. The guard walked up to him with his arms bowed out like his lats were suddenly too bulky to lay them flat and stood inches from the man's face like a boxer sizing up an opponent. The tourist's expression went from obliviously delighted to thoroughly confused. The guard stared into his eyes for a couple more seconds then grumbled, "Take off that hat,” in a overtly masculine voice.
When nobody was looking, I took a quick flash-less photo. The photography ban started when the Vatican sold the photography rights to a corporation for funding the ceiling's $3 million restoration. From the looks of the place, I imagine they could have found that much money in the Vatican sofa cushions, so I didn't feel any guilt.
For some naive reason, I expected the Sistine Chapel to feel like a holy place, like the many empty and unlocked chapels I stopped in while walking across Ireland, a quiet peaceful space to sit and contemplate Michelangelo’s great masterpiece. Unfortunately, it felt about as holy as an art museum built inside prison walls. I left feeling like I was born a few centuries too late to see the Sistine Chapel properly.
If you do decide to pop in for a visit, my advice is to treat it like the Mona Lisa, a great work of art that people all over the world flock to go see. Not a place for quiet contemplation, but still a necessity on everyone's bucket list.
"Hmmmmn.. hmmn.. hmmmmmmnn.. hmmmmmn."
All that was missing was the gnashing of teeth. I tossed and turned. This wouldn't bother me as much if the snoring of fellow hostelers hadn't become such a problem. When I'd wake up early to start my day, it wasn't for having had enough sleep, but because there was no point in trying anymore.
"hmmn.. hmmmmmn.. mmmmmmn."
I put in earbuds and opened the nature sounds app on my phone. The soothing sound of a waterfall. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
"hmmmn.. hmmmn. hmmn."
I turned up the volume.
"HMMmm.. Hmmm. Hmmm."
The waterfall was now loud enough to cause premature hearing loss, but the moan was so guttural it vibrated the bed. I took out the earbuds. Not even Niagara could drown that out.
"Grit-grit-grit-grit", came from the other bottom bunk. I sat up. The moaner's girlfriend was a teeth grinder. What an adorable match made in hell.
"hmmn.. mmmmmnn.. hmmmmmn."
I fell back down on my pillow and stared at the ceiling. For hours, I slept in five to fifteen minute increments. My anger boiled. I hadn't had proper sleep in days. The snoring I had heard over the past couple of weeks was inhuman, but this combination of moaning and teeth grinding was a first for me.
"hmmn.. mmmmmnn.. hmmmmmn"
A snore came from the girl on the second top bunk.
"Are you f-ing kidding me!"
It was a hosteling trifecta. Too bad there weren't any more beds for a representative from the night terrors sleep group.
"hmmn.. mmmmmnn.. hmmmmmn."
The rage. Oh sweet mother of god, the rage.
"hmmn.. hmmn.. mmmmnn.. hmmmmmn"
"zzZZZzzz.. zZZ-hnk-glugk-ghlghl-pfaahh............. ZZZzzz"
My anger finally boiled over. I bolted up and shouted. "Oh my God! Shut The HELL UP!"
All three beds fell silent. "Oh man..." I thought. "What have I become?"
The moaner stirred on the bunk below me then sat up. Maybe wondering what just woke him. Immediately feeling remorse for my actions... I pretended to sleep.
He lit up the room with the flashlight on his phone then moved to the chair by the window. I fell asleep and woke up a half hour later. His flashlight lit the room. He hadn't moved. He just sat there, still and silent. Surely he knows he's a sleep moaner. Somebody must have told him by now. He was probably keeping himself awake to spare his fellow hostelers. I felt bad, I really did, but I also wanted to break his damn flashlight!! What is your problem?! There are people sleeping in here you jerk!! I covered my eyes with my pillow and tried to go back to sleep.
A few minutes went by and I was awake again. The only light outside the window came from a streetlamp glowing in the fog. A new foreign city for me to explore in a few hours, but I needed sleep and the moaner was rustling through his stuff. I noticed the shower running. The teeth grinder's bed was empty. Were they leaving because of me? I rolled over and went back to sleep with a pillow over my eyes.
I woke again from the sound of the door shutting. I looked around the room, their luggage was gone, beds empty. I may have slipped a little closer to becoming an old curmudgeon spending his final years yelling at kids to get off his lawn, but at least I could get three hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The next morning I asked the snorer if she knew anything about our noisy roommates.
"Do you know if they had to get up early for a flight or anything?" I asked.
"Yes," she said in a Brazilian accent. "Last night I hear them talking about having an early flight."
"Oh good," I said. "I thought maybe they left because of me. Did you hear him moaning in his sleep?" She shook her head.
"It was so loud it shook the whole bunk."
I pointed at the other bunk. "And then she started grinding her teeth," I said, leaving out the part about her snoring. "I yelled at them to shut the hell up, and then they got up and left. I feel bad, but I haven't had a good night's rest in..."
"Oh, is that what you yelled last night?" she said. "I just thought you had night terrors."
After leaving Paris, I flew to Rome for the next stop on my grand finale tour of Europe. Had I realize how cheap it was to fly around Europe, I may have had a very different trip. My Paris to Rome ticket was just $21.80. Less than the cost of a 10-mile taxi ride in the states.
With my morning spent traveling, I didn't have time to properly see the major sites in Rome, so after settling into my hostel, I just went for a walk.
My first stop was the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs, a church built inside the 4th century frigidarium of the Baths of Diocletian.
The Baths were used until the siege of Rome in 537, and about one thousand years later, a section of the remaining structure was adapted into this gorgeous church by Michelangelo.
Just inside the doors is this sculpture of St. John the Baptist by Igor Mitoraj.
Before building up the courage to leave everything behind to have an adventure, heading out my door for a walk only ever led to cornfields and dogs chasing me. Life is significantly more interesting now.
Rome was already worth the $21.80.
Not every turn on this rainy afternoon stroll led me to something as fantastic as a basilica designed by Michelangelo, but every turn led to something interesting and new to my eyes, which I suppose is the point.
Like this real life Geppetto I spotted working in a toy and puppet shop.
And, although under maintenance, the impressive Trevi Fountain, one of the most famous fountains in the world.
I didn't get to see it functioning in all its glory, but I found what the workers were doing to restore the 18th century fountain just as fascinating.
I walked miles of roads and alleys taking photos of anything that was unlike home. Like the numerous scooters, which unlike in Indiana, are respectable forms of transportation and not just vehicles for those with one too man DUIs.
The rain never let up, but I'll take a rainy afternoon with my camera in Rome over a sunny day at work.
As much as I didn't mind a little rain, I looked for every opportunity to duck out of it for a while...
Oh perfect... a covered porch.
This is Rome's Pantheon, built during the reign of Augustus from 27 BC to 14 AD.
It has been in continuous use throughout its entire history.
Just waiting to shelter me from the rain for a bit.
After a day that started with a 3 AM alarm clock and a rush to an airport in Paris, I found myself on the other side of Rome with a camera full of new memories and a long walk back to my hostel. I decided to call it a day and plan my day two in Vatican City.
Northwest of Paris along the River Seine is the city of Rouen, Normandy. My friend Jana lived there for a year during college, so made a generous donation to send me on an all-inclusive day trip!
I don't use the word charming very often. In fact, I don't know that I've ever used it unsarcastically, but as far as towns go, Rouen is pretty damned charming. It's full of cobblestone streets lined with half-timbered houses, towering Gothic cathedrals, shops, cafes, panini vendors, and plenty of fascinating history.
From a list Jana sent me of places to see, I plotted out my route on a map. First stop was Tour Jeanne d'Arc, the Joan of Arc Tower. This is the only surviving part of the Castle of Rouen, where Joan of Arc was imprisoned in 1430. Today it houses a Joan of Arc museum.
I knew very little about Joan of Arc before visiting Rouen. Here's a brief history, which you may already know. She claimed that God told her to join the French forces and lead France to victory in the Hundred Years War with England. Although not fighting directly, she held her banner and lead the French army to Orleans where they achieved a victory over the English. Later, she supposedly convinced the cautious France to go on the offensive, bolstered their resolve, and changed the course of that war.
Joan was captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces and was eventually moved to Rouen, England's main headquarters in France. This is a model of what the Castle of Rouen once looked like.
Once imprisoned, Joan of Arc would never leave the fortress since this is where she would be tried and executed for witchcraft and heresy.
Joan had become a popular figure among the French Forces, so rather than just kill her and turn her into a martyr, she was first tried by the church in order to discredit her. They charged her with several crimes, but basically it came down to her claiming that God directly contacted her and cross-dressing, because she wore male clothing and cut her hair short when joining the French military.
After signing a confession in exchange for life imprisonment rather than execution, Joan put the male clothing back on because she could fasten her hosen, boots, and tunic together, which deterred molestation and rape while in prison. This labeled her as a relapsed heretic and she was sentenced to death.
The reasons for wearing male clothing was argued in the trial, but practicality and rationality didn't really matter since this wasn't about cross-dressing, witchcraft, or heresy. Regardless of her actual role in the war, Joan's actions boosted moral among the French troops and paved the way for French victory. She didn't have a chance.
At age 19, Joan was sent to this spot in the town center of Rouen and burned at the stake. Her ashes were cast into the River Seine.
Her popularity only increased after her death. She attained a mythical stature and has appeared in literature and art for centuries. She later became the patron saint of France and a national heroine. She was canonized by the pope in 1920.
Left photo: Statue near the site of execution. Right: Joan of Arc graffiti
Since 1979, at the site where her pyre was lit, stands the Church of Saint Joan of Arc.
Rouen is also home to the Rouen Cathedral, the subject of more than thirty paintings by Claude Monet.
Monet rented rooms across the street from the cathedral where he would paint it from different times of day, seasons, and weather.
Before going to see the cathedral, I stopped to see one of those paintings at Rouen's Museum of Fine Arts. This one is titled, Grey Weather.
Unfortunately, construction on the western facade prevented me from taking a photo from Monet's viewpoint.
And I wasn't able to get inside, but the outside was beautiful.
Connecting the Place du Vieux Marché, where Joan of Arc was executed, and the Rouen Cathedral is France's first pedestrian street, the Rue du Gros-Horloge.
The cobblestone street is full of shops, cafes, and half-timbered houses, three of which may have existed before the execution of Joan of Arc in 1431.
The road's name is derived from the Gros Horloge, a 14th-century astronomical clock, that it passes under.
It is one of the oldest in France and possibly the largest of such clocks that exists.
This is the Church of Saint-Maclou.
Considered to be one of the best examples of the Flamboyant style of Gothic architecture in France.
I spent most of the day walking up and down streets taking photos. It's hard to put your camera away in this town.
Which is why there are so many photos in this post. Mmm panini. I wish that sandwich never had to end.
I love how the buildings sometimes lean out and no longer conform to any 90 degree angles.
This is the Church of Saint Ouen.
I regret not going inside. After not being able to get into the other cathedrals, I guess I just assumed I couldn't.
It's home to a very large original Cavaillé-Coll organ, which I know nothing about other than the name sounds photogenic.
I tried to find some locations Jana talked about to take pictures for her, like the restaurants she loved and her old apartment. Unfortunately, her favorite place to eat is no longer in business, but I think it was near this block.
Next I walked down her street, Rue Orbe.
And took a picture of her old apartment for her. I hope these bring back some good memories.
When I saw this behind her apartment, I knew she would have to remember it. Something like this doesn't go unnoticed.
When the sun set, I decided it was time to get back on the train and head back to Paris. Thank you Jana for a great day in the "charming" town of Rouen, full of rich history, priceless works of art, and delicious french food and coffee. My trip to France is so much fuller now thanks to you.
When I arrive in a new city, the first thing I want to do is check out their museums. I'm a little nerdy like that. That was doubley true in Paris, home of one of the greatest museums on Earth, The Louvre.
I arrived an hour before they opened. That's why I'm taking a picture of the line from inside rather than standing in it.
Under the glass pyramid
And again before leaving. You can see the weather significantly improved.
Of all the must see items at the Louvre, the Mona Lisa is on the top of most people's list, so I went their first to beat the crowd. Although a crowd had already formed.
I'm laughing a little right now because I caught that bald mustachioed man taking selfies of himself all day. I didn't know I got a photo of him taking one here.
I can't quite figure out what I like about this picture. Maybe the way they seem to be glaring at the dude.
And there she is. Quite impressive.
The Mona Lisa wasn't my favorite painting in the Louvre, though. That goes to a painting back out in the hall, Death of a Virgin by Caravaggio, painted in 1604- 1606.
By the time you've walked around the Louvre all day, you've seen hundreds of devotional biblical scenes filled with iconography and holiness, the dead not dead, angels flying around above their heads. The subjects are often emotionless, unrealistic, and well, kind of boring after a while, like bad over-actors in dramatic movies. So the realism of this one stood out to me. Not only Mary's lifeless body with her feet spread apart and arm hanging limp, but also the sadness expressed by the apostles, and especially Mary Magdalene. It's empathetic and humanizing. For all of these reasons, the commissioning church hated it and chose not display it.
This is Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, by Antonio Canova. Cupid's mother, Venus, demanded that Psyche bring back a flask from the Underworld, which she was forbidden to open. Psyche's curiosity got the better of her and she breathed in the fumes and fell into a deathlike sleep. Cupid awakens his beloved by touching her gently with the tip of his arrow to see if she was dead. This depicts the moment that follows.
And speaking of Venus, the Louvre is also home to one of the most famous statues in the world, Venus de Milo. Or more accurately Aphrodite de Milo since it was found in Greece and it was the Romans who called the goddess Venus.
The back wasn't as detailed, so it is presumed to have been intended to stand against a wall.
Another famous statue in the museum is this wood-carved, Saint Mary Magdelene, attributed to Gregor Erhart in 1502 - 1503. This statue was originally suspended from the vault of a church and held up by carved angles.
Another one of the most famous sculptures in the world is this one of the Greek goddess Nike, called the Winged Victory of Samothrace. It is estimated to have been created around 200 BC.
At one time, this was one of the most famous paintings in the Louvre, The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer.
Of course, the building itself is as impressive as anything inside it.
Napoleon III Apartment
And dining room
If zombies destroy the world and I'm one of the few survivors, I'm going to move in here and eat my cereal at that table from one of the ornate bowls in the Roman antiquities department.
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel with the Louvre in the background.
The other side at sunset
Oh, I can see the Eiffel Tower from here... I thought that a lot in Paris.
I can't say I love the glass pyramid, because it just doesn't fit the architecture around it, but it's very photogenic at night. I knew this because it was on the cover of my Algebra textbook in the ninth grade. I didn't care for it then either. I walked to the Big Ferris Wheel at Place de la Concorde and back waiting for the sun to set then took these photos.
There are hundreds of miles of tunnels under Paris. Some are subway and sewer networks, canals and reservoirs, or tunnels to bank vaults and wine cellars. Many are empty tunnels left from limestone quarries that date back to Roman times. And some of those, such as the Catacombs of Paris, are lined from floor to ceiling with macabre displays of skulls and bones from over six million dead Parisians.
For nearly a kilometer it was so quiet that I actually wondered if I had made wrong turn somewhere, or didn't turn when I should have.
As I made my way deeper into the tunnels, I anticipated something possibly horrific around every bend, but the first thing I saw were these beautifully carved sculptures of Port-Mahon, the capital of the island of Minorca in the Balearic Islands.
Before any bones were brought into the tunnels, a quarryman named Décure sculpted these models from memory. Supposedly, Décure fought in the armies of Louis XV during the Seven Years War and was held captive by the English at the fortress opposite the port . He was killed in a landslide while trying to build an access stairway to this location.
At a depth equivalent to the height of a five-story building, the walls in the dark tunnel turned to bones.
A lot of bones. Artfully organized.
The bones belong to over six million Parisians who lived as far back as the 7th century. I stared into empty sockets wondering things like, did he have a family? How did he spend his days? Did he die of the Black Plague or during the French Revolution? Was he an important person in his community?
Some are actually known to be famous painters, sculptors, writers, and architects, because many of these bones came from overcrowded cemeteries in Paris, which kept records. Overwhelmingly though, they belong to people whose stories are long forgottten.
By the late 1700s, cemeteries were becoming so overcrowded in Paris that corpses were becoming uncovered and people complained about the smell of decomposing flesh. In 1763, Louis XV banned burials inside the city, but the Church didn't want the graves to be disturbed, so nobody did anything about it.
That is until the spring of 1780 when significant rainfall caused a wall around the cities largest cemetery to collapse, spilling rotting corpses into the adjacent property. The solution was to discreetly move the remains of millions of Parisians into the centuries-old empty limestone quarry tunnels.
There are over 200 miles of these tunnels under Paris and this catacomb represents only one and quarter miles of them. What else is hiding under the City of Lights?
Imagine wandering into a 600 year old tunnel with a flashlight and discovering this.
Due to vandalism and the theft of many human skulls, the catacombs were closed in 2009 and reopened with additional security.
Can you spot the snoring security guard? Here, I'll go back and make it easier for you...
In defense of this security guard stereotype, the creepy dimly-lit damp tunnel full of human remains is incredibly cozy.
Time to head back to the surface. Thanks to all of you who recommend I add this to my list of places to see in Paris. I enjoyed it more than I thought I could.
Here is a random collection of photos I took while walking around Paris.
A very talented group playing Big Band music outside Notre Dame Cathedral.
That is Musée de l'Armée (the Army Musuem), the national military museum of France.
The Pantheon was built to be a church, but is now a secular mausoleum housing the remains of many famous French citizens, such as Marie Curie and Voltaire.
The pillars of the Pantheon
I don't know why this statue of Pierre Corneille, one of the great seventeenth-century French dramatists and tragedians, is wearing a clown nose, but it seems appropriate for a man who wrote plays about human suffering and tragedy.
There are many great musicians on the streets of Paris playing for coins, but across the River Seine I heard this lone accordion player, playing close enough for people to hear, but far enough away that nobody could give him money. He's just doing it for the love of polka. You have to respect that.
I love how hilarious that kid thinks this is.
Not everyone thought it was so funny.
The Eiffel Tower and the River Seine at sunset.
Roue de Paris, the Ferris Wheel at Place de la Concorde
Next I walked to Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most recognizable cathedrals in the world.
Construction began 852 years ago and although most of the construction took 90 years, it took 185 years for it's complete construction.
This is one of the first examples of the flying buttress.
At the western facade, I found a long line of people waiting to get in. Once inside, I found it to be quite photogenic. No matter where you point your camera, you'll get a great shot.
I knew very little about the Arc de Triomphe before coming here, but it is one of the most famous monuments in Paris.
Commissioned in 1806 after the victory at Austerlitz by Napoleon, the monument honors those who fought and died for France namely in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars.
I nearly circled the entire monument before realizing that you had to go underground to get to it. It has to be seen up close to appreciate. Engraved on the inside and at the top of the arch are all of the names of the generals and wars fought.
In front of me when taking t his photos lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. The Eternal Flame at the tomb has burned continuously since 1921, in memory of all who died in World War I. And I evidently didn't take a picture of it.
The four main sculptures around the arc commemorate a different moment in French military history. This one commemorates the French resistance to the Allied armies during the War of the Sixth Coalition.
This commemorates the Treaty of Paris, a peace treaty between France and Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed after the defeat of Napolean Bonaparte in 1815.
I walked around Paris for 12 hours this day, but I had to walk back for a night time shot.
Check another famous monument off my list.
How could I live with myself if I went to Paris and didn't go to the top of the Eiffel Tower?
Since my first full day in Paris was the only day not calling for rain, I started early and walked to several monuments and buildings late into the evening.
The top of the Eiffel Tower is the tallest point in Paris, at 1,063 ft, but it was bigger than what I imagined in my head. Maybe because it's the only tall thing around, unlike the tall buildings I've stared up at in Chicago and New York.
The construction was completed in 1889 for the World's Fair. The contest rules for building the tower stated that it had to be easy to demolish, so when the 20 year permit expired, the city was planning to tear it down and use it for scrap metal.
Luckily, the tower proved to be valuable for communications, so the city kept it.
Down there on one of those benches, I had my morning coffee and croissant. I'm such a tourist.
I don't have a fear of heights, but that didn't stop my brain from flipping out when I walked onto the first level's glass floor.
The view from the second-level.
I decided that gold domed building needed to be my next stop.
The view from the top...
...from 281 meters high.
Palais de Chaillot and the tower's shadow
For only 12 euros you can get a tiny glass of champagne at the Bar A Champagne on the top. Since I was alone, and since I'm the kind of man who spends that much on a bottle, I passed.
One more view from the ground before heading to my next destinations, more on that on later posts.
After dark, I walked back to the Eiffel Tower to take more photos
For New Year's Eve 1999, they installed high powered search lights on the top of the tower. You can just barely see it here.
They also installed 20,000 flashbulbs that go off for five minutes at the top of every hour. In this long exposure photo, it appears that they are all on at the same time, but in reality it looks like the flash bulbs of 20,000 paparazzi.
I had to hold my camera steady on a light post to get this picture. When I finished and turned to leave, I was startled by the face of a rickshaw driver leaning in behind my shoulder to look at my camera's display. Then he smiled and waved his hand toward his rickshaw and asked if I wanted to purchase a ride.
Riding in a rickshaw alone on a Friday night in Paris seemed a little too pathetic, so I chose to walk. I climbed the steps of the Palais de Chaillot to get one more photo before calling it a night.
I seem to have a knack for accidentally stumbling upon movie sets. New York, London, and now Paris. It amazes me how many times a director will shoot the same 5 seconds of a scene. In this case, a woman was standing looking at the Eiffel Tower when a man walks up behind her and puts his coat over her shoulders. She turns and smiles at him. They talk for a few seconds then kiss. The director cuts. They wrap a blanket around the actress, setup again, and tediously repeat again and again. I watched Will Smith in NYC wearing his Men in Black suit open the doors to the Battery Park City Authority Building at least a dozen times. Then for some reason watched his stand-in do the same thing. Anyway, I still find it fascinating.
They were speaking English. Do they look familiar to anyone?
Now that I'm on the last of my savings, I decided it was time to head back to the States and get a job soon, but not right away.
Once you're in Europe, hopping around by plane can be surprisingly cheap. So I'm on sort of a Grand Finale tour before heading back.
My first stop was Paris, France. This is Sacré-Cœur, a basilica on the top of butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city, and only a couple of blocks away from my hostel.
Not much of a view on my first day, but the weather would clear up soon and I'd be walking around Paris for a week! Tomorrow was the Eiffel Tower. I'll post photos soon.
Sacré-Cœur at night
I passed several miles of fences the night before, so this had to became my second to last campsite in Spain. The plan was to hide behind the wall, but there was an inordinate amount of rusty barbed wire back there. So no, It wasn't the greatest campsite I've ever had, but the price was right.
Rural Southern Spain is a beautiful place to cycle. I forget the name of this village, but fortresses on hills surrounded in white Spanish tiled buildings was somewhat of a common sight down here.
I would have liked to slow down and explore more, but I had a plane to catch, my first real deadline in nearly a year.
As I'm not a fast cyclist and I'm on a slow heavy bike, I rode from sunrise to well after sunset to get in the miles. That meant seeing more scenes like this one.
A day before arriving in Portugal, my bike chain broke in a rural area. Then a few miles before crossing the border into Portugal, it started to rain just as I got a flat tire. I couldn't tell if Spain was trying to keep me or trying to make me give up and put out a thumb.
I would have liked more time in Portugal. I expected it to be much like Spain, but it actually felt quite different. For one, a lot of people spoke fluent English.
Often the view in Portugal reminded me of Indiana.
Before leaving Spain, I wanted to see something touristy in the town of Seville.
It was high on my list of places to visit in Spain, so even though I still had about 300 miles to the Lisbon Airport, I didn't want to just breeze through.
I decided to see the Alcázar of Seville, a royal palace which was originally a Moorish fort.
Seville was chosen as a major harbor in Spain by the Queen because of its security from pirate attacks. In addition to this making it the main commercial city in 16th century Europe, Seville was also the Port and "Door to America."
Just inside the entrance is The Monteria (Hunting) Courtyard, the main Courtyard of the Royal Alcázar of Seville. The name comes from being where hunters met before hunting with King Peter I.
This is the Admiral's Hall next to the courtyard, where Amerigo Vespucci, Magellan, and El Cano planned the first sailing journey around the world, and Juan de la Cosa made the first world map in History.
This is the Courtyard of the Maidens and the main patio of the palace that connects all the major rooms. It's named after a myth that the Moors demanded a hundred virgins annually from their Christian kingdoms.
This myth was used as motivation for the Christian kingdoms to re-conquer southern Spain. Every time I learn a little bit about history, I discover how little politics have changed in the last couple thousand years.
One of the reasons... alright the primary reason I came here, is that this is where they filmed the fictional city of Dorne in the upcoming season of Game of Thrones.
I like being able to say, "I've been there," when I see a familiar place on TV or in photographs. I get to say that a lot lately.
This is the Courtyard of the Dolls, named after the doll-like heads carved into the pillars. Admittedly I have a natural distaste for obscene wealth, so I'm not one to seek out the palaces and mansions of the world, but I enjoyed strolling through staring at all of these intricate little details. I wasn't thinking of how humans created such wealth disparity, I was just thinking of how humans created such a beautiful thing.
After walking through large wooden doors built in 1366, I looked up to see the nearly 600 year old Dome Ceiling of the Salon de Embajadores (Ambassador's Hall), made of interlaced wood and gilded in gold.
Arriving right as the doors opened meant I could roam without crowds and take pictures without anyone in front of my camera, but that didn't last long. The palace filled with people, so I made my way outside to the walled gardens.
I've never seen anything like it. Fountains hissed and turtledoves cooed, making the modern sounds beyond the walls so easy to ignore.
The narrow angle of photos can't do it justice.
Next to the gardens and under the palace, rainwater is collected in Los Baños de Doña María de Padilla, the "Baths of Lady María de Padilla." This was surely a great place to avoid the summer heat of Southern Spain in the 13th century, if not a major source of infection. What can I say, I'm not a public bath kind of guy. Especially before the germ theory of disease was establish and the invention of chlorine.
The air outside smelled of sour orange trees. Occasionally, when the aroma was sufficiently strong, it made me stop to just sniff the air.
I knew I would forever associate that smell with this place and how I felt. Some of my science geekery is going to slip out here, but smells are closely associated with memory because the olfactory area in our brain is connected to the Limbic system, the memory and emotional area of the brain. When you smell something new, your brain forms a link with it to other memories, people, places, things, or moments.
It's why the smell of pine places me back onto the trails of Yosemite National Park and always makes me happy regardless of what I felt prior to smelling it. And it's why I get needlessly anxious when I smell certain libraries or schools that remind me of my first day at Southeast Elementary school, which I had to switch to in the middle of my second or third grade. It is also why the combined smells of hot cocoa and buttered toast fires up a strong memory of a day when school let out early due to a blizzard. I walked to school in those days, so when I got home my mom was buttering warm toast and had simmering hot cocoa on the stove waiting for me. To this day, those smells when combined give me a curious feeling of comfort.
I look forward to the future smell of sour orange trees placing me right back here.
This walkway is the Galeria de Grutescos and a great way to admire the gardens in the rain.
Although, I loved the gardens so much I actually didn't mind walking in the rain. It kept others inside and made me feel like I had it all to myself.
Nothing as insignificant as rain can shake the mood I found myself in. It's much too strong of a feeling for that. On a previous post, when I talked about a certain state of mind that I obtain when I go backpacking, this is the feeling I referred to. I got it back in the Gardens of of the Royal Alcázar of Seville.
Since I usually associate this feeling of happiness and freedom with backpacking in the mountains, I'm somewhat surprised I felt it in a manicured garden surrounded by 25 foot walls.
I suppose there's no need to analyze why.
I've always wanted to walk through a hedge maze. I got my chance.
The hedges were about shoulder height. I took turns that didn't lead to the center just so I could be there longer.
I can almost smell the orange trees by just looking at this photo.
Behind me in this photo a small crowd of people started to gather. I saw everything I could and got more than I could have hoped for when I entered these walls, so it was time to leave. Next stop Lisbon, Portugal.
Granada to Malaga were some of my best days in Spain.
The roads were quiet.
And the landscapes could make anyone grateful for each breath they took.
It gave me my energy back.
Which was very much needed to get up here.
Though exhausting to peddle up a mountain, the work is always rewarded.
Speeding down winding mountain roads with tears streaking horizontally across my face is something I'll miss most about cycling through Spain.
Something else I'll miss about Spain is that it allowed me to skip yet another winter.
If distance makes the heart grow fonder, maybe next year I'll be more able to appreciate winter.
Then again, sometimes distance makes the heart realize being apart is considerably better.
Quick question... I know what makes glacial lakes this blue, the grinding of glaciers on bedrock producing "glacial flour", but does anyone know what causes it hundreds of miles from the nearest glacier?
“What are you running from?” a co-worker once asked me.
I didn't immediately know how to answer his question. I had finally convinced myself that quitting my job to hike the Appalachian Trail in June 2011 was the right decision, but was I running from something?
"I'm not running from anything,” I said. “Continuing to work here is me running. Staying in this town is me running. I've been running my whole life! Going on this trip is me finally stopping!"
"No, I mean, like, are you running from the law or IRS or something?”
“Oh,” I said and smiled.
“You just said you're going to spend the next six months hiking through two-thousand miles of wilderness. Why do you want to do that?"
"Because when I'm hiking," I said "I never feel like I'm wasting my life."
The trip didn’t seem that crazy to me, although there was a time when I would have agreed it was crazy, and honestly, all about running from something. I daydreamed about it whenever things weren’t going well. I never dismissed the difficulty, but I found peace in the thought of hiking a single trail for six months. It was my escape, even if only in my mind.
Until I click Publish, few people know about my issues with anxiety. I've had it my whole life. It's the kind that comes from nothing, that doesn’t need a spark to light or fuel to burn. Sometimes it’s a debilitating inferno. Sometimes it’s just in the background like a pilot light, but it’s always there, burning in my chest.
When I finally started backpacking, I discovered that after five or six days alone on a trail, that anxious feeling, which always sat in my chest like a lump, just vanished. Actually, more than vanished. That lump, which felt so dense that light couldn’t escape its gravity, burst outward like a supernova. I never felt more alive or aware of my surroundings.
My whole life I tried to cure my anxiety by feeding it little bits of happiness or meaning: better jobs, different relationships, old religion, new religion, no religion, or a just different philosophy. Nothing really worked for me. Solo backpacking taught me that I didn’t need to add something; I just had to release what was already in there. I didn’t stress about anything because I no longer felt like I needed anything.
This feeling only lasted on the trail, though. The anxiety didn’t die; it just went home early and waited for my return. Initially, I’d feel good to be back home. I always developed a new appreciation for the comforts of home after a week in the woods, but eventually I’d more or less return to my normal self.
In some ways it got worse. When you carry something with you every day, like a wallet or wristwatch, you eventually forget it’s there. Our brains are great at blocking out persistent sensations. But stop wearing that watch for a few days then put it on again and you can't help but notice its weight. Similarly, I couldn’t just ignore that pilot light anxiety anymore. I felt it burning constantly. Backpacking became my anti-anxiety medication, so I made it my life.
So here I am, four years later, still administering my drug in the mountains of Spain. Or at least trying to.
Just a few days after the altercation on the beach, I stopped in a park for lunch. I lit my alcohol stove, set a pot of water to boil, and put on headphones. I unfastened a hiking pole from my bike and set it next to me, just in case.
When I heard voices nearby, I immediately shoved my headphones into my pocket and gripped the hiking pole. I sat still and alert waiting for my assailants to show themselves.
Two chatty elderly women strolled by.
Since I started backpacking, I have wandered alone through forests home to grizzlies and mountain lions. I’ve encountered black bears in my camp. I’ve inadvertently stepped over venomous snakes. I’ve been lost on remote snow-covered mountaintops. I’ve been so dehydrated that I couldn’t produce enough saliva to swallow food. I’ve hitched rides from hundreds of strangers. I’ve slept, unconscious and vulnerable, in countless public places. Yet, I don’t remember being on such high alert, as when two old women strolled by me in a park in Spain.
The paranoia lasted for a couple weeks after the mugging. It surprised me how intense it got. Faces didn’t seem friendly anymore. I constantly looked over my shoulder. I tensed up when I heard noises at night. Even in broad daylight, I recoiled when anyone came near me. I angered easily and was ready to fight any man who so much as looked at me. And I used to be so friendly.
A certain level of trust in humanity is required for this kind of life and for a time that was stolen from me too. The paranoia brought with it an extreme anxiety. I only camped outside if completely secluded. Even cars passing me on the highway stressed me out like they never had before. When roads didn't have shoulders, my heart raced every time I heard an engine behind me. It didn't help that someone stole my bike helmet when checking into a hotel one night. The anxiety sapped my energy so much that I often had to get off the bike to walk up hills.
In a hotel bar, I saw a case of knives for sale. They were organized by smallest on the top shelf, to the largest on the bottom. I knelt down to the bottom shelf and requested the biggest one they had. Well, second biggest, the Ali Baba sword seemed excessive. I felt a lot better with the knife at my side. I had a little bit of control back. Or at least the illusion of control, but that was enough.
Even as the paranoia faded, there was also the fact that 70 days passed since I had an actual face-to-face conversation with anyone. I realize now how important that is to me. Technology is great for keeping in touch with loved ones, but you get something from face-to-face contact that I didn't really understand until now. And my replacement phone never made it passed Spanish customs anyway, so I don't even have the ability to talk to friends whenever I need to anymore.
All of this left me feeling more alone than I ever have before. I started to question why I'm still doing this and considered leaving many times. The thought of returning to more normal life, however, made my anxiety worse, so I found myself thinking of the next adventures. That's when I thought of my co-workers question again.
"What are you running from?"
I went into the mountains to get that blissful feeling back. I found secluded places to setup camp and I just stayed there a few days until I ran out of food. Then I moved forward until I found another place to camp. If I couldn't find a secluded spot before dark, I got a hotel.
One morning, I got out of my tent and stood barefoot on sharp gravel for my morning restroom break. I looked up at the treeless mountains and dusty mesas in the morning sunlight. The ground was covered in jagged rock and tough desert plants of sage and brown. I took off my unneeded jacket and stepped into my shoes, so I could admire the view in comfort.
Bugs buzzed around my head annoying me. I focused on one of them. Bees. “Why can’t a moment ever just be perfect,” I thought.
I kept my eyes on one of the bees as it landed on a small flower with five white petals and a yellow center. It lingered for a moment then hovered to the next. The program running in its brain fascinated me.
I knelt down to wipe away the gravel from a small patch of earth and sat down. I watched the bee move from flower to flower as though bouncing in weak gravity rather than flying. As it floated around collecting pollen, I noticed the hundreds of white flowers all around me. I didn’t notice any of them yesterday. All of them were there because of a simple program running in the bee’s tiny brain that evolved into a codependent relationship with the flower. They depended on each other for survival.
I realized that the only thing imperfect about this moment was me. I began to feel much better, but that feeling I used to have in moments like those wasn't as powerful as it once was. Maybe I've just been doing this for too long. Maybe I've let moments like this become too normal.
When I first ventured far away from my home in the flatland of Indiana, I sped down the highways of the American West looking up in awe at that mountain scenery. I noticed that the locals on the road commuting to work stared forward, bored out of their minds, and I thought about how lucky they were without realizing it. I used to resent growing up in such a geologically boring area of the country, but I learned to be glad for it because it allowed me to appreciate the west properly, similar to a long winter’s effect on spring. Has spending too much time backpacking turned me into one of those unappreciative locals? Or is it something else,
I packed up, rode to the next town for supplies, and then moved to another spot deep into the woods on the base of a white-capped mountain. On my last morning there, I sat against a tree to read a book and sip coffee. I started to feel that old feeling again. I felt the anxiety began to vanish, but I felt like if I moved or got distracted by another thought I would lose it, like when you need everyone to shut up when you’re trying to remember a song that’s on the tip of your tongue.
I needed more time, so continued inching across Spain in this way for two more weeks.
On my final night of camping, a storm blew through. The wind kept me awake, so I stayed up to read. When I finally fell asleep, a gust of wind ripped my tent and it collapsed on top of me. I crawled out and tried to repair it in the rain. After spending so much time trying to hide quietly in the mountains, I stopped what I was doing and let out my frustration by yelling at the top of my lungs into the night sky. I was done with Spain. This wasn't working anymore. It's time to get moving again.
I've often wondered if I could ever give up a life of such long adventures, but in the course of the last few months, I've discovered that I need people in my life. I need adventure too, but I need to find a proper balance of the two.
I rode to the town of Malaga on the southern coast and booked a hostel. I've spent the last few days writing and actually having conversations again. I'm feeling much better now. I've stop stewing and made a new plan, a plan to wrap up this adventure for now. I'm heading to Seville, Spain next, then Lisbon, Portugal. From there I'll probably give the bike to the first homeless person I see, and then head to the airport. I'm not going home quite yet, though. There is still more I need to see before I do that...
I’m a very indecisive person. I tend to stop, weigh all my options, and then make an informed rational choice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be debilitating. Sometimes I never come to a rational conclusion, then do nothing. I even make simple decisions, like buying groceries, needlessly complicated. I’ll often find myself walking around a supermarket multiple times before I even put anything in my cart.
So when I got mugged a couple nights ago, it should come as no surprise that I stood still with the tip of my hiking pole pointed at a man holding a stun gun, considering all my options.
I recently decided to head to Spain’s Sierra Nevada National Park. I couldn’t remember the last time I camped in the same place for more than one night. Camping used to be like meditation to me, but being constantly on the move has taken some of that away from the experience. I planned to setup a base camp on a remote site in the mountains, without moving forward for a few days.
My last chance to pick up groceries and charge my batteries was in a city called Almeria on the southern coast. On my way to the grocery store, I found a McDonald’s, so went inside to look for an empty electrical outlet. I sat for hours eating junk food, writing, chatting with friends and family, and letting my batteries fully charge. At around midnight, I checked satellite images on Google Earth for a place nearby to setup camp for the night. I found a relatively secluded spot on a beach two miles south.
After seeing it in person, I no longer felt good about the area, buildings abandoned, streetlights out, and it was too exposed and close to the city. I pushed my bike into the sand anyway, to have a better look around .
There was litter strewn all over the beach, collected into piles wherever the wind carried it. From the satellite images, there seemed to be trees to hide in, but I only found shrubs shorter than my tent.
I almost left, but the next closest place I found was ten miles away in the wrong direction, so I decided to explore the area a little closer before giving up.
The deep sand made it hard to push the heavy bike, weighed down by gear. I unhooked my hiking poles and used one as a kickstand, so I could explore unburdened by it. I pulled out my cell phone to turn off the podcast I had been listening to. I wanted all my senses in this creepy place. That’s when I saw him.
I’ve never seen anyone on the beaches this late at night, so when his silhouette turned and started moving toward me, I got nervous.
He talked to me in Spanish as he walked toward me. He didn't stop until he was uncomfortably close. Although I didn’t understand him, I knew I was seconds away from being mugged.
I sought out this spot for the safety of isolation, but now it felt dangerously isolated. No people. No security lights. Just him and me. Our closeness would have been uncomfortable even if he wasn’t an intimidating stranger and we weren’t on a secluded beach at 1 AM.
I tried to just walk away and hope I misread the whole situation.
"Lo siento, no habla espanol," I said, I'm sorry I don't speak Spanish. I pushed the handlebars, the tires dug into the sand, making a quick getaway impossible. The bike suddenly felt like an anchor. He stepped in front of me. He had his right hand behind his back. He repeated the same words in Spanish. Maybe it was good I couldn't understand him.
“Please don’t do this. Por favor,” I said. “Habla Ingles?” My voice sounded weak. I hate that my voice sounded weak.
I gripped my other hiking pole and swung it at him. He stepped closer to me, making my swing completely ineffective. He grabbed me with his left hand. In his right, he pulled out what he was hiding. I looked down and saw the crackling blue arc of electricity.
He tried to press the stun gun to my neck, but I reared back and grabbed his wrist. Electricity buzzed and crackled right next to my ear. I waited for the pain of electric shock. I waited for my muscles to contract. I waited for my body to drop to the ground. I was certain I'd lose everything.
I shoved him away enough to point the hiking pole at his gut. I don't even remember doing it. He backed off. The stun gun never made contact with my skin.
He tapped his wrist and yelled something else in Spanish. I think he was telling me to give him my watch. I didn’t have a watch. He seemed willing to back off, but not without taking something for his trouble. Then I finally heard a word I could understand.
He wanted my cell phone.
“Móvil!” He looked behind me and waved his hand as though summoning friends. I snapped my head around, but only saw an empty beach and crashing waves. If he had friends, I figured we would have met by now. He was bluffing.
“Uno…” he started counting slowly. He lifted something white out of his pocket.
“Dos…” Was it pepper spray?
“Tres!” He held a white lighter above his head and flicked it, pretending to signal the others. He flicked it repeatedly, but couldn't get it to light. His hand was shaking too much.
I had a decision to make, so of course I stopped and weighed all my options. He didn’t have backup. He didn’t have any other weapons or he would have used them by now. And he was nervous.
Alright, Option 1:
Give him my phone.
Pro: He may just take it and run.Con: I have over $400 invested in it. It's my only way to communicate with everyone I know and love. I'd be all alone in this Spanish speaking country at a time when I never felt more alone.
Con: It was my only map. I'd be lost without it.
Pro: I'd potentially keep everything else, the bike, my laptop, my camera, and all my backpacking gear, in which I’ve invested almost three grand.
Con: I have saved passwords and possibly personal financial information on it.I pulled out the phone. He held out his hand, but kept his distance due to the hiking pole still pointed at his gut. I tapped the settings button on the phone.
“So if I give this to you, then what? You let me leave? We both just walk away?” I knew he didn’t understand a word. He said something indecipherable back to me, and then once again started to count to three. He held his lighter high in the air, flicked it, and once again failed to get it to light. I wasn't falling for his bluff, but it bought me time. I tapped the factory reset button.
Ram the tip of this hiking pole into his gut and get psychotically violent all over his face.
Pro: Maybe I’ll get to keep the phone.
Con: I could screw up, get myself tazed, and lose everything.
Pro: Maybe he doesn’t get away with this. Maybe he gets what he deserves. Maybe he bleeds to death in the sand.
Con: Even if I could do it, I'd have to live with the fact that I stabbed a fellow human being for the rest of my life.
I realized my left index finger was too swollen and painful to bend. I don't remember doing that. “I think you broke my finger,” I said.
“Móvil!” he yelled. “Móvil!”
Back away with the hiking pole pointed at him and just get the hell out.
Pro: This is finally over with.
Con: The bike required both hands and was too heavy to move quickly in the sand. I’d have to leave it and lose everything.I decided to start with Option 1. If that didn’t end it, I’d move on to Option 2. Finally, if things went horribly wrong, I’d give Option 3 a go.
I reluctantly held out my phone. The screen displayed a progress bar as it formatted. He grabbed it. I felt defeated, but even in hindsight, I can honestly say I made the right choice. The most rational of all choices.
I pushed the heavy bike through the sand and got out of there. He didn’t move. I felt his eyes watching me from behind. When I got onto pavement, I hopped on the bike and looked back. I saw his silhouette in the silhouettes of shrubs. He had followed me at a distance.
The streets were empty and eerily quiet. Every noise made me look over my shoulder and peddle faster. At first, I just tried to put distance between us. I turned down roads based on which were the most well lit rather than where they actually went. I looked to the stars to make sure I was at least going north, but for the first time since I’ve been here, when I looked up I saw nothing but clouds.
After a couple of miles, I saw the McDonald’s golden arches. Only the drive-thru remained open, so I knocked on the glass door startling the manager.
“I need to call the police," I said through the gap between the doors. "Hablas Inglés?”
He shook his head. “No.”
“Policía, teléfono,” I said, holding my thumb and pinky to my head, the international sign for telephone.
He walked away for a few moments and came back with two of his employees.
“We call police. Two minutes,” one of them said through the gap while holding up two fingers.
“Gracias,” I said then took a seat on a bench.
I didn’t expect the police to do anything, and of course they didn’t, but it felt irresponsible to tell no one. The first two cops didn't speak much English, so they called for another car. He spoke a little English, but it was still frustrating.
"Are you going down there to check it out? See if you can find a guy in a black hoodie with a stun gun and a stolen cell phone," I said.
"Well," he said. "That would be very difficult."
"Can you at least check?"
"We sent a third car there," he said, but I hadn't even given him the exact location yet.
When the cops left, I stayed back to use McDonald’s free WiFi to book a hotel, since I no longer had a phone. A girl walked up to the fence behind me out of nowhere and startled me. She asked me something in Spanish.
“No habla espanol,” I said.
I continued searching for a hotel, but kept one eye on her as she walked to the parking lot. Moments later, I looked back up and she was standing right in front of me. Even this smiling young woman made me nervous now. Maybe she had a weapon. Maybe she was just a decoy and her boyfriend was sneaking up behind me. I wished she would just go away.
“Uhh, Toilet?” she asked and pointed at the entrance. She thought I was an employee and wanted in to use the restroom.
"They are closed," I said. She smiled and left.
I got back on my bike to ride to the hotel two miles away. I couldn't wait to close the door to my room and lock the deadbolt. I peddled faster. Suddenly, and for the first time while I’ve been outdoors in Spain, it began to rain. And then it poured.
I was ready to leave this country first thing in the morning and never come back.
After I checked into the hotel, I locked the door and sat on the bed. I stayed up passed 5 AM replaying the events in my mind, only I imagined other ways it could have gone. Something dark hidden in the recesses of my brain forced me to visualize all of the ways Option 2 could have played out. In my mind I have stabbed him with the hiking pole over and over again. In the stomach, in his chest, in his neck, under his chin. I can't get those images out of my head.
I’ve often wondered how I would handle a situation like this. Although I know I’m ridiculously indecisive, I always thought when push came to shove, I would react on instinct and with more bravery. I thought I was the kind of man who would stick up for himself, and just maybe, the kind of man who would have jabbed him with the hiking pole, pinned him to the ground and broke his goddamned face. As it turns out, that isn’t who I am. I’m the kind of man who stops, weighs all his options, and then makes an informed rational choice, even when being mugged. I think I'm glad for that.
Except that I’m not.
I don’t care about the phone. It's just money. I know I made the right choice. I have absolutely no doubt about that and I appreciate how lucky I am for how things turned out. I just want the fantasy back. I want to go back to believing that when push came to shove, I'd stand up for myself. For once I could set rationality aside and reacted with instinct and fearlessness.
The next morning, I walked to the grocery store to pick up supplies. I walked down the aisles looking at labels, mentally calculating costs per calorie, putting things in my cart, deciding my choices weren't healthy enough and putting them back.
“You’re still doing it. Quit over-thinking everything!” I silently berated myself. I walked back to the beginning of the first aisle with an empty cart. I breathed in deeply then out.
"Alright, let's do this again."
I was out the door in under ten minutes with two grocery bags in my hands. A small thing, I know, but it's progress.
There was still the matter of what to do next. Rather than sit in my hotel room for the rest of the day weighing my options, I resolved to continue like nothing has changed. I'm riding into Sierra Nevada mountains now to find a remote quiet place to setup camp.