Like many a backpacker before me, my introduction to Thailand this evening came in the form of Bangkok's (in)famous tourist strip, Khao San Road. Khao San is quite literally a tourist mecca: in all my far and wide travels on this trip, I've never seen anything that comes even remotely close to matching the sheer density of tourists, tourist-hasslers, and tourist-related services that packs this one little area. The streets are thronged with farangs (lit: "foreigners" — I'll be using that word a lot, so get used to it!) from every corner of the globe. The buildings lining the sidewalks provide everything your average tourist could ever want, from guesthouses to cheap Internet, from tattoos to Pad Thai, from bars to travel agencies, and from laundry joints to Chabad house.
After a few drinks at Cat's — and something else at Cat's, that was rather less pleasant — a big group of us went down to Plaza del Sol, Madrid's central square, to welcome in a Happy New Year ("Feliz Año Nuevo") madrileño-style. Emmanuelle, her Dutch friend, Miguel, Dan, Matt, Kenny and myself headed to the plaza together — although almost the entire hostel went there at some point; not to mention almost all of Madrid at large. It was mad, it was flamboyant, and it was without doubt the most jam-packed crowd I've ever been in. But it was certainly unique. And because this is Spain, midnight was just the beginning.
Patatas bravas is a simple dish of boiled potatoes, chopped into pieces and covered in a hot chili sauce called salsa brava. This evening, patatas bravas became the first tapas dish that I've ever tried in my life — it may be one of the more common and ordinary of tapas, but boy do them potatoes taste good! I tried the dish at a place in central Madrid called Las Bravas, which is a crazy tapas bar that's crowded to the hilt, and where the only way to order is to push your way to the front, and to scream the name of your dish out over the cacophony. Highly recommended as an introduction to Spain.
Kitzbühel's slopes were packed today; and this evening, Snowbunnys was a lot busier as well. Seems that I really did sneak this ski trip in, just before the rush: because as of now, The Rush™ has officially arrived. We had a number of new arrivals in the hostel last night, and even more tonight. Apparently, still more guests are due in tomorrow — and the hostel is going to be 100% booked out over the weekend.
After four blissfully quiet days on the slopes, the world finally makes sense again: as of today, Kitzbühel has crowds... and lots of 'em! For my final day of skiing this year (seriously — look at the date, will you), I once again got in as much slopes-time as I possibly could. But today, I was battling some fierce hordes on the pistes and in the chairlift queues. Looks like I got in my ski trip just in time, before the rush — if it's going to be like this for the next week, then maybe the fact that I must depart Kitzbühel isn't so bad after all. Maybe... but probably not :P.
Today was goodbye to Salzburg, goodbye to Yoho, and goodbye to some very good friends. But it was not goodbye to Craig, Sarah and Kade: because they too said goodbye to all this; and together, us four Aussies hopped on the train to Kitzbühel. Destination: winter wonderland, Austrian Alps. Mission: have a white Christmas, spend a week carving up the mountains, and engage in some serious après-ski. All that stood in our way: a mere 2-hour train ride. Easily tackled.
When I began my ride today, the destination that I had in mind was the famous town of Taormina. Not a terribly ambitious destination — by 11am I was in Giardini Naxos, and Taormina is at the top of a big hill that overlooks Giardini — but then again, I was feeling pretty relaxed today; and I haven't got much further to ride anyway, until I once again reach Messina. So from Giardini, I slogged up the winding mountain road that takes you up to Taormina; and once I'd conquered this steep but not-overly-long road, I went to see what all the fuss is about, and why Taormina is considered one of the top tourist hotspots in Sicily. Well, Taormina is a gorgeous town: squashed into a tiny hilltop plateau, it's all narrow cobbled streets and fresh mountain air; the architecture is gorgeous, and can be seen in the many churches, palaces and terraced houses in town; and the views of the beaches and bays of Giardini on one side, and of Mazzarò on the other side, are quite breathtaking. However, the place is riddled with tourists — you can't even sneeze without being offered a souvenir handkerchief — and it's also ridiculously expensive. This dangerous combination made Taormina decidedly unappealing to me, particularly as a place to spend the night.
Catania is Sicily's second-largest city (after Palermo), and one of the island's most crowded and traffic-infested. It's not high on the average tourist agenda — but like so many big and ugly cities, it's often near-impossible to avoid. This morning, my route up the east coast of Sicily led me through Catania: and I decided that seeing as I was in the area, I might as well at least check it out, and see what the place has to offer. So I came, I saw, I got lost, and I eventually found my way out.
This morning I rode out of the lovely tourist town of Cefalù — which unlike yesterday evening, was now gorgeous and sunny — and headed west along the coast, towards the city of Términi Imerese. And all I can say is that — despite lovely weather — it was an evil morning, and I'll remember Términi as an evil city. It ended up being twice the distance that I thought it was, from Cefalù (I guess the map wasn't 100% accurate), and the journey took twice as long as I thought it would (over 2 hours, instead of 1 hour). When I got there, I had to make use of the local post office — and as I expected, dealing with the Italian postal service was hardly a fun experience. I went into several cafes and asked for a hot chocolate — but all anyone had was cappuccino, so I had to subsist on that. The city's roads were the worst I've encountered so far on my trip: they're steep; they wind uphill; they're narrow and cobbled; they're poorly signposted; they're largely one-way; and they're utterly traffic-jammed. Plus, I had great difficulty finding my way out of the damn place: the road south, into the mountains and towards the town of Caccamo, proved most elusive indeed. Thus it is that I dub Términi Imerese a place of great woes — not a place about which I hold any fond memories.
It's been a nice day-and-a-half in New York — but the time has come to head up to Boston, and to see my family there. This afternoon, I hopped on the train with Amtrak, and did the 4-hour journey the scenic way. Unfortunately, the train ended up leaving NY's Penn Station about 40 minutes late, and it was an hour late by the time it reached Boston. Plus, it was absolutely packed — all of this because of it being Columbus Day long weekend, I assume. Bit of a pain for my uncle, who was waiting around when he came to pick me up from the station. Also a slight ripoff — apparently, the Amtrak tickets are much cheaper if you book them a few weeks in advance — I bought my ticket yesterday, and it cost me a whopping US$111! In retrospect, perhaps I should have just gotten the bus with Greyhound. Anyway, it was a good ride, and I got there in the end.