Monday, March 26, 2018

Ukraine and The Mystical Chernobyl


Scottsdale Osborne Hospital, USA Summer of 2017:

    I'm sitting in the emergency room for the first time since 1987 when I fell out of a 2 story window, the docs don't know whats wrong with me yet, but I've lost over 30lbs/14kilos... It's serious, and there was legitimate fear it could have been the big one. The Doctor approaches me and tells me about the option of a CT Scan... "Well we can do a CT, basically scan your insides and hopefully find the issue, if you want of course?" My reply... "What would be a reason one would not do the CT Scan?" "Just radiation exposure." The Doctor answers. "I was in Chernobyl this year Doc! Lets do it!"

     True story... and I ended up being okay after that. So Ukraine....

     On my way to Iran in 2017 I decided to extend my trip and add a brief stopover in Ukraine, but as I began to plan I saw that there was too much to do in just a stopover and I had extra time so I stayed a week instead.

     On arrival to Kiev my apartment from airbnb had a sign posted not to open the door to anyone even if they are in police uniform warning they may be mafia. So an interesting start... but that being said, I had no safety issues in Ukraine. Is it the safest place in the world, no of course not, but use your wits and street smarts and you will be just fine.

    The things that drew me to this incredible country was of course the price, Ukraine is ridiculously cheap, there are so many things to do not just see which I'll talk about below, and of course the idea of visiting a place that is uninhabitable for 20,000 years was too enticing to pass up. So lets get started on my tips and highlights.

  • Kiev is a great base to travel out from, besides the obvious that it is the capital the city is amazing and really easy to navigate around.
  • Kiev underground tour was definitely a highlight, crawl through sewers, visit abandoned buildings, and visit old soviet bomb shelter. The amazing part about this is how hands on it is, it's not a museum, it's not replicas, it's the bomb shelters with all the original gear, propoganda etc.



                               
  • Shoot guns! Granted you can do this a lot of places, but something about firing old soviet weapons at a police base was pretty cool.

  • Drive a tank! Okay this wasn't exactly budget, I believe it cost me $400, but again, how many times will you be able to drive old soviet tanks?

                           
  • Party in Ukraine night clubs, no cover charges, drinks for 1 or 2 euros, you can't go wrong.
  • The food: it goes without saying you will have some Borscht while you are there. But my favorite that I had to eat 3x in that week had to be Varenyky, pasta type dumplings stuffed with meat, veggies, cheeses, and even desserts.

And then of course... Chernobyl.

      There's something about being in the only place in the world where this disaster happened, an entire city essentially gone in a matter of a few very wrong moves by the nuclear power plant.  It's a place frozen in time and hell and a sad look at what could be if things ever go wrong in terms of war or accident by the power of man and the power of nuclear matter.

    It is of course a dangerous place, even with tour guides we knew going in we were exposed to radiation, they say it's equivalent to an international flight, they also say that we visit the safer areas,  and you do wear Geiger meters but who knows... But would I do it again? Absolutely. I'll let the photos tell the rest of the story. For Ukraine what was going to be a brief glimpse turned into one of the most exciting, interesting, and dangerous places I have ever been to... I can't wait to go back.













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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Your City Is Not The Greatest City In The World


     Your city is not the greatest city in the world, and your country is not the greatest country in the world. But!!! My city has the best sports team! My country has the most freedom!! My city has the best pizza!!! My country has the best parties!!!! My city has the best housing!!!!! My city is in every movie ever made!!!!!!!!!!! My country invented the fidget spinner!!!!!!!!

    So again, your city is not the greatest city in the world, and your country is not the greatest country in the world. And of course as I write this, I don't know what city you are reading from, and I don't know what country you are born in, live in, or love as much as one should. I love the city I was born in, Brooklyn, NY. I love the city I live in, Scottsdale, AZ. and I love the United States. But after having traveled to 6 of the 7 continents, 44 countries, and literally thousands of cities there is no way I can truthfully say that my city is the best or my country is the best, nor can I say that about any city or country. It's small world but it's also too big of a world to believe that we are any better than anyone 10 miles away or 6,000 kilometers away. Now of course we understand that some people can't travel, some people can't move. And that's okay too. This article is still for you.

    January of 2018 after a wild night on Pub St in Siem Reap I was sitting at this pizzeria in Cambodia thinking about this. Well not about this article, I was actually thinking about the pizza. I am from New York, no one can say New York doesn't have good slices, but I have also eaten at Gino Sorbillo's in Napoli, perhaps the most well known pizzeria from where pizza was invented. So I am sitting here in Siem Reap, a land far from New York and far from Italy, how was the pizza you ask? It was incredible. Was it as good as Gino Sorbillo's? Honestly no, but if Gino's is a 10, it was a 9. And it only cost me about $3.00 for a whole pie, and many people will never believe me how delicious this $3 plate was.

     "We are the best" to me is a closed way of thinking that we all have had at some point in life. And closed ways of thinking are a formula for a closed world. Some of my most crazy party nights have been in the middle east. Some of the most amazing, intelligent, and interesting people I met have been in some of the most dangerous and most poor 3rd world places I have been to. Some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen are a 3 to 4 hour drive from my city and a large number of people in my town don't know that they even exist. A simple google search can show every country has countless inventors, artists, and great people that shape both their country and the world around them. Living one place and not traveling closes the mind, creates a false wall of imagination of a positive or negative stereotype of not only the land, but the people.

   The people... Traveling all over the world, in particular to places where "people hate Americans" or we literally went to war with or currently have political tensions you find one outstanding attribute of general people... and that is that we are all the same. We speak different languages, we have different cultures, different foods, different religions, and the vast majority don't hate you. But get past that and we are all the same. And when you begin to celebrate difference and embrace that which you love, respectfully ignore that which you don't love, you become a more worldly person, a more understanding person, and a better person in general.

     Where you come from should play a role in you are, but it should be no means be the only part of you. As we all become more united through social media, internet, blogger, etc. We come to this realization that we are different, but we are all in this together now. 7 billion stories. Why only stick to the ones in your city or your country?

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Bike Ride From Italy To Austria


    Some of my explorations of countries have been long trips, over 2 months, others short, my time in Austria as of the time of this writing, is very short! But they way I got in is nonetheless one of the most pleasant and memorable.  I could not have done it without my friend Elena, allora grazie mille Elena! Era fantastico! During a trip to northern Italy we took a day to rent bikes from San Candido and bike the Dolomites about 30 miles into Lienz, Austria.


Old City Leinz

                                             

     The journey is incredibly easy, it's a relaxing ride, and of course scenic. The best part is when you are lazy as I was that day, you simply take the train back to return your bike. Make sure to check train times and what time the rental store closes.



    During your ride besides all the great photos and nature there's a great spot to stop off for some chocolates and a coffee. The bikes didn't have locks, it seemed like the type of place where this is no issue, but if you wanna play it super safe you may want to bring or rent a chain.

    What really amazed me most about crossing a border by bicycle is just how quickly it was apparent you were in another country. This was part of a 2 month trip to Italy and we had been speaking Italian the whole time, but within seconds of crossing the border the vast majority of the people we met spoke no Italian from their neighboring city. English was more than enough to enjoy it though. Leinz had a small hometown feel, and it would have been great to spend a night there, but as always we are budget travelers, and the luxury of time is not on our side. I've learned a lot more about the history of Austria this year though, and would love to go back and see more. But for now a bike ride through part of it's western territory will always hold a warm spot in me.

Quick snack before we got back on the train

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Day Trip To San Marino

 

     I could not spend 2 months in Italy without stopping by the small country of San Marino for the day. Not a big day as far as the amount of things I did, I just stopped at the cliff top castles and some of the museums in the castle, but great day regardless. San Marino is a tiny country and most people will not visit just San Marino without visiting Italy unless they had family or friends here I imagine. But great day :)







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Sunday, August 20, 2017

My 2 Months In Italy



                                                    Video of the trip above
      So I think when you travel, you have the top places you'd like to see, the top places you want to see, and the top places you must see. Italy for me fell into the third one. My family immigrated from there on my mom's side, I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, I speak the language, I've always had a fascination with the culture, and many more reasons I'll blog about at another time. But not only did I need to visit Italy, I had to do it right. I needed time, significant time. I came to the conclusion that based on what I wanted to do 2 months would suffice. When it was done, I was ready to come home, this was last year in the spring, today I'm ready to go back for another 2 months or more!

     My trip in Italy was divided equally between south and north. While I did do some major tourist places in the south, the south part was more about an ancestry journey, to walk the roads that the people who brought my family here walked, and to try to get a glimpse or an idea of what their life was 100 years ago when they all left from the same port in Napoli. The 2nd part was of course dedicated to the major great cities, Rome, Florence, Milan, etc. But thanks to some friends I got a special treat to see more of Northern Italy I hadn't planned, Belluno in particular, and a great bike ride from northern Italy into Austria. 

     Now talking about budget travel is a paradox for Italy, because to my surprise, traveling in Southern Italy was extremely budget friendly. It's unfortunate for the country because the economy is hurt in the south, but for tourism it made it a lot easier. For example I had a huge apartment in Palermo for around 30 dollars a night, 2 bedrooms, multiple balconies, close to 1500 square feet I'd say. Now went I was in Venice I stayed in a college frat house on a couch for $50 a night with 3 other roommates. So the change happens quick in terms of distance, but nonetheless, here's my go to Italy tips and trick on great things to see, great things to do, short city by city summary, and of course, how to afford it!

  • Plan, I'm a planner, I know many travelers like to land and figure it out. I've done this, I admire this. But I also feel like I don't want to be on a computer on my phone when I land, I want to do that before. So plan if you are a planner, but if not that's ok too.
  • It's really easiest to travel in a geographical direction, and unless you are in a rush you won't need to fly at all from city to city and get amazing views from taking the trains. I did fly out of Sicily into Bari.
  • For the south you will be just fine with Airbnb apartments or decent hotels for much less than you'd pay at home. For Rome and north you'll need to be a little more crafty, I did do the hostels in Rome and Venice and I wrote about being too old for the hostel recently.  If you don't want to do the hostel, apartment private room rentals, small apartments, or small hotels will be your best friend, my room in Florence was about 100 square feet, but the price was great and it had everything I needed. I didn't need much time for Firenze, but if I did I would have been happy in that tiny apartment for months (it was steps from Piazza Santa Croce).

  • If you are staying long term in any spot consider grocery shopping, while of course you will want to try as many delicious restaurants as you can, the grocery stores will carry items, garnishes, cheeses, flavors of meats, that you won't find at home. So you'll save money and get great food.
  • Italy is becoming a lot more credit card friendly, but still a good idea to always have enough cash for a dinner or some shopping. 
  • Unless you are heading to remote country side destinations everything is pretty accessible by buses and trains. Don't forget to get an international driver's license if you do plan on getting a car. 
  • That being said, trains in the south, particular Sicily to my memory are pretty bad with maps and station announcements, it will be a good idea to have maps on your phone or a paper map if you are old school. The stations will have names and you can figure out from there how many stops to your destination.

    Trying out some of the wine out of the barrel in Augusta, Sicilia
  • Be aware a lot of restaurants charge a small table fee to sit there, 1 or 2 euro. 
  • As always though many don't and if you are looking for a wifi signal because you don't roll with international data like I roll, many places will let you use the wifi with purchase of a delicious espresso or cappuccino. 
  • Learn some basic Italian phrases, espically if you are traveling in the south you will find English is not as common as Rome and north. 
  • People told me over and over about the spaghetti is best in this part, the arancini here, the pizza here,etc. I will credit one pizzeria below, but generally in my opinion, the food was incredible everywhere. 
Let's go by region and city by city of what I can remember now:

Siclia:

  • In Palermo Check out Teatro Massimo, the coast line parks also have some cool abandoned forts that aren't even tourist attractions. But they are free for you to check out. Palermo is also great for shopping, the old city, and amazingly cheap restaurants.

    For Grandma, Augusta, Sicilia 2016
  • Augusta: I visisted on my family journey, if you want an amazing quiet seaside get away head to Augusta/Siracusa. The days were super peaceful just walking around the island portion of Augusta. The weekends bring in the influx of everyone from the city and neighboring areas for wine, dining, and get together. You will also find the abandoned gigantic Castle Svevo Augusta here. I wouldn't go inside as it's been deemed structurally unstable... but... you didn't hear it from me, if you want to check out the castle grounds, I hear it's pretty easy to sneak in & check them out.

  • Catania was an unplanned stop due to missing a train :). I hit a cafe with WiFi and quickly checked what I could do in about 2-3 hours. I went to the Castello Ursino museum/castle and also did some clothes shopping at this point to get rid of my Iceland clothes and get a warmer sweater.
Puglia:

  • Lets start with Bari, Bari is a great city to hang out in, the old city (la citta vecchia) is incredible. I loved Castello Normanno, and walking along the port. But really my best experience in Bari was making friends with a guy that was studying there and going to his friends place for some great home cooking!

  • Polignano A Mare... I'll just let the photos speak...





  • Alberobello, a must see for the community of trulli, these are tiny houses that were built for temporary shelter for laborers as well as permanent housing, some people do in fact still live in them, and although I didn't get to last time, next time I plan on staying in one off Airbnb. On your train ride in you will see a few, but once you get there you'll know you have arrived.


Basilicata:

  • Matera was a place I had never heard of until about 2 weeks before my trip I was planning for months, my friend in Italy told me that I was going to be in this region, which I was, I had to see Matera. Matera is an amazing historical city, it's been used in many films, at one point it was slums, but now the tourist influx has regenerated it to an amazing place to visit. Here's one of the few time I will advocate to spend extra for where you stay on a hotel but be sure to stay in one of the cave hotels. I stayed in Locando Di San Martino, it is in the heart of the city, and also had an underground geothermal pool! The rooms and the whole hotel are built into the mountain.


Old house on display in Matera
Geothermal spa
Matera Lunch time :)


Campania:

  • Arienzo is a place most tourists will never visit, as I learned from TripAdvisor it's also a place not too many Italians are even aware of. I'm not referring to the popular beaches in Positano, I'm referring to a tiny town in Campania that my family came from. While I won't say you must visit Arienzo I would certainly encourage you if you have time to go off the map and check out a tiny town on your way to your bigger destination. It was great to walk the same streets in the same place that my family came from. While some of my family has been to Italy, I am now the only living person that has been to the towns our family immigrated from.

    For my Grandfather I never met, Arienzo 2016
  • Naples, I spent about 5 or 6 nights in Napoli and really wish I could have stayed longer, as far as tourist things I saw Museo del Tesoro di San Gennaro, Duomo di Napoli, Castel Nuovo, Castel del'Ovo, Naples Harbor, make sure you check out the historic center, stay there if you can even, and by all means do not skip having some pizza at Gino Sorbillo's, it is by no means overrated and the line moves quick (I ate there twice)! All these things aside, honestly, my favorite part of Naples was wandering aimlessly, hanging out with locals getting drunk, getting lost, waking up hungover with delicious cappuccino and pastries, working out at the gyms meeting people, and just immersing myself in the life. If I were to live in Italy, I could certainly imagine living here. There are so many more things to do, but I will have to save those for next time.





  • Pompeii, you can't go to Campania without checking out the ancient ruins of Pompeii, be sure to check out the before and after books they sell at the souvenir shop showing artist rendering of the before and today of Pompeii. One day will suffice, we are budget travelers, we don't have enough time to spend too much time at any one place unfortunately, you could speed tour in an hour spend a full day there, or do about 2-3 hours, which I think is best.

    Ancient Ruins
  • The Amalfi Coast, it was great to spend a few days here off peak tourist season, I spent off peak tourist prices to stay in Maori, if you are on a budget you can stay here or Minori for significantly less than Amalfi or Positano. Now some locals will tell you that you can walk to Amalfi from there, it's a short walk, but don't do it!!! The lanes are way too narrow, I wondered if it was going to be my last days as I was walking, don't get me wrong I loved the cliff views, but not worth the danger! Anyway, relax here, enjoy the beaches, do some hiking, if you have time do Capri, if you don't I hate to say this, but I think it was very overrated, the Blue Grotto tour is way too short in the cave for the price you pay and Capri was the only bad meal I had in two months there.


I'm not smiling because I'm wondering if this will be my last photo!

Buongiorno Italia!

Ok.. it's overrated but I still threw in a photo, Grotta Azzura Capri
Lazio:
  • Rome... it's a place that has been so historical and so visited and I highly doubt with all the info out there anyone is going to come here for my tourist advice on the Colosseum, the ruins, etc. So I'm gonna talk about the other less main stream tourism things I did in Rome. I wandered the old city of Trastevere neighborhood, on weekends head down to Via Di San Michele for the open market, they have many great restaurants here at night too if you are staying long term you need a break from Italian food. Absolutely check out Giancolo hill here as well, the Fountain of Pope Paul V is actually older than the more famous Trevi Fountain. Take a walk on Tiber Island, it's the only island located on the famous Tiber River. Or go for a nice stroll anywhere along the Tiber River. I recently wrote an article How Old Is Too Old To Stay In A Hostel, on the recommendation of two of my friends my first pass through Rome I stayed at The Yellow Hostel by the main train station and had an absolute blast on their Rollin' Bar Pub Crawl. If that was my last hostel run, it was a damn good one!

           
     


  • Tivoli I had actually heard about last minute from a friend to go and check out the Villa D'Este and the town around it, it's a great day trip!

  • Fiumicino is not only somewhere you will likely fly into, it's a nice relaxing day on the beach especially if it's not peak tourist season.

Emilia-Romagna:

  • The only town I visited was Rimini en route to San Marino which will of course have it's own link. I can't say I gave Rimini a fair amount of time to review, so I will have to go back there next time!
Tuscany:
  • Florence, Firenze... here and Sicily were no doubt my two favorite parts of the journey. My advice here is mostly main stream, the Duomo is so beautiful you can spend the whole weekend here alone, but tickets in advance for the David to avoid the line. Also check out the face mask of Dante Alighieri! I think what makes Florence great is the amount of sheer joy in the people there, I guess it's hard to be sad here, but wow, what a place!



Veneto:

  • Venice, what's it like to spend a couple of days in Venezia? Of course I loved it! But where budget travelers go wrong is spending too much time here, it's very small unless you go to the island and can be covered in 2 days on a time crunch. Of course I'd love to spend a month here, but we are budget travelers, this is not an option we have if we have jobs to get back to at some point and can't take work assignments. Venice is well covered everywhere else on the net, so that's all I'll say, and of course I can't wait to visit again!

  • Belluno was one of my last stops to meet a friend, it was wonderful touring some old museums and castles in Belluno, Asolo, Bassano and more, but one of the best parts was riding bikes from San Candido into Lienz, Austria! Another destination that wasn't planned on being added, but thanks to my friend in Belluno and a couple of hours or so on rental bikes we got to bike the hills of northern Italy all the way into Austria.



                                                                                      
Lombady:

  • I'm not gonna cover how awesome the Duomo is, or what it's like to see the Last Supper painting in person in Milan, because that's all been covered. My big tip for Milan is if you are flying out make sure you check the train times! I got screwed and had to go to the airport at 11pm for a 6am flight!



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