After exploring the underground aqueducts in Naples with nought but a candle and sampling our last pizza for a while it was time to hit the road again. Greece was always going to be interesting with its current economic and political climate. The overnight ferry from Italy where we had the pleasure of sleeping on the floor of one of the lounges appropriately set the tone for this leg of the trip. We arrived in Patras having slept little and not knowing how we would navigate the public transport nightmare ahead. Since the economic crisis only some train and bus routes are operating and we didn't know if we would be able to make it to Athens, let alone Turkey. Luck was on our side and after a bus, a train and a wild guess on the Athens Metro we found our way to the capital with minimal stress and all of our stuff. Unfortunately the super cheap hotel we had booked turned out to be smack bang in the middle of the dodgiest suburb in town (think Manchester Street pre-quake). Thankfully the Greek Police are stationed on nearly every corner from early evening allowing us to roam the streets amongst the drug dealers in complete comfort. Our second issue with the aforementioned accommodation was their lack of informing us about the Greek national holiday the following day. It wasn't until we saw jets flying over the city and most of town deserted that we realised something was up. We figured there were only two plausible explanations and zombie apocalypse seemed the most likely. With nothing open we whiled away an hour watching the Air Force put on quite a show before heading back to the hotel. Tour guides were out of our price range so we rented the movie Troy and studied up on our Ancient Greek history for the afternoon. Acropolis hill was worth the wait in the morning and oddly there were hardly any tourists around - just us and the Parthenon. It took several attempts to find a good kebab but still nothing to compete with Dimitri's back home in ChCh yet. We took a day trip to see Poseidon's Temple which consisted of 4 hours on a bus and about 14 minutes looking at said temple. Undecided as to the value of the trip but saw a lot of coastline on the way. Greece has an unfortunately overgrown and crumbling look to it which has nothing to do with ancient ruins. Houses that are midway through being built have been abandoned and covered in graffiti while hundreds of others look like no one has lived in them for a while. Unemployment is up near 27% and you can see it everywhere. The real clincher is that we are now in Bulgaria in order to reach Turkey as we can't catch any Greek trains directly there. It makes the Italian rail network look reliable. On the plus side, Sofia is an awesome little city with cheap food and we got here on a VIP luxury bus - hard work.
After two weeks in Italy we have eaten our weight in Margherita Pizza, climbed to insane heights on Via Ferrata and foiled the first serious attempt to steal our stuff. The food has been fantastic and we were treated to a delicious meal at a local restaurant by my old host family in Bergamo. An hour north of Milan, Bergamo was away from the tourists but central to Lake Como, Verona and its own beautiful Citta Alta - the fortified old city. I lived here for three bizarre months when I was seventeen. My initial host family kicked me out for not being a French speaking boy but the family I ended up with were fantastic and we had a great night catching up with them over ravioli and wine. From Bergamo we took the train to Lecco on the shores of Lake Como where we climbed our first decent hill since the Great Wall. The views were incredible but we were really hanging out for some Via Ferrata (hiking/climbing with a metal cable to clip into). After a brief detour out to Venice which is still sinking under the weight of tourists and their rodent-like dogs, we ended up in Arco. This is a little outdoor mecca at the northern end of Lake Garda and the foot of the formidable Dolomites. We were able to hire the gear we didn't have at one of the dozen climbing stores in the village and set out to try the Attrezzato del Colodri (2A) an easy little climb up behind the castle. While most of the route didn't require being clipped into anything it gave us a chance to get used to the gear. In the afternoon we jumped on a bus up the valley towards Drena and the Rio Sallagoni (4A). I say towards as we had to jump off the bus and set out cross country through the vineyards after realising it wasn't going where we wanted. The canyon had only a small stream flowing through it but the ferrata heads quickly up the cliff to a reasonable height as it winds along the smooth rock. We had read that this was an easy route and couldn't work out why the grading was so high until I got about five minutes in. Obviously the person who placed the steps was a lot closer to six foot in height than I am. I had to stretch a precariously long way in places and the overhanging section got the heart racing. When we finally popped out at the top of the canyon (at another castle) I felt pretty deserving of a cold beer at the impeccably placed cafe. We had a quick chat to a nice German couple also climbing and were lucky enough to have them pick us up on the road back to Arco. The following day we got more adventurous and bused to Riva del Garda to attempt some epically long vertical ladders on the side of a mountain. Dell'amicizia winds up a rather steep cliff face with steep hiking sections and metal ladders that run uninterrupted for up to 70m in places. The sense of exposure is pretty awesome and the only real technical section was coming down from the summit where some snow was yet to melt. We had such an awesome couple of days we are going to come back through Italy in April to do some more ferratas in another area. From Arco we made our way south to Florence and plunged back into sight seeing mode. A little shopping trip resulted in a seriously good looking finger adornment. The only low point of the city was 3am one morning while we both considered suffocating the guy in the bunk next to us who was snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Rome was a short train trip away but we had some issues getting to the hostel when some idiot ripped my bag open and took my wallet as we were getting off a crowded bus with all our gear. Luckily being very loud and threatening is effective in any language and J had my wallet back in minutes. After the initial drama we settled into three days of long lunches, gelato and very old, very famous buildings/fountains/monuments/steps/frescoes/gladiator arenas. Quite stoked with Raphael for sneaking himself into some of his most famous commissions - the guy must have had a sense of humour painting himself next to the Pope on a wall in the Vatican.
The last week has been full of things going wrong in beautiful cities throughout Spain, France and Italy. We had foundation poured on us in the subway in Barcelona, we couldn't get a train to Milan and ended up stuck in Nice instead, then when we got a train, we missed our transfer and ended up in a small town on the Italian coast for several hours. Good character building stuff. When we left Paris we headed south to the beach and San Sebastián. We feasted on pinchos (tapas) and spent a rainy day at the aquarium with the sharks and star fish. There are so many amazing bars and restaurants it didn't matter so much that the weather was atrocious, I even found a Lord of the Rings themed lolly shop with epic pick and mix. We took a scenic train two days later to Barcelona as we had to unfortunately cut Morocco off our tour. Not such an easy place to get to when you haven't booked in advance. Our hostel in Barcelona had this great system whereby no one was ever there. We arrived late at night and no one answered the door. After ten minutes we were seriously considering sleeping in the street under the orange trees when a lovely Swiss couple crawled out of bed to let us in. Turns out the owner relies on you messaging him when you get there or something. I felt better after every new arrival for the following three days had to be let in by ourselves or one of the other guests. After scrubbing the makeup off our clothes and packs (still have no idea quite how it managed to get on us in the first place) we headed to the waterfront the following day and explored the old quarter. Barcelona is a great city to get lost in and we wandered for several hours stopping only for kebabs (the only thing we can afford right now) and to do a spot of shopping. We got back into proper tourist mode the following day lining up with 1000 others to get into La Sagrada Familia - worth every minute of the wait, and checked out the Olympic Sport Museum - worth the hike. I would like to make a special mention of the "unbeaten" New Zealand All Blacks who according to this temple of sporting records have "never lost a game". The French border police who stopped us the following day were far less respectful and threatened to put us back on a train to Spain when we mentioned the rugby. There was a stop over in Avignon where we got to see the Pope's other house and then Nice where we saw only the train station and the inside of yet another dodgy hostel. Thankfully once we crossed the border into Italy I could communicate slightly better which came in handy when we ended up in the middle of nowhere instead of Milan. Can't wait to eat my body weight in pizza and drink Italian wine.
Rachael and Jeremy