Friday, July 30, 2010

Dotting the i's, Crossing the t's

Ever since Sicily, my trip's been taking me to places that I've visited previously - sure Pisa and Switzerland and Quebec and Ontario were all new, but they don't feel quite as radically new as, say, finally reaching Africa and seeing the Pyramids in Egypt. It's more like going through and picking up the pieces that I'd missed before. But before that all starts sounding boring and mundane, never fear - the particular pieces I've been picking to see are pretty damn appealing in their own right - so...

I'd been to Paris several times before (most recently to buy a certain mini automobile), and I've seen all the big museums - Louvre, d'Orsay, Rodin, Versaille, but never the Center George Pompidou, perhaps the premier modern art collection in the world:

June 2010, Check!

The collection the Pompidou houses is certainly amazing and huge - I appear to have developed a greater degree of appreciation for modern art lately, but even I found some of the French exhibits a bit too weird for my tastes...

Moving on - There's lots of bridges around the world, I've seen some interesting and famous ones - some more famous than others. So, I couldn't leave New York this time without having walked the Brooklyn Bridge

consider yourself crossed, t!

In a similar vein, it was about time I finally caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty!

There are some crazy, crazy, weird statues all over the world (especially in South and SE Asia), so I can't possibly be going home without having seen what is arguably the best known statue in the Western World. Certainly in North America...

I didn't go to Easter Island. But I really want to go! So, instead I went to see an exhibit dedicated to it at the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History

The CN Tower of Toronto, Ontario rises to a fairly mind-boggling height of 553 meters above ground

I've seen some of the tallest buildings in the world, but I hadn't seen what, until recently, used to be the tallest of them all (Burj Dubai surpassed it earlier this year) - Toronto's CN Tower is certainly the grandest (and tallest) of the city's landmarks. Unrivaled in height, probably rivaled in appeal by all the restaurants Toronto has to offer...

Hockey - Canada's national past time. And the Stanley Cup, the prize for becoming the champion of the National Hockey League

Sports I've gone to see along the way: muay thai (Thailand), rugby (Fiji), footie (a.k.a. Australian Rules Football), sumo wrestling (Japan), tennis (Argentina), football/soccer (Bolivia), cycling (Bolivia), horse racing (Hong Kong), baseball (USA). I went horse back riding in a few places too, but that hardly looks like a sport when I'm the one doing it... So, what I really should have done is catch a hockey game while in Canada, but it's the NHL's off-season during the summer, so I settled for a visit to the hockey Hall of Fame here in Toronto for a glimpse at all the glory and history of the game...

Moving right along... waterfalls! The Iguazu falls in Argentina are undoubtedly the most awesome waterfall (or a collection of falls rather) in the world. I should see the Victoria Falls in South Africa before making these assertions (Venezuela's Angel Falls too...), but I'm pretty confident. After all, I did go to Buffalo, New York to see the Niagara Falls, the greatest waterfall North America has to offer, and while I wasn't disappointed (was mightily impressed, in fact), Niagara surely pales in comparison to Iguazu!

I recruited Amie to come play my local tour guide... Last time we hung out was back in January, on the beaches of Koh Tao in Thailand - six months later, Buffalo and Niagara Falls! Apparently she now has a job too...

Speaking of big tall buildings, the skyscraper was invented in Chicago, and the city is home to American's tallest building - the Willis Tower (which used to be known as the Sears Tower, until apparently the Sears corporation started running out of money).

I felt Ok about the Sears Tower though, since I'd seen it before...

The locals in Chicago, however, apparently prefer the John Hancock Tower (merely the sixth tallest building in the US), so I made my over to see it.

Actually I met Cynthia for lunch at the Signature Room on the 95th floor, with its amazing views of the Lake Michigan shorelines - the best part about "crossing the t's and dotting the i's" is that traveling in civilized places like Europe and North America, you get to meet up with lots of friends wherever you go!

It's Good to be Back!

After making it all the way from New York to Denver overland, I finally relented and got on a plane for the final leg of the trip to Seattle and the Pacific Coast. And upon landing, I immediately concluded that it's good to be back!

View of Mt. Rainier in the setting sun on the flight over the Cascades

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Canada's Full of Hippies!

Welcome to Montreal!

After some Greyhound bus-related mis-adventures in Vermont, I finally made it to Montreal. (At about 3 in the morning - Greyhound is not your friend!) What did I know about Montreal prior to arriving? They speak French a lot, and I have friends to visit there - that's about it. The last guidebook I had been traveling with was for Egypt, so I'd become rather open-minded about the places I was getting to these days. So, the following day, having met up with Goose and Sara (at 3 the previous morning), I headed off to explore this new Franco-English speaking land. And the first thing I found along the way? Well, apparently, hippies - proper, frisbee throwing, hacky sack playing, tambourine drumming, weed offering hippies! You'd think you were in San Francisco or Seattle again - I figured I could get along with the people here! No matter which language they spoke...

First stop was the Parque Mont Royal, which, as their website describes, hosts a popular activity called the "Montreal Tam Tam Jam:"

It consists of lots of people drumming away on these hand drums ("tam-tams" in French).

And of others dancing to the rhythms

This was kind of crazy, kind of cool, but it gets better! I headed deeper into the forest (park), in search of Sunday's star attraction - the 'fighting geeks,' as Sara and Goose described them. They aren't hard to find - quite an audience had gathered, so pretty soon I was in a large-ish clearing, watching the following spectacle:

These guys, sadly, do not have a website explaining what it is that they are all about (that I know of - in reality they likely do). But how much of an explanation do we really need? It's a collection of twenty to fifty guys (and girls) who go at each other, utilizing plastic pikes and swords, wrapped in foam! Pretty straightforward, makes for quite a spectacle. While some of it certainly looks like vaguely organized mayhem, quite a few of the participants looked to have a fair bit of actual fencing background - a 'noob' couldn't even touch me, man! On Halloween a couple of years ago, they did apparently get attacked by a crowd of zombies though... I do ever so wish I had been there to witness that battle!

Moving on from the semi-, vaguely-serious to the purely comedic, The Just for Laughs Festival was just finishing up in town that Sunday too. I watched a magician do his act, all in French... still entertaining...

The whole crowd may have been a little high by the time the evening parade rolled around!

As for the rest of Montreal, it's interesting and eclectic - there's a properly French-looking old town, and a nicely preserved old port is on the banks of the river. Montreal used to be Canada's primary Atlantic port as the lakes and rivers connect it all the way to the ocean, but the major ports have moved even further inland along the Great Lakes these days. Apparently, at the turn of the last century, it was also a significant manufacturing and shipping hub - a fact you won't be able to miss while gazing at some of the architecture that highlights the Old Port area:

Then again, they might just all be hippies, so they like having all these grain silos still around!

I mean somebody had to have designed this housing complex, and I'm fairly certain they were high! I liked it a lot though - enough so to pedal all the way out there to get some up-close shots of it

There's also a Biosphere... which, of course, only makes me think of Pauley Shore and the less renowned Baldwin brother (Stephen), who had both stared in the similarly titled movie Bio-Dome

And you can feed raccoons on the street!

As for the friends I was visiting with here in Montreal, they might not be hippies, but they seem to be fitting in pretty well. I got to see just about the entire town thanks to them - from biking past a sprawling amusement park under the Jacques Cartier Bridge to the Cirque du Soleil studios further afield (where Pavel, whom I know going all the way back to Moscow, now works)

Pavel and Olga, at their apartment in the Old City

Goose and Sara, along with Talya and Baby Mireille, after a frisbee game. They apparently needed subs, so I got to play - now looking forward to getting back to Seattle and maybe actually getting some exercise...

On to Toronto, where I was off to hang out with Whelena, Vera, and Tim

Toronto is a bit more serious and buttoned down - I went to see the Provincial Legislature, the CN Tower, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the wineries in the nearby Niagara Valley... joined by hordes of other tourists once again. But Canada's still Canada, so that evening, we were off to see indie rock at a club nearby.

This was Elliot Brood, the opening act. Calexico were the headliners, but everyone seemed to enjoy Elliot Brood better - maybe it's just because they're local and Calexico are Americans, or maybe because they were just better?

Actually, the best part of Toronto was all the all the food and drink we had. I was staying with Tim, with whom I had previously met up traveling in Mendoza, Argentina (wine tasting) and Hong Kong (Chinese food! No, not the tourist crap, good Chinese food). Toronto was sort of a combination of the two - from ethnically diverse including Indian and Chinese Dim Sum, to Cora's for breakfast, to trout and goat cheese mashed potatoes Tim and Whelena had collaborated on (btw, goat cheese + mashed potatoes = really good) to wine tastings along with local cheese in the Niagara Valley... But I'm trying to keep a theme here, so we're focusing on the indie music at this point! I'll have to get back to the Toronto attractions like the CN Tower in another post... Montreal, by the way, does quite well on the culinary front itself, chiming in with poutine - I have now come to accept french fries with gravy, cheese curds, and a variety of additional toppings as a very worthwhile addition to the culinary world from the nation of Canada...

Actually both Montreal and Toronto have some claims to dining fame - Toronto is often described as having the most diverse choice of cuisines available in any city in North America, if not the whole world, while Montreal is said to have the most restaurants per capita. Having witnessed them both, I'm not about to argue with either of these claims!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bright Lights, Big City

New York, New York!

The night-time view onto mid-town Manhattan: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the UN (and more), from Nathalie's apartment, where she was kind enough to let me stay for a couple of nights

Times Square on a rainy July day

The Statue of Liberty, flanked by the New Jersey skyline... not quite as imposing as the New York skyline

The iconic Brooklyn Bridge shot!

The rainy day over Times Square eventually turned into a coloful sunset over Lower Manhattan

I walked back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge, then took some more pictures

I went to see the new Yankee Stadium, it just so happened to be on the day that George Steinbrenner, the long-time owner, had passed away - a small memorial out front

The Statue of Liberty

I think this was my fourth or fifth time in New York, but it occurred to me that I'd never actually been to see the Statue of Liberty before, so I made sure to make my way down to Battery Park and towards the statue this time. Taking the ferry to Liberty Island itself was expensive and entailed an hour+ wait. Taking the Staten Island Ferry, which goes right by the Statue, was free and had no wait, plus the huge orange ships were pretty cool, so I followed my aunt's advice and did a commuter drive-by visit to the Statue. Liberty and Ellis Islands get saved for next time!

I met Michelle at Lombardi's Pizza

We were each waiting for a 'table for one,' and decided we'd seem less pathetic if we just got a table for two. Besides, the pizzas are rather sizeable - Lombardi's claims to be the original pizzeria and is a well-established tourist haunt, as the place had been recommended by Jamie, all the way back in London... Somebody else had suggested Lombardi's to Michelle too - she's an interesting girl: had just graduated from Texas A&M University and is at the moment doing an 'Eight Jobs in Eight Weeks' program, where, you guessed it, you work eight different jobs in eight weeks, in eight different cities. Writing a blog and everything and presumably figuring out what you want to do with your life now that college is over, and you are supposedly about to become responsible. She now has a video of me on the blog going on about how you should just travel instead of becoming responsible, but I can't possibly imagine that I sound particularly coherent, so I'll leave finding that blog as an exercise for the reader...

And then I went to see Wicked

I kept hearing about how good the show was, but had missed it when it was playing in Seattle (and then again in London), so I was happy to catch the permanent production on Broadway. The show was, indeed, great, but this sign you see as you are exiting the Gershwin Theater struck home: You are now Leaving Oz. Reality Straight Ahead. Getting back to Seattle and facing reality again is looming closer and closer!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Seven Wonders of the World

Have I been everywhere and seen every single remarkable site that the world has to offer? No, I have not. Should this preclude me from declaring what the magical 'Seven Wonders of the World' are? Maybe... but it won't - this is my list, if you disagree with something, feel free to make your own!

I thought about coming up some criteria, but it's really quite easy - the 'wonders of the world' are things that unique and amazing. And these are all man-made structures; wonders of the natural world would be a whole another matter, likely a much harder one. I also tend to favor wonders that are amazing because of what they are, not because of the important/amazing/rare things that had happened there. Otherwise, it should just be Jerusalem, Rome, Athens, and New York for a bit of modern flavor.

So, without further ado, the list:

#1. The Pyramids of Giza: Cairo, Egypt

You have to start with the Pyramids, don't you? It's the only one left of the original Seven Wonders, and they are still going strong - still gigantic, still incomprehensibly ancient. It took us as a civilization over 4,000 years to finally build a structure that was taller than the Pyramids. Egypt has gone through a succession of rulers and overlords since the Pyramids had been constructed - various ones of these lords tried to destroy or alter the Pyramids; they barely made a dent. They are as they had always been - colossal, monumental, huge, imposing... When you see them in person, they are even bigger, than you had imagined.

#2. The Taj Mahal: Agra, India

The jewel of the Indian sub-continent, constructed as a burial shrine to a King's former wife. It's a beautiful, gleaming, almost magical site to behold. The contrast it offers to the slums that dominate the rest of India is striking, but it doesn't, in any way, need any extra points for the contrast - it deserves to be on any list of this kind just for its own unique and magnificent splendor. Criss-crossing India by rickshaw, getting to Agra to see the Taj Mahal was, at least, a three day detour for us, and it was easily worth it.

#3. Angkor Wat: Siem Reap, Cambodia

While the gloden domes of Thailand's famous temples shine in the lights of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Angkor Wat stands solemnly across the border in Cambodia, in the heart of the former Khmer kingdom. The individual temples of Thailand and Laos may be more beautiful than the less glittering Khmer architecture, but not a single one stands out in my memory quite as strikingly as the ancient Angkor Wat, towering over the jungle from its position near Siem Reap. This wasn't the only Khmer temple I visited, and while the architectural styles are similar, none of the others could even begin to compare to Angkor Wat on sheer size and scale. It's huge, and it just peaks out of the jungle, with a subtle air of mystery, as if a real-life Angelina Jolie - Tomb Raider really is going to emerge from behind the trees any second. It's a stark contrast to Giza, where the Pyramids have been all but swallowed up by the metropolis of Cairo. Of course, Siem Reap isn't much of a metropolis, and Cambodia rolls along at a much slower, quieter pace than Egypt anyway.

#4. Kinkakuji Temple, a.k.a. the Golden Pavilion: Kyoto, Japan.

Just as I was starting to get a little despondent after a month in Japan, complaining that the Japanese architecture, while unique and beautiful, wasn't particularly varied, I finally arrived in Kyoto, the cultural capital of the country. A lot of the structures here were more of the same too (not another five story pagoda!?), but, Kyoto did have a few that very much broke the mold and inspired the imagination. Tops among them is the Golden Pavilion. Actually, I think, it's the golden reflection in the perfectly calm waters, on a clear winter day, that truly sold me. The stark green forest background surely made it one of the most photogenic sites in Japan...

#5. The Eiffel Tower: Paris, France

The structure that finally bested the Pyramids in height? That would be the Eiffel Tower. I think we are all pretty familiar with it by now, so I don't need to try and wax poetic about it - it's the avant garde symbol of modern day France. While Notre Dame, Versailles, and Louvre were the gleaming, golden symbols that the French royalty erected to celebrate their rule, the modern, and relatively spartan in decoration, Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris, and of France that I think of. In fact, it's the on the very, very short list of the most striking and memorable sites in all of Europe that immediately come to mind.

#6. St. Basil's Cathedral: Moscow, Russia

Maybe I'm biased having grown up in Moscow. Maybe I overlook the Moscow sites because I take them for granted, having grown up there. I don't know, but while Europe boasts plenty of amazing churches and cathedrals, none is quite as unique as Moscow's St. Basil's with its assortment of beautifully multi-colored domes. Even the other Russian Orthodox churches don't look like this, with their always golden cupolas, and I did emphasize uniqueness among my criteria!

#7. Sydney Opera House: Sydney, Australia

Nobody ever said this was a list of ancient wonders, and for #7, I settled for something modern, unique, and beautiful. Skyscrapers have really become symbols of modern architecture, but they are really not that different from each other. Sydney's Opera House is absolutely unique in its contemporary combination of function and design - sails blowing in the wind, as it's coming in from the harbor. The Eiffel Tower was reviled when first constructed, Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower remains ugly, but I doubt anyone didn't admire the beauty and elegance of the Sydney Opera House from the moment it had been completed.

And that's the list! There's plenty I haven't seen yet - the Mayan and Aztec Pyramids, the brand new Burj Dubai Tower, the Moai of Easter Island, even America's very own Mt. Rushmore, just off the top of my head, so I may, some day, decide to adjust the list, but, for now, I'm quite happy with it. Some notable runners-up that didn't quite make the cut:

- The churches of Western Europe: Notre Dame in Paris, London's Westminster Abbey, St. Peter's Basilica at the heart of the Vatican, Sagrada Famillia in Barcelona. None of them quite stood out and separated themselves enough from other similar Cathedrals, in my mind. Sagrada Famillia has a chance, as it's still under construction...

- Machu Picchu is awesome, but it is in large part awesome because it's the 'Lost City of the Incas' and because of its amazing surroundings in the Peruvian mountains. But the actual Incan architecture, especially minus all the gold, that conquistadors so kindly removed/stole, isn't quite astounding enough. The Potala Palace in Tibet falls into the same category - it's mystical and full of history and tradition, but as far as the actual architecture and decoration, I didn't think it was quite up to par. Very compellingly close though...

- Thailand and Burma each has a plethora of amazing temples, but they are hard to separate from each other. As a whole, Bangkok and the plane of Bagan are amazing, but I can't pick an individual temple over the likes of Angkor Wat, Taj Mahal, and Kyoto's Golden Pavilion. In a similar vein, Istanbul, Cairo, and [especially] Samarquand had some amazing Islamic architecture - from the massive spires of the minarets of Istanbul and Cairo to the ancient, mosaic'd madrassahs of Samarquand and Buchara, but that left each of them just good enough to merit mention among the runners-up category.

- Finally, the modern world gives us the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Yokohama Landmark Tower in Japan, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, and even the Flora General of Buenos Aires (among others), but amazing as each of those is, I don't think they crack the top seven of amazing!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What a difference ten years makes

Ok, eleven years... almost to the day, in fact - the last (and only other) time I had been to Rome was back in the summer of 1999, when I was young, naive, and inexperienced in the ways of a world-wide nomad. So, I've changed and evolved since then - turns out Rome has too. Well, in some ways, it hasn't - the Colosseo is still here:

Built in 80AD, it's on a rather slow trajectory of change - an extra eleven years wasn't going to do a whole lot

It feels a bit different on the inside though - more on that below

Hola, Roma!

The atmosphere inside and around the Colosseum, however, changed dramatically - sure, it was a big tourist attraction then too, but compared to today? I felt I had the place all to myself when I went inside eleven years ago. Today, the people of America, and the people of India, and the people of everywhere in between have truly discovered Rome and the Colosseum. I'd love to see the comparison of annual visitor statistics between today and '99 - my guess is that there's several times more visitors that arrive today. Along with them, you get lines (of course), persistent tour guide touts, offering to get you past said lines, and Nigerian men aggressively selling crappy souvenirs. Inside today, it's crowded - sometimes you start to think that maybe picking up a few ancient Gladiator swords and pikes and going out into the ring in order to 'thin out the crowds' a bit wouldn't be such a bad thing. I did have a rather profound headache that morning, following the three bottles of Italian wine Donna and I had split the night before (which didn't feel nearly far enough in the past), so, perhaps, my judgment was a bit clouded on the 'thinning of the crowds' issue...

Other things change in less obviously perceptible ways - take the Vatican. St. Peter's and the Piazza remain the stoic guardians of the Catholic Church, and the same steady flow of tourists comes to gawk at them. Maybe I should say torrent, not flow... but that was just as much the case eleven years ago.

The St. Peter's Basilica - certainly an awesome testament to Papal glory

And the plaza out front... Didn't I see that obelisk some place recently? That's right it was plundered from Egypt...

The State of Vatican is an independent nation (I went by the embassy of the Russian Federation at the Vatican), but you can't get a Vatican stamp in your passport... to my bitter disappointment

The big change from summer of '99 is that now you actually get to see the dome of St. Peter's in all of its glory - and it is, oh, so very remarkably glorious. Back in '99, the Vatican was getting ready to welcome in the New Millennium in style and the entire Cathedral was being renovated - the outside fully encased in construction works. Having now seen it, I've got to admit, the Basilica is quite the site. While the architectural style is by no means unique, it is far bigger, grander, and more lavishly (much more) decorated than any of the other Catholic Cathedrals built in a similar style. The vast colonnaded plaza out front only adds to the already awe-inspiring ambiance...

The Vatican also houses a vast and diverse art collection - the Popes have enjoyed the good life over the years... and eventually one of them thought to turn their personal collection into a museum (and charge a steep admission fee, of course). The steep admission fee has never done much to discourage visitors, and I had planned to see the Sistine Chapel and the Musei Vaticani back in '99, but I was confronted with a threesome of obstacles, which put together, were too much to overcome: it was 30-some degrees (Celsius), the line stretched for at least three hours, and you had to wear long pants to enter...

This is where things change, but subtly. You see, the line is still there, in all of its eternal glory - in fact, I think it stretches almost precisely as far as it did eleven years ago. It's still hot, and you still have to wear long pants. But this time, I had a secret weapon (sort of like holy water, only more useful and technologically advanced) - I was staying at a hostel, the Vatican had embraced the word of the internet, and the hostel showed me how to order a ticket online. For an extra 4 Euro, you get assigned a time, show up at the Vatican at roughly that time, walk past the line, keep walking - it's a long line, walk some more, finally get to the front... "Excuse me sir, I have this ticket?" "Oh, sure go right in - this way!" That was, far and a way, the best 4 Euro I have spent in my entire life!

Oh, and the Vatican museums themselves... It's not just the Sistine Chapel (as I thought going in) - it's so very, very much more: room after room of paintings, sculpture, decorations, archaeological finds, and more. They are hard to describe, honestly, but suffice to say, the collection rivals the finest art exhibits you will find in the Louvre, in Florence, in London... The Egyptian wing may have an arguably finer collection of artifacts than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (certainly better presented). The works by all the Italian masters are here - the decorations by Michelangelo and the Bernini's statues all immediately jump out at you. And all it takes is standing in line for three and a half hours ... or 4 Euro. Thank you, Hotello di Roma!

The Sistine Chapel. No, you are not allowed to take pictures in here, but everybody else was doing it...

One of the more interesting exhibits they have is a large section of modern religious art. I'm surprised at the mild oxymoron of the term 'modern religious' art, as well as the fact that the Vatican would deign to recognize the existence of such an art form...

The rest of Rome, I found more or less unchanged. It's busy, and vibrant; it's lacking in underground public transportation options, but it isn't lacking in Italians lounging about, cruising around on their Vespas at precarious speeds, not doing much of anything productive. There are ancient sites to see just about anywhere you look, and there's shops offering memorabilia from said sites indeed everywhere you look. Oh, and the food's excellent!

Piazza Navona, with a large Bernini sculpture decorating the fountain

It is called the city of fountains... and the Trevi fountain remains one of the stars

The Spanish Steps, at Piazza di Spagna, are most certainly home to more tourists than steps

Leaving Rome after three days, I was looking to fill in another gap in my earlier Italian itinerary: Pisa, and its precariously leaning tower. Last time I've been to Pisa, I had just enough time to change trains at the station - now I was stopping here for day. Pisa was, apparently, somewhat of your basic Italian backwater town for most of its history - a Cathedral was eventually built, it burned down, it was re-built; a bell tower was added... and then the Tower began to fall over. Slowly. Very slowly - slowly enough for the citizens of Pisa to stabilize it and turn it into a world famous attraction. Today, the tower (which, by the way, is quite remarkable in appearance, aside from the unhealthy lean) continues to stand askew, but it has been stabilized, the crumbling columns have been replaced, and the gradual falling has ceased, suspending the tower in its slightly askew state.

I knew most of the above before ever getting to Pisa. What I learned in Pisa is that there's more to it than just the Tower - there's a whole Piazza del Duomo: a picture-perfect plaza housing the Cathedral. It has rightfully gained the majority of its fame and notoriety for the precariously leaning tower, but the Duomo itself, along with the adjoining Campo dei Miracoli make for a remarkable medieval Italian scene in their own right.

Look - the Tower, it leans! I wasn't actually expecting the Tower to be as big as it is. I don't know why, but somehow I pictured it to be smaller. In reality, it's rather massive - easily visible along the streets before you arrive at the Piazza. The angle of the lean is also far more pronounced than I imagined

The Duomo and the Campo dei Miracoli - the other major characters of the Piazza

Honestly, there's not a whole lot else to see in the town of Pisa, and what you do see doesn't quite stack up to the prime attractions, but the Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Spina on the riverbank is worth a visit

Further noteworthy Pisa: the Nigerian mafia has followed the trail of tourists up here. In Rome they seemed to specialize in cheap umbrellas, crappy sun glasses (and they swap displays of one for the other with remarkable speed and efficiency depending on the conditions overhead), and souvenirs, which are both cheap and crappy. In Pisa, they assault the tourists with offers of Rolexes... and crappy souvenirs. I can't imagine why anyone would want to own a fake Rolex, no matter the price, but I did see someone negotiating on a purchase... people have weird tastes, obviously...

The sites of Pisa really don't need more than two, maybe three hours, so after snapping a few pictures of the Duomo and ducking the 'Rolex' salesmen, I had more than enough time to get back to the hostel and settle in to watch the final qualifying round game of Italy's national team at the World Cup, along with the Italians there. Italy played Slovakia. They had played rather uninspired football previously, so they needed a win. The Slovakians seemed unimpressed. The Italian that I was watching with, seemed despondent (and more than a little cynical) when their team was looking lethargic, down 2-1 deep into the second half. Then Italy scored a goal to tie it up! The whole street erupted in a wild, spontaneous celebration. They appeared intent to teach the South Africans just how to properly use a vuvuzelas in a time of football induced ecstasy... And then the referee ruled it a no goal (offsides - replays confirmed), and we settled into a sort of a dull stupor. In the end, Italy, a 3-2 loser to Slovakia, finished dead last in its group and failed to advance past the group stage for the first time in some 30 years. I don't speak Italian, but I could still tell that even the TV announcers sounded depressed... It could've been worse, I thought - after all, the French not only failed to advance past the group stage, but their team outright mutinied against the coach. The Italians didn't seem particularly encouraged by this neighborly comparison - I heard more about how the National Team's coach had refused to select the Italy's two top players for the squad - one for getting into an altercation with the coach's son, the other for being black... It was a decidedly depressed country on this day!