Chapter 2 – The Trap

No Barekvar! You bastard! Why don’t you try taking me on!” Manor screamed as he pounded his powerful fists against the walls of the cone that held him. Not that his friend and ally could hear him. The cone of silence is a powerful spell, and it had been cast by a powerful hand (if you could call it that).It had been three months since the four old friends has once again taken together and things had been going quite well. Well that is until they fell into the trap of a particularly deranged and sadistic Necromancer. Which is where they currently found themselves.

Barekvar’s hands were bound to the cold marsh earth by ethereal chains that were slowly sapping his strength and his mana, while Lazaraus, King and Manor found themselves entombed inside solid cones, helplessly watching their friend being tormented and drained. “He is strong. I have never seen someone take so much.” said King to himself, racking his brain for a trick or a potion that would free them. The three separated captives seemed not to be of importance to their captor – seemed this wizard was more a fan of those that held in them the essence of the arcane – and the Battlemage was an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Yes Battlemage. Struggle. Struggle and writhe. Feed my hunger.” the villain cackled from under his ebony hood. Barekvar tried to focus his strength on his chains – break their hold and cast a stunning blow – but his mind was flooded with memories and thoughts that jabbed at his heart and dampened his psyche – and no matter how he tried, he couldn’t shake them. “This is no time to fall to pieces old man,” he thought to himself. Was he really going to die enduring such a cliché as his life flashing before his eyes?

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Euro-Trippin – The Canals of Venice

Venice – This beautiful city was the final stop on our exhausting and wonderful boys trip around Europe. I wish that I could take you through every sight and sound of this wonderful city by the sea, but as it was the end of two weeks of trekking through cobbled streets and trudging through museums, the one day we had in Venice was spent doing pretty much nothing. But don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets.

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Euro-Trippin – Forever Firenze

One of the most beautiful stops on our trip, Florence or Firenze is a city I truly look forward to returning to some day. Not just because of the friendly restaurant proprietors and scenic beauty, but also because, since it was on the tail end of our trip, I didn’t really manage to see a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong, in the short time that we were there we did some brilliant sight-seeing and had some very memorable moments.

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Euro-Trippin – All Roads Lead To Rome

Like the former two cities we visited, Rome was easily manageable on foot – well, at least most of the ‘must-see’ spots aren’t that far away from each other. Which was very good, because I actually found the public transportation system to be rather confusing – there was no call for stops on the buses so we basically had to guess-timate where we were based on our little map, as we passed things we could spot on it – terribly frustrating. Also, buying tickets was a bit of a pain because the machines wouldn’t accept notes if the change to be given was more than 6 Euros – WTF?!

Despite the annoyance of the buses, we had a marvelous stay in Rome. Speaking of stays, I should mention here that the place where we hung our hats for the night – Funny Palace (ok I know that’s not the most confidence inspiring name) – was pretty great. It was just a few minutes from the main Bus/Train Terminal (Termini), which was fantastic, and the proprietor – Mabri – was a really nice guy who really set us up with a great itinerary for hitting up the town in a way best suited to our length of stay – he even marked out the best routes and areas for us and gave us some good tips on avoiding queues and long waits for tickets and threw in a bottle of wine as a welcome gift : ) The room itself was super comfortable and all-in-all I was happy with the pick.

The first great stop on our sight-seeing tour was the Palatino (Palatine Hill) and the Forum Romana (the Forum). It was amazing to walk through the various ruins and imagine what these great structures must have once been like. To look at now, for the average person they might be underwhelming, but if you just sit there and look with your mind’s eye, their once proud majesty and beauty is inspiring – you just need to envision it as it once stood (sort of the loading screen in Assassin’s Creed where you see the city scale to fruition before your eyes). If you’re a history or architecture buff you’ll still get more of a kick out of visiting, as I did, but for a lot of people… Well, let’s just say I saw a lot of disappointed faces. It will definitely be more worth it if you get an audio guide and really get to learn a little (having said that, the two us made do with eavesdropping over other groups ; p – at least that we got a lot of different stories and did bits).

Right next to the ruins of the forum is the Colosseum – the great amphitheater in Rome where so many of exciting stories and movies are set. It is a monumental sight, though it is quite a shame just how much of it has given way to the ages – you see much evidence of the various measures being taken just to hold it together. Still, one advantage of this is that you get to see an x-ray like view of the intricacies of the building – the complex tunnel work in the subterranean levels below the arena floor and the numerous facades and stairways. Though it may not look the part it did in Spartacus or Gladiator, it is still an amazing sight to behold, especially at night – the lights within and without the building serve to bathe it in a beautiful golden and red glow which makes it look just a septic as you would have imagined it should be.

No visit to Rome in complete without a visit to the Vatican. Technically it is the smallest sovereign state in the world (but don’t worry you don’t need a passport to cross over) so for a few hours, you’ll be leaving Italy. The compound is surrounded by massive fortified walls which give it a rather medieval visage as you approach it, but inside, as modernized as any other city. We were advised to book online to avoid queues (which entails a 4 Euro surcharge) and did so to find that everyone had the same idea, meaning there were actually only a handful of people in line. Fail! Still, the extra coin was soon forgotten after we began to walk the halls of the Musee Vaticani (the Vatican Museums). What struck me first of was how beautifully well-preserved the exhibits were. Take for example, the Egyptian exhibits in the Museu Gregario Egizion – the statues were completely undamaged, still had their unblemished marble sheen and there were statues of deities I was familiar with but had never seen, even in the likes of the British Museum in London. And while in the Museu pio Constantine, in looking around at the wonderful statues don’t forget to look down – the intricate mosaics that cover the floors themselves are a work of art. But of course the thing that everyone wants to head towards is the famous Sistine Chapel. The fame of the chapel lies in its frescos, particularly the ceiling of the chapel which was painted by Michelangelo. I would have liked to share a picture with you, but they are super strict about people taking photographs in that room (though it was hilarious to see so many people try – and get caught). Personally, I didn’t think it was that far apart from the many (MANY) frescos we had seen on this trip, but I did marvel at the idea that one man took on the project of such a vast scale – it would have been no small task – and that it impressive.

An area that I would definitely recommend you try out, though it is less ‘tourist top 10’ is what we were told is the old part of town – the area across the Ponte Sisto or Ponte Garibaldi bridges, around the Santa Maria in Trastevere. While the architecture in the area is fairly similar to the rest of the city, the vibe is definitely a little bit more rustic and the crowd is generally younger. There were dozens of places to get a cheap cocktail or grab a nice bite or just lounge about. But try and plan your route back if you’re staying not too close because it would be hard walk after a full meal (or a good few drinks) and as I said, public transportation can be confusing.

I really would love to go on forever about the various other sights in Rome, and there are so many more you should see – the Pantheon (which looks so majestic and powerful at night), the Trevi Fountain (where you can join in the tradition of tossing in a coin and making a wish), the Spanish Steps (a great place to just sit and enjoy the sun or watch the crowds) or the Piazza Navona (a really pretty square full of life and colors, both day and night) – but, for the sake of time and brevity, I’ll leave you to discover those on your own (though I have thrown in some pictures).

I can’t however leave you without talking about the food. Oh the food! Personally, Italian is one of my favorite cuisines of all-time (though after a full straight week of it I may not partake for a while). Eating out can be a bit of a hit-and-miss, though for the most part my taste buds were really in heaven. If I had to give you a rule of thumb, it would be to eat at places where the wait staff/hosts are locals – where they weren’t, the food tended to be a bit sub-par. Having said that, the pizzas were just amazing! In India you are hard pressed to find a place that does a good classic thin crust pizza, and if they do they charge a ridiculous amount or it’s so lean it barely feeds one. In Rome we adopted the habit of usually ordering two kinds of pizza and then feasting to our heart’s content. But not just Pizza, the pasta of course is just as brilliant. From day one I was scarfing down amazing Carbonara and Pesto. I’m fairly certain by the end of day three, we had put on twice the weight we had lost walking around Europe thus far. But you know what, WORTH IT! Two places I will go ahead and recommend are Primo Cafe in the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori (where I had an amazing pizza and house white for my birthday dinner) and a little roadside cafe called Cafe Moca, next to the river, where you can get a refreshing Granita made of freshly crushed ice and your choice  of fresh fruit and delicious syrups.

Well I leave you there dear reader (mostly because I am now famished after reliving my gastronomical adventure in Italy). Till next time!

Euro-Trippin – Sunny Barcelona!

After basically walking my feet off in Paris, the laid back vibe of Barcelona was just what I needed. It was also the point in our trip where we finally left grey skies behind for good – all sunshine from day 1.

I was particularly looking forward to this leg of the trip, because I needed a break, and also because of all the friends who told me I just had to check it out after visiting Madrid a few months ago. And truth be told, I have to agree with most of them – Barcelona truly was amazing. It was also quite unlike Madrid. Barcelona had a far more eclectic personality – a greater clash of cultures, which was present in the food, the people and the architecture. To a great extent I think this clash is because there is a definite feeling to assert the native Catalan culture, rather than conform to the homogenous ‘Spanish’ culture that prevails in other parts of the country – you see the Catalan, rather than Spanish, flag hanging out every third window. Even the language is a mix of a bit of Spanish and a majority of Catalan. Like all the cities on our trip, Barcelona was small enough to get around mostly on foot – which is really the way you should explore a new city. But for those less inclined, get a T-10 card – this is similar to the Carnet in Paris, but instead of 10 individual tickets you have one pass, which you can re-use (you can only share it so that’s pretty cool).

A bit about our hostel – we were staying at a place called Mediterranean Youth Hostel – I would definitely recommend it to anyone travelling there. It was a really nice place with a friendly vibe, accommodating staff (who happily answered the hundreds of questions my friend had), free wi-fi, comfortable rooms (private or dorms – your call), was handicap friendly and just a 10-15 minute walk from the city center. It totally made the entire experience a whole lot more fun – mostly because of the people we met. One of the best parts of hostel-ing it was the interesting people you meet.  My friend and I had a room next to another pair of friends travelling around Europe who turned out to be a real gas to hang out with – funniest thing was they had actually become friends a few years before when they stayed at the same youth hostel – just goes to show, you never know what good friendships you might make if you just put yourself out there and meet new people. And it wasn’t just them – one of my favourite parts of the hostel was sitting in the common room (adjacent to the fully functioning kitchen – where they even threw some free groceries for common use) and chatting with people who were just coming in or heading off – I’m pretty sure I sold 4 or 5 new travellers into patronizing the Goa Tourism Board : )

Another great thing about our hostel was that it offered a lot of great packages/deals in partnership with this little group called Travel Bound – one of which was a free walking tour through the Gothic quarter in Barcelona. Our guide, Hannah, was a ex-pat who took us through and around the area, all the time sharing some fascinating local history and interesting tales of the old city – it was like a fun history lesson with some light exercise. We saw small local sites like the fountain on Las Ramblas, rumoured to have mystical powers to make you fall in love with Barcelona and the Placa de Sant Felip Neri, a small square with a sad history from the days of the Spanish Civil War – two bombs were dropped in the enclosed area adjacent to a small church that was serving as an orphanage – but which now hosts many games of tag and kick-around by the primary schoolers who run about there during their lunch break. It was an amazing way to see the winding streets and hot-spots and get a real feel for the city. It ended at the Travel Bar – an establishment run by Travel Bound – where you can get yourself some cheap cocktails, the dish of the day for just 1 Euro from 9-10 pm and take many tours of the city or a day trip out to the coast.

While the architecture in the gothic quarter is quite amazing, to really have your mind blown (and put thoroughly at odds with itself) you must check out the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia. This piece architecture is easily one of the most ambitious and unbelievable things I have ever seen with my own eyes (and I also visited Rome on this trip!).  Designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi, this church is breathtaking, confusing, weird and beautiful, all at once. It seems to be such an erratic mix of styles and themes that to imagine one single mind being its creator is baffling – it look like someone designed it while in a fevered dream, while on acid, listening to classical music. The stained glass was particularly amazing – seeing the suns rays (it was a particularly sunny day) stab through the brightly colored glass was just spectacular – the windows seemed almost bursting with life. But what struck me most of all was unlike other churches, especially the ones in Rome, that create a solemn and stoic atmosphere, the Sagrada Familia was bright and white and comfortingly friendly – it could easily be the venue for art shows and exhibitions. And despite its immense size and awe-inspiring stature, it was anything but domineering. All of this and it is not nearly finished. Though the man who envisioned it has passed, construction of this marvel continues and is scheduled to finish only in 2026 – who knows what it will look like then! But that wasn’t the end of our acquaintance (and in the case of my friend – love affair) with Gaudi. We also took a walk around beautiful Park Guell, also designed by him. This massive park is set on a real high point, so you have a wonderful view of the city from a massive square where people gather to sit, maybe exercise/train, take pictures or enjoy a lie in the shade. Here you get a real taste of Gaudi’s love for the themes of nature and life – epitomized by the beautiful mosaic Gaudi Lizard (replicas of which you’ll see at every souvenir shop).

Speaking of parks, you can’t leave Barcelona without heading up to Montjuic – this area, which used to be the Jewish quarter (it literally translates to jew mountain I was told) is full of beautifully manicured parks, great view points and even a Castle which you can reach via cable car (the Funicular). I recommend you spend half a day or so just wandering around or enjoying the sun in one of the parks, or just some lone time with a loved one in the many nooks and crannies ; ), but take some snacks and water along – there are very few places up near the top where you can actually get some grub, and the few that cater are more than happy to take advantage of this fact. The view from the castle is not to be missed (nor is the ride up the Funicular) – you can see the city surrounded by hills on one side and the docks and beach on the other.

If you’re a fan of the beach, and really want to get your tan or swim on, I highly recommend hopping on a train and headed up Costa Brava. The beach in Barcelona is just completely full, so if that’s what you have in mind – all good! But if you want a quieter, cleaner day at the beach, take a train from the Arc de Triomph Metro station (no I didn’t lapse back into my Paris memories) and head up the coast. If you sit on the right side of the train you’ll see the beaches as you pass by, so just pick the one that suits you – nude/clothed, quiet/family – and jump off. We chose a fairly quiet area called Margarat del Mar. The beach was nice and empty, we lay ourselves down on a towel (after a very brief swim in the rather freezing cold water) and simply dozed off – it was the best! After we went into one of the restaurants in town and had a wonderful meal at Celler Sancho-Panzo for a lot less than we would have paid in Barcelona city (bonus!). My next visit to Barcelona I think I’d prefer to spend a few days out there.

But it’s not all about culture and sand – Barcelona is also a great city to go out and have a fun night out. There are dozens of clubs that will fight for your patronage (as long as you follow the standard club rules in re: shoes, shirt, etc.) Now, my friend and I aren’t really the clubbing type, but we decided since it was my birthday that weekend, we’d go out and rage at least once (lord we sound old!). So we went along with some people from our hostel who had signed up for a night-out package – 15 Euros gets you a free drink and entry to a good club, plus some assured company as everyone meets up at a bar for a few cheap rounds before. Turned out to be a lot of fun – and I got a lot more than I bargained for by the end. I may have gotten home at 4:30 am, I may have been hung over the entire next morning, but it was worth it!

Speaking of getting lucky, the weekend that we were in Barcelona also happened to be the weekend that the Merce Festival was on. Four days of art, performances, parades, fireworks and concerts all over the city. There are over 12 venues and something happening pretty much all day. How brilliant is that?! We ended up walking around in the evenings from gig to gig, pausing to listen to some local flavor and imported sounds and on our last day in town we sat at the beach and watched an awesome fireworks show. The streets were full of life and laughter and music and the skies were full of color and light. It truly was an amazing weekend. I was particularly impressed at how everyone was enjoying it so peacefully – thousands of people drinking and eating pretty much all day, crammed together in front of stages and on the sand – I saw far fewer people hunched in corners losing their lunch or wandering around like lost souls than I thought I would. My favourite artist was this African Folk rock singer named Fatoumata Diawara – if you’re into that sort of thing (hell, even if you’re not) I suggest you look her up. The stage for her gig was particularly magnificent, set as it was in front of the Cathedral, with marvelous lights shining across the Cathedral’s façade and the full (ish) moon overhead.

I think all in all, Barcelona was my favourite leg of this trip. While I have many fond words yet to write of Italy, I truly think, even though I didn’t drink from the fountain, I did very much fall in love with the city, and I think I’ll return very soon (provided I can afford it again).

I would however be remiss if I left you without one more tip – try Paella! Even though I’ve been to many Spanish restaurants that offered it, I’ve never tried Paella before because it is primarily a seafood dish. However, in the spirit of “when in Rome” my friend and I decided to try some (with chicken instead of muscles and what not). It was amazing – simply delicious – so if you actually like seafood, it’ll be a major win! For this I would say head over to Barcelonetta – there are dozens of places that serve it and you can pick and choose the one that you feel gives you the best combo/deal. And I’ll pass along the advice that Hannah gave us – sit in one where you don’t see too many pale faces – look for one with “grouchy old locals” (her words not mine!) – that’s where you’ll get the real deal.

Well time to say adieu (pronounced ‘a-dey-o’) dear reader. Next we meet, Rome!