Visited Rome in September 2014

After my last visit in June 2008, I wished to visit Rome a second time to see more of this city and its surroundings. My first visit lasted merely two days, yet allowed me to see the majority of the most popular attractions. On this second visit, I wanted to use nine days to visit the other highlights in and around the city. Unfortunately Stephanie could not join me because she had already spent her free days. This meant I had to go alone, but I found good company with two hosts from CouchSurfing. I visited these places:

  • Mon 15th: arrival at Rome Ciampino Airport
  • Tue 16th: Cerveteri (National Museum, Banditaccia Necropolis)
  • Wed 17th: Tarquinia (National Archaeological Museum, Monterozzi Necropolis)
  • Thu 18th: Tivoli (Villa d’Este, Villa Adriana)
  • Fri 19th: National Etruscan Museum, Pincian Hill, Piazza del Popolo, Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Baths of Caracalla
  • Sat 20th: Via Appia Antica (Catacombs of Callixtus, Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Circus of Maxentius, Tomb of Caecilia Metella)
  • Sun 21st: Basilica of Saint Peter in Chains, Baths of Trajan, Ostia Antica, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
  • Mon 22nd: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Basilica of Saint Mary in Trastevere, Palazzo Corsini, Botanical Garden, Janiculum
  • Tue 23rd: departure from Rome Ciampino Airport

Cerveteri and Tarquinia had a high priority for me. These small towns northwest of Rome are known for their Etruscan necropolises, which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Both towns are close to a railway, so you can go there by train and travel the last kilometers by bus from the railway station. From Rome, Cerveteri can also be reached by bus alone, with a transfer to another bus at Ladispoli. The Lonely Planet travel guide for Rome focuses on Cerveteri and mentions Tarquinia only in passing; I concur.

The Banditaccia Necropolis of Cerveteri is one of a kind. The Greek word necropolis means ‘city of the dead’ and is generally used for elaborate ancient cemeteries. The literal meaning of the word applies so aptly to the Banditaccia necropolis. When you walk through it, it bears a great resemblance to a settlement for the living, with all its streets and tombs which look like houses. It is also quite large. I have to commend how the authorities present the site to visitors, with free guided tours through the necropolis and audiovisual presentations inside select tombs. The same goes for the museum of Cerveteri, the audiovisual presentation there engages visitors with the exhibition so well. If you are short on time, prioritize Cerveteri over Tarquinia.

Street in Banditaccia Necropolis

What distinguishes Cerveteri from Tarquinia is that in the former the structures above the ground are intact but the frescoes inside the tombs were lost, while this is the other way around for the latter. At Tarquinia’s Monterozzi Necropolis the structures of the tombs above the ground were lost and the real attractions are the frescoes in the subterranean parts of the tombs. In many cases these have not been very well preserved, but there are some exceptions. In reality you can’t see much of the tomb’s frescoes however: you cannot enter the tombs for reasons of conservation, you can look at the interior through the glass of a thermal door. This also applies to some of the frescoes which have been transferred to Tarquinia’s museum.

While restricting the access to the tombs is understandable, this reduces the appeal of a visit to the site. Fortunately, for an extra fee you can take a guided tour at the site. The tour takes you to some more remote tombs which are only accessible under the supervision of a guide (but still protected by a thermal door). Without the guided tour, you just get access to a smaller part of the necropolis were the majority of the tombs are located. The guided tour compensated my slight disappointment and made it worthwhile for me. I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if they hired some fresco painters to make replicas of the tombs so you could get a better look at the frescoes? Wouldn’t such a thing attract much more tourists to Tarquinia?

Tivoli is another town close to Rome which deserves a day trip for its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana. The town lies northeast of Rome and can be reached by bus from the Ponte Mammolo subway station. Villa d’Este is a magnificent villa with an even more impressive garden. However, when you take the bus back to Rome and make another stop further south in Tivoli for the Villa Adriana, you will be even more impressed. The name is deceptive, because it’s not a villa, but a full-blown palace complex occupying more than one square kilometer.

Villa d'Este in Tivoli

Great Baths in Hadrian’s Villa

After my visit to the necropolises of Banditaccia and Monterozzi, I visited the National Etruscan Museum in Rome to provide context for what I saw there. Highly recommended museum with a large collection. After spending a lot of time at the museum I walked in a southern direction and ended the day with the Baths of Caracalla. Even though it’s ruined now, most of its huge walls are still standing, suggesting its former grandiosity. It’s hard to picture that such a fortune was spent on the construction of a bathhouse open to every free male citizen. The emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla must have considered this form of propaganda to be very important.

Baths of Caracalla

Together with Cerveteri, Ostia Antica was the high point of my trip. I didn’t know the ruins of this ancient Roman city were in fact on par with Pompeii, which I had seen a year earlier. The level of preservation and the size of both ruins are quite similar. It is as if you take a step into classical antiquity itself. My imagination became overwhelmed as I wondered what this city was like in all its former glory. With a guided tour a visit to this site would be even more enjoyable. On the way back to Rome’s center, make sure to visit the beautiful Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

Insulae (housing blocks) in Ostia Antica

Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls, Rome

On the last day I spent most of my time in art museums. The Galleria Doria-Pamphilij is absolutely recommended with its many famous pieces. So is the Palazzo Corsini, one of the two locations of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. I didn’t have time to visit the other location, the Palazzo Barberini.

Like the Palazzo Barberini, there are still plenty of places and attractions I want to see in a future visit to Rome. I couldn’t make a reservation for the Galleria Borghese in time. The Domus Aurea was closed for restorations. I didn’t have time to see the Villa of the Quintilii, the Museum of Roman Civilization, several locations of the National Roman Museum (except for the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, which is close to Termini) and the National Museum of Oriental Art.

Concerning food, I was slightly disappointed with Rome. I specifically selected good restaurants from TripAdvisor, but it wasn’t as memorable as the food from southern Italy. Roman cuisine also seems to have a greater focus on meat dishes and is apparently not so creative with vegetables. Or maybe I just had bad luck in my choice of restaurants.

I had a good CouchSurfing experience on this trip. It took some perseverance to find hosts, I had to send CouchRequests to almost 150 people before I succeeded. One hosted me for the first five days of my stay, the other for the last five days. Even though they couldn’t keep me company during the day because they had to work, I greatly enjoyed their company and am very grateful for their hospitality.

Visited Sicily in April 2014

In April 2014 I visited Sicily again, this time with my girlfriend Stephanie and by car instead of public transport. I showed Stephanie some of the best attractions I had already seen on my previous trip in 2012, but I also managed to see some new things. Our schedule was as follows:

  • Sat 19th: arrive at Trapani Airport late at night.
  • Sun 20th: retrieve rental car, Cave di Cusa, Selinunte.
  • Mon 21st: Heraclea Minoa, Scala dei Turchi, Agrigento (Valle dei Templi).
  • Tue 22nd: Gela (Archeological Museum), Modica.
  • Wed 23rd: Villa Romana del Tellaro, Helorus, Noto, Siracusa (Archeological Park).
  • Thu 24th: Palazzolo Acreide (Akrai), Necropolis of Pantalica, Siracusa (Archeological Museum).
  • Fri 25th: Siracusa (Euryalus Castle), Aidone (Morgantina, Archeological Museum), Piazza Armerina (Villa Romana del Casale).
  • Sat 26th: Cefalú, Palermo.
  • Sun 27th: Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo (Botanical Garden).
  • Mon 28th: Segesta, Erice, Trapani.
  • Tue 29th: Trapani, Nubia (Salt Museum), Marsala (Archeological Museum), Trapani Airport for flight home.

We arrived at the airport of Trapani late at night, so on the morning after we went back to the airport to pick up our car at Avis. We were surprised to hear that we had to pay € 20 per day extra because Stephanie was classified as a young driver under 25 years of age. It was not possible for me to drive, because only Stephanie had a credit card. We grudgingly paid the extra fee. We got screwed by, through which we found the offer for the car. Their website asked for the age of the driver, but it never incorporated the extra fee for young drivers in the total price presented to us. After our holiday we contacted them, but they were unapologetic, referring to the terms of the rental which mentioned the extra fee and arguing that we should have read it. I wish I had taken the time to fight these frauds through legal means, but in the end I was too occupied with other things after my holiday.

Using a car allowed us to see much more in the time we had available. In hindsight we thought the schedule was a little bit too tight on certain days, if we had to do it again we would have made it more relaxed. Another thing I considered is that we could have restricted ourselves to traveling through either the North, East, South or West of Sicily. What we did was drive around the whole island in a counterclockwise direction from Trapani. Except for the northeast, which we skipped when we went from Siracusa to Central Sicily. This meant we had to drive long distances on some days, something we prefer to avoid. On the other hand, this plan was good for seeing the majority of the highlights in one holiday.

If I would make the same trip again, I probably would make some changes to the plan if I wanted to make the most efficient use of my time. I would scrap the minor archeological sites like Cave di Cusa, Heraclea Minoa, Helorus and Palazzolo Acreide. And possibly the modern cities Gela and Trapani. We were never bored, but there’s a lot more to see on the more famous archeological sites. If you are short on time it’s better to skip these, unless you’re quite interested in archeology and history like me. In the case of Helorus though, we didn’t learn anything at all about the ruins we saw there because there were no information boards on the site. On the other hand, I was curious about the minor archeological sites of Motya, Kamarina, Megara Hyblaea and Thapsos, but these didn’t fit into the schedule. I wish we would have had the time to see Ragusa on the way to Modica. Had we decided to see the northeastern part of Sicily as well, we would have definitely visited Taormina.

Scala dei Turchi is nice with it’s peculiar white marl cliff, but there are better beaches to visit in Sicily. Unfortunately, there was no time for visiting San Vito Lo Capo after Palermo, which is supposed to have a nice beach. More importantly, in April the seawater is still a bit cool. We swam at the beach near Scala dei Turchi for a short time, but we were almost the only ones who did. In fact, a lot of Sicilians were walking around in winter coats. Don’t get me wrong, except for one or two rainy days we never needed a jacket to stay warm. But it would have been more fun if the seawater would have been a bit warmer and if there had been more sunshine. When I visited in October 2012 it was sunny almost all the time and I didn’t see a single raindrop. And at the end of the summer or autumn you get all the great food like ripe peaches, grapes, prickly pears and eggplants.

I want to emphasize that anyone who visits Sicily (and Italy in general) should take the strange opening hours of important attractions and museums into account. The Archeological Museum of Agrigento is closed on Monday in the afternoon, so we were not able to visit it. The greatest disappointment was that the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo was closed on Sunday afternoon, like many other attractions. I had already seen it in 2012, but I was disappointed I couldn’t show it to Stephanie. It’s ridiculous the Archeological Museum of Palermo is still closed for renovation, which it already was when I visited in 2012.

Of the new places I visited, Selinunte, Noto, the Necropolis of Pantalica, Euryalus Castle, Morgantina and Cefalú were definite high points of this holiday. The archeological site of Selinunte is huge with both impressive ruins of the city and well preserved temples. I liked this site more than Agrigento: there you only see the temples and part of a necropolis, but there are almost no visible remains of the city itself there. It’s strange that unlike Agrigento, Selinunte hasn’t been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site yet. Apparently it was submitted as a candidate in 1987, but it has not been accepted yet.

Noto has many beautifully decorated churches, surprising for a relatively small town. The Necropolis of Pantalica lies rather remote, but the rock-cut tombs and the scenic views are worth it. Expect to walk a few kilometers on small paths which are not easy to travel on though. Castle Euryalus speaks to the imagination, what would this impregnable fortress have looked like in its prime? To our surprise the castle had a few tunnels and its complex layout was still preserved somewhat.

Rock cut tomb in the Pantalica Necropolis

Euryalus Castle

Morgantina is another impressive archeological site, it doesn’t feature large temples like Selinunte, but the remains of the ancient city there are quite well preserved as well. Cefalú is an eyecather, a coastal town with a huge rock towering over the settlement. Definitely climb to the top for the great view. Even though we had seen plenty of ancient Greek temples in Selinunte and Agrigento, the lonely temple of Segesta was an interesting sight.

Overview of Morgantina

Temple of Segesta

Finally, some restaurant recommendations, for you and for myself when I might visit Sicily again. Of course Southern Italian and Sicilian food alone is sufficient reason to visit those regions.

  • Marinella di Selinunte: Africa da Bruno.
  • Agrigento: Opera, which was memorable for serving us a delicious plate full of bruschetta al pomodoro for just a few euro’s.
  • Modica: Osteria dei Sapori Perdutti.
  • Siracusa: none, Ortigia is a tourist trap. There may be good restaurants elsewhere in Siracusa, but they’re harder to find.
  • Piazza Armerina: Fluid, where I ate an interesting combination of shrimp in a sauce of oranges.
  • Palermo: Vino e Pomodoro and Il Baro.

Back after three weeks in Southern Italy

I’m back in the Netherlands after a three week journey through Southern Italy. I had plans to travel there already in this year’s spring season, but delayed them because I feared it would interfere with my job applications. Even after the delay It turned out that I missed the opportunity to do an assessment for a traineeship, so I guess that was inevitable.

I finalized my travel plans while I was working full-time at an IT service desk during July, August and September. I booked a return flight with Ryanair to depart from Maastricht to Bari at Sunday 29 September, returning at Sunday 20 October. I paid € 50 for this, it still amazes me they can be so cheap.

Why Southern Italy?

My choice for Southern Italy was motivated the fact that it has a nice climate with comfortable temperatures in October, more so than Northern Italy. Like the rest of Italy it has plenty of cultural heritage and many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This especially applies to the area around Naples. And of course Southern Italy is renowned for the quality of its cuisine. Again the pizza from Naples is in the spotlight, but elsewhere in Southern Italy I also ate interesting dishes which was different from the typical Italian food.


Using the public transport

Like my trip through Sicily last year, I decided to use public transport to get around in Southern Italy. You loose flexibility because the buses and trains don’t operate with the same frequency as they do in the Netherlands, but it was much cheaper than hiring a car.

However, I couldn’t go rafting down the Lao River because it was impossible to get to Papasidero with public transport. I did want to hire a car for one day to go to the Pertosa Caves and Grumentum, but that wasn’t possible because the car rental companies apparently only accept payment with credit cards. I don’t have a credit card and I hate the credit card companies, so that complicates things.

I traveled on my own, but if I had two or three travel companions the balance would have tilted in favor of renting a car. Also realize that if you decide on using the public transport, you’ll have to adapt your daily schedule to the infrequent service and that you’ll need a PhD in public transport planning. The TrenItalia website for trains works reasonably well and is available in English, but there are dozens of local bus companies with awful websites that only provide information in Italian.

In the Netherlands we like to complain about our public transport, but when I got back I thought my country is a public transport paradise. We’ve got the OV-chipkaart, the website and even on Sunday I can take a bus to Utrecht from my small village once an hour, practically the whole day. In Southern Italy I saw trains which still ran on diesel and railroad switches which were operated by hand.

Otranto's train station

Packing lightly

If you use the public transport it pays off to pack lightly. Ryanair also charges you more if you take along more than your hand luggage. Because I had to carry around my luggage all the time when I didn’t have a place to store it I packed only the essential stuff. I used a small backpack for this which I used daily when I went to university and followed the guides which are available on efficient packing techniques.

I packed a few clothes which I washed by hand during my trip, as well as my dSLR camera, electric shaver, my notebook (plus charger), two small books, travel documents, deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Don’t forget to take along a converter for using those grounded plugs with the Italian power sockets.

Finally had success with CouchSurfing

In Sicily last year my efforts to find locals who could host me as their guest failed. This time I had more success and was hosted by five CouchSurfers for a total of nine nights. I also met with four others who weren’t able to host me, but could show me around town. All of them were great people to meet. It was thanks to them that I saw many things I would not have seen otherwise. I used to think of myself as introverted and never had much trouble to travel alone, but on some of the days when I had no company I felt bored.

Paradoxically, it was easier to find hosts in smaller towns and villages than it was the largest cities. In Reggio di Calabria, Salerno and Napels I did not find any host, in spite of sending about thirty “CouchRequests” to the CouchSurfers in Naples. That was a disappointment, but it didn’t diminish the success of my CouchSurfing experience. It left me desiring for more, so I look forward to being a host myself for other CouchSurfers in the near future. I hope to do more CouchSurfing when I visit Greece or Turkey next.

Blisters almost spoiled it

I want to use my time efficiently on holidays so I can see as much as possible, which means I was walking long distances every day. My old shoes were close to collapse half way during the trip, so I decided to buy new shoes in Reggio di Calabria to prevent discomfort later. It was the most stupid decision I made during my trip. The new shoes seemed like a nice fit in the shoe store, but a few hundred meters later I already got huge blisters. I couldn’t return them to the store anymore, so I had to ditch them and buy slippers. The slippers worked for some time, but were not exactly comfortable, certainly in the downpour of Salerno.

I then decided to buy beautiful Geox shoes for € 152. Normally I buy two pairs of good shoes with that, but hey, you only live once. They fit nicely in the store, but again they turned out to hurt my feet not much later. By then I was at a low point in my holiday and considered going home, but I managed to keep thinking positively. It was possible to exchange the Geox shoes for a slightly less expensive model and went back to the slippers. Soon I bought better sandals and blister bandages. It’s unfortunate that trivial issues like having good shoes can have such a big impact.

The schedule

  • Sun 29 Sep: after my arrival at Bari’s airport at 15:10 I immediately took the train to Lecce where I met my first host at the train station.
  • Mon 30 Sep: I visited the wonderful historical center of Lecce. Be sure not to miss the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano.
  • Tue 01 Oct: from Lecce I made a day trip to Otranto, a seaside town with nice beaches and a small historical center. I tried in vain to take a bus from Lecce, but no one had any idea about timetables or where the bus would stop. I did manage to get there with a train.
  • Wed 02 Oct: I went to visit Brindisi where I was picked up by my second host, who drove me to his home in Ceglie Messapica.
  • Thu 03 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to Ostuni and Gnatia among others.
  • Fri 04 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Taranto only to find out that it was closed for restoration. I said goodbye to my host and went on to Metaponto to see the museum and archaeological site of Metapontum there.
  • Sat 05 Oct: took the train to Policoro to see the ruins of Hereclea and the archeological museum there. I then continued my journey to Trebisacce where I met my third host and visited Timpone della Motta.
  • Sun 06 Oct: from Trebisacce I went to Sibari to visit the museum and archaeological site of Sybaris.
  • Mon 07 Oct: I took the train from Trebisacce to Lamezia Terme, where I met my fourth host.
  • Tue 08 Oct: from Lamezia Terme I took the train to Reggio di Calabria. To my surprise the Museo Nazionale was closed, but it was possible to see a small part of the collection exhibited elsewhere. Met up with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Wed 09 Oct: there is no reason to stay in Reggio di Calabria for more than one day because there is nothing else to see there apart from the Museo Nazionale. Spent this day sending a huge amount of CouchRequests to potential hosts in Salerno and Naples, all in vain.
  • Thu 10 Oct: took the train to Salerno and visited Maratea on the way.
  • Fri 11 Oct: visited Paestum with a bus from Salerno. Again no timetable for the bus, but I got lucky and didn’t need to wait long. Met with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sat 12 Oct: no rental car to visit Grumentem and Pertosa Caves, visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples instead. Met with same CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sun 13 Oct: took the train to Naples and then another train to visit Pompeii and the Villa Poppea.
  • Mon 14 Oct: took the metro from Naples to visit Pozzuoli and then a bus to visit Cumae.
  • Tue 15 Oct: took the train from Naples to take a bus from Pompeii to the Vesuvius and then another train to visit Herculaneum.
  • Wed 16 Oct: took the train from Naples to Caserta, met up with a CouchSurfer to visit Capua and visited the palace of Caserta alone.
  • Thu 17 Oct: took the Napoli Sotterranea tour, visited the Roman market beneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore church, the Museo di Capodimonte and the Catacombs of San Gennaro.
  • Fri 18 Oct: visited the botanical gardens in Naples, then met another CouchSurfer to visit the Palazzo Reale, the Castel dell’Ovo, the Castel Sant’Elmo and the Certosa di San Martino.
  • Sat 19 Oct: took the train from Napels to Bari, met my fifth host at the train station.
  • Sun 20 Oct: departed from Bari’s airport to Maastrict at 10:05.


I stayed one more day in Naples than I had planned because I couldn’t find a host in Bari at that time and the hotels in Bari were expensive. As a consequence I was not able to visit the Castel del Monte, the Castellana Caves or Matera. So I’ve got good reasons to visit Southern Italy again in the future.

I find archaeology fascinating, which is why I decided to visit some of the less well-known archaeological sites. I was elated when Dutch archaeologists happened to be around to give me and my host’s family a short tour of the site of Timpone della Motta. However, if you aren’t that interested I’d advise you to stick to the highlights, which include the archaeology museums in Taranto, Reggio di Calabria, Paestum and Naples. You’d better skip places like Metapontum and Sybaris then because there’s not much to see there.

Deserted trullo

Photos for Wikipedia

Another important reason for me to visit some of the archaeological sites and other locations was to make photos there for improving their respective Wikipedia articles. I’ve already uploaded two photos to the article on the modern town of Maratea and will add some to the Otranto’s article as well, but ancient sites like Gnatia, Metapontum, Timpone della Motta and Cumae have yet to follow. I’m not showing photos in this post yet because I intend to migrate all my photos to Flickr. More on that later.

Temple of Athena at Paestum

Couldn’t go to Pune

Last Thursday 3 January I arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and handed over my boarding pass and passport at the bag drop. To my surprise the British Airways employee asked me if I had a visa for India, which I didn’t have. After making some calls, they told me I couldn’t board my flight to Mumbai from London Heathrow without a visa.

Forgot the visa

During my planning it never even occurred to me that I might need a visa. I might have gotten too accustomed to all the visa-free traveling in the Schengen Area. Certainly the fact that Nepal grants tourists a visa on arrival made me assume that India would be no different. Because Deep Griha Society never even mentioned visas in its volunteer handbook I assumed I didn’t need one (the organisation I worked with in Nepal, VSN, did mention it on its website).

Nevertheless, I have myself to blame for this the most. I feel like an idiot for not considering the visa requirement during all the weeks I’ve been preparing for the trip. Nevertheless, it was possible to rearrange the departure and return dates for my flight for an approximate fee of € 380 (bye bye cheap flight). Getting a tourist visa for India would likely take no more than five working days, so I decided to get to it ASAP so I could still go in the second half of January.

Because you need a passport which is valid for at least 180 days to apply for a visa I had to get a new passport first. On Friday I paid double the normal fee of € 50 to have it ready this Monday. Today I picked up my passport, went back home to fill in all the visa application forms. After answering some strange questions about my religion (which should be none of their concern) and if I had Pakistani grandparents I drove to the Hague to submit my visa application.

No volunteer work on a tourist visa

After waiting one and half hour for my turn I handed over the forms and was asked some questions by the VFS Global employee. When she asked for my purpose of stay and I answered I would do volunteer work with Deep Griha Society, I was told this was not possible with a tourist visa. I would need an employment visa, which would ten workings days to process. And I need an invitation letter from Deep Griha Society.

I blame VFS Global for being unclear, on their website they write a tourist visa is suitable for “those visiting India for tourism or other non-business related purposes”. An employee visa is described as being necessary for those employed by a multinational or Indian company in a for-profit context. I would consider volunteer work a non-business related purpose. I don’t have an employment contract with Deep Griha Society, so how should I have known I would need an employment visa?

If an employment visa would be necessary, I assume Deep Griha Society would have known and sent me the required invitation letter in advance. The fact that they didn’t can mean only two things: either they are negligent, or the Indian Embassy in the Netherlands has a visa policy which is different from the one implemented by Indian embassies elsewhere in the world.

That was the limit

Right now I’ve had enough of this turn of events and I’ve canceled the plan. I can’t take it anymore to wait passively at home for another ten working days plus the time it takes to wait for a flight before I get to India. It’s a shame I had to postpone my search for a full time job since my graduation in August until my return from India. All that time has been wasted. I had been looking forward to this so much, but it’s better for me to move on now. Both me and India loose in the end if I’m not able to spend my money there. The only winner here seems to be British Airways.

How India should improve its visa policy

Take a look at the Wikipedia article on India’s visa policy. What bothers me is that if I had a French or German passport they would have given me a visa on arrival. Only tourist visas valid for thirty days, which wouldn’t have helped me, but that’s not the point. The choice of countries for the visa on arrival policy seems rather arbitrary, they include Russia which has an Islamist insurgency going on within its borders but they exclude many member states of the European Union?

France, Germany and Russia were included in the policy only quite recently to increase tourist inflow. If that was the reason there should be no difficulty in including many other developed nations. Even the security conscious USA has a more lenient Visa Waiver Program. India should take an example to Nepal’s visa policy, which grants visas on arrival to tourists of almost every nationality for up to 90 days. And in Nepal doing volunteer work on a tourist visa wasn’t a problem.

When I look at the visa requirements for Dutch citizens I think I’d rather visit South America as an alternative to India. I won’t be going there any time soon after this ordeal.

Update 11 January

It turns out that all volunteers of Deep Griha Society work there on a tourist visa. An employment visa takes a lot more time, so effectively I should have lied at the visa center about my purpose of stay. They did not tell me this before I went to the visa center because they assumed I would know.

Volunteer work in Pune for ten weeks

Almost two years ago I decided to work as a volunteer in Nepal for ten weeks. It was a good experience which left me desiring for more. When I graduated for my master’s program in August the opportunity arrived to arrange for volunteer work a second time. As a consequence I had to postpone my search for a full time job until I would return home, but I think it is worth it.

Where I’m going

This time the choice has fallen on Pune in India. I’ll depart on 3 January and return on 15 March. I decided to go there because Deep Griha Society (DGS) operates in that city. I first learned about this organization from an American volunteer who I met in Nepal, she had worked there as a volunteer herself and was positive about the work done by DGS. After considering the alternatives I decided to work for them.

Actually there weren’t much alternatives because it was surprisingly difficult to find Indian charitable organizations. I was looking for organizations similar to Volunteer Society Nepal (VSN) which I had joined in 2011. They provide good assistance to foreign volunteers, and that’s what I was looking for in other organizations.

I considered Netherlands-based travel agencies offering volunteer work such as Het Andere Reizen and Kilroy, but I prefer to deal with local organizations directly. Finally, the fact that the American volunteer recommended this organization convinced me.

Besides the volunteer work I also intend to travel in India. I might reserve the two weeks of March to do this, so my volunteer work could take eight weeks instead of ten. I’ll make definite plans later. The American volunteer also travelled India, I asked about her experience. Based on her recommendations, I’m tempted to visit the state Rajasthan, but I might also go south to Kerala. And there is plenty to see in Maharashtra, where Pune is located, too.

How I’m going

Pune has its own airport, but for international flights Mumbai’s airport seems to be the best option. I remember my flight to Nepal (with two transfers) which cost me more than € 800, but once you pay € 50 for a flight from Eindhoven to Trapani you don’t take it for granted anymore that tickets cost a fortune.

After some searches on steep fees of € 700 to € 800 were presented to me initially, but after digging through the options for flight on other dates I finally found a cheap flight with British Airways. First I depart from Amsterdam and have a short transfer on London Heathrow for a direct flight to Mumbai. Somehow it was not possible to book this flight for the same price on the website of British Airways itself.

When I proceeded to pay, I didn’t like how started adding administrative fees to the ticket price. I also remember how they screwed up a booking with Ryanair for my father because they e-mailed a wrong check-in code. I decided to search for cheaper alternatives, it turns out that is just one of the websites who use the same ‘engine’ for bookings. is another one and their fees are € 5 cheaper.

The flight set me back € 545, which is quite a good deal I think. Pune isn’t far away from Mumbai, it should take four hours to get there with a train.

Why I’m going

When I look back at the post I wrote about my plans to work as a volunteer in Nepal, my motivation is still partly the same. I want to experience life in a foreign country with a very different culture. Just travelling in a country as a tourist doesn’t cut it for me. My failure to find hosts for CouchSurfing in Sicily was one reason I didn’t enjoy that trip as much, I want to get to know local people.

If I really wanted to see more of the world I should have probably gone to Africa or South America because I haven’t visited those yet, but the reason I’m attracted to India in specific is because I love its (vegetarian) cuisine so much. I hope to pick up some more culinary skills during my stay there.

The most important reason is that I want to help. I feel that I have a privileged position as a highly educated citizen of the Netherlands. This gives me an obligation to help the less fortunate. Were I born in a slum in Pune, I’d hope for solidarity from those who are better off too. But this time I’m giving more emphasis to this goal than in Nepal.

Since I returned from Nepal I’ve been concerned about voluntourism. This article in The Observer describes it well (and more extensively here). While I’m convinced that VSN had good intentions and I don’t think my presence there has done harm, I question the benefit of my work there.

I was put in front of a class of children alone without being a qualified teacher and having no knowledge of the curriculum. With some improvisation I certainly managed to teach the kids something, but I was in over my head. A qualified Nepali teacher would have been better.

Concerning the orphanages, a stream of volunteers staying for a short time to help the children is not ideal. I don’t think it’s necessarily damaging the children, all orphanages I’ve seen had loving, permanent caretakers. Volunteers can be beneficial for funding, but the sustainability of orphanages being financially dependent on volunteers can be questioned.

I want to avoid falling in the voluntourism trap. I have confidence in DGS in this regard because in their opinion volunteers should support staff and not replace them. I think I will be able to make a meaningful difference with my skills. I intend to help with teaching English and my ICT-skills. No more orphanages. Possibly also other things which might cross my path and where I’m able to contribute.

Finally, I deliberately chose to stay in India in January and February because these are the coldest months in the Netherlands. Of course it never gets really cold in the Netherlands, but I do get tired of the constantly overcast sky. Compared to the Netherlands the climate of Pune is like a paradise with 30 ℃ and sunshine in abundance.

Visited Madrid

Not long after returning from Sicily, my father and I visited Madrid from Friday 19 October to Monday 22 October. Because the flight from Dusseldorf to Madrid departed in the evening and the return flight on Monday also departed in the evening, it was three days in practice.

Saturday: El Escorial

The first thing we decided to do is visit El Escorial, a palace and monastery at 45 kilometers distance from Madrid. Getting there was not east for us. You have the option to take a bus, but we decided to take the train from Atocha station.

Two platforms (1 and 5 if I remember correctly) had descriptions that trains to El Escorial left there, but after a long wait on platform 1 we figured out they depart from platform 5. The information on which train would leave when and where wasn’t provided well. But after a delay of more than an hour we finally got our train.

The train isn’t fast because it makes quite a few stops, but it’s very scenic route along the countryside outside Madrid. When you get out in San Lorenzo de El Escorial you can take a bus to the palace, but it’s not necessary as the distance isn’t long and the bus stops at a notable distance from the place anyway.

The visit to El Escorial (on the route we took) starts off with seeing a few paintings (the best stuff was moved to other museum such as the El Prado if I recall correctly) and some relatively plain rooms. Later on I was very impressed when I saw the larger rooms with lavish decorations and the pantheon with the royal graves. Later on we also noticed some more memorable paintings, but I’m not sure what the name of that room was. The library amazes with all its frescoes.

Later on we entered the basilica. As I tried to take a photo of the dome (without a flash) I was asked not to take pictures. This made me wonder why museums make up such rules. While the rule seems very strange if it concerns a photo of the undecorated dome without using a flash, I can imagine how it’s relevant for paintings, mosaics and frescoes. But even then it’s only the flash which is harmful according to this source. However, there is also evidence to the contrary that flashes have no negative effect.

My conclusion is that it’s definitely worth a visit. When we got back to Madrid with the train most of the other interesting places had closed, so we walked around a bit from the Parque del Oeste to the center of Madrid. If we hadn’t been delayed because we missed several trains we might have had more time to visit other places later during the day.

Sunday: Museo del Prado

This was a rainy day, so it was convenient we had reserved this day for the museums. The other days had better weather, but even so the irony was that on Monday the Netherlands had a record temperature of 21,8 ℃ while in Madrid the temperature was around 15 ℃. Climate change I guess?

The Prado museum was our first stop. For me this was the high point of the whole trip, so many of the best paintings concentrated in one museum. Besides all the Spanish and Italian artists it also possesses many paintings from the Low Countries. We spent at least half the day here and it was totally worth it, the museum is on par with the Louvre and British Museum if you ask me.

Later that day we visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, it has a few nice paintings as well but most of it was not very interesting. That’s what you get if you’re spoiled by all the beauty of the Museo del Prado.

Monday: Palacio Real

The first stop of this day was the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. This is a modern art museum notable for having Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica in its collection. It is definitely worth seeing, just like some of the paintings by Salvador Dalí which are exhibited there as well, but the rest of the museum failed to capture my interest. By the time we had reached the third floor we were just quickly walking through every room, giving every work of art no more than a gaze lasting for two seconds.

We went in expecting to see the whole museum as usual because it would be worth it, but in the end we felt no more than the compulsion to get the maximum value out of the entrance fees we paid. We gave in to our disinterest because there simply was no value for us in seeing the rest of the collection, and we didn’t bother to see what was on the fourth floor. Why does 95% of all modern art suck?

Next on the list was the Palacio Real. This royal palace more than compensated for our slight disappointment in the previous museum. We had to wait for the entrance for a while, but the line was not as long as when we had visited Versailles in Paris. The Palacio Real is able to compete with Versailles if you ask me, with a floor area twice as much as that palace. It is huge and has very intensively decorated rooms. It has a very interesting collection of early modern period armor, weapons and firearms.

Opposite the entrance of the palace is the entrance of the Almudena Cathedral. The interior is not notable, but it does allow for a climb to the top of the dome, which offers a good view of Madrid’s center. After all this we wanted to visit one last museum, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, but this archaeological museum was closed for restoration. This is something which is mentioned on the museum’s (Spanish only) website, but not in its Wikipedia entry.

Before we went to the airport, we saw the Parque del Buen Retiro. I’m jealous we don’t have such amazing parks so close to the center in most Dutch cities. And Madrid has many other large parks such the Parque del Oeste I mentioned earlier, and the Casa de Campo. I like that Madrid is not a city which is built very dense and that some parts of its center resemble Paris with its wide avenues. The subway network is well developed, too.

Reflections on my trip to Sicily

I reasonably enjoyed my trip to Sicily, but at the same time I think it could have been better. Using the bus to visit the larger cities worked well, but primarily dedicating the travel plan to the larger cities left something to be desired. I was jealous of other tourists I met and who described to me how they found very nice deserted beaches with their car. It was a bit frustrating that I couldn’t easily get to the beach to take a swim after a hot day.

While the large cities certainly have some interesting sights, it was unfortunate that I didn’t see more of the countryside. And some sights such as Mount Etna weren’t worth it. While I did manage to travel on a budget and spent no more than € 700 in total, I would have spend less if I had been hosted by Couch Surfers.

It would have been better to travel in company, with another person I would have paid less per person if we would have chosen rooms for two persons. Besides saving money, being hosted by Couch Surfers would have made the trip a lot more enjoyable, which is even more important.

The next time I’d visit Sicily I would hire a car and avoid these pitfalls. And there will be a next time, because there so much more places I want to see, such as Selinunte, Erice, Segesta, Gela, Taormina, Messina, Val di Noto and more.

Now, I have some more things to say on the Sicilian food, public transport and couch surfing so that other travelers might profit from my advice.


As I was on a budget I decided to spend no more than € 20 for dinner. I could order two or three dishes for that in almost every cheap restaurant I’ve been to. After dinner I liked to sample some Italian ice cream, so I often spent a bit more than my budget each night.

Breakfast was included with my stay in a B&B, hostel or hotel most of the time. When it was not, I often visited a ‘panineria’ or other small fast food establishment where you can buy a panino or a pizza slice for € 2 or € 3 usually. But a much cheaper and better solution is to buy fruit at the fruit and vegetable stalls near the road.

I loved the peaches and grapes they sell. You can buy a branch of grapes and maybe a peach as well for less than € 1. Of course you would have to wash the fruit yourself if you desire so, but I ate them right away. Maybe out of a desire to test my constitution after my food poisoning disaster in Nepal. Apparently the fruit was not sufficiently contaminated or my immune system is adequately strong as nothing happened to me yet.

There are a few specific dishes I’ve tasted which I liked a lot. Spaghetti alla Siciliana and Pasta alla Norma are nice vegetarian pasta dishes, with a good tomato sauce and covered with grated cheese heavily contributing to the taste. The Insalata di Arance e Cipolle, or salad of oranges and onions, was an unusual combination for me, but tasted good. The prickly pear is the fruit of a cactus you can frequently see growing in the wild in Sicly. It’s a sweet fruit somewhat reminiscent of a pear and a plum with some large (edible) seeds.

The Sicilian cuisine is famous for its sweets. Cannoli is a delicious Sicilian sweet snack which everyone visiting Sicily should try. Granita is a very nice type of frozen dessert. Because it is water-based instead of cream-based I guess it is healthier as well, even though it still uses a lot of sugar.

There were also a few dishes which I didn’t like, possibly more due to the ingredients used for them than the quality of their preparation. The Sicilian pizza has a topping which consists of beaten egg, which tasted really strange. The Napolitan pizza (like many other kinds of pizza) is topped with anchovy, which is way too salty for my taste.

To find restaurants I had variable tactics, I followed recommendations of Lonely Planet and the hosts of the places where I slept and walked around myself to find places which had a good menu. Some of the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet were nice, such as Trattoria Manhattan in Agrigento and Toto in Piazza Armerina. However, Casa del Brodo in Palermo had a bad price to quality ratio.

The best restaurant I’ve been to is the trattoria De Fiore in Catania, which was recommended to me by the owner of the hotel where I stayed. Not only is the food great but it’s cheap as well. I’ve photographed their entire menu so I can imitate their dishes at home.

Now that I’m back home I’m curious to figure out if there are Italian restaurants close to my place which can serve the same dishes as I ate in Sicily and match the quality of the Sicilian restaurants. Judging from their menu, I should probably try La Grotta in Utrecht. I haven’t been able to discover any other restaurant in Utrecht yet which has Spaghetti alla Norma on their menu.

Public transport

After spending a lot of time and getting advice from a Sicilian I know from my master’s program I figured out how to travel through Sicily with public transport. First you have to know which bus companies operate where, and the Lonely Planet guide is not helpful at all with that. That’s why I mention the relevant bus companies here: Salvatore Lumia, SAIS Trasporti, Salemi and Interbus. I’ve travelled with all of them.

Another problem is that Italy doesn’t have the equivalent of the Dutch website which allows you to plan a trip from door to door with all public transport companies. All the bus companies operating in Sicily have their own website which is in Italian. Only Interbus thought it would be adequate to include a link to automatically translate their website through Google Translate, which it is not of course.

Even so, using the bus worked well for me. I only had minor problems twice, a strike during my stay in Agrigento and the bus from Palermo to Monreale which was slightly delayed. The bus tickets for the longer trips cost me € 10 on average, so I probably spent a bit more than € 100 on bus tickets. Cheaper than hiring a car and paying for petrol, but with more persons the balance would shift more in favor of the latter.

More importantly, a car would have given me more freedom to go to the remote places which are barely served by the bus companies. I would have preferred to find more beaches and see more of the countryside. Even if I had a car I would still use some public transport though, you definitely don’t want to go to Palermo with a car.

Couch Surfing

It was the first time for me to use CouchSurfing in order to get hosted by locals in Sicily. Unfortunately it was an abject failure. I didn’t expect to find a host in every place I’d visit, but I was surprised to find none at all.

Of my couch requests, 14 are still unanswered (even after more than 10 days now), 7 were declined and 3 I canceled myself because they were on very short notice. I sent everyone a personal message explaining why I’d like to meet them. I fully understand hosts who decline a request, but if you don’t bother to respond to your requests at all then why is do you still indicate you can host on the CS website?

I did meet a lot of people to chat with when I waited for or traveled with the bus, in restaurants and hotels. They included the British, Americans, Germans and Russians. That was a nice experience, but it can’t compare with meeting locals through Couch Surfing.

My tour of Sicily’s large cities and World Heritage

On 1 October I departed for Sicily for a nine day visit. The choice for Sicily was motivated by two reasons. The first was that a return ticket from Eindhoven to Trapani with Ryanair cost me € 50, which was convenient as I didn’t want to spend much money. As a consequence I decided to travel through Sicily with public transport. The second was that Sicily contains a lot of sights related to Classical Antiquity, which interests me much as a historian. This first post contains the day to day travel report, a second post discussing other matters follows.

Day 1 and 2: Agrigento

After arriving at Trapani Birgi airport I took a bus all the way to Agrigento. It’s a long trip because the bus makes quite a few stops along an indirect route, but this didn’t bother me. The bus rides offer a nice opportunity to see the unspoiled countryside with its agriculture, hills and mountains.

Modern Agrigento was built on a hill, a few kilometers away from the Valle di Templi (not actually a valley) at a lower elevation. After arriving I walked around the center a bit, which doesn’t have anything interesting to offer, determined to get to the Valle di Templi on the second day.

On the second day I bought a bus ticket at the central bus station, but the guy behind the counter failed to tell me that there was a strike that day, either deliberately or unknowingly. Fortunately the bus tickets cost me no more than € 2 or € 3. I finally figured out why the bus wasn’t coming after asking around and decided to walk.

Walking that distance proved to be very detrimental to the rest of my vacation. I might have walked 15 kilometers or more that day, but the real problem were my shoes. Maybe they weren’t the best choice for traveling long distance in the first place, but as they had just been repaired they weren’t very flexible. The end result was blisters, as of day 10 my left foot still hurts constantly. Buying thong slippers (couldn’t find normal slippers in my size) in Siracusa did not reduce the discomfort.

The Valle di Templi was one of the first places which made me question if physically visiting the place provided added value over looking up photos of the temples on the Internet. The temples are an impressive sight to be sure, but you can only view them from a short distance. Not that I wanted to enter their interior, there is simply not much to see there as that was not preserved. You walk around them for a bit, make some photos and move on, no more.

Between the temples and Agrigento you can find the Museo Archeologico Regionale. I liked this more than the temples themselves, the well preserved Greek painted pottery is much more fascinating art than the temples which, even if they are in a relatively good state compared to most other temples, are merely shadows of their former glory.

Temple of Concordia

Day 3 and 4: Siracusa

If you think they’re right to do this, my friend, I suppose you disapprove of Syracusan rations and the wide variety of savories that can be found in Sicily.

Socrates speaking to Glaucon, Politeia 404d.

I’m sure Glaucon would have disapproved of the Siracusan mosquitos as well. The LoL Hostel where I was staying was really nice, but somehow it was the only place I visited which was infested with mosquitos. I got bitten like twenty times all over my arms and it itched terribly.

The archeological park of Siracusa contains the ruins of a Roman theater and a Greek theater. While both are impressive sights, you could just as well look at their photos on the Internet. The ear of Dionysus is just a very short cave which is not worth your time, closer to home in Belgium or France there are many caves which actually are worth a visit.

The Necropolis of Pantalica is a part of Siracusa’s inscription as a World Heritage site, but those are located further outside of Siracusa. I did not get to see them because I didn’t figure out how to get there. Apparently it’s not possible to get there with a bus.

I rate the crypts of the Basilica di San Giovanni and the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi as the most interesting sights in the city. I had never seen anything like the extensive network of crypts before, which are visited through a nice guided tour. The archeological museum is very large and also has plenty of beautiful painted Greek pottery.

Finally I went to the beach of Fontane Bianche, a short bus ride away from the Siracusa’s central station. I’m envious of the clear blue waters and the absence of nasty jellyfish, two things the North Sea doesn’t offer.

Roman amphitheater of Siracusa

Greek theater of Siracusa

Day 5 and 6: Catania

Originally I intended to stay in Catania for one day and visit Mount Etna, but it soon turned out that the only way to get to Etna with public transport was a bus which leaves early in the morning. Because I had never visited a volcano before in my life I decided to extend my stay in Catania with one day.

The rest of day 5 I walked around in the center of Catania. The Greek theater is worth a visit, as is the botanical garden. The Catania Cathedral was apparently not open during the afternoon, which was strange. I had the impression there was not much else which was interesting.

In the morning of day 6 I took the bus to Rifugio Sapienza, where you can take a cable car to the top of Mount Etna. You can walk instead of taking the cable car, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I paid € 60,50 for the cable car, the minibuses taking you to highest point near the top and a guided tour. If I wouldn’t have had blisters and bad shoes, I would have walked all the way instead of paying so much.

At the last stop before the top everyone got a short guided tour around two boring craters with some steam coming out of them. The highest craters were visible from that point, but going any higher was prohibited. As no one enforced this rule, many people went slightly higher up anyway. Going all the way to the craters at the top yourself didn’t seem possible to me without equipment to climb them and I saw no one else doing it.

What I did do was following a trail and some other people taking it, to end up at a stream of dried lava. At some distance from the path I could see a heat haze of rising hot air, so I believe the warning that you should watch your step. From that point I went downhill alone to the cable car on foot. At some places you sink into the gravel on the slopes, so expect to throw it out of your shoes.

My conclusion was that Etna was simply not worth the time and money. If you want to see Etna just look up some of the videos and photos of the volcano and its eruptions on the net, that’s a more satisfying option. In retrospect it would have been better to spend that time on swimming, diving or snorkeling.

Me in fron of Etna's summit

View from Etna

Day 7: Piazza Armerina

On day 7, Sunday, the first bus to Piazza Armerina would depart later at 12:30. Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do and wasn’t keen on walking with the state my feet were in, I decided to wait for two to three hours at the bus station. When I got out of the bus in Piazza Armerina there still were some kilometers to cover to get to the Villa Romana del Casale, the most important sight in the vicinity of the town.

Fortunately a group of four Russians also needed to go there. We decided to share a taxi, so the fee was only € 10 for a round trip. The villa is one of the best sights I saw in Sicily. The individual mosaics are amazing, but what is even more amazing is that the whole villa had mosaics on practically every floor. Not surprisingly, the owner was likely quite rich.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to see more of Piazza Armerina itself, by the time I got back it was getting late and after having dinner the cathedral of the town was closed. The next morning I had to take an early bus to Palermo. It’s a pity, because Piazza Armerina is the most authentic Sicilian village I have seen. And B&B Giucalem was certainly the best bed & breakfast I encountered in Sicily, with very hospitable owners.

Floor bordering the inner courtyard of the villa

Day 8 and 9: Palermo

The first things I noticed when I walked out of Palermo’s central station are that it’s a city with a lot of traffic jams, stench, trash and dog shit in its center. A rude awakening after coming from Pizza Armerina. The sights are worth it though, the Palazzo Normanni with the Capella Palatina and the Cathedral of Monreale are stunningly beautiful. Just about every square meter of their interiors is meticulously decorated.

The free city map of the center alone counts around fifty churches in the legend. A few of those are certainly worth a visit, such as the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Unfortunatly the museum which I would have wanted to visit, the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, was closed for renovation.

I conclude that instead of getting a hotel in the center of Palermo like me, it might be a better idea to look for a nice place to sleep in the outskirts of Palermo or farther away and take a bus to the center.

Day 10: Trapani Birgi Aiport

I arrived at the airport on day 9 around 18:30, but my flight back to the Netherlands would leave at 6:30 on day 10. I was lazy and didn’t want to spend more money. I also thought it would be difficult and expensive to arrange for a place to sleep in Trapani and then leave very early with a taxi to the airport (assuming the bus doesn’t go so early).

So I spent the night without sleep on the airport, which allowed me the time to write this post and make some progress with reading Politeia. Now that I’m back I miss the nice weather, but on the other hand it’s convenient that I’m no longer sweating constantly.

Visited the Desktop Summit 2011 in Berlin

A year ago I visited the GUADEC in the Hague. This year however GNOME and KDE decided to join forces for the second time in organising their conferences, and organised the Desktop Summit as a joint conference for both organisations in Berlin this year. Berlin is relatively close by for me, so I decided to take the train to Berlin to visit the conference. I decided to stay only for three days because the conference started with three days of presentations, for the rest of the week the programme provided for opportunities for contributors to collaborate on the work they do. That part was not interesting for me because I work on the Commit Digest and we don’t have much to discuss. I did meet one other person who also works on the Commit Digest, Marta Rybczyńska, on the conference however. It’s good to meet the person behind the name appearing on the messages received through the mailing list we use to collaborate on the Digest for the first time. Unfortunately others working with us were not there, but I hope to meet them on a future conference, the GUADEC/Akademy/Desktop Summit are held every year.

The journey with the train takes around six to seven hours from Utrecht Centraal to Berlin Hauptbahnhof. I was annoyed by the expense of a ticket, the cheapest return ticket cost me € 128. Yes, a car would have been more expensive, but a flight from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to Berlin was just a few euros more expensive. In my mind I can’t justify paying more for a train journey than a flight because the train is much slower and should have lower operating cost. Another Dutch KDE contributor I met at my hotel. Niels Slot, lives in Amstelveen close to Schiphol and decided to take a flight. When I went to visit London discounts for the train were not available so a ticket for the train was much more expensive than a flight. We decided to take a flight to London so we could get there a lot faster and cheaper. The pricing of train tickets should get back in touch with reality. Once I was in Berlin I started to miss the Dutch OV-chipkaart and London’s Oyster Card, but other than that Berlin’s rapid transit system works nicely and fast.

First I went to my hotel south of Berlin’s centre. I had booked a dormitory for € 11 a night because I thought the train ticket was expensive enough already. This dormitory had eight beds and it turned out that my roommates were four French women, probably a few years younger than me. I didn’t talk with them much and they were okay, except for the mess they made and their sleeping habits which were a total opposite of mine. Their belongings were spread all over the floor instead of in a locker, so I had to watch out for stepping on one of their bags. They were probably partying all night long and would go to sleep at 7:00 in the morning when I woke up. Later they were joined by two other French women, they had a normal sleeping pattern and they studied Archaeology so we had a lot to talk about. Seems like I’m a lucky man to receive such company again after my experience in Nepal. The last roommate was another guy, when we talked for a bit he turned out to be a Kubuntu user just like me .

After dumping my stuff in the room I went to the centre of the city again, to the museum island where the Pergamon Museum was to be found. Besides this museum I wanted to see more of Berlin, but it turned out there was not enough time for that, so I’ll return to Berlin another time for a proper visit. The Pergamon Museum was certainly worth my time, the very large structures rebuilt in the museum were amazing. After the museum I went to the pre-registration event and party.

The three days of conference were great, lots of interesting presentations, and because four presentations are often held concurrently I hope to download some of the video recordings of the presentations I have missed soon. Especially the presentations on the third day in room 3038 interested me because those focused on the usage of free software by large organisations. I think that subject is important because free software has a lot to gain in adoption there, it’s very important for expanding the market share of free software. I especially liked the presentation of Gijs Hillenius which had the adoption of free software by public administrations in the EU as it’s subject. The notion that interoperability is not as important as a reason to switch to free software, but that instead the greatest advantage is that free software enables vendor independence is noteworthy. On the other end the presentation delivered by Thomas Thwaites was one of the funniest I’ve seen for a long time. Apparently in some presentation related to GNOME which I didn’t witness a Downfall parody was shown making fun of the transition from GNOME 2 tot version 3. This caused quite a stir, personally I wouldn’t have done it, certainly not considering the conference was in Berlin, but I think the parody is quite funny.

I was present at the presentation about Marble. I had read about the search for voice actors to make native language voice commands available for Marble before visiting the conference. I expected that with so many Dutch people contributing to KDE that some would soon record their voice and submit it, but during the presentation I learned that a Dutch voice was still missing. The reason I didn’t volunteer in the first place is because I think that my voice isn’t pleasant to hear at all. When I hear a recording of my own voice I even think it’s a horror to my ears, but that might be because many people are inclined to dislike their own recorded voice. Anyway, I thought my Dutch voice is better than no Dutch voice at all. At the Desktop Summit Torsten Rahn, who gave the presentation on Marble, had arranged for a recording room. So together with some people speaking other languages I recorded my voice. I think my performance could have been better, because I tended to employ an undesirable emphasis in my voice commands when I did it for the purpose of recording them repetitively instead of speaking the sentences as a part of a normal conversation. Now all I need is a smartphone running Meego (possibly the N9) and a future version of Marble running on it to enjoy hearing my own voice commands.

Visited London

I visited London before when I was around twelve years old, which is twelve years ago now. I visited London again a month ago with my father just like then, he likes to do city trips as well. Back then I visited the most popular places of interest, such as Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. When I started studying History I learned about the British Museum and it’s location in London much later and I was anxious to visit London again to see it. So we decided to catch a flight on Thursday the 14th of July and return home again on Sunday the 17th of July. Effectively this amounted to a stay of three days, because of the flights the day of arrival and the day of departure count for half. I would have preferred a longer stay, but that was not possible for my father. With today’s knowledge of hindsight I’m glad we visited before London was broken down by rioters. We visited the following places:

  • Thu 14th: Kew Gardens
  • Fri 15th: Hampton Court Palace and the British Museum
  • Sat 16th: Canterbury Cathedral and Canterbury Roman Museum
  • Sun 17th: British Museum

I had never heard about the Kew Gardens before I started planning the trip. I noticed it when I was searching Wikipedia for UNESCO World Heritage sites the United Kingdom. It’s easily reached with the subway. We expected that we could see everything in a two hours or so, but it took us a whole afternoon because it was far larger than expected. The Kew Gardens probably have the greatest variety of flora I witnessed in a single place. Because of the greenhouses they can even grow tropical plants. They even have sequoias which I witnessed in their native habitat in California during my holiday in the USA. The state of the greenhouses, built in the 19th century, shows that it’s not easy to keep it well maintained. We were fortunate to experience nice weather with sunlight during our visit, we were not so fortunate during the rest of our stay, especially with all the rainfall in Canterbury. While it’s a beautiful place, I think Japanese gardens would be even better, judging from the photos seen on the Wikipedia article covering those. I’d highly recommend Kew Gardens for a visit to anyone going to London.

Greenhouse in Kew Gardens

The Hampton Court Palace requires a train ride. I expected to visit a palace which remained close to the state in which it was originally constructed, but after reading the Wikipedia article I learned that it saw quite a lot of change in later centuries. Most of the interior wasn’t what I expected it to be, it didn’t look, how should I put it, authentic? That is with the exception of the Chapel Royal of course, which is gorgeous. The kitchens were very interesting by contrast, those did look authentic and they even had a huge fireplace in operation. The the very large and old grapevine was also remarkable. I like the elaborate chimney designs characteristic of the Tudor architecture which can be seen at the Palace.

Hampton Court

Then we went back to the centre of London to visit the British Museum. The afternoon wasn’t enough to see everything in the museum, so we later visited again on Sunday morning, but even then I had to rush through the museum at the end to see a large amount of the remaining exhibits. There is a lot to see and it will take a long time, especially if you like to read a lot about what you’re seeing like me. One of the highlights of the collection are the Elgin Marbles. In the explanatory text the Museum emphasizes that Lord Elgin was such a nice guy to save these marbles, which come from the Parthenon in Athens, from vandalism. While I agree with that to a certain extent, what’s important is that Greece was at that time occupied by the Ottoman Empire. I think they should be returned to Greece considering the current situation. While the Elgin Marbles may have been acquired in an honest way just like many other works of art, we wondering how much of the art was robbed during the days of the British Empire. A good example of that would probably be the Koh-i-Noor. The Parthenon Marbles are certainly one of the most beautiful sights in the museum, but they were also slightly disappointing because they are so damaged. Some of my favourites are in the rooms showing Assyrian art, specifically the siege of Lachish and the hunt of the lions and onagers. My favourite Egyptian art would be Nebamun hunting in the marshes, because it so colourful. The East and South(east) Asian art present in the British Museum wasn’t as good as the collection I had seen in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco however, possibly because I became spoiled after seeing all the beautiful jade objects there. I also spent a lot of time looking at the Greek pottery at the Museum, it has a large collection of those.

On Saturday, the last complete day, we went to Canterbury with the train. Canterbury Cathedral is another UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s well deserved. Even on such a rainy day there were still a lot of visitors. The cathedral is massive, with plenty of decoration on the walls and with a lot of stained glass. The Roman Museum in Canterbury is a small museum which is not spectacular when it comes to it’s collection but which still manages to give an interesting reconstruction of what Roman Canterbury had been like.

Stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral

We were staying in a hotel in Tooting which is south of London’s centre, close to the subway station Tooting Broadway so that we would be able to travel to centre of London fast. It cost us £ 160 for three nights including breakfast, which was cheap compared to other hotels. But wasn’t exactly a hotel, it was an ordinary house repurposed to house temporary occupants. Bathrooms and a living room had to be shared with other guests and the house also had a kitchen. Other guests included Indian expatriates, a British and an Australian couple who were tourists too. It was nice to have a short chat with these people and our stay was satisfactory. One night we were disturbed however when the loud lovemaking of the Australians woke us up. Since then my father tells about this incident to everyone when he talks about our visit to London. He does this with so much enthusiasm and employs a comparison with the grunting done during tennis matches which cracks up those listening to his story time and time again.

While the hotels in London are expensive – London is one of the most expensive cities to live in – the restaurants are relatively cheap. The first restaurant we visited in the neighbourhood was Sree Krishna. This restaurant serves nice food but the personnel was not interested in us at all and I couldn’t understand their English when they gave an explanation about the dishes when I asked. Another restaurant called Radha Krishna is closer to the subway station and had more hospitable personnel and better food. What I liked about these restaurants is that main dishes are priced at less than £ 5. The Netherlands doesn’t have as many Indian restaurants, and a good one in Utrecht charges € 15 on average for a main dish. Most Indian restaurants I know of in the Netherlands focus on North Indian cuisine, while the two restaurants in London are South Indian. Sure, they also had a lot of North Indian dishes on the menu, but it was very interesting to taste those South Indian dishes which we don’t find in the Indian restaurants in the Netherlands. I’m impressed by the use of coconuts in South Indian cuisine. These two restaurants also had a lot more vegetarian options than in the Netherlands where Indian restaurants tend to have menus leaning more towards meat dishes. We also ate at an Italian pizza restaurant called Franco Manca in Brixton after reading a recommendation in the blogosphere. Don’t be scared off by it’s location next to a fishmarket, the food is worth it.