Edfu Temple

Before I get into our next stop, I have to tell you all about the experience of leaving Luxor.  As we departed the city, we were put into a holding pattern at one point with several other boats.  Here’s the deal with the Egyptians: they’ll find any opportunity to get a sale.  It’s the dead of night without any light other than that coming from out boats, and a fleet of rowboats comes along side our ship.  All I hear is commotion, so I go up to the top deck to investigate.   I see a crowd of my fellow shipmates looking over the side and down at a bunch of sellers screaming “Hey Lady!  Look over here!  Look over here! You like this carpet?!  You like this shawl!?  Pure Egyptian cotton!”  It was highly amusing and bizarre.  Just when I was thinking to myself, “how are they planning on getting that stuff all the way up here?”, I see one of the sellers hurl a carpet up four stories onto the top deck.  It was unbelievable watching items and money being thrown back and forth from the rowboats to the top decks of our boats.

After the show that evening, we finally made our way to our next stop: Esna, which was the town that had the Edfu Temple.  In order to get to the temple we took an enjoyable donkey carriage ride into town.  The Edfu Temple is the first temple we had seen on this trip and it was pretty amazing to see how well the structure had held up over thousands of years.  It was so well maintained and intact, I could have used an extra hour there to explore.

Once inside the temple, here are a few of the highlights:

-The Greeks actually built this temple, but were paying homage to the classical Egyptian style.  On the walls were several hieroglyphics portraying the god Horus slaying Set.

-A giant portrayal of the Goddess Nut.

-The Nileometer which was a room with a set of stairs connected to a canal that measured the level of the Nile during the year.  You could see how high the river was based on at what stair the level of the water was at.  Although the temple seemed a little far from the Nile, back thousands of years ago, the river was far higher, larger and closer to the temple.

-One of the rooms was a laboratory.  On the walls were carved several “recipes” for incenses, elixirs, and medicines.  For example, there would be a carved image of Horus holding a cup with grapes in it, or some sort of cauldron, or some other item and next to it was the hieroglyphical ingredients for the item.

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Our journey started off in Luxor, about 240 miles down the Nile from Cairo (actually it’s technically up the Nile since the river goes “downstream” towards the Mediterranean).  Now despite what you might think from the great pyramid in Las Vegas, there are no pyramids in the real city of Luxor.

Luxor is split into two parts, with the Nile dividing the city.  On the West Bank of the Nile, you have the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens and no real population living over there.  The East Bank has the temples and markets.  In the later dynasties of the Egyptian civilization, the royalty were buried on the west side of the Nile to harmonize with the setting sun.  We took a ferry over to the west side very early in the morning to get to the Valley of the Kings before the crowd, and the heat of the day.

Unfortunately (like a lot of the trip), we weren’t allowed to take pictures in either of the Valleys.   And they were serious about us not bringing our cameras in; like soldiers armed with AK-47s serious.

As disappointing as this was, I understand the need to preserve the tombs and respect the dead.  In the Valley of the Kings, our tickets allowed us to visit any three of the several tombs we wanted.  Walking through the valley, one certainly has the Indiana Jones feeling.  The sky was clear, it was quiet, and you’re surrounded by mountainous, dusty hills.  The locals were sitting on the hills smoking and lounging, and within these hill were openings that marked the tombs of the pharaohs.  The first tomb we visited was that of King Ramses IV.  The first thing I was struck by was the presence of color that had been preserved.  The entire hallway which leads about 50 meters down to the tomb was covered in colorful hieroglyphics that made the entire room and hall look like a giant coloring book.  I was surprised by the fact that in this room, there was no glass or plastic covering the walls or the tomb itself, so we had the ability to touch the writings.  It was quite a surreal experience.

The second tomb we visited was Ramses IX who had a similar setup as IV, but this tomb had the expected glass lining the walls and the tomb (which amusingly read “Please don’t touch glass or clean” while a guard was leaning his hand up against it).   We passed by the tomb of Tutankhamun (better known as King Tut), but decided to pass on it since it was said to be mostly empty and that items in the tomb were at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (which was where we were going later in the trip).  The third tomb we visited was probably the most intriguing.  Tuthmosis III’s tomb had a fake entry which was built to deceive the grave robbers.  The real entrance required you to climb over a hill and down into a hole on the other side.  The tomb was deep into the ground and it certainly is NOT for those of you who suffer from claustrophobia.   The tomb itself was multi-leveled with much more intricate and sophisticated hieroglyphics.  And even though there were A/C units underground, it was hot and stuffy down there.

After the Valley of the Kings, we made our way to the Valley of the Queens.    This valley was much smaller, and the tombs we visited were less glamorous.  But I will say it was almost nicer because of the fact that there was almost no one there yet (all the tour groups were still at the Valley of the Kings), and the quietness gave the valley a really serene feeling.

On this day we also visited an alabaster factory where the workers described how they create alabaster statues, bowls, and all sort of items.  They demonstrated the solidness of the alabaster by chucking a statue on the ground and showing how it doesn’t shatter.  The alabaster factory also gave us a look at glowing limestone which is a rock that naturally glows Slimer green when the lights turn out.  It was a neat experience, but not one that tempted us to buy anything.

I’ll describe the sights in Luxor on the East Bank of the Nile later on since we hit up that side when we got back at the end of our Nile cruise.

In the meantime, here are a few tips about Luxor:

-This applies to all of Egypt.  Everyone looks for Baksheesh, or tip.  Everyone from people in the bathroom, cab drivers, guides, and even the damn soldiers who are guarding the place.  So make sure to immediately break a large bill at the airport or somewhere to get small change.

-If you take a cruise into Luxor, which most people do, watch out when you get off the boat.  The second you get off the boat, you’ll be approached by someone claiming to be a chef on your boat.  He’ll say something to the effect of “Hey yeah I make the bread, but I’m on my way to lunch now.  Do you want to see where the locals eat?”  I’ll be honest, we fell for it and followed him.  We were lead to a papyrus factory where the owner tried to get us to buy some papyrus paper.  Most of the time the hustler will be harmless, will even say he doesn’t want tip, just wants to show you around, and you’ll follow him.  But he’ll lead you to a market where he gets some sort of commission, drop you off, and the market owner will try and sell you goods.  So watch out for those guys if you don’t feel like being lead astray.  It was quite amusing when we docked back in Luxor a few days later on the end of our cruise and someone else tried to stop us on when we got of the boat.  This time we knew better, and my mother did a pretty amusingly smooth job of calling the guy out: “Lemme guess, you’re on our boat, you make the bread, and you want to show us where to eat right?”.   The dude didn’t say anything, kinda smiled and walked away.  Boosh.

-When you’re in the tombs, don’t accept at the entry the pieces of cardboard to fan yourself.  You might think the people handing them out work there, but they don’t.  They just want tip.

-Find the local supermarket if you want to get water or food.  If the place looks clean, and has “western” snacks and drinks on the outside, its probably not local.  Look for the dusty place that has several local people coming in and out of it.  A large bottle of water at these local places will be only around 3 Egyptian pounds or 60-70 cents.  The tourist markets will try and sell you a small bottle of Dasani (which the one guy was trying to tell me was the greatest water in the world, with me responding, “I know, I drink it everyday”) for 10 Egyptian pounds or $2.  Yes, I’m arguing about mere dollars and cents, but its the principle.

Despite the lack of pictures at the tombs, here are a few pictures I was able to take during the day:

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It’s hard for me to get over the fact that I’m sitting back in my apartment after the whirlwind that’s been the past couple of weeks over in Egypt (Update: actually I’m in a hotel room in San Diego now).  One blog post wouldn’t nearly do the trip justice, so I’ll be posting several over the course of the next few days.  I’d also like to give a shout out to the other travelers from around the world that we met who made the trip that much more memorable.

Egypt was everything I expected and much more.  My trip consisted of seven days on a Nile cruise and three days in the city of Cairo.  My family flew out of JFK airport in New York on New Year’s Eve direct to Cairo on Egypt Air.  I’ll be honest, I have no idea why I didn’t expect much from Egypt Air, but I was happily surprised to find that it was one of the nicest airlines I’ve ever flown.  The seats were comfortable, spacious, and had the biggest TV screens on the backs of the headrests that I’ve seen on any airline.  Seriously, the screen had to have been a foot by a foot (bigger than my laptop screen).  And the media offerings were extensive.  The food was excellent (the dinner consisted of chicken, farfalle, grilled veggies, chocolate cake, and salad.  The breakfast offering was scrambled eggs, sausage, tomatoes, fruit salad, a large croissant, and tater tots.  The tater tots were crunchy too) and the staff treated us like kings (or pharaohs I guess would be more appropriate).

Once we landed in Cairo, we took a quick flight to Luxor and met up with our guide Remon or Re, who took us to our boat.  Now when I heard we were doing a river cruise, I pictured that we’d be the only ones on the water.  I was sorely mistaken.  Our boat, The Crocodillo, was one of about 400 river boats that travel up and down the Nile.  I don’t know why I should have expected otherwise on one of the world’s oldest water ways.

All the boats dock along side one another in a way that requires you to walk through several boats to get to yours.  It sounds confusing, and believe me, after traveling for an entire day it was in person as well.  Each boat has double doors on it’s lower deck that goes into each boat’s lobby area.  So in order to get to the Crocodillo, we walked through like 4 or 5 lobbies (and I was thoroughly confused as to what was going on, thinking that the boat had like 4 lobbies on it).

Once we got checked in, our room was small for three people.  But from what we’ve heard about the other rooms, it was the largest on the boat so we were able to make due.  We weren’t going to be spending much time in it anyways because the boat had a great top deck for sunbathing, swimming, and lounging around.  They had a afternoon tea on deck every day and provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining room on the lowest deck.

So while our boat was old (I’m going to nerd out here for a moment and make a Battlestar Galactica reference.  Our boat had a sister ship that most of the passengers on our boat also had originally tried to get on called the “Carnival”.  Essentially the Carnival was the Pegasus and ours was Galactica), our boat had character and a really fun group of passengers that made the next few days very enjoyable.

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Looking for a Bed and Breakfast? Check out airbnb

Most people planning a vacation will go to the usual websites such as Orbitz, TripAdvisor, and Travelocity to find hotels, flights etc.  My friend Bruno passed along this handy site for those looking for a good deal on Bed and Breakfasts’ or private vacation rooms to rent out for a few nights.  The apartments do look pretty sweet if you’re looking for a place to stay a little bit off the typical hotel grid.  The site is http://www.airbnb.com/.

Finding a place to stay is easy, the search option works much like Kayak, etc.  The Airbnb Collections is a neat feature that narrows down and showcases the most popular locations around the Globe and the deals available.   If you’re looking to be a host on the website, the site makes it Craiglist style easy to do as well.  Airbnb works with you to set prices, review clients (you get to approve who stays), and will send a professional photographer to your location so that you don’t have to worry about posting pictures on your own.

Travel Gifts for Guys

A few weeks ago I posted my friend Ady’s list of some great travel gifts for the ladies.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give the same sort of shopping list for the gents.  Now I’ve read several gift articles in Maxim, GQ, Men’s Journal, etc, and although getting a $400 dollar machete or a $5,000 Swiss military diving watch would be effing awesome – I just don’t see many of us normal people going out and getting these things for the traveling fellas we all know.

So here’s a list of some things you can get the Guy on the Go that you know:

Personalized Leather Flask at Brookstone – Great for a little warm up while camping, the long plane ride, or a day at the beach.

Convertible Pants at REI – Like I said in an earlier post, the versatility of these pants makes them a must have when you’re traveling.  They’re quick drying, light, and will turn into shorts at a moment’s notice.

Garmin Nuvi at Best Buy – Although you could get a $500 version, you could easily get a Garmin around $100.  Really good gift for those guys who travel for business a lot; they’re going to love the “Food” utility that finds restaurants for them within the area.

Swiss Army Knife at Victorinox A nice little stocking stuffer, this handy tool is something that every guy should have in their car or back pocket and you can buy practically any variation of the knife depending on what he would use it for.

TNF Apex Bionic Jacket at The North Face This jacket is the ultimate traveler’s outerwear.  Waterproof, windproof, warm, and light.  The jacket is big enough to have several layers underneath, but will never look bulky.  It works in the city and in the woods.

Aluminum Condom Case – For the guys on Santa’s Naughty List.  You never know who you’ll meet on the road.

Quiet Comfort Noise Canceling Headphones at Bose – These headphones will cancel out the crying baby in the airplane cabin.  Enough said.

Canon Powershot Digital CamerasDepending on how advanced of a photographer your gift recipient is will dictate which version to buy.  But for most, the simple point and shoots will the job just fine at an affordable price.  They’re sturdy, compact, and most come with a decent amount of video time (even in HD).

AirPort Express at AppleThis handy little device is a portable wireless network device (handy for iTouch owners or if you’re stuck in an airport with no WiFi).

Skyroll on Wheels and High Sierra Carry-On WheeledThese days airlines are charging an arm and a leg for checking bags.  These two pieces of luggage are overhead compartment approved.  For the businessman, Skyroll is a suitcase and garment bag wrapped in one.  For the tourist, the High Sierra Carry-On is a suitcase and backpack in one.

Skydiving in Chambersburg, PA

Most people have a list of things they want to do in life before they die.  Whether these things are big or small, everyone at some point has said “I gotta try that sometime”.   They even made a movie about this very idea recently called “The Bucket List“.   Now I’m not saying that I have a terminal illness, but one of the things I’ve always wanted to give a shot was skydiving.

People skydive for several different reasons.  Some jump for the adrenaline; some to try something that scares them.  Others jump to prove something to themselves, and I’m sure a few people are just plain crazy.  I think my reason for wanting to do it was a combination of all of those things.

Now as an idea, the desire to try jumping out of a plane is not very uncommon, however I would never had gone out of my way to find a place and make it happen on my own.  So when my buddy Vik calls me up and invites me to go with him and his friends, I “jump” at the opportunity (sorry, had to throw the pun in there).

One of Vik’s friends has experience with skydiving and took us to Chambersburg Skydiving Center, which is in southern PA, about 2 hours away from D.C.  Much like the website, the actual skydiving center isn’t much to look at.  The hangar and airfield are in the middle of farmland and the plane that takes the skydivers up is a simple 2 propeller Cessna.  Up until we arrived, I was surprisingly calm, telling myself that thousands of people from soldiers to civilians jump out of planes everyday.  But once you get there, pay (skydiving is not cheap by the way) and they sit you down to watch the instructional video and you start signing waivers saying “You could die doing this“, your heart starts to race.  You would be a total psycho if it didn’t (the instructor in the safety video even acknowledged the fact that it’s absolutely normal to be afraid).

After the video, the instructors take you outside to a mock airplane door for some rehearsal on what positions to assume, the procedures, and answer any questions you may have.  The type of jump that I was doing was a tandem jump, so I wouldn’t be doing as much of the work, but there were still several important points that my instructor, John, showed me about the skydive.  I’ll say that the confidence and thoroughness of all the seasoned jumpers put my mind immediately to ease.   They were the perfect combination of easy-going and competent.   And just knowing that they’ve all made hundreds of jumps helped calm us all down.

Also luckily for us, it was a beautiful November day.  Temperatures were in the mid-60s and there weren’t any clouds or wind to affect us.  Jumping out of a plane was enough of a heart-stopper, we didn’t need high winds and freezing temperatures on top of it.  After gearing up (and feeling like a total bad ass in the jump suit) we load up into the plane.  The cabin is small and cramped, holding about a dozen people sardine style.  As we climb in altitude, John starts to attach himself to my back and goes over again the procedure for when we get out of the plane.

It’s a tight space

At 14,000 feet, the door opens.  I pop my goggles on.  My heart is speeding up.  The wind is deafening and all I can hear is “Go, Go, Go” as the instructor orders each of the seasoned individual jumpers who rode up with us to jump.  Once those folks are out of the plane, my videographer (once I figure out how to convert a DVD, I’ll post the video) hangs right outside the door on the aircraft to film John and myself as we get to the door.

This is my defining “Oh Shit” moment

I slide up to the edge of the door and it finally hits me.  “Oh Shit” – literally.  And it wasn’t a reaction necessarily of fear, but more of a “I have no idea what’s going to happen next” feeling.  John thankfully doesn’t let me ponder this for long as I hear “ONE! TWO! ….”  I don’t think he even yelled “Three!” as he pushed the two of us out of the plane.  That first split second I’ll never forget.  It’s not the sensation of falling like on a roller-coaster because the plane is already going so fast.  It’s more of a feeling that your body has no idea what is going on.   The wind hits your face, and my eyes immediately begin to water.  After a second or two, I get my head together and remember to get into the skydiving position that we were instructed to get into.  From there, it’s literally flying.  There’s no other word to describe it.  I look up and I see the videographer right across from us.  Even as we’re free-falling I distinctly remember thinking to myself how cool the collected that dude must have to be.

I don’t think Tom Petty ever did anything like this

I did my best to try and smile for the camera, but when the wind is going 120 mph into your mouth, it’s a challenge.  What’s amazing was how quickly you can fall from 14,000 feet to 6,000 feet.  It was probably at most 60 seconds.  Once our altimeters hit 6,000, John hit me on the head three times and yelled “Pull, Pull, Pull!”.  I reached down and yanked the cord to open the chute (John said afterward that I didn’t hear him the first time and was a second away from doing it himself).

Yeah, my crotch definitely felt the parachute open

When the chute opened, my body was thrown up and back.  Not only did my legs almost kick me in the face, my groin yanked upward and I thanked god that everything on me was “centered”.  The 5 minute glide down was so serene compared to the windy craziness of the previous minute.  John and I chatted and we made some acrobatic turns in the area, which gave me more of the roller coaster sensation that you don’t get in the initial jump.  I was amazed just at how free I felt.  Suspending in air like we were really gives you time (even as short as it was) to appreciate the view and too be honest, just being alive.

Coming in for landing

As we neared touchdown, John reminded me of the procedure (another nerve-racking moment because failure to follow his instructions would have lead to my legs being broken by the ground) and we slid into the landing zone like we were sliding into home plate.

Thanks John for not letting us die

Hitting the ground, with all my senses returned,I literally couldn’t stop laughing with glee.  We had all done something pretty amazing, something that most normal, sane people wouldn’t even think about trying.  But I’ll tell you this: the adrenaline rush is addictive.  The only thing we could think about was going up again and taking it to the next level.  I think when the opportunity arises, next time – I’ll be launching out of the plane on my own.

Random Thanksgiving Travel Tip

First off, Happy Veteran’s Day to all you veterans out there.  Thanks for everything you do.

With Thanksgiving coming up, everyone is gearing up for the travel to see their loved ones.  It’s going to be a shitshow no matter how you slice it before the holiday, but here’s a little tip to hopefully make your life a little bit easier (actually this tip only really helps those on the East Coast.  Sorry rest of the country).  If you’re driving between Boston and Washington, D.C. and you don’t have an E-Z Pass device, you can save some time at the tolls by staying to the right.  Some of you probably already know this, but if not, if you stay to the right, there’s always additional tolls about 200 yards past the main toll plaza.  So while all the poor travelers are stuck in the main toll traffic wondering why the slow lane is moving so fast and thinking it’s just an anomaly, save yourself time and annoyance and breeze through.  I can’t do anything about the outrageous toll prices though…

Charlottesville, VA – Day 2

Waking up the next day was a little tough considering the festivities the night before, but we had a full day of activities ahead of us.  Our first stop was Bodo’s Bagels, a local bagel chain that Matt swore to us had the best breakfast sandwiches in the area.  Judging by the line of customers at the location we went to (and seeing the crowd outside the UVA campus location) it appeared that most of the people in Charlottesville agreed with him.  There wasn’t anything flashy about the restaurant and line moved quickly.  Bodo’s offers the usual bagel flavors and cream cheeses, as well as the typical bagel sandwiches.  The menu also features lunch sandwiches at a reasonable price.  I think the best way to describe the place is that it’s the blue collar Bruegger’s Bagel.

As much as I wanted to love the place, I was lukewarm about what I had.  I ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich on an everything, whole wheat bagel.  I wasn’t blown away by it.  Maybe it was because it was Sunday morning and busy, but the bagel itself wasn’t very toasted, and the kids in the kitchen left off the cheese.  The bagel itself was actually pretty good and like I said earlier, the price was cheap.  I’m more than willing to go back there and give the place a second try to really impress me, but I have to admit, I still prefer Bruegger’s Bagels.

After our breakfast, we had a few hours to kill before heading to watch the New England Patriots game.  Since we were in Charlottesville, it wouldn’t have been a trip down there without at least a trip to the Monticello area.   Our first stop however was at Carter Mountain Orchard, which is down the road from Monticello.  The orchard was located high up on a hill overlooking downtown Charlottesville.  The view was spectacular, and it was so serene being able to just sit back and enjoy the view.  Since it was early November (which is past the prime season for apple picking) there wasn’t much of a crowd.  But there were still pumpkins to be sold, hayrides, and it looked like there were actually still some apples that you could pick.  For those of you who don’t know, when you pay the orchard for a bag and go into the orchard, you keep the apples you pick.  You don’t give them the apples.  Yes, Mel asked us this.

We didn’t end up taking any hayrides or picked any apples.   But we did enjoy the hot apple cider for 50 cents and a delicious apple cider doughnut (which tasted almost like a apple pie strudel crossed with a churro crossed with an old fashioned doughnut).

After the orchard, we made our way to Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.  We arrived to the main visitor’s center and quickly came to the realization that we had spent so much time at the orchard, that we didn’t think we’d be able to squeeze in a trip to the actual house that TJ built for himself.  The price to see the house (which required a separate bus ride up the hill) is $17, and we elected to save the actual house visit for another time.  There was however, time to see the free museum exhibition, which consisted of an impressive gallery of antique items that Jefferson owned (such as his journals, pocket watches, dishes, etc).   There were also interactive computers and movies about how TJ built the house and his general history from youth through the Revolutionary War to his death.  Walking through the museum, both Mel and I regretted the decision to skip seeing the actual house, but it gives us an excuse to return.

We wrapped up at Monticello and headed back into town to Wild Wing Cafe.  This chain restaurant is pretty similar to any sports wing bar like Buffalo Wild Wings or Quaker Steak, so there isn’t really much to tell other than it was uniquely connected to an old-school Amtrak terminal.  I can say the wings there are very good however.  The “Virginia Fireballs” were tasty and spicy enough to have a kick, but not make you wish you had a glass of milk next to you.  That isn’t the case however with some of their other wings.  Both Matt and I each tried a “China’s Chernobyl” wing, and were literally sweating bullets in our seats.   To Mel’s credit, she ate an entire plate like it was a plate of cheese.  So we challenged her to try the “Braveheart”, which is Wild Wing Cafe’s hottest wing. The waitress brought her one wing, amusingly garnished with lettuce and jalapeno peppers, and we (along with every table around us), watched Mel take it down.  Mel being the spicy food lover she is left us disappointed initially, and gave no indication that the wing was at all the spicy wing it was talked up as.   Then a minute later, it set in and she gave us the painful look on her face we were waiting for.  Her exact words were “It’s not the heat, it’s the knives going into my tongue that hurts”.  But she’s got more balls than I do; bravo, Mel.

Let’s just say the weekend didn’t end on a high note as the Patriots got their asses kicked by the Cleveland Browns.  But that wasn’t enough to dampen what was a fantastic 48(9) hours of good times and I’ll be taking a trip back down there for sure before Matt’s time at UVA is up.

Charlottesville, VA – Day 1

So my buddy Matt has been a student at the University of Virginia (UVA) law school and is in his final third year.  The entire time he’s been there, he’s been trying to get me to drive down from Washington, D.C. to check out the sites of Charlottesville, Virgina where the university is located.  I finally decided to get my butt down there this past weekend had a great time and have come to the realization that I should have done the trip much sooner.

Charlottesville is located about two and half miles south of Washington, D.C.  If you Google map, and/or Garmin the directions, both will tell you to take 95 south all the way down.  Here’s a tip from the locals: Take 66 West, to 29 South if you’re coming from the north.  The trip may take a little longer distance wise, but there’s a very good chance that you’ll hit traffic on 95 and waste seeing a good amount of pretty (for lack of a better word) foliage on the way down.

So I jumped in my car, along with my friend Mel, and we got down to UVA around 1 PM on Saturday.  The first order of business was lunch since we were all pretty famished.  Matt took us down to the “Corner” which is essentially Main Street UVA.  There you run into a street full of undergraduates and can buy any sort of Cavaliers gear that you can imagine.  For lunch we grabbed a couple of slices of pizza at Christian’s Pizza on the Corner.

Christian’s was a perfectly decent take-out pizza joint (you could eat there as well, which is what we did) with the basic offerings of pizzas, calzones, etc.   The pizza itself was above average, but not spectacular.  I had a chicken parmigiana slice and a spicy chicken and peppers slice; both were quite tasty with a nice NY style thin, crispy crust.  Although, I was a little surprised at the price and thought that it was a bit more expensive than it should be considering it’s a local college pizza place.

After we ate, Matt took us to the main UVA campus.  Needless to say, Thomas Jefferson (who founded the school) went to great lengths to make it architecturally majestic and he succeeded.  Being in the college textbook business (my day job), I’ve seen quite a few college campuses and this one was up there with some of the finest.  We walked by the statue of TJ on the Rotunda, where the students go to get some good luck before their exams.  After walking by the Rotunda, we strolled over to the “Lawn”.  The “Lawn” was a site to see.  It’s pretty much how you would envision the perfect college campus scene.  A perfectly green strip of grass running down with trees along side.  On the “Lawn” were families, dogs, students studying, a group playing football, and anything else you can think of as being stereotypically “American”.  I half expected to see Joe Montana quarterbacking group playing football and John Mellencamp playing the guitar under a tree.

The most unique and impressive thing about the “Lawn” however were the  unique little dorm rooms within the building along the outside that actually formed the courtyard.  Each one of these one bedroom dorms were actual rooms from the old days.  They were small, had wooden floors and walls, and were heated by wood.  From what I could tell as well, each came with a rocking chair of some sort.  According to Matt, the only students who were lucky enough to reside in these “Lawn” dorms pretty much had to be the All-Stars of UVA (the high caliber students who excelled in class, star football players, or were very active on campus), and they had to apply well in advance for these 20 or so dorms if you wanted one.

After getting the tour of UVA, we decided to take a drive down to the Starr Hill Brewery.  Starr Hill is a local brewery that makes the award-winning Dark Starr stout and Jomo lager to name just a few.  For those of you not in the Mid-Atlantic region reading this, you probably haven’t come across this brand since they’re not huge outside the area.  But if you do come across it at any point, I would highly recommend their brand.

The brewery itself was nothing special; just a typical factory with huge steel containers fermenting beer, a place for the hops, and a machine to bottle the batches.  But the 30 minute tour itself was quite informative, run by one of the 27 employees there.  Their passion for beer is evident, especially during the tasting session at the makeshift bar they have set up.  During the tasting, they let you try all 8 beers that they have on tap (a mix of all year, and seasonal beers), and give you a little story behind each type.

We went back to the main Charlottesville area after the brewery and picked up a few more of Matt’s friends.  We headed to the Mall area of Charlottesville which is a quaint little outside, walking commercial area.  Along the brick corridor, which had a hint of a European feel to it, were shops, cafes, movie theaters, and banks.  We stopped over at Miller’s Downtown, a great little old-school drug store turned into bar, for a quick drink.  The place itself is nothing to write home about, but it was comfortable and had a dark, pub-like feel to it.  The beer list there was quite extensive, and the prices were good considering the offerings.  Since we had just come from the Starr Hill Brewery, I decided to help out the local company and ordered a Jomo Lager.

For dinner, we made an attempt to go to Blue Moon Diner, a little diner near the Corner area.  Much to Matt’s chagrin, the Blue Moon Diner was closed that evening (yes, on a Saturday night) and Matt went on a rant about how they have the best breakfast and great burgers, but that the hipsters who work there are so unreliable.  So, I guess if you ever make it in there when it’s open, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

But alas, our back-up plan was Boylan Heights, also on the Corner, two doors down from Christian’s Pizza.  Boylan’s had more of the modern, sports bar feel than Miller’s, although there was a random giant-sized painting of the movie “Rushmore” that I never really got the story of why it was there.  I’ll say this much, if this was the “back-up” for getting burgers to Blue Moon, than Blue Moon must be awesome because Boylan Heights had one of the best burgers I’ve tasted.  Literally, the burger could probably be in the Top 7 or 8 best burgers I’ve had the pleasure of consuming.  Their gourmet burgers have patties that melt in your mouth and a bun that is buttery and soft.  The patties are probably the size of a typical Five-Guys or In-and-Out patty, but Boylan’s are far juicier.  The burger I had, “The Room 121”, has a Boylan’s sauce which I’m not totally sure was, but tasted a hell of a lot like a mix of Thousand Island Dressing, Ranch, and Honey Mustard and was delicious.  Also, the menu offers a build your own burger option on a form that you fill out (much like at a sushi bar).  And the prices there were reasonable, not any more than you would pay at Chili’s or Applebee’s, but the food was far superior.  If I were a UVA undergrad, my freshman 15 could have easily  come directly from Boylan Heights.

After finishing our delicious meal, we headed back to Matt’s apartment for some pre-game fun with his law school pals and a growler of Starr Hill Gift ale that we purchased at the brewery.  After some drinking games, we grabbed a taxi for the Biltmore Grill, which was back on campus.  From what I understand, the Biltmore’s patrons consists of more of the older crowd (graduate students, law school students, etc), versus some of the other bars in the area that allow kids of a questionable drinking age into their venues.  I can’t really say anything exceptionally good or bad about the Biltmore.  The drinks were cheap, the crowd was fun, and the place had a huge patio for the smokers.  And since we were switching the clocks back that evening, we all celebrated Daylight Savings Holiday when 2 AM turned into 1 AM, allowing us another solid hour of killing our brain cells.

When the night was done, we jumped back into a cab to head home, when it was explained to me that the cabbies in Charlottesville work in a far different way than they do in any major city.  Most of the cabbies actually give out their business cards in order to get repeat business from the students.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the cab we took to the Biltmore was actually called ahead in advance by one of the girls in the group, who had used that cab driver’s services before.  It was quite bizarre, yet refreshing having a cab driver be extra nice and conversational with you because they want the repeat business.

Up next: Charlottesville, VA – Day 2 (obviously)

Travel Gifts for Girls

With the holidays coming up, it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about potential gifts for those of you who know avid travelers.  Here are some gift ideas for the traveling females out there that you need to shop for (this list is for the ladies, as it was put together by my female friend Ady; although I know a couple guys who would probably want the Dynamic Duo Makeup bag):

1. Pick Your Place Versatile Travel Journal from UsefulBooks on Etsy.com
2. London Art Print, 8×10 from studiokmo on Etsy.com
3. Dynamic Duo Makeup Bag & Dressing Table Bag from Anthropologie
4. Leather Lined Passport Case from Cole Haan
5. Printed eye masks from Odds & Blobs on Etsy.com
6. 3 Little Soaps with Travel Dish from Clinique
7. Canon PowerShot D10 Digital Camera from B & H Photo
8. Townhouse Carry-More Bag from Tumi
9. Opteka DF-TFT8 8-inch Digital Picture Frame from Amazon.com
10. Metal Chain Stud Square Scarf from Sabina Les

Excerpt from Ady Schneider: Tales of a twentysomething in NYC