Wednesday, October 25, 2006
More specifically, I purchased Youth Eurarail Flexipasses. It is a flexible ticket accepted by most countries in Europe with the notable exception of Britain. There were two different types that I purchased. If memory serves correctly, the first was ten days of travel within two months at a cost of $250 and the second was five travel days within two months for $300. That was in 1991. The prices and the types of tickets may have changed. Though, I may be wrong and the types of tickets have not changed. In any case, you get the idea.
How they work is that the day you start using the pass you have it validated at the station. Each day you choose to travel, you mark the date on the pass and it is verified by the conductor in order to be allowed to travel. So during the date marked on the pass, you are allowed to jump on any regular train that departs before midnight of that date to anywhere served by the pass. It is an amazing amount of freedom.
And there are some tricks. If you are taking an overnight direct train that departs after 7PM, you are allowed to mark the following day. This can give you an extra day when you start the pass. Plus you can do it to take an overnight train and arrive in a city in the morning, then depart (or return) on an overnight train that night to another destination (or back home). I used this trick often during my stay there.
It was a great asset to be able to choose the days of travel within the two or three month time period. And if there were unused days toward the end, it made for a good time to get away. The freedom and relatively cheap price of travel made the pass and incredibly valuable part of my travels. That and my Thomas Cook Train Schedule.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
So we went to the dance floor room, found a big table, and ordered a round of beers. The waitress told us it was happy hour, so we were starting to like the place already. Soon after we ordered our second round, three or four people came and started dancing on the dance floor. Their dance style was a bit different and more "free" than we were used to, but we chalked it up as being more European.
Noticing that it was taking a while for more people to show up, we asked our waitress "When does it pick up here?" She replied "You mean when does the show start?" We were like "Show? What show?". She looked around at us and said "Um, do you know what kind of bar this is? It's a drag show." Ohhh. So we ordered another round and said we would leave after. In the meantime, one man came over to our table and propositioned Tom, saying in very broken English "Will you come with me?" The rest of us broke out in adolescent laughter. (In an odd twist, I learned a couple years later that Tom came out of the closet. I met up with him and we got along quite well as opposed to our experience on the trip.)
So we got up to leave and entered the long rectangular room that we walked through coming in. Contrary to the dance floor that was fairly empty, this room was now packed. Packed without a woman in sight. The room was filled with men dressed in leather. Pants, coats, vests, straps, etc. Many with stereotypical goatees and shaved heads. There was such a lack of available seating that many were sitting on other's laps. Now, I was no stranger to gay bars. I went to and sometimes frequented them because they were the best place to dance and I had absolutely no problem with gays. But to see a sea of men in leather staring back at us wondering "What the hell are you doing here?" completely stunned me. All we could do was duck our heads and make a v-line for the door. Quite an experience.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Stockholm is primarily a collection of islands tied together by bridges. The Old Town (seen above) is one of those islands comprised of winding narrow streets with old buildings and churches (who'd a thunk). Quite an adventure to explore.
Our accommodations were the best of the whole trip. We stayed in the youth hostel aboard the AF Chapman (seen above), a decommissioned British sailing ship permanently moored in the harbor. I remember that the showers were in a large open space in the prow of the ship. Odd because they were communal and he floors and walls were sloping. It was really an experience to live on an old ship.
Other than Old Town, the only real tourist destination we visited was the Vasa Museum (seen above). It was an extraordinary museum that would be great to see again. The Vasa was an ill-fated sailing ship which sunk on her maiden voyage. The ship was salvaged, restored, and relocated completely intact inside this contemporary designed museum. Quite amazing to see the whole ship with all of it's details dry docked in a large open space where you can view the ship all around an many different levels. And the accompanying exhibits talking about the ship were excellent.
Stockholm was also just an interesting city to wander around. Interesting buildings and the maze of islands and bridges. A city that I would really love to return to.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Copenhagen turned out to be another city where I didn't walk away with an eagerness and enthusiasm to return like I had with Munich, Salzburg, and Prague. Part of that may have been due to the cloudy/rainy weather we had while there. There also weren't any sites that really captured my attention and the tensions in the group may have also played a role. We were probably pretty fatigued at this point
That said, it was a nice city. I liked the architectural style of the city. Part baroque, part nordic. Nyhavn (seen above) was very interesting with the uniform facades and all the old boats. Part of me was disappointed we didn't catch it on a sunny day. Though people seem to like the melancholy mood of the picture above. We also explored Rosenborg Castle and saw the Little Mermaid seen below.
Our youth hostel was across the street from the Tivoli Gardens amusement park, but the park was closed for the season. We met three women from Kansas who were studying abroad in Holland. We talked to them quite a bit and I exchanged information with Lisa who I kept in contact with during the rest of the stay in Europe.
Another item I remember was how we ate. We found an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet soon after we got there. They had three or four different types of pizza that they would constantly replace. A few standards and a couple we had not seen before like Hawaiian or corn with ham. This is where our shoe-string budget won out over local cuisine. As we moved farther north, prices also rose. So we would stuff ourselves on the free breakfast at the hostel, starve until about 4pm, then stuff ourselves again with pizza over the next two hours. Silly, but we were young.
Friday, October 13, 2006
One night we went to the Metropolis night club. I was a frequent patron of dance clubs from about my mid-teens to my mid-twenties. Not to be part of "the scene", but because I liked dancing and like the atmosphere. The club was fairly standard. We arrived there early and watched one guy dance by himself in the middle of the floor doing some sort of pseudo-robotic dance. After about a half hour more people came and filled in the dance floor. I remember it being not too much different from back home, but it did have a German feel to it. We really enjoyed the music and if I remember right it was somewhere between house and industrial.
Overall, Berlin was not one of my favorite cities on the trip. Though now after many years of learning more about it, I have gotten interested to return and see the city properly.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
The area that we seemed to use as our rendez-vous point was Breitscheidplatz and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church had been bombed during WW2 and has been kept as a memorial. I am fairly certain our youth hostel was near there.
On our first day, we went directly to Checkpoint Charlie. The Berlin Wall had only fallen two years earlier. Much of it had already been dismantled, but a forty foot section remained at Checkpoint Charlie. Nearby is the Mauermuseum. An excellent museum about international non-violent protest that we did not have enough time to fully explore. They chronicle many famous leaders of peace such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. It was quite moving.
As a funny aside, I had sent home 20 or 30 rolls of film at one point. My father eagerly developed them in order to have pictures of me in front of something famous. Now I was not a fan of doing that because it seemed so touristy. But I did have someone take my picture in front of the Berlin Wall because everyone in our group was doing it and I was still a bit in awe after leaving the museum. It turned out to be the ONLY picture of me in front of anything in the 700 to 1000 photos my father developed. So he made a few 8x10's of it, framed them, and gave them to my mother, sister, and myself. The problem is that I look horrible. I hadn't shaved in a while so I looked scruffy and I had this silly smirky smile on my face. Oh well. I learned my lesson and took pictures of myself in front of various tourist sites along the rest of my stay.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
One of the main sites is the Old Town Square. It is located in the center of the old part of town with two churches and the Old Town City Hall overlooking it. It became a major meeting point for our group and other people we met up with. On the square is also Orloj, astronomical clock, seen in the photo below.
Not far from the square is the Old Jewish Cemetery. It is a very small piece of land and the gravestones are sitting at all different angles. I actually remembered the cemetery from an INXS video that had been shot in Prague three years before. In it Mike Hutchence saunters along a path in the cemetary while Kirk Pengilly plays his sax on the street below for Never Tear Us Apart. It is so cool that nowadays I can link to the video on YouTube and you can see what I remember.
Walking to the west of the city, you come to the Vltava River . One the main ways to cross it is by the Charles Bridge. The city actually has a well beaten path that tourist take between the Old Town Square and the Prague Castle. The bridge is quite something. It is a pedestrian bridge lined on each side with statues. And along the whole length there are artisans and musicians. Quite a pleasant walk. And at each end are gothic towers in a style very unique to Prague. A tall steep center roof with small steep turrets at the corners. The towers of Tyn Cathedral have the same configuration.
Past the bridge, you make your way up to the Prague Castle and St.Vitus Cathedral. The castle is one ofthe largest in the world with numerous buildings and outdoor spaces. They even had a architecture exhibit that we spent a few hours checking out. I really liked St. Vitus Cathderal. It was very bright and had that verticallity that I really like. The facade is in the high gothic flamboyant style as you can see in the photo below. Another of my favorite churches in Europe.
The only other site I can remember is the miniature Eiffel tower on the castle side of the river. We climbed up, but I don't have any pictures so the view must not have been very good.
As a group, we were starting to get on each other nerves a bit. Tom, who had taken over the leadership role, was not doing a great job of getting us around. I tend to be good with maps, so I started taking over getting us from place to place. Tom also had a tendancy to be a know it all which rubbed a few of us the wrong way. On the other hand, I got along great with Craig and we spent a lot of time traveling together on future trips. Craig was caught in the middle on this trip since he got along with both Tom and I.
Prague was really a great city and I hope to be able to return someday.
Monday, October 09, 2006
The train car we boarded even had a distinctly communist regime feel. Drab color, old and bare furnishings. The language barrier became apparent when the boarder guards came through the train car. We could not communicate to them even in sign language. And they were all business. No joking around. Straight faced and to the point.
We arrived very late into Prague. It was 10 or 11pm, but the tourist office had already closed. There were guys coming around offering places to stay. At first we shook them off and were minorly annoyed by them as they kept coming back. But after an hour not knowing what to do, we started discussions with them. We finally picked one guy near midnight when we realized it may be our only option.
We followed our guide out of the station into the dark winding deserted streets of Prague. I have never been more scared in my life. I felt sure it was a set up. I had a feeling that at any moment a gang would jump out and beat the heck out of us. Yes, we were six young healthy guys, but still thats no match for a few guys with bats or worse, guns.
My fears were relieved when we arrived at our destination. A woman in a nightgown invited us into her home and had us sleep in their beds. From what we could tell, the husband worked nights, so she slept on the couch while giving up the other beds in the apartment. That was really odd to sleep in complete strangers beds. On top of it we woke up to them having made us breakfast. It also turned out to be a great location close to all the major sights. It was a bit more than we wanted to pay and they insisted we pay in Western money. We thanked them as best we could for all the hospitality and the next day we found a place through the tourist office that was farther away and more in our price range. Up on the hill across the river past the palace. It was a hike, but that wasn't a hastle as long as we didn't go back often.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Friday, October 06, 2006
The next morning we consulted the tourist office and got the directions to the local youth hostel. As with much of the lodging for young people across Europe, this was run by and inhabited by a large percentage of Australian nomads. From what I was told, the Australian government subsidizes their young people to take a year off, travel, and see the world. So there are many young Australian backpackers across Europe and many try to extend their stay by working in youth hostels for the cash to stick around.
Salzburg was great. It's a small city stradling the Salzach River. On one bank is the old city squeezed between a hill and the river. The old city is almost entirely buildings that are over 100 years old. Primarily baroque in style, but there are also some gothic and romanesque buildings also. On the hill overlooking the city is the fortress, Festung Hohensalzburg. The city is known also for being the birthplace of Mozart and the Sound of Music was filmed here and in the Alps nearby.
We spent two days in the city and one of the first attractions we saw was the Mirabel Gardens. They were some very nice French style gardens with baroque sculpture. They were nice, but again after seeing Versailles it was hard to find other gardens too interesting. From there we crossed the bridge into the old town. The Old Town was amazing because it seems that great lengths had been made to preserve the character. I'm pretty sure they have the same zoning regulation prohibiting neon and lighted signage like in Quebec city. So the majority of store signage is done in wrought iron, even McDonalds.
Speaking of. This was when we discoved one of the quirks of our fellow traveller, Paul. Paul requested at every possible chance that he eat at McDonalds (yes, I can hear you gasping). Here we are in new and interesting places with authentic foods, and he wants what we can get at home. Paul's reasoning was that he didn't trust foods at other places and he knew that McDonalds would always follow a standard of quality. So some extra time was spent looking for Mickey D's or waiting at them while he got his food. I later found out that he only made hamburgers at home when he was cooking for himself.
In the Old Town, we visited all of the churches and wandered through all of the streets. In the end we did not see any of the Mozart attractions or go on the Sound of Music bus tour.
On the last afternoon of our stay we went up to see the fortress. It was quite the intriguing place. It was a huge complex and quite a maze with many different levels. We took the tour and the guide gave the descriptions in at least four different languages. It made for a longer time spent in each room, but you had time to look closer at them while she spoke to others in the group. And she seemed to speak each language flawlessly. We had a big surprise during the tour. As we were walking around, we peaked out of one of the windows and saw the Alps just across the valley. I was blown away because I didn't realize they were that close. And the view was fantastic. Since we had arrived in the middle of the night and spent our two days in the valley of the city, we never had a view of what was around. It was a pretty amazing surprise.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
We poked our head in one or two different halls looking for space for six guys. We eventually found a table at the Paulaner hall. The atmosphere was something else. Women of all ages dressed in traditional garb carrying as many as a dozen 1-litre bocks of beer (that's over thirty pounds in each hand). Many of the younger (and cuter) ones came around selling pretzels and other baked goods. Of course, we six young men took kindly to one of them and made our best efforts to talk to her whenever she came by. The music was your traditional Oktoberfest fare. But there were two songs I remember in particular. First, apparently the 'chicken dance' is either German or an Oktoberfest favorite. They played that multiple times over the night. The other was something like a cheer or toast. Einz! Feinz! Sofa! Everyone clinks glasses and takes another swig of beer.
In between the times that the pretzel girl would swing by and talk to us, I remember that we toggled between talking about others around us and just sitting, observing, and drinking our beers. That was until the table across from us invited us over. It was a bunch of Munich high school kids whooping it up. We were soon goofing around with them having a great time. Singing, dancing, and trying our best to get to know each other even with the language barrier. We had a blast. We even exchanged phone numbers at the end of the night. The two I kept in contact with were Florian & Stephanie who I came back to see on two separate trips.
Unfortunately we did not have a place to stay, so we went back to the train station to find a train out of the city. In the end, we found a train headed for Salzburg, Austria. It was not a long ride and we would arrive in the middle of the night, but at least we would be away from the craziness of Munich.
There were six of us (Craig, Tom, Al, Mike, Paul, and I). The travel break started Friday afternoon and we boarded an overnight train to Munich on Friday night in Paris. We arrived bright and early Saturday morning with all the other backpackers arriving by train. The train station (Hauptbahnhof), the surrounding streets, and the entire city were flooded with people. It was Oktoberfest. It appeared that Tom was the leader of the group. He seemed to toggle between being very uncomfortable to overly confident in the roll, but we got around fairly well.
We first headed to a major pedestrian thoroughfare, Neuhauser Strasse, to the central city square, Marienplatz. In the square there was an Oktoberfest band playing and we returned there in order to hear the Glockenspiel chime. From my memory, we spent most of the day wandering looking at assorted tourist spots. We saw Peterskirche, Frauenkirche, ...We even spent some time in a sporting goods store for some reason. Al thought he would by some skis. Didn't make sense to me since he would have to lug them with us for two weeks.
At one point we ended up in one of the city squares, Odeonsplatz, where some punkers were having a protest. It was a peaceful gathering. On the square is Theatinerkirche that we also visited. I'd like to note at this point that one thing I noticed over the course of the day was how may people dyed their hair. And not just the young kids. There were older women with streaks of purple or pink in their hair also. So we were standing around and a young gothic woman comes over. At the time I was also dressed in all black with a turtle neck. I had been letting my hair grow out also, so it was a bit longer than the normal "wedge" that I usually had. Well, she came up to me and said that they were looking for people to be in a Vidal Sassoon commercial. The thing was that I would have to stay overnight. Our plans were to leave that night and if I did it the others would leave without me. Plus I didn't have a place to stay. So I passed. I've always wondered if that offer was sincere. Could I have become an international model or been drugged and beat to a pulp?
We strolled some of the large avenues. From the photos I have, we visited Konigsplatz, which was a victory arch of very Third Reich character. There was also another victory arch that I have not been able to locate.
We later made our way to the Deutches Museum. A very very interesting technology and science museum with many moving parts displays. But it was all in German, so we could only conjecture what they were trying to show. We had a snack in their rooftop cafe then made our way to the major reason for coming to Munich. Oktoberfest.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
As with other things, I didn't really have an idea of what I wanted to do during the break. I thought it would be fun to go to Rome and Greece, but I had no one to travel with and was unsure about how to go about getting from place to place. A few days before the break, I was approached by Craig who said he was going with others to Northern Europe. Their reasoning for going north instead of south was because the warmer climes could be saved for the winter breaks. There would be six of us travelling together (Craig, Paul, Tom, Al, Mike, and myself) and we would cover seven cities in two weeks. Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. I had a great time in almost all of these cities and would love to go back and experience them again. I returned to Vienna on another trip and Munich four other times. Having grown up in a largely German neighborhood may have contributed to my enjoyment and familiarity with the cities on this trip.
It is the second best trip that I have taken to date for two reasons. The first being that we saw so much. The second reason being because it was really the threshold where I was introduced to the world of international travel. After that point, the rest of Europe and even the world seemed so accessible. Part of it was familiarity with travelling and also with getting around in countries of other tongues. The burden of the unknown had been lifted. After this trip I was jumping on trains every other weekend to wander in another unknown city.