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Euro-Backpacking Review

May 15, 2009

I spent my Easter break from studying abroad at Swansea University in Wales backpacking across Europe for 30 days. For a rundown of the places I went, I  traveled to 14 different Nations during the 30 days (20 total during my 6 months): Wales, England, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungry, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, France, Monaco and Spain. I spent nights in 13 different cities: Swansea, London, Milan, Cinque Terre, Venice, Budapest, Kosice, Vienna, Prague, Munich, Interlaken, Nice and Barcelona. Plus, I made day trips to 6 different places: the Slovakian countryside, Dachau Concentration Camp, Salzburg, Bavarian Castles, Cannes and Monaco. And then I also spent limited time in a few other places (mainly explorations during train-layovers): Pisa, Florence, a tiny Hungry/Slovakian border town, Bratislava, Zurich, Geneva, Lyon and Marseille.

For my traveling, I had purchased a EuRail train pass. To be eligible for this pass, you have to be a non-European resident and in the 18-26 age range. Then there are multiple passes you can choose from, with plenty of options for number of days and countries. Seeing how I wanted to do a lot of traveling and wanted to have absolute freedom in where I wanted to go and when, I choose one of the most inclusive passes. It allowed for 21 consecutive days of travel through 21 different countries of Europe. While this was very expensive, it was a great decision.

All throughout my blogging about my trip, I have talked about just jumping on trains and switching my mind whenever I wanted, and this flexible pass is what allowed me to do so. I would simply look at my train timetable and map I had been given, and decide what train to take & when I wanted. If I decided I wanted to see a few more things in a city the day I was supposed to leave, I would just take a later train, or if I got bored, I would get on an earlier train. Total freedom.

My plans literally changed every single day. Whether if it was where I was going next, what I was going to do, or how long I was going to stay somewhere, I was always changing my mind and I loved it. That is how I wanted it to be and I am so happy it worked out as well as it did. I was always keeping my ears open and asking people I met advice on where they had been and where to go, and I got a lot of my plans and ideas from what other people had said.

Technically the EuRail suggests you reserve a seat on the trains your taking. These reservations usually cost around 3-15 Euros. This was a cost they don’t tell you about when you sign up for it, and me, as well as everyone else I talked to who had it, were not happy about this. So at first my plan was to every time I arrived in a city I would reserve my next train ride. This wasn’t going to give me the total freedom that I wanted though. After my first time doing this (arriving in Venice, booking to Budapest), I realized that you really don’t need to do it.

As long as you aren’t sitting in someone else’s seat you’re fine, you just need the pass. And even if you were in someone’s seat, you simply get up and find another. So I went the entire rest of my trip without reserving trains, and it wasn’t until I was in France where I was even told to move because I was in someone’s seat. Some trains were busy, but I guess I just kept getting lucky picking seats, or else people were just scared to tell me to move (ha). So I was able to have the complete traveling freedom I was looking for after all. I have spoken to other people who had a EuRail pass and paid reservation fees for every train, and spent upwards of 100 euros on them, and they were all livid after hearing that I did not do so and saved that much money.

I don’t think besides a 20 minute train ride I took in pre-school I have ever even ridden a train in the states. But from these 21 days, plus a lot of other instances throughout my 6 months abroad, I became a train and train station expert. I had the system, the timetables, and the station layouts down pat. I was always nervous about getting on the right trains and getting to the stations in time at the beginning, but after the first week I felt like I was running the show.

I spent the majority of my train rides doing only a few basic things. This included: Killing my ipod battery, keeping my journal, filling out postcards, reading about the Italian mafia, reading my travel book, practicing the local language for the next place I was going to, sleeping, making friends, people watching and enjoying the passing scenery.

As for my hostels, I had pretty good experiences all around with them. The process I usually went through with them was that I would arrive at one, and then once I figured out how long I was going to be in that city and where I was going next, I would then book my next one. I booked all of my hostels on hostelworld.com (except for my 2nd one in Switzerland) and it made things pretty easy. For the most part, they had pretty good directions listed on hostelworld and even with my late room bookings, I almost always was able to get the hostel I wanted and at a good price. The Venice and Budapest hostels towards the beginning of my trip set the bar pretty high; they were awesome places and I met and hung out with really cool people at them. At most places I went I usually met cool enough people to hang out and explore with, but it would have been much more of a daunting and scary trip had I not had great experiences at these first couple of hostels.

When booking hostels, the more people in the room, the cheaper it is. They call them “dorms,” or you can also get privates, but on my budget I was definitely getting the biggest and cheapest rooms possible. Depending on the size of the hostel and room availability, I was usually in 8-16 bed dorm rooms, and sometimes the rooms would have their own bathroom, but usually there was a large shared one for the entire floor. Checkout times were usually 10 or 11am, but the hostels would always have luggage storage rooms to keep my bag in so I didn’t have to walk around with it if I wasn’t leaving until later in the day, so checkout times really didn’t matter too much. The good thing about checkout times was that it just forced me to be up and out exploring by a certain time. Also, breakfast almost always ended at 9 or 10, so I was always up in time for that. So the combination of these two things meant that I never slept passed 9 during my trip and maximized my exploring potential.

I almost feel like since nothing at all ever went wrong on my trip it left me with a lack of events to write about on this blog. While I’m definitely very happy nothing bad happened, I am a little surprised. Almost all the Americans I have talked to after our Easter break had at least that one city where everything went wrong (whether its missing trains or flights, being pick-pocketed, having things stolen from hostels, getting totally lost, etc). I definitely put my self in some very scary situations looking back, things I would not suggest anyone do, but I survived. Even with my total lack of planning, everything still went almost perfectly everywhere I went. The lack of planning and freedom to do what I want that came with it is actually something I wanted though and “planned.” So I was somewhat almost expecting something bad to happen, like at least not being able to find a hostel and having to sleep in a park or missing a train that I needed. I attribute this to two main things: my no-worries attitude and confidence. One of my favorite sayings is “Confidence is the Father of Success.” I’m not exactly sure how this relates to this paragraph, but I’d like to think that me just not worrying too much about things and walking around confident in what I was doing is what helped me have such a successful experience backpacking through Europe.

I luckily never had to experience any pick-pocketers or muggings (except the one time my new friend I was with in Budapest “thought” she had been pick-pocketed). Everywhere I went I was constantly keeping an eye on my surroundings and being wary of possible bad situations. I wasn’t always putting myself in the best situations (walking around all the time at night, in places I didn’t know, scary places, all alone), but I was always careful. I would definitely not recommend a lot the things I did to girls (or even small dudes) who are traveling alone in some of the same places; I was in some scary areas.

I’m sure I will get plenty of questions when I get back about my favorite places (which I will be happy to answer), but I’ll now just kind of outline a list of my favorite places. I plan on making one final blog post in a couple of weeks right before I come home. This post is going to be a “European Awards” if you will. I have been keeping notes on my favorites of everything and will have top threes of a couple dozen different categories from my entire 6 months of traveling (everything from best place, train ride, castle, tour, food, hostel, most beautiful, worst, etc). But for now, here is a rundown of a few of my favorites from my month-long European adventure.

In order (very hard to do), the most fun I had at places. This is like an initial reaction too, it will be interested to see how I feel about these lists a year or so down the line.  Only places I spent at least a day in too.

  1. Munich, Germany
  2. Barcelona, Spain
  3. Interlaken, Switzerland
  4. Kosice, Slovakia
  5. Prague, Czech Republic
  6. Cinque Terre, Italy
  7. Venice, Italy
  8. Budapest, Hungry
  9. Nice, France
  10.  Monaco & Cannes, France
  11.  Salzburg, Austria
  12.  Bavarian Castles, Germany
  13.  Milan, Italy
  14.  Vienna, Austria

              Dachau, Germany (hard to put this one as a “fun place,” so it is unranked).

This list is similar, but this is just my favorite places overall, not regarding anything I did in them, just more about the feel, learning experience, the vibe and the atmosphere of the cities.

  1. Barcelona, Spain
  2. Prague, Czech Republic
  3. Munich, Germany
  4. Venice, Italy
  5. Interlaken, Switzerland
  6. Cinque Terre, Italy
  7. Budapest, Hungry
  8. Dachau, Germany
  9. Salzburg, Austria
  10. Nice, France
  11. Monaco & Cannes, France
  12. Bavarian Castles, Germany
  13. Milan, Italy
  14. Vienna, Austria
  15. Kosice, Slovakia

Top 3 Favorite Countries, in terms of people, culture, atmosphere and general feel.

  1. Germany
  2. Switzerland
  3. Spain

Here is one final one for now, roughly the top 8 activities I did on my trek.

  1. Paragliding, Switzerland
  2. Hockey Finals from Corporate Box in Slovakia
  3. Beer Gardens & Beer Challenge, Munich
  4. Hiking in both Switzerland & Cinque Terre
  5. Dachau tour, Germany
  6. Clubbing in Barcelona
  7. Beaches in Nice & Barcelona
  8. Bath in Budapest

Those 3 lists were all very difficult to write and order, but I am very excited about writing the comprehensive review of my 6 months abroad and trying to decide the top few things of each of the couple dozen categories I have come up with so far, and I hope you all are looking forward to reading it.

These four weeks of backpacking across Europe was with-out-a-doubt the best time of my life. I have never felt so alive and so in touch with my self as I did while traveling. Before I went, a lot of people looked at me like I was crazy when I said I was going by myself. There was no question though that that is how I wanted to do it, and I am very happy it happened that way. Yes, it was a little scary, especially at the beginning, but I ended up loving every minute of it and it was the experience of a lifetime and something I will never forget. I want to take this time to thank everyone who helped make it possible, whether it was financial support, just being there to talk to and help get me through some of the tougher and lonelier times, or just knowing that there were people out there missing me and reading up on my blog and facebook updates, thank you.

The fact that Swansea University had this month-long Easter break was the primary reason I picked to go there (along with it was cheap and in Europe). I have always wanted to travel around and see Europe and I’m glad I was blessed with the opportunity. I have had an amazing experience just being in Swansea and making tons of British friends, but it doesn’t compare to the remarkable time I had backpacking. I am getting goose bumps just writing about it, and I’m glad. I want this experience to be something I will never forget and I hope I get goose bumps talking about it 5, 10, 20 years down the line.

Post to come soon about my last month in Swansea and then the big review finale post.

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Spain- Barcelona

May 14, 2009

On Thursday, April 16th I took about a 9 hour train ride from Nice, France to Barcelona, Spain. This also happened to be the last day of my rail pass (A post to come about my train experience overview) and the final planned destination of my month-long backpacking trek. I got into Barcelona at about 8:30 at night and the train station was a little to far from my hostel to walk to, so I took a subway to the closest stop and found my hostel, The Centric Point Hostel, without a problem. I had two nights booked there and then I was flying back to Wales on Saturday.

I checked into my hostel and went up to my room to drop of my stuff. I was in an 8 bed dormitory room, and I was a little surprised when I walked in and saw it filled with girls who were obviously all getting ready to go out. Most rooms I have stayed in have been mixed rooms, but I have never had an all-one sex dominated room like this one. There were 6 girls to be exact, and there was one open bed for the night.

I started to try to make conversation with them, which I actually found a little troublesome. The reason being was that they were all French, and only a couple of them could actually speak English good enough to have a conversation with. The ones who didn’t know English very well were fluent in Spanish instead. I could now easily rank them all 1-6 on English-speaking ability. One was almost completely fluent, and then as you go down they gradually knew less, until the last one (6) who couldn’t really understand anything I said.

They were all in the 18-21 age range and were studying in Marseille, France. They were in Barcelona for something that had to do with what they were studying and were there for three nights (this being their 2nd night). They were going out to the clubs on this night and they had completely dominated the room with all of their beauty “products.” I found my way through their crap and settled into my bed and got my stuff put in my locker.

I sat and talked with them for a little while as best I could and tried to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my night. The girls had invited me to go out clubbing with them, and while I was very tempted, I said no thanks. I definitely wanted to go out in Barcelona, I had heard the nightlife is unreal, but I was not feeling it after traveling all day and decided I would save it for Friday night. I instead decided to go for a walk and explore some of the city.

My hostel was located on one of the main streets in the middle of the city, Passeig de Gracia, and also very close to the north end of Las Ramblas, one of Barcelona’s main attractions. I decided on this night to just take a walk in the direction of the beach and see how long it would take. I figured it would be about 15 minutes. After 25 minutes though of wandering around, I finally realized that I was walking in the wrong direction of the beach.

My whole entire trip I had never quite gotten lost like this. I actually knew where I was I suppose, but I never really went in the wrong direction for such a long time. I had become a big fan of the sun and judging which way I was going by that, or even my just guessing hadn’t been wrong yet. But this time I was positive I had started in the right direction and ended up walking the complete opposite direction I wanted to go. I blame this mostly on just that I took the subway to my hostel and that got me turned around. While I didn’t exactly make it to where I wanted, it wasn’t the worst thing. I probably would have never made it to this part of the city, and I knew I would be going to the beach and Las Ramblas the next day. So after just exploring the area I was in for a little bit, I headed back to my hostel.

I was all alone in my room when I got back, and it was a little weird getting to sleep all by myself in a room for once. I was however woken up at 6am when the French girls returned from the clubs. A few hours later I got up, got ready and had my free hostel breakfast. This actually happened to be one of the better ones I had had too. The inclusion of an assortment of fresh fruits and breakfast bars to the usual items were what made it special. Not only that, but I was able to “take” a couple apples, oranges and bars with me to put in my bag for the day.

I started my day by heading to one of Barcelona’s main tourist attractions. Not many cities I have been to could say that a street was an actual tourist attraction, but Las Ramblas definitely was one in Barcelona. I started at the far north end that was located just by my hostel and slowly made my way down its entirety towards the sea.

There were so many things happening on Las Ramblas. It was pretty busy and the variety of things I saw on this wide street included; flower markets, fire-eaters, pet shops, gift shops, tons of performers, protesters and even a nudist. I spent a lot of my morning leisurely strolling down this street. About halfway down and off to the right of Las Ramblas is the glorious La Boqueria, the city’s main food market. It is filled with hundreds of stalls of people selling every kind of  food imaginable. I spent a while wandering around the labyrinth of food counters and it was probably a good thing I was still full from my large breakfast, otherwise I would have broken my bank here. I was definitely going to come back though, and picked out what I thought looked best (impossible to really decide that though) and planned on coming back later in the day.

I then made my way down the rest of Las Ramblas, past the grand Liceu (Barcelona’s opera house) and to where the famous street culminates, at the round a bout in front of the harbor that encircles the Mirador de Colon. This is a tall column-like monument that has a statue of Columbus at the top. For a couple of Euros I was able to take a lift up to the top of it and enjoy a great 360-degree view of the city and sea.

I then headed towards the harbor, specifically Port Vell. It is a little bit like Navy Pier in Chicago, in that it is a major tourist attraction with the wide variety of things happening on it. There is a huge new building/area on it called the Maremagnum, which includes an up market shopping mall, a huge aquarium (which I almost went in but it was way to expensive, and I have seen my fair share of aquariums), a cinema, an IMAX and a lot of bars and restaurants.

I then went around to the other side of the port and past the really nice marina. I was now in the Barceloneta district. This is the area that I had read has the real genuine Catalan life, and is also home to the best beaches and seafood restaurants (I wish I could have had some) in Barcelona. When I got there, I headed down towards the boardwalk and beach area.

The weather was really nice this day and I had brought my beach attire (and valuables) in my messenger bag (towel, shades, ipod) and had on my trunks under my shorts and was wearing my flippy-floppies. I walked down the entirety of the boardwalk all the way to Port Olimpic. I then walked back down it until I found a suitable place on the beach for me to get my bronze on.

Oh and yes, women in Spain (just like in France) do not believe in wearing tops while on the beach. Once again on this beach I ran into lots of old top-less woman, it was not quite as bad as France was though.

I went down and tested the waters and walked along it for a little while and then settled on a spot. This spot happened to be a nice reclining layout chair. I was pretty sure I wasn’t suppose to be on it and you were suppose to pay to use it or something, but there were plenty around and I stripped down and laid out on it.

After about 40 minutes of enjoying the Spanish sun two things interrupted me at the same time. First I noticed some clouds starting to roll in and they were about it cover up the sun. And then right after that I was tapped on the shoulder by some Spanish dude. He didn’t speak much English, but I was getting the jist of what he was saying. He was trying to tell me that you have to pay for the chairs by the hour and he was motioning to me to leave if I wasn’t going to. Taking one kwick glance back up at the sun being swallowed up by the clouds, I said adios and peaced out.

As I packed my stuff back up in my messenger bag, I had noticed that it was finally time to retire it. I had noticed about a week before that it had started to rip, and then at the beginning of this day I had seen that it may not last the whole day, but I decided to bring it anyway. But as I was walking off the beach the bottom was pretty much ripping all the way through, and so I went into a Spar (convenience store) real close to me and showed them my problem and they gave me sack for free to put my stuff in. I then found a trash can outside and said a sad good-bye to the bag that had treated me so well.

I had gotten the bag for free at my Northwestern Mutual annual national meeting last summer and it wasn’t the greatest quality. I packed it in my big bag last-minute when I left for my month-long trek and it ended up being one of the best things I brought with me. It enabled me to bring things with me that I needed each day at my different places (travel book, valuables, beach stuff, etc) without having to carrying them in my hands or bring my big bag. It packed really small in my large bag and I was very glad I brought it. And while it was inevitable that it wouldn’t last to long, what luck that it actually would break on my very last stop and the last day of my long journey.

It was then in the afternoon and I decided to go back to my hostel and drop of my Spar sack of stuff. I took the direct route to it, the way I had attempted to go the previous night when I walked in the wrong direction. After the hostel I then headed back to Las Ramblas to have another walk down it and stop at La Boqueria for some grub.

The clouds that had scattered me off the beach had produced a few sprinkles on my walk back to my hostel. But as I started down Las Ramblas, it started to rain a little harder, but nothing that was going to deter me from exploring Barcelona. I then got some food at La Boqueria and then headed towards the district of Anella Olimpica. This is an elevated area that was home to many of the venues, including the Olympic Arena (Estadi Olimpic), for the 1992 summer Olympics.

As I got close to the start of the climb up the hill to the Anella Olimpicait started to downpour on me. I found some cover under a building by an intersection at the base of the hill. An older lady joined me soon after and it was raining hard for quite a while so I decided to make some conversation. As I guessed, she didn’t speak English. But she did speak Spanish and I thought it would be fun to test my Spanglish skills out on her. Basically I could barely understand anything she would say, but I would just counter with any random Spanish phrase that I could think of that I thought might be somewhat relevant. I’m not even sure if I said a lot of the things right, but my contributions to the convo included things such as: “It is raining,” I was on the beach,” “My name is Kyle, I am a student,” “Where is the library,” and some other random things.

Our lovely conversation was interrupted by quite the event though. Out of the corner of my eye I saw it coming, but I couldn’t yell anything in time. A man was crossing the street by us and a car was coming down the perpendicular street and turning left onto it. BAM! Car smokes him. He basically got flipped up onto the hood and then rolled off. Luckily he was not hurt though. He got up straight away and started yelling at the driver. I’m not sure if he was in a hurry or just wanted to get out of the heavy rain, but he flipped the driver the bird one more time and ran off.

My old lady friend then decided it was time to go, or more likely found an excuse to exit our delightful conversation, and I was alone again. I got out my map and realized that there were still quite of few things I wanted to see before my one full day in Barcelona was over and I was running out of time, so I decided to scrap the Anella Olimpica. A few minutes later the rain stopped and I was off again.

I headed north from where I was at and towards the district of El Raval. Here I saw Barcelona’s oldest church, Sant Pau Del Camp. I then walked down Rambla de Raval, a newer boulevard with a lot of cool cafes and stores. This took me straight to the MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barceolona), a really unique looking museum.

From there, I crossed back across Las Ramblas and to the Barri Gothic district, one of Barcelona’s most popular areas. The busiest and central part of this district is where I headed, the Placa de Sant Jaume. Adjacent to this plaza is La Seu, Barcelona’s giant gothic cathedral. It was being restored at the time I was there, so it lost a little of its magnificence, but I hear it has been under restoration forever. I spent a little while exploring this really unique and historic district and getting lost in its winding side streets. I then went back over to Las Ramblas for one last trip down part of it and then back up to my hostel as the sun was starting to set.

I arrived back in my hostel right as the six French girls were getting back from their day out. I sat and talked with the few of them that I could actually converse with and then let them convince me to go out with them that night. I had heard very good things about Barcelona’s nightlife and definitely wanted to go out in style on my last night of Easter break on mainland Europe. It was also one of the girls’ 22nd birthday at midnight that night, so I figured that was a good excuse to go too.

This is one of the few hostels I stayed in that had its own bathroom in the bedroom. So all the girls started to get ready, and I gave them a good head start and caught up on some internet browsing time on my laptop in bed. Once they were finally almost all ready I jumped in the shower, did my hair up, put on my backpacking dress shirt (black dress shirt: I like it a lot and it doesn’t show stains or wrinkles as easily) and got myself smelling good.

I wasn’t exactly sure what we were going to do, but I was just going with the flow and tagging along with them. They kept trying to ask me what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, but I just kept saying I was just tagging along. The entire time I was around them they were obviously speaking French when they weren’t talking to me, and so one of them would always turn to me and say how they weren’t talking about me, they promise.

They told me how we were going to have a typical Spanish night out, which is similar to what they would do in France, but I already knew it was going to be different then how us Americans do. First off, we didn’t leave to go out until 11pm, with no drinks in us yet. I then found out we weren’t actually going to a bar or club yet, but instead to a restaurant to eat. This was good though because I was actually hungry. The first place we went to eat we sat outside, but then they made us move inside because they wanted to close the patio. So we went upstairs, and one of the girls was talking to the waiter in Spanish upstairs, and for some reason I never understood, something was wrong with us sitting up there so we went back downstairs and found a table. As we tried to order, the same girl kept talking to this waiter and what seemed like arguing with him and then all the sudden got up, as did everyone else and we were leaving. Not quite sure what happened here either, something about the food I think.

We then found another place that I guess they had eaten at before and was really good. This place I actually recognized by its name because it was recommended as a really good tapas restaurant in my travel book. We got a table for the seven of us there and we were finally good to go, just before midnight. I realized that this was also my best chance for my traditional local meal experience while in Spain (this is actually my second trip to espana though, see Palma, where I had plenty of good Spanish food).

For drinks, we ordered a few pitchers of sangria to share, which was really, really good. At midnight we toasted to the birthday girl and they sang happy birthday in French, then we all did it in Spanish and then in English. For our meal we got a wide variety of tapas to share (obviously). All of the food was excellent. I was a little worried that we didn’t order quite enough at first, but then I realized I was with all girls, and I’m pretty sure I dominated almost half the food on the table, but very politely did so and I pretty much waited to eat too much until I knew no one else was eating any more. And then when the bill came they would 100% absolutely Not accept any of my money. It really wasn’t too expensive, but they just wouldn’t let me pay, nice girls.

We had a lot of good conversation during our time at Spanish style midnight dinner. Most of it was focused on me though. Most of them had never really had too many interactions with an American man before, so they were very interested in talking to me and hearing all kinds of things about me. They kept on complementing me in their broken English about how nice and go-with-the-flow I was. One thing they said about me was that I look like the actor Josh Duhamel (Transformers, Las Vegas, All My Children, Fergie’s man, we share the same birthday). I have been told I look like him multiple times before, but it is a little different hearing it from French girls.

After dinner at about 1am we headed to a bar. We went to a cool local bar that was pretty busy by the time we got there. I had been explained to at dinner that the birthday girl was going to buy the first round of the night at the first bar since it was her birthday. This is a little different then the American custom of everyone else buying the birthday person drinks and shots, but I wasn’t going to complain. After the first round, I got up to go buy some drinks, but was immediately told to sit down. There was one girl who wasn’t drinking at all, but she told me she would go get me drinks. As I started to object, one of the others explained that she would just go get one for free from a guy and then bring it to me, turns out I fell into a pretty good situation this night.

After a few rounds and a lot of conversation at this bar it was time to go to the clubs. The bars close at about 3am in Barcelona, the exact time it was, and the same time that some clubs open. I was expecting to spend a decent amount of money this night and was afraid I hadn’t brought enough out, but it was already 3am, I was full and a little drunk, but I hadn’t spent a single Euro. The club we went to I did finally have to break out some cash thought. It was a staggering 15 Euros just to get in, but I was told this was one of the premiere clubs in all of Barcelona and it was also a Friday night. The price did also include a free drink at the bar upon entry too.

The club was huge and had a ton of people in it and it had a really cool and unique décor. I got my free drink and eventually bought the birthday girl a birthday shot. Before I knew it, it was 6am and the club was closing. Quite a site to be walking out of a dark club to the sun rising. We had talked earlier this night about how there are a couple of clubs that don’t open until 6am, and close at 11am, for the people who still hadn’t had enough. We talked about going as we were leaving the club, and were actually on our way to one, but then decided it probably wasn’t in our best interest since we all had to check out of the hostel in a few hours and I had a plane to catch in 5 hours. So we called it a “morning” and made our way back to our hostel.

The next morning, or wait, that morning I mean, I got up after a solid 2 hours of sleep and hurried down to get breakfast before it closed up. I took a sack down with me to fill with fruit and bars for my day of travel I had ahead of me. I said goodbye to my French friends (facebook friends now) and barely got checked out of my hostel in time. I had a couple of hours before I had to head to the airport, so I put my bag in luggage storage and headed out for one last exploration of the city.

I randomly just started wandering in a direction I really hadn’t been yet and I ended up at the very green and calm Parc de la Ciutadella. In this park there was the castle looking Catalan Parliament building, a lake, Gaudi’s monumental fountain, and also the zoo (didn’t make it inside the zoo sadly). There was also a flea-market type thing going on inside part of it that I checked out for a little while.

It was then time for me to head back to my hostel, pick up my stuff and head to the airport. This was probably the cheapest and easiest trip to an airport I have ever had; I took the subway to it from right outside my hostel, it only cost 2 Euros and only took about 20 minutes total to get there. I had a long line to wait in to check into my flight, and this gave me plenty time to worry about whether or not I was going to be able to carry on my large backpack. I had “snuck” it onto my flight to Scotland in February (meaning its dimensions and weight were both a little to big, but they didn’t weigh or measure it) but now it was packed much more full and definitely was way to heavy (I was able to check-it for free on my flight to start Easter break, but not this time). I had read that it was 30 Euros to check your carry-on if it was to big, but I figured it was worth the shot of trying to carry it on. While waiting in line, I saw other people weighing their bags on a check-in station that wasn’t being used, so I decided to go test mine. It ended up being 20kgs (44lbs), which was twice the carry-on limit of 10kgs. And I also knew there was no way it was fitting in the carry-on bag measuring racks.

The lady who checked me in ended up not even looking at my bag or weighing it (I was trying to somewhat hide it from her) and I got by with carrying it on. I’m not exactly sure if this is something I want to be bragging about though, sneaking large objects onto a plane. But I got it on the plane and saved myself a lot of money. And I actually had to take a couple of things out of it just to fit it in the overhead storage compartment; that is how big it was.

Overall I absolutely Loved Barcelona. The city had such a good vibe to it and it was just a tremendous place to be in. I met some really cool girls, spent some good time on the beach, saw a lot of cool things and gothic buildings, and in general just had a blast there. Barcelona just had such a great atmosphere to it and I loved just being in it and soaking it up. I still can’t name an absolute favorite of my trip, but I’m thinking right now that it is a tie between Barcelona and Munich.

So I arrived later that day back in the UK at Cardiff airport and took a train ride back to Swansea and I was completely exhausted and glad to be back at my place and able to completely unpack my stuff, have my own bed and relax(until my flatmates immediately forced me to go out with them). What an amazing experience though. I will have an Easter break review blog post coming soon.

Sorry for the lengthy post, I just have so much to say and I feel like I’m still holding back! I’ll be back stateside in a few weeks though and everyone can hear more stories in person.

France- Nice, Cannes and Monaco

May 4, 2009

On Monday, the 13thof April, I left Switzerland and headed to the South of France. My plan was to stay 3 nights in Nice and also go to some other places in the French Riveria. The shortest way for me to get from Interlaken to Nice would have been to go straight south through Milan and then west, but there were no trains/combination of trains that worked out for me to take that route on this day. So instead I had to take the somewhat longer trip west out of Switzerland to Lyon and then south to Marseille and the over to Nice. This trip took up most of the day’s sunlight, but I got a lot of reading, writing and ipod battery killing done. 

I arrived in Nice, France at about 6pm and had a couple of hours before the sunset. My hostel was only a block from the train station so I immediately went and checked in and dropped my stuff off. I then went to spend the last hour and a half of sunlight exploring the city. My hostel was located on the north end of the city center, and right on the end of the main street- Avenue Jean Medecin. I took a stroll all the way down this street, which took about 15 minutes, and it ended at the boardwalk and beach. I went down onto the beach and was surprised to find that it was one of the beaches that is not sand, but instead a pebble one filled with small and very smooth oval-shaped rocks. I walked down the beach for a little bit and then along the famous promenade des Anglais (boardwalk). I continued along it for a while as the sun set and madeit around Le Chateau (a park jutting out into the sea) and all the way to Port Lympia, which was filled with massive yachts from all over the world.

I then started to head back and went through VieuxNice, the old town, which has a lot of narrow alleys lined with old tall houses, with the Baroque Cathedrale Ste-Reparate at the center. I then made it back to the Avenue Jean Medecin where I got some food from a street vendor (doner kebab) and then headed back to the hostel. At the hostel I caught up on some Internet time and also talked with the other people in my hostel for a while. The people I talked with the most were two guys from Finland, a guy and a girl from Singapore, and two girls from America that study in Paris. The forecast for the weather the next day was supposed to be perfect and so I called it a night and planned on spending the next day on the beach.

I got up early and after I got ready I went straight to the          mall? Well, in order to go to the beach I was in dire need of something that I had been without my entire break; flip-flops. There was this really big and nice mall, Nice-Etoile, really close to my hostel and so I went there first thing and found the best looking pair of cheap flip-flops I could find and went back to the hostel to drop off my shoes. I put on my board shorts, grabbed a towel, shades, and ipod and headed to the beach.

It was still pretty early and so I decided to spend some time walking the way down the boardwalk I hadn’t been yet while the sun was still heating up. I had been warned about what I would see at the beach, but it was more extreme then what I thought it would be. And by this I mean naked people all over the beach. At first it wasn’t to bad while it was still early, but as the sun started to warm up, the tops started to fall off. By naked I guess I mean mostly just topless women with the occasional thongs and then men in speedos. And while I thought this might be a good thing, it really wasn’t at all. Were not talking college girls playing volleyball and frolicking topless in the sun (there were a few though), but more of big 50-year-old women with their saggies out. It was really quite hard to ignore too; they were everywhere. I did see plenty of good-looking women, but they were definitely over-shadowed by the older ones. By the time the sun was at its peak I would say at least 50% of the women were topless.

After walking up and down the boardwalk for a little while I found a nice little spot of the beach to claim as my own (that didn’t have any gross boobs to close) and I took my shirt off and laid down to get my bronze on. After a while of sunbathing I was getting a little hot and decided to test out the Mediterranean waters. I figured it would still be a little chilly, but there were a good number of people in the water and so I tried it out. I got about waist deep in it and decided that was enough and got out and back into the warmth of the sun.

I spent a couple of hours on the beach and after getting bored enough and realizing that this was the first time I had had my shirt off in a long time, I figured I better get out of the sun before I turned lobster red. I then took my time slowly wandering back towards my hostel while exploring parts of the city I hadn’t yet been too. I also grabbed a bunch of fruit for an afternoon meal from an open-air market.

After getting back to my hostel I hung out there for a while and talked with some of the people in my room for a while longer. I also realized that I had definitely got plenty of sun while on the beach and had my first burn of the year. I then decided to join the two American girls who were studying in Paris for the night. We weren’t sure what we were going to do, but the first thing was to find some food. The girls kept talking up this fast-food chain Italian place that was just in France and was supposed to be amazing. It was quite a far walk away but we headed towards it. By the time we finally got to it we had missed closing time by 15 minutes.

We were in a cool little area of town that I had yet to see at night yet and it had a ton of outside seated places to eat and we picked a nice looking local one. For dinner we had a bottle of French wine and I went for a traditional meal of a  falafel filled with meat, eggs and all sorts of stuff, delicious! After dinner we went to the center square of Nice to meet up with one of the girls friends from Paris who was just getting into town.

We weren’t sure if we wanted to go find a club to party at for the night or just chill, but we ended up deciding on just going down to the beach and taking it easy. We sat and talked about our travels and adventures and what not for a good two hours on the beach. The two original girls had just come from Barcelona and that is where I was going after France. I was already excited to go, but they really built it up as the greatest place on Earth. They kept talking about how cool the city was, how great the beaches were, how crazy the clubs are and one kept bringing up her Spanish “boyfriend” (She met a Spanish dude who she spent the entire 4 days with while there).

These girls weren’t quite my type of people. They were more of the rocker-chick types with piercings, tattoos and fuck the system attitudes. But they were fun and interesting none-the-less to hang out with for the night.

The next morning I woke up early, ate breakfast, got ready and packed my messenger bag and headed to the train station. The plan for the day was to spend the morning until early afternoon in Cannes and then the rest of the day in Monaco.

It was about a 20-minute train ride to the city of Cannes. As most of you probably recognize, Cannes is famous and known for as the home to the world-famous film festival. What was once a fishing village, now turned millionaires playground, Cannes hosts the International Film Festival every May.

When I got to Cannes I first headed towards the beach. I went down onto it and tested out the water with my feet and walked down it for a little while. The sand there was perfect. Once again I came across way to many top-less women though, even though it was still early in the day. I then walked down the seafront promenade, La Croisette, for a while and took a stroll around the Vieux Port and checked out the ginormous yachts from ports all over the globe.

After the port I came to the main auditorium for the film festival. On the plaza in front of the auditorium there was a big event happening put on by Sony. The 2009 Cannes Sony World Photography Awards were currently going on and they were putting on the big display to promote themselves. Directly in front of the auditoriums red-carpeted front stairs was a stage. On the stage there were a group of four 20-year old-ish kids performing. Two of them were the top girl and guy trick footballer in the world and the other two were two of the top parkour athletes in the World.

There were performances going on every hour and I watched one right as I got there. The two footballers were doing crazy ball tricks that I had never even seen before. Then the two parkour guys started running, jumping and doing flips all over the place. For those of you who don’t know what parkour is a relatively new sport that is especially popular in Europe. An Internet source defines it as an activity with the aim of moving from one point to another as smoothly, efficiently and quickly as possible, using principally the abilities of the human body. But it is basically running and jumping off of things, onto things, from building to buildings, and doing flips off of any obstacle. Lot of examples of it can be found on youtube, but another one would be the opening chase scene of the newer Bond film Casino Royale.

The two guys I watched were really good and were doing things that you wouldn’t think would be physically possible. I had watched and been amazed by a good amount of it online, but seeing it in person is insane.

I then went into the giant Sony tent that was set up right next to the stage. Inside the tent they had on display tons of cameras and people trying to sell them. But the main attraction inside for me was the UEFA Champions League football trophy. This is one of the most prestigious football trophies in the world (only behind the World Cup Trophy) and I had been following the league pretty closely and it was currently in the semi-finals stage. They had a professional Sony photographer taking pictures of people standing next to the giant trophy with a soccer ball in their hands too. The people would then get a print off of the picture inside a nice little Sony folder. I had been watching for a while trying to figure out if this was free or not, and I finally decided that I thought it was, so a got in the short line and waited my turn to get my picture taken with the trophy. It ended up being free and I got a sweet 9×11 print off picture to take with me. Such a cool little surprise.

I then climbed the red-carpeted front stairs to the main auditorium, got my picture taken in front of it and stood in the spot where Ari Gold and Vinny Chase sold the film Medellin for 1 dollar on Entourage. I then got some food from a street vendor and went back to the beach to chill out for a little while.

At about 2pm I took the hour train ride back trough Nice and to Monaco. Monaco is a tiny independent principality, and it is the 2nd smallest country in the world behind the Vatican City. Monaco is the name of the country as well as the capital city. It is ruled by Prince Albert II and is the world’s most densely populated country, with much of this due to it being a tax-haven.

I had heard from other people in my hostel that it might not be a great time to go to Monaco because there was a tennis tournament going on. This tournament happened to be actually a big event and Rafeal Nadal ended up winning a few days later for I believe like his 5th straight time. I did not run into any trouble with the tennis crowd though.

Monaco is only 3 kilometers long, which I pretty much walked the length of along the beaches and boardwalks in under an hour. Probably the most popular, as well as most well-known, area of Monaco is Monte Carlo. This was the area I was in for the majority of my time in Monaco. It is also where most locals live and also where many of the luxurious hotels are too.

While in the Monte Carlo area I went down onto one of the beaches. I had read how all the beaches in Monaco are artificial and made of imported sand, so I was expecting an amazing beach. While it was nice, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Instead of a pure white, finely grain sand, it was actually made up of small pebbles (much smaller than in Nice). I walked around the beach and boardwalk area of Monte Carlo for a while and enjoyed the perfect weather.

Next I went by the famous Le Grand Casino. This is supposed to be one of the most famous casinos in the world and has helped put Monte Carlo on the map. Two James Bond films, Never Say Never Again and Goldeneye, feature the casino in them for part of the movie. The casino is absolutely massive and looks more like palace then a gambling facility. I was tempted to go try to double up the money in my pocket a few times on a roulette table, but I withheld temptation.

Monaco is also very well-known for the Monaco Grand Prix, a Formula One race. This is one of the most prestigious, important (forms the Triple Crown of Motorsports with the Indy 500 & the 24-hours of Le Mans) and dangerous races in the world. It races around the tight streets and corners of Monaco with lots of elevation changes and a section through a long tunnel (which I walked through). The course takes quite some time to set up, and while I was there they were in building giant grandstands in the harbour, that would be transferred to different parts of the city closer to race time. I have heard from people that it is one of the most ridiculous and expensive sporting events you could want to ever attend. It is not even suppose to be that good for the spectators to watch, but I guess if you’re a baller and could afford it and then still have enough cash to enjoy yourself at the giant casino afterwards, more power to you.

Also, for those football (soccer) enthusiasts, the great American soccer prodigy, Freddy Adu, plays for Monaco’s football team in the French Ligue 1. I didn’t run into him.

After a few hours in Monaco, I headed back to the train station and boarded a train back to France. I can safely say that this was the least amount of time I ever spent in one country, as well as it being the smallest country I have ever been in. I liked Monaco a lot, but it was definitely not meant to be a place for a backpacker like me. One difference I noticed about Monaco from Cannes and Nice was that there were a ton more families there it seemed like (meaning a ton of kids there). And I am sure that all of the families were insanely rich. But I actually was able to visit one of the richest countries in the world and not spend a single cent.

On arrival back in Nice that evening I went back to my hostel and chilled for a little bit. I then headed back towards the Italian fast food place I had tried to go to with the girls the previous night. I had seen that it was open later on this night, and I barely made it in time and got a big box of chicken carbonara. For the price it was well worth it and delicious.

After I ate I spent the remainder of the night just walking around the boardwalk, beach and parts of the city I hadn’t been to yet. I got back to my hostel eventually and hung out with the girls from Paris for a while and watched a movie with them. The next day I got up early and spent the day traveling along the Mediterranean by train to Barcelona, Spain.

The south of France was totally different than any part of my backpacking trip I had been to yet, but I loved it. Instead of the traditional tourist sites (castles, forts, bridges, cathedrals and clocks), this was more of a just relax on the beach and enjoy the weather part of the trip. My whole trip I had had great weather, and my time in France was the best of it. I got to spend time on three totally different styles of beaches (surrounded by gross boobs) and catch plenty of rays. I once again met some really interesting people and ate some great local food too. Out of the three places I visited there (Nice, Cannes, Monaco) I would say that Cannes was actually my favorite, and also had the best beach. Maybe someday I will be going back to Cannes to take part in the film festival as an actor/agent/director/paparazzi/entourage member, who knows!?

Switzerland

May 1, 2009

After overextending my Munich stay by two nights, I was ready to head to Switzerland. All along my trip I pretty much knew which cities I wanted to try to go to, and could easily rattle off my plan on where I was going. One exception to this all along the way though was Switzerland. I definitely wanted to go there, I just had no idea as to where in Switzerland. After taking in as much advice as possible from other travellers and friends who had gone there, I decided that the town of Interlaken definitely sounded like a good place to spend my time at. My overstay in Germany meant that I would have limited time in Switzerland, which was alright though because I had heard many a times how expensive it is and there the two things I really wanted to do there that I knew I could fit into one day. So after my train rides and transfers went off without a hitch once again, I was in Interlaken at 11pm on Saturday night the 11th.

The town of Interlaken is definitely the smallest place I have visited, only about 5,700 people actually live there, but it is one of Switzerland’s biggest tourist resort towns, especially for backpackers like myself. Interlaken is located in central Switzerland right in the heart of the Alps, and gets its name from being situation right between two lakes (Inter-between, Laken-Lake). Interlaken serves as the base for not only people looking to do the normal mountain resort things (ski, snowboard, hike), but also as a popular place for adventure seekers looking to do things such as skydive, river-rafting, paragliding and base-jumping. While I wish I could have snowboarded, it was an unrealistic dream for this trip. Going for a hike in the Alps was a given while I was there, but I wanted to make sure I was able to do at least one thing there that I have never done before and that would scare the shit out of most people to do.

I had booked one night in Interlaken at the Funny Farm Hostel on hostelword.com. I knew I would most likely stay two nights, but this wasn’t the hostel I really wanted to stay at so I just planned on finding one the next day for that night, since I knew Sundays aren’t hard to book hostels for. Upon my late night arrival in Interlaken, I immediately set off to find my hostel. I knew it was about a 15 minute walk, but I was not given very good directions besides that to the hostel. Interlaken also happened to be the one place I had been that my travel book didn’t have a map of. 45 minutes and a complete circle of the town later, I found my hostel. I was exhausted from a long day and not happy with my pseudo-tour of Interlaken while carrying my big backpack, so I got checked in and decided to just call it a night. I had a big day coming up anyway. 

A few different people I know from Wales who had gone to Interlaken earlier this break had gone paragliding while there and said it was the coolest thing they had ever done. I had thought that this was something that I might want to do and while in Munich Katie and Steve told me all about their experiences paragliding and they had convinced me. I have always wanted to go skydiving, but I have been pretty hesitant about it, and I figured paragliding would be either a good substitute or a stepping-stone to it.

First thing I did when I woke up Sunday morning was go to the “adventure desk” at my hostel. This was just an area set up where you can book pretty much any type of adventure activity you want. I did a little looking around and reading up on things to do, and then decided paragliding was definitely the way to go and reserved a spot for an hour later. I then went and got ready and was picked up from the hostel right at 1030am. The person who picked me up was a dude from South Africa and was driving a mystery-machine like van. I was the first he picked up and it was nice talking to him for a while about everything from rugby to life in South Africa compared to Switzerland. The next two people we were suppose to pick up ended up being no shows so we then went to the place where I would get my equipment and meet the instructors.

This meeting point happened to be behind a family restaurant, you may have heard of it, Hooters? Not because the best way to calm pre-paragliding nerves is to eat wings and enjoy breasts (chicken duh), but because it is located right next to the large park where the landing point is at. There was one other guy there waiting, plus the two instructors, one for each of us. The other guy was a first timer and was from England, so we had plenty to talk about.

The paragliding is done tandem style, meaning you jump with an instructor strapped to you. My instructors name was Raymond. It just so happened that he also the instructor for one of my friends, Sean, who paraglided back in February. Raymond is one of the coolest guys I have met. He is born and raised in Switzerland and just has that no care in the world attitude and was really nice.

At this point, Raymond and the other instructor basically just gave us a run-down of what we were going to be doing and answered any questions we had. They then had us change shoes to some boots, only because it sometimes is muddy at the jump point. We then got loaded back up in the van with the parachute packs and drove up the mountain for about 20 minutes and then walked 10 more minutes to the jump point.

To give you a better idea of exactly what paragliding is; it is basically a combination of skydiving, base-jumping and hang-gliding. The biggest difference between it and skydiving and base-jumping is that there is no free fall. A paraglider is a free flying, foot launched aircraft. The pilot of it, and in this case the pilot and me, sit in a harness that is suspended below a fabric wing, which is shaped by the dozen or so suspension lines and the air entering the vents in the front of the wing. To begin the flight, you stand on a cliff/high hill/mountain ridge that gives you enough room to have a running start with the wing placed behind you, and then run and jump/float off the edge. You then have two handles to control the direction and speed and you descend back down towards Earth.

So we got to the top of one of the mountains overlooking Interlaken that had a nice grassy ridge on it. There were already about 4 other paragliders, both singles and tandem, getting ready to jump. Raymond and I got in line and started to prepare for our departure. He first strapped me into my harness and gave me my helmet, then laid out our chute and then strapped himself into his harness and helmet. There was really not much of a safety introduction or much of an explanation of exactly what to do prior to this either. I did ask him a few questions, like about how much air-time we would have, and he said usually 10 minutes airborne, 15 if we lucky with the winds. I was a little bit nervous about doing this, but once we got up the mountain there really wasn’t any time to worry, it was all business.

From there Raymond strapped us both in to the chute and told me to watch what other people were doing. He also tied my camera safely to a string so I was able to hold it and take pictures and videos while we were flying. Raymond also had his own camera, and he had made this thing for it where he had it placed on the end of about a four-foot pole and could control the camera from the handle. He had said that he was going to take pictures and videos while we were flying also, and that I should take mine too, but if I liked his better that I could buy a dvd with all of them on it from him at the end. I told him to go ahead and shoot away, but I was thinking at this point I will have plenty of good pics/vids from my own camera and I didn’t need to purchase any.

 Raymond then told me what we going to do to take off. This basically consisted of waiting for the right wind, then running towards the end of the cliff, not jumping, but waiting for the wing to catch air and lift us. We waited for the wind to be good and before I knew it we were running towards the cliff. It felt like we just ran off of a cliff and never fell. I liked his style, no bullshit, all business.

Our takeoff went perfectly and I then felt the greatest rush of adrenaline ever. I was actually paragliding in the Swiss Alps. I’ve never felt such an excitement, it was absolutely unbelievable. Right away Raymond explained that we had caught a really good wind, so he was able to keep us up the highest point for a good amount of time. We circled around for a few minutes as high as we could and then gradually started our descent back towards Earth. I was telling him the whole time to keep us in the air for as long as possible, but don’t make it boring, swing us around and stuff. He took this to mean steer us straight towards the side of a cliff and scare the shit out of me and then turn and barely miss it at the last-minute. He was good.

Before we started and while in air Raymond kept saying too how he hoped we made it to the landing point. I don’t think he was joking at all, he actually sometimes gets bad wind and misses the landing mark and has to hope to avoid trees and buildings. We were good though and on course for the square by Hooters in the center of Interlaken that served as the landing zone.

After he had us on the correct line for the landing zone he let me take hold of the controls. He was telling me what to do and allowing me to swing side to side and do some circles. Raymond had been taking videos and pictures the whole time, as was I, but this gave him a chance to take a lot while his hands were completely free. I didn’t know I would get to steer the glider, so that was a nice little surprise and was really fun. When we were only a couple hundred feet from the ground when he finally took back the controls from me.

I then thought we were just going to slowing glide down towards the landing spot, but instead Raymond decided to make it a little more interesting by swinging us way up to one side and then dropping us. This actually felt like a real free fall and was a little bit scary, but the chute would soon catch the wind full and we’d be back to normal. He did this a few times as we got real close to the ground; maybe because it was a little dangerous and he figured that if he screwed up bad enough the fall probably wouldn’t kill us from this height. I think it was at this point that I realized I didn’t sign any health waivers…

Raymond then brought us down for a nice clean landing where we just got our feet ready and caught ourselves with a few steps and then jogged forward a little bit to make sure the chute didn’t land on us. After a big high-five to Raymond and his recommending me as a paraglider pilot to the camera, I asked how long we had been airborne. I had no idea, I was loving it so much I had lost total track of time, it felt as though we were up there for an hour. He checked his watch and said we had a good one of 15 minutes, 5 over the average. I absolutely loved every minute of it.

I then checked the pictures and videos I had on my camera, and then Raymond gave me his camera to look at while he packed up the chute and we walked over to Hooters. As I looked at his pics/vids I realized they were much much much better then mine, mainly because of his long camera pole, and the lots of practice from doing it multiple times a day, so I ended up buying them from him. The hostel had screwed up on my deposit too, which saved me 30 Francs, which was the price of the pictures and videos so it ended up being pretty much free. He then burnt me a dvd with everything on it and I thanked him once again and I was on my way.

Paragliding is the coolest thing I have ever done, and not only that, if I could choose anyplace in the World to do it, I think it would be in the stunning Swiss Alps

I then headed back towards my hostel to get my backpack and on the way to it was the Interlaken Villa Hostel, the one I had heard great things about and had wanted to stay at. I checked to see if they had availability for that night and they did, so I reserved a bed. I then went and got my bag from luggage storage at the other hostel and went back to the Villa and checked into my room.

After getting settled there, I talked to the hostess about things to do and where would be a good place to spend the afternoon hiking. She ended up pulling out like 5 different maps, brochures and train/tram timetables and gave me like a whole presentation on possible things to do and what she suggested to do for the rest of the day. I took her advice and took everything with me, as well as two pockets full of the free chocolate bunnies for lunch that they had out on the counter, and I was off.

I started off by taking a scenic train ride farther up into the mountains to where I would start my hike. From there I started hiking through a river valley between some of the most impressive mountains in the area. On one side of me was the Jungfrau mountain region, which at one peak is the highest train station and viewing area in Europe called the Jungfraujoch. This is endlessly touted as the top of Europe and is one of Switzerland’s main tourist attractions, but it takes 6 hours to get to from Interlaken and way to expensive for me, especially after my costly paragliding experience. On the other side of the valley there were a few resort towns halfway up the mountains and then another high train station/viewing area, which is often promoted as place where a James Bond movie scene has been filmed.

My plan was to hike the 2 hours (what signs said it was) through the valley, with one stop on the way, and then take a cable car halfway up the mountain to one of the resort towns and then hike back along the paths between those towns and then back down on a cable car to a train station and then about 5 hours later be back at Interlaken.

This valley was spectacular. The small river cutting through it was beautiful, there were hundreds of feet tall waterfalls all around me and then not to mention just the fact that I was in the Swiss Alps. There were also a lot of base jumpers landing all around me who were coming from the cliffs on both sides. It was kind of scary sometimes because you wouldn’t know they were coming, and then all of a sudden I would hear a thunder like noise, which was there chutes opening, and they wouldn’t open them until the last second. Some had the body suites on which connected your arms and legs with wing like appendages so they could literally fly for a while, which was amazing to watch. Maybe I’ll try that next time!..

After about an hour of hiking through this valley, I once again randomly ran into an American from Swansea. This guy’s name was Nick and was from Rogers State. He was coming from the other direction and had basically done the same hike that I was just starting but the opposite way. We talked for a good while there and then decided we would try to meet up later. I asked him where he was staying, and it happened to be the same hostel, same room and the bed right next to mine. So random. That made it easy in that we would just meet in our room later that night. He also suggested going to these glacier waterfalls that were hidden back in one of the cliffs. The lady at the hostel also told me to go to them and they were just ahead of where I was at so that was my next stop.

The glacier waterfalls were called Trummelbach. They were set back in the side of one of the mountains along the valley I was hiking through and it cost about 5 Franks to go see. There were actually 10 different waterfalls in all and they  drained the mighty glacier defiles of the three peaks above. I got my ticket and was taken up to the top of them by a tunnel lift thing. I then went through a labyrinth of caves that gradually led back down to the valley and had lots of viewing areas of the waterfalls. I had really never seen anything like this and the pictures I took don’t really do justice to how cool it really was, but the videos do help somewhat. I read that this also happens to be the only glacier waterfalls in a mountain that is still accessible in Europe.

After the glacier waterfalls I continued my hike on to the end of the valley. At the end was a small village and a cable car station. I took one of the cable cars halfway up one of the mountains to another small resort village.  From there I hiked back the way I came, but this time I was halfway up the mountain hiking with a cliff overlooking the valley on one side and the steep mountain on the other.

It was getting a little late in the day and so I only saw 2 other people on my entire hike on the side of the mountain. The views from this trail were astonishing though. The weather in the valley had been absolutely perfect and no snow at all, but once I got up here the temperature dropped a considerable amount and the ground was snow-covered. It took me a couple of hours to hike all the way back to the next village that had a cable car, which I took back down to a village that had a train station. From there I took a train ride back down to Interlaken.

Once I got back to Interlaken I headed back to my hostel. At the lobby of the hostel I ran into Nick. The hostel had a free cappuccino/coffee/espresso machine and even though I don’t really drink that crap, Nick and I sat and had a mug (I’ll take whatever’s free) and talked about our travels and what not. After a while of talking we both decided we were hungry and decided to go find somewhere to eat. Since it was Easter Sunday not to many things were open, and so we ended up settling on Hooters.

At Hooters I had wings, of course, and the TVs actually had ESPN America on, which was showing the NHL. This was the first time I had seen ESPN for a long long time, but even though it was just hockey it was still nice to see. Wings were good, as for the Hooters girls, not the greatest.

I would like to point out that I was now in the 4th week of my break and this was the first time I had eaten anything at all that can be even close to considered an American restaurant/chain/eating establishment. One of my goals for my backpacking trip was to completely stay away from American places. Mainly I really just wanted to stay away from American fast-food places, which I did. I figured this would force me to totally immerse myself in foreign culture’s cuisines. By this I mean I always wanted to eat at local places and get traditional meals, and other than that I would eat fresh food from markets and then my free hostel breakfasts. So I broke this goal somewhat by eating at Hooters, but hey, we had limited options and how many people can say that they’ve eaten at a Hooters in the Swiss Alps?

After dinner we headed back to the hostel and sat in the commons area and hung out for a little bit then called it a night. I woke up in the morning and fully took advantage of the above average free breakfast spread that the hostel had. I had a train to catch at 10am and by the time I left I had totally stuffed my self. Part of the reason for this was that I was out of Swiss Franks and didn’t want to have to go to the ATM before I got out of Switzerland that afternoon and back to the Euro, so I wanted to be travelling on a full stomach.

I was then off to the South of France. My train ride consisted of train switches in Bern and Geneva, Switzerland. I spent most of these train rides reading a book that an Aussie in my Munich hostel gave to me. The book was an undercover investigation into the current Italian Mafia. It was really interesting to read, especially since I’ve now been to many of the places that were talked about in the book. Totally randomly, one of the guys I sat next to on the ride from Geneva to Nice was reading the same exact book, but in French. I made some “were reading the same book” motion to him, and he smiled and said something in French, and I had no idea what he was talking about so I just gave him a “haha yeah” laugh and then he looked at me weird. Damn Frenchies.

I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Switzerland, but overall I loved the country. The biggest downfall and buzz kill of it was that it was really expensive though. If it weren’t for that I would probably say it has been my favourite country so far. The whole place is absolutely beautiful, from each and every train ride, to looking out my hostel windows, hiking in the Alps, and then to flying high above the Alps it was spectacular. The paragliding was definitely the best thing I did during my break and probably the coolest thing I have ever done in my life. I had said before how I have always wanted to skydive, and I was extremely tempted to after how much I enjoyed paragliding. But two main things kept me from doing so; I didn’t quite have the money to do another expensive thing like that and I didn’t want to ruin my paragliding experience by either having skydiving totally overshadow it or have a bad time and ruin my day. But paragliding in the Swiss Alps = Huge thumbs up!

It was now time for some relaxing fun in the sun in the South of France.

Germany- Bavarian Fairy Tale Castles

April 29, 2009

On Saturday, April 11th, I took a day trip from Munich to the fairy tale castles of Schloss Hohenschwangau and Schloss Neuschwanstein. To get to the castles, I took an early morning 2-hour train ride to the town of Fussen, located in the very southern part of Bavaria. From there, I got on a bus that took about 15 minutes to get to the location of the castles, which happened to be located within walking distance from each other. I also had to get back to Munich that night to catch a train to Switzerland, so I was a little bit pressed for time.

I arrived at the village located at the base of the two castles at about 10:30am. I started first with the Hohenschwangau Castle. It had a much shorter walk up to it, about 10 minutes from the base, and it was much less impressive than the other castle, but tremendous none-the-less. The Castle was originally built in the 12th century, but heavily restored in the 19th and it is where King Ludwig II spent his childhood.

I got up to the castle and took a look around its courtyards and different areas that were accessible without paying for the actual tour. It was a little expensive to tour the castle, and I have toured my fair share, so with my lack of time and money I decided to pass on the guided tours of both of the castles. I did get good views and pictures of the other castle though too.

After a little time at the Hohenschwangau Castle, I walked back down to the village and checked out how to get up to the other Castle. It sits much higher up on the mountain, but I was sure it had to be walk-able. I saw a lot of people loading up on buses and horse-drawn buggies to go up to it, but I read somewhere it was only a 25 minute walk, so I found the right path and started my hike.

The Neuschwanstein Castle is the ultimate storybook turreted castle. It also happens to be the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. King Ludwig II began construction on it during the 19th century, but it was left incomplete at his death. The castle is absolutely incredible. It sits on top of the rugged hill in the middle of the mountain range and is an astonishing view from every angle.

It was a perfect weather day outside, and after my nice hike up to the Castle I spent some time getting pictures of all sides of it from the outside. I read somewhere that this Castle is the most photographed building in Germany. Since it was such a nice day today, it was pretty busy, but I also read that it receives something like 6,000 visitors a day during the summer. It was busy enough on this day and I’m sure there was maybe only half of that there at that point of the day, so I am glad I was there when I was and not during the summer. The only negative about visiting this time of year is the lack of surrounding scenery. I have seen amazing pictures of the Castle during both snowy winters and green summers that look stunning, but at this time of the year the trees still lacked leaves or fall color, but the Castle was still an amazing spectacle.

I then made it inside the Neuschwanstein’s front gates and had a look around the courtyards, passageways and other areas that were allowable without paying. I took a ton of pictures of the Castle, myself, and the surrounding areas and mountains while up there. After a while of exploring the Castle, I headed back down to the village to get something to eat (beer n’ bratwurst) and catch a bus back to Fussen.

Once getting back to the town of Fussen I had about 40 minutes to kill before my train back to Munich. I used this time to walk around the town and explore. I wasn’t expecting much from it, but I found a nice little bustling ped-mall like area that was filled with tourists, which makes sense seeing how this is the base town for one of Germany’s most popular tourist destinations. After wandering around this area for a while I headed back to the train station and got aboard my train to head back to Munich, where I would then catch my train out of Germany to Switzerland.

Salzburg, Austria

April 27, 2009

On Friday, April 10th I took an hour and a half train ride from Munich to Salzburg, Austria. This was another place I was really looking forward to going to. I haven’t heard of any of the other Americans at Swansea traveling to Salzburg, so it was somewhere a little different to travel to, but I had my reasons to go. Salzburg is where Ashley studied abroad at a few years ago and my mom visited her there, so it is a place they both know well, especially Ashley of course. She had somewhat helped me plan my spring break and the places I should go, and then had told me what and where to go and do while I was in her old stomping grounds.

I got into the Salzburg station at about 9:30am so I had a full day of exploring ahead of me. The train station is to the north of the center of the city, and when I arrived I made the about 15 minute walk to it. This happens to be around the Salzach River that cuts the city in half. As I got to the river, I finally got my first good view of the Prague Fortress I had heard so much about. It sits on a rocky hill high above the other buildings and totally dominates the skyline of this small city. I then continued on my way towards it and across the Staatsbrucke, the main bridge.

After crossing the river, I ended up in Mozartplatz. Salzburg is the home to Wolfgang Mozart, and if you didn’t know so upon arrival, you would soon because you are constantly being bombarded with everything Mozart. The Mozartplatz is a square dedicated to him, and is home to a statue of him, and is overlooked by the Glockenspiel. Just like in Munich, it is a large musical clock that chimes every so often throughout the day. I was able to catch the 11am performance of it and it was pretty neat.

Next to this is the Residenzplatz, which is home to the gigantic Residenz building, the former living quarters of Salzburg’s archbishops. From there I inched my way closer to the Fortress through some arches and into another square, the Domplatz. This square is dominated by the light marble façade of the Dom. On this square is also the Franziskanerkirche, which houses an earlier Madonna and Child, which I never got a chance to go in and see. I then continued on to yet another square, the Kapitelplatz, and I then was at the base of the rocky hill to start my climb up to the Fortress.

I then started my hike up to the Salzburg Fortress, or Hohensalzburg as it officially known as. After making my way up to the fort, I wandered around its courtyards, ramparts and passageways for a little while, and then paid for an audio-guided tour of the staterooms and museum. I learned all about the Hohensalzburg and how it was first built in 1070 to provide refuge for the city’s archbishops, but gradually transformed into a respectable courtly seat. The best part about this tour was the climb up to the forts tallest tower and the subsequent views from the platform on top of it. From the viewing platform you can see all of Salzburg, as well as get a great view of the Alps that surround Salzburg.

On my way back down from the Fort I went by Mozart’s Geburtshaus. This is where Wolfgang was born and lived until he was 17. I then crossed back across the river and went to Mozart’s Wohnhaus, his house for the next 14 years of his life. I then grabbed lunch from a market (some cheesy brat thing that Ashley told me to get) and sat by the river and ate it and decided what to do with the rest of my day.

Besides Mozart, the one other thing that is constantly being shoved down your throat in Salzburg is The Sound of Music. The film was shot all around the area and Salzburg wastes no time cashing in on its connection with the crazy singing Von Trapp family. I do have to say though, I was very, very close to signing up for an afternoon bus tour of key locations of the film while being played the soundtrack over and over, and as I was doing so I was also questioning my manhood, so I immediately puffed out my chest and walked away with my manly pride still in check.

I decided instead to just take a bus out into the countryside and find a nice little mountain town to check out. Salzburg and the areas around it are also well known for their salt mines (hence Salz in the name). My bus ended up going to by a salt mine that you can tour so I decided to get off and check it out and I then signed up for a guided tour. For the tour I had to put on a full body white suit and the tour started off by taking a mini-sized train ride into a mountain. The tour was led by some crazy guy who kept speaking in like 4 different languages to please everyone, and he was really goofy and a little bit funny.

As we got deep into the mountain the guide was telling us the history of Salzburg and the salt mines and how they came about and have come to support the area. To get even further underground we took a couple rides down 60-foot long wooden slides. These were actually pretty fun to ride too. About half-way through the tour we actually crossed a line that was the Austrian-German border. We then took a boat ride across a salt-water lake that was inside the mountain. At some point along the tour we also were told to run our fingers along the wall and to taste it, and I’ll try anything once, so I did, it was pure salt! This tour lasted about an hour and was pretty cool. I was given a little saltshaker filled with salt from the mountain and it was called Kristall Salz Fein.

After the tour of the salt mine I got back on a bus and took it towards this viewing point of Hitler’s Eagles Nest. This is a place he had built in the 1930s as a place for him to relax, have meetings or hideout. It was way up on a mountain peak and looked nice, but you can only get up there from April to October because of the snow. I then took a bus back towards Salzburg and on the way I stopped at some random mountain town and had a walk around it for a while. There wasn’t much to see there except for the awesome Alps that shot up around it and boxed it in. It was then time for me to head back to Salzburg and do one more thing.

One last thing that Ashley told me I had to do in Salzburg was to go to the Augustiner Brau and get a beer. She had called it the Augustiner Brewery and so I was thinking it would be more of an actual brewery that I would tour or something. But when I got there it turned out to actually be a large beer garden and hall, much like the ones in Munich. This was perfectly fine though because I didn’t have a whole lot of time before I needed to catch a train back to Munich, but just enough for some food and a beer. I got myself a Mass of beer and then an order of fried shrimp and fries (being a good Catholic on Good Friday). I found myself a seat in the beer garden next to some locals and enjoyed my food, beer a little conversation, and the last of my time in Salzburg. Easily one of the top 5 beers I have ever consumed. I then headed back to the train station to catch a ride back to Munich.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to Salzburg. I am happy I got to spend some time in the place where my sister lived for half a year and it was a little different than many towns I’ve been too. It did have the basics that most European towns have – Castle/Fort, Bridge and Cathedral, but Salzburg definitely had more of a friendly, small town feel to it.

Germany- Dachau Concentration Camp

April 26, 2009

On Thursday, April 9th I took a guided tour of the Dachau concentration camp. I had no real plans to visit Dachau during my time in Bavaria, but it seemed as though every traveler I talked to went and loved it or was planning on going, and every local I talked to made it seem as though it is an absolute must to see. After hearing my previous tour guides talk about it and then winning a free tour, it was a must for me and I was excited to go learn about it.

Dachau is located about 10 miles northwest of Munich. It was a Nazi German concentration camp and was the first one opened, in 1933. It first focused on housing political prisoners, but as WWII hit full swing its population exploded. Around 200,000 prisoners total from 30 countries, with 2/3rd being political prisoners and the other 1/3rd being Jewish. Over 25,000 are believed to die here, but it was not a termination camp, so there are countless thousands that were shipped off to other camps just to be executed. Dachau was the only camp to be open the entire 12-year rule of Hitler and the Nazis, and it, along with Auschwitz, has come to symbolize the Nazi concentration camps.

I arrived at the tour meeting point for the 10am tour and there were about 12 of us total. It cost 17 Euros for the tour/transportation/Dachau entrance, but since I had won the beer challenge the night before, mine was free. Our tour guide’s name was Iian who was from Australia. We took a 15 minutes train ride from the city center to the city of Dachau. We then took a short bus (time not bus length title judging the mental capacity of those riding it) ride to the site of the concentration camp.

Iian was the head tour guide for the walking tour that I went on the day before and so I heard him give the 5 minutes introduction speech to everyone, but then he led a different group. At that time he was very charismatic and hilarious, but today he was a much different guide. He was very sullen and remorseful, but also very passionate of what he was talking about and what we were doing. I talked to him a lot throughout the tour, and he talked about how he had to give this tour 2 times a week and he absolutely hated it. He said how hard it was to have to just live this close to a place like this, but also have to talk about it and expose the evils of it twice a week. But he explained how he thought that everyone needed to see what not only happened here, but what is possible of happening in this World, and also that he just needed to distance himself from it on a regular basis to stay sane.

Dachau is the most well preserved Nazi concentration camp as well as the most accessible of any of them today. This was good in that it meant we got to get a real sense of what it was like here and see a lot of the buildings and areas. We started off by the front gates. Here there were railroad tracks you could still see where prisoners would be brought in on. And then the gates hold Dachau’s most famous image – the words “Arbeit macht frei,” or Work will set you Free. Dachau was first and primarily a work camp, and this is the first image prisoners would see when they arrived. So they would think the harder they worked, the more chance of freedom they had, but really they would just be worked until they physically couldn’t anymore and then executed.

After going through the front gates we walked around roll call square and the general entrance area. We then went into the first building prisoners would go into, the reception area. This is where they would be stripped of all of their possessions, clothes, names and dignity and would be given their “number.” They had lots of the prisoner’s possessions that were found in this room on display. We then went into the shower room where prisoners would first be shaven of every single body hair and then given a shower. There was also one of the torture/punishment devices in here; a block with a wooden whip where many people had been beaten to death.

Next we took a tour of one of the few prisoner barracks that still was standing. They had on display examples of the 3 stages of Dachau (from early to late, as the number of prisoners escalated dramatically). The first showed things like the 3 level bunk beds, which had dividers and shelves for each prisoner, then the next that had less space and no dividers or shelves. And then the final stage where the beds were just 4 levels of wood on top of each other, where the capacity was suppose to be about 50 people per bunks, but in the height of the camp was actually around 200…

We then went into the prison barracks, an actual prison within a prison. There were rows of completely black and small cement rooms, where prisoners would be locked up in for weeks at a time and shot if they made even the smallest noise. Then we walked down the rows and rows of memorials on the spots of the former barracks. At the end there was a preserved section of the kill zone strip of grass (if you set foot on it or when a guard pushes you on to it, you’re shot dead) and barbwire fence. Then it was onto the grimmest part of the tour.

We then left the living and working area of the camp to go to the crematory and gas chamber buildings. There was one small crematorium off to the side, the original one, but as the numbers started rising at the camp, they had to build the much larger crematorium and gas chamber. Iian gave a long talk about what would exactly happen here, we saw pictures of the hundreds of body’s stacked up on the spot we were standing and smoke (human) coming out of the smoke stack we were looking at. Iian then gave us the option to go in and look around the large one if we wanted, or just stay outside and wait with him. He has said that he has gone in only once, and that was the last time he ever would, it was far too grim. He did say though that he felt it was important that we went in though and expose ourselves to the evils of it.

A couple people in the group choose to not go in, but I went in. This was one of the most horrifying things I have ever done. We actually walked through the same rooms and made the same progression that prisoners would. They were told that they were being sent here to get a shower, something that was very rare and much needed, so they would be excited to go. We walked through first a couple waiting rooms, where they would be stripped naked and wait their turn for their “shower.” They then would be filed into the shower room, which still had the fake showerheads (there was absolutely no plumbing, all fake), and then they would be killed with gas. The guards would then take the bodies into the next room, the crematorium. All of the original stoves were still in this room, complete with looks of wear and tear and human ashes. Very, very depressing stuff. It felt as though I was in there forever and I finally was able to escape out into the fresh air and we continued our tour.

Iian then took us around to some more memorials, such as the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant ones. We then went into the Dachau museum, where we spent awhile walking around and reading and learning different things, and then we watched a movie made by one of the America Generals who helped liberate the camp in 1945. Outside the museum there was a giant memorial to all of the prisoners of the camp. It basically looked like a bunch of skinny bodies entangled in barbwire. It was meant to represent the prisoner’s last stand. They really had no chance of surviving, but their lives were always in their hands and they could take that one last stand of fighting until the end and trying to escape.

Iian told us loads of amazing/cruel/grim/interesting stories throughout the tour. One he told at this memorial was about a prison that decided to take his life into his own hands and take a final stand. At roll call when the entire population of the camp was in the square he made a run for the fences. He was shot in the leg before the fence, but stood up and yelled at the guard in the tower, “You fucking piece of shit, you can’t even shoot straight, you’re supposed to hit me here (pointing to his chest).” He was then shot dead, but the entire square erupted into applause and cheers.

Right next to the memorial were the words, “Never Again,” in six different languages. The term Genocide was termed after what had happened during WWII, and these words were suppose to signify that we as humans should never ever again allow something like the holocaust to happen. Iian spoke very passionately about this and kept asking the question of how can it keep happening today (Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur)? He continually kept emphasizing that what we saw this day was not an example of what Nazis or Germans can do against political prisoners or Jews, but what human beings can do against human beings.

This tour was one of the most moving experiences and best things I have ever done. I came into Germany having no intentions of doing it, but I am so glad I did. I would have easily paid the price of admission to go on this tour, but not only did I get it for free, I had an amazing tour guide who was very passionate and knowledgeable about what he was talking about. The way he would talk about things you would think he was directly (I know everyone has been affected in some way by the holocaust) affected by the events that took place here, like he was visiting his grandparents death bed here, but he was just an Aussie from halfway around the world. I really didn’t get too much into many of the horror stories that Iian told us about different things that had happened here, but I’m sure everyone knows/assumes/can start to imagine the horrible events that would take place at a place like this on a daily basis.

Looking back, that free tour I took was one of the best decisions I have made in a long time. Not only was it amazing, but also it led me to going on the beer challenge (which was a hell of a time) that won me a free tour, which I used to go on Dachau, which was one of the most surprising and best experiences of my trip. I really enjoy learning about history, especially from knowledgeable people, and the tours I took were great. I am so glad I went on them; the guides were funny, passionate and even emotional. They really gave me a chance to get more insight into the underbelly of Munich, and especially Hitler and the Nazis, something I really enjoyed learning about.

Germany – Munich

April 25, 2009

On Tuesday April 7th I arrived by train to Munich, Germany. I really didn’t know much about Germans (other than they eat a lot of sausages and drink big beers) or much about Munich either (other than the ’72 Olympics and it was pretty much the home to the Nazis). I was still very excited to make my first trip to Germany though. I decided to stick to the southern part of Germany (Bavaria) on my trip and not go north and to places such as Berlin. Everyone I have talked to who has done both cities has said Munich is way better then Berlin, and from what I experienced in Munich and have continued to hear about Berlin, it was a great choice on my part.

I got off my train at about 7pm, easily found my hostel that was only one block from the station and checked-in. When I got up to my room to drop my stuff off, there was one other guy in it that was just arriving also. I started talking with him, and it turned out that he was from Iowa (Cedar Rapids, Lin-Mar HS) and went to the U of Iowa. Totally random. Turns out, his name is Eric, he is 29 I believe, graduated from Iowa 7 years ago with a double major in Economics and German, and is now working for a company somewhere in northern Germany. He was in Austria the day before on business and took a couple vacation days on his way back to spend some time in Munich.

He asked if I had any plans that night, and I just said I probably would just do my usual first night exploration of the city. He had been to Munich before and asked if I wanted to go with him to find a beer garden (it was a perfect night out) to sit in and have dinner and a couple brews. I decided to join him and we walked about 10 minutes to get to the city center. We went to the Augustiner Braustuben restaurant; I think it is like Munich’s second most popular beer hall. He picked this one because he said that the Hofbrauhaus (I’ll get to it later) was too touristy and this one would be more of a locals place.

We got a table in the beer garden and shared it with a nice German couple. Throughout our evening Eric kept speaking to them in German, and apologizing for leaving me out, but it was interesting to listen to them even though I had no idea what they were saying. Right when we sat down, Eric told me to order whatever I wanted and that he was paying for it. I was reluctant to accept at first, but I will take my free meals when I can get them, and he had said that when he was a student a guy did the same thing for him when he was traveling in Europe and he wanted to sort of return the favor. I guess a pay-it-forward type situation. I ended up just having him order me a real traditional German dish and his favorite German beer. In Germany you drink beer by the Mass (1 liter) and this night we had a few Augustiner Wheat beers. Besides maybe the Guinness at the top of the Guinness Brewery, this is the best beer I have ever had. For my meal, I have no idea what it was called, but it was marvelous. It was some sort of shell noodles and sausages and other meats and just absolutely delicious. The best dish I have had since being in Europe, combined with an amazing beer, good conversation, and to top it off it was all free thanks to Eric. Great start to Munich.

After dinner we walked around the city center for a little bit and found another place to sit outside and have a beer. After that we then called it a night and headed back to the hostel. But our night wasn’t exactly over; we decided to go down to the hostel basement, which had an actually really nice bar. Since I booked my room on hostelworld.com I received a wristband that gave me 24/7 happy hour at this bar, so we went and had a few drinks in the bar to finish the night/early morning. We also talked & drank for a while to two girls from Belarus. They really didn’t know much English, but it was fun listening to them try and hear about where they are from, and they may or may not have been very interested in me…

The next morning, I got up and had my free hostel breakfast and decided what to do for the day. Eric was going to the BMW museum and asked if I wanted to go too. I was very close to joining him, but instead I opted to go on a free walking tour of the city. There is a company that puts on English speaking tours all over Europe, and I hadn’t done one yet, but had wanted to, and I figured Munich would be a good place to go on one and learn about its history. I have always been very interested in Nazi Germany. The guide’s just work on a tips only basis, but also do other tours the company has that cost money and they get paid for, such as one to Dachau, a 3rd Riech tour, and a beer challenge; two of which I would go on later.

I got to the meeting point at the Marienplatz (very center of the city) for the 11am tour. There were probably about 60 people there, and we got divided up into groups of about 15 between the 4 guides. My guide was from Dallas, Texas, and actually sounded exactly like, as well as sort of resembled, Jonah Hill (fat kid from Superbad).

Oh and on my train ride to Munich, I sat by 3 girls from Vancourver, who I’m acted like they worshipped shows like Laguna Beach/The Hills and Chelsea Lately. Total bimbo, airhead blonds. One was even reading one of Chelsea Handler’s books. I talked with them for a while on the train ride, but the reason I bring this up is because they just happened to be in my same tour group. Even though they were a little annoying, it was good to have some people to talk to. Also we kept getting our tour guide to do Jonah Hill impressions, which he was really good at.

The walking tour lasted about 3 hours, and the guide was great. He had a vast knowledge of the city and was very interesting to listen to. Some of the bigger highlights of it were the Glockenspiel (church bell and mechanical performance like in Prague, but much better) at Neues Rathaus, St. Michael’s Cathedral (I believe this is where Pope Benedict got his start), Peterskirche, the Viktualienmarkt (huge open air food market selling everything you could want), the Hofbrauhaus (#1 beer hall in the world), Residenz and a museum’s front steps where Hitler gave all his big speeches in Munich.

A good thing about the tour too was that he showed us stuff I would have never seen or noticed if I hadn’t gone on it. Munich, unlike Berlin, is really still struggling with dealing with their past and coming to terms with what happened. Places like Berlin have huge statues and monuments commemorating events, both bad and good, but not Munich. Their way is to put plaques in totally out of the way places that you would never notice. One was on a wall of a random building and another was on the ground in some random square. The guide would tell us the stories behind the plaques and what great things these people did to earn them, but Munich is just still having a hard time dealing with what happened in during the World Wars and this is the way they still do things.

Munich was basically the starting point and home base of Hitler and the Nazis, and another interesting place we stopped on was the exact spot where in 1923 when Hitler was leading an up-rising and starting the Nazi party, he was shot at multiple times, but his body guard covered him up and took 11 bullets for him. Oh how the World would be different today if one of the bullets would have found its mark.

Towards the end of the tour, the guide took a few minutes to do what was basically a company promotion of the Dachau tours. I had thought about going, but it was kind of on the bottom of my list of things to do in Munich. I have very rarely ever heard someone talk about something so passionately though, or else he is just one hell of a salesman. He made it seem as though there is absolutely no way you can come this close to Dachau and now actually go see it. His speech he gave about it was so moving, you would have thought his grandparents had been prisoners, but he was actually just a young guy from Texas. But basically he totally convinced me and I put it into my schedule for the following day.

After the tour I had planned on meeting up with Eric, but I was running late and when I got there he had already left. We had talked about going to the Englicher Garten (a huge park to the northeast of the city center) so I just decided I would go there anyway and maybe I would run into him. The park is massive, but just so happens right as I was getting to it he was approaching me from the opposite way, pretty lucky. We then went into the Englicher Garten together.

Right at the beginning of it, I witnessed one of the coolest and most unexpected things I have ever seen. It is sort of hard to explain in writing, but basically there was a group of about 10 dudes surfing on the small river/canal that runs through the park. We were walking on the street at the south end of the park, and all of the sudden there was a big crowd watching something, the surfers. The water comes out from under the street we were standing on and there is something that creates a very turbulent rapid where the guys can jump from the shore onto their boards and ride it back and forth and what not on the same part of the canal for usually around 30 seconds. And when they fell they would get washed down the canal a little ways and stand up (it was only a few feet deep, and about 20 feet across) and climb out the side and come back to get in line to do it again. We stood and watched this, and took some pics and videos, and then continued on our way into the park. Urban surfing = Very cool.

The park had loads of people enjoying the nice weather, having picnics, playing football, and of course lots of drinking. In the middle of the park is one of the most popular beer gardens, the Chinesicher Turm (Chinese Tower). Situated around a Chinese Tower, obviously (which also had a traditional Bavarian brass band playing) was the beer garden with loads of tables, most of which were packed full of people. We found a spot and enjoyed a beer and some conversation with some Germans sitting next to us. We then headed back to the hostel to change and get ready for our activity we had planned that night.

At 6pm we went to the train station to the meeting point for the Munich Beer Challenge (ran by the same group as my free tour). This was like 10 euros to do, and basically it was a guided tour around the different beer gardens and halls of Munich, and you also got two free beers and a shot of Jaeger along the way. The first beer was bought for us at the train station, which we drank on the metro ride to the city center and walking through the streets to the first location (taking full advantage of Europe’s lack of open container laws).

Our first stop was at the Hofbrauhaus. This is Munich’s largest, and most famous (as well as probably the most famous in the World) beer hall/garden. It is pretty touristy, but there are still a lot of committed locals. And by that I mean that if someone goes to the Hofbrauhaus on a regular basis for 10 years, they get their own reserved place and also a storage locker for their drinking mug. We luckily found a table for all of us (I think there were about 12) and ordered a round. The guide was a girl from Toronto, and throughout the night, especially here, she was teaching us all sorts of things about the history of Munich and beer, the origins of Prost (cheers), drinking songs and just random knowledge nuggets. She also occasionally worked as a pretzel girl at the Hofbrauhaus too. The Hofbrauhaus was just an tremendous place though and a really good atmosphere; cool traditional music being played by a band, everyone merrily singing and Prosting, ladies dressed all up in the German skirts, stockings, cleavage, ponytails carrying around 10 liters of beer at once or a basket of pretzels.

After a couple drinks and a giant pretzel at the Hofbrauhaus, we moved on to a different beer garden, then to another, then to a beer hall, and then to a bar. I think we made it to five total drinking establishments. At the final stop is where the beer challenge part of the night came in. The guide had told us at the beginning of the night that whoever had exhibited the Munich spirit the best (singing, prosting, and just generally being the life of the party) and was having the most fun would be picked as the beer challenge champion and receive a voucher for a free tour to any of the company’s tours all across Europe. I had really wanted to go on the Dachau tour the following day, and so I tried my hardest to make it a free tour.

At the end of the night she said that there were two winners, but to decide who would get the free voucher they would have a beer challenge show down. She ended up picking me, and then an American girl too. I was thinking I had it won for sure, because it would make since that a beer challenge would come down to a chugging contest or something. But no, she instead decided to put our listening skills to the test. She asked us about 10 questions from different things she had told us about Munich/beer/Hofbrauhaus/drinking throughout the night. We were both equally drunk and equally terrible at answering the questions, but turns out I was a little less worse and won it. The final question was to have us sing the German’s famous Prosting song we had learned and recited throughout the night, and I ended up singing it a little better to take the title. After a little longer at the final bar, I started to head back to the hostel. I got a little lost on my way back and I seriously thought I was in the movie Beerfest and was about to find the hidden location of the beerfest. I swear I was really close. I also vaguely remember trying to convince a couple bouncers at an alley entrance to a club that my father owned the place and they better let me in or else.. But I eventually found my hostel.

The next morning, Thursday, I used my free voucher to go on the tour of Dachau. ———-Separate Post about this to come. Erik also left this morning to head back to work. We’re now facebook friends and he said to make sure to look let him know if I was ever back in Germany. This was originally planned to be my last day in Munich, but there was so many more thing I wanted to do, so before check out I booked two more nights in my hostel.

While on my walking tour the previous day, I very randomly ran (walked) into two Americans who are studying at Swansea from ISU. Steve and Katie, who were also staying at Cinque Terre with me, were on a bike tour at the same time and we just by chance crossed paths. We had no idea we were both in Munich at this time. So after I got back from my tour of Dachau I called them up and we planned to meet at the Hofbrauhaus for dinner and drinks at 8.

I had a couple hours to kill before I was supposed to meet them, so I headed to the city center to have a look around. I watched another Glockenspiel at the Neues Rathaus, and then decided to climb up the Peterskirche tower (St. Peter’s Cathedral). After about 300 steps I was at the top and had an amazing 360-degree view of Munich. You can see pretty much all of the city from it and I had no idea how cool it would be to see from that height. I stayed up there for quite awhile and took a seat to watch the sunset. I then realize no one else had been up there for a while and as I headed down the door was locked from the outside and it had been closed for about 30 minutes. Oops.

I then headed to the Hofbrauhaus to meet Steve and Katie for dinner. It took a little bit of search time, but we found ourselves a table and took a seat. I had a really good meal here of I believe it was called a Pork’s Knuckle, served with dumplings, gravy and a Mass of wheat beer. This was another absolutely delicious meal. We had a good time sitting and talking for a while about our travels so far; where we had been, what we had done, our favorite things and what not. I then called it a night and headed back to my hostel.

On Friday I got up very early and took an hour and a half train ride to Salzburg, Austria for the day. -I’ll post a separate entry about this as well. I got back late that evening and spent the rest of the night planning out most of the rest of my trip (booking hostels, deciding on train times), and talking with the people in my hostel (Aussies, Canadians, Norwegians and a Scotsman). The guy from Scotland was indefinitely traveling Europe and had a very simple plan. He would travel for as long as he could on the money he had, and once he ran out, he would play his accordion. Yes, he carried a gigantic accordion all over Europe with him. I even convinced him to let me try it out.

On Saturday I took an early train to Fussen, Germany. From there I got on a bus to go see Germany’s two most famous castles; the fairy tale book Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenschwanga. -Once again, I will post a separate entry about this day trip. That night I arrived back in Munich with just enough time to go collect my stuff from the hostel, grab a bite to eat (CurryWurst – Brat cut up into pieces covered in a ketchup like sauce and curry powder) and a couple post cards and jump on my next train to Switzerland. This also happened to be the Saturday night before Easter. When I was getting to the train station it was absolutely hectic inside and around it. There were at least a couple hundred police/national guard/military/riot control officers in formation around the station and in it. I had asked someone what was going on, and I couldn’t understand them very well, but it was something about how it was the night before Easter and Munich is a huge Catholic city, and so it is flooded with people on Easter. And not just Catholics, people looking to fight or protest them too, so that is the reason for the officers I suppose.

I kept a journal along my travels to not forget things, but so as I am writing this I am done with my backpacking trip and so I can officially say that Munich is my favorite place I have been in Europe. For some reason I have always had a negative disposition towards Germans and a general dislike for them (possibly the whole World Wars thing), but turns out they are remarkable people. All of the ones I ran into, conversed with, got served by were just very helpful, happy, funny and just had a general positive outlook on life it seemed like. And for Munich itself, while I was excited to go there, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot and it ended up blowing me away. I had known how the city had basically been blown to the ground during WWII and subsequently had to be completely rebuilt, but it was still an amazing looking city. This is also where I had the best food and drinks of my trip. Between the meals I talked about or just a brat from a street vendor, everything was delicious. I highly recommend Munich and I vow to return someday. Good stuff.

Posts to come soon about Dachau, Salzburg, Castles, and then the rest of my trip (Switzerland, South France, Barcelona).

Prague, Czech Republic

April 21, 2009

Sunday the 5th I arrived at my much-anticipated destination of Prague, Czech Republic. I have heard great things about the place from everyone I know who has been there, and so I was very excited to finally get there and see what it was all about. I was a little scared though that it would not live up to the buildup, but I soon found out, it was worth every bit of the hype and it was incredible.

Just by chance I happened to be arriving in Prague the same day that President Obama was speaking. I didn’t get there until his speech was over, and if I wouldn’t have known he was there, I wouldn’t have been able to tell he was. I was surprised I didn’t see any t-shirts, signs, or people worshipping him. I did talk to a couple of Americans who attended his speech and they claimed that it was “amazing and moving…”

I arrived at the train station at about 5, took the metro two stops and I was pretty much at my hostel. I stayed at the Prague Square Hostel, obviously located in Prague Square, which is a great location and one of the best I’ve had so far. The hostel was pretty nice too, although I never really met or hung out with too many people from it. I was in a room with 3 crazy Spaniards who partied 24/7 and didn’t speak any English and then also a few weird girls too. So I dropped off my stuff and was off to explore the city.

I was staying right in the middle of Stare Mesto, or the Old Town and was a 30 second walk from the Staromestske Namesti and one of Prague’s most famous sites – The Astronomical Clock. This is where I first headed and I really enjoyed it. This spectacular square included the clock, a giant open-aired marketplace, a performance stage, the impressive gothic Tyn Church, and the Jan Hus Monument. I really liked this square and it was probably where I spent most of my time in Prague when I wasn’t exploring the other areas.

I spent a while in this square that first night in Prague and also got dinner here. I had an order of Potato Pancakes (not really like a pancake or a potato, but fried something with sauerkraut) that were excellent, and a Czech brew. I enjoyed this meal while watching an Easter performance on the stage in the square.

I then headed towards the River Vltava and the cities most famous structure; the Charles Bridge. This bridge links my Old Town side to the Castle districts of Hradcany (on the hill) and Mala Strana (little quarter). The bridge is like 700 years old and lined with brilliant statues, artists, performers and great views of the Prague Castle. Every time I crossed it (quite a few times) it was choked full with tourists, but I loved being on it.

After leisurely making my way across the Charles Bridge, I wandered around the Castle district side, but did not attempt to start climbing the hill; I was saving that for the next day. I then made my way back to my hostel for the night. As I have become accustomed to when I first arrive at a place, I wander around, get my bearings and a solid feel for the place.

The next day, Monday, was my only full day in Prague so I wanted take full advantage of it. I was up early, ate my free breakfast and was off to Staromestske Namesti. I had heard from all sorts of people how you have to see the Astronomical Clock on the hour. I missed it the night before, so I figured I would start my day off with this. It was made out to be a huge deal and event, and I thought it was going to be when I arrived to a large crowd gathered to watch it. It was neat, but not all that it was cracked up to be. The clock itself is really, really cool, but basically it just chimed and there was a mechanical performance by Jesus and the Apostles. So yeah, the clock was impressive, but the “performance” wasn’t quite what I thought it would be and is probably one of the most over-rated things I have seen. Glad I saw it though.

I then crossed over Charles Bridge on my way over to explore Prague Castle. It completely dominates the west side of the river and it is huge. I made my way up the hill to the Castle and then spent a while seeing every part of it. Also up there was St. Vitus’ Cathedral, which is the country’s largest church, which makes sense by simply looking at the sheer height of it. I waited in a decently long line to see inside yet another Cathedral. I have been to quite a number now, but I still am in absolute awe every time I set foot inside one. On one side of the Cathedral is the Old Royal Palace and on the other is St George’s Basilica, both impressive buildings.

After a while at the Castle I made my way down and went through Golden Lane, a blind and crowded alley of cool little cottages. From there I went south towards Mala Strana, the Little Quarter, where there is a cool little square that has a magnificent Baroque. I then went to Petrin Hill, a large park located on a hill obviously. At the top is Petrin Tower, which I had read has remarkable views of the city. There is a funicular railway (train car that takes you to the top) to get up to the tower, but I decided against paying for that and that I would hike up the very large hill and then pay to ride up the tower. It was getting pretty hot out, which meant I was getting pretty sweaty as I climbed the hill. Once I arrived at the top I realized that you don’t ride up the tower on any sort of elevator like I had thought, but instead climb a lot of stairs to it. So a couple hundred stairs and a bucket of sweat later I was at the top, and very glad I made the trek for the view was breathtaking. The city is amazing to look at from the streets and bridges, but so much better and far more spectacular from above.

After that I was in search of a much needed meal. I found two places in my book that looked good, and they both happened to be in the same area I was in and actually right next to each other. I got to them and decided which to eat at by the one that had the better-looking lunch special. I went with a place called Bar Bar, a cozy little cellar place, and had a good traditional Czech lunch combo of soup, gravy covered steak and a local beer.

I then crossed the Charles Bridge again and headed back towards my favorite place, Staromestske Namesti, and then onto Josefov. This is the Jewish quarter and I had a wander around it and the areas surrounding it. I continued to go through areas of the city I had not yet been to on my way south to Wenceslas Square. This is in Nove Mesto, or New Town, and it is the modern part of Prague. The Wenceslas Square isn’t really a square, but more of a long, gently sloping main street that leads up to the National Museum. It is has a rich history of political protest and there is a small memorial to the victims of Communism towards the end of it. One of these victims commemorated was a student who set himself on fire on that same spot in protest against Soviet occupation in 1969.

I then got to the National Museum at the end of the square, but had barely missed closing time at 6, but I was not too disappointed. Prague is basically a giant museum; there is really no need to go into any of them.

I then headed back to the Astronomical Clock after a while for the 7pm “show.” I was thinking maybe it would be better or different, but nope -same thing, same large crowd, and same applause at the end of it. But I am glad I went to it because here I recognized a guy’s shirt standing by me as Central College in Pella, Iowa. I gave him a nudge and starting talking to him, as well as the other guy and girl with him. The two guys both play football at Central and of course know Spencer Remick who I graduated with and who plays there. They also happened to be on Easter Break from studying abroad in Wales. Weird, but they were in some small northern Welsh town I have never even heard of.

The four of us stood talking at the clock for a while, and then all went to get dinner and sat and talked for a couple of hours. This was the first place where I really didn’t meet anyone at my hostel to hang out with, so it was nice to meet some Iowans to hang out with for the night. We then parted ways and I headed back to my hostel. I had planned on going on a bar crawl that night that people put on in each city for hostel backpackers, but I made a last minute decision not to and instead went with a new person from Penn St. who I just met in the hostel for a couple of drinks at the bar next to the hostel and made it an early night so I could get up early again.

The next morning, Tuesday, I got up nice and early so I could soak in 4 more hours of the city before catching my train. I basically just did the city again; including crossing the Charles Bridge a couple more times (couldn’t get enough of it), walking around the Castle, looking at a torture exhibit, and seeing as much of the rest of the city as I could. I arrived back at the Astronomical Clock with just enough time for lunch and another viewing of the hourly “show.” Once again it was the same thing, no new surprises. I don’t want to hate on the clock, because it is amazing, I guess I just thought it was supposed to be this big event every hour, which it didn’t really live up to.

After the Clock I grabbed lunch from the market there, I had this large fried bread thing, which was covered in garlic butter, ketchup and cheese that I kept seeing people get. I went back and forth about whether I thought it looked good or not, but after walking by and getting a big whiff of the garlicky goodness I had to get it. It was really good, and I’m sure really bad for my health, but I had walked miles upon miles in that city I’m sure, so it was ok. On my way to the train station I also picked up a Pancake Roll (a cinnamon crispy roll) with the rest of my Czech Crowns I had left.

Overall I absolutely loved Prague. I have probably said this before but this is my new favorite city. My sister had given me a good idea that in cities like this the best thing to do is just to get to the center and roam around, and in no place had this held truer than Prague. I just loved wandering around and taking in the sites. Like I said before, it was just like being in a giant museum. One reason for this to I guess would be that Prague was basically un-touched by both World Wars, so it did not have to rebuild anything, it is all original.

I then was off to Germany for the first time and to spend a couple of nights in Munich (which actually turned into 4 nights because I liked it so much).

Vienna, Austria

April 20, 2009

 On Saturday the 4th I left my throne in Kosice, Slovakia, to head to Vienna, Austria. The train ride was very scenic, as it went through northern Slovakia and the High Tatras, which I had been up to a couple of days before. I also had a Slovakian lady and her 3-year-old son sitting in my same cabin. The kid was soooo cute and I played toy cars (toy cars literally from the movie Cars) with him for a while, which was somewhat entertaining. I then had to change trains in Bratislava, and I had about a 45 minute layover, so I did a kwick exploration of the city in the limited time I had. I had planned on staying a night there, but after staying in Kosice longer then I had planned I crossed Bratislava off my list. That ended up being a good move I think, because I loved Kosice, and Bratislava looked pretty dirty and scary from what I saw. Right outside the train station there was this crazy cracked-out gypsy lady, who was bothering people, and they were all yelling at her, and she wouldn’t leave them alone. Finally they started kicking her ass, literally kicking her in the ass, until she finally wandered off and passed out on a bench. Time to leave Slovakia!

I arrived in Vienna around 7pm, took a short tram ride and then easily found my pad, the Vienna City Hostel. I dropped my stuff off in my room, which nobody was in yet, and immediately headed off to explore the city. I asked the hostel worker dude for directions and how to get around, and he suggested the subway, and told me not to pay. He said that they never ever check tickets, but if a local gets caught without one it’s a big fine, but they almost always let off tourists. So this set the precedent for the rest of my trip of pretty much not paying for public transportation. I really don’t plan on taking it that much, because I don’t mind walking and I will almost always walk it out, unless it is really far.

I didn’t have a lot of time in Vienna so I wanted to see as much as I could this first night as I could. I got to the city center, which is centered on Stephansplatz, a big pedestrianized square that is dominated, like many European cities, by a giant gothic Cathedral, here- the Stephansdom. After checking out that area, I randomly started walking around, with no real direction in mind, and ended up not really seeing anything. After a while I got out the map and realized I was just in the city-city area, not the historical/cool city area. From there I went to the closest attraction, Stadtpark, where a cool monument is of Johann Strauss, the famous violinist. From there I slowly made my way back to the hostel and called it a night. So far I wasn’t very impressed with Vienna, but I did realize I kind of missed the main touristy parts of the city besides the Stephansdom. Oh but I did see couples eeevvverrrryyyyywhere, gross, I guess it is supposedly a pretty romantic city.

I got up real early the next morning, got my free hostel breakfast in me, and I was out of there by 8am, so I had 5 solid hours to see the city. I took the subway back to the Stephansdom, where I realized Catholic mass was just starting there, and it was also Palm Sunday, so I thought it would be a good idea to sneak in the back and attend mass. I didn’t stay for the entire time, partly because it was all in German and partly because it was annoying being in the back with tourists keep coming in, taking pictures and making noise. And I only had limited time left, but I am glad I got to experience it.

From there I headed to Judenplatz, a nice little square that is dominated by an enormous concrete Holocaust Memorial. Then off to the Innere Stadt, or the historical center, a small area, but the central location to where most of the important sites of Vienna are concentrated. The Hofburg is one of the most well-known constructions in Vienna. It is a very complex system of buildings that house a lot of the city’s key imperial sites. I choose one area in here to go to that I thought looked really cool, the Schatzkammer. Inside was loads of medieval jewelry, craftsmanship, clothing and relics from the Roman Empire, including the Habsburgs’ own crown jewels. Right by there was a small church, the Hofburgkapelle, which I heard was famous for its Mass with the Vienna Boys’ Choir. I got a free, standing room only ticket for the back and watched/listened for a little while before growing bored and leaving.

I then went to Rathausplatz, a park that is surrounded by four monumental buildings; the Rathaus (city hall), the Burgtheater, Parliament, and the University. The park had some type of festival going on and I walked around it for a while and also got lunch there (kebab and Austrian beer). I then continued to wander around the city and pretty much saw all the points and sites that my book pointed out before I had to head to the station for my train at one.

Overall I wasn’t terribly impressed by Vienna. It was very cool and I am glad I went, but also I feel as though I spent just enough time there and I wasn’t really shorted by only staying one night. I liked the Rathausplatz and the Hofburg areas the most, the best area of town I felt and it had many impressive buildings. One thing I did notice about Vienna was the lack of street vendors I have found peddling the same crap (sunglasses, purses, and basic junk) in most Euro cities I’ve been to. The only things I really saw on the streets to buy that Sunday were the branches for Palm Sunday and other Easter themed things, so that was nice. But so now it is time for my much anticipated visit to Prague!