Crossing The Border

Yesterday we drove north on I-87 and crossed the border into Canada.

Crossing the border was no big deal, which I found mildly surprising.  You drive up to the customs checkpoint and border crossing and wait in line.  (Interestingly, you wait behind a painted line, just like there are when you go through customs in airports.  There must be some kind of uniform painted-line rule among the brotherhood of international customs officials.)  When it was our turn we drove up to the booth where the customs official sat, he looked at us, he examined our passports, and he asked us a few questions.  The questions were pretty basic:  Where are you from?  Where are you going?  When was the last time you were in Canada?  Are you carrying any firearms? Why are you coming to Canada?  Our answers must have been acceptable, because he waved us through.

After we crossed the border into the province of Quebec the road number changed, and the signs were, for the most part, entirely in French.  We followed the instructions of our GPS, looped around the outskirts of Montreal, and then headed due west to Ottawa.

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A Grounded Giant

As we drove around Lake Champlain yesterday, Kish and I passed through Plattsburgh, New York, and saw this gleaming behemoth, glinting in the noonday sun.

The enormous plane, labeled “The Pride of the Adirondacks,” is a Boeing B-47 Stratojet — the mainstay aircraft of the U.S. Strategic Air Command during the Cold War.  In those pre-intercontinental ballistic missile days, these planes and their pilots and crew members were the tip of America’s nuclear spear.

Looking at the specifications of the aircraft, it is not hard to see why.  The B-47, which pioneered a “swept wing” jet engine design, used six huge turbojets and had a wingspan of 116 feet.  Although the plane was more than 100 feet long, it was designed for only a three-man crew, because the vast majority of the plane’s storage space was intended for fuel and explosive ordinance.

The B-47 could carry 25,000 tons of bombs and had a fuel capacity that gave it a maximum range of nearly 5,000 miles.  In short, it could make the long-distance flights and then deliver the bomb payloads that were needed to make the strategy of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction a viable reality.

This B-47 is now parked next to a traffic roundabout by the deserted, moderately overgrown remains of brick outbuildings of the old Plattsburgh Air Force Base, which closed more than 15 years ago.  The somewhat shabby surroundings stand in sharp contrast to the majesty of this enormous plane, whose glittering fuselage is showing signs of rust and wear and tear.  It seems like an unseemly end for a plane that served the United States for so long, and so well.

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

Munich, from the spire of the Frauenkirche cathedral.

I’ve come up with a rule for hostels: if the hostel serves beer in the lobby, I probably won’t like it. Unfortunately, the hostels I stayed at in Hamburg and Munich – the Meininger Hamburg City Center and the Easy Palace City Hostel, respectively – both served beer right at the check-in desk. Overpriced 3-Euro beers.

I don’t have anything against beer, but I’ve found that the hostels that serve it (the ones that can afford the liquor license, probably) tend to be large, corporate-style hostels. They tend to be the type of hostel that charges 2.50 Euros an hour to use the internet, that has an understaffed reception desk, that doesn’t give out free maps, that doesn’t offer free breakfast. They are full of large groups of American college students and French and Italian high-schoolers, making it difficult for individual backpackers to meet each other.

A lot of my food was stolen at my hostel in Hamburg. The thief even opened a fresh can of pasta sauce and used three quarters of it, which particularly incensed me. There’s always a risk that someone will steal your food, but when you’re staying at large hostel, the risk that some jerk will pass through the kitchen and filch your food is, obviously, larger.

What angered me most about my hostel in Munich was the poor quality of the kitchen. There were only two plates and no bowls, forcing me to eat my cornflakes out of a pot. There was no table, so you had to carry your food two stories down to the bar to eat it. This made it especially hard to meet fellow lone backpackers, who can often be found eating their meals in the kitchen. I was also annoyed by the lack of a can-opener, which I needed to make my usual lunch of a tuna-salad sandwich. The first and second day, I walked to the Italian restaurant next door and asked an employee to open it for me. The first day, he did so cheerfully, but the second day he angrily asked if I would be doing this every day, so from then on I opened the cans with a knife.

Unbelievably, this hostel which had no can-opener, no table, no bowls and almost no plates in the kitchen, had a posh bar area in the lobby with rainbow disco lights running all day.

I managed to meet people at both hostels despite their anti-social ambiences. On my first night in Hamburg, I went to a bar on the Reeperbahn in the red-light district with a guy from Toronto, a girl from Montreal, and a girl from Brazil. Hamburg’s red-light district isn’t nearly as seedy as Amsterdam’s; there aren’t prostitutes tapping on windows everywhere you walk. It was in this area that the Beatles started their career playing at grungy clubs, and there’s a small monument to them on the sidewalk.

Hamburg's Rathaus.

The next day I walked around the city with the Brazilian girl, Natalya. We saw Hamburg’s beautiful Rathaus (a.k.a. courthouse), and the St. Nikolai church, which was almost destroyed in World War II and has been left in its ruined state as a memorial against war. We strolled through Hamburg’s high-end shopping district, where we stopped at the Lego store and marvelled at how expensive and cross-marketed (with Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.) Lego has become. Still, there were some sets in there I would have loved to have as a kid. On our way back to the hostel we walked by Hamburg’s magnificent port, a beautiful, colorful industrial vista.

The ruins of the St. Nikolai church.

Hamburg's port.

On my last day in Hamburg I took a day-trip to Lübeck, a small medieval town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some of the buildings were beautiful, such as the entrance gate and the cathedral (which, unlike St. Nicolai, was repaired after World War II), but I didn’t like Lübeck much. There was too much construction, too many tourists and too much traffic. It wasn’t the quiet town I was expecting.

Lübeck.

The next day I took a five-hour train to Munich. Munich seems to have suffered less damage in the war than Berlin and Hamburg, leaving more interesting architecture around. I spent a lot of my time walking around and taking pictures of the buildings I liked.

A church in Munich.

I also spent a lot of time in Munich’s beer gardens. On my second day in the city, I walked through the rain to the Hirschgarten park, where I ordered a large Augustiner beer. It was much bigger than I expected – I put the salt and pepper shakers next to the mug when I took a picture to give a sense of its size. I ordered some meatballs and potato salad to soak up some of the beer.

The Augustiner beer at Hirschgarten.

On the next day, a Sunday, there was a big Bavarian festival next to the Rathaus in the city center. I never found out for sure, but I think the festival is held every Sunday. When I first arrived there was a band playing traditional Bavarian music, with couples dancing in front of the stage in traditional Bavarian garb. Later, a younger band played music that seemed to be a Bavarian-rock hybrid. I ordered a Hofbrau beer and some sort of wurst in a bun. For desert, I bought a fist-sized wad of marshmallow and bread covered with chocolate.

The festival in front of Munich's Rathaus.

I spent my last day in Germany at the Neuschwanstein castle in Füssen. The castle was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the late 19th century as a fantastical version of a medieval castle. Later, it served as the inspiration for the castle at Disneyland. It is, predictably, a very popular place for tourists, many of whom were having a lot of trouble hiking up to it.

Neuschwanstein.

Although Neuschwanstein was magnificent, I enjoyed my trip to Füssen more because it gave me one last day in the Alps. As soon as the train entered the mountains, I remembered why I loved the Alps so much when I was in Switzerland. The air smelled fresh and woodsy, and the sky and water were special shades of blue. After experiencing the castle, I hiked to the nearby Alpsee lake and spent some time sitting on a bench, enjoying the view, before I returned to the train station to go back to Munich.

A view from Neuschwanstein.

Alpsee.

I woke up at 5 AM the next morning to get on a bus to Vienna, wondering groggily whether I booked the early ride out of necessity or because I wasn’t thinking. I spent more than two weeks in Germany, but there were so many cities I didn’t get a chance to see – Dresden, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, etc. Hopefully, I will get a chance to return someday.

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul