Hail, The Intrepid Traveler!

Richard has returned from his four-and-a-half month journey through Europe, and it is wonderful to see him again after so long. 

He got in yesterday on a flight from Amsterdam and looks great.  His trip seems to have been a fabulous, enriching experience and a real opportunity for personal growth.  He has made some new friends, learned some things about himself, and collected some happy memories that will last a lifetime.  As a Dad, of course, I’m also proud that he organized the whole trip himself, after saving for more than a year to make it possible.

I will miss reading his blog postings about his adventures in some exotic European location, however.  It has been fun to vicariously experience his grand tour.

Eurotrip 2011: Krakow

Krakow's market square.

Although I was exhausted after spending the night sitting in a train seat, stuck in that area between consciousness and sleep that makes you wonder afterwards whether you were actually sleeping or not, after arriving in Krakow I set off to see the former factory of Oskar SchindlerSchindler’s List was filmed at the factory, so I recognized many rooms from the movie.

The factory was recently converted into a museum about the Nazi occupation of Poland. The museum didn’t dwell much on the story of Schindler saving his Jewish workers, unfortunately, but it did a wonderful job showing what conditions were like under the General Government. In nearly every room there were computer consoles with a selection of video interviews of Poles telling stories about their experiences of that era. I love it when museums include personal stories like that.

Schindler's factory.

My main impression from the museum was how appalling the actions of the Nazis were – not exactly a novel insight. Nazi Germany did everything it could to make Poland into a colony where the Poles served Germans as slaves. They attempted to wipe out Poland’s intelligentsia and keep children from learning to read or to count above 500.

My hostel, the Goodbye Lenin hostel, was only a few blocks from Schindler’s factory. I had a wonderful time staying there and would rank it among my top five favorite hostels. It had a beautiful garden area with plenty of picnic benches, free computers (although slow ones), a good kitchen, and an extraordinarily generous free breakfast that included cereal, orange juice, coffee, tea, jelly, butter, chocolate spread, honey, cookies, and an assortment of meats and cheeses. I found that if I ate a really large breakfast right before it ended at 11, it sufficed as lunch.

The hostel also provided lots of activities that made it easy to meet people. One night an employee started a game of Kings (they call it Circle of Death or Circle of Fire in Europe), providing free shots of vodka and orange juice.

On my second day in Krakow I took a bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau. My experience at Auschwitz was like my experience at Sachsenhausen in Berlin – I had trouble comprehending the extent of the horror that occurred there. I tried to keep in mind the fact that 1.5 million people were murdered on the ground I was walking on, to imagine what it must have been like for both the prisoners and the guards, but I couldn’t understand it. I know what literally happened there, I know the chain of events that led to Auschwitz, but I don’t know how it happened on a personal level for the people involved. How could millions of Germans, real thinking people, have collaborated to make what was basically a factory for killing people? How did the people who were imprisoned and killed there endure what was happening to them?

Birkenau.

Some bunks at Birkenau.

A gas chamber the Germans attempted to destroy before the war's end.

There were lots of pictures on display of Jews arriving at the camp, being split into two groups: those fit to work and those to be gassed to death. It’s interesting to look at the expressions on their faces. They usually look unhappy, but not utterly miserable or terrified – they have the same hard expressions you would see on the faces of people waiting in a really long line. Maybe they had been suffering for so long that they resigned themselves to it. Some of them probably coped by staying hopeful. Many did not know that they were about to be killed, because the Germans hid it from them. Either way, it’s heartbreaking to look at those photographs, which always include mothers holding their babies and children holding hands.

The Birkenau part of the camp, where people were gassed, is so spread out that it makes you feel lonely and bleak. The day I went happened to be really hot and humid. The Germans tried to destroy the gas chambers in the last days of the war, so all the remains are some collapsed roofs.

Auschwitz.

The Auschwitz part (a short, free bus ride away), consists of rows of brick houses that don’t look like they were used for sinister purposes. They look like they could be part of a nice college campus. In these houses lived those who were lucky enough to be chosen as workers. The buildings have been turned into museums about daily life in the ghetto, the Polish resistance, the Nazis’ confiscation of property, etc.

Suitcases taken from those imprisoned at Auschwitz.

Inside, there were displays of suitcases, glasses, and children’s toys taken from the Jews by the Nazis. The most horrifying was a display of hair cut off the heads of murdered women, for sale to the German textile industry. Again, I can’t understand how so many Germans could have worked together to find a way to use the hair of murdered women in clothing, apparently thinking it was an okay thing to do. It is unbelievable, something that belongs in a ridiculous Hollywood screenplay, not in real life. Maybe extreme circumstances such as those occurring in Nazi Germany bring out a side of human nature that we don’t see in our relatively comfortable lives.

I was fortunate to have a pretty, pleasant city to return to after leaving Auschwitz. Krakow is small, feeling more like a town than a city. Pretty much everything is within walking distance. The market square has a beautiful brick cathedral and Gothic market, and on the edge of the old city there is a castle on a grassy hill. My favorite thing about Krakow, physically, is the park that surrounds the old city in a giant ring.

Krakow's castle.

The tower in Krakow's market square.

Yesterday, I got lost on my way to the airport, arriving minutes after the gate closed but before the plane took off, so that I could see the plane I was supposed to be on outside the window. I had to pay a fee to change for a flight the next day, but I was surprisingly okay with it. After traveling so long, I’ve learned to accept my own mistakes and bad fortune. I decided to walk back to Krakow from the airport using country roads. It was a lot of fun until near the end when I got really exhausted.

Maybe I didn’t care much about missing my flight because it meant I got another day in Krakow. I had been feeling guilty about only booking three nights there. I was happy to spend one more night drinking cheap beers with my new friends from Georgia (the country), the Netherlands, England, and Scotland.

Eurotrip 2011: Prague

Eurotrip 2011: Budapest

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

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

Eurotrip 2011: Prague

A view of Prague.

It was raining for most of the six days I was in Prague, and I was really absorbed in the book I was reading (Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which I’d been meaning to read for a long time), so I spent most of the first half of my stay lounging around my hostel. I was lucky that it was one of those hostels that puts a reading light on the wall by every bed. I was so into the book that I hardly even spoke to anyone.

It didn’t help that the hostel, Sir Toby’s Hostel, was in sort of a dull neighborhood far from the city center. I usually prefer walking to public transportation, and the walk from the hostel to old Prague took at least half an hour and required crossing many busy, pedestrian-unfriendly streets.

Apart from the location, Sir Toby’s was an A+ hostel, with a friendly staff, free computers, a well-stocked kitchen, and several balconies and a garden area to hang out in. There was even a free barbeque on Canada Day – the first time a hostel has offered me free non-breakfast food. Strangely, there was no barbeque for the 4th of July, which I celebrated by buying a Zlatopramen beer – I wanted to buy an American beer, but I couldn’t find any.

After it stopped raining, I spent a lot of time simply wandering around Prague, admiring its beauty. As I mentioned in my entry about Vienna, Amadeus was filmed in Prague due to its abundance of 18th-century architecture. Most of the buildings in the old city are the kind you would see in the background of that movie.

Prague is also a great city for Gothic architecture. Scattered here and there are big, black, menacing tower-gates. In the center of the city is the Old Town Square, constantly jammed with tourists, with a Gothic cathedral and a clock tower from which a man blows a trumpet to mark every hour. There are numerous alleys branching off the square, and I had a lot of fun turning into one of them at random and seeing where it led me.

The clock tower in the Old Market Square.

One of Prague's gothic towers.

Prague’s most famous landmark is probably the Charles Bridge, a Gothic bridge with one of those scary black towers at the end. Unfortunately, it is always crowded with tourists and people making money off them – much of the bridge is occupied by caricaturists. Across the bridge, on the same side of the river as my hostel, is the Prague Castle, which contains within its walls the Saint Vitus cathedral, one of the most impressive cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe. It was so big I couldn’t fit it all in one picture.

The Charles Bridge.

The difficult-to-photograph Saint Vitus cathedral.

The only museum I went to in Prague was the Communist Museum, which told the story of the Czech Republic’s communist era and the 1968 Prague Spring revolt which was brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union. I enjoyed the Communist Museum, but it was one of those museums that doesn’t have many real artifacts, only paragraphs on placards on the wall, so going to the museum is sort of like paying to read a Wikipedia entry. They did have some communist propaganda posters, however, which I always find fascinating and actually sort of inspiring in their earnestness. They obviously tried to make the posters as striking as possible in an effort to inculcate the masses with communist values.

The text says, "We are building communism, we unmask the saboteurs and enemies of the republic, we are strengthening the front of peace!"

Like with Budapest, communism didn’t seem to leave much of a mark on Prague, architecturally. There is one leftover of communism in Prague, though – its affordability. You can get a half-liter beer in a bar for the equivalent of just over a euro, and in a convenience store for about 50 euro cents. My hostel cost only 15 euros a night, a really good deal for a top-quality hostel in July.

On July 6th, I left Prague on an overnight train to Krakow – hopefully, the last overnight train I will have to take on my trip.

Eurotrip 2011: Budapest

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

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

Eurotrip 2011: Budapest

A view from the Buda side of Budapest.

My Eurail pass expired while I was in Vienna, so I took a Eurolines bus from there to Budapest for 19 Euros. In addition to being cheap, the Eurolines buses are surprisingly comfortable. All three of the buses I’ve taken so far have been less than half full, giving me more personal space than I had on the trains. The interiors of the buses are so clean they seem new. It’s also nice that there are electrical outlets in every other row. The main downside is that the bus stations tend to be in out-of-the-way places, not in the center of the city like the train stations.

My hostel in Budapest, the Mandarin Hostel, was also on the outskirts of the city, only one metro stop from the bus station. The Mandarin Hostel was wonderful, despite being a 30-minute walk from the city center. I can usually tell by the time I reach the reception desk whether I’ll like a hostel or not. In the case of the Mandarin Hostel, I saw the tall ceilings, the old, elegant marble staircase, the courtyard with broken-in lawn furniture and grill, and the absence of dozens of people milling around the reception desk, and I knew I would like it. It also helped that the employee at the front desk (and owner, I believe), named Zoltan, was friendly and knowledgeable about the city, and reminded me of Bob Newhart, except he had a really deep voice.

Mandarin hostel also had a great kitchen with many cooking tools I had never even seen before, in addition to the crucial can-opener.

I became friends with some guys in my room – an English fellow, an Irish guy, and two friends from Singapore. One night we went to a few pubs with a Romanian girl and a Finnish girl also staying at the hostel. Before we even left, the Irish lad had enough beers and liquor to put me in the hospital, without even seeming buzzed.

The gang at the hookah bar.

We went to two excellent bars where I had a couple half-liter Arany Aszok beers. It was a Sunday night, and both bars had a nice amount of people – not crowded, but not empty. We didn’t even have to wait for the foosball table at the first bar, where we played a few games. Both also played great music. The first one had a jazz band performing, and the second was playing obscure tunes by Grace Jones and Kraftwerk. At the second bar, we ordered a hookah and smoked strawberry-flavored tobacco, which reinvigorated some of us somewhat, it being past three in the morning.

The Finnish girl and the Singaporean guys went home after the second bar, while I opted, against my usual habits, to continue the night with the others. We got another round of beers at another bar while it grew light outside, then we walked through the empty streets to a Turkish-style bathhouse, a leftover from Turkey’s occupation of Hungary, arriving just as it opened at 6 A.M.

The baths.

We were the youngest people in the baths by about 30 years, and we got unpleasant looks from the other patrons, as if they intuited that we had been out all night drinking. The baths complex was what I imagine the ancient Roman baths to be have been like: pools of varying temperatures surrounded by ornate columns, arches and statues. We started in a warm outdoor pool that had a whirlpool in the center. Then, we took a short but painful dip into a cold indoor pool that immediately chilled the bones in my toes. We proceeded to an even hotter indoor pool, then we returned outside.

The baths' interior.

The others remained out there (some of them managed to catch a few winks in the pool), while I went back inside to try the thermal baths. They had already been to the baths a few days before and weren’t eager to come home smelling like sulfur again. The thermal bath gave me a pleasant tingling sensation all over my body, and I felt very tender and relaxed afterwards, although I did end up with a rotten-egg smell that remained even after another dip in the normal pool. After more than an hour at the baths, we took the metro back to the hostel and crashed.

A cathedral in Budapest.

A beautiful but neglected building.

The ornate surroundings at the baths were not unusual – Budapest has a lot of beautiful architecture in unexpected places. A stroll through the city will take you by many unique buildings showing a mixture of Western and Eastern influences. Unfortunately, many of the buildings are falling apart, probably due to neglect during the communist era and damage caused by the rebellion of 1956. Hungary’s current economic situation has also probably played a role. It is clearly less wealthy than European countries to the west, with levels of homelessness I haven’t seen since I left the U.S. Budapest also reminded me of American cities in that its metro trains seem to be many decades old.

Budapest's riverfront.

Budapest’s riverfront rivals Porto’s in its beauty. The Buda side (Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, joined together) is hilly, heavily wooded, and relatively empty, with a medieval palace atop one of its hills. The Pest side is dense with gothic churches and government buildings. Despite being under communist rule for decades, there are very few ugly concrete-and-glass buildings in Budapest.

One day I took a long bus ride to Memento Park, where the propagandistic statues of the old communist regime have been deposited. Some of the statues were actually really powerful. One that struck me was of a worker striding forward with his arms raised in triumph and a determined look on his face, presumably meant to represent the impetus of the communist revolution. Looking at the statue, I felt like the man had enough forward momentum to break free from the platform and walk out the park.

A Red Army soldier.

A statue of Lenin.

The rebellious worker.

Budapest was another place where a great hostel plus a great city equalled a great time for me. I’m glad that I’d decided to book a generous five nights there.

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

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

Eurotrip 2011: Vienna

A public square in Vienna.

I only booked three nights in Vienna because someone told me it was ugly. I don’t remember who told me that, but the idea took root in my head. I imagined a bombed-out city of wide streets, awkward green spaces and glass office buildings, like the worst parts of Berlin and Hamburg.

Actually, Vienna was an exceptionally beautiful city, and I regretted not spending more time there. Maybe the person who misled me about Vienna held a personal grudge against the city because he was mugged there. Maybe he was thinking of another city that was ugly. Or, maybe I was mistaken and it was another city he said was ugly.

A surprisingly high percentage of Vienna’s center consists of beautiful baroque buildings, giving it an architectural uniformity almost equal to that of Paris. While walking through the crooked streets downtown, I often had a flashback to the scene in Amadeus in which Mozart drinks a bottle of wine while walking to his apartment past horse-drawn carriages and street-performers. The architecture in Vienna was so similar to that of the movie that I assumed it was filmed there – especially since it takes place in Vienna – but a look at the IMdB page shows that it was filmed in Prague, where I will be soon.

A typical beautiful building in Vienna.

The Stephansdom cathedral.

The Votivkirche, blocked by an unfortunate advertisement.

There are also a few magnificent Gothic buildings scattered about, including two cathedrals and a Rathaus. Unfortunately, all three of these wonderful buildings were undergoing renovations during my visit, and one of the cathedrals had an advertisement hanging rudely from it. I also stopped by the Secession center, an Art Nouveau building used as a meeting place by artists like Gustav Klimt who rebelled against the conservative establishment in Vienna’s art scene in the late 19th century.

The Secession building.

One of my favorite buildings in Vienna was Karlskirche, a baroque church framed by two triumphal columns inspired by Trajan’s column in Rome. According to Wikipedia, the columns illustrate scenes from the life of St. Charles. I think it’s very interesting, although probably not totally appropriate, that an architectural form originally used to trumpet the military exploits of an emperor is used to tell the story of a Christian saint.

Karlskirche.

My hostel – the Hostel Ruthensteiner – was wonderful, with a great kitchen and a beautiful courtyard with plenty of comfortable chairs. However, it became so crowded during breakfast and dinner-time that it was difficult to cook or meet people, simply because of a lack of space. Luckily, I already had a friend in the city. Dhika, the Indonesian student I met in Florence, is completing her Masters in Vienna, so she showed me around.

The day I arrived Dhika took me to the Schonbrunn palace, once the summer getaway for the Holy Roman Emperors, now surrounded by urban sprawl. It reminded me a lot of Versailles. We strolled through the gardens to the top of a hill with a great view of Vienna.

Schonbrunn

The last day of my stay was the first day of Donauinselfest, an annual rock concert held on an island in the Danube river. That night, Dhika and I took a train there to watch a German rap-rock group perform. They weren’t playing my kind of music, but they weren’t bad. I had a good time despite cutting my hand while attempting to open a bottle of beer with a key.

Donauinselfest

Later that night, back at the hostel, I was awoken by someone who seemed to have had too good of a time at the festival – one of my roommates was puking onto the floor by the window. Everyone in the 10-bed room seemed to wake up, but no one said anything as he heaved a few times and walked casually to his bed. I simply returned to sleep so that I would be well-rested for my bus ride to Budapest the next morning.

Eurotrip 2011: Hamburg and Munich

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

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

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

A remnant of the Berlin Wall.

Berlin isn’t a very pretty city. Most of its buildings are of the glass-and-metal post-war style, put up quickly to replace ones that were destroyed in the war. Its center consists mostly of big, charmless monuments, museums, and government and office buildings. But it makes up for its lack of beauty with an abundance of history, resulting from its status as the capital of the Third Reich and as a red-hot collision point between the two sides of the Cold War.

On the first of my six full days in Berlin, I visited the Holocaust Memorial, an acre or so of cement blocks, some towering over your head, some no higher than your knee. It reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., in that it seemed to express something about the event in an impressionistic way. Underneath, there’s a free museum telling the story of a half-dozen people who perished in the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Memorial.

I hate to say it, but a large chunk, maybe most, of my sightseeing in Berlin was Holocaust-related. It’s simply the most fascinating thing about Germany’s history for me. It’s good that Germany has taken responsibility for the atrocities it committed against the Jewish people and supports tourists’ curiosity about it. In addition to the Holocaust Memorial, they’ve built a large, modern Jewish Museum, which tells the history of the Jewish people in Germany going all the way back to the diaspora. Parts of the museum are impressionistic in the same way the Holocaust Memorial is. One room has thousands of anguished-looking metal faces on the floor which make jarring sounds when you walk over them, representing victims of violence around the world.

The metal faces.

The main impression I got from the museum is how sad it is that the relationship between the Germans and the German-Jews, which showed hope of improving in the 19th and early 20th centuries, came to such a horrible end, and nothing can be done to fix it because the German-Jews don’t really exist anymore.

Later in the week I took a train to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the suburbs. Really in the suburbs – the camp borders the backyards of suburban houses. Whether the houses were there during the time of Nazi rule, I don’t know. Like the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sachsenhausen seems to be heavily subsidized by the German government, making admission free.

Part of the wall at Sachsenhausen.

Sachsenhausen.

Bunks.

Sachsenhausen was one of the first concentration camps, built in 1936. It originally housed political prisoners, but in the last years of the war it mostly held Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from being inside a place designed to destroy the human spirit. Even while there, it’s hard to conceive that 30,000 people were murdered at the site, and many more lives were ruined.

A Jewish man staying at my hostel in Athens believed that Germans are sneaky, malicious people by nature, but the ones I’ve spent time with have been nice. It’s hard to believe that what is today a benevolent, reasonable society could have committed such acts within the lifetimes of people still living. I’ve tried to get inside the minds of the perpetrators of the crimes and justify the way they acted by their age (the average age of guards at Sachsenhausen was 20), by their getting brainwashed by propaganda and fear, but I can’t do it. They must have been really messed up people. I suppose that the majority of Germans living under the Nazis, even the majority of Nazi soldiers, knew that horrible things were being done to the Jews, and wouldn’t have done those things themselves, but didn’t protest out of fear of what would happen to them or their family. The people who committed the crimes were sociopaths, who exist in every society, but usually don’t reach positions of power.

Berlin suffered for its crimes by being split in two soon after the war. Berliners are still sensitive about this; I was reprimanded by the owner of my hostel for saying that something was in East Berlin. You can tell when you cross into former East Berlin because the post-war buildings look even shabbier.

Checkpoint Charlie today.

I went to two excellent museums that covered the Cold War era in Germany – the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and the DDR Museum. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum tells the story of the construction of the Berlin Wall (or the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, as the East German government called it), and the thousands of attempts by East Germans to cross it before it was torn down in 1989. Some of the attempts were wonderfully successful, using air balloons and clever hiding places in cars and suitcases, etc. Some were not, such as in the case of 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who was shot in his attempt to cross and took fifty minutes to bleed to death while East German and West German guards, police officers, and American soldiers refused to step into the no-man’s-land to help him.

The DDR Museum offers insight into the daily life of citizens of the German Democratic Republic, which you don’t hear much about when you learn about the Cold War in high school. There were displays covering clothing styles (surpringly similar to those of the capitalist world at the same time, although using cheaper fabrics), vacations (nude beaches were popular), and music (radio stations were required to play mostly music from Communist countries, but Western rock was still supreme). The museum displayed a Trabant, East Germany’s poorly running response to the Volkswagen Beetle.

The Trabant.

I also visited Berlin’s famous Pergamon Museum, home of the Ishtar Gate, the Miletus Market Gate, and the wonderful Pergamon Altar, with a wrap-around sculpture depicting a battle between the Greek Gods and giants. When the museum was built in the 1910s-20s, these ancient monuments were reconstructed on site from shattered ruins and some fabricated parts – something no museum would do today. However harmful the reconstructions were to the purity of the ruins, they let you see how magnificent the buildings originally were.

The Pergamon Altar.

The Babylonian Ishtar Gate.

I had a great experience at my hostel, John’s Cozy Little Backpacker Hostel. The hostel was like its name: a little weird and cluttered, but intimate and with a lot of character. It was on the outskirts of Berlin in a Turkish immigrant neighborhood, which meant there were lots of internet cafes and doner kebap restaurants around. The bathroom was dirty, and I could hear more of what was happening in there from my bed than I would have liked, but it had a great kitchen, which trumps all other considerations. It was also cheap, costing only eleven euros a night. Berlin is strangely cheap; I assumed Germany would be one of the most expensive countries in Europe, since it’s one of the most developed.

Berlin’s signature dish, Currywurst, costs less than two euros. It’s a sliced bratwurst covered in a spicy sauce that may or may not be related to curry, usually served with fries on top.

Currywurst.

I formed a good group of friends with the other people in my room: a German couple, a Spanish teenager, an English guy from Manchester, and a Malaysian guy who just graduated from a college in Florida. About halfway through the week, we started going to breakfast together every day. One night we went to a club, but, as usual, the time spent getting there (two train transfers) and the price (five euros just to get in) wasn’t worth it for me.

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