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

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

The Distortion music festival.

When I checked into my hostel in Copenhagen, the receptionist asked if I came for the music festival.

“What music festival?” I asked him.

He explained that Copenhagen was halfway through the 5-day Distortion electronic music festival. He marked down on my map where the festival would be taking place that night. It sounded interesting, so I bought a few beers (very expensive, like everything else in Copenhagen) and headed over.

I immediately liked the festival. There were numerous dance parties around different DJs scattered around the neighborhood. They were playing songs I liked (such as “Windowlicker” by Aphex Twin), and, despite the energetic dancing and club-style music, there was a friendly atmosphere. I saw a guy wearing an Ohio t-shirt, so I went up to him and asked if he was from Ohio. He was just a local wearing an Ohio shirt, for some reason, but he shook my hand and yelled “go Buckeye State!”

I was standing in the crowd, enjoying the music, when a young guy asked me something in Danish (the Northern Europe segment of my trip is also the segment in which I’m often mistaken for a local). When he learned that I was a foreigner at the festival by myself, he invited me to hang out with him and his brother. So, I spent the rest of the night with Michael and Martin and their friends. We ended up at a bar where they bought me a rum and coke and some tequila shots. Everyone in their group of friends was very friendly – the Danish like to speak English, sometimes even slipping in phrases in their conversations with each other. They speak English better than in any other country I’ve visited on my trip. Martin explained it to me like this: people in small countries like Denmark and the Netherlands have to learn English, because no one else in the world speaks their language.

After sleeping off my hangover the next day, I checked facebook to see that I had received a message from Michael inviting me to join him and his friends at the last night of the festival. I met him at the Islands Brygge neighborhood of Copenhagen, a former industrial district that has recently been gentrified. Michael pointed out some modern apartment buildings that were made out of cement silos.

People hanging out by the canal in Islands Brygge before the festival.

A former industrial buildings converted into apartments.

After drinking some beers by the canal, we walked to the festival. The last night of the festival was in Copenhagen’s meatpacking district, which is in the middle of a conversion into a neighborhood of dance clubs. The final party was supposed to cost something like 40 euros, but we snuck in over a roof.

The party was even crazier and more crowded on the last night. Part of the party was in a pool. I jumped into the water in my boxers, and regretted it later.

The pool party.

I traveled with Michael and his friends from one dance floor of the party to another, drinking many beers and Jagermeister shots, until I finally walked back to my hostel at 2:30 AM. Imagine my surprise when it started getting light outside on my walk back, and the birds started chirping.

Michael invited me to a barbeque at his family’s house in the suburbs the next day, so I took a train out there. Michael, Martin, and their mother treated me to a delicious meal of salad, potatoes and grilled chicken in their backyard. They claimed that their neighborhood was really crummy, but it seemed nice to me – maybe Americans have different standards for crummy neighborhoods than Europeans.

I was inexpressibly thankful to Michael and his family for giving me a nice meal at their home – the first home-cooked meal I’ve had in months. I think they enjoyed using their impeccable English with an American, and I think they also wanted to give me a good memory of Copenhagen. They certainly succeeded at that. Thanks in large part to their friendliness, I would rank Copenhagen among my favorite cities in Europe.

I especially appreciated their friendliness because my hostel, Hotel Jorgenson, was sort of a dud. Although the staff were friendly, the breakfast was excellent (plenty of cereal, meat, bread, and chocolate), and everything was clean, there wasn’t much of a social atmosphere. If I hadn’t met Michael and Martin at Distortion, it probably would’ve been a lonely four days for me.

Apart from going to Distortion and sleeping off the resultant hangovers, I ventured into Christiania, a neighborhood of Copenhagen that considers itself independent of Copenhagen, and Denmark, and even the European Union. At the neighborhood’s exit there’s a sign that says, “You are now entering the E.U.” The neighborhood was founded in 1971 by hippies who occupied former army barracks. Today, it still has a hippie atmosphere, with artful graffiti covering every surface.

The sign at the exit of Christiania.

There was a lot of great architecture in Copenhagen, including many interesting spires. I also spent time in a beautiful park near my hostel. Copenhagen was experiencing perfect weather while I was there (which is unusual, according to the people I met), so the park was always crowded.

A canal in Copenhagen.

On Monday I took a train to Berlin, carrying lots of great memories of Copenhagen and its locals with me. Thanks to facebook, I’ll be able to keep in touch with Michael and Martin. I deactivated my facebook account when I left for this trip, thinking that it would be good for me to get some time away from it, but I quickly reactivated it because it’s a good way to keep in touch with people you meet while traveling.

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: Bruges and Amsterdam

My voyage from Porto to Bruges on the 28th was a big turning point in my trip: I was leaving Latin Europe for Germanic Europe. For the first time, I would be outside the borders of the former Roman empire.

I experienced some culture shock after arriving in Bruges – surprising, considering that I didn’t experience any when I arrived in Istanbul from the U.S.A. The chilly, windy, cloudy weather made me homesick for the Mediterranean clime. The people seemed more reserved. The prices were higher. I understood less of the language (my Latin and tiny bit of Italian help me with the Romance languages). However, I quickly acclimated myself, thanks in large part to the coziness that even the buildings in Bruges seem to radiate.

In Bruges, in case you haven’t seen it, is a movie about two hit men hired to kill someone in Bruges, who develop spiritual qualms when they see what a nice city Bruges is. I think that the director got his idea for the movie from walking around the city and taking in the atmosphere. It’s a pretty, peaceful, unpretentious town unsuited for murdering.

I was only in Bruges for two nights, and I spent much of my time planning the rest of my trip, so I didn’t have as much time for sightseeing as I’d have liked. I took a walk recommended by an employee at my hostel, which took me past some beautiful canals, windmills and Flemish architecture into a part of town that was empty due to lack of tourists. According to a brochure I read while in Bruges, the city has more tourists than local residents in the summer.

My hostel, the Snuffel Backpacker Hostel, had a bar for a common area – a quality I usually hate in a hostel. But, they served a great local beer called Brugse Zot.

On my last night in Bruges I spent 7 euros to see Tree of Life at a local theater. They showed it in English with Flemish subtitles. I thought it was great, but many of the other people in the theater didn’t have much patience for its slow pacing and lack of dialogue. They cheered when the movie ended, not in a complimentary way.

The next day I took a train to Amsterdam. Frankly, I didn’t like Amsterdam much. My hostel was in the middle of the red light district, somewhere you don’t want to take a walk through at night. Just down the block from my hostel, there were prostitutes behind glass doors with red lights on top.

The city is rather pretty outside the red light district, however. It reminded me of a blown-up Bruges, with wider canals and bigger buildings.

On my first afternoon in Amsterdam I went to the Van Gogh Museum. I was expecting a mixed experience after Roland told me that he was kicked out for making a sketch there. An art museum that doesn’t allow artists to make sketches doesn’t have its priorities straight. Yet, I enjoyed my time there, thanks to the large variety of Van Gogh’s work.

The next morning I went to the Anne Frank house. It was fascinating to see the small, winding rooms I remember imagining when I read Anne Frank’s diary in 8th grade English class. I can’t imagine living in such close quarters with so many other people. I suppose that being in such a tense setting provided the creative fuel for Frank’s diary, which is so insightful for a 13-year-old.

Amsterdam has more cyclists than any other city I’ve been to. There are extra lanes for bikes between the roads and the sidewalks that you quickly learn not to walk across carelessly. Sometimes the cyclists make it hard to navigate the streets as a pedestrian, but thanks to them there are very few cars on the road.

I spent four and a half days in Amsterdam – three nights, plus a fourth day before boarding an overnight train to Copenhagen. I later wished I could have added one of the days to Bruges or Copenhagen. I spent most of my time in Amsterdam wandering around the canals or chilling out at my hostel.

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: Lisbon and Porto

The riverfront in Porto.

I had a feeling that I would like Portugal. Like Istanbul and Athens, my two favorite cities from the first half of my trip, Portugal seemed like it would be “on the edge” of Europe, so it would have a less touristy, more intimate vibe, inside and outside the hostels. My intuition proved to be correct; Portugal was one of the best parts of my trip so far.

I spent six days in Portugal – three in Lisbon, three in Porto. Both cities were beautiful, thanks to plenty of hilly views, non-stop sunshine, and to the Portuguese custom of covering the outsides of buildings with colorful tiles. Unfortunately, the Portuguese also have a less pleasant custom of making their sidewalks out of bits of slippery tiles.

The Portuguese tile style.

More tiled buildings.

Lisbon was great, but gritty. Its oceanfront is taken up by a busy road and some decrepit buildings. It’s impossible – for a young man, at least – to take a walk without a few guys coming up to you and whispering “hashish, marijuana, coke.”

The main thoroughfare in Lisbon.

Another view of Lisbon.

Porto was my favorite of the two cities. In fact, it would rank near the top of my list of my favorite destinations on my trip. It has a beautiful riverfront with steep banks occupied here and there by layers of buildings, many of them abandoned and falling apart, but in a charming way (for some reason, deteriorating buildings look good in Europe but not in America). There are many tall bridges spanning the river, including one designed by Gustav Eiffel. Porto’s riverfront is one of the places that gave me a specific sensation that I’ll always remember.

Porto's riverfront.

The view of the riverfront from the top of Eiffel's bridge.

An abandoned building by the river.

Porto also has many lovely churches which use the tiled-exterior style.

I turned 25 the day I arrived in Porto, so I got a nice seafood dinner, compliments of my mom and dad. A pair of American couples at the table next to mine struck up a conversation with me, and when they learned it was my birthday they bought me a slice of cake.

Strangely, one of my favorite things about Portugal was that there weren’t many famous museums and historical sights that I felt obligated to go to. The only item on my agenda was to enjoy the beauty and the culture. This came at a welcome time; after traveling more than two and a half months, I was starting to feel a little burnt out. I took lots of naps, especially in the hammock they had in the backyard of my hostel in Lisbon.

I did some sightseeing, however. I took a daytrip from Lisbon to Sintra, where I hiked up to a 9th-century Moorish castle with a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside.

The Moorish castle.

Both of the hostels I stayed in were big hits. In Lisbon I stayed at the Lisbon Chillout Hostel. You already know that it was awesome because I mentioned that it had a backyard with a hammock. My hostel in Porto was the the Yellow House hostel. The hostels reminded me of my hostels in Istanbul and Athens in that they were small, they had great hang-out areas, and the staff socialized with the guests a lot. They both had breakfasts that were beyond anything I expected from a hostel at this point – an unlimited supply of cereal, toast, coffee and orange juice. Having gone more than two months without cereal, which is a major part of my diet in the United States, I ate about two bowls a day.

The chillout area of the Lisbon Chillout hostel, with hammock.

One of the employees at my hostel in Porto told me that there weren’t any hostels in Portugal until a few years ago, so all the hostels there are new. Maybe that’s why both my hostels were so good – they haven’t realized that hostel guests don’t expect to get an unlimited supply of cereal with their breakfast.

On the 28th I finally said goodbye to Latin Europe. I took a flight to Paris, and from there I took a train to Bruges, my current location.

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: Madrid

The Gran Via avenue in Madrid.

I’ll always remember Madrid as the city where I lost my passport.

The internet cafe where I wrote my previous post was really hot inside, so I took off my money belt and placed it next to the computer monitor. While on my way back to the hostel a few hours later, the realization that my money belt wasn’t wrapped around my stomach struck me like a jolt of electricity. I sprinted back to the internet cafe, but it was already gone.

Inside the money belt was my passport, my Eurail pass (insured, thankfully), and a wad of cash I had withdrawn from an ATM that morning.

So, I saw Madrid from the unique perspective of a panicked, then bitter, tourist. I was only beginning to come to peace with the loss when I left the city three days later.

I spent my first night in Madrid at a police station making a report. I had no hopes that they would find anything, but the report was necessary for getting a new passport and Eurail pass. The next morning I headed to the American embassy to complete the surprisingly quick and inexpensive process of getting a temporary passport. I wasted that afternoon waiting in line at both of Madrid’s train stations in an effort to find someone who could explain the Eurail insurance claim to me.

I finally got back into my traveling groove that evening when I joined Roland at the Prado, where I tried to replace my thoughts of regret, guilt, self-pity, and anger with ones of appreciation for the beauty of art.

Madrid’s art museums, like those of Paris, complement each other by covering different eras of art. The Prado’s collection stops at the beginning of the Impressionist era. It’s most famous as the location of the “black paintings” of Francisco Goya, including The 3rd of May in Madrid and Saturn Devouring His Son. The paintings show Goya’s pessimistic view of human nature, which I was inclined to share after the event of the previous day.

The beautiful courtyard of the Reina Sofia, with a Lichtenstein work.

The next day, Roland and I went to the Reina Sofia, which has paintings from the post-Impressionist era. They have an excellent collection of Picasso’s paintings (probably better than that of the Picasso museum in Barcelona), including the magnificent Guernica, which Roland spent a lot of time sketching. I also saw more of Joan Miro’s works there, and some creepy paintings by Salvador Dali.

In my effort to forget the loss of my passport, I was helped by the classic remedy, beer. After leaving the Reina Sofia, Roland and I went to a restaurant recommended by people we met at the hostel, where they bring you a plate of free greasy Spanish food – chicken, cheese, bread, fried potatoes, etc. – with every 3.50-euro beer. We liked it so much that we went again the next night.

The precious free food that came with our beers.

There was a protest in the Puerta del Sol square near our hostel the entire three days Roland and I were in Madrid. Judging by the conversations we had with participants, and signs we half-understood, it was an expression of the Spanish youth’s dissatisfaction with the government of Spain and its execution of democracy. On our last night in town, we wedged our way into the center of the square, packed with thousands of people. They got everyone there to participate in a moment of silence that lasted a few beautiful minutes. I was impressed that, out of thousands of people, no jerk emerged to ruin it.

The Puerta del Sol protest.

Before leaving the next morning, I made a final effort to recover my money belt from the internet cafe where I lost it. The employee told me it hadn’t turned up. I’d already accepted that I wouldn’t see it again, so I wasn’t disappointed. I was more sad about parting ways with Roland, who took a flight to Amsterdam while I went to Lisbon.

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: Barcelona

The Sagrada Familia.

My 3-month global Eurail pass hasn’t made train travel as easy as I hoped. Often, I’ve had to pay for my train rides – usually 2-10 euros – because tickets are only free on trains that don’t require reservations. A limited number of seats are set aside on each train for Eurail pass holders, and they’re often booked up, forcing you to choose between paying full price for a seat or changing your plans.

I chose the latter option when I learned that all the Eurail-designated seats were taken on the night train from Paris to Barcelona. Roland and I decided to book a flight rather than pay 170 euros each for the train. We found a flight on ryanair.com from Beauvais, a small town only a short, cheap train ride from Paris, to Barcelona for only 70 euros each. It seemed like a great deal at first, but I lost my enthusiasm for it when the airport security made me throw out the shampoo, shaving cream and body wash I had been using since the beginning of the trip, as well as my harmless tableknife.

The Mellow Eco-hostel

In my last post, and in the review I later posted on hostelworld.com, I wrote that our hostel in Paris was the worst I’d stayed at. We must have been due for some good luck, then, because our hostel in Barcelona, the Mellow Eco-hostel, was the best-run hostel I’ve stayed at. It was like a model hostel used to teach new hostel employees what a hostel should be like. There were plenty of showers and bathrooms, the staff were friendly and knowledgable about Barcelona, and the kitchen was fully-equipped with cooking equipment and all the ingredients (vegetable oil, butter, etc.) that you need but are unwilling to buy when you’re only staying somewhere for a week. There were many good hang-out areas, including a patio with an excellent view of the city, and the vending machines had cans of Estrella beer in them for the very reasonable price of one euro. I knew it was a winner when they got us two glasses of ice water when we arrived. Finally, Roland got to stay somewhere that showed him how good a hostel could be.

My only complaint is that to get to the hostel from the metro station, you must climb up these 162 steps:

The 162 steps to the hostel.

After travelling alone for almost two months, it’s been difficult to adjust to having to compromise with Roland on what to do, what to eat, and how to get places; but a little compromise is good while traveling. Roland has introduced a few changes to my routine that I’ll continue after we part ways in Madrid, such as making tuna fish sandwiches for lunch instead of eating the bread and tuna separately. Roland is a much better cook than I am, so nearly every night in Barcelona we cooked pasta with chicken and tomato sauce and chopped onions, carrots, broccoli and zucchini. The night we didn’t cook dinner, we went out for a tapas dinner with plates of potatos, promisciuto, calamari, chicken, olives, and something called “bombas.”

Our tapas dinner.

Roland also persuaded me to go to more art museums than I would’ve gone to myself. Shortly after arriving in the city we went to the Joan Miro museum, which proved to be my favorite of them all, to see the collection of colorful, abstract, emotional paintings and sculptures by the local painter. Afterwards we headed to the nearby MNAC museum of national art, where there was a Courbet exhibit that Roland wanted to see. Later, we visited the Picasso museum, which didn’t impress me much. Although I like Picasso (who was from southern Spain and spent a lot of time in Barcelona), it seems like most of his great works have ended up in other museums. Almost none of his cubist paintings were there. I thought that the most interesting paintings in the museum were the ones he did in his early teenage years, which were so realistically painted that they would hardly look out of place on the walls of the Louvre.

My favorite works of art in Barcelona were the buildings of Gaudi. Gaudi was a Catalan nationalist, and his architectural style seems to have the same wild, colorful vivacity of the paintings of Miro and other Catalan artists going back to the middle ages. They are strikingly beautiful in Barcelona, but they would look out of place in any other city. Unfortunately, his buildings have become the most popular tourist spots in Barcelona.

Gaudi's Casa Battlo apartment building.

The Casa Mila.

Gaudi’s most famous project, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is still under construction despite having been designed in the late 19th century. Of all the cathedrals I’ve seen on my trip, it’s my favorite. I like the colorful fruits at the tops of the spires and the stonework that looks like the inside of the cave. It communicates a more friendly, optimistic, personal feeling than most cathedrals.

The Sagrada Familia.

I’d been warned that Barcelona had an uncommonly large population of pickpockets (Roland’s aunt had her purse snatched there), but I saw no evidence of crime during my visit, apart from a woman who took a few metro tickets Roland had mistakenly left in the purchasing machine. The metro was exceptionally clean and well run – I never had to wait more than few minutes for a train.

Roland and I spent the first half of our last day in Barcelona hiking up one of the hills on the outskirts of the city, where there’s a beautiful cathedral next a rudely-situated amusement park. We spent the rest of the day at the surprisingly clean beach, full of immigrants selling cold beers for a euro, where I went into the water for a while so I could say I had swum in the Mediterranean.

The view of Barcelona from the cathedral.

The beach.

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: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Rouen.

After Dad left, Roland and I lugged our stuff to the other side of Paris, where we had a reservation at the Peace & Love hostel for two nights. Unfortunately, Roland’s first hostel happened to be the worst one I’ve stayed at so far. The room was crowded and dirty, with three beds in each bunk, leaving you too little room to sit on your bed and increasing your chance of being awoken in the middle of the night by your bedmate climbing the ladder. The only common area was a bar that doubled as the reception desk, where people partied all hours of the day. There was no kitchen, and the bathroom was dirty. The staff seemed more interested in pouring shots for the partiers than making your stay comfortable.

Alas, we were stuck with the hostel – we had pre-booked it not only for those two nights, but for another after returning from Rouen three days later to fly out of Paris the next day.

I decided to devote my last day in Paris to seeing Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. However, the train going to Poissy, the Parisian suburb where the building is located, was shut down – something I discovered only after a lot of frustrated waiting and wandering. By the time I found an employee of the Metro system who spoke enough English to explain to me that I had to take a different route to get there, it was early afternoon and I was too tired to go. Instead, I checked out Paris’s strangely peaceful central business district (where I happened to be when my plans were sidetracked). It wasn’t very charming, as you can see, but I liked La Grande Arche, a modern counterpart to the Arc de Triomphe.

La Grande Arche.

I spent most of the day reading next to a beautiful pond at the Bois de Boulogne park on the outskirts of the city. Like the Villa Borghese park in Rome, it was bereft of tourists.

The Bois de Boulogne park.

The next morning, Roland and I took a train to Rouen. There are no hostels in northern France, for some reason, so we were forced to stay in a hotel. Going without the social atmosphere of a hostel would have been a big problem if Roland hadn’t been with me. We ended up really liking the hotel – the Hotel d’Angleterre – thanks to its location next to the river, its friendly staff, and the fact that it costs only slightly more than the average hostel.

Rouen was a big change for me after staying in Paris for ten days. It was less crowded and noisy and fast-paced. We seemed to be some of the only tourists in the city. The people were less beautiful and stylishly dressed, which isn’t a complaint, because it means they were also more approachable. I was surprised to see so much Norman architecture there.

A public square in Rouen.

Rouen has three wonderful Gothic cathedrals – the Notre Dame, the Saint Maclou, and the Saint Ouen. The Notre Dame is well-known as the subject of a series of paintings by Monet, who tried to capture its colors at different times of the day.

The Notre Dame.

The Saint Ouen.

That evening, with the help of our hotel’s receptionist, Roland and I devised a brilliant plan to rent a car the next morning and use it to see Mont Sant-Michel and Saint-Malo in one day. We walked to the car rental store the next morning with optimistic smiles, having already fixed our lunches for the trip, only to have our spirits crushed by the employee who informed us that no cars were available that day.

Roland decided to stay in Rouen to do sketches. I debated the pros and cons of the three nearby cities I could get to for free with my Eurail pass: Caen, Dieppe, and Le Havre. I chose Le Havre, even though everyone told me it was an ugly city that wasn’t worth visiting. I was attracted to it for a few reasons: because its downtown, rebuilt with reinforced concrete after being destroyed in the Battle of Normandy, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; because I had had enough of pretty French coastal cities after Nice and Marseilles; and because it was the underdog.

The Hotel De Ville in Le Havre.

My day in Le Havre was one of the most interesting of my trip, but the buildings there are horribly ugly. It was sad walking into town from the train station; as you get closer to the city center, there are fewer old-style buildings and more post-war ones made of exposed concrete. Even the city’s cathedral was rebuilt in that style. It was a powerful reminder of the destructiveness of World War II, which I haven’t seen much evidence of in the other cities I’ve visited so far.

Although the post-war structures are ugly, their architects constructed them with modern materials so that they could rebuild Le Havre and provide comfortable housing to its citizens as quickly as possible.

Le Havre’s concrete cathedral.

Le Havre is clearly eager to make sure its few tourists have a good time. It’s tourist office was the best I’ve seen, with English-speaking employees who gave me a free map and suggestions for a walking tour. Everyone seemed to be happy that I was visiting the city. I felt like an honored guest when I was there.

After returning to Paris the next day, I had enough energy to make the many little train and bus trips necessary to get to the Villa Savoye in Poissy. It was a beautiful counterpart to Le Havre’s ugly modern buildings. Le Corbusier’s design looks clean, light and interesting. Thanks to windows that span almost the entire exterior walls, it was so sunny inside that I had to wear my sunglasses. There is a garden in the courtyard on the second floor and on the roof.

Villa Savoye.

Inside.

My trip to the Villa Savoye was also like the one to Le Havre in that afterwards I was glad I had strayed from the popular tourist spots and had a more personal experience as a result.

When Roland and I went to the Peace & Love hostel at 6 P.M. to check in, they told us they had given our beds away because we’d arrived more than three hours after the arrival time listed in our reservation – something that the other hostels I’ve stayed at haven’t paid attention to. We found a cheap room at a nearby hotel and tried to forget that the Peace & Love hostel existed.

Our last walk through Paris.

We took one final walk through Paris to the Arc de Triomphe and the beautifully-lit Eiffel Tower, where we stayed until late at night drinking wine. Although I had spent ten nights in Paris, I wasn’t tired of it at all, like I was when I spent the same amount of time in Rome.

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: Venice and Milan

A canal from the east side of Venice.

I arrived in Palermo, Rome and Florence with long lists of things I had to see, but in Venice the only things on my to-do list were “see the San Marco cathedral” and “enjoy the atmosphere of Venice.” So instead of rushing from one historical sight to another, I spent my three days there wandering around the city, admiring the handsome Venetian architecture I came across, getting lost both willfully and accidentally. It was a relaxing change from my previous weeks in Italy, when I felt like I was wasting my time if I wasn’t on the way to a cathedral or museum.

Unfortunately, there was still a massive tourist presence there to stress me out. Like all the major tourist destinations in Italy, Venice’s awesomeness has led to an influx of tourists, which has canceled out its awesomeness. The major sights in Venice were even more saturated with picture-taking tourists than those of Florence and Rome. My hostel was located close to the city’s main tourist artery, which was packed from the earliest hours of the morning to the latest of the night.

The Rialto market, full of tourists and those capitalizing off them.

In the course of my wanderings, however, I discovered that the eastern portion of the city is almost completely free of tourists, so I spent a lot of time there. Judging by the amount of laundry hung out to dry, it is where the locals live.

A much quieter street on the east side.

Another of the east side.

A canal.

Another canal.

My hostel in Venice, the Residenza Santa Croce hostel, was unlike any other I’ve stayed in; I would hesitate to even call it a hostel. When I checked in at the address given at hostelworld.com, the owner gave me a key and pointed on a map to where my room was. There, I shared what was basically a single-bathroom studio apartment with five other people. There was no kitchen, no internet, and no area for hanging out. There are very few affordable hostels to choose from in Venice, and that was the best I could find.

Yet, it wasn’t as anti-social as I feared it would be. The first two nights, I shared the room with some friendly Belgians, one of whom was in a punk band that had toured America and played in Cleveland. On the last night, their beds were taken by some American college students studying abroad, and we played Gin Rummy and War (which I hadn’t played in years, and hopefully will not play again for years).

I’d planned to visit the San Marco cathedral the morning of my departure, but when I arrived there I learned that it didn’t open until 10:30 that morning. So, I could only admire the outside of the cathedral, which shows a lot of Byzantine influence (and even, I believe, some plundered Byzantine artwork) due to Venice’s sacking of Istanbul, the first city I visited on my trip.

The San Marco cathedral.

Instead of taking a train directly to Nice, my next destination, I decided to stop in Milan to spend the afternoon there. I’d considered spending a few days in Milan, but I decided not to because I heard from a few people that it is expensive, unpleasant, and industrial. I booked a train that arrived there at 2:30, and one that left from there to Nice at 9, leaving me enough time to see the city’s gothic cathedral and da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Downtown Milan.

A more charming area of Milan.

Although the area around the train station (which was built by Mussolini’s government in a sort of fascist-Art Deco style) was full of homely skyscrapers, the neighborhood by the cathedral consisted mostly of charming 18th- and 19th-century buildings beside clean streets in a grid layout. I walked through a beautiful park that was around, and inside, the imposing 15th-century Sforzesco castle.

The Sforzesco park, with the castle in the background.

Milan’s cathedral was beautiful, but full of tourists who were being rudely loud while a service was held inside, taking pictures even though they weren’t allowed to. I walked to the church that is home to The Last Supper, but I was unable to see see the painting because a reservation was required. I thought the church itself was interesting, though.

Milan's cathedral, the Duomo di Milano.

The church that is home to The Last Supper.

I decided to get one last meal before leaving Italy, so I stopped at a restaurant on the way back to the train station. Despite Milan’s reputation for high prices, the meal I got there was only 9.50 euros including a coke, which is less than a similar one would cost in Rome, Florence and Venice. I didn’t know what it would be when I ordered it, although I guessed correctly that “patate” meant “potatoes.” It ended up being pretty good.

My last meal in Italy.

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: Interlaken

Interlaken.

I planned to spend two nights in Interlaken, but after seeing the mountain peaks and turquoise lakes on the train ride in, I decided that the city deserved three nights.

It was an environment I hadn’t seen before. I’d seen big mountains in Colorado, but never a town in between two lakes (hence the name) surrounded by mountains. The water is extraordinarily clear, making the streams milky grey, the color of the stones at the bottom.

Unfortunately, you have to pay for the beauty. The cheapest meal I’ve found is a hot dog for 4.50 francs (about $5.50). The price of a gyro, which I’ve come to use as the standard for how expensive a country is, is 8 francs.

It’s frustrating that Switzerland isn’t on the euro. I withdrew 80 francs from an ATM when I arrived, which turned out to be way more than I needed. However, this mistake has ended up giving me a lot of pleasure, because I have to spend all the francs before I leave. So, I have been buying lots of food from restaurants – or, rather, from a restaurant called Mr. Grill’s, the cheapest in town. You can get a delicious bratwurst there for 6.50 francs.

My bratwurst from Mr. Grills.

At $29 a night, my hostel, the Alplodge/Backpackers Interlaken hostel, is the most expensive yet. However, it is exceptionally clean, it has a fully-stocked kitchen, more than enough bathrooms, and the staff is great at suggesting what to do in town. There isn’t much of a social atmosphere, though. The people staying here do their own thing during the day and come back exhausted, including me. My roommates are three Chinese girls. Interlaken seems to be popular among Chinese and Japanese tourists.

Yesterday I hiked to the other side of the lake to the east of Interlaken. It was a beautiful hike, taking me past many bright green farms. It was also exhausting, especially because I got lost twice. I visited a waterfall that, as far as I could tell by looking at a map, comes entirely from melted mountain snow. I ended up at a town called Brienz, from which I took a train back to Interlaken.

A farm by the lake.

The turquoise lake.

The waterfall.

Today I took a train to Grindelwald (20.80 francs round trip), a town higher up in the mountains. From there I hiked to the top of a mountain called Bort. I think the thin mountain air made me light-headed, because the joke from the Simpsons about Itchy and Scratchy Land having plenty of “Bort” license plates but no “Bart” ones kept running through my head. I hiked even further up from there to the top of a mountain I don’t know the name of. I stopped when the snow became so deep that my feet sank a foot into it with each step.

Despite the presence of snow, the weather was hot, or at least it felt hot to me. When I took off my daypack to get my waterbottle, I thought the waterbottle had burst open because everything was wet, but then I realized it was just my sweat that had soaked through.

Here I am as far as I hiked up.

The views were extraordinary from the top. I could see drifts of snow falling from the mountains in the distance, followed by the sound of it a split-second later. The snow seemed to be melting fast. Parts of the trail had turned into little streams.

The train ride back to Interlaken was very enjoyable, as train rides always are when you’re really tired from walking. Tomorrow, I head back to Italy to see Venice.

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