Sunday, July 29, 2007
As is our habit we caught a bike tour first thing in the morning. Fortunately, the reigning champion of bike tours, Mike's Bikes, operates an Amsterdam branch. We made haste to join them and partook of the sheer joy that is biking in Amsterdam. The old city has just over 300,000 people and even more bikes. Many people don't own cars and many more haven't bought petrol in so long they don't know the price of it. The effect on the interior of the city is dramatic. Many roads are de-facto pedestrian routes that grudgingly part to allow cars through. Bike lanes abound and the canals make cars routes maddeningly circuitous while bikes can sail across old town in minutes. We soaked up, as always, a great deal of the history of the country, and learned a lot about how its past makes it the way it is today: The historically religiously open country that was rolled over by inquisitive Spanish Catholics, kicked them out and swung back to social liberalism, got rich on trade while the rest of the world squabbled over religous wars and imperialism, got rolled by fascists in the Second World war and responded with a defiant swell of tolerance and progressive social ideas once the Nazis were routed. Most of the famous (or infamous) social policies of the Netherlands amount to a constructive "piss-off" to the departing Nazi ideals. (Not just the well-known legalized cannabis and prostitution, but also women's suffarage, gay rights, and broad social support systems like a universal guarantee of housing.)
In our short stay here we had to brutally prioritize our sightseeing agenda, and after the bike tour the Anne Frank house was the natural next stop. It's kind of a pity that so much of European history is overshadowed by the relatively brief but recent events of the second world war. On the other hand, the wealth of records and the unimaginable horror at the heart of the war make it a very accessible, very compelling cautionary tale. The Anne Frank house and attached museum did their best to tap into this, though in a somewhat more storybook way (take the kids here when they're 10, wait till they're at least 13 for a concentration camp.). To me, the part that was the most truly interesting was an interactive exhibit set up near the exit of the museum. Called "Free2Choose" it showcased situations that called for a personal value judgement as to the limits of free speech, tolerance, liberties, and laws. It presented brief synopses of real-world events or controversies (like flag burning, head scarves for French school girls, holocaust denial, etc.) and asked the audience to vote using buttons placed around the room. It was quite interesting to see the groups reaction rendered in real time and compared to the average of all previous groups who had seen the presentation. The underlying theme of the exhibit was clearly emphasizing that tolerance and knowledge are the only true security against terror and tyranny; a good lesson for any age.
After paying our respects to Anne and her family we headed back to Zeedijk street, the main drag in the old part of town. Zeedijk is known for many things, including its ubiquitous roving bands of young anglo males, part of the rising tradition of holding stag party weekends in Amsterdam for British bachelors. It's also home to a confusion of Asian restaurants, Chinese, Japanse, Thai, the aromas of which mercifully cover the everpresent BO smell of pot smoke. We found a Thai restaurant (The Thai Bird) and had a pretty decent, if slightly overpriced meal. And no Thai Iced Tea, darn it!
No visit to Amsterdam would be complete without a stroll down Oudezjids Achterburgwal, a street that needs no introduction nor, in fact, any city-installed lighting. Paris has its Eiffel Tower, a monument to innovation and human ingenuity, Luzern has its wounded lion, a reminder of sacrifice and resistance to tyranny. And Amsterdam has Oudezjids Achterburgwal, the red light district, a testament to the spirit of live-and-let-live tolerance that has helped the Netherlands endure and thrive over the centuries despite the turmoil that engulfed the rest of Europe. Legalized since the 1980's, prostitution in Amsterdam is a strange blend of the profane and the mundane. Prostitues rent window space (and the accompanying rooms) for a set rate, and accept clients as they wish. Their "offices" have to meet hygiene standards, likewise themselves. The whole thing is legislated, regulated, inspected, and, naturally, taxed. Unlike the seedy image one pictures when thinking of the sterotypical red light district, Oudezjids Achterburgwal is surprisingly family-friendly. The window displays are, for the most part, nothing you wouldn't see in a Victoria's Secret store window (except the mannequins may wink suggestively at you) and the sidewalk traffic doesn't look too different from the average crowd emerging from a PG-13 movie. A large portion of the passers-by are, predictably, 25-40 something males, but women, teens, and grey-haired couples round out the mix. Life goes on, unfazed, on the streets on both sides of the district and the Dutch are happy to let tourist dollars come flowing in long after the novelty has worn off.
Leaving Oudezjids Achterburgwal bound for home we also decided to poke our heads into one of the many coffeeshops that abound in the area. They're pretty informal joints (no pun intended), most of them nothing more than a small, low room with comfortable chairs, dim lighting, and a bartender more likely to philosophically explain the paradox of a "victimless crime" than to separate drunken brawlers. More than a little self-conscious (I'll admit!) I strolled among the tables, just taking in the atmosphere (once again, no pun intended) and seeing what the culture was. It was, surprisingly, a little more akward going into the coffeehouse than it was walking down the street of the redlight district. Perhaps it's that going inside is an deliberate act, with less psychological deniabilty. I borrowed a menu from a serene girl in the corner and browsed the neatly laminated sheet which looked for all the world like the inventory of a drug bust. I figured since I was there, and feeling akward already, I might as well ask the girl at the bar to explain to me what I was looking at. The menu was divided up into different styles and strenghts of cannabis, and she explained why some patrons would prefer one versus another. Listening to her I began to see why the Dutch believe they have achieved civilization while much of the rest of the world are still locked into the self-imposed contortortions of moral and legal paradoxes.
Amsterdam has truly been one of the surprises of the trip. While the depth of history and culture alone are enough to keep you fascinated, the city is quaint and beautiful to boot. As much as we'd like to stay longer the end of our journey is rapidly approaching and we have, as they say, miles to go before we sleep. After touring the Van Gogh museum tomorrow morning we'll be making our way to Saint Malo tomorrow afternoon. Saint Malo (say it like the French; /San Mal-oh/) is a lovely ancient village on the rocky coast North coast of France, the historical home of fisherman and the secret base of the dashing French corsairs. The weather report for St. Malo is high of 68, low of 48, partly cloudy with showers--just like our Northern California coast. From St. Malo there we'll be daytripping to Mont St. Michel, that amazing monkery in an island castle you've no doubt seen in pictures. With only 6 days remaining of our trip we're both realizing that it has come to pass exactly as we knew it would: this trip has flown by. Much as both of us would gladly head back out if some eccentric millionaire offered us the means, at this point we're both warming to the idea of trading our worn backpacks for familiar beds and seeing old friends and family again.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
This third night train, from Prague, was by far the most interesting yet, the telling of which I will leave to Patrick to fill in since it's really his story.
More commentary on the city and the production that we're going to when we get back this evening.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Our accomadations on this trip weren't quite as idyllic as our previous night train. Though the company was just as good, there was quite a bit more of it; our six bed couchette was packed to the gills with two girls from Yorkshire, us, and a couple from DC traveling to Poland to introduce him to her parents. Patrick managed to find us and a fellow traveller sub sandwiches by way of a late dinner, but the compartment crowded with sleepers and the tiny hallway gave us no place to sit and enjoy them. Eventually the hallway traffic thinned out and we decided just to plunk down in the narrow hall, hoping it wasn't verboten. We had just begun our furtive supper when the conductor poked his head from his compartment and said something in Czech. Summoning my hard won international communication skills I raised my sandwich and gestured to the seated group, "Ist OK?" He nodded dismissively then repeated his question; it ended in "...bier?" Wait...did he say beer? To emphasive, he pantomimed the approximate dimensions of a generous bottle and said "Czech bier, ein Euro." We wasted no time in rewarding our man's entrepreneurial spirit and settled down again to enjoy what was shaping up to be an enjoyable evening. The night was, as always, punctuated by jarring station stops and passport controls, but we managed some sleep and arrived in Prague to sunrise and, once again, few tourists.
Now that we've been here for a day, I can confirm: Prague is as they say. Miles and miles of narrow, cobbled streets wind through the old town. No mere exhibit or token, like many of the vielles villes in European capitals, Prague's old town is large enough to pass for a city in its own right. Even after having seen so many quaint old streets thus far we had to marvel at the sheer scale. It just keeps going! Here there isn't the underlying worry of taking a wrong turn and stumbling out of Disneyland into mundane modernity waiting just beyond.
As is our habit we hooked up with a bike tour to orient ourselves. The bikes they provided were no granny-style fat tire cruisers. They were well maintained middle of the line mountain bikes with thick treads and better shocks. We found out soon enough why: the cobblestones nearly rattled our teeth loose. Among the notable sites on the tour, the tallest structure in Pague particularly amused me. This TV tower, built in the late 80's as a last gasp of Eastern European communism, only ever carried 3 stations: It was built primarly to block Western transmissions. After a helpful but somewhat uninspiring tour we crossed joined the crush of tourists and followed Karlova Street to the famous Charles Bridge. By the time we arrived at the gates of Prague Castle the combined effects of a short night, long day, hot sun, and surfeit of tourists combined to leave us uninterested in further culture for the day. Instead we found a grassy patch on the hill and napped for a few hours, finally waking to 6:00 tolling from the nearby church, which we took for our dinner bell.
Edit: Patrick notes that we are now carrying 7 currencies. They are, in order
- US Dollars
- British Pounds
- European Union Euros
- Swiss Suissefrancs
- Hungarian Forints
- Polish Zloty (/zwah-tee/)
- Czech Koruna
and the bonus round, the piece-de-la-resistance...
- Austrian Schillings (discontinued in 1993, found in the gutter!)
Edit: I just viewed the blog using Internet Explorer and I note that the pictures seem to load strangely or not at all. Probably the legacy of my amateur html skills. If you're using IE (and oh God why?) you might have better luck with something else.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Many of the other major cities of Europe display a subtle charade to tourists, which our Munich guide Adam referred to as the "Bombed Style" of architecture. In short, many MANY of these old buildings in the center of town simply *aren't* old. They're cleverly crafted copies done in the style of the demolished original. So great was the destruction in some places that cities like Frankfurt and Munich held town votes to decide how to go about rebuilding the city; bulldoze and start over or rebuild it like it was (We have the technology...). In Frankfurt they decided that the Etch-a-Sketch had been shaken beyond saving; they literally redrew the city map and filled in with whole new buildings. Munich, by a close vote, went the other way, opting to preserve their historic feel and rebuild the city to look like it did ante-bellum (before it got it's bell rung). This gave birth, somewhat unceremoniously, to the "Neo-" style of architecture. You had a Gothic city hall that got asploded? The replacement is the "Neo-Gothic" Rathaus. Lost your government building dating back to the Renaissance? How about a good-as-old "Neo-Renaissance" copy on the same spot? (Plus a nice little modernist touch: Large glass and steel sides on the office, facing the public park so that the citizens can look in and watch their government at work. Methinks the architect was making a statement...)
Prague made its tourist reputation on its similar fortune of not having been rubbled during the war, and I hear that, as much as Krakow touts itself as "the next Prague", the real thing is still king. All in all, Krakow has had its charms but for me it will remain firmly in Budapest's shadow. I'm ready for the train; old Praha has promised a lot and I really want to see it deliver.
Bonus feature: Scavenger Hunt!
Sunday, July 22, 2007
In Corniglia, you remember that our under-the-table pensione (/pen-see-ohn-ay/) was secured by the Godfather-channeling "Mama" Angela. In Budapest, we found our authentic local Hungarian at Zsoka Mama's, a 6 table restaurant wedged into a small storefront a couple blocks off the main drag. Finally, tonight and last night we stuffed ourselves to bursting on rich, earthy polish food at an eatery that feels like you've walked into a Polish granny's living room -- for about $5 (US) per person. The place is "Kuchnia U Babci Maliny", and if you guessed that the translation includes "Grandma's" you win the prize.
The prototypical "Mama's" isn't ritzy or flashy; in fact, it's usually humble and often downright hard to find. Mama isn't trying to impress you, and you certainly can't impress mama; she's been at this since you were in diapers. Mama hasn't changed with the times or the tourists either; she's still using her mama's recipe.
Mama has seen us through so far and you can bet your bottom zloty that we'll keep coming back to her, wherever we find her.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Also, (as Krystal so perceptively pointed out) we have new photos up on the flickr site, from the end of Budapest through today. In lieu of a blog post today I have gone through and added my two zlotkys worth to the captions.
We settled into our couchette and awaited the bad news...who were we going to have for roommates? Afterall, there are 6 bunks in the 8x8x8 2nd class couchettes and they don't see anything inhumane about allowing snorers and stinkers and amorous couples onto these trains. Much to our relief, we instead got Miwa, come all the way from Japan on a solitary jaunt around eastern Europe. She was doing Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, as well as Hungary and Poland. As I mentioned in the last post, 3 weeks ago I really wouldn't have considered those to be tourist destinations; I've heard too much about them in the news and not enough in the travel guides. Well, now I know better. I don't speak Croatian any better than I speak Hungarian, but you can't get any worse than totally illiterate, and yet I managed fine in Hungary. It's all the same, really, once you know how to play the game. (This doesn't mean I'm planning a trip to, say, Iraq anytime soon. I prefer to see AK-47s on TV.)
The night train looks to be as good an idea as the 3 day mercy rule. Traveling at night turns a 3 night stay into 4 useful days instead of 2 and 2 halves. Only problem are the border crossings and the ensuing passport checks. Stamp out at the Hungarian border. Then for entering Slovenia. Then for leaving Slovenia. Then for entering Poland. I just don't think I'll ever get used to being rousted out of a sound sleep by stern looking officers armed with guns and scowls, speaking brusquely in a language I utterly don't comprehend. I've watched enough COPS to know that talking to police while barechested and bleary eyed requires deliberate dignity and slow, obvious movements. While I could do without the hourly passport parade at least I now know how to thank them for their troubles. In Hungary kursunum did the job, and for the Polish cop my mind was somehow able to dredge up dziekuje in a close enough approximation that he responded with what I can only assume to be the Polish equivalent of "you're welcome."
We arrived in Krakow at 5:30am, probably our earliest morning so far. We hooked through the old town on the way to our hostel and entered through the Florian Gate, the best preserved remains of the old city wall. We made our way to the main market square just as the sun rose over Saint Mary's cathedral, enjoying the empty plaza populated by many pigeons but few tourists. We even managed to arrive right on the hour to hear the bugler play his hourly call from the watchtower attached to Saint Mary's. The bugler is always a fireman, part of the city's best loved tradition that evokes the legend of a town watchman in the tower that spotted a Tartar army approaching and sounded the alarm. Before he could finish his tune an arrow pierced his throat, cutting him short. To this day the call stops short of the end of the song.
We're now at the Deco Hostel, having managed a much delayed and much needed shower after the sauna like heat of the city and the cramped train car. We're going to head back out on the town, probably catch a bike tour by way of orientation, then, hopefully, return to the hostel later tonight and upload some photos which we kinda owe you all for all the wordy posts. Na zdrowie and czesc,*!
(*Cheers and goodbye, naturally!)
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
First order of business was to get money, since Hungary hasn't quite got up the economic speed to hop aboard the Euro train. The hassle of needing a different type of curreny is somewhat offset by the novelty of a very advantageous exchange rate: about 200 Hungarian Forints to the dollar. So....I withdrew 25,000 in cash. Yeah, it feels just as swell as it sounds. Add to that the fact that I am now carrying 4 different currencies and you'd feel pretty spry, too. How to celebrate that "citizen of the world" feeling and fight the broiling Budapest summer at the same time? The baths, of course!
Budapest is famous for its geothermal baths and has a long tradition going back to the Roman days when they found that this whole area (the "Carpathian Basin", thanks Rick!) is basically a big kettle of hot water with a little dirt on top. The Roman settlement at the site of present day Budapest was even called "Aquincum", or Abundant Waters. Many years later the conquering Ottomans say that the Romans had a good thing going and just expanded on it (hence all the rounded domes and yellow paint).
We hooked up with Shira and Jenna who knew what they were doing and headed for the Szechenyi Baths in the middle of Pest. While others have their claim to fame, Szechenyi is the acknowledged best. A little unsure of what to expect I paid my 2400 forint, changed into a suit (this would be one of the progressive yes-to-bathing-suits-and-women bathhouses) and stepped into the tile-floored baths. Fortunately, as cultural experiences go, this one was no more difficult than a trip to the waterpark, but with all the payoff. We got the full frigidarium (64 degrees!!!), tepidarium, caldarium sequence, plus saunas, large outdoor pools with fountains and jets, even a pool with concentric rings, one for bobbing, one with a circular current, and one giant spa/whirlpool in the middle.
We saw many dignified old Hungarian men bobbing in the warm water contemplating chess moves across a board propped on the intervening wall, and many examples of the fearsome Inverse Speedo Law: The bigger the belly, the smaller the Speedo. As Patrick noted, though, the ratio of attractive bathers to look-the-other-ways was significantly higher here than on either the beaches of Nice or Cinque Terre.
We were actually in the water by 10am, which sounds early until you realize that it was almost 94 degrees by then, humidity about 70%. Though we didn't know it until we got back this evening, today was actually a record breaking high temperature.
After the baths we went to the grand market hunting lunch. The Hungarians don't exaggerate; it's like a train station (it might even have been, considering the turn of the century chic, I-beam and decorative wrought iron architecture) but instead of trains it has dozens upon dozens of food vendors. Produce grocers, butchers, fishmongers with great tanks of live fish ("I want that one. No, not, the other one. The one that's swimming in circles...") and a whole mess of hot food stands are stacked 3 levels high in the cavernous hall. We browsed for awhile, following rumors of Chinese food (lies, LIES!) and eventually settled upon a Hungarian stand offering...*nothing* we recognized. We led with our noses and what looked good, literally just pointing and indicating relative portions ("YES! Gimme more of that. Um..can I try ,I just a smidge of that?) I also managed to order a Coke when I thought I was asking for a fork. With gusto and no small amount of curiosity we dug in. Patrick got what can best be described as a pseudo chile relleno. It was a delightfully spicy stuffed pepper (though "Stuffed with what" is still a matter of conjecture) I made off with an herb crusted chicken leg (Hungarian chickens have MASSIVE legs) that had some sort of ultra-dense bread/pastry stuffing on the INSIDE. The Coke was tasty, too.
Thus sated and also filled up on water we set out to cross the Danube west from flat, business-like Pest to hilly, historical Buda. We climbed Gellert Hill (named in honor of Bishop Gellert, the patron saint of the city, who was offed by his political opponents by being nailed into a beer keg and unceremoniously booted down said hill. End effect: Martyrdom by barrelroll and a new patron saint.) Gellert Hill is topped by the Citidel and a massive statue of Peace personified as a woman (ostensibly) holding a palm branch. The locals call her "The woman with the fish" but to us she will always be "Our Lady of Perpetual Ascent" because DAMN that hill is tall. Getting off the hill and out of the sun we poked around Castle Hill which doesn't quite seem to live up to its exciting name. Fortunately, our penchant for seeking our perches and ditches steered us right once again. We found the Castle Hill Caves and Labyrinth.
No museum, this; it's its just what it sounds like. An a la carte cave and labyrinth experience for those of us who still play Dungeons and Dragons in our head while we tour medieval castles. Climbing down three stories into the rock and foundation of Castle Hill we left the sun and the oppressive heat (106 degrees at 3:45pm) behind, trading it for darkened passages, dripping ceilings, and frosty breath. The cave system was wonderful; no point, just caves, and every BIT as cool as it sounds. They even worked in various themes. At the entrance stood a carved Theseus, stoically peering into the darkness with a ball of yarn in his cupped hand. Elsewhere you stumbled upon him crouched in the shadows while you heard strange, hoofbeat like rhythms. Very environmental, very creepy, VERY cool. Another part featured stacked stone pillars with capstones positioned to give them a clear head and shoulders. Spears leaning against them or thrust in the ground in front of them completed the uncanny impression of soldiers guarding a passageway in the flickering torchlight. For anyone who ever wanted to try to sneak into a castle in a daring nighttime raid, this is the place. The strangest room of the labyrinth was actually the most well lit. Coming around a corner Patrick and I heard cheerful but still oddly minor key *music* echoing from a bright cave up ahead. A few steps further and we both stopped in our tracks at the pungent odor of...blood? Ammonia? No, vinegar! Entering the cave we met a very strange sight indeed. A square pillar of rock in the middle of the room, reaching to the ceiling, covered in bright green ivy growing thick and lively even despite the gloom and total absence of sunlight. Protruding from the rock were 4 bronze fountains, rusted to a turquoise patina, forming mouths spouting down into basins. And from the mouths poured a constant, blood-red stream of vinegar. It was fascinating, utterly mysterious, and vaguely unsettling for reasons I still can't quite put my finger on.
Leaving the caves was sad, and returning to the heat was unpleasant, but it did dry our clothes from the dank subterranean air. Hustling over to the train station before it closed I pictographically reserved us two couchettes (sleeper car berths) on the night train to Krakow in two days. I drew it up ahead of time for maximum comprehensibility and total coverage. The date for the tickets hung over 2 stick figures standing on the word Budapest, which was connected with an arrow to Krakow. Rising over the arrow was a crescent moon and sleeping soundly beneath the arrow were our two travellers, each in a bunk. I was more than a little nervous about what reception my little masterpiece would receive. The last think I want to do is insult and upset the poor woman. I might wake up Friday morning in Siberia! Fortunately, she loved it, gibbering excitedly in Hungarian before declaring "You make so easy!" Don't think I didn't double check the tickets even so, but all is in order, much to my relief.
We finished the night by grabbing dinner at a local Hungarian hole in the wall. I practiced "Thank You" on the waitress ("Kursunum", with umlauts over all the vowels. And it's basically not pronounced one bit the way it looks.) I also had a chance to finally take a crack at "cheers" in Hungarian (phonetically "eh-gesh-eh-ge-druh", still working out where the emPHAsis goes. Easy pneumonic for remembering it, though: "Eggs should get drunk".) I had a bacon wrapped chicken in a white (perhaps cheese-based?) cream sauce, Patrick had the fried pork chops. Annn, NOW I see why those great old Hungarian men are overhanging their Speedos. If that's the price for eating Hungarian cooking I'll gladly pay it.
So Budapest is my buddy now. Tomorrow Patrick and I are planning on catching the bicycle tour tomorrow morning and then heading to Statue Park (1980's, Budapest: OY! Loads of Communist era statues, no longer communist. Historical value. Can't just cleverly paint over them Ooh, eeh, um, what to do? I know! Statue park outside the city!) or maybe trying our another of the bathhouses. Maybe see if we can bait some crotchety Hungarian guy into whooping us at chess.
(Ps: I apologize if all the talk of food is making you Hungary. ...er, sorry. I ought to get the country name puns in Czech before I drive my brother to distraction.)
[EDIT: Holy CRAP that was a long post. Er...sorry? Can someone or some several of you nominate yourselves vox populi and tell me if the long ones like the above are too long and should be kept somewhat more bite size? This ok? Crickets?]
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Arriving in Budapest (with a Hungarian "s".. /buda-pescht/) at 8 last night (several hours after we intended, a long story for another time), we found that every hostel we knew about was full and all the Tourist Infos were closed. Bummer dude. So, what did we do? Start talking to people of course! A fellow on the train mentioned a hostel, so we got directions to his hostel, but they were full. However, the guy at that front desk said he was online with a friend of his who worked at another hostel across town. They chatted it up, and he turned back to us and said, "she's got two beds for you. Here's the address." Schwing! We hiked over there, and behind a ratty door, up a rickety flight of stairs we find a great little hostel that's two parts college dorm, 1 part slumber party and a pinch of Anne Frank. Great place, nice people, and we met some folks who want to go to the Baths tomorrow (Budapest hot springs are world famous), so we're going to go with. Good travelers make their own luck.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Saturday, July 14, 2007
One principle that we´ve adopted is the 3-nights-in-one-place mercy rule (Also known as 3 Day's Grace). As Gepat, one of the Austrian scoutmasters, explained to me, you can see train stations anywhere in the world and they look the same anywhere in the world. I agree him wholeheartedly, getting there is actually only about 6.25% of the fun. Travel less, experience more and keep your sanity in the bargain. We realized that only two nights in a city left but a single day to explore and a single day off the train. Much better to treat the tour as a series of weekends in which you arrive "Friday" evening, get oriented and settled in, see the sights on "Saturday and Sunday", and leave early "Monday" morning....of course with the benefit that "Monday" morning leads right into "Friday" night!
Another problem we revisted was the state of rail in Eastern Europe. While Austria is still a part of Eurail, and even Hungary beyond that, the Czech Republic, Slovakia (which we may travel through en route), and Poland are not. This means that our magic go-anywhere-do-anything Eurail Passes won´t work and we´ll have to buy tickets for those legs separately. Though we knew this was going to be a bit of a sticky spot when we were planning the trip we figured we´d just deal with it when we got there. Here. Er, now. The nice thing is that we´re working on solutions now so that we still have almost a week before we´ll be needing those tickets.
Our evolving solution for the next two weeks, at least til we´re back in western Europe,looks something like this: (Details, as always, still being worked out.)
19 Budapest (Night train)
22 Krakow (Night train)
25 Praha (Night train)
Notice the use of night trains to help pick up a few days and do something productive over those long hauls. Also note that Berlin found its way to the chopping block. As Frankie put it, "Somethin´s Gotta Give."
Friday, July 13, 2007
Thursday, July 12, 2007
We arrived late last night to crash at the A&O Hostel, which was approximately a cross between a dorm and a tenement. (It´s sole redeeming feature was a wistful view of the distinctive Mercedes HQ above the skyline.) Would that we had actually bothered to read our guidebook for ideas before booking, apparently there is a Wombat Hostel in Munich; somehow I think that´s the place for me. Fortunately we´re booked into a much better one for tonight and tomorrow, the EasyPalace hostel.
Today was given over to tours, both vehicular and autolocomotive. We caught a quick doubledecker bus tour as orientation, then had time for a VERY brief "South Americanische" lunch (that´s what it said on the door). Though it was tasty, if over priced, we got endless kicks out of the liberties taken with the menu. Instead of chips and salsa they served bread with yogurt with chives. The salsa evoked hazy recollections of some similar sauce, and the fajitas were also accompanied with something that I was delighted to recognize as islandless thousand island. Seeing "Steaksausse" on the table I took a whiff, and handed it to Patrick with a quiz: " If you didn´t know this was steak sauce, what would you say it was?" He agreed with me; shrimp cocktail sauce.
The Mike´s Bikes tour was, predictably, fantastic. They screen their guides for enthusiasm and charisma so you can´t help but enjoying yourself. Patrick noted that he wished he could send his Engineering Ambassadors on one so they could see how it CAN be done, and we both agreed that we´d love to do something like this some time....whenever THAT would be. Adam, our guide, was an exuberent South African with a 100 mph (161 kph) delivery and wide-eyed excitement you just couldn´t help but love. The accent never hurts, of course. Among the interesting bits he related was that München´s famous Hofbraü Hauss beer hall was the site of one of Hitler´s first public speeches. During the period of Nazi ascendency swasticas were painted on the ceiling in honor of this occasion; years later the proprietors had a difficult decision to make. Swasticas were emphatically out of fashion, but the paintings had historical value. Solution? They worked the Bavarian flag into the swastica design, so enfolding it that its no longer visible if you weren´t looking for it, which we most certianly were. The bike tour paused for a good hour in München´s most famous beer garden, the Chinese Tower Garden, while we sampled some of the famous local product. München is where I first found a liking for beer so it was only fitting that I revisit this revelation in style. Plus, some of you remember that I owe Patrick a beer from Fribourg (when he declined it due to being under the weather). I paid in full, believe me. In the Hofbrau beer garden they sell beer BY THE LITER. If you wonder how much a liter stein is, make a circle with the thumb and middle fingers of your two hands and hold it nine inches off the table. (And then we got back on the bikes after that...) Speaking of hands and fingers, a note on tecnique: steins are very large, often glass, sometimes metal drinking vessels. For beer. Not for other liquids. They had large, manly handles on them. For drinking beer. Not for other liquids. Therefore they must be held appropriately. The "handle," as it was explained, it not for fingers, like you might think. No wrapping your fingers around it like a teacup. NO! Shove your whole meaty, manly hand into it and let the STEIN hold on to YOU! NOW you may swing it, pound it, and chug with impunity! PROST!
Tomorrow we´re headed to the Deutsche Museum, Germany´s answer to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the National Science and Technology Museum, and the Exploratorium all in one place. Legend has it that there are 10 miles of exhibits criss-crossing the campus, and that if you spend 1 minute at each exhibit youd be there 10 days. I certainly intend to give it a run for its money. Guten nacht and love to all!'
Edit:(And yes, to anyone who was wondering about my taking FULL advantage of a keyboard that has a an umlaüt "u" ("ü") on it. Power corrupts, what can I say?)
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
We had lunch on the train to Zurich, leftover spaghetti from last night. Yes, we put it in a bag last night and we took it with us on the train. It seemed like a good idea at the time... No one is sick yet, and the look from the conductor as we squeezed spaghetti and meat sauce from a ziplock bag was priceless. (Also, cooking last night did more than just give us lunch tody. A Swiss kid observing our culinary escapades asked with great interest if we were Americans, because he heard people didn't cook in the United States. I assured him they did, even if he only ever saw them eating in restaurants over here. I also assured him that most americans agreed that McDonald's only met the loosest definition of "food")
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Lastly, after being in Europe for more than two weeks, our impulse to "eat local" entered a waning phase, replaced by an urgent need for...Thai! Now some of you are probably asking yourselves "Where the heck are you going to find a Thai restaurant in Luzern, Switzerland?" And after nearly an hour chasing geese around old town Luzern, we were asking ourselves the same question. Eventually we stumbled onto (into) a Korean restaurant (Korean Town, naturally) that was warm, dry, smelled delectable and appeared to be patronized astoundingly (and encouragingly!) primarily by Koreans. The menu was mercifully subtitled in English so we helped courselves to hot green team, dumplings, a beef and glassnoodles house special, and a spicy chicken dish. We declined the waitresses offer of forks or even wooden chopsticks, instead opting to try the traditional Korean chopsticks: flat and metal. Despite some hand cramps we had an excellent meal and were mostly dry by the time we headed back out into the storm.
Tonight we cooked here at "home" (the Luzern Backpackers Hotel) and plan to turn in early, post-prandial cappucinos notwithstanding. Depending on whether we hear from Veit and Hilly (two of the Austrian scout leaders) we'll either head for Vienna or Munich on the morrow.
[Editor's note: What do tech savvy budet travelers to do to get around extortionate net fees and still make lengthy blog posts? Why, they type the whole blog post into the URL bar of the kiosks browser windows, 400 characters at a time, in 5 separate windows, then pay the money and past the whole thing together in 20 seconds. (Then they spend another 2 minutes being smug about it...)
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Ecuvilliens a small airfield just outside Fribourg, we got a full tour around of the Kanton of Fribourg. Our hosts explained to us that Switzerland is divided into Kantons, administrative districts very similar to states, but much stronger and more self-directed. (Incidentally, Switzerland is properly called the Confederation Helvetique, which explains the .ch extension in Swiss web addresses, like www.ludivers.ch.) The city of Fribourg is the capitol of the Kanton in a "New York, New York" sort of way. The mountains are to the south of Fribourg, starting with the green "Pre-Alps" and proceding higher, colder, and snowier to the imposing Alps in the background.
Friday, July 6, 2007
Once in Bern and properly lunched we were confronted with the unappealing prospect of another night in an HI hostel which, as we'd learned in Genova, are clean, well maintained, predictable, and as depressing as a cafeteria lunch. Into this glum mood shown a single ray of light: Patrick's longshot friend in Fribourg. And believe it or not, she came through, inviting us to come join them that very night. We were overjoyed and, not forgetting our manners, asked if there was anything we could bring. She said no, it's not necessary (adding that in Switzerland, unlike in France, no actually means no) but we, being American and not Swiss, insisted. After some prodding she admitted that her husband was quite fond of Läckerli [leck-early, but you have to gargle the "ck"] a hard, dense ginger spice bread somewhere between ginger coffee cake and graham crackers. (That's a terrible description, but I can be forgiven, when *I* asked what it was the woman simply offered me a taste rather than trying to explain.) We found a whole bag Läckerli and a nice potted begonia and caught our train looking rather silly but proud of ourselves. It's hard to look manly holding a yellow begonia and a bag of sweets, particularly when you're standing next to a stocky Swiss soldier in fatigues.
Stepping off the train we met Nicole (aka Midori) and caught the bus to the flat in the newer section of Fribourg that she shares with her husband Olivier. Nicole and Olivier are both lifelong Swiss citizens; Nicole speaks beautifully tinted English, mindblowingly rapid French, and ein kleine deutsch, probably much more than she lets on. Olivier speaks only French, with merciful enunciation and sympathetic pauses when I glaze over halfway through what he's telling me. Olivier is a masterful modelmaker and tabletop games enthusiast who works for the nationalized Swiss Telcom; Nicole is a student finishing her (equivalent) Master's in English Philology who also finds time to play what appears to be every console RPG ever published. Geeks in the best sense of the word, both of them, and it's a delight to benefit from their knowledge of local and Swiss culture, not to mention their cooking. We ended Thursday night in fine style with a hearty local meal of fondue and white wine, whereupon Patrick and I crashed, mindful of having run ourselves down in the rain and mud at Kandersteg. I'll leave off here and continue Friday in its own post.
[Edit 1: In answer to Scott's question about petanque, it's the Southern France/Northern Italy game that is bocce's more sophisticated big brother. Each player has 3 solid steel bocce, which is merely Italian for ball. There is also a small, brightly painted cork ball about the size of a fishing bobber, called (at least in France) the bouchon. The bouchon is thrown out some disance onto a flat, crushed aggregate court (in Italy this court was spiked with strategically placed rocks to make it more difficult.) The goal is to get as many as possible of your bocce closer to the bouchon than the closest of your opponent's bocce. Strategically, you can either pointe or chute. To pointe is to toss a gentle, high arc with a slight backspin, hoping to get it to land as close as possible to the bouchon. A riskier throw is to chute, a flat, low arc aimed at actually hitting the opponents ball in an aggressive play intended to blast the opposition's pointe ball(s) billiards style across the court. Though unpracticed American students (even former waiters instructed by a French chef) should stick to pointing, grey-haired Italian sharks can lob the bocce with such pinpoint accuracy that you can see sparks on impact.....and kiss your winning pointe goodbye.]
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Corniglia/Riomaggiore to Genova to Kandersteg to Fribourg
Though that gives the driving directions it does a fair job of showing the relative locations of each of our destinations.
Also, we've posted several new photos on flickr. We'll have more time tomorrow to update on the rest of the Kandersteg stories and how we came to be in
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
2 days in Kandersteg wasn't enough! We've moved out of the chalet and up the street to the Hotel Gemmi (/Gammy/), a fairly inexpensive but nicely furnished backpackers hotel for two more nights. It has been raining more or less since that picture below was taken, so we're quite thankful to be indoors. We've taken to making nightly rounds of the campsites, and have met tremendous people. We spent Monday night with a group of Austrian scouts. I had gone looking for the recipe of a dessert that they brought to the international exchange. Our host Veit did a lovely job of translating it for us, but the translation produced a concept that we have no word for in English. Egg whites, beaten for 10 to 15 minutes until they are the consistency of ice cream. Their word is "eischnee" (/eye shnee/), which translated comes to "Egg Snow". New word? I'll take it.
Today we tried to get to a cheese factory for a tour, but a failure of train timing led us on a 6 hour goose chase. Pretty scenery, but we spent the whole day on the train. By that point the cheesery seemed much less interesting so we just packed it in early and attended a multi-country campfire and song night. Groups from the US, Holland and Denmark all shared campfire songs, chants and yells. Classic scout fun.
Monday, July 2, 2007
We're setting off hiking this morning and we have plans to go abseilling ("rappelling" for silly Americans who just have to be different) later this afternoon. Auf wiedersehen!!
Remember: We can't fit all the photos we upload into the blog. Be sure to pop over the Rambling Rovers flickr site for the whole selection.
Edit: James, I have you to thank. We were having a discussion of the history and mystery o' the Scotch and he mentioned that there was a great song about the excise man and the moonshiners. I asked "Gather up the pots and the old tin cans?" and was met by uproarious agreement. Sir, I raised a glass to you.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
After strolling somewhat confusedly through Vernazza, soaking in the warm salt air,the cool smell of old stones, and the thoroughly Italian ambiance, we set to finding housing armed with one of the few Italian words we knew: "Pensione?"[/Pen-see-oh-nay/], meaning, roughly, a place to sleep for the night. Well, soon enough we learned another one: "Complete!" [/Com-PLET-ay/] meaning, roughly, "I've got enough darn tourists for tonight, go bug someone else." Some people would be discouraged by this. Some people would be smart, go back to the train, and find lodging in another city. Then there's us. We thought "Why wait for the next train? The Cinque Terre are walkable, we've got our house on our back, let's do it!" So we headed into the hills south of Vernazza, bound for Corniglia. Sure, people thought we were crazy. One well meaning Canadian told us "You're nuts. If you knew, you'd turn back." .
But where to stay? We wandered a bit, soaking in the sights but increasingly anxious as the sun sat ever lower over the tiled roofs. Well, confusion is an international expression and soon enough a woman came up to us rattling away in Italian. Seeing our blank looks she sighed and said "Pensione." Well, to be sure, we followed her. Simone (for that was her name) and Angelo, her young son, led us all over the small town, when finally she found...you guessed it: Mama. Well, she presented us to mama with that one magic word and we were off the the races again, Mama in her flowered mumu dragging us down an alley to a nondescript door. Inside was a pleasant one room flat with a single bed and a lovely, all tile shit/shower/shave bathroom. We were planning on going for a nice dinner but between the anxiety of using the railpass for the first time, finding trains, making connections, and the exertion of the overland route to Cornigla, we just passed out. Not even the cacaphony of church bells, the gelato shops loud grinding, or the drunken italians signing late into the night could do much more than cause me to roll over and fall asleep again. The church bells mark the hour and half hour all night, sleeping tourists be damned. It's fine taste of what the area was like long ago.
With plenty of sleep I rose early the next morning for a great constitutional; it felt kind of like camping, when you come into the campsite late in the evening and it's all a blur, then you finally have a chance to explore it by daylight the next morning. Corniglia is my favorite of the five cities, perched aloof on a hill, small and beachless, almost seeming to say "Move along tourists, there's nothing to see here." After packing our things and paying Mama, who came by promptly at 10:00 to collect, we stepped across the street to a cafe for breakfast. Some of you have heard the crack about an Italian breakfast being "A cup of coffe, a cigarette, and the view." Well, that's not far off, but Patrick and I wanted something a bit more filling and a bit less carcinigenic. Not knowing what the local breakfast of choice was, we let the menu be our guide: Orange juice? Bacon and eggs? An outrageous 2.50 Euros and 5.50 Euros, respectively. (About $11) Cappucino and brioche (croissant) were more like it, and with it we enjoyed the view as the sun rose over Cinque Terre.
By way of symmetry we climbed a second hill that afternoon, this one much higher and to the south of town, to see what was once the Madonna de Monte Nero. After two long hikes in the midday sun we headed for a swim on the very rocky Riomaggiore beach and returned to the room in time to get ready for the big event: Dinner at the Ristorante Belvedere in Monterosso. Patrick heard about the Belvedere in epic prose from a couple on the train who RAVED about the house special. Call it cioppino, bouillibaise italiano, or bucket of boat trash it all adds up to the same thing, and we WANTED some.
We left Cinque Terre the next morning as the weekend tourists arrived, deciding to seek out "Dullsdorf"; a concept we learned from our friend Rick. Dullsdorf is that town that no one goes to, where there are few tourists, plenty of open rooms, and a chance to take a breather. We found dullsdorf in Genova, which we wisely skipped the first time. It couldn't have been duller. I won't give it any time here because it is thoroughly forgettable, other than to say that we got our first taste of a Hosteling International hostel, which matched perfectly the character of the city. The hostel was adequately clean, orderly, and about as inspiring as a high school cafeteria. Bah. It did what was needful. The one bright spot of Genova was the happy outcome of getting purposefully lost in a strange city. In a back alley of Genova we stumbled upon a knot of grey-haired old Italians playing petanque! After watching for awhile we were noticed and, much to my delighted, invited in. I did my best to make it known that I knew how to play and even managed to score a set of balls for Patrick and I. We played and watched for an hour or more, awash in rapidfire Italian as these good old boys laughed, fought, swore, and threw solid metal bocce with stunning accuracy. Salute and ciao, Lucciano, Giorgio, Luigi, Bruno etc! (Those were actually their names, I kid you not.)
Eager to get out of Genova, in case whatever it had was catching, we headed for the train station early and caught the train here to Kandersteg. Just about the time I was getting a pile of useful words in Italian we crossed the border into Switzerland and had to start all over. Robert, we coulda used you a few times today, among other things to calm down the Swiss border cops with the German accents and German Shepard who were trying to figure out if there was monkey business with the two nearly identical passports.
Switzerland has greeted us with a terrific and terrible mountain storm, complete with thunder rolling through the alps and occasional lightning. I'm planning on nosing around, talking to other scouts, and getting a nice night in bed, listening to the rain and enjoying the sight of mountains through my window. You've probably heard enough from me for one night, but I would love to hear from you. And don't worry, we're calling Mom tonight.