Monday, June 30, 2008

Munich (minus the Hofbrauhaus)

The train from Salzburg to Munich went sweet and smooth, and I got into town feeling fantastic. I was short on sleep from the noisy Salzburg crowds but for some reason I was perky anyway. Maybe I was just excited to be in the heart of Bavaria. I had reserved a place on a website I had just heard of,, but I stupidly couldn't find where I had written the name and directions of the hotel, so the first thing I had to do when I arrived was get online and find it again. Well, I finally found an internet cafe, but wouldn't you know, yours truly had somehow deleted the email with all the info, so I had to start from scratch.
Luckily I had also emailed another hostel the day before and found their reply, and they had a room available, and only a block away. The hardest thing about huge train stations like Munich's Hauptbanhof is getting oriented, and sure enough I went out the wrong side, but soon found my way to another one of those tiny rooms that I like. It may sound strange, but I actually prefer a cozy little hotel room with the single bed taking up half the room, and a bathroom to match. I guess I fell in love with them in Japan. Most American hotel rooms are four times the size, and what for? What traveler needs two huge queen beds and acres of space (all of which takes more energy to heat & cool)? I do just fine with a little desk, bed & tv. Hey, as long as the reading light's good and the bed comfy I'm in luxury.

Another thing I've noticed that seems to be the trend all over Europe: sheets and blankets are out, comforters are in. Beds no longer come with a second sheet and blanket to crawl under, only a heavy comforter... which might be nice in the winter, but it's hot here now and the last thing I usualy wanna do is sweat under a two-inch sleeping-bag-like cover. I've given up asking for sheets, they never seem to have them, but I either take one from the other bed, if there's one available, or grab one from the housekeeper's cart when they're not looking. Then I definitely DON'T want my room serviced, or they'll take it and not give me another one! There's no taking hints with these people.... they just don't get it.
Also, once again, my lttle room was warm and stuffy (with no a/c), and had a window, but one opening in a wall doesn't give you much ventilation uless there's another place for the air to go out. Sometimes I have the room door open, but that usually doesn't help much, so I asked for a fan and of course they "don't have any"; when asked what people do in August when it really gets hot, I was told, "people just open the window". Luckily after pleading with the guy (who was named Nelish, and I called Neelix), he took pity on me and pulled out a fan from under the reception desk and said we could use "their" fan for the night. I thanked him profusely and promised to return it in the moring.
But that evening I had other business to take care of: on the train there I asked some Germans where they liked to go drink beer, and they all said go to the Augustiner biergarten-- every brew has its own garden and/or brewhouse-- which turned out to be only two blocks away. As I walked there I was doubtful of my directions, as the street was lined with huge office buildings, but sure enough, right where it should be, a nice, green, tree-filled park was full of picnic tables and locals drinking from those huge 1-liter mugs. Even the potato salad was about the best I've ever had (sorry, Mom and Mary!) I was so glad I asked, because had I not, I would have probably gone to that tourists' mecca, the Hofbrauhaus, which, when I checked it out the next day, turned out to be unbearably stuffy and depressing, in spite of a quartet of perspiring German oompah players trying to sound lively. I left quickly, thankful for those fellow passenger's advice.
Over the next few days I wandered the town, which is wonderfully pedestrian- and bike-friendly, including, of course, the Marienplatz-- the town square with the cool glockenspiel clock tower with little automaton figures that come out at certain hours, built onto the stunning rathaus, or town hall. One great thing: the square, for once, was blissfully absent of the dreaded "Fan Zone" that I've run into in all the other cities, where they block off a large area and fill it with hideous inflatable huts and huge TV screens where hundreds of drunk soccer fans scream for their teams. Munich had none of that, and I was finally able to appreciate a European Old Town main square as it was meant to be seen.... except, of course, that it was full of tourists and had the requisite souvenier shops, McDonald's, and a few other eyesores. Other than that it was quite nice, and has a nearby victuallenmarkt open-air food market with all kinds of great food shops and even its own little beer garden.

I also checked out the huge "English" garden, a park so big it has its own river with a spot where sufers come out and hang ten. It's also curiously clothing-optional, so the more puritanical visitors may want to avoid it.
The last day I spent in the Deutsches Museum, the biggest, most complete science museum I've ever had the stamina to wander in for the entire day. I loved it! It has everything from sailboats to life-sized mine tunnels to every big machine, model ship and science experiment a nerd could dream of. I ran out of time just half way through the stuff, so my advice is, if you're into this kind of thing, start early!
I capped off the Munich tour with a final revisit to the Augustiner biergarten again, where I had two (count them: 2) liters of their great beer this time, yet somehow it didn't really affect me. Maybe it was their great food and giant pretzels that soaked up a lot of it, or the good company of a German architect I met with whom I had an interesting discussion with while there. Whatever it was, I loved Munich and would love to go back again, if only to finish checking out the Deutsches museum.

Next: On to Ye Olde England

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Cesky Krumlov and Salzburg

After all the previous cities I'd been in one after the other, I needed a small-town break, and got one in Cesky Krumlov. Listed as one of the prettiest Czech towns, I think they were right. Halfway between Prague and Salzburg, it made an ideal overnight stop. It's a nice small town (I was even able to walk from the train station to my hotel) yet it had a good-sized castle with a beautiful tower, and even bear pits. Bears seem to be the town symbol, so for centuries they've kept some right outside the castle in two large pits. I wasn't happy to see them, but they're not quite as bad as they sound; at least the larger pit has trees and bushes and even a little waterfall. I think there were two in there; it was easy for them to hide in all the shrubbery. The smaller pit, however, was pretty barren and a separated bear in there paced restlessly out of boredom. Wondering if any local animal welfare people were pushing to realease them, I asked a girl at a nearby shop if there was talk of ending the practice, but she had'n't heard of any, and in fact seemed almost disgusted that I would ask such a question.
But it was a beautiflul town and a beautiful day (I'm still incredibly lucky with the weather), so I enjoyed exploring the little town's lanes and shops. I had dinner at a wonderful riverside vegetarian restaurant whose food made me reaffirm my culinary choices. The chef must have sprinkled a little pixie dust on the food-- it was magic, what she could do with a meatless menu. If the place moved to somewhere in the U.S., I think I'd have to move there too!
There's also a great little bookstore called Shakespeare & Sons which not only trades books but has a fantastic selection of English books; I went back the next morning to trade some but unfortunately they didn't open til after my train left. So I gave my copies Musn't Grumble and Rick Steve's Prague to the keeper of my next abode, the Gasthof Hunterbruhl, in nearby Salzburg, Austria.
Just getting to Salzburg was an ordeal. Due to railroad track reconstruction, everyone had to get off the train and schlep to hot, crowded buses to another station and find their trains. The train was full of young Czech backpackers going on a canoe trip; luckily the group leader, Gerta, spoke great English and went out of her way to help me get on the right bus. Some of us got on a slower one and found out later after a conductor finally came around and told us that we could either stay on this train, or switch at the next station to another one which would get us to Salzburg an hour faster. Such are the joys of travel.
But Salzburg itself is a joy. Like a miniature Vienna, it has pretty churches and a nice, compact, easily walkable old town, as well as one of the finest castles I've seen, a huge fortress towering over the town with a great museum inside. Before that, though, I went to the abbey where Maria was a nun in The Sound of Music. I don't think it was open for visitors (I found no signs) but I overheard a bit about it from a private guide giving a tour of the outside. It had a rather unremarkable exterior but the views were terrific. The only thing higher up was the castle, which I next went to. The only thing I liked better than the castle itself were the pretty girls touring it, so I kind of followed them, feigning interest in the exhibits whenever they looked my way. I finally took the funicular down (which I should have taken up, but was already half-way there anyway at the abbey) and checked out the Mirabelle Gardens. These are the pride of Salzburg and were also in The Sound of Music. Speaking of the movie, there's all kinds of tours you can go on and see other sights from it but as they cost around fifty bucks I declined on them.
Other than that I just did the usual, peeking inside old churches, sniffing musty old furniture and stuff in museums, and trying to avoid the other tourists. The only problem was the usual blocked-off historic area with the usual giant screens and blasting music... it was kinda fun to watch until I went to bed and soccer fans kept streaming by my window singing, yelling and blowing horns...until 3:00 a.m.! I couldn't even close the windows because the little room quickly became stuffy, and when I had asked the caretaker if he had any electric fans he just kind of chuckled a "nein". The gashof (guesthouse) also didn't have internet so I found a little (expensive) internet place where the guy kindly told me that since I had my own laptop, he knew of a hotspot where I could get it free. I thanked him profusely and henceforth did my emailing sitting on some steps in front of Mozart's house. I wonder what the composer would have thought of that? And I hear he didn't even like this place and couldn't wait to leave. Pity, it's really a rather nice place.
Next: Munich-- where the REAL beer drinking takes place!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Prague Blog (sorry, I couldn't resist)

Dobry-den (hello) from "Praha"! Well, I finally got to see one of the top cities on my list. I'd heard great things about Prague and the pictures I'd seen looked beautiful, so I made sure to stop there on my way west. The capital of the Czech Republic is a fun, safe, interesting place with some impressive views, grand old buildings, stunning cathedrals and just a great place to visit. I call it a "honeymoon" destination, right up there with Paris and Venice. It has that special romantic magic that just makes you wish you were with someone you love while you're there.

On the night train from Krakow I briefly met Gregg and Chris, a nice American couple from Indiana that I took an instant liking to, but little did I know they were heading for the same guesthouse "Lida" I had booked! When Jan, one of the Lida's owners, picked me up at the train platform we found out we were all going together, so fate seemed to decide that we share the first day sightseeing in the city too. Jan was a fantastic help in explaining how to get into and around the city, which can be at little confusing at first. We had our choice of tram or subway, and took the subway as the station was next to an ATM (bancomat) which we both needed. After resupplying our wallets with Czeck kroners, we took the efficient metro into the heart of the old town at Wenceslas Square.

It's really more of a big, broad avenue than a square, and it's loaded with shops, restaurants, tourists, statues and the odd beggar. (They have a new twist on panhandling here, some of them kneel and bow, forehead touching the ground, perfectly still, like muslims praying to Mecca... and hold their little cups out. There's always some new way to get money, I guess.) Anyways we strolled down the "square" along with hundreds of other tourists (I'm really starting to see them come out... must be in season) and down a lane into the REAL heart of the old town, the Old Town Square (Staromestke Namesti) maybe not as big as Krakow's but packed with wonderful sights like the astronomical clocks on the Clock Tower, Tyne church, the Old Town Hall, and the churc of St. Nicholas.
These "churches" are really cathedrals, huge and tall and centuries old. I love visiting them. I think buildings like them are what I love most about Europe, and why I'll always like it more than, say, Australia. Sorry for you mates Down Under, but I'm afraid you (and the U.S.) just don't have the history they have here!

And guess what else was going on in that square? If you've read any of my recent blogs you'll probably suspect--and you'd be right-- that there were huge TV screens set up and hundreds of people watching the Europe soccer games, of course! It kind of takes away some of the sense of history when you're trying to appreciate the cobblestones and old spires, and booming sports figures ten feet tall block half your views. I know, it's a great place to watch it and it gets everyone outside, but still... No, I didn't mind too much and I won't start complaining now, because we were in Prague and in the thick of everything! Gregg found a great little tavern (I think its Czech name meant "By the Golden Tiger", correct me if I'm wrong, Gregg) recommended by the Rick Steves guidebook that we popped in, and as Rick warns, the barmen keep bringing you beers until you ask them to stop! It was good, too, very smooth. It went down easily, in fact perhaps a little too easily, it's hard to tell the barman to stop bringing them! But we had to see the Charles Bridge, so we pushed on.

The bridge goes from a few blocks past the Old Town Square across the river Vlatva to the Castle up on the hill. We decided not to make the climb that day as it was evening and we were going to tour it later anyway. After exploring the area a bit and checking out another restaurant, we went back to the square and watched a bit of "football" (although I was watching people more) until a fight broke out and we decided to head back to the hotel.

I won't weary you with descriptions of all the places I visited and all the walking I did over the next few days, but a few highlights were the St. Vitus Cathedral within the Castle walls, whose gothic spires are what you see towering over everything in the photos, and with stained-glass windows that are about the best I've ever seen.
Also the St. George Basilica where I saw a little concert with a 12-piece orchestra. It was an hour of classical music, selections of the best of Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and others, and was an absolute joy to hear echoing in the Basilica's hall. Earlier that day I was even luckier when I happened into the Wallenstein Palace Gardens where a full orchestra and choir were practicing Beethoven's 9th, and I got to sit in the front row and watch it all for free--incredible. There were also peacocks wandering the park, adding to the renaissance air of the day, and they even keep huge owls in an aviary, whose sad hooting presence was even more mystical. I don't like to see wild birds caged, but I love owls and was thrilled to see them.

Speaking of birds, I'd say I still seem to have a way with them: walking into town the next day a pretty black & white bird (a magpie, maybe?) was standing in the middle of a side street. I moved to the curb and it just stood there. The behavior seemed a little odd and I wanted to make sure it was ok, but didn't want to scare it off either, so I just squatted down and called to it--and wouldn't you know it hopped right over to me! That's when I noticed its feet seemed to be useless; it could stand on them but they seemed limp. It hungrily pecked at my hand, but all I could offer it was a capful of water from my bottle, which it drank thirstily. After we both hung out there for a while he showed no signs of leaving, so (and this is the amazing part) he let me scoop him up and put him in the nearby bushes. I don't know if the birds are just more trusting here or what, but it's kinda fun to hold a wild thing and have it wholly trust you. I went and bought some granola biscuits but it was gone by the time I returned, so I assume it was able to fly. Anyway sorry to bore you with yet another bird-feeding story.

Other than that I'd say you just have to come here and appreciate it for yourself: the museums, churches, the beers and Czech food, the stunning vistas from different towers and castle walls. It was a great end to my eastern European tour, and one of the places I just may have to come back to.... but next time it'll be with someone special, I hope.

Next: Cesky Krumlov and Salzburg

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bratislava and Krakow

[I'm squeezing two countries into one blog, as they're right next to each other and I only zipped over to see one city in each.]
Remember Czechoslovakia, that country whose name you learned in school and nothing else whatsover about? Well, it doesn't exist any more. As you probably know, the Czech Republic broke off from Slovakia in 2002 and they've been amicably divorced ever since. Tourists flock to Prague, the Czech capital, and rightfully so: by all accounts it's one of the world's beautiful cities (as I plan to personally confirm in a few days.) But how many go to Slovakia?
Unfortunately Bratislava, the capital, isn't nearly as stunning as Prague, but the Old Town and its castle were thankfully left alone by the communists, who concentrated on building their apartment blocks elsewhere in the city. It's worth a day or two to explore the pretty, crooked cobblestone lanes and try out the many cafes serving Slovakian, Hungarian and many other cuisines. There are even some playful bronze scultptures of characters like the ones pictured here.

Much of the rest of the city is mere modern cityscape. A bridge across the Danau left over from 1970's "modern" communist days has a UFO-like restaurant at the top, giving it a strange "hatted" look. I call it the Martian walker from "War of the Worlds".
I've been trying the beers of each country I've visited, and they keep getting better the further west I go. The Slovakian beers are really good. By all accounts the Czech beers, like Pilsner Urquell are the best, so I'm looking forward to that! Although I don't think it will be easy to top the great Romanian, Hungarian and Slovak beers I've tried. I know that sounds strange, as Americans are totally unfamiliar with them and therefore might be prone to sneer, but to them I have only this to say: come here and try them, and those haughty looks will be quickly replaced by smiles of amazement!

Back to the city: there's no underground metro but many handy trolley cars, trams and buses that criss-cross the city. I sometimes risked a fine by jumping on without buying a ticket first at a kiosk, but it just proved too temptingly easy to do! (And everyone else seemed to be doing it). I paid a hefty 5 euros in Vienna for a 24-hour transpo pass and only used it twice, so I didn't feel too guilty. Hey, I've gotta save money somewhere!
The castle is under reconstruction, but views from its grounds were pretty nice. It looks down on the Old Town and the rest of the city.
P.S. When I arrived the taxi driver asked me, in pretty good english, "Who next president be, Obama or McCain? Hillary kaput!" It seems every European on the continent knows more about U.S. politics than I do. Not that it's hard to keep up; the election minutae are broadcast in every country around the clock. I never realized the rest of the world cared so much about who our president will be. It's rather humbling; it should make anyone who doesn't vote ashamed, and make them think twice about who they vote for and how it will affect the rest of the world, instead of just voting on their own little personal agendas.
Oops, there I go, lecturing again. Sorry. Anyway, I spent 36 hours in the city and it was enough, I think, to get a good taste of it. It's an up-and-coming city of half a million that is fun to visit, has a long history, and makes good beer. I'm glad I checked it out. I also thought I saw a clone of Matt (in the green shirt), and fed a feisty little pigeon with only one foot, and that one was missing a toe.... it's amazing how they survive crippled like that. I also visited a nice little museum that told the history of Slovakia in the 20th century, with good coverage of early costumes, the Nazi and communist occupations, and the final liberation and nationalization of the country. It even had a decent exhibit hall on the diversity of life upstairs, except that some of the dioramas looked straight out of a 1950's biology book, and the main attraction, a lonely-looking mammoth, looked more shaggy than woolly.

Oh, and sorry, ladies, but I just have to mention that the eastern European girls are, well, hotties, to put it in terms my nephews will understand. I've included just one photo of LOTS that I took-- strictly for journalistic purposes, of course. To balance things out, I also include here a shot for the ladies of a typical clothing storefront, so you can see what some of the fashions are like here. I know, I'll probably get some women screaming at me for not taking photos of guys....

Anyway, after I checked out of my massive Hotel Kyjev (the only one I could get a room in) I snapped a picture of its gloomy, dimly-lit lobby to remind me that I was still in eastern Europe.

The second night I caught the overnight train (my first time) to Krakow, Poland. I spent a little extra and got a bed in a sleeper car (schlaftwagen), and I'm glad I did. As it was I had to share the little cabin with two other guys who were already asleep in the two upper berths by 11pm when I got on, so I quietly slid into the cozy little bottom bunk, found the nightlight, and read "White Fang" for a few hours, too excited to sleep. I probably couldn't have anyway, with the train screeching to a halt ever half hour, and clunking and unhooking cars at least twice that night.
But I did get some sleep and woke up in Krakow. That's what I love about trains: they take you right into downtown of the city. In fact I found a hostel right across the street from the station, where I got a cheap but decent little room (complete with giggling youths at night in the hallways), and went to check out the Old Town of Krakow. (You may have noticed that all these places have "old towns", the central historic areas where the cities had their starts, and are always the most interesting parts to visit.) Krakow is no different; it has a great city center. All these places have a main square or plaza; Krakow's is the biggest by far: 'Rynek Glowney' is 200 meters on each edge... it's so big, there's a giant cathedral on one side and still plenty of room around it. The rather haunting-looking photo here of the guy surrounded by animal pelts was taken in the central market place... I just had to take the picture, in spite of the gruesome surroundings.

Walking there I almost got run over by one of those huge, old, communist-era street trams (pictured) that glided up behind me; I had to do a quick jump to get out of the way. You can be sure I checked both ways before crossing streets after that! The city castle/cathedral complex up on a hill (where else?) was pretty interesting to visit. The buildings may not quite be the most beautiful in Europe, but it certainly was prime pigeon-feeding territory. There were little stands selling the round bread 'pretzels' you see everywhere, giant screens showing the European soccer cup games, and of course the obligatory horse-drawn carriages (with some quite beautiful horses) I keep seeing in all these cities, as well as an assortment of street performers and entertainers.

I also visited the National Gallery of Art, a modest collection but with some pretty surprising items, including Leonardo DaVinci's "Lady with an Ermine". I never knew it was there. Unfortunatly I wasn't allowed to take photos, but you probably know it.
Krakow isn't even the capital of Poland, that's Warsaw. But it used to be long ago, and still retains some of its old influence, I supposed. Anyway the museum had a nice little collection of Roman and even Egyptian art, the odd Rembrandt, and as I said the DaVinci. I think there's only about four women DaVinci painted, two in the Louvre, and one, of all places, in Washington D.C.'s National Gallery. So to find the fourth here in this old, somewhat lesser-known town was quite impressive.
That, and a nice dinner at a table on the square, followed by a tasty Polish beer, and I was a bit sad to leave. But it was time to catch another overnight train, this time with the whole sleeper cabin to myself... talk about luxury! See you in Prague!