Shh…Don’t Tell Prague

From the moment of arrival, the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, nestled in the mountainous cradle between Italy and Germany, was an absolute delight. I arrived past 11 p.m. due to my Budapest bus debacle but, even in the dead of night, the city was welcoming. The streets were calm; a few pub-hopping pedestrians roamed with mild demeanor but there were no grafitied walls or shifty street-dwellers to darken the scene.

My hostel was a dream. Set a few blocks from the main square, the three story historic home was more like a B & B. I had let them know I would be arriving late and they had laid out my keys, directions, and even made my bed (if you’ve stayed in hostels you know that you’re always responsible for this yourself). Just a nice little touch! Each floor–housing 2-3 suites–had it’s own kitchen, complete with spices and extras you might need to whip up a meal. After weeks of pub food and street vendors, sometimes a homemade salad is all you crave. I lucked out with a four-person room to myself. It was a wonderful little break from the 6-person dorms of that last few countries. You start to get used to it but once you have your own space again it’s DIVINE. For the first time so far, I slept without earplugs and slept like the DEAD. See all those caps? It must be serious.

In the light of a brilliant day, Ljubljana was a storybook dream. A languid river divides rustic medieval alleyways and neo-baroque elegance. The famous Triple Bridge–designed by renowned architect Jože Plečnik of Prague and Vienna fame–brings strolling pedestrians from the architectural dream land of the Prešeren square to the bustling riverside market. From there, the fingers of cozy cobblestone spread to create a web of boutiques, coffee shops, artisan stalls and international eats. A steep, twisting path climbs to the hill-top castle, which although is a little lackluster up close, offers breathtaking panoramic views of the snow-capped Alps.

Like most major European capitals, a McDonald’s and H&M make an obligatory appearance, but it’s far less prominent in tiny Ljubljana. She’s maintained much of her old world sophistication, yet manages to be modern. The streets are impeccably clean, you can’t smoke most places and all the public buildings are eco-friendly. She’s a city where not much seems to happening–not much really did happen to me here–yet the droves of happy locals laughing and chatting at riverside cafes let you know that something more lies beneath her sweet demeanor. Lazy mornings find locals sipping Kava over a threadbare book, women discerningly picking produce from the daily open air market and youths balancing plates of fried sardines, wine and cigarettes in front of food trucks. (The fried sardines are to die for, I must confess). 

Modeled after the City of 100 Golden Spires, she has much of Prague at her soul. But where Prague is the gregarious older sibling strutting for your attention, Ljubljana is the demure younger, quietly going about her day, flattered that you took the time to notice her. It’s a place you could stay awhile–sit by the river with some honey wine and a good book–and all time might slip away. My time here was brief, but I leave with not the feeling of goodbye–but rather, I’ll see you again soon. Don’t tell Prague, but she may have competition for my love.
I left Ljubljana a little melancholy but also filled with eager anticipation for my next stop–VENICE!

 

File_000 (43)

File_000 (76)File_000 (45)File_000 (69)File_000 (70)File_000 (78)File_000 (71)

You Win Some, You Lose Some. Sometimes Mosquitoes Think You’re Lunch. The Sun Still Shines.

Sorry it’s been a couple of days since I’ve posted anything. The last few days have been jam-packed and I just haven’t had the time to sit down and get my thoughts out. I’m almost halfway through my adventure and what an experience this has been! Not gonna lie, sometimes those experiences make me want to punch something or sit on a bus bench and cry. This morning was one of those.

I woke up at the crack of the morning to catch the 8 a.m. train to Slovenia. I figured out the bus I needed to get to the station, gave myself plenty of time. When I got to the bus stop, nothing made sense according to what I’d looked up. Dang it! The #5 bus arrives and I know this one is the number I need, but my experience in Berlin taught me that it could be the wrong direction. So I ask the driver if it goes to the station. Yes, it does. Ok, phew. Yeah…it didn’t. Repeat Berlin. The bus heads out into the middle of nowhere and stops–time to get off. I ask the driver, “I thought this went to the train station?” No, he says dryly. “Well, how do I get there?” He shrugs and says “Can’t help you” and tells me to get off.  I have never wanted to punch someone in the face so hard. In a moment like that you have to remember, not everyone is nice or cares, no matter which country you’re in.  So, naturally I missed my 8 a.m. train, the only direct train for the 9 hour journey. Sigh. So now I’m sitting drinking coffee, waiting for the next train at 2. Just when I think I’ve mastered the international transit puzzle, the universe says “Just Kidding!” and puts me in my place. Top it off that some nuclear-mutated mosquito thing decided I was a buffet and went to town on me. I am COVERED with bites. And anyone who knows me knows how I beautifully I react to bug bites. Grr…

I may have bordered on frustrated breakdown again this morning, but I have regained myself and accepted the minor setback for what it is–minor. I won’t let it sour the fabulous time I’ve had in Budapest.

But first, where did I leave off? Oh yes, Vienna. After leaving the city of music, I spent a day in Bratislava, Slovakia. Little Slovakia was part of the greater Czechoslovakia until the velvet divorce of 1993. Today it’s a quaint country still trying to heal from the Soviet oppression. It’s a bit behind in the times–poor, still a little backwoods, no Starbucks on every corner. But Bratislava, the capital, has quaint old world charm. The city is best known as the setting of the horror flick, Hostel, in which unsuspecting American backpackers are kidnapped and sold to people wanting to pay exorbitant amounts to torture people to death (lovely concept). Although the film may have some anecdotal basis in the far east, there is no factual evidence to support ANYTHING has ever happened like that here. The Bratislava tourism board was actually quite upset with the film as it damaged the already fragile reputation for the communist torn country.

But, thankfully, the little city is recovering nicely and the winding cobblestoned streets are alive with musicians, artisans, and posh eateries. I sat in a lovely tuxedo-waitered old-timey place on the square and listened to a pianist recite classic tunes, then made my way to a rooftop lounge with panoramic views of the countryside. At both high-end places, you’ll only have to part with $3 for a wine! Not bad for a 5-star touristy place. 

My rendezvous with Slovakia was brief, then I headed off to the exotic Hungarian capital of Budapest. Ever since I started planning this adventure, I had developed quite the travel crush on Budapest and I was overwhelmingly excited to meet her. My first impression was not what I’d dreamed about. Mid-evening Saturday night, the train spit me out onto the bustling streets of the Hungarian hot-spot, absolutely buzzing with revelry. One thing I didn’t realize was that Easter is a national holiday for many European countries so it’s an extended holiday weekend. Students and party-seekers were out in droves! When I finally arrived at my hostel, after a two-mile walk, I nearly stopped dead to realize that it was actually IN a bar. I don’t mean that there was a bar in the hostel, the hostel was IN the bar, on the second floor. Not only was it a bar, but a big open air bar and my bedroom window looked down into the debauchery.  As my new Irish friend says, Lord Above! Absolutely no way this was going to fly. I went to bed with my earplugs welded into my ears and irritation stewing.

After a good night’s sleep, I woke up refreshed and collected with a more positive outlook. In doing some research I realized this is quite common. I’m in what’s called the “Ruin” bar district–a once forgotten neighborhood next the Jewish Quarter demoralized by communists that has recently been revitalized by artists and hipster youth. Old warehouses and abandoned houses now house trendy, artistic, smoky, open air bars. Muraled walls, eclectic art and cheap yummy eats give life to this seemingly gritty quarter. Although I wouldn’t want to live there indefinitely, I appreciated the experience for what it was.

Budapest is a sprawling city with something for everyone. Swinging, inexpensive nightlife beckons European weekenders, picturesque topography and museums call to the peaceful traveler, the hot spring baths call to EVERYONE. Hungarian wine is delicious and CHEAP. (An average place won’t charge you more than 200 HUF (about $.75) for an 8 oz pour) and the food is hearty and diverse. 

The capital city was built to represent the capital of a march larger nation, so it feels slightly grandiose and overwhelming for a small country. It’s split into two main parts: Buda, a scenic touristy-by-day hillside, and Pest (Pescht), the thriving pulse of the city filled with everything from gritty ruin pubs to upscale pre-opera dining. Again (starting to sound like a broken history record here), the country was occupied and both socially and structurally beaten down by first the Nazis and then the Soviets. They’ve struggled for the independence and are finally figuring out what makes Hungary tick. It’s a diverse and internationally influenced culture, but Hungarians are proud that it’s THEIR culture. 

I spent the sleepy Easter Sunday strolling along the Danube River, enjoying the locals in the their Easter best, and attending the Opera! What a great experience that was.

For the first time on my journey I REALLY connected with my roommates–An Irish gal and two Canadians currently living in Ireland. We spent Monday lounging at the hot springs baths–a decadent all day spa retreat with poolside drinks and a private cabin for $18 for all day access. (HELL-O flabby, hairy European men in speedos!) Despite it still being a brisk 50 outside, the enclosed outdoor area of the baths are naturally warm due to the thermal activity underneath. After lounging in the sun, we went to an outdoor festival on castle grounds where we warmed up with hot wine, hearty Hungarian nosh and local music. That night we explored some of the famed ruin bars (described above).

Tuesday, despite rainy conditions, I trekked up to Castle Hill in Buda–a hilltop outlook with breathtaking panoramic views.

Back to today–so I sit drinking coffee, trying to salvage what seem like a few wasted hours in my day. I need to get some writing done anyway, so I’ll just chalk today up to work. And the bugs bites will go away–at least it’s long sleeve weather. 🙂 You win some, you lose some. But, hey, it’s 60 degrees today and the sun is beaming. And there are always chocolate croissants. Everything is going to be just fine.

img_1885

img_1890img_1910img_1923img_1958img_1934img_1966img_1971img_1967img_1983img_1991-1img_1977

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vienna, the city of Opera, Mozart and…smoky jazz bars?

In a deep-set basement, smoke curls around tumblers of inexpensive Viennese wine. An eager young woman deftly strokes each ivory key, making the piano sing a sultry jazz melody. Discerning old men in dated fedoras nod approvingly while rowdy college boys cheer her on. A pink-faced bartender in suspenders, bow tie and a nose ring happily doles out generous portions of tasty 2 euro wines to the rustic crowd. It’s something reminiscent of a swank gin joint but with a hipster flair. This is Vienna, music capital of the world. But this isn’t Mozart. This is not quite the Vienna I pictured. I came to this little underground joint by means of my in-the-know German roommates. Perfectly safe, but it’s in a local neighborhood no guide book will ever take you to–not even my trusty Rick Steves. But it’s a perfect showcase on how Vienna bleeds music. Whether fine-tuned classicists, operatic baritones or a young pianist with a passion for making the house dance, music is at the heart of this city.

Austria’s capital was one of those cities I wasn’t DYING to see. My thoughts were that it was stuffy and snooty and you’d only get the most of it if you had the money for box seats at the Opera House. And yes, it’s pricier as a whole than say Prague, but it’s a very livable city with plenty of sights to see and things to do that won’t crack your budget. Viennese wine is tasty and cheap, street food is plentiful and classy pubs catering to local youth and young professionals are in abundance. Maybe you’re meal won’t be $2, but you can easily have a sizable meal with wine for under $8.

On my quick two day visit, I started by walking the city’s old town. Like all of Europe, of course it suffered at the hands of Nazi occupation. But did you know that Hitler was Austrian born? He was actually a failed artist in his youth–perhaps his shortcomings in such a glorious mecca of achievements gave him a complex. During the war, instead of occupying and annihilating Austria, Hitler just absorbed it as part of Germany. Like Berlin, the country was divided up into U.S. and Soviet territories following the war. They earned their sovereignty in 1955. Today, Viennese are very sensitive about it if you refer to them as Germans as they have been a powerful European force for 1,000–long before Germany was even on the map.

Although most Viennese would probably like to forget Hitler once called it home, the city boasts a legion of other great minds: Mozart, Beethoven and Freud to name a few.

I visited the palaces of the remarkable Hapsburg dynasty–a family that ruled for roughly 400 years, shaping much of Europe. The ill-fated Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of ruling Hapsburgs, for example. I peeked at some thought provoking art and toured the world-famous opera house. Sadly, because of the Easter holiday, there were no shows. Although, aside from first-come standing room tickets (for an incredible $4) tickets are pretty much sold out a year in advance. My tour guide told me there are some Viennese who attend the opera nearly every night. Yikes–that’s a city that loves music!

A side note on Easter in Europe: Whatever your divine beliefs, there is something quite powerful about being in a strongly Catholic place like Vienna on Good Friday. The extravagant cathedrals are brimming with teary-eyed pilgrims overwhelmed with humility and joy by this significant time of year. It’s something to see.

Today, Vienna is a thriving, bustling city with high-end shopping, pristine streets, sumptuous architecture and a sophisticated youth culture. Young people attend classical concerts and frequent museums not because of a school assignment, but because…well, doesn’t everyone?

Locals are polite, excited about life and curious about the world. They want to know where you’re from, why you’re there, what you do. Street peddlers are aggressive here and avoiding them is an art form. Men dressed in half-assed 18th century coats aggressively recruit you to their “classical” concerts (over priced tourist shows where inexperienced musicians in Mozart costumes put on a show).  Shop keeps selling touristy trinkets will all but chase you if you say you’re not interested.

If you’re ever here, don’t miss the Naschmarkt. Dating back to the 16th century, this one-mile bazaar features 120 stalls of produce, spices, food vendors, wine bars, shopping, fish markets and more. It’s packed with gawking tourists and serious local chefs out to pick up their supplies. Eager vendors thrust samples in your face as you walk by and compete with the guy across the aisle for your business. It’s a great place to buy delicious local snacks, or just sit and sip a wine and people watch.

Although I saw the sights I came to see, I slightly wish I’d given Vienna another day or so just to take in the pleasant, relaxed lifestyle. It’s refreshing to sit down and be able to write a happy post after the gravity of my previous experience.

Tomorrow I’m headed to Slovakia!

The Imperial Palace.

File_000 (26)

File_000 (49)File_000 (9)

Inside the Opera House.

File_000 (40)File_000 (10)

File_000 (50)

Couldn’t resist. This is the FANCIEST McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. This actually doesn’t even do it justice.

File_000 (11)

File_000 (51)

Paradigm Shattered

Grey clouds wept over the Polish countryside as I left on a bus from Krakow to visit one of the most infamous sites of mass murder: Auschwitz- Birkenau Concentration Camp. Between 1941-1945, 1.1 million innocent people were systematically murdered here: Jews, Roma, Poles, and prisoners of war. Trying to explain the impact of Auschwitz in way that will truly penetrate with the impact it deserves is futile–there is nothing that can prepare you for it. But I’ll try.

To say that Auschwitz was sobering is an injustice to the horror. The camp emerges from the rolling hills a tangle of barbed wire and cold brick. Muddy paths where millions of prisoners marched to their torment and eventual death lead to the ominous front gates. Arbeit Macht Frei, reads the twisted lettering. “Work sets you free.” A mocking overture to those with no way out but the gas chamber. Death still dances across the vast expanse of this former Polish military compound. Foreshadowing crows cah at passerbyers from skeleton trees above. The ghosts are very present here and the Polish people want it that way. They want the graphic knowledge of the atrocities committed here burned into your memory so that the world never repeats what happened on this soil.

Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp in the Nazi system and remains the most important and moving sight of the Holocaust. There are actually two main camps: Auschwitz I and Birkenau. The first camp, first meant to house Polish opposition during the early years of Nazi occupation, quickly filled to capacity once Hitler began collecting prisoners from around Europe. Birkenau–just down the road–was built to hold 200,000 prisoners at one time.

You will see bone-chilling sights here that will scrape the core of your existence. Photographs of emaciated children will haunt you. Images of 50-pound naked women undergoing mad science experiments will curdle your blood. Tiny baby shoes say everything without words. A room surrounded by floor-to ceiling glass cases showcasing 8 tons human hair shorn from female victims before they stepped into the gas chamber will turn your stomach to bile.

Women and children were typically killed instantly upon arrival at Auschwitz. Some were kept alive for medical experiments. Nazi doctors were particularly interested in practicing sterilization and fertility techniques on the women and genetic experiments on the children. Occasionally a young child, if blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, might be sent to live with a childless German family. Men physically fit to work were sent to the labor side of the camp, where they faced 12-14 days of hard manual labor on a few hundred calories per day. They slept 3-6 to a single twin-size bed and had no running water. The average life expectancy was two months. Prisoners who defied orders or refused to work were subjected to any number of punishments and death sentences– forced to stand in the snow naked and doused with water, sealed in a brick compartment with no air, put in a cell and left to starve. If you were lucky, you were shot, hanged or gassed. Right, lucky.

What I’m telling you is pretty horrific, I know. But it doesn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage you to learn more. Hell, visit this place if you ever have the chance. It will change your paradigm forever. It was raining, cold, and muddy and I became famished half way through the visit. But I stood in my down jacket and heavy boots, tickled by a spring rain, a few hours departed from a hearty breakfast and felt guilty for my mild discomfort. At the sight of the crematorium, capable of incinerating 4,500 bodies a day, I knelt and wept a little.

When the end of the war was inevitable, the Nazis destroyed much of the evidence to the horrors committed here. They bombed the crematorium and gas chamber (one still remains), and tried to dispose of many of the torture devices, but much of the evidence was recovered. Auschwitz was liberated in 1945, but by then more than a million people had been murdered here.

I left Auschwitz with a heavy heart but an enlightened mind. I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same. I came back to Krakow and spent some time enjoying the simple pleasures of the evening market–a warm cup of wine and hot soup, a faint violin, the moon’s reflection over St. Mary’s, buying some warm wool socks.
Polish children are required to visit Auschwitz on field trip. I can only imagine what kind of emotional toll that takes on a young person. But as George Santayana said, those who cannot understand the past are condemned to repeat it.

 

Krakow–a Hidden Gem

Bidding farewell to my Prague, possibly the love of my life, was difficult. But alas, five more weeks of Europe await. I took the night train from Prague to Krakow, Poland, which although not a five star hotel, isn’t an uncomfortable way to save time. For a $15 reservation fee (if you have a rail pass) you can book a bed in a little compartment with a few other people. When you wake up, you’ve arrived with an entire day ahead of you!

I must admit, Poland was never on my list of places I hoped to visit. It was an obscure, iced over land somewhere between Germany and Russia, famous for hot dogs and sauerkraut. Well, it damn well should have been! Krakow has much of the same Old World charm of Prague, but it’s still a diamond in the rough so to speak. Popular with Europeans in the know, it hasn’t quite caught on as a top destination. It’s just obscure enough and difficult to get to that stag parties haven’t figured out it’s (inexpensive) appeal. Shh, don’t tell them.

Poland was hit hard by WWII. Structurally, Krakow held its own ok–the bombs definitely did some damage but many of the old structures survived. But socially, it was devastated. Poland was once a bit of a safe-haven for European Jews, who faced bigotry all over Europe even before the Nazi days. When the Nazi occupation took hold, approximately 30 percent of the Polish population was Jewish. In addition to going after the Jews, the Nazis thought of the Slavic people as sub-humans only fit for forced labor. Thus, many ethnic Poles were sent to labor and death camps alongside their Jewish neighbors. About 90 minutes outside of Krakow is Auschwitz Concentration Camp, possibly the most horrific place humanity has ever known. 1.1 million people were murdered here in four years. Can you even imagine? I’ll be headed there on Tuesday, and frankly, I’m a little nervous about the emotional toll. By the end of WWII,  90 percent of the Polish Jewish population had been wiped out. NINETY PERCENT. As a whole, one in five Poles had been murdered–that’s twenty percent of the total population decimated in six years. That’s something from an apocalyptic blockbuster.

Just like Prague and East Germany, following the war the Soviets stepped in as its not-so-benevolent overlord until 1989. Anti-German sentiments led to “restructuring;” i.e., expelling all Germans from Poland. The Soviets also forcibly sent all Ukrainians back to their native homeland. These actions combined with the decimated Jews, left Poland pretty homogenized with no notable minorities. It remains so today.

So far Krakow has been nothing but incredible. The locals are a bit gruff, but a smile goes a long way. There is just a curtness to Eastern Europeans that takes some getting used to. Western standard customer service is still a relatively new thing–under the communist regime such a concept of working for tips wasn’t fathomable. It’s cold, poverty and unemployment are a bit high and they couldn’t buy chocolate until the 90s–let’s give them a break. They’re trying to catch up.

My hostel is a little funky, but it’s got charm. Housed in an ancient building a few blocks off the Old Town square, you have to climb four flights of narrow wooden stairs to reach it. No elevators here! There is a reason Europeans are thin. It has a communal kitchen with the coffee pot always brewing and feels like you’re staying in a local’s home rather than a hotel.

Krakow’s Old Town Square is a toned down version of Prague’s. Less touristy kitsch, more local flare. It’s the Spring Solstice here and the town, despite snowy conditions, is bursting with new life. In the vibrant square, currently decked out for Easter with giant colorful eggs and pastel streamers around may poles, families with young babies pick out Easter Eggs, elderly women dressed in traditional folk sing medleys on stage, and Sunday mass is standing room only. I popped my head in to get a peek of the enthusiastic Polish mass, but you  have to be discreet here. Nearly the entire population is staunch Catholic and they get a little touchy about looky-loos in their churches. Well, they shouldn’t build such beautiful ones then! 🙂

The square is filled with vendors peddling everything from touristy souvenirs to hand made socks. Locals actually do come to the square for shopping needs so it feels authentic. And the food–oh, oh, ok let me speak to the food. I think I could just skip all the sights and spend my day eating here.

I had no expectations of Polish food. I roughly assumed it was mostly hearty meat-and-potato stews, which it CAN be. But it also has layers of complexities. I am currently having a love affair with Pierogis–a sort of cross between a pot sticker and a ravioli dumpling filled with any number of things. Beef and potato is common but I was delighted to find ones filled with smoked ricotta, spinach and mushrooms. They come both boiled and crispy fried. For about $2 you can get a huge stick-to-your-ribs mound of pierogi. I’ve eaten it three times in two days. Wash it down with a $1 (huge) cup of hot mulled wine and you’ll survive the winter. I am absolutely learning to make both these things when I return.

pierogi

Another amazing thing I’ll be dreaming about for years is a huge baguette (about 8 x 3) toasted over an open flame and smothered with garlic butter and sauteed onions. They also do it with melted cheese and sausage. It’s basic, but it’s greasy, comfort street food at its finest.

zapiekanki-bieńczyckie1

 

The Poles also don’t mess around with their sausages. And although I don’t partake in this particular favorite, it’s tempting. Stall after stall sells thick juicy tubes in all manner of flavors. The sweet smoky aroma practically dances through the air, touching every part of the city.

The weather has been a challenge here so the sightseeing is a little slow, but thankfully most things you want to see our within a short walking distance. Yesterday it snowed, today it’s seriously raining–and with near-freezing temperatures it’s ICY rain. It does make it difficult to want to roam about the city. It’s a shame because the weather report is calling for 65 and sunny after I leave! There are some huge advantages to European travel in the off-season: fewer tourists, better prices and more local festivals and events. But be prepared to be cold all the time. Layering is absolutely essential here. And so are gloves, scarves and hats! I had to buy a little red knit hat and I look a bit like a gnome walking about.  

Last night the hostel hosted a local vodka (Wodka) tasting so I got to meet some people, although interestingly I was the only female of about 30 attendees. Generally everyone speaks English so it’s the preferred method of communication for most. If there’s an Italian and a Korean, they will be able to communicate through the unifying common tongue. And actually many people I’ve met here are excited for the opportunity to practice their English skills. 

One comical moment involved a rare Italian who didn’t have a word of English, but did speak broken Spanish. So we had an awkward conversation in Spanish (SPAIN Spanish mind you, which is a bit different than Latin American Spanish), much to the amusement of a Barcelonian sitting beside us.  But it was a pretty great experience to be able to find a way to chat. And it’s motivated me to practice my Spanish, which is pretty rusty these days.

Below: The Italian and the Spaniard

File_000 (3)

Right now I’m hiding from the rain inside.  As I mentioned, it’s tempting to want to fill every moment of the day with sightseeing, but I know it’s important to just take some down time. A part of me is a little grateful for the rain because it leaves me no choice! In this weather it’s tempting to just crawl into bed but I’m trying to get some much-needed writing done.Visiting countries like Poland, with such incredible stories to tell, is really inspiring my writing. Around every corner a new idea sparks for either Rebel Song or a new adventure.

Well, I think I’ve rambled enough for one afternoon so I’ll leave you with some pictures. I might go eat more Pierogi now.

File_000 (33)File_000 (29)File_000 (12)File_000 (28)File_000 (7)

 

Below: I finally had to do some laundry. But I found a little place that’s a laundry mat AND a cozy pub! What a great idea. 

File_000 (46)

I might be in love

Prague is a difficult city to describe. It stretches like a Medieval dream across the banks of the languid Vltava River. Old Town is a year-round Renaissance Faire, while New Town and Wenceslas Square burst with vibrant modernism splattered against a curvaceous Baroque background.

Prague is booming. It’s not the provincial Eastern European hideaway I’d expected. She has clung to her old world medieval charm, but since she liberated from the Iron Fist of communism in 1989, tourism has flourished. Today, chic Czech women clutching Prada bags clack down cobblestone in heels, passing bawdy stag parties on weekend holiday. Neo-Renaissance facades cradle Michael Kors and Apple while unenthusiastic costumed young men beckon you toward touristic jousting shows. Hints of debauchery whisper if you listen–lurid sex shows and all-you-can-drink pub crawls wait in dimly lit alleys.

But Bourbon Street this is not. Authorities keep obnoxious stags in line and local establishments are eager to warn you of charlatans. The city is clean and eco-friendly. Locals are fit and put together. Beggars are minimal compared to other major European cities. They kneel in submission with hands outstretched in steeple and heads to the ground. Sure, I’ve walked past a few transients urinating on corners, but it’s still a city after all. Prague is proud of the independent, flourishing democracy it has become and it’s not about to let disrespectful tourists ruin 1,000 years of struggle.

Brief History Lesson of the Day: (because, what would my blog be without it?!).  The Czech have enjoyed relatively recent independence. Around 930, Old Good King Wenceslas (yes, of Christmas Carol fame) first created the Kingdom of Bohemia. But for another thousand years, the country struggled for autonomy wedged in between greater powers. Following WWI, in 1918, the nation of Czechoslovakia was finally born. Its freedom was short lived. Soon, like most of Eastern Europe, the Nazis invaded, pulverizing the Jews and the Slavic culture. Thankfully, Prague was spared the devastating bombing that much of Europe faced and thus remains one of Europe’s most architecturally intact cities.  Czechoslovakia was liberated in 1945, but it was shortly after reabsorbed by the Soviets in 1948. Thus began the Communist oppression. There was a bloody, and sadly failed, Prague Spring uprising in 1961. But it wasn’t until 1989, when a University student set himself on fire in protest, that the Czech finally gained some influence. The Soviet Union was crumbling and in the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 they let their adopted (or abducted) child go. It’s so called the “velvet” revolution because of the very little bloodshed. The Czech have never been a military super power. Thus they greatly rely on and admire accomplishments achieved by thought and reason. In 1992, during the “velvet divorce,” Czechoslovakia amicably split to create two separate countries of different cultural backgrounds: Czech Republic and Slovakia. (I’ll be going there in a couple weeks!).

Phew, still with me?

I find myself a little frustrated with those in Prague here just to party. Yes, it caters to British weekend warriors and starry-eyed Americans who’ve seen The Hangover one too many times. Cheap beer, Westernized kitschy bars and all-night deviation beckon. But I can’t help but fear for its sanctity. The traveler who sleeps all day just to party all night completely misses the essence of this city only to join all-you-can-drink pub crawls at Hooters. Sigh. Maybe it’s just my older, wiser, self speaking (see Berlin entry) but they just don’t realize what a morning stroll along the river can do for the soul. I do think a piece of my soul will die if this ever turns to Vegas.

Today I spent a solid amount of time writing on the river, basking in (gasp!) 60 degree sunshine, then I visited the Prague Castle and influential St. Vitus Cathedral. I’ve never seen such glory. Intricately etched spires of a magnificent cathedral and palace stand on a hilltop overlooking the entire city, yet somehow manage to be welcoming to the people. I admire the Czech. They are peaceful, thoughtful, lively, savvy and unconcerned with your bull shit. They don’t care who you are–they treat everyone equally. Taylor Swift is still awesome here and the beer is dirt cheap. For a country that has recently had students setting themselves on fire in the name of fair democracy, they can’t even take our current election seriously. And yes, the whole word is absolutely watching us.
I officially might be in love.

File_000 (4)File_000 (39)File_000 (40)File_000 (14)File_000 (8)

Prague-A Fairy Tail Land

Yesterday morning was one of the more frustrating I’ve had. I didn’t sleep well so I overslept. Rushed to the bus stop so I could catch my train. With no coffee in my system, I got on the bus going in the wrong direction. I realized my mistake shortly after boarding but I assumed it would make a loop and circle back. Nope. Ended up at the opposite end of the city and it was the end of the line. Off the bus you go. F.M.L. Definitely missed my train. Sigh…ok, asked a nice German man how to get the *&^% out of this place. Found the right bus, cought a later train to Prague. My type-A self was not enjoying this set-back. I was annoyed at getting into Prague a few hours later than planned, annoyed at myself for not being better prepared…just annoyed. But I managed to talk myself down. That’s why I have a global rail pass, right? You just get on the next train!

I then boarded a 4.5 hour train to Prague and absolutely loved the relaxation. At first I was annoyed at having to “waste” so much time in transit, but now I realized how much I needed a few hours of just reading and relaxing. The biggest downside to the hostel life is the lack of alone time. Thankfully, I tend to keep different hours than my party-loving roommates, but it’s still not very private. So the train was a dream–and you get to see the whole country go by! After a week on the road, I’m starting to get a little weary of the constant on-the-go. Walking 15-20 miles a day, every day is starting to take its toll. When you’re on a one-week vacation, it’s reasonable that you would pack in everything humanly possible each day. I’m realizing though that I try to keep up that kind of pace I’m going to wear myself out. I have a long way to go!

Prague is an absolute visual dream, especially fresh from the grey rubble of Berlin. It emerges from the Czech countryside like a bursting oasis of swirling colors. Gold-flecked medieval castles spire up to puffy clouds. Gothic structures embrace a series of winding cobblestone streets. Largely untouched by the WWII bombs, Prague is one of the most intact cities in Europe. I’m really hoping some dragons still live here.

Upon arrival last night I wandered the streets a bit. It’s definitely cold here but the tall structures surrounding the city offer some protection so it’s actually quite pleasant. I found a little pub filled with local Czech.  I can’t understand a word but their conversations are lively and I feel instantly immersed. The one huge downside so far is that smoking is still allowed in restaurants here. Europe as a whole has an exorbitant amount of smokers so I’m just starting to accept that I’m going to smell like smoke for the rest of my trip. I had some to-die-for hearty veggie Czech style risotto and a huge Czech beer for the equivalent of $1.

My hostel, at a whopping $13 USD per night, is nicer than some four-star Vegas hotels. I’m on the sixth floor overlooking the gothic towers of Old Town. My roommates are three Eastern European college-age boys clearly here to party as they are literally asleep every moment that I’m awake and vise versa. I’m learning to deal with roommates bursting into the room in the wee hours of the morning by putting in earphones with a white noise app on my phone. And I no longer feel badly for being up and about at 6. If they have no qualms waking me up in the middle of the night (morning) then I have no issue going about my business.

Starting my day today with some espresso and breakfast at a riverside cafe and about to take a Rick Steves walking tour of the city.

Pictures to follow later today.

Cheers!

 

East Meets West, and Onward to Prague

(Note: This is from yesterday, 3.14, but I didn’t get a chance to post)

Today I saw a different face of Berlin–a slightly more rested, put together face. I ventured to the West side, which although still sporting some scars of WWII bombings, saw a different fate during the Cold War years. Quick history lesson: Following the end of WWII, Germany was divided into four sides: The United States, England and France took control of the west while The Soviet Union absorbed the east. Berlin, despite being in the east, was similarly divided as the seat of power. In 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected to keep those in East from escaping into the rapidly modernizing, capitalist west. In fact, hundreds died trying to escape over the wall. The West began to heal from the Nazi wounds–embracing western ideals, cinema, and budding alternative lifestyles. The East fell into Communist oppression. The wall finally came down in 1989, uniting Germany once again. Ok, enough history. But the traces of this divide are still very present. Today, West Berlin is a metropolis of modern, globalized commerce. Forever 21 and Mercedes dealerships stand beside couture boutiques. Colorful “gypsies” prey on wealthy tourists. And as if to highlight the stark contrast even more, the sun decided to come out to play today–making the 40 degree weather feel like summer.

Side note about the gypsies (the Roma to be PC)–they have truly perfected the art of begging. It’s fairly entertaining to watch them work. In colorful headscarves, flowing skirts and fluorescent high heels (not kidding), they aggressively thrust their cups into passerbyers’ faces and plead with hapless eyes. They don’t take no for an answer either. One particularly aggressive, and actually a little creepy, woman dressed all in white with her entire face painted white approached me as I sat on a bench and made kissy noises in my face repeatedly. It took a solid five “NO!”s before she moved on. I suppose they figure if they badger you enough with bizarre behavior you’ll throw them a Euro to move on. I don’t play along. Another common scam in touristy zones is for a woman in headscarf pushing a baby stroller to approach you and ask if you speak English. When you say yes, she shows you a sign in English explaining that she is a destitute refugee of Bosnia. The baby is a nice touch, and you MIGHT be tempted to help her out–if five of her identical friends weren’t circling the square doing the exact same thing. But, the fact that the signs are in English and not German means they know their victims! (I mean audience).

Following my brush with the modern Berlin, I took on the German history museum. Cue the depression once again. The conflict in this country stretches back to recent history. Like most of Europe, wars of territory and succession have plagued the German people. But these poor folks just can’t seem to get much reprieve. What’s fascinating is to see how WWII came to pass. The reality is the stage was set half a decade earlier–one failed leadership decision after another led to a country in socio-economic crisis. Unemployed, frightened and disenfranchised they turned to a charismatic leader promising change. Oops.

After a few hours with the history of Germany I needed some sunshine in my life. I wanted something warm and fuzzy, boots of beer, lederhosen and silly hats–Disney does Germany. I found it. I also found all the Americans. I moseyed into a “traditional” German bierhaus with servers dressed in costume serving liters of beer to eager 20-somethings. Faux snow-capped trees and and a German band completed the ambiance. Yes, it was silly and kitschy, but it was some much-needed fun and great people watching.

After that I tracked down some traditional German fare and scored when I found a cozy place that had vegetarian schnitzel!

I’m attempting to practice a few German words out and about but my accent must be atrocious because waiters and shop keeps can’t even understand a simple “Danke” coming from my mouth. Sigh…

Tonight I headed back to the hostel’s cozy living room to find it bustling with travelers escaping the frozen evening. Beneath cheesy strobe lights and to the beat of American pop, we threw back a few, played cards, grilled each other on our homeland and swapped travel stories. I now have news friends from Singapore, the UK and Argentina! I’m typically the oldest of the crowd and they youngin’s find it fascinating that I’m traveling alone, especially at “my age.” Bless their hearts. I’m giving them inspiration that life doesn’t end after 30. 🙂 Although I do wished I had taken the time to dance across the globe right out of school, there is something to be said about jet-setting with a little more savvy in your pocket. I know things now. I’m prepared with a few more street smarts. I appreciate things that might have been lost on me as a younger monkey. I understand the value of sleep. 
Well Berlin, you weren’t my favorite place, but we made some memories. Tomorrow it’s off to Prague!

File_000 (17)

The glitizer West.

File_000 (10)

German Art.

stockholm-white-beggar-350x591

Creepy “ghost” beggar.

File_000 (18)Writing the old fashioned way.

 

File_000 (12)Zucchini schnitzel!

Berlin Wall, Topography of Terror and Auf Wiedersehen the things you know

Berlin is a city still mourning its somber past. Dismay gray skies spread over an expanse of graffitied walls and WWII rubble. Solemn monuments to countless victims stand beside modern high-rise buildings. It’s to-the-bone cold and the sun keeps its distance. But for a city with as many ghosts and Berlin, perhaps that’s only fitting.

To be honest, I’m having a hard time connecting with Berlin. It’s a different Europe than what I’ve come to know and love. It’s a city that’s both ancient and new, having been torn apart and reformed over and over again. It still has the feeling of a city trying to reinvent itself. There are no ostentatious cathedrals and medieval castles. No trees or gardens. Everything is gray. It’s big and confusing and crowded. Around every turn there is a reminder to the atrocities committed on her soil. I guess you could say it’s a little depressing. Much of Berlin was completely destroyed during the war so many of it’s historic sites are merely crumbled concrete honored with small monuments. Not to say that there isn’t a ton to take in. I did stand beside what’s left of the Berlin Wall, crossed over Cold War top sight, Checkpoint Charlie, and stood on Hitler’s suicide spot (morbid, I know, but it’s marked with a plaque). I do live for history so there is plenty to occupy my mind, if not much to see.  I will add though, seeing the aftermath of a country torn apart by decades of conflict has given me lots of thought while writing Rebel Song book 2!

Of course we all know about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the war that wiped out three percent of the world’s population (60 million deaths, in case you didn’t know), but being here brings it right to the gut. The Germans have decided to own their mistakes and now boldly honor those murdered at the hands of the Nazi regime. The Topography of Terror stands on the former Gestapo bunker showcasing hundreds of graphic photographs from the Nazi years–cold, hard proof of the horrors humans are capable of. The images of mass executions–of women, children and the elderly–would take down even the most hardened heart. One thing I learned more about is the millions of non-Jews also targeted by the Fuhrer. The Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) were enemy number 2. Then he went after the gays, followed by the mentally ill and physically disabled. Really anyone who was incapable of work for whatever reason was “exterminated.” It’s terrifying to see and read about how someone like Hitler could rise to power. I guess it puts Trump into perspective (does it though??) I won’t ramble on and depress all of you, but I suppose it’s weighing heavily on me at the moment. The juxtaposition of rowdy spring-breakers gleefully skipping past all that horror on their way to the techno club is unsettling.

My time here hasn’t been all so depressing though. I made a few Australian hostel friends (my own age, gasp!) and we hit up a few bawdy, stein raising pubs. Us responsible adults called it a night as they 20-somethings were just leaving for the clubs. And they returned to the hostel as I was having my morning coffee. Nothing like bunking with a bunch of college kids to remind that you that you are very much an adult. 🙂

Today I did my own version of a hop-on, hop-off tour on the Underground. For 6 Euros you get an unlimited day pass that whips you anywhere you want to go in the city. Once you spend a little time to figure out the routes it’s a fantastic (and cheap!) way to see all the sights. I grabbed some curry noodles from a street vendor and sat at the busy Alexanderplatz square and watched Berlin go about its day. The food in Berlin is pretty delicious, although sadly not much traditional German fare is vegetarian friendly. Luckily the ethnic street food is belly rumbling yummy!

I find I’m really enjoying solo travel hostel life. My current place is in an old historic building, with a cozy library for a lounge, complete with a little bar. Hostelers kill time sipping pilsners, reading, playing games with each other and chatting up strangers. By the end of happy hour you can have new friends from Buenos Ares to Sydney. Your room is a revolving door of travelers and you never know who you’ll find when you walk in each day. Tonight I’m bunking with a chipper British nurse and her little brother and a solo South Korean girl who doesn’t really speak English. She also has a suitcase with her the size of my Berkeley apartment, which is somewhat bizarre for a hostel filled with backpackers. The beds are cushy and comfy, the atmosphere is warm and the energy sizzles. Some are here for a quick boys’ weekend away, some have been here for months (the red-eyes and overgrown beards give it away). The nice thing about hostels is that no matter where they’re from or even what age, they are (mostly) your ilk for the sheer fact that they care about travel the way you do.

On a final note, a funny things happens when you travel like this: You stop caring about perfection. My hair has been in a bun for days, a mani-pedi would definitely be in order and I’m living in leggings and combat boots. But who cares what you look like when you’re staring down a Holocaust memorial?! It’s not just about appearance though. You stop caring about things in general being so perfect. So you got off on the wrong metro stop. Whatever. You get back on. You overslept? Ok, adjust your itinerary and move on. Blog post has a typo? I was too busy moving on to the next site to proofread (please do forgive the typos though. I’m a bit bleary eyed at the end of my days). It’s a freeing way to move about. When you don’t sweat the small stuff, you find you just learn to just embrace each moment for what it is. And you might have an unexpected adventure!

It’s below freezing on the bleak Berlin streets tonight so I’m cozied up in bed calling it an early night. This backpacking thing is exhausting!

Gute Nacht!

  

   
   The remainder of the Berlin Wall.

  New Aussie friends!

  Checkpoint Charlie

  

  


  Memorial to the six million murdered Jews.