Europe in Summary… next!

August 17, 2007

Though I was really good at posting about my Europe backpacking adventure initially, life happens… I fell behind. Since I’ve returned home, I’ve been already to Chicago to find an apartment and Nova Scotia to see friends and family.  Now I’m in Toronto again and frankly, relieved not to be travelling again – for at least a little while. Having said that, sufficient time has passed and I’m now ready to finish recounting stories of backpacking Europe (and may be slightly annoyed if you’re still asking about it hereafter).

The format will be different from previous posts though…
On the most obvious front, it’s because I don’t want to type it (the laziness really hit once I got home). Less obviously, perhaps, are the wavering thoughts I’ve been having about the point and meaning (I thought and wrote about that during my trip as well and may post about that eventually, depending on how much I need Sheila teasing me about my random thoughts). Moreover, there are lots of other things happening awaiting my attention (i.e. i ought to be doing something besides this).

Thus, here is the flash summary of my 7 weeks in Europe:  

  • London – posted already – stayed with Pinger
  • Paris – posted already – stayed with Matty et David
  • Barcelona – posted already – 2 nights in my first hostel ever
  • Sevilla – posted already – 1 night
  • Lisbon – posted already – 2 nights
  • Madrid – posted – 2 nights
  • Milan* – posted already – 3 nights
  • Paris* – very short (due to train delay) transfer point; don’t think I would’ve made it between the stations if I hadn’t already had: a) a metro ticket, and b) a vague understanding of their metro map – 25 minute transfer point
  • Brussels* – can’t remember if I posted about this – anyhow, I had a waffle, which was enough brussels for me – 3 hour day-trip
  • Rotterdam* – posted already – 2 nights
  • *Milan – Paris – Brussels – Rotterdam = best value for 1 day of travel on my Eurorail Pass

  • Amsterdam – what else? – Largest food portions that I saw in Europe – 3 nights
  • Hannover – 5 hour transfer point
    • dude with the sausage grill strapped to his waist
    • tackeriffic wedding dance outside the train station 
    • licorice as long as my height and as thick as my middle finger
  • Berlin – 2 nights
    • mmmm…milchkaffees, breakfast buffets
    • friendly locals
    • huge, dull buildings made for long, often uninspiring treks
  • Munich – 30 minute transfer point
    • never left the station, but the bakeries inside were sooooo good!
  • Fussen to Schwangau – 3 hour day-trip
    • Castles (one of which, was supposedly the inspiration for Disney’s castle)
    • Running up hills with backpacks 
  • Prague – posted – 2 nights
  • Budapest – posted – 10 hour day-trip
    • Gased?  (the only explanation for getting robbed the night before on the overnight train)
    • Passport/ticket checks by Slovakian gunmen
    • Seeing, but not trying, the thermal baths
    • Euro-trash fashion
  • Prague – 5 hours
    • Airport welcome safe-haven with free internet, and all I can handle of Eastern Europe anymore
  • Napoli – 2 nights in Portici, cute town 15 min by tram
    • amazing antipasti
    • traffic that makes anything in Toronto seem tame
  • Pompeii – 4 hour day-trip
    • One of those things I really needed to see to grasp 
    • Cultural difference: literally throw garbage on the street with conviction
  • Rome – 3 nights
    • Covered virtually everything at night, without traffic in our own version of the ultimate Roma walk 
    • Campsite outside city saved Roma for me (greenery, quiet, and pool welcome escape from city)
    • Skipping the queue for the Vatican museums almost made it bareable – but still, way too many museums at one time
    • Human statue that pretended to #2
    • Crummy hostel operators
  • Munich – 5 hour day-trip
    • Happy to return to the magnificent bread bakeries at the station
    • Saw Octoberfest stuff, but don’t like beer or sausage when I’m sober
    • Glockenspiel was under construction
  • Araxos/Alissos – 1 night
    • Airport serves 30,000 ppl/year…that’s it!
    • Stung by jelly fish 2x – 1 night
  • Prathos – 3 hour day-trip
    • First Greek freddo (frothy iced greek coffee) – YUM!
  • Athens – 3 nights
    • Grey stray dogs
    • Met up with friendly, familiar faces by chance
    • Ran around the Acropolis
  • Barcelona – 2 nights
    • Huge pan of mussels
    • Drunken walk home alone
  • Paris – 4 nights
    • Got ‘stuck’ there (no worthwhile trains out)
    • Saw for the first time: Chinese characters for McDonald’s (muk dun oh) in Chinatown
    • Finally a trip to (Euro) Disneyland for C. (foodland was laughable – ny style deli, chicago hotdogs, texas steaks, etc.  curious about Japan’s Disneyland now)
    • Great runs
  • London – 4 nights
    • Pinger time
    • Rain
    • Ex-pat brunch
    • Day-night market selling anything and everything strewn on blankets

Memorable:

Glad-I’m-Not-American moment: “Whaddya mean you don’t take American money?” at the Pompeii ruins ticket booth 

Best Bakeries:  Paris (pastries) & Germany (bread)

Most Unique Shopping: Paris

Bang-for-your-buck: Eastern Europe (but don’t take the trains)

Architecture: Rotterdam (modern), Paris & Barcelona (historic)

Chinese-Moment:  “Yo, don’t you see we’re Chinese… we’re the bootleg kings” as yet another dude tries to push his DVDs on us.

Not worth visiting (but ok as a stopover for cheap flights): Milan

Smelliest:  Urine (Rome) & Flowers (Lisbon)

Backpacking Vibe: Lisbon

Most expensive: London

I’m-just-another-tourist: Match-box scam in Barcelona

Market: Barcelona (everything food) & London (everything non-food + gigantic donuts)

All-around: Barcelona

Could imagine living there (read: opportunities for anonymity or to shine, fast & slow paces, socialist, etc.): Paris

That’s about it…

oh, and only one regret really – i missed florence, venice, and the coast of france.  but next time i’ll go there first 🙂

Next trip: NYC.

train trip from hell

August 7, 2007

June 29th – 11:44pm

… Waiting to clear Bratislava station and Slovakia in general, on our trip back from Budapest to Prague again.

I cannot necessarily speak for the two of us, but I’m pretty sure we’re both waiting until getting in the absolute clear to say anything positive about our current situation.  Lest we jinx it any further. 

The past (present, and future) 24 hours have been, for me, filled with anger, fatigue, fear, resentment, suspicion,  anxiety, frustration… to name just a bit.

 

I’m tiring of writing and way behind in any event.

 

Long story short:

one of us slept more than their share

one of us got robbed

one of us thought the other was being hyper-paranoid

one of us was petrified of getting tossed off the train in the middle of the night in slovakia without our passports.

 

pfft…prague

August 7, 2007

The “Europe on a Shoestring” guidebook, which I accidentally swiped in Berlin, asserts that Prague does in fact live up to all the hype in tourist brochures. Some of these pamphlets actually go so far as to say it may be difficult for travelers to leave.

Hem. Perhaps if Prague advocates hadn’t bragged so much, maybe I would have left with a better opinion. However, even after discounting the temperamental weather (e.g. changing every 5 minutes between cloudy, grey, sunny, rainy, warm, and cold), I didn’t think it was anywhere near spectacular.

After not having slept in a proper bed the evening before, and loads of train travel in the preceding two days (our combined train time was 46 hours in the past 48 hours), we arrived late in the evening to a dark, dirty, old-looking, and creepy central station. Just outside the door, cab-drivers tried to pitch their ‘best rates’ which ranged btwn 500-700Kc. “Best rates” being arbitrary of course and positively associated to the distance to the subway ticket machine. C. really wanted to take a taxi, but after my reluctance to get taken by these swindling Cabbies, we ended up on the subway for 1.4Kc total. The whole ride took 3 minutes (during the day, we found that to walk, the trip is only about 20 minutes).

Though one can’t judge a place based solely on its train stain(s), well… so far in Europe it’s worked for me as a good indicator of what to expect. For instance, when there isn’t much English on signage at the station serving international trains, well… you can bank that other areas are likely be difficult to maneuver. I’m just saying it’s nice when a city cares enough about its tourism industry to thwart the scamming Cabbies

Our hostel is better than decent and inexpensive, but not as great as the reviews on hostelworld.com led me to expect. We are hungry when we finally set down our backpacks, but there is nothing open except bars doubling as gambling rooms. Each one has a pixel sign with a number that gets larger and larger, indicating a growing jackpot.
The barren streets lit only by the jackpot signs made it seem like we were in the ghetto-area of town and quite a distance from the city. The only other evidence of life that night was an interesting club we happen upon called Cross Club. Given that it was Tuesday night, it was actually was quite happening: good, loud music, loads of people, and drinks. The décor was unique and interesting to us since it seemed like the entire bar and seating area was done in recycled metal in a clockwork/ mechanical fashion. But, still no food here so we trek on…

We end up at the largest gas station I’ve seen so far in Europe for “food”. I’m almost certain the gas station is actually a re-branded Petro Canada. Everything about it is PC, except there is two of everything, back-to-back: 2 cafes, 2 sets of pumps, 2 mini stores, etc. I don’t get it, especially b/c there is only one attendant for both cafes and one for both stores, but us few customers are spread out and using everything equally.

In the morning, I realize on my run (during which, I thought I smelled the garlic soup Czechs are known for or maybe I was just hungry still from the evening before…), that our hostel is really not far from the city centre. It’s definitely not the suburbs, but most certainly not the tourist area which comprises most of the downtown. With the shops open in the daytime, it looks less ghetto but still grungy.

We skip the touristy things on the first day and decide a day of shopping is in order. But first stop: McDonalds. I order what I think is coffee with milk. I’m pleasantly surprised when I get coffee with soft serve ice cream instead. What else does Prague do differently? Well, apparently they think certain items are worthy of tourists: those ovular, egg-shaped dolls that fit within each other and ornamental glass. We buy neither, as respectively, they are too kitschy and breakable.

I think the best part of Prague had to be the meals. Food is inexpensive and the service is great. For something traditional, we go to a restaurant that, upon entering we think perhaps we’re underdressed. Even if we were, the waiters never let on and were very courteous. I had .5L red wine, mixed salad, marinated beef with dumplings and gravy, and chocolate mousse. C. had pop, steak and fries, and a crepe with fruit.

The next day, we had to check out of the hostel by 10am. By the time we lock up our bags in the smelliest room ever, we’re already exhausted by the thought of the next 60 hours of travel. Nonetheless, we set out to make our souvenir purchases, have brekkie, and find a post office. Bohemian Bagel doesn’t have the greatest food (by far not the worst), but it gets big points for the relaxed vibe and being the first place in Europe that has free refills on pop and coffee. The coffee is instant and bad, but at least the pop is cold and cheaper than the up to 7EURO+no refills we’ve seen elsewhere.

Afterwards, we finally do the tourist bit and check out the castles, Karlov Bridge, and the surrounding area. Meh. Maybe it’s the weather, my mood, or having seen enough castles already… but I didn’t find Prague to be anything special.

So… yes, Prague = cheap food, drinks, and accommodation. The only reason you wouldn’t want to leave (as some famous dude had said), is if… oh maybe the train schedule is WRONG or b/c the TRAINS & STATIONS ARE SO GROSS you don’t want to use those means to head back out? We’re finally on our way to Budapest now after a total train mess up. It’s a long story. I’d like to say that I’m never coming back to Prague, but I will… even still, I’m glad it’s only for a couple of hours to leave from the airport to Napoli, Italy.

Oh yes, one more highlight in Prague for the both of us: the English language bookstore.

madrid, sp

July 8, 2007

I have yet to post about Madrid (june 14-16?), though I have written many pages about my prolonged stay there in my mini journal.  

Madrid… Written June 20th 

In re-writing an abbreviated version, I doubt that too much is lost. Shortened as it may be, my ability to fully describe what happened in Madrid could never really transcend my experience or feelings at the time.

So, just to refresh… I had meant only to pass through Madrid – arriving by train from Lisboa, Portugal, in the morning, and then, leaving by plane to Marseille, France, in the evening. I had approximately 6 hours to see what I could see.

In Madrid, I began at my 1st museum of the entire trip (save the Louvre, which was literally a pit stop). That is not to say, whatsoever, that i only just began the cultural aspect. In fact, stepping into a museum almost turns off the omnipresent & present culture.  

At El Prado, I spent 3 hours guided by a well-read, friendly stranger. I enjoyed the personal tour thoroughly, and learned alot about the pieces – beyond highschool art history, certainly.  I found new favorites among Velazquez’s “Spinners” & “Las Meninas”, El Bosco’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, Goya’s dark period works, etc.  However, my guide’s sense of humor was difficult to pick up on at times (something i’ve been told as well). So, some of the stories I will now connect to the pieces may not all be true…but hey, they’re at least interesting (unlike highschool).
prado3.jpg
I skipped my flight to Marseille, and experienced the first real rain fall of my trip. This also meant that I bypassed the foreseen headache of getting from that airport to a bus station to get to hostel for the night… but also the pleasure of beaching in Cannes and meeting another friend.

Sangria, red wine, dinner sized tapas, and pizza comprised meals that were off-set by a run through the city and Parque del Retiro.

parque del retiro

I had a wonderful time in Madrid, but won’t likely go back unless for professional reasons. It was nice, but in a Toronto sort of way. That is, large and metropolitan, without much to see… except the Prado. Although, I do wish I’d seen the . Reina Sofia National Museum, which showcases works by Spanish masters like: Dali, Picasso, Velazquez, Goya, Dali, Rubens, Picasso, Sorolla, Gaudi, and Miro.