Thursday, December 10, 2009
But we had a great last few weeks. We enjoyed sunny weather in Mallorca before going north to the drizzly weather of Rennes, France. We stayed with my old host family and had a very excellent time. Before I knew it, we had to get on the train and leave. If we weren't so pressed for time I would have loved spending more time with them.
From Rennes we spent a handful of days in Paris, which despite some nasty weather was a great time. Unfortunately for us (and more so for Sophie who had never been to Paris before) several of the museums were on strike. This meant the Musee d'Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, and even the the Louvre were closed. We still went to the Rodin museum and the Orangerie, which houses some impressive works by Monet. And if anything else, we can look on the bright side and consider the strike a cultural experience.
From Paris we went to London via the Chunnel, and had a short stay before our flight. Before our trip I wasn't too thrilled about going to London, but talking to people on our trip got me excited to go, and being there was even better than I anticipated. I really enjoyed our time there and could have used a few more days.
But alas, the trip is over and I'm home again. I want to extend a heartfelt 'thank you' to all the people along our way who took us in, fed us, showed us around, or provided companionship during our trek. The most memorable part of this voyage won't be the monuments, the museums, or the sites, but the people who showed us such overwhelming generosity and kindness. Thank you!
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Our last days in Prague were filled with good food and great company and before we realized it, we were out of time and on the train out. We left on the 17th, which is the day that the Czech Republic celebrates its independence from Soviet rule, which makes 2009 the 20 year anniversary of said independence. Before we left we got to see the thousands of Czech people take to the street in celebration and we also watched a bit of an outdoor choir performance. It would have been fun to stay and see the festivities, but we had a LONG journey from Prague to Barcelona and no time to spare.
Our original plan took us up to Paris and back down to Spain; a dumb course on paper but the fastest route thanks to the high speed trains. When we tried to book our reservations we found that the train was full so we had to scramble for another option. The ticket lady helped and plotted a new course that took about the same amount of time but stopped in Milan before Barcelona; giving us opportunity to spend a bit of time in Italy. I´m not going to complain about having a layover in Italy, and it was fun to be there.
After tonight though, we will have been travelling for 3 nights straight either on night trains or ferries, so I´m really looking forward to the shower I´ll be taking tomorrow (hopefully).
Monday, November 16, 2009
Today we're going on a free walking tour before heading out for a brewery tour. We have little time here and lots to do so that's all for now!
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
At the moment we're in Belgium, staying with a friend from Concordia who lives in Jurbise, near the NATO base. We just came from a week at my cousin Anna's in Aphoven, Germany near the base in Geilenkirchen, so we are getting some great time on various military bases around Europe.
I had an excellent time with cousin Anna, husband Tony, and kids Kaylee and Cassie and the time went by too fast. It was great to finally meet Tony in person and see where they've been living in Germany (though I just found out they'll be moving to Texas in a few months!). We spent a lot of time eating all sorts of baked goods provided by "adopted mom" Anna, and even had some real home-cooked meals! We carved pumpkins for Halloween, visited the school, went to a chocolate factory, a brewery, a castle, and participated in a St. Martin's parade (which celebrates kids and involves walking at night with homemade lanterns).
Here's the whole gang at the chocolate factory!
Similar to the Four Corners in the States, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands all meet up in one spot. An easy game of Twister is all it takes to be in all three at once!
Between the sightseeing and the tourist destinations, the sessions of Rock Band and the baked goods, it was nice just being with family and feeling at home even while across an ocean. I can't thank Tony and Anna enough for sharing their time with us and showing us around; I would have been happy just hanging around the house with the family doing nothing out of the ordinary. It was sad to leave and I look forward to seeing them all again soon.
Going back in time a bit, before arriving to Anna's I was in Brasov, Romania. In order to get to Germany I had to take a long series of trains, including one overnight train. I should have known it was going to be a rough trek when my first train showed up half an hour late. We then stopped for an unusually long time at the border, but things were looking up when the Romanian man across from me offered me food. And by food I mean cured ham in a plastic baggie. I graciously cut a piece off with his well-worn (read: crusty) pocket knife and tried to hand it back, but he refused and pointed to my backpack, intending for me to keep the entire thing. Speaking no Romanian and not wanting to offend, I thanked him and stuffed the salty, smelly block of meat into my bag...
Continuing on, we made it into Hungary to be greeted by a Hungarian train strike. Thankfully international trains were (slowly) allowed through, though we did make one prolonged stop to let a news crew interview passengers and crew about the strike. Long story short, I was 6 hours late for my connecting train in Vienna. Once there I plotted a new route on another series of trains, which also came late. I was forced to take a second night train and finally arrived at the station to meet cousin Anna.
This is Brasov, as seen from their very tasteful Hollywood-esque mountain-top sign. This is also where I accidentally fell asleep while trying to journal.
Also, I think Brasov could use a little help with its town slogan. A little confidence couldn't hurt, Brasov!
Before Romania was Budapest, and it's about time I get some pictures up from that too...
Hungary was in the midst of a national holiday, so there were plenty of demonstrations and displays around town. The picture on top shows some good old fashioned interprative dance atop a tank. The bottom picture is my hostel in Budapest, or rather, my hostel between two floors of dance studio. I slept in the room with the red door with a blue sign in the window.
The coolest thing I did in Budapest had to be cave diving with this motley crew from our hostel.
Unfortunately I don't have any decent photos of the riverside at night, but Budapest is also pretty during the day!
Sunday, October 25, 2009
-Arrived by train to Brasov, Romania after taking a short detour to the next town over. You see, dear reader, there are things called time zones. Crossing one while going east will skip you an hour forward. This is important to remember when trying to match arrival time with destination. Instead of thinking you have another 30 minutes until your destination, a properly set watch will inform you that you're train is actually 30 minutes late. Lesson learned!
-Checked into my hostel, dropped off my pack, and headed up the nearby mountain to the Brasov sign. It's the same idea as the Hollywood sign, only shorter because clearly, the town's name isn't so big. Somehow I was surprised to learn that Romanian hiking trails might not be clearly marked, so instead of taking the short route back home, I began a trek that took me deep into the unknown Carpathian mountains with no end in sight. I realized my mistake and turned around (eventually) but will never understand why two VERY different trails would use the exact same symbol to mark the way...
-Somehow between crawling into bed and waking up in the morning I managed to misplace my locker key provided by the hostel. They have a spare, but I sadly lose my key deposit upon check-out.
-Participated in two tours to nearby areas. The first, Bran Castle, is advertised as Dracula's Castle, or more accurately Vlad the Impaler's Castle, but is actually neither. He spent some time there locked in the dungeon, but his real castle is in ruins somewhere not too far from here. It was surprisingly small for "castle" status, but still a decent tour. The second tour was to Peles Castle a bit further away. It was one of the most insanely extravagant buildings I've seen, and they made us wear slippers over our shoes while walking inside. Taking pictures cost 6 times more than the actual entrance fee of 1 euro, so sadly I don't have any photos from inside.
I leave tomorrow evening by train and have over 24 hours of travel before arriving at the train station nearest my cousin, but I am very excited to get there so I'm sure the trip will go by quickly. Until then!
Thursday, October 22, 2009
My time in Budapest has been amazing from minute 1, and I could not have asked for better accomodations. It's not even that my hostel is cheap, but the fact that I feel like I'm hanging out in someone's living room, completely at home. As soon as I got here I was treated like a friend and was offered food, homemade wine, and sat down for several hours of conversation of what to do in the city. Hungarian as a language is absolutely incomprehensible to me, and I can't even pretend to know what's going on. My bumbling American mouth can't begin to attempt the subtle differences between the 12 different Hungarian vowels. But it's great feeling removed from the rest of Western Europe and one definitively notices a difference in the atmosphere once in the city. And as for the city, it may very well be one of the most magnificent and gorgeous places I've visited. The only thing more beautiful than Budapest is Budapest by night. I had the chance to climb the citadel on the Buda side of the river (didn't know beforehand that Budapest is actually 'Buda' and 'Pest' separated by the Danube river) on my first night of arrival, which provided stunning views of some of the most impressive buildings I've seen thus far.
My second day I was feeling quite worn out from all my walking, so I headed to the natural thermal spas located in the city. The one I went to was the largest complex, and although a bit confusing in the beginning, I got my changing cabin and found my way to the baths. I don't remember how many there were, but someone at my hostel claimed 18 indoor, and 2 outdoor (don't quote me on those numbers). I do know there were a heck of a lot, all with different temperatures and purposes. Types of pools included many regular hot tub style of varying temperatures, one for doing aerobics, one with a circular current, and a room full of baths emitting gasses and other natural elements. The outside pools were my favorite and much larger, with fountains cascading heavy streams of water to provide massages on the neck and back. They also had saunas of every variety, from dry to steam heat, aroma therapy, and light therapy. Outside of the hottest they provided cold water baths, and the very hottest had a room to massage yourself with ice. It was absolutely ridiculous and over the top. I spent over three and a half hours just wandering from bath to sauna and back again. Being the off season for tourism meant that the spas weren't too crowded or saturated with obnoxious foreigners. It seemed that most of the clientele were older Hungarian folk, relaxing, chatting, or playing chess within the pool. All that relaxing wore me out and worked up my appetite, so I didn't do much else exciting for the day except eat some food from a street vendor and call it a night.
Today my big activity was heading slightly out of town with two others from the hostel to go caving under the city. Budapest has heaps of underground tunnels in the limestone thanks to all the thermal springs, and our hostel arranged a tour for us even though they weren't scheduled to run today. It was only the three of us plus the guide, so we got a great, personalized tour through the caves. I was told before leaving that the trip can be a bit claustrophobic and that I should be ready for small spaces. I did not, however, imagine we would be crawling through some of the spots that we did. At some points the guide would have to tell us exactly how to fit through; "left arm straight ahead, on your right side, head up, push with your right leg." I would look at some of the holes we went through and think, "there's no flipping way I can fit through that!" but somehow my body flattened out as we crept through tunnels and passageways deep below the city. Several times we would reach an open spot, turn off our lights and sit in absolute silence and darkness, enjoying the peace and tranquility of the caves. It was incredible and not something I was expecting to do when visiting a bustling metropolis such as Budapest.
But sadly tomorrow I must continue on. I will hopefully wake up early enough for a free walking tour through the city (Assuming it still goes. Tomorrow is a national holiday so many things are closed) before grabbing a night train to Brasov, where I will be for a short time before reversing course and heading back west and north to my cousin Anna's in Germany. I'm having a heck of a great time travelling at the moment, but I am equally as thrilled to visit my cousin and her family. Part of me wants more time to explore on my own, and the other can't wait to be with loved ones and I'm very anxious to see them.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
From there I travelled to Utrecht, in the Netherlands. My original plan was to go south and east, so it´s funny that after a week of being on my own I actually managed to backtrack and head west... But I found someone to couchsurf with and I wanted to see a concert, so west it was. There were some complications with my train, I arrived late, never met my couchsurfing host, and other silly issues that arose. But I still saw the show and managed to have a great time, even if the city isn´t very visitor friendly (no hostels, no internet cafes, no road names on posted street maps). Today I left bright and early for Vienna, where I am currently enjoying the luxuries of a shower and a warm bed after my (mis)adventure in Utrecht.
I would love to go on about what I´ve been doing but internet time is short and I have other things to accomplish before I run out of time. But I am safe and warm and happy as a clam!