Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back in the States

This is just a quick post saying I arrived safely back in New York City yesterday afternoon. I plan on posting some final thoughts and photos sometime in the next day or two. So stay tuned for a just a bit longer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Farewell Europe

Sitting at my last hostel, early in the morning due to lack of the ability to sleep, this is going to be a long day. But I'm super excited to going home, which might explain the lacking of sleep.

Let recap the past few days.

After Amsterdam I made my way over to Brussels in Belgium. I wasn't expecting much from the city as, honestly, I went there more so to catch my train back to London than to sight see. But instead I became cativated once more by an interesting mix of ecclectic architecture, a tourist culture, delicious waffles, beer, and chocolate. I made sure that while I was in Belgium to have the cliché waffel (it was tasty), get some good chocolate, and amply sample thier amazing beer. I'm a bit sad that I won't be able to get good Belgium beer for the price I did there, as they had plenty of amazing options. Oh well.

The city was fun to walk around, I feel as though a good bit of the city wasn't much to see, but occasionally I'd just stumble upon a a gem. In my wonderings I managed to stumble upon an large outdoor concert, a mini carnival, and an outdoor rave/dance party that filled a small park. It's always amazing just how many things go on at any one point in time across big cities.

I made a bit of time, the day of my departure to London, to swing by the Magritte museum. It was a cool museum filled with just his work. A lot of his artwork doesn't exactly make sense to me, but then again who knows what was going on in that mans head.

Anyways, coming back to London was almost like returning to a home I left long ago. I got into the city, was briefly outraged at the 4 pound fare for a single metro ride, and felt a sense of familiarity. It was good to be back in city that I had some previous knowledge of, as much as I do enjoy exploring new cities.

I had my 'buffer day' yesterday, I put it in there in case something went wrong with transportaion from Belgium the day before. It was spent meandering through familiar sights and sounds in London. As well as seeing a few new things. I briefly popped into the national gallery, and even though I had visited it before, it was like seeing a whole new museum. Partly because I had forgotten everything that was in it (not that I could ever remember) and partly because I now have a much better sense of what periods and people that I like.

I also managed to catch some odd performances in one of the sqaures. Ok, well one of them was odd, as I was an art performance with bizzare concepts, paper people, and a small shed that had a huge face behind it's doors (and a giant inflatable arm). Yep, no idea what was going on. The other act was a lot more fun as it was a mix between Austin powers, British comedy, and a magic act. I use the term magic act loosely, as there weren't any actual illusions performed. Entertaining none the less.

Well, it's now offto breakfast, then off to the airport. Next update from stateside! As well as a good photo post, seeing as how I've not been able to do one of those lately.

Europe out.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Revenge of the Bicycles

Currently I'm relaxing in a huge library located in Amsterdam. After several days of walking around the city, it is so nice to sit down in AC for a while. Especially since it is a hot day today (so much for it getting cooler as I went North). Funny thing is that this library probably has one of the best overlooking views of the city (and free Internet usage).

Anyways, onto the city itself.

One of the first things I noticed upon stepping off the train, almost being run down by a tram, several (hundred) bicycles, and hundreds of tourists, was that it was filled with canals. Now I knew there were canals in Amsterdam, I just wasn't expecting so many. The whole city has a northern version of Venice feeling. Except whereas in Venice all you needed to look out for were bipeds, now I have to deal with bipeds, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, trams, and buses. Let me walk you through the process of crossing a street in Amsterdam.

First you walk across the most treacherous part, the bicycle lane. If anyone was the least willing to stop for you, it is the cyclists, they will run you down in cold blood. After deftly maneuvering through the bike lane, its onto the first lane of traffic. This is the easy part, as cars will stop for you and are generally good at following traffic laws. Next you have to cross two tracks of tram lines, since there are no lights indicating if they are lurking around the corner or not, you have to scoot across as fast as possible and hope one does not pop out of nowhere. But not only do you have to worry about trams, all of the public transit (buses and taxis) also use the tram line lanes. After narrowly avoiding death for the second time it's the easy process of crossing normal traffic. But alas, what is on the other side of the traffic but . . . a bike lane. Maybe I should explain that bike lanes are for all kinds of bikes (it seems), you have you standard issue two-pedal-machine-of-death, then (as if that wasn't deadly enough) there is the motorized version. Yep, it appears that mopeds and motorcycles are also allowed to use the bike lane, and they feel free to hop between that and the regular traffic lane. So thus, after narrowly avoiding death 3 times (regular traffic is mild compared to the other two) a street in Amsterdam has been crossed.

Ok, maybe it's not that bad, but I wouldn't want to tango with the cyclists. Amsterdam does have more bicycles than residents, 80,000 of which are stolen each year, and 25,000 of which are dragged out of the canals each year. Yep, a true biking city, filled to the brim with deadly bike lanes. The scene outside of the train station truly is amazing, just in the pure number of bikes that are locked up outside of it.

The second thing I noticed upon my arrival to Amsterdam, was that many of the buildings took about as laid back approach to being buildings as the city of Amsterdam has to a lot of things. Yep, the buildings sag a little here and there and many of them have decided to leisurely lean on their next door neighbor. Some are a little more brave and lean out into the street, away from the support of their nearby friends. Now some of the buildings where intentionally built to lean out over the street a bit (to assist with lifting valuables and stores up to the non flood worthy floors), but it's evident when you see one doing it's own thing. It's fun to take note as I have walked along the streets, and have found plenty of them to keep me entertained.

While here, I've only really seen two museums, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Both of them excellent museums. The Van Gogh museum held an impressive number of his paintings, including(of course) several of his masterpieces. Unfortunately of the three floors of the museum, his stuff only took up the first. But it was well worth it anyways. The Rijksmuseum was impressive, just for the fact that only a small section of their collection was available due to construction, but they managed to cram a ton of worthwhile artwork onto one floor. This time I got to see Rembrandt's work change as he aged, always nice to see the chronicling of an artists work.

I also went on a free tour here in Amsterdam. I feel as though I should receive some medal from the company that puts it on. I went to every one that it offered in Europe besides Hamburg (a city I had originally planned on visiting). Still, while not all the cities, I'm pretty darn-tooting close. Anyways, as per usual the tour was entertaining and pretty good (not as good as the last two though).

I've spent my evenings quietly though, as I'm just exhausted. No matter how much sleep I get, I'm just exhausted at the end of the day now. I believe it's a sign that I'm good to go home (only 3 days till I fly), traveling for 3 months has been a blast, and I've seen so many things. I think I just need to get back to some stability (and a good bed), sort it all out, and let my body rest.

So I grabbed a good old supermarket dinner last night, and just sat by the canal side. Probably one of the better nights in a while, as the people watching was superb. While sitting, eating my dinner and sampling random beers (labels were in a different language), I saw a lot of things. I counted several boats with grills going on them, one of the best ideas ever. I would love to spend an evening with family and friends, slowly drifting through canals, with fresh steaks (or hamburgers) grilling. There were many dinner-boats (touristy), many tourists with rental pedal boats. It was always fun watching them nearly get run over by the locals, since many didn't exactly adhere to the traffic rules of boats. There were many party boats, with blasting music and locals getting their groove on. I saw several boats that, by all means, should not still be floating. But I guess that if I lived here, I would take whatever I had that could float, out on the water. I even saw an inflatable dingy.

All in all, it was an excellent night of people watching, and I intend to do it again tonight.

So Amsterdam has been nice, casual and laid back. I'm off to Brussels tomorrow, and from there, London the day after.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Berlin, while not filled with tons of old buildings (due to 70% of it being destroyed in WWII), has a sense of history that is just as strong as any city filled with old architecture. It feel more pressing and relevant than other cities. This might have something to do with the amount of history that has happened in recent history. The signs of it's recently turbulent history is readily evident. From the little green man telling you to cross at cross walks, to the east gallery consisting of artwork on 1.4km of the Berlin wall, to the patchwork of new cement to fill in bullet holes on the surviving structures.

It is a new city, and construction is evident everywhere. There has been a building boom in recent history, so the center is very modern. This is set against the grungy, graffiti filled buildings of the east. All very neat to walk around. And walk around a lot I did.

I got into Berlin late afternoon, too late to see any museums, so I set out from my hostel (consisting of a bar downstairs with dorms above) to see what I could find. Immediately I stumbled upon the giant TV tower, a sight that I realized could be seen from just about any point in the city. This was convenient since my hostel was only a few blocks away from it, this I could lose myself and all I would need to do is head towards the giant TV tower. From there I headed down the main drag, checking out any building that piqued my interest. Finally I stumbled upon a concert, of all things. There was a festival in one of the main plazas celebrating Berlins hosting of the 2009 IAAS athletic competitions. I was excited because it looked like a band with a small orchestra, always a good deal. I was not prepared for the lighthearted affair that followed. It was truly tacky, if you can even use that word to describe music. Maybe it's something about Europeans, they loved it, I could only stand one song and I was out. Then again it makes sense with the Germans love for David Hasselhof (which I learned he sang swinging from a crane when the Berlin wall came down). Overall not a bad introduction to the city.

I filled my second day with museum visiting, as there was a cluster of museums connected in the Kultureforum. Only one was really worth visiting, from the ones I visited. After getting my fill of Dutch 14-18th art, and Rembrandt. I went off to climb the glass globe that crowned the German parliament. Along the way I stumbled back upon the square with he concerts. I watched a bit of an American performer and then a group from a country in Africa (I wish I could remember the name). The concerts were being sponsored by different counties, so there were a variety of acts over the course of the week. I caught a group of Shaolin Monks showing off their moves. Funny thing was that only two of the ten or so performers looked to be of Asian descent, the rest could have been all American as far as I could tell. But they put on a good performance demonstrating various fighting styles, including the drunken style (always entertaining).

But yes, the parliament. What a building. While the outside facades where original, the whole place had been gutted and a new modern interior installed. On the roof they had added a glass dome that gave a both a look into the main debate rooms, but also a panoramic view of the city. The best part was that it was free. I'm always a fan of viewpoints that are free. And it had a good audio guide that talked about a bit of the history of the building and some of the scenery that could be seen. And while it took almost an hour to get into the building, I was entertained by a group of American students with their eccentric teacher. Burnt red bald head, with a huge white beard, he was truly a character. I also got an excellent front row seat to one of his students doing an excellent Michael Jackson impression. It's good when those around you are entertaining, when stuck in a long line.

Yesterday I went on another excellent free tour. I got a good bit of history about Berlin, and some fun facts. A good at to fill the first half of my day. Although it was sad to see how some points of interest had been touristified to the extreme, leaving little desire in me to see the point of interest. It's always sad to see something of importance in history filled with tourist traps on all side. At the same time it was interesting to see just how the Berlin treated it's own history. While there is a $27 million memorial to the Jews killed, they have chosen to bury other parts of their history. Like the bunker of Hitler, where he killed himself. It is now sealed off, located 15 meters below an in use dirt parking lot. Only a small sign tells of what is located in that area. It makes sense in the fact that a sight like that is to grave to become touristy and all significance lost (like many of the other touristy sights). So better to make it completely inaccessible.

Berlin is full of interesting history, and the way it is presented (or not) is very interesting as well.

Anyway, after the tour I went to the long gallery along a section of the Berlin wall. I was expecting amazing works of graffiti and wall paintings, by alas most pieces where rather disappointing. I know thy the point was an expression by an international art crowd of the fall of the wall and reunification of Germany, but looking at it from an artistic perspective a lot of the artwork wasn't that great. Oh well, it gave me a nice stroll.

I spent my dinner (a chicken burrito from a chic food joint) at a park people watching. And what an entertaining bunch. I had a huge group of goth and punk teens around me, a set of kids break dancing and stepping (showing off for the girls), little kids running through the fountains timing it just right to not get wet, and several dogs playing catch in the fountain. It was good for a few hours of entertainment.

Well less than a week left till I fly back. Today is my last Tuesday in Europe, and I'm on way to my last big city before I go to London to fly out, Amsterdam. It's exciting and weird to be getting to the end of traveling. What seemed like a long time at the beginning has gone by rather fast (looking back). I've been away from home for 3 months, a quarter of a year. But I'm looking forward to seeing family and friends. As great as it is meeting people along the way, I'm a bit tired of the one or two day friends of traveling, and look forward to seeing people that will be around for a while.

Well, that's all for now.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Prague mash up

I just finished three nights in Prague. What a great city. It was just about everything that I expected. Just not quite as cheap as people were saying. I think that has a bit to do with the economy and the touristy sections growing outward. It was harder to find the good deals (they were there, but few and far between. But none the less, still one of the cheapest cities I've been to (Granada and Naples were some others).

But oh, where to start, the architecture or the beer.

I'll start with the architecture. I spent most of my time in the city just walking around exploring the many side streets, and buildings spread throughout the various quarters (old city, new city, little city, and the Jewish quarter). Almost all the buildings were decorated lavishly in one style or another. Next to a baroque building you could have an Gothic exterior, and next to that one an art nouveau exterior. It truly was a mash up of epic proportions. This each building on the street was distinguished from another by the style and decoration in which it was adorned. In fact I spent most of my time walking around looking up at. And while Vienna had been a clean, white, spic and span, I like to say that Prague had a layer of dirt and dust on everything. Of course not a bad thing, and only a generalization, as it only added to the charm of the city.

A lot of the city is quite old, considering that most of it was untouched by the wars. One of the few evidences of the war was a park in the main square where a building stood previously, only it's bell tower and elaborate clock remained. There seems to be a trend going with large clocks that have animatronics, puppets that move and spin on the hour. Munich had one of these, and much like that city, people would gather on the hour when the "event" was to occur, watch a really cheesy performance (we are talking about wooden sculptures that just spin in a circle for the most part), and for some odd reason would applaud afterwards. The applause is the part that always got me. I almost wanted to get on a mid and thank them for coming, then letting them know that these tireless performers would be back to do just the same the next hour. If they wished for an encore they could come back then.

I do have to admit, I did do the touristy thing and watch these events. But I did not clap for the wooden puppets.

My visit to Prague was overwhelmed by concert fliers, as, it seems at any point in time at least a million where going on across the city in every church and space available. You choices included a limited we of options of Mozart's requiem, The four seasons, and other standard fare. I fought through the assault of fliers and emerged unscathed. As, while some of the concerts were tempting, they were overpriced for what they offered. I only the symphony orchestra was playing, then I could get the quality I wanted at a price that works. But alas, it seems that the orchestra and opera take breaks in July and August. Oh well.

I spent yesterday exploring Prague castle. Which was a bit of a disappointment, and a rip off. The ticket I bought, which I though offered more, gave me admission to a one room hall (which did have a really near ceiling), a one room renaissance church, an isle of buildings that just contained tourist shops, and a "vineyard" that was apparently already free to see. Yep, that ticket could have bought an amazing dinner. Oh well. It was all saved by the cathedral (which was free), St. Vitus. And what a cathedral it was, I think one of the most beautiful ones I've been in, in a long time. That might have had a lot to do with the first impression that I got of the interior. Re sun was shining directly through the rose window at the entrance of the church, washing the floor and columns in a glowing mass of color. It was perfect.

The cathedral also contained an art nouveau window by Mucha, whose museum I went to on the previous day. You may not know who he is, but if you run an image search on the Internet for his name, you should recognize his work. He is considered one of the fathers of that art movement. The museum was fun, although a bit small, only filling two rooms with prints and sketches. But it was great none the less.

One of the main attractions, and centerpieces of the Jewish district was their graveyard. A mess of built up uneven earth, and tombstones placed one in front of another. They had only a small plot of land to bury their dead, so everything was piled on top of another, and as it's all settled over time, the ground has grown uneven and the stones have shifted in all directions. It's quite a staggering scene to see. I have to admit that didn't buy a ticket to see it (yes they charge you for seeing a graveyard, by it does include a few other buildings and memorials). While walled off, there were enough viewpoints to get a good look at it all.

Other than that, I went on an excellent tour of the city. Probably one of the best tours I've been on so far. That and I found an awesome lunch deal during my break, with a 1lt soda and three open faced sandwiches for only 69ck (about $3.80). I found some other awesome deals as well, stumbling upon a little hold in the wall bar/restaurant that had a dinner menu consisting of soup, goulash with dumplings, and apple strudel dessert. When I added beer (only 29ck, $1.80 for a pint) and coffee, the whole thing came to less than $11. Pretty awesome for a full meal, with amazing beer. It's true, the beer in Prague is very good and more potent than others (10-12%). Whereas in Italy my goal was to have a different gelato everyday, a different chocolate bar in Switzerland, in Prague it was to try a different beer. And try I did. It's almost sad leaving that I won't find beer that good for that price anytime soon.

So hearty food, good beer, a relatively cheap budget, and amazing architecture pretty much sum up Prague for me. I'm thinking I will need to do an eastern Europe trip in the future, and Prague will have to be visited again.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


What a difference a few months make. I just passed a field of sunflowers (on the train) and gone was the bright yellow color of the fields that I saw earlier on my trip. The bright flowers are now heavy and bent over, hiding thier brilliant yellow hue. Well, if they aren't nice to look at, at least they will be good to eat. Mmmm.

Well now to recap Vienna.

What a beautiful city. It's packed with more white and off buildings, palaces and museums, shopping and eateries than I've seen in a while. Once you enter the old city area it's just one building after another filled with architectural delights, from baroque to art noveau to pop art, it's all there in one form or another. And while the color scheme of the buildings arn't teribly exciting (I would generalize it as vanilla), the architecture makes up for it. This is so different from the towns in Italy, filled with square plain buildings but decorated in brightly constrasting colors. This white gives the city a very clean appearance throughout the old city. I spent a good chunk of time just wondering the stone streets, and I've done a lot more walking as of late beacuse I decided to walk everywhere if possible instead of taking the transit. I figured it would give me more of a chance to really see the cities. This is very different from London when I started (and took the metro to get everywhere).

Vienna is packed full of musuems and palaces. It would take months to see it all I feel. As is, I only got around to 4 musuems in the 3 nights I was there. On the day I arrived I visited a museum with one of the largests collections in be world (it had something like 50,000 pieces, all of the masters, etc.). The problem is that they only have a small space available for showing the artwork, so you only see a very small chunk of it (they switch it up every few months). And thus I only saw a small chunk of what they had (a little dissapointing if you ask me). The next two museums where excellent. Day two I visited one of the palaces, which housed a large art collection, including two rooms of Klimt's artwork (the big draw for me). This museum was much more of what I was looking for, and took up a good chunk of the day. And yesterday I visited the Kunsthistoricas (I think that's how it's spelled), which blew me away. It had two and a half rooms of Rubens, a room of Rembrants, tons of other masters, and most importantly several works by Caravagio. It was almost overwheming, and I think I spent at least 4 hours there. It was one of the best art museums that I've been to so far. In seeing these three art museums, I just barely scratched the surface. They have a whole museum district with a bevy of museums in one little area. There were museums in each of the palaces spread across the city. And of course on top of all the art spread throughout the city, there is music events going on all over the place, all the time. I kind of wished I had arrived a day earlier as I could have caught the Vienna boys choir. But alas, I guess I will just have to come back as there is just so much to see.

I also visited a music museum, which sounded kind of cool in the guides. The problem was that most the equipment in there, to learn about and play with sound, was several years (5-10) out of date. Or at least that's what it felt like. It was aimed at a younger age group as well, but did have an informative composer section. Oh well, you hit some good, some not so great, and some middle of the line museums.

Other than hitting those museums, it was the usual business of wondering aimlessly about and running into churches and interesting buildings. The main catherdral was quite interesting, and there were many more packed within the city center, so it was hard not to run into them. I managed to catch a few organ rehearsals, which helped me to stop, sit, relax and listen for a while. The streets where filled with plenty of musical acts, and I caught the big screen version of Carmina Burana. Thus my visit to Vienna was aptly filled with music and art.

There were also were very large shopping streets, one of which I walked down every day to get to the old town. I did notice something that I haven't in other cities, the number of supermarkets seems to actually be proportional to the number of people living in the city. I'm always surprised by how few there seem to be. Often I'll have to walk a good distance from my hostel to find a real supermarket, not a corner store.

Out from the moutain range, the land is now empty and flat as I head towards Prague, another city I've been excited to see (ok I'm excited to see every city, just more so for this one). I've gone and done what I tried not to do when I started, which is book all the rest of my hostels ahead of time. But I only have a limited amount of time left, less than two weeks in fact, and thus I have some set dates where I need to be in places. It is a good feeling to know where I'll be sleeping when I arrive in a city, but it takes away some of the fun of just arriving and seeing what happens.

Well that all to now, next update from Prague.