A Travellerspoint blog

Helsinki and Estonia

Winter weather along the Baltic

storm 40 °F

Hopefully some of you out there noticed that I had a little hiatus with these blogs for the past month and a half. I have been back in the states for that time. Originally this break was only going to be for a week so I could be in my friend Brad’s wedding (which was awesome), but various circumstances convinced me to extend that break for about a month. While I was thinking this would be a relaxing “funemployment” month, I made sure to stay busy. 2 weeks in San Francisco to scout out future living options when I move there in a few months + Bay2Breakers and other mayhem. Back in NY, I helped my family pack up and move out of our home of 25 years into a new home, and managed to visit Chudy in Buffalo, go to my 5-year Cornell reunion and the music festival Bonnaroo!!! down in Manchester, TN. All of these things were totally incredible, seeming to get better and more ridiculous which each successive event.

Now that I’m heading back to Europe (I’m sitting in JFK right now), I realized that in all the excitement, I never posted my last blog entry from Finland and Estonia! Here is the last of the 1st half of my journey:

This first leg of my European travels concluded with a couple countries that seem to be largely forgotten to many travelers of Europe - Finland and Estonia. While the other Scandinavian countries seem to be common tourist destinations, Norway with its incredible fjords and natural wonders, Sweden and Denmark with their capital cities ever rising on the tourist destination lists, Finland seems to be the ugly stepchild. While the stepchild part may be accurate (they are physically and genetically different than the other Scandinavian citizens), the ugly part definitely is not.

This status of “forgotten tourist destination” plays out heavily in the feel of the city. Helsinki was probably THE LEAST touristy city that I’ve been to thus far, and was accordingly the least tourist-friendly. That doesn’t mean that they’re not friendly to tourists, but, for example, very few things are translated and displayed in English and this was one of the only cities I visited without a free walking tour. Strangely enough, everything in Helsinki is displayed in 2 languages, but those 2 languages are Finnish and Swedish - 2 very different languages. Because Sweden controlled Finland for much of their history, there is a large amount of Swedish influence apparent and there are parts of Finland that actually speak Swedish as their primary language.

After staying exclusively in hostels for the previous few cities, I was excited to be sleeping on the couch of a Fairport friend - AJ Marini - who has been living in Helsinki for more than 3 years and is about to Finnish up (haha) with a masters degree in Old Music with the violin. Education is totally free in Finland even for foreign citizens, which I found amazing. Staying with someone who knows the area is always a different and great experience.

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AJ rockin out on the violin

My trip actually coincided (not coincidentally) with one of the largest Finnish holidays - Vaapu. Though Vappu is technically on the 1st of May, the big celebration of Vaapu is on April 30th, when university students and others flood the streets of downtown Helsinki. The usually strict enforcement of “No Open Containers” is ignored on Vaapu and thousands of people stroll around passing beers, ciders, and bottles of champagne between each other. Vaapu also happens to line up with the end of the year at universities, so it is co-opted by university students as a joint holiday. Bizarrely, the vast majority of current and former students attend the Vaapu in a pair of overalls, a different color for each university in the area. The main evet for the pre-Vaapu festivities was the “capping” of a statue in the central square area. A lucky group of students first clean the statue and then put a graduation cap on it.

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The Finnish grad cap, which you can see on the statue's head in the last photo, resembles a sailor’s hat and seems a lot better than our square-topped caps

After witnessing the capping along with a couple thousand other people, we wandered over to the square in front of the main Lutheran church, Helsinki Cathedral, which was packed with another couple thousand people.

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The night continued with us bouncing between groups of AJ’s friends in the streets, then at a couple restaurants and bars where I learned a good deal about Finnish culture from some born and bred Fins. Finland, for example, gives more money, per capita, to music and the arts than any other country in the world. They also lead the world in # of new, original operas written in the past 10 years, which is impressive considering its small size and smaller population. All of this makes it a great place for a musician to find work and make a living.

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AJ and I with some of his friends

We went out to a party at AJ’s friends’ place that night, and partied til the early morning. The actual holiday of Vaapu is traditionally celebrated by going to a particular city park in Helsinki, right on the water, and picniccing there with friends. That seemed like an awesome way to celebrate a holiday, however it was Finland and only the beginning of May, so the weather forecast was for cold temperatures and freezing rain all day. With the usual holiday plans ruined and most businesses closed for the holiday, we knew there wouldn’t be much to do on Vaapu, so we just decided to stay up as late as we could on Vaapu eve and sleep as late as we could the next day. Mission accomplished - we didn’t wake up until almost 3 pm the next day, which I haven’t done in a long time.

The big thing that I had to do in Finland was do some SAW-UNA. It’s not "go to the sauna" there, it is “let’s go DO sauna”. This is a large part of Finnish culture dating back hundreds of years. There’s an old Finnish saying: “when building a house, first build the sauna, then build the house.” The spiritual center of the home, saunas were always the cleanest, healthiest area of the home, so it served as the site for everything from relaxation and meditation to childbirth. There is a specific protocol for sauna, so I was glad to have AJ show me how it is done. I liked it so much that I went back later in the week.

Photos from around Helsinki:
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This is the Finnish Parliament building
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I can't remember what this building is.
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This is the "Church of the Rock" - blasted out from true, natural bedrock
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The Russian Orthodox Church
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This is one of the few monuments in Helsinki. I honestly can't remember what it is a monument to, but I know that it was designed by a school teacher who won the design contest for it.
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This was a random greenhouse that I stumbled upon. It looked nice and free, so I checked it out. The thing that I love about the random attractions you stumble onto is that they are often VERY random and interesting. This one had a girl doing some sort of rope acrobatics in the back above some plants:
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A few days before I went to Finland, I got a message from Anosh Shah. He is a friend that I had pledged DKE with back in the day, but we had fallen out of touch and I don’t think that I had talked with him since I graduated Cornell 4 years ago. That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw that I had a message from Anosh. He had seen me traveling around Europe, and was currently living in London. Armed with a holiday on the following Monday, he was looking to get out of England for the weekend and, knowing that I had been traveling around Europe, wanted to know where I’d be. Sometimes, you gotta love FaceBook.

Anosh joined me for my last full day in Finland, and we checked out Suomenlinna - the old sea fortress a mile off the coast of Helsinki. Pretty cool place with a tasty brewery:
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Much of the island reminded me pleasantly of the Shire :)
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One thing that made Suomenlinna so great when it was built was this dry dock. The first of its kind, workers could build or repair ships in this dock, and then they would pump water in using a windmill-driven pump and float the ship out.

AJ and his girlfriend Liis then treated us to a wonderful home-cooked dinner of mashed potatoes and reindeer! Most of the traditional Finnish food is of the ‘meat and potatoes’ variety, plus a good selection of fish mixed in there. It was absolutely delicious (I still need to know what she did to those mashed potatoes. My hunch is A LOT OF BUTTER :)). Fun side story: I had decided and confirmed with AJ that it would be a good idea for us to bring a bottle of wine with us for the meal. After we got off the tram near his place, Anosh and I started looking around for a place to buy said bottle of wine. After finding a place that was closed, we asked a woman walking by to help us find an open store. She informed us that there was absolutely no place to buy wine on Sunday (not true for beer). Persuaded by the disappointed looks on our faces, she offered to sell us a bottle of wine from her apartment! 10 euros got us a bottle of (Californian) Pinot Noir, and we were off to AJ’s! It took him a few minutes, but eventually he asked, “Wait a second - where did you guys get this bottle today” hahaha

Tallin, Estonia:
I thought that I should start out with some quick oreintation-type facts about Estonia, since most people don’t seem to have ever heard of it. To be totally honest, I don’t think I had heard about Estonia until my well-traveled cousin, Holly, told me that if I was going to Finland, I should definitely stop over across the water. Anyways, Estonia is the northern-most of the “Baltic” countries located in eastern Europe. It is right next to Russia and is a short ferry ride from Finland (Google Maps). Being so close to Russia, you would be correct in assuming that it was part of the USSR before the fall of Communism. And boy are they glad to be free and independent.

On the walking tour, we were actually informed that in 2014 they are celebrating the longest period of independence (20-some odd years) in 200+ years. It was the Germans before the Russians, and the Russians again before the Germans. The Occupation Museum explained how the Germans were, at first, welcomed during WWII because the Estonians thought that they couldn’t be any worse than the Russians. When the Germans were expelled, Estonia had a couple day period in which they tried to appeal to the international community as an independent state, but the Allies were too busy negotiating for peace in Europe to stop the Russians from taking back what had been theirs.

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Old Soviet statues in the museum

While I am anxious to tell you about what a lovely, medieval city Tallin is, I feel like I can’t leave this topic and brief history of Estonia without mentioning the Singing Revolution, when Estonia peacefully won their independence from Russia in 1991. You can get the full details in the wiki article, but imagine an actual revolution and independence won with nightly vigils of joyful singing. Very inspiring stuff. With Estonia entering its 20s, it is slowly becoming somewhat of a tourist destination. Though still forgotten about by most travelers, Tallinn is a beautiful and unique town with lots of attractions for tourists. Tallinn itself was an old medieval city that has survived largely intact to this day. Of the large stone wall that once completely encircled the city, about 20% of it is left along with a handful of buildings and alleys from as far back as the 14th century.

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The town square, right next to...
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The town hall!
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The Russian Orthodox Church built during the latest occupation. It is a wonderful piece of architecture and a major tourist attraction, which doesn't make many Estonians happy as they would rather divorce completely from Russia and its influence.
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The old city wall
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One of about a dozen towers still standing along the wall, this was known as "Big Bertha"

Just some good shots around Tallinn:
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In the ancient town hall, there was a little restaurant that served soup and biscuits in a very medieval setting
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You didn't get any silverware, just a bowl of yummy soup :)
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While there, Anosh and I went to the Occupation Museum and I was hoping to go to the KGB museum, but got sick and didn’t make it. Interestingly enough the KGB museum is located in what used to be the actual KGB headquarters on the top floor of a hotel. Actually that was the only hotel that an foreigners could stay in when visiting Tallinn, so the headquarters were well situated to listen in on the guests. They also have beautiful locally-made souveniers that are packed with some of the country’s finest natural resources, including amber, cedar wood, and lots of wool.

Though it was a brief stay, Anosh and I made the most of it, going out and enjoying beer prices that were about half of what it was in Finland. There were plenty of interesting bars to check out, including some with great beer selections from across the world, but definitely the most fun was The Lab. Adorned with enough high school chemistry equipment to make Walter White blush, The Lab was decorated in all sorts of neon/blacklight paints and served drinks in test tubes and Erlenmeyer flasks. Better than that, they also had a number of flaming shots, which excited Anosh and I immensely at that point. After each flaming drink, we would go back up to the bartender and ask him to make us his next-most ridiculous flaming drink!

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Drink #2 -
Step 1 - Light alcohol on fire
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Step 2 - Pour the flaming liquor into a tray
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Step 3 - place the glass in the middle of the flaming liquid
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Step 4 - Let physics do its thing!
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Just a damn darn ridiculous flaming tour of glasses
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The next morning was rough on all of us, but more than anything due to the fact that it snowed! In May! I know that it happened in a handful of places in the US after I got back, but that won’t stop me from complaining. After only a day and a half (wish it could have been more), I ferried back to Helsinki and flew to Oakland, CA a day later. And thus the first leg of my big quarter-life crisis was concluded. Hope you enjoyed!

Posted by danza 16:46 Archived in Finland Tagged architecture helsinki singing_revolution vappu anosh flaming_shots Comments (0)

Berlin - History, Abandoned Buildings, and Karaoke!

sunny 70 °F

BERLIN

It is difficult to describe or characterize Berlin because it seems to be different for everyone. I had heard or read a number of opinions, and each seemed to strike a separate chord. To Lonely Planet, it is a constantly evolving city with a history unique throughout the world. To my tour guide in Munich, it is a city steeped in counter culture filled with a large number of free-loaders (He gave this opinion jokingly, but backed it up with statistics. Fun fact for the day - Berlin’s current unemployment rate of 17% is the best they’ve had since the Wall fell, while Munich is the economic powerhouse city in Europe’s economic powerhouse country). To the exchange students I met in Vienna, Berlin is an all night party town where clubs open Thursday night and don’t close until Monday morning. I was excited to visit for all of these reasons, but it wasn’t until my last night in Prague before moving onto Berlin that I heard what would turn out to be my favorite part of Berlin.

At my hostel’s free BBQ Friday night in Prague, I met an attractive redhead named Ally, who just so happened to work at a hostel in Berlin! She was actually in Prague on business, staying in the best hostels to learn what they do better than hers. As luck would have it, she actually created and leads a unique tour called Abandoned Berlin. I had heard mention of a few abandoned buildings. but I didn’t know the extent of it until I talked with Ally. Although I wasn’t in town for her Thursday tour, she turned me on to a website and FB group dedicated to exploring the many abandoned sites around Berlin.

And there are a LOT of them! I met up with Ally at her hostel’s bar and met her friend, the original creator of the website linked above. He was able to fill me in on how this very unique situation occurred, and it makes perfect sense. Many people my age (or maybe it’s just me) forget or never fully comprehend that the Berlin Wall and communism throughout much of Eastern Europe collapsed in our lifetime. So much of the history that you hear about in Europe is either centuries old, or occurred during the first half of the 20th centuries during the 2 world wars. The Berlin Wall, which also meant a divided Berlin, DID NOT FALL UNTIL 1989. The collapse of communism had many consequences for Berlin, some of which I’ll get to later, but for this part of the narrative, imagine what happened to all of these buildings and business run by the communistic government. When communism ended, all of these enterprises had to get converted back to private owners. There was a large sale of many of these buildings, but emerging from a communist economy is slow and arduous, and there wasn’t enough private money to operate all of the facilities that had existed before. Many were sold for a penny on the dollar to try and help the economy recover, but in many cases, the upkeep costs for a building exceeded what the new owners could do with it at the time, so they stayed abandoned until someone could figure out what to do next with it. I mean - REALLY interesting and unique stuff, right?

From talking to Ally and her friend, you could literally spend months venturing out to explore and document all of these sites, which is basically what they had been doing for a while. I only had a few days and a number of things on the Berlin Wish List, so I only made it to 2 of them. Barenquell Brauerie is an abandoned brewery a 15 minute train ride from the center, and unfortunately I don’t have any pictures due to phone charging trouble the previous night (worst thing EVER while traveling). This turned out being fine by me because there are times when I relish not having the ability for pictures. I love having pictures, but I don’t fully enjoy actually taking them. I feel like it takes you out of the moment, but that’s not a discussion for here. The brewery building itself is all closed up, but there’s a empty window a few feet off the ground that serves the recommended entrance point, with even a large crate there to allow anyone to climb in (no real climbing necessary). Inside the building you have to be careful of broken glass, but outside of that, it is a haven for artists looking for space or walls to work with, and it’s an easy climb up a fire escape to the roof. May I recommend bringing a few beers with you to enjoy the breeze and the views - sunset recommended.

The last full day I spent in Berlin, I convinced 2 great guys from my hostel, Steve - who I met in my hostel in Prague - and Marcus - an afro’ed guy from LA - to check out the creme de la creme - an abandoned amusement park (!!!!!!) called Spree Park.
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Funny side story: Marcus joined our team of travelers when one of the girls in the group recognized him from when she saw him hitch-hiking around Ireland. They never spoke, and he probably never saw her, but when she saw him, she instantly went up and asked, “Strange question, but were you hitch-hiking around Ireland about a month ago?”

I naturally had high expectations for Spree Park, and was downright giddy as we walked thru the very forest-like city park that was the home and namesake for the amusement park. When we finally reached the outskirts of the park, there was a fence as we had expected. While I quickly climbed up and over, Marcus and Steve found a hole to climb thru not 15 feet away. This park was definitely not very large during any period of its existence, but it was a fantastic adult playground for the 3 of us. We had pirate ships, dinosaurs, ferris wheels, and roller coasters! Funhouses to climb thru and on top of. A water ride wide enough that the only way I found to get inside to scale the support beams to go up and over the water.

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Marcus following me up and over some of the buildings!
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We had been climbing or (safely) parkouring around the park for close to an hour when we were rudely interrupted by a surly security guard and his menacing dog. After apologizing and claiming the ignorant tourist shtick, he warned us that we had two minutes to leave before he released his dog. I’m pretty sure that was an idle threat, but we though it best to listen, and meandered our way out of the park. Marcus tried to sneakily snap a photo of the guard and dog, but missed which haunted him for the rest of the night. We had heard that there could be security, but they just make you leave as long as you’re not being destructive. A small note for my parents: we also weren’t the only ones exploring either of the 2 abandoned sites, so I’m still only somewhat of a hooligan.

After Spree Park, we were all on such a high that we decided we needed a beer before heading back to the hostel, and very conveniently just after we made it out of the park, a beautiful waterfront restaurant/beer garden appeared before us.

Bear Park Karaoke

Another activity that Ally had recommended to me was to make sure I stopped by Mauer Park on Sunday afternoon to check out the karaoke. Skeptical though I was (I’ve seen karaoke before), I’ve learned to trust the recommendations of fun locals and go in with an open mind. It also happened to be next to a large flea market, so I knew there’d be other interesting stuff to check out if the karaoke was lame. I should have known better.

I convinced an energetic French-Canadian named Rebecca from my hostel and my walking tour that morning to come along and join me, and we hit Mauer Park a little before 3, which was when the karaoke was set to start. Not really knowing what to expect, we figured it couldn’t hurt to grab a couple bottles of beer beforehand. Immediately when we hit the park, we could feel the energy in the air. Before we had spotted the amphitheater where we knew karaoke took place, we found a slew of entertaining things along the way. It being a gorgeous, sunny day, the park was filled with people BBQing, having spontaneous dance parties, and musicians performing all over the place.

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Mauer Park before we found karaoke

After thinking that we don’t even need to find karaoke to enjoy this, we find the amphitheater and immediately agree that we are not leaving there for a couple hours at least. This place is huge and PACKED! Our best guess put the attendance somewhere between 800 and 1200 people

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A totally free event run by 2 brothers, Patrick acts as MC and during songs picks his way thru the crowd with a can, collecting donations. Rebecca got him to sit down with us for a song to tell us about how this very simple idea grew into such a large event. This fantastic event has been going on for about 18 months - started with just a couple of speakers, a computer and a monitor. Fueled by a great setting in the outdoors, and the fun-loving atmosphere of Berlin, the word of the event spread quickly so that now it is common knowledge that if you show up at 3 (start time) you will not get a seat.

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Simple setup - 2 large speakers and one central setup (with the umbrella) with computer and monitor

It was my type of karaoke, where enthusiasm and dance moves counts for far more than singing skill. The crowd is also super nice and cheers on everyone, no matter the skill level. We were treated to songs from a wide spectrum - Sinatra to Backstreet Boys, and had performers from 10 year-old-girls and boys to Darth Vadar IN THE FLESH!
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Vadar brought the house down with “Happy” that got everyone on stage dancing. I'm having trouble uploading any videos, unfortunately. Look to my FB to see some of these videos. A young boy around 12 brought the evening to a close with the German version of "99 Red Balloons", a great song

The rest of Berlin

If you’re paying close attention, you might have noticed that I had a dry spell in terms of blog posting, going more than a week without a new post, and in the past few days I’ve been trying to catch up. I think this can be mostly attributed to how much fun I’ve had in Prague and especially Berlin, and how much there is to do. It is apparently my MO to schedule way too little time in Berlin, as this happened both this time and the last time with Nick. 4 years ago, we only passed thru Berlin in a day and a half, with a fun, gregarious group of Irish guys to blame - they convinced us to turn around in Munich and go back to Amsterdam with them. Nick and I never knew what we had in Berlin, but I will not make the same mistake the next time around.

The abandoned buildings are what truly made the Berlin visit special for me, but honestly even without that it may have been my favorite city. The history of the city is absolutely fascinating and unique, and I got lucky to score the TripAdvisor top rated tour guide for my free walking tour. While taking you around to all of the famous Berlin sites, we heard very in depth stories, most of which focused on the events in the past 100 years. I never knew how many underhanded or downright evil Hitler and the Nazi party committed to come into power in the first place. I feel like the biggest question surrounding this time period is: How did Germany every get to this point and put this man in power? While I always knew about the difficult economic times for the common German people that initially helped Hitler gain popularity, I was… not stunned or surprised, but just wasn’t aware of the ways in which the Nazis dealt with those that stood against them. The most infamous incident became known as “The Night of Long Daggers” when the Nazis murdered over 85 people - mostly powerful men in the German Communist party, others were opponents who threatened their need for absolute power, and still others who were allies of the Nazis right up until they no longer served a purpose. After that, there really weren’t many powerful people left to oppose them, and those who tried were either killed outright or sent to work camps.

The need to give such attention to those horrible times could allow some people to overlook details and stories regarding the Communistic times that followed WWII, with Berlin and truly all of Germany split in half by the USSR and the Berlin Wall. I know that I was fairly ignorant of this period that was such a phenomenally unique situation. I won’t go into the full details, but I had never thought about the fact that all of Germany was split up into occupations by US, UK, France, and Russia. Berlin was in Russia’s portion, but as the capital city, it was decided that that would also be split into 4 occupation zones. I had always imagined the Berlin Wall as one line going down the middle of Berlin, but in fact it was a full circle encasing the Allied sections of Berlin from the rest of the communist East German and East Berlin. Unlike walls at prisoner camps, however, this wall was not designed to keep people inside, but outside in the communist territory.

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Sam, our tour guide, showed us a map of Berlin produced in Communist East Berlin that looked like a normal map with streets and everything, except that there was a thick line around West Berlin and empty space inside of it. For East Berliners, West Berlin was effectively just empty space.

Some pictures of the wall, now turned beautiful
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All of this history, especially that which occurred in the last 100 years, makes Berlin a very unique and interesting place. One thing that Sam stressed other cultures can learn from is that Berliners try to confront their past, not avoid it or sweep it under the rug. Unlike in Munich, where many of the early acts of the Nazi party actually occurred, there are many memorials to the victims and the events of WWII, and they are very much out in the open. Berlin seems to know that not only that it would be disgraceful to try and forget about it, but it is also essential to remember it so that we do not repeat the same mistakes. We were reminded that there are many parallels between the early times of the Nazi party and what is currently happened in Greece with the Golden Dawn party (who ever adopted images from the Nazi party, included a modified swastika):
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The final thing that Sam left us with is that while we cannot forget the horrible events of the 20th century, those events should also not let us forget the centuries of great cultures and contributions that Germany has provided us. He is British which I think allowed him to more openly express this deep admiration for Germany, while true Germans have trouble doing that because it is still somewhat “taboo” around the world to be shouting about how proud they are to be German. A terrible period, but something that the world should figure out how to learn and grow from.

Great pictures taken during the tour:
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Brandenburg Gate
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The Reichstag (Parliament building)
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The Holocaust Memorial
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Also some of Berlin's awesome street art!
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Posted by danza 14:06 Archived in Germany Tagged history unique berlin street_art berlin_wall abandoned_buildings Comments (2)

Return to Prague!

Prague! Oh beautiful lovely Prague. Home of 13th century buildings, a great and wild nightlife, and 1 euro beers :). In my mind, this will be a short blog entry, because I’m anxious to write about Berlin and try to catch up on this blog, but I’ve thought that before, and several pages later, I realize how much I had to talk about.

One of my highlights of Prague this time around was actually the hostel that I stayed in - Sir Toby’s. Not situated in Old Town, the location is the only thing that I can knock on it. The staff was great, rooms and facilities were very nice, but it truly shined in the atmosphere and freebies (always big in my book). They had the best breakfast offering I've seen at hostels (though not free), with burners to cook up your own omelettes and/or pancakes and fixins already chopped up and ready to go. Every night they had something going on, either a pub crawl, board game night, or free food. Tuesday was free crepes/pancakes and Friday was an AWESOME free BBQ. The BBQ hit the spot after a day of hiking around Prachovské Skaly, which was perfect, but I’ll get to that.

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One of the common rooms near the bar in Sir Toby's

With the breakfast in the morning and the small bar open at night, I had the most luck thus far meeting some great people - not just for the night but throughout my stay. The biggest challenge traveling alone is not meeting people in general - that’s real easy if you’re not afraid to talk to others - but instead getting lucky enough to meet people whose travel plans overlap yours for more than 24 or 48 hours. That way you don’t have to repeat the same intro conversations every day and can build an actual relationship. I also observed what I’ve yearned for on this trip, though I haven’t truly found it yet, and that’s a traveling companion that I can stick with for more than 1 city. The first night at Sir Toby’s, I met Phil and Steve, a Canadian and American who originally met in Turkey and were celebrating their 2 week anniversary of traveling together. Their rapport and recollections of wild times in Budapest made me envious, and anxious to either find my own companion or start having friends come over to do some traveling with.

I had been to Prague once before, almost 4 years ago with Schunk, so I had seen many of the main attractions. Although I did head back to the old town, which is beautiful, I focused on the things we missed last time thru.

Prague Cathedral
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Charles Bridge
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Old Jewish Cemetary
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Lennon Wall (screamed new FB profile pic, haha)
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Originally a wall that started as a form of protest against Communism, it is ever evolving with people adding to the wall continuously

Petrin Tower
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Great tidbit about Petrin Tower: The tower design was based off the Eiffel Tower, which was built in Paris for the World Fair in some year. The Petrin Tower was also built for a world fair later on, and despite it being ⅕ the size of the Eiffel Tower, because it is up on a hill, the top of the Petrin Tower is at the exact same altitude as the top of the Eiffel Tower. That was the Czech telling the French to “Suck It”, haha

The walk up to Petrin Tower from the Lennon Wall was great - a solid, steep uphill hike through the woods. On the way, I stumbled onto a university strangely situated in the middle of a small forest atop this hill. Later learning that the other friends from the hostel took the tram up and down the hill to go to Petrin Tower, I was reminded of why solo travel can be so great. For me, the hike up and trek down the hill (during which time I found a few different solid climbing trees and played myself in some improvised disc golf) was the best part of my day. This was a lovely estate and garden that I literally stumbled onto:
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The views from the tower were magnificent and I spent at least 20 minutes up on the 2 levels just drinking in the cool breeze and the wonderful views:

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Since I had already seen many of the sites in Prague, I also made an effort to find some solid day trips outside the city. One of the popular ones is out to Kutna Hora, home of the infamous “bone chapel”. I had actually envisioned that this was a church made entirely out of bones, but thinking back to that thought, I’m not sure how that possibly would have worked. Unless you’ve got gigantic elephant bones, a la the Lion King elephant graveyard, there’s no way to make an entire stable structure just from bones. Initially disappointed by this, I really did enjoy the inside of this place. We spent a good deal of time in there, partially in awe of the macabre atmosphere that can only be created by being surrounded by the bones of 40,000 actual human skeletons, and partially cracking childish bone(r) jokes with a few of the people who came with me from the hostel. I’m such a grown up.

The pictures!
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Outside the bone chapel, many people spoke about the fact that there’s a number of other things to see and do in the small, quaint town. There was a nice cathedral, unfortunately I am beginning to get “cathedraled out” and numb to what are some incredible structures, because in most cases I’ve seen very similar but slightly more impressive cathedrals in other areas. To be fair, this was a very impressive and nice one:

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The town is a nice place to wander around for a little while, but overall nothing blew me away outside of the bone chapel. I’d still recommend this as a day trip for anyone with more than 3 days in Prague.

Prachovské Skaly

One morning I was down eating breakfast in Sir Toby’s, and was “scolded” (not seriously) by Sarah (see the picture) about being on my computer instead of out and about. I’ve heard that sort of thing occasionally while traveling, but unless you do a crazy amount of research beforehand, you need to figure out and discover activities as you go with a trip this size. Sarah ate her words after I discovered Prachovské Skaly, described as a “rock city” a little more than an hour outside of Prague, and she decided to tag along when I set out the next day.

Hoping to get a full day of hiking in before the afternoon rains came in, we hopped on an early morning bus from Prague headed out to Jicin, from which we knew we could take a regional bus to the rock city. We got to Jicin, but had a lot of trouble finding any discernible bus schedules or anyone who worked there that spoke English. We eventually got thru to the information woman with a combination of gesturing and broken German, complements of Sarah, and found out that the next bus out there didn’t leave for almost 3 hours. WTF? Knowing that it was only about 5 km out to the park, I would have immediately just started hoofing it towards the ark, but I was afraid that Sarah be too excited about that. She pleasantly surprised me by being totally down! It took us about an hour, but we went past some nice scenery and the time flew by.

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After making sure we noted the return bus times, we hit the true trail. Armed with a good map of the trails, we were on top of these awesome rock formations in no time. After taking a close look at the scale in the corner of the map, we realized that the park was actually quite small, and we were both glad about the extra 5 km we walked, because otherwise it would have been a very short day of hiking. Though short on the hiking, the park boasted a few great views, a number of fun detours to climb around the rocks, and there was actually some great top roping that I could see evidence of (can you find the Czech flag?). I wish I had brought my rock climbing shoes, haha:

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The day ended up being pretty light on the hiking, but overall a good day trip to some unique natural features. There are other tougher hikes in the area with some small castles in the forest, so look into that if you travel to the area.

This ended up being a full day the whole way thru - we got back to the hostel with a perfect amount of time to shower and then head outside for the FREE BBQ! This was no joke either - piles of chicken, brats, and burgers, plus salad, chips and cookies. Sir Toby does it right. With pretty much everyone going to the BBQ, it was easy to join forces with some of the people I had already met in the hostel and plan our own private bar crawl. The most interesting place we went to was the Cross Club - a metal/steam-punk themed club with multiple dance floors and bar areas with various types of music.
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It is nice making the last night in a city the rough one, because in the morning I dragged myself out of bed and to the bus, and had a nice nap on the way to my next destination - BERLIN!

Also some more great pictures from Prague. Many of these were taken from a park atop a hill north of the Old Town, which conveniently has a wonderful beer garden!
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Posted by danza 00:52 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged hiking good_hostel sir_tobys day_trips Comments (0)

Vienna, Austria

Home to beautiful buildings and lots of culture

sunny 60 °F

Vienna has got to be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. Stockholm just got knocked off the pedestal. Walking the streets of Vienna, it seems like every corner you turn, you run into another gorgeous building or view. Many of these are old palaces, government buildings, churches, or theatres, but a few buildings that brought my camera out turned out to be just ordinary apartment buildings, or something of the sort.

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Vienna is home to 2 castles which, much to my delight, seemed to give more attention to grounds outside the castles than the structures themselves. I always questioned big huge places with hundreds of rooms but no memorable gardens or grounds around it. These in Vienna were just my style. The entrance to the grounds was free, which also seemed to make it one of the more beautiful places you could find to go on a run, which seemed to be very popular:

Schonenborg Castle and grounds (this was my favorite!):
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Belvedere Castle and grounds. This place had immaculately sculpted trees and bushes all over:
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Then Vienna is also home to numerous historic churches and cathedrals, with some very contrasting styles. Here is St Stephan's Cathedral, the massive temple seemingly standard in many of the big European cities in the western and central Europe. I’ve heard it said often that you can get cathedral’ed out while touring Europe, but I haven’t reached that point yet:
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Then you’ve got St Charles Church, a little further from the center of the old city, that to me seemed to have a somewhat mosque-type feel, but I could be totally off on that.
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My favourite was actually St Peter's Church, the smallest of these 3. Architecturally impressive from the outside, the true beauty of this is when you walk inside.
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This would fill the shock-and-awe factor for most cities, but Vienna piles on top of that too many other statues, squares, and buildings to keep track of. I’ll label the ones that I remember, but whatever they house inside, it makes it a great pleasure to just stroll around Vienna. This is definitely a city that I would not recommend people bike around, just because you would move way too fast to appreciate it. Strangely the first major city that I had traveled to without a free walking tour, I downloaded an audio self-guided walking tour and set out to explore:

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I was very glad that Vienna was so stunning to walk around because this was the most anti-social I’ve been on this trip. Booked last minute and over Easter weekend (which apparently is a very popular travel weekend in this part of Europe), I was stuck in a pretty terrible hostel a 25 minute metro ride from the city center. When I asked about a common area (essential place for a solo traveler to meet new friends), they pointed me to a small room with 6 chairs set up around the wall. NOT IDEAL. With no hostel common room, and no free walking tour, I looked for a pub crawl for some human interaction. I wasn’t surprised to see that the pub crawl wasn’t happening on Easter (or any Sunday), but was disappointed to find that it was also canceled for Easter Monday, a widely celebrated holiday in this Catholic city that I had never known about. Where is our extra day off after Easter?

My social highlight of Vienna happened during intermission of the opera show that I went to. Something awesome that I read about on TripAdvisor are the cheap opera tickets. Vienna has a long history of one of the cultural hubs of Europe (at least in my head), famous for their composers, artists, etc. I knew I wanted to check out the opera house, but assumed tickets for a show would be well beyond my price range. To allow people to get exposure to their famous operas on a budget, they well up to 600 standing-room only tickets the day of a performance for 3 or 4 euros each! Considering other places charge you 3 euros just to walk around a famous building like that when nothings going on, this is a great deal!

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I already knew that I’m not too much of an opera guy, but I can certainly still appreciate and enjoy them. I’ve seen a few of them and enjoyed them a moderate amount, however this one was thoroughly dull. Perhaps it was the fact that it was in German (English subtitles on a screen at my spot), but not much happened in the plot. I enjoyed the experience, the music and the opera house, but I was actually going to leave at intermission because I was pretty sure that I had gotten everything that I would get out of it. Right as I’m packing up my stuff, a group of 6 very cute girls walk in and they obviously just arrived and were clueless about how the spot-saving worked in the standing-room only section. After explaining everything to them, I found out that they were all Americans studying abroad in Italy, and visiting after a few days in Budapest. With them as company, I stick thru the rest of the show and I finally got to have some good human interaction.

After the show, it was Easter so many things were closed down, but we still managed to hit the main must-get local foods for dinner. Currywurst from a street vendor and then to the very famous Hotel Sacher for the Original Sacher Torte (invented by the guy who started the hotel):

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Delicious - a must try for anyone going thru Vienna. During dinner I got all sorts of great suggestions of what to see/do in Prague, Budapest, and Italy. Thanks so much girls!

That’s about all I’ve got for Vienna - on to Prague next!

Posted by danza 05:22 Archived in Austria Tagged churches castles architecture vienna palaces beautiful opera Comments (0)

Hiking the Austrian Alps

or trying to

sunny 58 °F

I was standing on a precipice of sorts. To my left was a sheer cliff, more or less, below me and above were very steep slope, and to my right was another steep slope I had just scrambled across. Climbers of all sorts (mountain, rock, tree) will tell you that it is always tougher or more dangerous to get down from somewhere than get up. I never seem to remember that until I’m already up there. And now I was stuck.

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“How did I get here?” I asked myself. The real answer were a string of foolish, cocky decisions that I’ve found can be typical of me when I think that my abilities exceed those of others. I was on Untersberg Mt in the Austrian Alps. In truth, the answer to that question can be traced either to my trip to Neuschwanstein Castle, when I first set eyes on the Alps and couldn’t wait to do some hiking, or to the night before when I set my sights on my destination. Surfing in Munich with a great guy originally from Buffalo, I was trying to figure out where I could do some climbing. The problem with Bavaria and the Alps is that there are sooo many options. The other thing that blew me away is how easy these climbs are to get to, even without a car. You’d never be able to take a train or city bus to a trailhead in the US. After much debate, I had chosen to cross the border to Austria, Salzburg (90 minute train) and climb Untersberg, which was described as the most challenging hike you can find with easy accessibility from Salzburg. As a bonus, after a 2 ½ - 3 ½ hour hike to the peak, there exists a restaurant and a cable car at the top. I was more excited about the cable car because as I mentioned above, it is always easier going up than going down, but in the case of mountains, that’s mostly because of the strain on your KNEES on the way down. Considering the trouble I had had in the past year, I thought it might be a great idea to hike up and cable car down.

After having a train delay, I was getting a later start than I had hoped, and when the bus dropped me off at what I was told was the trailhead, I encountered 2 immediate problems. The first problem I noticed was that the cable car was closed for renovations/repairs for the month of April Disappointed about the cable car, but not dissuaded, I took a look at the map. That’s when I noticed the second problem - the cable car and the trailhead were not in the same place. I had read that it was popular to drive to trailhead, hike up, and then cable car down, so I had assumed that those 2 things were close to each other, plus the information desk at the terminal directed me to this bus after I said that I wanted to hike the mountain. Turns out, the proper trail that I had read about was a 5 km hike from the cable car. Looking at the map, there appeared to be another trail that was much closer to the cable car, so thinking that I could figure it out as I went, and I headed off to find that one.

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The cable care is at the bottom-left of the line labeled "UNTERSBERGBAHN", with the proper trail in red all the way to the right. I saw another possible trail much closer to the left, so that's what I went for.

In retrospect, I definitely should have found the main, most popular trail, but the other ones seemed to go to the same place, and it wasn't my first hike (though I like to think of myself as more experienced than I actually am), so I thought I could handle it. I’m not sure if I ever found the proper trail, but I did find a trail about where it should have started, and it was going in the right direction - UP - so I set off. The first 45 minutes were smooth, though certainly uphill, going. I noticed that the trail didn’t seem to have trail markers, as I was used to, but it was a nice, wide trail and who knows, maybe they don’t mark their trails well in Austria. Then, very suddenly, my nice wide trail just disappeared. After pausing to try and pick up the proper trail, I went with my best guess and knew a couple of points that the trail would go by, so I was sure that I’d come on the correct trail soon enough. I had a brief moment of hope when I found this marker, thinking that a path must have led to this.

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Without finding any path, I continued upwards, the only direction I was sure I had to go. That worked well for about 20 minutes and then the terrain started getting very steep. With real trails, they will have steps or switchbacks to go up particularly steep parts, but my wandering line just gradually got steeper and steeper. I stopped a few times and debated turning back, but I kept telling myself that if I can just get to that next ridge, I will maybe be able to see the trail. This continued until I found myself on the precipice.

To be honest, my situation wasn’t as dire as I make it sound in the first paragraph (but it grabbed your attention, right?). I had scrambled to that point, but only by digging my walking sticks into the ground to haul or brace myself as I climbed. After evaluating my options, I just decided to retreat and get down off the mountain as safely as possible. To descend it was maybe 60% sliding on the slippery leaves, 20% going from tree to tree to stop my momentum as I decended, and 20% digging my walking sticks into the ground to keep myself from sliding down and traversing sideways to a relatively less steep area. I never did find that original trail I was on, but I found another trail eventually, which was such a relief. Even if it was roundabout, finding a trail meant a safe way down the mountain instead of pulling these antics as I was.

Once I was on the path, I made it down the rest of the way quickly and without incident. Disappointed, but not feeling like I got a full day of hiking in, I decided to walk thru this small town and eventually walk all the way to the actual trail on the other side. The town, Grodig, was very quiet and quaint, and I kept being astounded by the fact that there could exist a legitimate town so close to a mountain this size. The way that the mountain suddenly juts skyward from otherwise flat terrain was amazing. A sight that I haven’t often come across.

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I spent an hour walking thru the town, including a brief kebab stop, and eventually found my way to the proper trail entrance, some 4-5 kms from where I had been chased off of the mountain already. 2 friendly girls kindly pointed me towards the real trail entrance, but by then it was about 3.5 hours since I had started walking, and I did not think I would make it all the way up at this point before it got dark out. Maybe that was a blessing, because the girls were concerned that I was thinking about going to the top, telling me that it was still winter, and that I would be the only person crazy enough to do that now.

Knowing that, due to my little detour, I wouldn’t have time to go all the way to the top and back down before it got dark, I figured I could go a decent amount of the way up and at least get some nice views. As soon as I hit the trail, I saw many beautiful things that I hadn’t on my other “trail”

Like signs!

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And markings!

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And stairs! Oh my!

All of which were a welcome sight after my off-road adventuring. The irony was, despite the high quality of the trail and the actual hike, I couldn’t help but thinking that it was just a little too easy after the wandering and scrambling I had been doing all day. Actual marked trails that ran by streams, waterfalls and beautiful, scenic overlooks - it’s tough to say it with a straight face, but it felt like there was something missing, like it made it too easy, haha.

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I continued up the trail until I was a little more than halfway up. By this time, I had been walking/hiking for about 6 hours and I was looking at a sun far past its prime, making the slow but steady walk to bed to turn out the lights for us all. If the cable car had been running, it would have been a different story, but not wanting to hike down this challenging hill in the dark, I turned it around and headed back. Happy with my day, but disappointed that I didn’t reach the peak, I turned back down the mountain, toward civilization, and eventually back to Munich.

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Happy with my day

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But sad I didn't make it to the top

Final tally for the day:
6 hours, 53 minutes
13.34 miles
Total guess of 1800 meters in elevation (30% up once, 60% up the 2nd time)

Posted by danza 02:05 Archived in Austria Tagged hiking austria alps off_roading Comments (0)

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