Winter 2014

Overview

Bonnie and I were married on August 16, 2014. Instead of doing a standard wedding registry of household items, we decided to use Wanderable (essentially an online honeymoon registry) to help us finance our honeymoon. Bonnie had traveled once to Bristol, UK but I had never been across the Atlantic so this trip was something new for both of us! We decided that we would fly to mainland Europe and use the EuroRail to backpack around for the winter break from work. Our schedule had us traveling from December 19 to January 4 (seventeen days!).

Transportation. We managed to get a reasonably inexpensive flight that had a four-hour layover in London on the way to Amsterdam and a twenty-four-hour layover again in London on the way back to the U.S.. This, we thought, worked out perfect as it meant that we got to spend a day in London to see some of the sites (something that was not on our original schedule). We also purchased a fifteen-day continuous EuroRail pass for both of us. This meant that we could travel 1st class on the rails with the only exception being that some trains required reservations which, as we later learned, could be pretty expensive (more on this later).

Lodging. After crunching the numbers, accounting for food, souvenirs, and miscellaneous incidentals, we calculated that our lodging budget was pretty decent. Instead of staying at hostels throughout the trip, we realized we could do pretty well by using AirBnB (a website that allows users to “rent out” couches, rooms, or entire apartments to travelers). Besides being within budget for us, we thought that using AirBnB might provide us more a “taste” of the local lodgings instead of staying at the nearby Marriott or Holiday Inn.

Luggage. Finally, since we planned to travel mostly by foot at each destination, we decided to pack as light as possible. We limited ourselves to one school-sized backpack each. We used “space bags” (basically vacuum bags) to pack up roughly eight days worth of clothes each and a couple books for the long plane and train rides. I purchased a runner’s pack (basically a fanny pack but used as a “money belt”) which I was to keep under my outerwear and use to keep our passports, IDs, and cash safe. One thing we read repeatedly (before and during our trip) was that pickpockets were a real and persistent problem in cities (particularly around the train stations and other heavily traveled areas). So this “money belt” was to be our safekeep for the duration of the trip.

Schedule. Our schedule was as follows. We spent nights in the following cities (dates): Amsterdam (12/20), Paris (12/21-12/22), Zurich (12/23), Vienna (12/24-12/25), Budapest (12/26), Prague (12/27-12-28), Leipzig (12/29), Berling (12/30, 12/31), Amsterdam (1/1-1/2), London (1/3).

Budget. We put together a comprehensive budget in Excel detailing all our expenses per day which we would keep track of. If we were overspending one day, we knew we’d have to save money others. We also used the Excel spreadsheet to keep track of exactly when we were leaving and arriving at each location. As we quickly learned, it would be hard to stick with every planned landmark we hoped to visit or activity we wanted to do. Nevertheless, the budget was invaluable in providing us a general structure to our trip and activities.

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I think that just about covers the basics. I’ll try to spare any tedious or boring details. There were quite a few times where we spent hours just walking, looking, or generally not doing anything exciting. What follows is basically a day-by-day of our experiences. If not entertaining, I hope it is at least useful for those who are planning a similar trip.

Day 1: “A shaky start!” (12/19)

Our flight was set to depart from Tallahassee at 3:04pm. We would have a brief layover in Miami, FL before flying to Heathrow in London, UK (expected arrival time was 10:05am on 12/20).

Bonnie had the day off from work to take care of a number of errands (including mailing out the remainder of our wedding thank you cards) and getting the last things packed up. We had mostly packed the previous night but some things still needed to find a place or get left behind. Since we limited ourselves to packing very light (only two backpacks), we ultimately had to make some sacrifices to make sure we had everything we needed. Bonnie picked me up from work at noon. A friend of our’s volunteered to drop us off at the airport so we didn’t have to pay for parking. They were picking us up at 2pm so that meant we had a couple hours to get everything organized.

While making our final preparations, I noticed that Bonnie’s wallet was not in the moneybelt. I mentioned this to Bonnie in passing and we did not think much of it at first. As Bonnie started pulling her last things together, with our ride to the airport expected any minute, she became increasingly worried about where her wallet was. I started to help her go through everything, looking for it. As the minutes clicked by, we became panicked. Her wallet was truly gone. I asked her to retrace her steps. The only thing we could not rule out was that she left it at the post office earlier in the day. After trying to call the post office repeatedly, with no response, we decided the only thing left to do was to lock-up the house and, on our way to the airport, stop at the post office to see if it was there. Lo and behold! It was at the post office! Apparently Bonnie had dropped it in the parking lot on her way out and some Good Samaritan brought it to the counter in the post office. Furthermore, she had roughly $40 which was not touched!

We arrived at the Tallahassee airport. As Bonnie pulled her backpack out of the trunk of our friend’s car, she noticed that the back lining had ripped along the bottom seam. After the panic over the whereabouts of her wallet, this was small potatoes, but she gave me a glare that said, “what else could possibly go wrong this early into the trip!” These were certainly foreboding signs! After making our way through security, I asked around at the gift shop and the gate attendant if they had any sort of packing or duct tape. With no luck, I eventually made my way back to security where, thankfully, some of the TSA folks had some clear packing tape. Bonnie scoffed at the few pieces of tape covering the seam and speculated that the patchwork would not last even the flight! (As it turned out, it lasted the entire trip!)

Miami International Airport

Miami International Airport

We boarded our flight in Tallahassee, already exhausted from the excitement, and arrived in Miami a short while later. After finding our gate in Miami International, we took our time grabbing dinner. When we boarded the flight to London, I was a little dismayed to find out they would serve dinner on the flight. We didn’t expect this as the flight departed Miami at about 9pm. Still, we didn’t turn down the second dinner and I was happy to find out we received complimentary beer or wine! (Remember, I’d never been on a cross-Atlantic flight before!) We both got some fitful sleep aboard the flight knowing that day 2 would be more exhausting.

Day 2: “Oh my jetlag…” (12/20)

Arrived in Heathrow!

Arrived in Heathrow!

In a sleep deprived haze, we arrived in Heathrow at roughly 10am on 12/20. We got through security (again) and found a comfortable place to wait until our next flight. We decided against leaving Heathrow since it would’ve been a pain to go through customs twice in such an exhausted state. While in Heathrow we got food at Wagamama (an asian fusion chain restaurant) and some supplies (toothpaste, soap/shampoo, and some body deodorant) which we couldn’t bring through security coming from the U.S.. We also found somewhat clean bathrooms to brush our teeth in. But until we arrived at our first night’s lodging in Amsterdam, we would be without wash.

Mostly, the hours we spent in Heathrow were used for resting. It seems unlikely either of got much sleep at all that first day of travel. We knew at the outset that the first couple days would not be very productive.

Arrival in Amsterdam! Schiphol station/airport.

Arrival in Amsterdam! Schiphol station/airport.

Eventually, we boarded the plane to Amsterdam which was exceptionally brief (about an hour and ten minutes, or so). Just long enough to get to cruising altitude before descending. The landing was very bumpy in Amsterdam as it was very windy. In fact, it was probably one of the roughest landings I’ve ever experienced with the plane shimmying sideways dramatically just before touchdown. But we made it! Amsterdam, our first genuine destination outside the English-speaking world! It was roughly 7pm on 12/20 and already the sun had long set! Also, Amsterdam is six-hours ahead of eastern U.S. time. We still had not adapted to the time change so we were feeling really backwards between the fitful patches of sleep on our flight from Miami and our stay in Heathrow.

We found our way through Schiphol (Amsterdam’s international airport). We had not planned very well for this arrival and quickly realized we were unprepared in general. After passing through customs, we found our way to the rail station, which is attached to the airport in Schiphol, and found a counter to speak to one of the rail attendants. When we tried to book a reservation for our train to Paris, he was a bit startled by our ignorance. He told us that those reservations are usually booked weeks in advance and that there was nothing available! Yikes! To our relief, however, he informed us that we could get to Paris but we needed to take an alternative route which wouldn’t cost us too much time or money. We were to take a train to Lille, France and get a reservation from there to Gare du Nord in Paris. Success! We had it all figured out!

Or did we? After getting that taken care of. We now had the task of getting out of Schiphol and finding our first lodgings in Amsterdam. Being a bit green around the gills, we were not confident enough to take the train to Amsterdam Centraal from Schiphol (in retrospect, this would’ve been ideal as well as A LOT cheaper!). So, doing what every lost tourist would do, we got a cab to take us. I did not expect that this cab ride would cost us 60€ (about $72)!

Our cab dropped us off in the general vicinity of the lodging but we were quite lost. Although we had not planned to use our phones (due to the exceptional cost of using international networks) we decided to call our host. Eventually we got in touch with them and checked in around 8:10pm or so. Our host, Annett, was a gentle Amsterdam native with a lovely dog. Although we would’ve loved to chat with her more, we were quite literally exhausted, begged her forgiveness for being bad guests, and immediately passed out.

Day 3 : “Which way?!”(12/21)

Which way to Centraal?!?!

Which way to Centraal?!?!

We rose early the next day to catch our train which was set to depart quite early from Amsterdam Centraal. According to Annett, the station was only a 10minute walk away and we could take one road straight there. However, about halfway through our walk, we encountered contradictory signs. One sign pointed to the station being east and the other north. After a brief debate on this, we decided to go north.

On the train to Antwerp, Belgium.

On the train in Amsterdam to Antwerp.

As it turned out, this was the wrong way. This path took us to some kind of alternate platform. After trying to read Dutch for a few minutes at this alternative station, we decided that the sign had mislead us and we should have continued east as Annett had directed us. We set out from this alternate platform to Amsterdam Centraal proper and, as the minutes ticked by, we realized we would not make our train in time.

We walked as briskly as we could but we were already 15minutes behind by the time we arrived in Centraal. After talking to a very nice platform clerk, we discovered, to our great relief, that the next train would take us to Antwerp and from Antwerp to Lille. No problem! We were still on schedule! After constant setbacks, this was the first bit of excellent news we heard and it would set the tone for the rest of the trip. It was at this moment that we learned how comprehensive the rail system in Europe truly is. If you miss one train, no worries, you can probably get on the next in 15-30mins or find an alternative route that will get you there either way.

Once we had settled in on the train, we started to finally relax and enjoy the ride.

McDonald's. In France!

McDonald’s. In France!

After a brief change of trains in Antwerp, Belgium, we finally arrived in Lille, France. In Lille, we had a more lengthy break before the next scheduled train to Paris. We also discovered that most trains (if not all) in France required reservations. So we shelled out about 36€ to reserve our seats from Lille to Paris on a bullet train. While we waited in Lille, we grabbed lunch in the one place we knew would not give us any surprises: McDonald’s! Actually, there really wasn’t anything else near the station and we did not feel very comfortable leaving the station to find some local place to order food. So we more or less resigned ourselves to the golden arches.

Although I wasn’t that surprised, it was a bit odd to see them serving beer in McDonald’s. I knew, at once, I’d really enjoy this trip! We eventually departed Lille and arrived in Paris at Gare du Nord (north train station). We had a long hike from this station to our lodgings but our departure station, Gare de Lyon, was fairly close to our lodgings so we figured this worked out for us. Before leaving Gare du Nord, however, we decided it would be best to reserve our seats on the next leg of our train ride from Paris to Zurich on 12/23. Once again, I was surprised that it would cost us 126€ to reserve our tickets. It seemed a little cruel that we would spend about $1300 for our 15-day continuous EuroRail pass and have to spend yet more money to reserve tickets at each location (I did not yet understand that France is peculiar in this regard as we rarely had to reserve our seats after this). I asked the attendant why we had to pay so much and they said that a full-ticket price was roughly 400€ each! Yikes! Okay, I guess I shouldn’t have been so upset about the cost to reserve tickets then!

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Crossing La Seine on our way to Notre Dame.

On our walk from Gare du Nord, we planned our route so that we would pass by Notre Dame and get a good taste for Paris at night. Although it was a very long walk, we were able to take our time and incorporate a bit of lost wanderings along the way. We discovered that if we got lost, we could reliably wander for 20-30mins without traveling too far from where we originally lost our way (we relied on this technique several times throughout the duration of the trip).

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame was beautiful at night and since it was only a few days before Christmas, there was a lovely Christmas tree lit u in front of the famous cathedral. Eventually we arrived at our lodgings in Paris which were unconscionably small but we felt was a great representation of how much Parisians prefer (or limited in) their lodgings.

We were spending 2 nights in Paris which meant that we, finally, did not have to lug our backpacks around with us for one day. The following day, December 22, we would spend waking around Paris with no more than our moneybelt and some odds and a small carrying bag. Instead of trying to do too much the first night in Paris, we thought it better to pace ourselves and decided our first night would be quiet and simple. After getting ourselves oriented at our lodgings, we set out to grab dinner and walk some of the Parisian streets at night.

Dinner, 12/21

Dinner, 12/21

Unfortunately, I am “food special”. This rare and brutal disorder means that I am not particularly adept at deciding what food to order at restaurants. As Bonnie points out, I am heavily reliant on menus with pictures to help me determine what looks appetizing or not. When we finally settled on a restaurant to eat at on our first night in Paris, I decided I would pick something that sounded inscrutably French. I picked the roasted duck and foie gras. To those readers who just gasped reading this, yes, I feel your pain (but only in retrospect). At the moment I did not know what I was ordering. I had never eaten duck before so I thought I ‘d try that. Bonnie ordered an egg on a baguette with a side salad.

Fortunately, my palette did not desert me and I was quickly turned off by the foie gras (which I mistook as some sort of weird cheese). It was only later that Bonnie admitted that she knew what foie gras was but did not want to dissuade me from being adventuresome or expanding my horizons. This particular horizon though was not one which I intend to expand.

We returned to the apartment for the night and set our alarms sufficiently early (6am) to get a good start on the day.

Day 4: “Queuing in Paris” (12/22)

Pont des Arts

Pont des Arts

The 6am alarm came and went. So did 7am. In a similar fashion, 8am and 9am went whooshing by. As it turned out, 10am was the magic number and we eventually rose slowly for the day’s activities. We plotted our trajectory through the mean Parisian streets, making our way across Pont des Arts and towards the Louvre. We spent roughly 1 and 1/2 hours waiting in line to enter the Louvre but were tremendously overwhelmed by the vastness of its collection. It truly is a massive museum that probably needs an entire 8-10 hour long day to see everything. We spend 4-5 hours there and walked briskly around around pointing out very impressive paintings, sculptures, or other artifacts.

Aux Ministeres

Aux Ministeres

After leaving the Louvre, we made our way down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe (a famous touristy destination).  From the Arc, we made our way to the Eiffel Tower, a much less well known but equally touristy type building. Through the milling crowds, we wove our way to our true end destination, Aux Ministeres (a so-so bar which happened to be open during along a long elliptical route back home). Unfortunately, their mediocrely-renowned kitchen was closed for the night so we were besmirched to only order a few drinks with a small plate of peanuts (a fine Parisian delicacy).

After leaving Aux Ministeres, we found a lovely American-themed restaurant to grab a couple burgers from. Bonnie had a cheesecake which she claimed was the best she had ever had. I could not deny this assertion as it was quite good and I was not sure how extensive her cheesecake experience had been.

Day 5: “On the way to Zurich” (12/23)

We left our Parisian lodgings early on December 23 and made our way to Gare de Lyon. While we had reserved our seats, we were not yet adept on reading our train tickets and ended up sitting in the wrong seats twice before finally determining which seats were actually ours. The train ride was roughly four hours and we were lucky to be in 1st class (which gets a full meal if you’re traveling non-stop during particular segments of the day).

Outside the rail station in Zurich.

Outside the rail station in Zurich.

We arrived in Zurich in the early afternoon. I withdrew some Swiss Francs (since Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union) from an ATM and we made our way to our lodgings. Our host was not in town so she left a key hidden for us. While this would seem a bit sketchy in most cities, Zurich is utterly picturesque. The roads and sidewalks were spotless, the people were (generally) friendly, and the air was fresh. After a couple days in Paris (which was perpetually overcast), Zurich’s nice blue skies set a nice contrast with Paris. Another, but unpleasant, contrast was how much more expensive Zurich was. For dinner that night in Zurich, we looked around for a decent place to eat but settled on what appeared to be a chain restaurant which served various sandwiches, burgers, and pizza. We both ordered the cheapest thing on the menu (personal pan pizzas) which were $20 each. Ouch.  Surely Zurich beauty is matched only by how expensive it is.

Walking to our lodgings.

Walking to our lodgings.

Since we were only spending one night in Zurich, we did not get the opportunity to see or do much. We ended up only walking the riverfront before turning in for the night. Although we would’ve liked to do more in Zurich, particularly to see the beautiful mountains which surround Zurich, we enjoyed our brief stay in the city. The next day’s traveling was to make up for our short stay in the alpine Zurich.

Day 6: “Wow.” (12/24)

Day 6 was incredible. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable days of our trip. Not because of any one location but actually, in fact, because of our traveling from Zurich to Vienna.

See, the amazing thing about Switzerland is the Alps. And the Swiss know this. The rest of the world knows this. And the Swiss know that the rest of us know. We know that they know, also. In a situation like that, what do you think they’d do? They’d build their trains with that in mind!

The trains that run through the Alps from Zurich to Vienna have enormous windows on either side so that you can enjoy utterly picturesque views.

The train ride was astonishing from start to finish. Our train departed the station and skirted Lake Zurich before making its way through the Alps. I should just shut up now and let you enjoy some of the pictures.

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Day 7: “The Cold!” (12/25)

I skipped the end of Day 6 intentionally because it was crap compared to the train ride from Zurich to Vienna. Otherwise, I would have had to title Day 6, “Wow… then, brrr.” But let me just catch you up on what happened: We arrived in the late afternoon (around 5:30pm) in Vienna at the Wien Westbahnhof train station and were immediately braced by a cold wind. The wind probably wasn’t too bad but the buildings seemed to turn the streets and sidewalks into wind tunnels making an already cold day even colder.

We set to finding our lodging (off Mariahilfer Strabe) first thing and walked straight there. It was a brief walk (maybe 5-10 mins) but, with the cold wind blasting into us, a bit miserable compared to the preceding hours we spent in silent reverie on the train. Our host was a bit late to show up but he was nice and courteous nonetheless. He showed us the place but had many house rules (don’t use that switch, leave your shoes here, keep drinks away from this carpet, do not open that door, etc.). We’re not barbarians but apparently he suspected we might be.

Once we had our lodging situation figured out, we decided to go out and see what might be available for dinner. Since it was Christmas Eve, a lot of places were closed and it was already getting late. Furthermore, there were some random people walking around. I wouldn’t say “shady”, but it certainly felt a bit ominous walking around empty streets, all the storefronts darkened, leaning into a chilling wind, and have a random stranger eye you from a distance.

In the end, we settled on getting dinner at a Chinese restaurant close to our lodging. Very unlike Zurich,  the whole dinner (including some beers) was very cheap! I can’t remember exactly, but I would guess it may have been 10 USD for both our dinners. So cheap, in fact, that I thought I had been charged incorrectly or that something was wrong with my order. Nope! Just goes to show how much cheaper (or more expensive) some places are compared to others. This was, as we later learned, foreshadowing of things to come!

So, on to Day 7…

Christmas Day! We slept in a bit, ate some leftovers and some snacks we had with us, and set off to find a Christmas market! We headed off down Mariahilfer Strabe, away from the station (heading northeast). Again, the streets appeared to be largely empty and quiet until we arrived at the Museumquartier (the place with all the museums). Although not a bustling metropolis like Paris there were a few people out wandering in the plazas, celebrating the holidays together.

We made a beeline for anything that could possibly resemble a Christmas market until we found one in the Maria Theresien Platz between the Naturhistorisches (natural history) and the Kunsthistorisches (art history) museums. There were roughly 3 dozen or so stands that lined the walkable areas of the plaza filled with the shuffling and talking people. The stands sold everything from trinkets, candles, toys, clothing, and food and beverages.

Bonnie and I decided, in the spirit of Christmas, that we’d each take 20 euros from our stash, split up, and get each other some random gifts. We split up and I dashed around looking for the coolest and best presents my 20 EU could buy so as to show Bonnie I loved her more than she loved me. Both of us rushed around, spiritedly, sometimes encountering each other in the crowds of people, hiding the fact that we may have spotted a stand with a particularly interesting trinket, putting our best poker faces on, and then losing each other again the crowds.

Eventually we met back at the center of the plaza and presented each other with the gifts we had gotten each other. After reviewing the presents together, we determined that the quality of choices we had each made resulted in a draw — we both loved each other equally as much, apparently (although I would insist I loved her more for the rest of the day).

We grabbed some fresh, deliciously warm gluehwien that came in a funny little mug shaped like a boot and took off walking around the rest of the museumquartier and onto the Heldenplatz, through the Volksgarten, and around some governmental buildings, the opera house, and past the Universitat Wien (University of Vienna).

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We had an early lunch in a local restaurant (making sure to avoid anything that looked too touristy or plain) and had a nice lunch. The service was a bit slow but the food was delicious!

Eventually, we headed back to the apartment and gave our families a call! We managed to video chat with both my side and Bonnie’s side of the families, mentioning the gifts we got ourselves at the Christmas market, and what we’d seen that day.

After the video chats, we decided to take a brief nap before heading back out. Our final goal for the rest of the day was to go see St. Stephan’s Cathedral and check out Heiner Cafe (a famous chocolates store) that a friend told us about. St. Stephan’s Cathedral was pretty incredible, beautifully lit and the inside (which we briefly went into) was breathtaking. Both the interior and exterior are very gothic in style — one feels immediately transported back to medieval Europe standing in there.

Unfortunately, Heiner Cafe was closed for the holidays!

Day 8: “You can’t sit here, sir.”(12/26)

We left our apartment early to make sure we knew which train we’d need to be on for our travel to Budapest. We arrived early at Wien Westbahnhof station, grabbed some breakfast, and hoped onto our train with plenty of time to spare.

Since we were developing quite a track record of sitting in the wrong seats or on the wrong train, we thought it senseless to let such a record go to waste. That’s why we seated ourselves in the business-class car on our train from Vienna to Budapest. Let me tell you, it was delightful while it lasted. They had flat panel TVs that displayed the speed at which the train was traveling, the chairs were in this little private alcove, and spacious leather seats. I think it was only when our personal steward took our orders for complimentary alcoholic beverages and snacks that I got a nagging twitch that perhaps we were seated incorrectly (again).

So after apologizing and paying for our complimentary food and beverages, we moved to where the plainfolk sit. The rest of the ride was still enjoyable (though not quite like the trip from Zurich). The train had to make numerous stops along the way to Budapest. In one stop, Hegyeshalom, I started to notice some snow flurries in the air and I leaned over to Bonnie who had dozed off to say, “it’s snowing”. She smiled at me. “This is the first time I’ve seen falling snow”, I added. So she took a photo of me.

We arrived in Budapest and my excitement over seeing snow quickly faded. There was not a single  bit of snow to be seen in Budapest. While it remained as cold as in Vienna, it was less windy with clear skies. We walked to our lodging for the night and met with our host. Our lodging was very quaint. Despite being small, it certainly had an authentic eastern European feel to it. It felt “lived in” and pleasant.

After spending an hour unwinding, watching some of the local TV which contained some American shows hilariously dubbed in Hungarian, we made our way north to the Danube stopping along the way at another Christmas market to buy some local stew which was fantastic despite being a bit on the salty side.

We walked the boardwalk along the Danube and eventually crossed the famous Chain Bridge (the first permanent bridge across the Danube) from the Pest to the Buda side of the Danube. We took the lift up to Buda Castle which provided an incredible view of the Pest side of the city. We headed back down to the waterfront in time to grab a seat aboard one of the brief waterfront cruises where we got some excellent shots.

We wrapped up the night by going to a fancy restaurant. They had their own harpsichord player, for god’s sake! Despite how fancy it was, the cost of the dinner was incredibly reasonable. Another sign that this part of Europe is much cheaper than others.

Before getting back home, we decided to stop by a famous “ruin pub” for a couple drinks before sacking out for the night. The beer was tolerable but cheap, the service miserable despite there being only 3 other patrons, but this was slightly offset by the interesting aesthetics of the pub itself. 4 out of 10. Would not recommend.

Day 9: “Goodbye, Budapest. Hello, Kinder Eggs!” (12/27)

Before we could leave Budapest, we had to procure tickets. Even though we had a Eurorail pass, we still had to make reservations to take the train to Prague. Walking into the ticket area felt like a timewarp back to 1960s Cold War Hungary. A dozen or so windows spanned the length of a long wood, heavily graffiti’d counter. The waiting area appeared to be under a perpetual state of construction for the past several decades — there were pillars erected in the hall which seemed like they should’ve been temporary if it were for the massive, heavily repainted steel braces and bolts wrapped around them.

We waited like many good communists probably had on our number to be called. After waiting for roughly an hour or so, we eventually got called and again my mind did a timewarp. The clerk was using an old dot-matrix printer and what looked like an 80’s era desktop computer. We eventually procured our tickets and paid a few Hungarian Forints for our tickets and made our way to a bench to sit and wait until our train arrived.

The trip leaving Budapest would have been otherwise entirely uneventful if it weren’t for the Kinder Eggs that were being sold at a small shop within Keleti station. We left the station mid-morning and spent most of the day stopping and starting at a various stations before eventually arriving late in Prague.

The sun was already down and the ground entirely snowed over. Bonnie and I spent a while trying to get our bearings and figure out which way our lodgings were. Our sense of being lost was compounded by time constraints. We arranged to meet our host by a certain time which did not leave us much time to make it from the station to our destination. A combination of this time constraint plus being first time visitors to Prague plus being generally freezing cold eventually led us to hailing a taxi.

The taxi driver seemed very confident that he knew the way and took off immediately, swerving rapidly down various roads. Which was odd because we had not given him the full details of where we needed to be before he took off down the road. Right, left, right, right, right…

“Did we just do a loop?” 

“No, we are good. Your place is up ahead.”

Right, left, left, left.

“I’m pretty sure we already passed that place…”

“No, right here. You see.”

So eventually we made it and, frankly, I didn’t mind paying for the extra long taxi ride if only for the sake that the car was mercifully heated. We paid our driver plus a fair tip which he seemed a little startled (and a little too grateful) to receive and made our way up to the third floor of an inconspicuous looking apartment building.

We were greeted by an older lady (who happened to be a friend of the property owner) who did not speak much English but we made do with various gestures and facial expressions. The lodgings were small but tidy. As was the case in each of our previous places, this one had its own idiosyncrasies. Those in the neighboring apartments a floor up had an excellent view of our toilet — perhaps it is culturally appropriate to keep track of your neighbors bowel movements in the Czech Republic, I thought.

After spending so much time traveling that day, we were a bit too restless and decided to brave the weather to find dinner. We went to a really nice, trendy restaurant that was, interestingly, done in 1920s art deco Americana style.

The food was delicious and the staff very nice and courteous. With my order of ribs, they provided a small bowl of warm water so that I could clean my hands with. Instead, I proceeded to eat them with a fork and knife.

For dessert Bonnie ordered a wonderful pineapple “ravioli” stuffed with mascarpone, topped with raspberry sorbet. Divine.

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There were a few other patrons there (mostly young Czechs) but while we were there a large group of Americans arrived. It is always interesting to hear a familiar accent when you’re perpetually surrounded by unfamiliar languages.

After dinner, we made our way to a small grocery store and secured a few provisions for breakfast as well as snacks for the following day’s adventures.

Day 10: “Prague (aka, why did they build that ugly tower?)” (12/28)

We awoke lazily, made a small breakfast, and secured our snacks in some carry bags for the day ahead. Without much of a schedule, we headed to the tall hill visible from our lodgings, which as it turns out, was the location of the National Monument of Vitkov, home to an enormous equestrian statue.

A steep walking path leads up the hill to a lovely monument and museum and an even more lovely view of the Czech Republic’s greatest cultural treasure, the Žižkov Television Tower.

The National Monument of Vitkov was closed due to the proximity to the holidays so we enjoyed a brisk walk around the statue and building before descending towards the city. As we entered the “downtown” city area, the flow of tourists was chaotic between the alleys and streets. We felt as though we were swimming, being pushed along by the current of tourists squeezing through the narrow streets.

We emerged into an open area in Old Town, where a lot of the Gothic architecture becomes more apparent, and laid sight on the esoteric and arcane looking Astronomical Clock, a common tourist destination, clashing weirdly with the dark and brooding local architecture. It is as if the Clock was an impromptu conjuration from some other, distant space and time… But, who cares?

We had a modest lunch before following the crowds beneath the Powder Tower and across the Charles Bridge whereupon we were hit by a brisk, cold wind. Despite the chill, street vendors and tourists lined the sides of the Charles Bridge to take in the view of the Vltava river and an unobstructed view of the buildings along the river.

Day 11: “Leipzig Winter Wonderland” (12/29)

Day 12: “Berlin: The Long Walk ” (12/30)

Day 13: “Crowds”  (12/31)

Day 14: “Aftermath” (1/1)

Day 15: “Heads Up, Anne Frank!” (1/2)

Day 16: “Fish & Chips” (1/3)

Day 17: “Well, that whole European-trip-thing just happened.” (1/4)

FINAL THOUGHTS

It almost goes without saying (if you read the above) that we thoroughly enjoyed our trip. We had a lot of great experiences. Even those which weren’t so great added to the sense of adventure.

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to backpack through Europe. Some of it is probably exceedingly insightful and knowledgeable. However, if you read the above and thought our trip gave you some ideas or was interesting, I just want to share a few things we picked up along the way.

  1. Preparation. In retrospect, I think we probably over-prepared. However, it made us feel a lot more confident that our trip would be successful. Yet, there’s a balance to be struck between having a regimented schedule and more flexibility to go see something spontaneously. If you know yourself well, you should know what that balance should be like for you.
  2. Relax. You’re on vacation. Relax. Do not get upset when plans do not work out or if you have issues. You should be having fun and enjoying yourself. Do not let yourself get stressed out over little things (or even big things).
  3. Don’t buy that. Just like anywhere else, there’s a lot of touristy crap that is sold. Yes, even in Paris. In fact, especially in Paris. You might be tempted to buy that cool little trinket that looks native but it’s probably made in China. Rather, spend your money on experiences. Go to a nice restaurant, or take a brief river cruise, or go someplace interesting. You’ll get 10x more out of every dollar you spend by doing this. Sure, buy a memento, but don’t buy everything that sells itself as a memento.
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