Prague

When I left the US, the only city in Central Europe I thought I had a reasonable chance of reaching was Prague in the Czech Republic.  It would take me off my track of Denmark to Germany to France to Spain, but I wanted to experience more than just Scandinavia and Western Europe.  So I left my hostel in Berlin and headed back to the bus station I had arrived at a week earlier.  I bought a seat on the next bus to Prague and I definitely had this sense that I was entering a more interesting part of the journey.  Finding English speakers would be tougher, and navigating my way around might be more daunting.  I was arriving in Prague after dark as well which concerned me a little, but turned out to be a non-issue.  Although I didn’t care much for Prague at first, the city really grew on me.  The thing that kept coming to mind when walking around Prague was just how ridiculously scenic the city is.

So the Czech Republic furthered the education I had in Berlin around the Cold War.  The country used to be Czechoslovakia, and was a combination of what is now two countries… Czech Republic and Slovakia.  It suffered under Nazi occupation during WWII, and ended up in the Soviet slice of the pie after the war.  Technically, the Soviets liberated Czechoslovakia, but the whole way Nazi Germany was divided up was decided in the final months of WWII as Germany was losing the war.  The Soviet Union brought communism and a state controlled economy to the country.  There were bouts of revolutionary activity over the decades of communist rule, but it wasn’t until the USSR fell that Czechoslovakia gained democracy.  This was actually relatively peaceful at that point, and is thus referred to as the Velvet Revolution.  Since the country consisted of two diverse ethnic groups and languages… Czechs and Slovaks, it just became a matter of time before they split.  Once again, this was peaceful, and since the early 1990’s, we now have the Czech Republic and Slovakia.So Prague is the capital of the country.  The old square pictured above draws the most crowds and is probably what a lot of people from the US would consider a classic European city centre. I see a lot of squares similar to this these days, but the one in Prague has been my favorite.Just about anywhere you start wandering around the main city of Prague you see streets like this…

One of the main attractions in the Old Town Square is the astronomical clock.  It was built in 1410 and is the third oldest clock in the world, and the oldest that actually still works.  On every hour, a crowd gathers below the clock to watch the little show it puts on.  The doors at the top open, and marienettes inside spin and walk around.  A little skeleton man rings a bell.  A trumpet is played at the top of the tower, and the tourists applaud.  Yeah, it’s a very touristy thing, but if you happen to be wandering by five minutes before the hour, it’s worth sticking around.I was a bit put off by the volume of tourists my first day, and I know that sounds silly because I’m essentially a tourist as well.  Backpackers like to think of themselves as travelers, adventurers or vagabonds and slightly better than the fanny pack, giant camera toting people on “holiday”.  We stay in hostels or couchsurf instead of hotels.  We take cheap buses or trains rides to our destinations instead of flying.  We ride public transport instead of taxis.  We walk around a lot more and avoid “hop-on, hop off” bus tours.  We typically dress in normal clothes and blend in with “the locals”.  However, at the end of the day, we’re temporary vistors who don’t speak the language or know all the customs, so we’re tourists.

Some gratuitous pictures of Prague’s beauty…

Every little cobblestone, street light, door and window seems to have been arranged to maintain this perfect ambiance of warmth and charm.  I took several evening walks to see as much as possible.  Sometimes with people I met that day and sometimes alone.

As with Berlin, I found plenty of beautiful Fall scenery to take in as well.

So I went on a paid castle tour which I kind of hate doing, but it was worth it for the people I met and had drinks with afterwards.  Honestly, I don’t remember much about what our tour guide said.  The castle is more of a complex or compound of buildings, and not an actual castle you enter through a drawbridge or something.  There’s a giant gothic style church which is actually only one hundred years old.  The tour took us across the Charles Bridge which is around 600 years old.

The bridge is filled with buskers, sketch artists and people selling various crafts and jewelry.  I tried imagining what someone from the 16th century would think seeing all those tourists and vendors clogging the bridge.  There are some really incredible views on the way to the castle.The highlight of the tour was afterwards when some of us joined our guide Lauren for drinks at this award winning brewery located in a monastery on the castle grounds.  Lauren was from Minneapolis and had been living in Prague for a couple years.  She was doing an internship, and had another six months or so left before she would leave.  I also met this couple from England and we all had a good chat.  After a couple hours, some of us were not content with calling it quits for the day, so a few of us joined Lauren for a walk back into the main town.  We passed one of her favorite pubs on the way and we stopped in to have another round of awesome Czech beer.  We exchanged travel stories and I enjoyed hearing about Lauren’s life as an expat and her take on Prague.  She invited us along to her friend’s photography exhibit which turned out to be really eye opening.  It was in this old church, and was about the persecution of the Roma people.  I thought of Prague to be a very progressive society, but there’s a great deal of racism directed towards the Roma.  The photographer had spent several months living amongst the Roma and most of the photos just showed scenes of daily life.  Along with the photos were stories of verbal and physical attacks, efforts to keep the Roma uneducated and institutionalized obstacles to finding work.  I was kind of familiar with the Roma situation in Europe, but just surprised a big city like Prague would be guilty of such behavior.  All in all, the whole day was really fun and educational, and I enjoyed the randomness of jumping around from place to place.

For accommodations, I stayed in two hostels in Prague… three nights each.  The first one was kind of lame, but the second was really awesome.  If you’re backpacking through Europe and find yourself in Prague, I totally recommend the Art Hole hostel.  Really chill vibe there, and definitely felt like someone’s home and not a hotel.  I’ll be staying at places like this from now on.  I met people to hangout with and aslo scored the bottom bunk, yet again…

The Couchsurfing community in Prague is good too.  I found someone organizing a hike in the woods outside of town.  I had to take one of the metro trains to the very last stop at the edge of Prague to reach the meeting point.  The meetup that day was a good mix of other travelers, expats, and a few Czechs.  The organizer took us on this hike which felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.  It was a good, and then we finished the day at this brewery.  More great Czech beer.  I was glad I made it out of the city for at least one day.  I got some exercise, met some interesting people, and made it to a Czech brewery way off the beaten trail.

Like I was saying, Prague ended up growing on me, and I’m really happy I stayed an extra few days.  Some people complain about the volume of tourists, but there’s a reason for that.  The city is crazy beautiful.  Plus, all you really have to do is get out of the main squares if you’re looking for a more “authentic” experience.  I’ve been to several European cities with old buildings, cobblestone streets, and old world charm, but Prague is the best in my book.  I stayed in a cool hostel, met some fun people to hangout with, saw plenty of the city, and even managed to get out of town for a nice hike in the woods.  The Czech beer is great, and fairly cheap if you don’t buy it in a tourist trap spot like the main square or restaurant on the castle grounds.  I’m sure I’ll be back.

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Berlin, Germany

So after a lonely four days in Hamburg, I had a complete 180 experience in Berlin.  I found people to hangout with, but also really got into the whole culture and history of the city.  I can’t recall being in a place where in my lifetime such radical change had taken place.  I was a freshman in high school when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down.  I remember wondering at the time what Germany had to do with the Soviet Union.  Why was there such a difference between East and West Germany?  Why did they build a wall separating the city?  It’s all in Berlin, and really the last 20 years have been the final recovery from World War II.

Wikipedia is better at telling the post WWII history of Berlin, but basically, Nazi Germany was carved up by the Allies after WWII.  The US, Great Britain, France and Russia each had their slice.  For some reason, Berlin was divided between a US controlled sector in West Berlin that was surrounded by a Soviet sector referred to as East Berlin.  The idea was that the city would be reunited, but the Cold War prevented that.  Due to massive brain drain from East to West in the 1950’s, the Soviet Union built the Berlin Wall in 1961.  For 28 years, the city was a depressing place for all who lived there.  People died trying to cross the border simply to see family.  All sorts of tricks and tactics were used by East Berliners to get to the West.  By the Fall of 1989, the USSR was losing it’s grip over surrounding territories it held under its communist regime.  Without that backing, the authorities of East Berlin relented to public sentiment, and the Wall came down and we have those iconic images.

German reunification was underway after that, and the capital of Germany was moved back to Berlin from Bonn.  I wasn’t sure what I would see in the former East Berlin part of the city.  I imagined a bunch of depressing Soviet era buildings and sad neighborhoods.  I was quite wrong.  East Berlin has become the most vibrant part of the city in my opinion.  Grant it, I was only there for a week, but I spent most of my time in this area and walked around a lot.  I heard from a local that the energy of the West moved East after the Wall fell in the late eighties.  It was really eye-opening.  Since 1989 when the Wall fell, the city has undergone a massive transformation.

Pariser Platz… the US and French embassies are here.  It’s also a major tourist destination and starting point for a lot of tours.

Section of the Berlin Wall still standing as a reminder.In places where the Wall was completely torn down, stone pavers mark its former location.An old church.  I can’t remember the name, but it’s in the Museum Island area.  There’s a plaza in front with a big lawn.  Loads of people were hanging out on the grass, it looked like a great place to chill for a couple hours.
Checkpoint Charlie.  This was one of the most famous checkpoints when crossing from West to East Berlin.  Facing the East side (former Soviet controlled) is a large photo of one of the last US soldiers to work the checkpoint.Facing the West is one of the last Soviet soldiers who guarded entry into the East.
The only guards there now are actors where for 2 euros will let you take a picture with them.
This is the square where in the early years of Hitler’s reign a massive book burning took place.
Alexander Platz.German History MuseumAltes MuseumThe walking tour I did took us past the Holocaust Memorial.  This particular one is specifically a memorial to the six million jews murdered during WWII.  There are no plaques, signs or engravings on any of the stones.  Its design is left to the visitors interpretation.  The stones all have the same length and width, but vary in height and angle.  One view is that the stones represent the stacks of bodies.  Another is that they represent all the different types of people… men, women, children, old, young, strong, weak, sick and healthy who were killed.
The stones get taller as you descend into the memorial.  The lack of names on the stones give you this sense of how the Nazi’s just saw all jews in the same way.  The ordered nature also reminds you that this was planned genocide.  

All throughout Germany, there are these constant reminders of what happened during WWII.  Some of the memorials pay tribute to the Soviet and Allied forces that lost their lives in the effort to defeat the Nazi’s.  There’s definitely a deep sense of remorse in Germany for what happened, and the events should never be forgotten.  One person even told me that no one knows or is taught more about what happened in WWII than Germans.

On to a more positive note…one-third of Berlin is green space, for example parks or recreation areas.  Scattered throughout the city are smaller, but in the middle of the city is Tiergarten Park.  I had some awesome cool and sunny Fall weather that day and took all of these.

I only had one day where it was cloudy and rainy, so I went to the German History Museum.  The museum covers 900 years of the area’s history, but I was mainly interested in WWI through the Berlin Wall.  These were some of the items that I found the most interesting…

Hitler’s desk

Piece of the Berlin Wall.  This is a Western facing side as it was possible to just walk up and spray paint it in front of the guards.  Not so much luck on the Eastern side.  There was something like a 30 meter “death strip” just on the other side of the wall where you could be shot.The Trabi was the car of East Germany.  You put your name on a list, and in about 10 years, you get one from the state.  It was made of a plastic unibody so the Soviets didn’t have to import US steel.  The car was a real turd, but there was one in mint condition at the museum.  I didn’t believe it was plastic until I knocked on it.

I couchsurfed in Germany with someone that I met in Iceland which was cool.  My host Brian is from Ireland and we hung out a couple days in Reykjavik.  Brian is working while traveling and lives in each place for a month or two.  He has been on the road for a year and a half.  People tell me they envy me for my travels, but I envy Brian’s ability to do what he’s doing.  He has some friends who are musicians and we went to a couple live shows.  Really fun and I got to see some of Berlin’s night life, bars and neighborhoods I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.  

So that wraps up Germany for now.  Berlin really made up for the disappointing stay in Hamburg.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting Germany.  I was really curious to see some of the sites associated with WWII and the Cold War.  I wanted to see how the city had changed since the fall of the wall, and to get a sense of what life in East Germany must have been like.  The trip delivered.  It was a really excellent history lesson.  Berlin is a cool city, and I’m sure I’ll be back.  It’s one of the few cities I’ve been to that I could see myself living in.

Copenhagen, Denmark

In the house I grew up in Columbus, OH, we had a big picture on the wall behind the living room sofa.  I remember it being sort of impressionistic with colorful buildings, a canal and some old ships.  The inscription at the bottom said Copenhagen.  When I was planning my trip, I knew I’d have to make an effort to get there, and happy I did.

So I heard from a few Danish people that many Americans think Denmark is the capital of Sweden.  I felt so bad, and I feel an obligation to do my part to help clear this up.  Denmark is a sovereign country in Scandinavia along with Sweden and Norway.  This is their flag…Finland is sometimes thrown into the Scandinavia mix due to geographic location, but strictly speaking, it’s just those three countries.  Denmark is a constituional monarchy similar to the UK with all the real power resting with the prime minister.  It’s part of the European Union, but they do not use the euro which means they kept their currency… the Danish Kroner.I hear they’re quite proud of this fact now that euro is in trouble.  Copenhagen is the capital city of Denmark.  Stockholm is the capital of Sweden.

In the UK, I discovered a tourism company called Sandeman’s New Europe.  They offer “free” guided walking tours in English of several major European cities.  It’s actually donation based, and just about everyone gives something.  I usually tip the equivalent of five dollars since it’s a 3 hour tour that gives you loads of ideas for things to look into further.  You don’t need to register beforehand.  Just show up at the designated meeting point and tell them how you learned about the tour and where you’re staying.  I joined the Copenhagen group on my first full day in the city, and felt a lot better getting around afterwards.  Between the tour, and walking around on my second day, I took all of the following photos.

A characteristic of Copenhagen that really blew me away was the number of cyclists.  I’d say there are just as many bikes on the road as cars.  Scenes like this are quite common… just parking lots of bikes every where.  Really awesome to see.

I also made a brief visit to Christiania.  I was told not to take any pictures in this area and to watch myself due to its seedy nature.  I think the closest description in the US to this place is a hippy commune.  The area is known for its artists, libertarian views, and marijuana.  It started out as a very peaceful group, but I hear has acquired a criminal element in recent years.  The residents don’t consider themselves to be a part of the EU, and there’s even a sign saying “You are entering the EU” when you leave Christiania.  I wish I could have taken some photos because there was some cool artwork.  I felt a bit out of place walking through there without a big joint in my hand, though.  There are loads of police officers standing just outside the boundaries of Christiania, so I wasn’t really worried for my safety.

For my three nights in Copenhagen, I stayed in a small independently run hostel.  This is very different from the usual for me, but I think was good because I ended up meeting more people.  They had free yoga, but the space for that was under construction while I was there, so no yoga.  I wouldn’t have been able to wake up by 7:00 AM anyway to do it.  I loved the small cozy vibe of the place, but it felt a bit cramped at times.  The owner was really chill though, and I admired the fact she combined a cafe with her hostel.  Nice touch, however, the cafe also served as the common area and was crowded in the mornings and most evenings.  For beds, they had these cubby hole cubicle style beds.  Those are my legs.There were two dorm rooms in the hostel… mine had 8 beds and the other had 12 beds.  Each cubby hole had a curtain you could close to create a private space.

I had to climb up to my bed on those 2×4’s which made me feel like I was 12 years old.  Nothing like hostel life to make you feel young.

At this point, Denmark was just starting to reveal itself.  I broke away from my usual practice of only staying in hostels and actually Couchsurfed.  It was definitely a positive experience, and I’ll write about it in my next post.  I’ve been on the road for three and half months, but keep making changes and reevaluating things all the time.  Probably a good thing.

American Vagabond in London: Part 2

When I was in Washington, DC, one of my favorite aspects of the city had to be all the free museums.  London is the same way, and I think it makes a lot of sense for an international destination if they want to show off their history and culture.  As a budget traveler, they’re a very welcome sight, and I took full advantage of it.  According to Wikipedia, two of the four most visited museums in the world are located in London, and I went to both.

The British Museum

Shot of the grand hall shortly after entering.

I think if you only had time for one museum in London, this is the place you would have to visit.  It’s over 200 years old, and has a very extensive collection of items documenting just about all of human history.  One of the most popular attractions that has been at the museum for over a hundred years is a collection of Egyptian mummies and artifacts.

The Egyptian stuff is definitely cool, and draws a crowd.  However, my favorite piece in the whole collection would have to be the Rosetta Stone.

The stone contains a decree by a ruler of ancient Greece in 2nd century BC.  It’s written in three different scripts… Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Demotic (an Egyptian language used after Hieroglyphs) and ancient Greek.  When the stone was rediscovered in the late 1700’s, scholars knew ancient Greek quite well, but the Egyptian glyphs were still a mystery.  Using the Greek translation, and a lot of time and effort, the hieroglyphs were interpreted using this stone.  Now we can read all the writings on the pyramid and ancient Egyptian monuments and tablets.  Pretty incredible piece of history, and just mind blowing for me to be standing in front of it.  All of the scripts had to be painstakingly chiseled into the stone.  I wonder what happened if you made a mistake.

There’s also an extensive collection of items from ancient Greece, including pieces from the Parthenon, and dozens of statues.

My other favorite part of the museum was a section that used to be known as the King’s Library.  I think it’s just part of the British Library system now.  It has a collection of old books and statues.  I wanted to just sit and relax in there with a good book and a cup of tea.

There’s a lot of controversy around the British Museum because some items are perceived to be “stolen” from other countries.  During the 1800’s when a lot of the artifacts were being uncovered, laws protecting antiquities really didn’t exist like they do today.  The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has tried unsuccessfully to get the Rosetta Stone back several times.  They even requested the stone be loaned to them for 3 months. The British Museum made a full scale replica of the stone, but that’s as good as they’re offering.  All in all, obviously a world class museum despite the controversy.  Sometimes it’s easy to get tired of seeing museums when you’re traveling, but this one is an exception.

National Gallery of Art

This art museum is situated at the top of Trafalgar Square.  Unfortunately, they don’t let you take photos inside, so I had to go to the internet to get the pics below.  I hate using other’s material in my blog, but I really enjoyed walking around the museum, so wanted to document the memory.  Really beautiful and peaceful inside that place with a lot of well known works of art… Rembrandt’s, Monet’s, Van Gogh’s and even a work by Leonardo Da Vinci.  Awesome museum, and a nice cafe inside too.

Natural History Museum

Unlike an art museum, or museum of human history, natural history museums document the history of our natural world… climate, geology, oceans, and all the creatures that occupy the planet.  I’ve been to a couple of these on my trip, but something about this one makes it special.

The building itself is a unique place and definitely sets the tone for the rest of the museum.  The inside is even more stunning.  It’s like a cathedral of science.

They have good collection of dinosaur bones, but I don’t think it was anything more than what I’ve seen in the Carnegie Museum, Smithsonian or Natural History Museum in NYC, but it definitely has some of the best atmosphere for viewing such a collection. 

Tate Modern

Travelers will tell you one of the best things about solo travel is that you learn a lot about yourself.  I’m positive that I don’t care for modern art.  That sounds rather unintelligent, and I realize modern art relates more to the world I live in today, but it just doesn’t do anything for me.  A lot of people will tell you to go to the Tate, but for me, it was kind of meh.  Give me a Renaissance painting, an impressionistic landscape, or an ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite any day over modern art.

I also went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (Also just called V&A).  It’s a museum dedicated to the decorative arts.  I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s cool, and right across from the Natural History museum.  It was my last full day in London, and it was raining when I went.  I was tired, so I just kind of went through the place quickly.  The courtyard and garden area was worthy of a snapshot.

Transportation in London

The Underground or Tube as most people call it, is London’s subway system.  It is a modern marvel of engineering.  Very extensive system that runs all over London.  It’s simple and documented with plenty of signage.  Transfers and exit points are well marked, and I don’t see how anyone who can read a tube map could get lost.  If you do, they have assistants in most stations to help with navigation or purchasing tickets.  I wanted to snap a few pics of the train and stations themselves, but there is a bit of paranoia around security in the UK as in the US.  So I was hesitant to take pictures.  I took the pic below in a rather stealthy way, so it’s not good.  What’s hilarious is that the photo contains the phrase that most people probably think of when riding the train… Mind the Gap.

The train is not level with the platform in most stations, so a kindly British gentlemen in a pre-recorded voice is constantly reminding you to “Mind the Gap”.   For my fares, I probably should have just bought a one-week pass, but I bought an Oyster Card instead on my first night after the plane arrived in Heathrow.  I ended up having to top it off a few times, which is a hassle, and I probably spent £5 more for my rides.

The cool thing about the Oyster Card is that once you reach the daily rate, you don’t pay any more.  I think the daily travel card is £7, so if you’re riding all over the city like I was, once you’ve used £7 of your card, the rest of your rides that day are free.  The Tube was one of the best public transit systems I’ve ridden.  I grabbed a pocket map on my first night and carried it around all the time.  It came in handy and was pretty beat up by my last day.

Hostel Life

Yet again, I stayed at a hostel and used CS to meetup with locals.  The hostel I stayed in was inexpensive, but felt a little dirty.  They didn’t have enough showers or bathrooms either in my opinion.  The benefit of a crappy hostel is that you don’t spent much time there, which makes sense when you’re in London.  I typically left by 9 or 10 in the morning and didn’t come back till 10PM or later.

I scored the bottom bunk again 🙂  I’ve been having good luck getting the bottom bunk lately.  However, on my last two nights, there was someone sleeping above me who snored like a hog.  I’ve learned there is a third universal truth in addition to death and taxes… there will be a snorer in your hostel room.

I’ll wrap-up London in a 3rd installment with some of my couchsurfing experiences.  I didn’t surf, but definitely met up with some locals.  I ended up having a pretty incredible Saturday when a series of spontaneous events emerged to form one of those perfect days.

Reykjavik Wrap Up

 Iceland made for an interesting and fun first stop overseas.  Iceland is known as a land of extremes because of its mix of glaciers and volcanos.  When I was traveling the US over the summer, I learned that Icelandair will fly into many destinations in Europe from the US with a free multi-day layover in Iceland.  So, I’m basically flying from New York to London, with a five day stop in Reykjavik.  It’s a great idea, because as a traveler, you get two destinations for the price of one, and Iceland gets your tourists dollars.  My trip here started out on a down note due to a lot of rain and trouble meeting people.  However, things turned around and I ended up having a great time.

When flying to Reykjavik, you actually arrive in Keflavik International Airport.  There’s a 40 minute bus ride into Reykjavik and I only learned of this a few days before arriving, so I was at least ready for it.  What did surprise me, however, was the currency conversion from US Dollars to Icelandic Krona.  According to google, it’s around 183 ISK to the dollar which is hilariously wrong.  It’s actually 120 ISK per dollar, and only 118 at the exchange place in the airport.  So instead of the bus costing around $12, it was actually closer to $20.

The bus ride into Reykjavik was very eerie with this sparse landscape of lava fields sprinkled with a few houses.  The lava fields have long since cooled and are covered in moss.  With the exception of some small mountains on the horizon, it’s actually really flat.  I definitely had this sense of “oh wow, where am I and what am I doing here”.  After arriving in Reykjavik, the shuttle dropped me off at my hostel.  This turned out to be one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in.  It’s called the Kex which means biscuit in Icelandic.  The place used to be a biscuit factory, and they even had some version of what used to be produced sitting out at breakfast.  I would totally stay here again if I come back to Iceland.

I love getting the lower bunk.  It’s not like when you’re a kid, and want the top bunk.  The lower bunk rules in the hostel.  I was in this little nook too and had a window.  I’ve found the hostel dorm rooms outside the US to be of mixed genders, but no one seems to mind.  There were some French girls in my section.

I was excited to finally be in Europe, but really bummed about the crappy weather.  The forecast was nothing but rain until my last day.  I couldn’t get into my room in the hostel till 2:00 PM, but I was able to have access to the common room and wifi.  They also let me store my big bag, so I wouldn’t have to lug it around all day.  My determination to not let the weather get to me, and the fact I had arranged to meet some other travelers from the couchsurfing website got me out the door.  A group of about 8 of us were supposed to show at a nearby cafe, but only one guy, Alex, from Austrailia showed.  I’m sure the rain kept people away.  Alex had been on the road for about the same time as me, and had already been through several stops in Europe that I’m hoping to see as well.  We traded some good travel stories and had some laughs over coffee and agreed to try and get the group to meetup again the following night.  Afterwards, I spent about an hour walking around in the rain by myself.  I was cold and wet after that, so not a fun day, and I was wondering if I should have chosen a shorter stay.

I had been walking around in the rain again that day, and was starting to feel like my trip there was a mistake, but that night things really turned around.  I met with a group of other travelers at a place across from the hostel.

There were two American girls, Alex (the Aussie from the day before), Brian from Ireland, and Martin from Iceland.  Brian had recommended this place since they had some cheap food options (well, cheap for Iceland).  That seemed to seemed to the trick in getting people out.  We had an awesome time swapping travel stories and ended up hanging out at Martin’s home for a while before heading out to a bar.  My stay in Reykjavik was all uphill after that night.  I snapped a photo of this fake NYC subway stop that night.  Made me laugh after being in NYC last week…

If you come to Reykjavik, there are a few destinations people say must be done.  However, you can’t get to these places without a car or pricey tour.  As a budget travler, I really had to be choosy.  Everyone talks about the Blue Lagoon, Northern Lights, and Golden Circle, but I’m limiting myself to one.  I chose to do the Golden Circle because it was the most bang for the buck… 9500 krona or about $78 for a day long trip into the mainland of Iceland.  It’s definitely a budget breaker, and I probably should have found some people to rent a car with.  However, the rain had cleared up early that day, and it turned out to be an enjoyable day.

The highlights of the Golden Circle tour include Glossfoss waterfall, Geysir, an old church ground area, and a geothermal power plant.  The scenery is amazing, and I was glad I made the trip out there.  It just wouldn’t have been the same if I had only stayed in Reykjavik.

On my final full day in Reykjavik, the sun was out, and it was a beautiful day.  I was finally able to walk around the whole downtown area and really enjoy Reykjavik without getting wet.  I met up with Brian again for coffee (the CS’er from Ireland), and we explored a lot of sites in Reykjavik.  Some highlights were the new Harpa concert and convention hall, the Pearl, and coastal views.  I’d love to upload those pics, but I’m doing this final write-up from a hostel in London with poor internet service .  I’ll try and add them later.

EDIT:  Finally have the bandwidth, so adding pics from final day in Reykjavik.

Overall, I once again found that staying for more than just a couple days in a place proved to be a good approach to my travels.  If I had stayed for just two days, like a lot of others, I would not have had a good memory of Iceland.  It was definitely worth the visit afterall.  It has beautiful scenery and a cool little town in Reykjavik.  However, it is really expensive, and you have to be careful to not go crazy and let yourself think those Kronas aren’t adding up.  The currency conversion error caught me off guard and didn’t help.  Brian pointed out I should just use my credit card for all my purchases no matter how small in order to get the best exchange rates.  He was right, because I’ve noticed on my credit card statements that recent purchases are getting 125 ISK to the dollar.  I’ll probably just have a small amount of the local currency on me going forward.  As for the language, it’s true what they say about English in Iceland… everyone speaks it.  However, you typically only hear it when it’s being spoken to you.  Not all signs are in English and most of the food in grocery stores isn’t either, so there’s a bit of fun in deciphering those things.

Twin Cities Surprise

Minneapolis turned out to be more fun than I thought. I mentioned a feeling of road weariness in my last post while I was in Vancouver.  Because of this, my plan for the Twin Cities was more sleep, less adventure and a ton of final prep for Europe.  I figured I’d get out to the famous Mall of America, but other than that, not much else.  However, the CS community had some fun stuff planned and I have to thank them for helping me have a great time in their city.  I still feel like I had enough downtime, though, so it was the best of both worlds.

So I spent the first two and half days sleeping late and hanging out in coffee shops mapping out potential paths through Europe and reading up on several different cities.  I also booked my hostels for the first couple weeks overseas, studied transit maps, and even downloaded a few phone apps that could be useful.  After a couple days of doing nothing but travel prep, I wanted to get out to a Twins baseball game.  I tried getting someone from the CS community to join me, but apparently the team is pretty awful this year, so no one was interested.  Instead, someone in the community messaged me about going to an event that was billed as one of the premiere events of the summer…the first ever Internet Cat Video Festival.

Yes, such a thing exists, and I was there.  I bunch of people from the Minneapolis CS group were there too, so I had plenty of company.  Everyone was really cool and friendly.  I guess people traveled from all over the country for this thing. They had around 5,000 people in attendence.  The organizers had spent months reviewing thousands of entries from all over the world.  “Cat”-egories were created, and top videos in each one selected for viewing.  There was even a famous internet cat named Lil’ Bub who flew out for the event.

I wasn’t familar with Lil’ Bub, but the FB page, and huge gathering around her told me of her importance in the feline community.  The one to two minute cat videos were great too, and the crowd really got into it with cheers, laughs, and lots of awwwing.  The top video was Henri 2, Paw de Deux.  It’s the high art of internet cat vids.  Afterwards, the surfers and I went out for pizza and beers, and I got to hear more about life in Minneapolis.  Fun times.

The next day turned out to be equally awesome when I went to the Minnesota State Fair with a couple local couchsurfers… Emily and Rachel.  Rachel had been living in Minneapolis for a few years, but Emily had just moved there a couple weeks prior.  It was my last day, and since I had checked out of the hostel, I had all my gear with me, and Emily was really cool to let me store my stuff in her car while we went to the fair.   This particular fair is famous for its “food-on-a-stick” theme, and not just the usual corn dogs…they get some funny things onto a stick, like spagetti and meatballs, casseroles (hot dish), and even beer (which I only heard about).  The weather was perfect, and I have to say they put on a pretty cool fair.  Emily, Rachel and I agreed to share our food so we could sample as many things as possible.

Rachel talked me into going on the big slide…

Between the food, rides, talent show and the company, it was another one of those days that makes the list of most memorable for the trip.  It was sad to depart, but it was getting late, and I had a bus to catch.  Rachel was kind of enough to give me a ride to my stop.  Couchsurfers just rock.

So, of course, I also went to the Mall of America.  The locals I met here hate it when you mention it, and for someone like me who sold most of his material attachments to travel, it was a little overwhelming to see all that stuff in one place.  I walked the whole thing, though, and it is enormous.  The artificial canyon was filled with every franchise business you can think of.  I think all the food courts alone woud fill a regular mall.  I had heard about the roller coaster in the middle of it, but it’s way, way more than that… it’s like a mini amusement park, complete with ferris wheel, log ride, merry-go-round and other rides.

The 30 ft lego transformer robot thing was freakin’ incredible.  I couldn’t believe something that size being made entirely out of legos.  If you can’t tell from the pics, it’s as tall as 3 floors of the mall.  I looked up the stats, and it’s estimated to be 6 tons and made of 2.8 million Lego bricks.

As has been the case lately, I stayed in a hostel.  It was the only one in Minneapolis, and it would seem the lack of competition allows them to get away with a pretty crummy hostel.  Everything except the kitchen had a general sense of being unclean.  Kind of felt like a homeless shelter, except I had to pay and they didn’t feed me.  It wasn’t the kind of hostel filled with young party kids, so that was nice as I was looking to relax. Other than that, I can’t say much else that’s good.

The public transit was really good in the city.  I rode the light rail and buses several times, including from the train station to the hostel, the MOA and State Fair.  Cheap, reliable, and got me where I needed.

All in all, I think I’ll need to come back to Minneapolis and couchsurf next time.  I met several really cool CS’ers here, and would love to hang out again… perhaps at their crash next year?

Random Thoughts, Portland, and Planning For Overseas

I’m entering my 8th week on the road.  At this point, travel life has become the new normal.  I enjoy and welcome the randomness that each day can bring.  Thoughts so far…

Overall

The trip has been nothing short of awesome.  It’s not possible to put it into words so I won’t try.  I have no regrets about leaving my old life behind for a period of time while I do this.    I’ve developed a sort of a pre-arrival routine for each new city where I start by researching some history and culture about my destination to get a sense of the place.  Next, I investigate the public transit maps, and try to determine what’s easily accessible and what’s not.  I read event pages and things-to-do lists looking for well known hot spots and places that would be cool to see.  I check out the Couchsurfing community group and activity pages to see what’s going on.  My basic formula is to try and maximize the experience for my budget and learn something new.

In order to save on accomodations, I stay in hostels and couchsurf… however, both of those have major advantages way beyond the cost savings.  For travel, I take buses and trains, not just within, but between cities.  (I shared a cab once in DC, and that’s the only taxi I’ve been in the entire trip.  I’m quite proud of that fact.)  For food, I eat out once or twice in each city, but most of my food is from grocery stores.  Once you remove the costs of flying, hotels, taxis, and eating out everyday and replace them with more everyday types of things, it becomes possible to travel for a month on what most people spend in a week of vacation.  I’m still probably spending more than I need.  I could camp, eat ramen noodles, or hitchhike between cities to cut expenses further.  I’ve met other travelers doing this, but it seems a bit extreme for me.

Hostels and Couchsurfing

The best description I ever heard for Couchsurfing is that it uses technology to facilitate real-life human interaction.  I couldn’t describe it any better than that.  I’ve had great CS experiences.  Seeing the city through the eyes of a local is always a treat.  However, sometimes, the people you stay with are busy, and don’t have time to show you around.  So that’s why I’ve also discovered staying in hostels can be just as good.  CS was never about a free place to stay for me.  It’s more about getting a local’s take on the location.  Take it from me, hostels are so cool, and if you mention that horror movie to me of the same name, I’ll kick you in the teeth.  I’ve met so many friendly and awesome people from other countries while staying in them.  I have a wealth of input from Europeans as to where I should go and things I should see when I get over there.  So, CS is great, but when you combine it with hostel living, you really get the most out of travel.

Europe is Coming

My last week in Columbus before starting the trip was filled with a lot of anxiety.  I knew I wanted to travel the world.  I made the necessary preparations, but the actual jumping out of the plane part was still coming fast.  Over the last 7 weeks, I’ve become accustomed to travel in the US, and feel very comfortable just picking up and moving week after week.  It feels quite normal to be honest.  My pending launch into Europe brings back similar anxieties, though.  I don’t speak the language in most countries I’ll be traveling in.  There are customs and cultures potentially very different from what I’m use to.  US dollars will be exchanged for pounds, euros and kroners.  Most intimidating of all is that I’ll be a foreigner, more vulnerable to my surroundings than I’ve been up to this point.  I’m really glad I took the time to travel the US first.  I feel it prepared me to be on the road, and adapt quickly to new surroundings.  Europe is just harder, but not all that different than what I’m doing now.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Portland

Portland is, frankly, just a really cool city.  I can’t think of any other way to describe it.  I would love living here.  For starters, it’s extremely bike friendly… the best I’ve seen so far.  Bike lanes are every where, drivers are courteous.  The light rail here even has hooks inside the train to hang your bike on while riding in order to minimize the footprint.  If you’re not biking, the public transit rocks too.  I rode the buses, MAX light-rail, and even the streetcar.  I didn’t have any issues getting around, and I went to places in all four quadrants of Portland at all times of the day and late at night.  Best of all for life here, the mountains and water are not far away, so there’s tons of scenic trails and adventurous climbing if you’re up for it.

I must also say, the couchsurfing community in Portland is THE best I’ve ever experienced.  It’s kind of hilarious I didn’t couchsurf here considering that.  I went to three CS meetups my first three days… Two were happy hour meetups, and the other was a  9.5 mile hike through the foothills of Mt Hood.  (That’s where those pics above are from).  The group is really cool and welcoming, and very, very active.  Impromptu meetups will bring out 15 or more people.

As for touristy stuff in Portland, I did the following…

Powell’s Books… quite possibly the biggest bookstore in the US if not the world.  It takes up a whole city block, so the pic below is like tip of the iceburg for the store.  I walked around for at least an hour in this labryinth of books.  What’s especially cool is that the place is packed with people, and most seem to be buying a book or two.  I’m more of an e-reader these days, but happy to see a thriving bookstore.

Voodoo Doughnuts… famous for their maple and bacon doughnut.  Sorry to my veggie brethren, but sometimes I suspend my vegetarianism when a local favorite demands that I do so.Old Town Pizza… supposedly haunted pizza place in the Old Town area (duh).  They brew their own beers like a lot of places in Portland.  I got a small pizza and didn’t see any ghosts, but I had couple pints of really good beer.  I had great beer every place I went here.

So that’s the status of things.  In other random news, I bought an iPhone 4S.  I got a crazy deal from my carrier to get one for only $140, and they’ll unlock it when I get overseas. I’ll be able to place a pay-as-you-go sim card from carriers in Europe.  They will also allow me to place my phone into a “seasonal stand-by” mode in the US which will suspend usage of it while traveling abroad.  Of course, that’s how it’s suppose to all work in theory.  I’ve been assured multiple times it will, but we’ll see.