Montag, 21. Januar 2008

European Roadtrip and Budapest

The day after Christmas (which we found out is 2nd Christmas here in Germany, and everything is still closed) I picked Sarah and Dana up at the Düsseldorf airport. Sarah is one of my friends from UVA and is teaching English in Russia for the year. Dana is one of her fellow English teachers and is from southern Illinois. They had flown in from a few days in Athens and we planned on hanging out in and around Germany and then going to Budapest, Hungary at the beginning of 2008. After dropping everything off at the house we went for a quick drive through Kaiserswerth, but since everything was closed there wasn’t too much to look at. We hung out for the rest of the night, watched Superbad, and planned a roadtrip.

On Thursday morning we woke up fairly early and jumped into the car (thanks for letting us use it, Tim and Mom) to begin our 2 day-5 country tour. We drove 5.5 hours to Paris, parked in an outer metro stop and took the train into Place de la Concorde. We took ourselves on a walking tour past the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and along the Seine to Notre Dame. We ran across a statue of Thomas Jefferson - can't seem to get away from him. We walked past “Shakespeare and Company,” the famous bookstore, and then grabbed dinner in the Latin Quarter. After dinner we explored more of the Latin Quarter at night, grabbed dessert (chocolate croissant for me!) at a bakery, and then made our way back towards Place de la Concorde via the Louvre. The Louvre is amazingly pretty at night, and what made it even better was that around 8PM the entire Eiffel Tower started glittering. We could see it across the Tuileries Garden. I didn’t know it did that?! It was great! We took the metro back to our car and had a very foggy drive towards Reims, the city we had booked a hotel outside of for the night. Has anyone ever stayed in a Formule1? It’s a cheaper Accor-owned hotel chain and was an experience in and of itself. We got there close to midnight, which meant that no employees were present anymore. I had to check us in with a credit card, get the code to the gate to let our car in, and use the code to get us into the room. It was perfectly clean and fine, but a little out of the ordinary. The bathrooms and showers were communal for each floor and could best be described as “space age.” The best part though was that it was only $30/night, which meant $10/person.

We woke up early again on Friday and drove in to Reims to see an impressive cathedral. We got back on the highway as the sun came up and went towards Luxembourg, Europe’s third smallest country, in a dense fog. Half of our reasoning for doing all this driving, aside from seeing some great European cities, was that we would see all of the countryside in between. Due to the fog, however, we couldn’t see more than 10 yards beyond the highway. Oh well. As soon as we entered Luxembourg I stopped to gas up the car. Apparently, Luxembourg’s fuel prices are among the cheapest in Western Europe, which is still unbelievably expensive in comparison to what we pay in the states. We arrived in Luxembourg City (pop. 80,000 – the largest city in the country), parked the car, and walked across the bridge to the old town. After the Middle Ages, fortified Luxembourg City was devastated and rebuilt more than 20 times in 400 years and became the strongest fortress in Europe after Gibraltar, thus its nickname “Gibraltar of the North.” The old, walled city is situated on a large cliff surrounded by river valleys and is known for its beautiful views. Unfortunately, the views were somewhat lost on our visit due to the winter fog. Luxembourg was surprisingly dead for a weekday. We didn’t see many people, open stores, or restaurants. We stopped at the famed “Oberweis” bakery, which was luckily open, for a good lunch and tea. I was hoping I would be able to use some of my German in Luxembourg, where there are three official languages – German, French, and Lëtzebuergesch, a mix of German and French. However, French seemed to be the accepted way to communicate with visitors. After lunch we grabbed some postcards and hit the road.

We drove towards Belgium, undecided as to which cities to stop in. We were thinking of 1-2 of the following: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. It all depended on the weather and how much time we made on the road. Belgium is a very interesting place, especially for its size. The southern part of the country, called Wallonia, is officially French-speaking. The northern part of the country, Flanders, is officially Flemish-speaking. There has been talk of making the linguistic divide an official border between two separate countries to ease tensions between the two areas. To make things even more difficult, some of the far eastern cantons are German-speaking. And Brussels, the capital, which lies in Flanders, is officially bilingual - Flemish and French. Talk about complicated. Aside from all of these complications the Belgians know how to do three things very well – waffles, chocolate, and beer. As we approached Brussels the weather started cooperating and we saw blue sky for the first time in I don’t know how long. So we decided to stop. We saw an impressive church and the famed Grand Place, Brussels central square, filled with Gothic architecture. We also saw Galeries St. Hubert, the shopping arcade that contains Neuhaus, the famous Belgian chocolatier and the place where pralines were invented. We grabbed some waffles on one of the many tiny streets surrounding Grand Place and then stopped in an English bookstore, where we bought a guide for Budapest and looked up some good places to try beer in Antwerp, where we had decided to stop next.

We arrived in Antwerp as it was starting to get dark. I didn’t know quite what to expect. Jenny had had a soccer tournament in Antwerp and came back with some not-so-good reports. But I wasn’t sure that she had made it to the city center, so I was optimistic. We made it to the main square in Antwerp and it was hopping! There was an ice rink in the middle of the square, surrounded by Christmas market stalls and stands selling food and Glühwein. There was music and lights everywhere. We soaked up the atmosphere in the square and smaller streets and found an out-of-the-way local place to grab a beer. We tried a local winter beer and it was great! We also seemed to be the only non-locals in the pub. Then we grabbed some currywurst and fries (my usual). On our way back to the main square we bought some real Belgian chocolate – the last thing on our list since we had already tried the waffles and beer. We jumped back in the car to head home. On the way back we spotted a large Church off of the side of the road somewhere in the Netherlands, so pulled off to check it out. It was in a quiet little Dutch village and was very cool to see.

On Saturday, surprise, surprise, we slept in. We watched “Bring It On” while waiting for the laundry and afterwards went into Düsseldorf with Laura and Jenny. Here's a pic of Sarah with the Mullin girls. The five of us took four bikes to the train station (meaning Laura and Jenny doubled up) and then took the train to Heinrich Heine Allee. We started out by shopping on Schadowstrasse and visiting Dunkin’ Donuts. It seems crazy that I can get Dunkin’ Donuts near my house in Germany, but not near my house in the US. Anyways, we continued the walking tour over in the Altstadt, by the river and the Rathaus before stopping for a dinner of Currywurst, Bratwurst and Pommes (fries). We tried a Pils (pilsner) at dinner and then wandered over to “Zum Schlüssel” to try some Alt (Altbier – the beer of Düsseldorf) at the only place that it is still brewed at in the Altstadt. Here's a pic of Sarah, Dana, and me. “Zum Schlüssel” was great because they had tables set outside – it doesn’t matter what the weather is, Germans still stand outside to drink their beer even in the middle of winter. As a joke our waiter kept trying to serve me Apfelschorle (carbonated apple juice) instead of a beer. He thought it was very funny. There seemed to be quite a few people out considering it was holiday time here in Germany. The line at the “Peter Pam” Discotheque across from us was down the street. After our drinks we took the train, and then the bikes, back to the house and watched “I Love New York” with Laura and Jenny. Jenny got the complete season for Christmas – it’s one of those shows that is so bad you just can’t stop watching.

On Sunday morning we woke up and Sarah made the breakfast that her host mom in Russia usually makes for her – eggs and bread in the shape of a sun. It was a rainy day (as expected in Drizzledorf) so our grand plans for a river bonfire and bike ride were out. We watched “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and had an overall lazy day. In the evening, Tim’s friend/fellow Ecolab employee Anthonie, and his wife Beverly, came over for dinner. They’re originally from South Africa, have lived in the U.S., the Netherlands, Düsseldorf, and are now in Minnesota. A lot of the lamps, electronic equipment, DVDs, extra beds, etc. that are in our house now were from them. They are extremely interesting to talk to. Anthonie has run over 60 full-length marathons and half a dozen ultra-marathons, so we had a lot to talk about in terms of running. I have now added the Comrades Ultra Marathon (90km/55.9mi) in South Africa to my list of life goals, but one that is not to be completed for a long time.

On Monday, New Year’s Eve, we set out for Amsterdam. We drove the two hours there and parked in a stadium parking lot to avoid traffic and expensive parking in the city. Sadly, as we left the car around 1pm, we didn’t know that we wouldn’t be getting back to it for another 15 hours. We took the metro into town and walked around for a bit, saw the Flower Market (where you can buy 50 tulips for 5€ and 20 roses for 10€), as well as many coffee shops - the kind that doesn't sell coffee. Eventually we decided to find something to eat and headed over to the Newmarket/ChinaTown area. We had a late lunch, grabbed some bubble tea (the closest I’ve found to Düsseldorf), saw the countdown screen at the Dam (the main square), passed through the Red Light District, and did some shopping. We spent most of the rest of our night wandering through the streets and being scared by the fireworks. If the Germans spend their money on cars, the French on food, and the Italians on clothes, then the Dutch spend their money on fireworks. It was CRAZY!! People were setting off firecrackers all day, with the aim of surprising and scaring others in the street. I screamed on numerous occasions and we even saw someone on a bike go flying into a building and fall over. Since it was cold and rainy we ducked into a bar for a little while to warm up then went back out into the streets for more fireworks. People were sitting in their apartments and shooting professional-show-size explosives out of their windows. I couldn’t believe it. We made our way towards the train station in the hopes of getting one of the first trains out after midnight. Along the way we got fireworks thrown at us, which are very difficult to run away from, especially if you have heels on. We sat at the train station, watched the fireworks, and then tried to head to our car just after midnight. That is when our trouble started. The metro had been closed down much earlier than normal because the authorities didn’t want fireworks going off in the underground. Understandable, I guess, but that cut off our most direct way to the car. The main train station was also closed despite having trains scheduled to leave. We waited outside in the cold with the assortment of people you would expect to be hanging out in the streets in Amsterdam. After two hours of waiting the station opened. We went inside only to find that the first train that could take us to our car didn’t leave until 6:30am. So we sat down in the train station to wait it out. Then we decided we should try and figure out the “night bus” thing we had heard about. After searching around and asking many people who knew nothing, we found where the buses left from. After more waiting in the cold we were able to get on one of the buses. Thank goodness! We finally arrived at the parking lot and guess what? We couldn’t find the car!! I gave Laura my bags and ran the entire parking lot – no car. Finally, like the voice of God, someone said over the intercom, “Can you find your car?” One of the lot attendants came down, took one look at our ticket, and knew exactly where our car was. I have never been so happy to see a car. We took off, and I kid you not, 30 minutes after we left we encountered the worst fog I have ever seen. We had to slow down to 20km/hour, but even then we were having trouble seeing the white lines on the road. It was ridiculous. We weren’t meant to get home. After covering only a few kilometers in 20 minutes we decided it would be best to pull off the road and wait it out. Luckily we were able to see a rest stop through the fog, pulled off, and tried to sleep for about 4 hours. I grabbed a Coke at the rest station at around 8am and we took off for the rest of the ride home. We pulled up to the gate at the house around 9:30am and the gate wouldn’t open. I then tried to catapult myself over the fence, but only wound up hurting my arm and didn’t make it over. We eventually made it into the house. Dana said she kept expecting to fall down the stairs on her way to bed – it would have fit perfectly with the night.

As you might expect after an adventure like that we slept in VERY late on New Year’s Day. I honestly can’t remember what we did for the rest of the day. It probably involved some TV, “I Love New York,” food, and packing. On Wednesday we woke up early to catch our flight to Budapest, Hungary. We arrived to find snow and much colder weather than I am accustomed to in Germany (I was kicking myself for not having brought long underwear). We had plans to stay in a local university student’s apartment in downtown while we were there (thanks to Sarah!), found it relatively easy, and waited for Marton (the university student) to finish an exam and let us in. We dropped off our stuff in the hallway (since three French guys were still occupying our room) and went to check out Budapest. We went to Vaci Utca, the main shopping and pedestrian street in Pest (Budapest was originally two cities – Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the Danube River), which was only two blocks or so away, checked out some of the shops and got some hot tea. Then we began what we lovingly called “Jew Tour ‘08” at the Budapest Great Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world, after New York City. It was very impressive. Sarah explained a lot of the customs and different parts of the synagogue once we were inside. After touring the synagogue, gardens, and museums, we walked through the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. We eventually made it back to the apartment to meet Marton. We moved all of our things into our room and Marton gave us a map and some tips on the city. We went out for Mexican food, something you can’t get in this part of the world very often, and went on a long, cold night walk through Budapest. It was worth it though, Budapest is an amazingly pretty city and looks great lit up at night. Here’s a shot of the Chain Bride, connecting Buda and Pest.

We woke up on Thursday and Dana wasn’t feeling very well. She stayed home to get some rest and Sarah and I went out to check out more of the city. First order of business was food. We went back to the Jewish Quarter to find a kosher restaurant that Sarah had read about. We found it tucked back in a seemingly residential neighborhood and it was quite an experience. Sarah and I were the only non-Hasidic-Jewish-men in the place. After lunch we went to the Opera House, hoping that we could snag some tickets for a show while we were in town, but unfortunately all the shows were sold out. The Opera House was still worth seeing, though. It was gorgeous, as all buildings in Budapest seem to be. The entire time I was in Budapest I kept thinking that it reminded me of Paris, but just slightly rougher around the edges and French-free. Once I got home I found articles that called it, “Paris on the Danube.” I guess I wasn’t that far off the mark. Since the Opera tickets didn’t work out we went over to the Parliament Building to try and get tickets for a tour. After waiting for a bit in line we found out that Parliament was sold out for the day. Great. We went back to the apartment to check on Dana and then went out to Fat Mo’s for dinner. Fat Mo’s was awesome. It had a Chicago speakeasy theme and live music almost every night. The food was amazingly good, too. We enjoyed our food and then were joined by a Ukranian and several Italians. We then joined tables with the two British girls, Lydia and Lydia, next to us. After a while of hanging out at Fat Mo’s and not being able to communicate with the Italians, Sarah, the Lydias and I went out to another bar that Marton recommended. The bar was very cool and overall it was a great night.

The next morning we got up and grabbed breakfast (surprise! ham and cheese croissants – we can’t read Hungarian) at a nearby grocery store. The store was filled almost completely with very old, pushy, slow-moving women, which made it difficult to get around. Sarah struck up a conversation with a guy from Malta – first person I have ever met from there. We went over to the Buda side of the city to visit one of many baths in the vicinity (Budapest is covered with natural thermal springs, and people have taken advantage of the hot water for years by building immaculate bath houses around them). But before we went to the baths we had to buy bathing suits, which proved more difficult than we thought it would be. After a small search we gave up on the bath idea for the day and had lunch at a great pizza restaurant with a direct view of Parliament across the Danube. After sipping some hot chocolate we decided to brave the cold and climb to the top of Várhegy (Castle Hill). It was DEFINITELY worth the few minutes of uphill walking. Our first stop on the top of the hill was Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic arcade that has the best views of the city. You can probably tell from the pictures. It was my favorite spot. Directly adjacent to Fisherman’s Bastion is Matthias Church, with a beautiful, multi-colored tile roof. The inside of the Church wasn’t bad either. As it got dark we moved onto the Labyrinth under Buda Castle. It was mostly an attraction for children, but we loved it (especially the allusions to the old David Bowie movie – our allusions, not the site’s). There are over 10km of caves and tunnels stretching beneath Castle Hill, which are assumed to have been joined by the Turks in the Middle Ages for military purposes. The tunnels also served as an air-raid shelter during WWII. Now they are filled with strange relics form a Hungarian history exhibit. It was still cool to wander around, though. At times the tunnels were exceptionally dark – there was one portion sectioned off into complete darkness. The only way you could get through was to hold onto a string tied to the wall. We also stumbled across a fountain of wine in the middle of the tunnels. We also made an Italian friend, Christian, in the tunnels. We had a cup of tea with him afterwards, walked around the Buda Castle, and took the funicular back down with him. It was an especially good thing that he was there because my camera died and he took the rest of our pictures and then sent them to us. Thanks, Christian!

We walked back over to do some more swimsuit shopping in Pest, were finally successful, and then went to Musselein, a Belgian Beer Bar, for dinner. We struck gold again – Budapest is a city that you can eat extremely well in. The food and beer were delicious. Unfortunately, by the time we left dinner the metro had shut down, so we had a long, cold walk home. Sarah and I even switched boots halfway back to make it a more comfortable walk.

On Saturday we woke up early, determined to get tickets for Parliament. As it turns out, early morning is the way to go. The line to buy tickets was much shorter than it had been in the afternoon. It was rough waiting outside, though. It was cold and windy. The guard made fun of us for being cold and said it wasn’t that bad. He then asked us how many pairs of trousers we were wearing. When we responded with “one,” he got a kick out of it. Apparently we don’t dress as warmly as Hungarians do. When it came time to pay (with cash) for our tickets we didn’t have exact change, which is what you need (and you don’t find this out until after you wait forever in line outside). Thank goodness there was a generous couple behind us who threw in 30 Forints for us (the equivalent of $0.18), otherwise we would have been out of luck again. To kill time until the tour we went over to the Parliament Café for some much-needed hot chocolate. Then it was tour time. We passed through the tight Parliament Building security, put our tracking devices on, and started up the grand 96-stair entryway. I’ve seen quite a few ornate buildings, but this one is up there with some of the more impressive ones I’ve seen. I forget how long it took to build, but trust me, it took a while. There is marble and gold leaf everywhere. The crown jewels are house in the Rotunda Room and the meeting rooms are gorgeous. There are even gold cigar-holders situated around the building, so that (when smoking was still permitted) the Parliament members could leave their cigars and come back to them. I particularly liked the pink marble throughout the building. The funny thing with the pink marble is that it is fake. All of the materials used in construction of Parliament were required to be Hungarian. Hungary, however, does not have pink marble, so Hungarian materials were used to construct the imitation marble. At the time, the imitation material cost 4 times what natural marble did. Today it is the reverse.

After Parliament we walked towards Városliget, the large City Park in Pest built to celebrate Hungarian history. Due to the cold we had to stop one more time for some hot chocolate at a cafe. Once we reached the park we got to see the impressive piazza of Heroes’ Square, one of MANY World Heritage sites in Budapest, and the ice rink outside of Vajdahunyad Castle. Vajdahunyad is very interesting to look at. It was built using a range of architectural styles, ranging from Romanesque to Gothic, each intended to represent a single century since the Magyars arrived. The effect is what appears to be several castles in one. After the castle we went to the Széchenyi Baths, which I had been looking forward to since we arrived in Budapest. It was amazing!!! Sarah and I got our own little “cabin” to change in, then wandered through the indoor baths/hot tubs ranging in temperature. We even ran across a pool with currents built in so that you could grab something to float in and go cruising very speedily around. I think it was mostly meant for kids, but we were definitely not the youngest ones in there. And then we made the best decision of our lives . . . we went outside to discover the real reason there were so many people around. The largest, warmest, and most impressive bath of all was outside, gushing steam into the cold air (I've included a photo of the outdoor bath in summer). It was great! We hung out there for a while, feeling like we were in a dream – the bath was surrounded by statues and yellow and white palace walls. People were even playing chess at the built-in tables around the bath. All in all, we spent two hours at the baths before leaving. Afterwards we felt amazingly relaxed, and magically the colds we both had seemed to disappear, so we were happy. That's me in our little changing cabin at the baths.

We took the metro back towards our apartment and did some shopping before meeting up with Dana for dinner. We took Marton’s advice and went to a place called Mensa for some Hungarian food. I’m glad we listened to him. Yet again, the food was great. There were several groups celebrating birthdays there, so periodically the lights would go way down, and a waiter would bring out a cake covered in sparklers, while “Happy Birthday To You” blasted in the background. It was fun. We went home with the intention of going back out again, after all, it was a Saturday night in Budapest. But by the time it came to leave again we were too tired and were enjoying watching (or at least making fun of) Hungarian music videos and the Turner Classic Movies channel.

On Sunday we woke up to some pretty awful weather. At least it waited until our last day. Dana and I met up with Sarah at the Christmas Market (still going strong in Hungary, unlike Germany) and searched for a place to get lunch. We didn’t want to walk very far. The weather was a mix of rain and snow on top of a layer of pure ice, a.k.a. the perfect mix to make someone fall. Luckily we found a small Hungarian restaurant not too far away. We tried some of the very traditional Hungarian foods, i.e. cabbage stuffed with meat and rice, golaska (dumplings), and goulash. Afterwards Dana went off to do some souvenier shopping and Sarah and I intended to go to the Opera House for a tour. I don’t think we got as far as a block before deciding against it. We were sure to fall along the way. We went to nearby St. Stephen’s Basilica, which was very impressive and then meandered back towards the apartment hitting many of the shops along the way. It turned out to be the best day to go shopping. Shop owners realized that it would be a horrible day, so they gave those willing to enter their shops extra incentive to buy things. In the first shop we went into the owner offered us palinka, a Hungarian fire whiskey that we had heard a lot about, right off the bat. We kept wandering and bought some postcards, chocolate, and chili chocolate. Since Dana had the only key, we killed time by trying some rice pudding at the gyro place underneath our apartment – it was really good! Once we were all back in the apartment we spent most of the rest of the day watching TV. It wasn’t worth trying to walk around. Here's Sarah in our apartment! We grabbed our dinner at the very close gyro place, managed to make it to an internet café, and then Sarah and I went back to Fat Mo’s for a brownie dessert and live music. As it got later we went home to pack because it was our last night in Hungary.

We woke up early and thankfully managed to get a cab. We had sent an email request the day before and got a reply that said, “I am sorry, but we are too busy to send a cab for you,” or something similar. Calling was much more effective. We made it to the Budapest airport, flew to Düsseldorf, where I said goodbye to Sarah and Dana, and they flew back to Moscow, where they stayed for the night before making the trek out to their hometown of Vladimir.

Dienstag, 15. Januar 2008

Österreich and Barcelona

Let’s just say that my next trip didn’t start out as smoothly as it could have. I set my alarm for 5AM so that I could get everything ready to leave by 5:30AM. Tim walked into my room at 5:27AM to wake me up. I was so rushed that I left the house without the cell phone and didn’t realize it until it was too late. But that was the only thing I forgot – I guess it could have been worse. I got to the airport, slept on the flight (since I had only gotten one hour of sleep the night before), and arrived in Zürich, Switzerland. I bought a train ticket to Dornbirn, Austria (Össtereich in German), where my friend Amanda (a friend of my roommate at UVA) was living/studying for the semester, grabbed some breakfast, and boarded the train when it arrived. However, there was one slight problem. I didn’t realize that the train ticket I bought contained a connection on it. Since this was my first trip on a train in Europe, at least without a large group of people going to the same place as me, I assumed that there was just a 15-minute scheduled stop in Bregenz, one of the cities along the way. So, since I was completely exhausted, I set an alarm for about 10 minutes before I was supposed to arrive in Dornbirn and went to sleep on the train. I woke up and looked out the window, waiting for my stop. I noticed that the terrain was getting flatter, and not mountainous, which seemed a little strange, but I didn’t think too much of it. A little while later I looked at my watch and noticed that we were at least 10 minutes behind schedule (which doesn’t really happen) or I did something wrong. After several trips up and down the train looking for the conductors, I finally found them and was informed that I was a “long way away” from Dornbirn, should have switched trains earlier, and was now back in Germany. Great!! They were kind enough to use their computers to re-route me and tell me exactly where to go. So, I got off the train in Memmingen, Germany, bought a new ticket, and took three trains to get back to Dornbirn, which got me there approximately 3 hours after I told Amanda I would arrive. That would have been alright had I brought the cell phone with me, but remember, I forgot it!! So, I had to make a quick call from a pay phone around noon (already an hour after I should have arrived) to tell Amanda when my new ETA was. I felt really badly because I think she waited for a while!

Anyways, I made myself stay awake for each of the train rides, which was very difficult, and finally arrived in Dornbirn. Amanda met me on the platform with two beers in hand. Yay! She said she thought I’d need it. And it’s alright to walk around with a beer in the streets there, as I think it is in most of Europe. So we drank the beers and walked through Dornbirn to her apartment to drop off my stuff. Then we headed back out for a quick tour, saw her school, and grabbed pasta for dinner at Spar, the grocery store. We went over to her friend Katie’s apartment, where we cooked dinner and looked at pictures of all their trips around Europe. I eventually had to take a nap because I couldn’t keep my eyes open, but afterwards we went out to the Christmas Market in the center of Dornbirn, where everyone was drinking Glühwein, and then went to Mr. John’s (pronounced "Jones"), their favorite bar in town. We hung out at Mr. John’s for a while, eating, drinking, and meeting a lot of other people from her program, and then went home to sleep.

The next morning was supposed to be an early one, but we slept in an hour longer than we meant to. We got up, grabbed all our gear, and caught a train a little before 9AM out to St. Anton, a great mountain a little more than an hour out of Dornbirn. I went skiing and Amanda went snowboarding. I was thrilled to be skiing in the Alps – first time!! (Jenny is likely going on a school ski/board trip to Austria in the spring!) The weather could have been slightly more cooperative, but it was still great! There was a lot of powder skiing, at least a lot more than I am used to. My legs felt dead after the first run. You can’t tell how big these mountains are until you realize how long it takes to get down them. The sky was clear for about one hour all day, which is when I took my pictures. Other than that, we were either inundated with fog and clouds, or blinding snow. At times it was scary because you couldn’t see more than ten feet in front of you. It’s kind of crucial to know what’s coming when you’re flying down a mountain on a board or skis. At the end of the day, as the weather conditions got worse, and my legs became useless, we went in for “after-ski.” The Austrians tend to spend hours in a bar after a full day on the mountain. Amanda and I each got a glass of Glühwein, listened to some really old American songs, and hopped the train back to Dornbirn.

Once we were back in town we hunted down a kebab shop (the only food you can find anywhere in the world, except the U.S.) – for those who don’t know it’s basically a Turkish gyro, it has some type of meat and lettuce/tomato/onion with sauce in a pita). I love them. Then we changed and caught a bus out to Mary and Kaisa’s (Amanda’s Finnish friends). We watched Blades of Glory, the Will Ferrell/Napoleon Dynamite-guy skating movie, then caught the bus back for some much-needed sleep.

I slept in on Monday (big surprise!) while Amanda went into school. Once I got up we went back over to Mary and Kaisa’s for some home-made Finnish food, meatballs and mashed potatoes. They made enough so that they would have leftovers, but apparently didn’t know who they were having over – we finished it all (2.2 pounds of meat for the meatballs and one large bowl of potatoes). It was very good! During the afternoon we hung out at Amanda’s, looked at pictures, listened to music, and then made tuna melts for dinner. We went back over to Katie’s apartment for Glühwein, cookies, roasted chestnuts, and Christmas music. Katie’s Swedish roommate, Lina, was back in town, so I met her, and the four of us ate up all the goodies. We had gingersnaps with blue cheese. I would never have put those two together before, but it was good. I’ll have to try it again.

The next morning we woke up early to catch a train to Salzburg. We met up with Amanda’s friend Caitlin and went to the train station. We stocked up on snacks and sandwiches for the long train ride. Salzburg isn’t all that far from Dornbirn, but with the connection we would be traveling for about five hours. We arrived in Salzburg and found our hostel. Despite the cold rain we ventured into the Salzburg Altstadt to the Christmas market, which takes the cake for the best Christmas market I have been to. It was massive, had a million different types of foods and decorations, and a live choir singing inside one of the squares. It was everything I had wanted out of a Christmas market. I have some strange obsession with these markets. I remember watching a late-night TV special on Christmas markets in Germany/Austria/Switzerland several years ago and it really stuck with me. I promised myself that I would get to one eventually, so I was extremely happy to be there. I even found a gingerbread man cookie cutter for Mom and Jenny at the market. They had been looking for one all over Düsseldorf and had given up. Thank you Salzburg.

After we had had enough of the Christmas market we walked through some more of the quaint Salzburg streets and found one of the coolest stores in existence – a store filled with THOUSANDS of hand-painted, real eggs. It was a little strange to go directly from Christmas to Easter, but it was truly an amazing store. I think our mouths were hanging open the whole time we walked through it. By this time we were getting very hungry, so we asked the friendly “Egg Lady” where to eat. She recommended Zipfer, a local pub and restaurant. It wound up being really cool because I think we were the only non-locals in there. We were also probably the youngest ones by about 20 years, but that was alright because the food was good. We went back to the hostel afterwards to get out of the freezing rain, grabbed beers, and watched the tail end of Shawshank Redemption before putting in American Pie. I hadn’t seen that one in forever.

The next morning I woke up and Lauren (another friend from Amanda’s program) had joined us, completing our group of four. Amanda and Caitlin had woken up super-early to meet her at the train station – I apparently didn’t hear the alarm (I’m sensing a trend with me not hearing alarms and sleeping a lot). She had had a class to finish and took a night train to meet us. We grabbed breakfast at the hostel and went back into town with Lauren. We passed by the house where Mozart was born and wandered back through the Christmas markets, but couldn’t stay outside for too long due to the cold and rain. We ducked inside a café for hot chocolates and ventured back into the markets to grab lunch before catching our train to Vienna. We got sausages and met an older couple from North Carolina. The wife was actually an alumnus of Caitlin’s school, so they had a bit to talk about. We got our last-minute postcards and souvenirs, grabbed our bags at the hostel, and caught our 4-hour train to Vienna. What we could see out the window was beautiful until the sun went down. We must have gone up in elevation because we were no longer seeing a driving rain, but large snowflakes falling over Austrian villages. We were in a six-person compartment, rather than a regular train seating arrangement. It made me happy because I felt like I was in the Harry Potter books.

By the time we got to Vienna we had gone back down in elevation, so had to walk through the rain to our hostel. We got dinner at a bakery/restaurant down the street, where I had Wiener Schnitzel, in Wien (Wien is the German spelling of Vienna) – I was psyched. Then it was dessert time. I grabbed my usual chocolate croissant and brought it with me to the ice cream shop where everyone else got their dessert. We got back to the hostel, checked out their bar, which was not very lively, and then went to bed so that we could have a full next day in Vienna.

On Thursday we woke up and took the metro into the center of the city. When we emerged from the underground we saw the beautiful Stephansdom, the trademark of Vienna. We spent the morning walking around the city and ducking into shops because it was very cold and windy, but not rainy, which was an improvement. We got lunch in an Italian restaurant, not very unlike Cosetta’s in St. Paul, and it was great. Afterwards, we walked through more of the very historic and beautiful parts of Vienna. I didn’t know quite what to expect in Vienna. I had seen very few pictures, but had heard several times that it was one of the most beautiful European cities. My Lonely Planet guide book begins its entry on Vienna like this . . . “If New York is the ‘Big Apple,’ then Vienna is the big wedding cake.” That didn’t give me any clear expectations either. After seeing the city I assume it means that you get the big-city feeling of New York, yet it is a lot prettier, like icing on the cake? It’s open to interpretation. Anyways, we continued walking through the beautiful buildings and ran across one of Vienna’s Christmas markets in Maria Theresien Platz. We made sure to get some Glühwein and try some of the local goodies. Then we continued on to Vienna’s main shopping street, Mariahilferstrasse, stopping at every chocolate shop in sight along the way. Every European city is overflowing with chocolate shops and bakeries, but Vienna in particular has an overabundance. My favorite was a very fancy shop that made massive marzipan sculptures. We got to watch the chefs in the kitchen and it was pretty impressive. We hung around the city center until dark and saw all of the Christmas decorations – there were tons!!

We then decided that it was time to warm up and get dinner, so we took the train back out to our hostel. We had dinner at a local pub just around the corner. I had goulash for the first time and I loved it. It also happened to be “Dixie Night,” so we sat in a very German pub, eating very German food, and listening to live New Orleans Jazz music. It was a strange contrast. Afterwards we decided to check out the bar scene in Vienna. The hostel recommended the Mozart Stube, but when we walked in all of the customers were men in their sixties, or older, so we quickly left. We tried another hostel recommendation, but didn’t like it, and finally got to their third recommendation, Café Europa, which was much more our speed. It was a trendy café down a side street that we never would have found on our own. It was perfect for us though because there was a lot of good people-watching, which entertained us for the whole night.

Friday was another early day. We rode the Strassenbahn (street-car) to the nearest bus depot and caught a bus to Bratislava, Slovakia from there. We were planning on flying RyanAir to Barcelona, the low-cost airline, so the airport was a ways away and in a different country in this case. But we were psyched to go to Slovakia, not because we necessarily had heard good tourist reviews about it or anything, but when else were we going to be in Slovakia? We were also excited to get a quick look at Bratislava since we had heard it was the “Twin City” to Vienna. From the views we got of Bratislava from the bus, we were at a loss for how anyone could call it even a distant cousin to Vienna. It looked depressed and run-down, and there was graffiti everywhere. The two cities aren’t even physically close. They are about a one-hour drive apart, not just a few miles like Minneapolis and St. Paul. Needless to say, we were glad we hadn’t set aside an afternoon for Bratislava.

We arrived at the airport, checked-in, and got some fairly cheap food, one of the good things about Slovakia. We boarded the plane and were excited to be leaving cold, cloudy weather for a while. The flight path to Barcelona went directly over the Alps, all covered in snow. It was cool to see. We also got a great view of the Spanish coastline and countryside on our way in. Once we were in Spain we had to grab a packed bus to get into Barcelona. We sat behind a group of four, not particularly bright, American guys. So we got to listen to an hour and a half of them arguing over what languages they spoke in what European countries. One of them is still probably very adamant that they speak Flemish in Switzerland. The conversation would have been more understandable had they not already been studying in Austria for the whole semester. We were happy to get away from their conversation as soon as the bus arrived in Barcelona (only to find that they were staying at the same hostel as us!). We took the metro and walked down Las Ramblas, the major pedestrian street in Barcelona, to get to our hostel. Our hostel probably couldn’t have been in a better location. We were right on Placa Reial, a beautiful square (in the picture) just off of Las Ramblas. We were in walking distance to everything in Barcelona! This hostel also had a much more upbeat atmosphere than some of the others we had been in, but they made you pay for the good atmosphere and location.

We settled into our room and went down to the main floor for happy hour and dinner. The dinner was alright, but not enough food, so we went out for a tapas tour of our neighborhood. We tried things like patatas bravas, croquettes, shrimp and of course, sangria (the Spanish, fruity wine drink). After a good night out we went home and slept well.

Once we woke up on Saturday we took to the streets (in lighter jackets, which was a welcome change - it was probably in the 50s, in mid-December!). We walked along Las Ramblas towards the harbour, checking out the open-air art and street markets. We walked around the edge of the harbour, looking at fish in the water and looking back at the beautiful buildings of Barcelona. We eventually wound up at the beach!! It was definitely too cold to go sun-bathing, but there was a small group of people out surfing in wet suits. We made a pit-stop at Spar, where I bought a jar of olives, and then we continued our walk around the city, eating olives. We went through the entire day without a map and turned down whichever street looked the most interesting when we came to an intersection. We never truly knew where we were, but were also never lost since we weren’t trying to be anywhere. We walked through parks, saw the Arc De Triomf, and stepped into shops along the way. A large portion of the shopping we did was window-shopping because we were out at siesta (the time when most stores close down for lunch). On our way back to Placa Reial we passed a wide array of street performers and stopped at the large food market off of Las Ramblas. It had fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, candy, and pretty much anything else you could want. Everything was the best and biggest I had ever seen. I got a pineapple already cut up for €1.50. Not bad. I kinda wished I had had a kitchen to use so I could get some of the seafood, too.

After at least 4 solid hours of walking we wound up back at the hostel, where I took a nap. Inconveniently, I had woken up on Saturday morning with a sore throat and a cold, so I was a little out of it. Amanda, Caitlin, and Lauren hung out downstairs for happy hour, then came and woke me up once I had slept long enough. We went back out into the city for dinner. We went back to one of the restaurants we had visited the night before for tapas. We had burgers, Spanish omelets, a million different types of potatoes, etc. Then we decided to take advantage of the free flamenco show for hostel guests at a nearby club. We got a jug of sangria and enjoyed the live music and dancing. It was actually a lot more impressive than I was expecting – the music at least, not necessarily the dancing. Flamenco guitar looks so complicated and sounds sooo cool. And the singers were amazingly talented as well. After the show we went back out to try and find some of the legendary Barcelona nightlife, but had a serious lack of luck. Apparently Saturday night isn’t a big deal in Spain? We were also very tired of walking, so eventually gave up and went to bed.

Sunday seems to be the day to be out in Barcelona. We woke up and started walking again, past more street perrformers. Can you guess which dog is real? We did a TON of walking in Barcelona, but it never got old because there was so much to see. We grabbed food at the Pita House. I tried falafel and it was good, but I still don’t really know what it is. The best part about the Pita House though was the American-sized Coke they give you!! It was significantly more than one gulp, which is what you get in most other European establishments. We walked through the multitude of open-air markets – stamp collecting, art, jewelry, antiques, flowers, and pets. Haven’t you always wanted a pet turkey or pigeon? After seeing the markets, we took off on another trek to see La Sagrada Familia, the extremely modern church that has become a symbol of Barcelona. It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, Construction began in 1882 and it is still not exceptionally close to being complete. There are also a few other very unique buildings around Barcelona that were designed by the same guy, i.e. Casa Batllo. Once we got back to our side of town I took a nap again in the hopes that it would make me feel better, while the other three found something to occupy themselves with.

I joined Amanda, Caitlin, and Lauren again to go out for dinner. We went on a mission to find paella, because we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if we left Spain without having some, at least Amanda and I couldn’t. Paella is the very Spanish seafood and rice dish – really good! We started out by taking some of the smaller streets off of Las Ramblas. It seems that we finally picked the right time of day to go onto these streets. Late at night and early in the morning all of the shops on these streets are boarded up, covered in graffiti, and deserted. It’s very creepy. But when they are open and people are everywhere it is great!! We discovered the true, old Gothic quarter, which we thought we had already seen, but had been mistaken. There were more shops in these tiny side streets than I have ever seen in one place. And enough people to fill them all. We wished we had discovered the Gothic Quarter earlier, because we probably would have spent more time there. But at least we got to see it. We continued to look for paella, which was more difficult to find than we would have thought. Eventually we found a place that served it. The restaurant was pretty dead when we walked in because it was around 5/6PM, which is in-between meal time for the Spaniards. Spanish people START going out for dinner around 9/10PM.

We enjoyed the great food at dinner and then went back to the Gothic quarter for dessert. Caitlin and Lauren got waffles with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. It looked great, but Amanda and I couldn’t stomach it after all of the paella. We had made it back to the Gothic quarter as all of the shops were closing, and it started to get creepy back there again, so we walked with the dessert. We got back to the hostel and I started to pack up all of my stuff for the early morning I knew was coming. Caitlin and Lauren went for one more nighttime walk around our side of Barcelona and then we all tried to sleep. Tried being the key word. There was an extremely loud group of boys on our floor who stayed up until 3AM yelling at each other, went out to bars for two hours, and then came back in around 5AM, yelling and screaming again. All in all I think I got about one hour of sleep. I had to be up at 5:30AM, when it was still dark and people were still out for the night, to get the train to the airport (which wound up being a little more difficult than I had originally thought). I asked three different people about how to take the train to the airport and I got three completely different answers, some of which was in Spanish, which I don’t understand. I wound up catching two trains, walking a good ways, and hoping that I was headed for the correct Barcelona airport. Luckily, I made it to the right airport and in plenty of time. I had the easy trip home – just grab a plane to Düsseldorf and I was there by noon. Amanda, Caitlin, and Lauren left the hostel about one hour after me and had to retrace all of our previous steps – bus to Barcelona airport, fly to Bratislava, bus to Vienna, 8-hour train from Vienna to Dornbirn. They got home in the early hours of the next day. They were traveling for almost 24 hours non-stop. I wasn’t jealous.