A Travellerspoint blog

Provence, France

The perfect French holiday - Endless sun, wine and culture

sunny 26 °C
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On Thursday, September 13th we packed up our bags and left for southern France to visit my Grandmother, or as we call her Ömeli. She lives outside of a little town called St. Paulet, in the middle of the French Provence. We got on a train at 5:46pm and arrived in the nearby town of Montelimar at 6:30am the next morning, an hour later than the planned 5:30am. We had reserved two places in a sleeping car, but really didn’t get much sleep because the bunk beds were very small and hard, not to mention that another person in the car was snoring loudly. If anyone wants to take a night train I advise you to skip the overpriced sleeping car and just sit in a normal seat, because even with ear plugs it was horrible. In the rush to get off the train I forgot the present we had bought for Ömeli, so overall our holiday wasn’t off to a great start.

I forgot about all that though as soon as I saw Ömeli walking towards us at the train station. It had been seven years since I had last seen her, but we recognized each other right away. The drive to her house was a half an hour long over tired daze for all three of us. I couldn’t remember many of the landmarks, but the landscape looked familiar: rolling rock hills, with stunted and sparse trees, wide rivers, tall grass and oodles and oodles of gnarly vineyards. Kyle said that it made him think of Mexico. The roads are very windy, have plenty of roundabouts and are often sheltered on both sides by huge, ancient trees that come together at the top to make a shady arch. Originally these tree arches were designed to keep the horse carriages out of the sun. The roads had been quite small, so when cars became popular they had to cut down one side of the trees, widen the road and then replant the trees at the new road edge, which creates a very lopsided arch, if one at all.

As we got closed I started remembering things and when we got to her house it looked exactly the same as when we left it seven years ago, except for the fact that the trees and bushes had grown and the grass was brown instead of green. It is a fairly large white washed house with a red clay roof, typical of the area. A nice yard surrounds it, with a whole assortment of fruit trees: Cherry trees, a couple Olive trees, Apricot trees, Prune trees, Apple trees and a Parsimmon tree. There were also numerous tall grasses, cacti, lavender bushes, grape vines, berry bushes, a couple of palm trees, cedar trees and countless flowers. After napping for a few hours and eating a late breakfast we drove out to the Ardage and a stone city overlooking it.

The Ardage is a long, winding canyon with a deep river at the bottom that is popular for its swimming and scenic kayaking. We hiked along one edge of the canyon, which had a beautiful view of the town below it, Pont Saint Esprit, and the Ardage itself. Along one side of the path there was lots of dried grass, with what looked like lots of white flowers, but upon closer inspection turned out to be dead bleached snails clinging to the grass!

The medieval stone village, Aigueze, was almost completely carved out of the mountain and the parts that weren’t were built in the manner of very old stone-masonry. A building code restricted the construction of any modern buildings and required that any repairs be done by stone-masons knowledgeable of that style. This made the area very expensive, which is evident by the posh hotel and the classy, over-priced restaurants. An ancient church held the attention of the town and all of the crooked streets came together at the church square. It was delightful to walk around and imagine how people lived here thousands of years ago.

We drove around to the other side of the Ardage, to a lookout at the highest point of the canyon wall. All around us were the rock hills, the stunted trees and below us the Ardage snaked its way between them. Kayakers dotted the river, and the caves that we had explored so long ago loomed above them. Before we went home Ömeli took us to a friend’s summer house, in the area of Garrigues (No Man’s Land), and we got to eat fresh figs from her fig tree. I never liked dried figs, but fresh they are very tasty. They have a semi-soft purplish skin and a bright red flesh dotted with yellow seeds. We ate so many that our tongues started to burn!

The rest of the day was spent laying out in the sun, playing with Ömeli’s dog, Trixi, and enjoying a typical French Apperatif, Pastis, which is a lavender liquor served with water and ice. Kyle didn’t like the Apperatif very much and spent the afternoon hunting down the wild lizards in the yard. At 9pm my aunt, Doris and her husband Jacques, arrived and after a joyful greeting we sat outside in the warm night air, drank local wine and talked the night away. The discussions were held consistently in three different languages, Swiss-German, French and English, which made for some funny translations and a wonderful international atmosphere.

The next morning we got up early and went to the Saturday morning market in Pont Saint Esprit. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the market in Vienna, but it interesting for other reasons. One half of it was Arabian, where the prices were lower, the fruits and vegetables more various and the tables dirtier, and the other half was French, where the prices were higher, the items more local and the tables cleaner and more organized. Half way through the market we stopped for an espresso, and afterwards we had the first Apperatif of the day, Kir: white wine with blackberry liquor. Back at Ömeli’s the whole afternoon stretched before us in sunny laziness. We snoozed in the sun for awhile, played a French game Pétanque, which is very similar to Bocci, and Kyle and I went for a walk in search of grapes. Finding them wasn’t hard at all, but we wanted some of our own, so when the coast was clear, Kyle darted into the vineyards and snatched us some. Secluded in a nearby bamboo patch, we held the grape bunches up and ate from the bottom, just like we had always imagined it. We felt like we were on a perfect holiday.

That night Doris and Jacques made Que de’Boeuf for supper, which is basically a huge slab of T-bone steak, cooked blue rare and served in slices. We had hot chili peppers, stir-fried vegetables, fresh noodles with fresh parmesan and a tomato mozzarella salad with it. The meat was extremely delicious, probably the best thing I have ever tried, and after Kyle grilled his to medium, he liked it as well. They explained to us that most meat couldn’t be cooked blue rare because it was poor quality, which meant that it hadn’t been hung for long enough, and if it were to be cooked blue it would create a bloody sauce on the plate . This meat, on the other hand, was very high quality and had been hung for at least two weeks and when it was cooked blue rare it didn’t bleed at all. We went to bed quite early that night, because we were getting up early and driving to the Mediterranean Sea the next day.

The next morning we left at 10am and got to seaside town St. Marie de la Mer at 12 noon. Half way down to the Sea the landscape changed dramatically; the rocky hills, stunted trees and clay roofs where replaced with flat, watery rice fields, tall cedars acting as windbreakers and thatched roofs. The area was famous for its bull fighting, white work horses, sea salt and rice. The town had a very coastal atmosphere to it and was overrun with tourists. Our first destination was the church at the centre of the town, which held St. Sarah, a Black Virgin and the gypsy saint. The church was dated by its architecture: small windows signified that they did not yet know how to build large ones without sacrificing stability, and the slanting walls showed that the whole church had been built as one large rounded arch, rather than the pointed arches of the gothic times that allowed for straight walls. We lit candles for my Grandpa, which loved this town, and then headed back out into the crowded streets. Tourist shops consisted of the local products seasalt, rice, nougat, lavender, colourful pottery and top-quality horse gear.

We had lunch at a supposedly wonderful restaurant, but it must have been a bad day for them, because we were there for way too long. The French, like the Italians, enjoy long meals, but waiting for more than an hour between the first and second course is a little much. At least the food was good. We had tellines, a small shellfish, for the first course along with an Apperatif. Kyle got an Americano, which was an unknown, but very disgusting mixture, and I had a Maison, which is sparkling wine with blackberry liquor. For my main course I had Ai le de Raie, Ray, and Kyle had a bull steak. We drank the local rose wine Picpoul de Pinet with the main course. Full, but slightly angered and a little tipsy we left the restaurant and headed for the beach. The Sea crashed onto the sand and the sun shone onto the hundreds of sunbathers littering the beach. Doris and I ran straight into the Sea, with Kyle and Jacques trailing behind. The temperature was perfect and I was really enjoying my first swim in the Sea…and then a wave came, flooded my mouth with salty water and made me gag. I never would have imagined that it would be that salty! Soon thereafter the same thing happened to Kyle, and we were both disgusted as to how gross it tasted. Thankfully we got used to it pretty fast, and were able to enjoy playing in the ocean. For the next couple hours we tanned and walked around the beach. Kyle and I managed to get into a private camp ground and take a shower, which felt great because we were coated in salt and sand.

On the drive home we stopped in an 18th century town Uzäs, Jacques’ favourite, to check out a private castle. In the approaching twilight we had an Apperatif under the ancient arches protruding from the side of a Swiss restaurant. There must have been hundreds of birds in the trees near where we had parked because I have never heard such a loud and relentless squawking.

That night we had a very late supper of duck and rice. I was surprised to find out that duck meat looks much more like red meat than the white meat that I expected. It was cooked blue as well and was almost as delicious as last night’s meal. After dinner we played a fun card game, of which I don’t remember the name, and just enjoyed being together for the last time. In the morning we said our goodbyes and left with Doris and Jacques. They had offered to take us with them on the 4 hour drive to Lausanne. We drove north through France, through the Swiss Alps and to the French-speaking Swiss town of Lausanne. On the way we saw very impressive scenery, but the most shocking thing was a freshly blown-up gas station. My aunt speculates that it was a car bombing. From Lausanne we took the train home and arrived at 11:30pm.

It was a truly relaxing holiday and it couldn’t have been nicer! Thank you Doris and Jacques for showing us so much of the culture, and most of all, thank you Ömeli for letting us stay with you and making it all possible!! I love you all! 

Posted by Jaana M 07:22 Archived in France Comments (0)

Appenzell, Switzerland

A Swiss Alp wonderland

semi-overcast 17 °C
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As a last minute idea we decided to take a trip to Appenzell on Friday, September 7th. The trip was a bit more than 6 hours and consisted of a couple long train rides; a warm, relaxing and lightly scenic boat crossing; and a short, but breathtaking ride on a regional train through the beginning of the Swiss Alps. The last leg of the trip presented us with a wonderful introduction to the absolutely amazing landscapes we would see and experience in the next while. Under a brilliant blue sky, the train wound itself between tall, green slopes which were dotted with cows, brightly painted houses, little churches and patches of forest. We knew we had reached the Alps when clouds began covering the tops of the hills.

The town of Appenzell is small, cute and although it is filled with tourists, it maintains an authentic atmosphere. A main street lined with Swiss bakeries, cafés and tourist shops winds its way through the town and across the bubbling river in the centre of the village. The first thing we noticed was how all of the houses have intricately carved eaves and beautifully painted exteriors. After some searching we found the tourist info office and snatched up the last room in Appenzell that wasn’t ridiculously expensive. It was still quite early, so we decided to have supper before we headed out to the bed and breakfast. Most of the restaurants were quite pricey and served non-meat dishes, but we found one called House Lydia that had meat dishes and was relatively inexpensive. The restaurant was all wood on the inside, with a low ceiling and long, sturdy tables and benches. The food was absolutely delicious! Kyle had an extremely tender piece of chicken breast with roasted and spiced potatoes, and I had a pork steak that was baked with a cheese and egg mixture. The lady that served us seemed quite surly at first, but after some locals dropped in for a beer and a group of women came in to play a Swiss card game she warmed up a bit. We began talking and she shared her travel stories from Canada with us and advised us on what to see in Appenzell. At the end of the meal we had learned a lot about the area and felt like we had experienced a true piece of Appenzell culture.

The walk to our bed and breakfast took us past tons of beautiful houses and cow pastures, pierced with spectacular gardens and the odd cat. In the grass we found the hugest slugs ever! They were light brown, the length of an index finger and much fatter than in Canada. They left a thick slimy trail behind them and smaller white slugs crawled over it and disappeared into the grass. Our B&B was a cute wooden A-frame surrounded by immaculate gardens and prune trees. They offered us prunes, because they had way too many and then showed us to our room. I think Appenzell carpenters must specialize in inlays because extremely intricate Edelweiss inlays decorated the ceilings of not just our room, but the hallway and entrance as well. The son of the owners invited us to come downstairs to have a few drinks with his friends and later come to the bar with them in the nearby town of St. Gallen. For me it was really exciting to be able to speak Swiss German again and after a short switch over period, I was babbling away like crazy. They made us try special Appenzell liquor which is made out of a large number of herbs, but tastes nothing like the popular Jagermeister. I liked its bitter taste, but it didn’t agree with Kyle. The rest of the night was quite fun, but getting into the club at St. Gallen was ridiculously expensive: 14 Swiss Francs! And the drive there and back was an adventure all on its own. We drove at least 100km/h the whole way, even though the roads are very narrow, twisty and steep, not to mention pitch dark. They said that they weren’t even going fast, but Kyle and I still hung on for dear life, and I was close to getting sick.

The next morning we slept in, had a wonderful breakfast, checked out and walked back to ‘downtown’ Appenzell to do some souvenir shopping. I bought a black leather wallet decorated with a small Swiss flag. That day we were going to ascend the tallest mountain in that area of Switzerland, the Säntis, but it was quite cloudy and wouldn’t have been worth it, so we decided to ascend a smaller, but more scenic Alp called the Ebenalp, and then walk down the other side of it to the Seealp See, which literally means ‘Lakealp Lake’. After a short train ride through the beautiful area we arrived at the Ebenalp and were surprised to see tons of Para gliders floating down from the Alp top. We were interested, so we asked how much it would be and when he only said 24 Francs I realized that you would obviously need your own parachute and extensive training, which we both had zero of. The gondola ride to the top was a little shaky, but quite nice and through a conversation with a Para glider we learned that the one to two year training and all of the equipment costs between 6000 and 9000 Francs. The air at the top was noticeably thinner and colder. After enjoying the splendid, although slightly foggy view, we watched a few Para gliders jump off the Alp and then we started on what we thought was a two hour hike down the mountain. We passed many people and almost everyone had hiking boots, metal walking sticks and very small bags, which made us wonder if our regular running shoes, lack of walking sticks and heavy baggage would be a problem. After a short deliberation we decided that we were much younger and surely capable of it.

The hike ended up being more like three hours, but it was definitely worth it. The view changed after every turn in the path, we climbed through caves, saw a church (with a random wild donkey in it) and a restaurant built into the rocky mountain side, found plenty of unique wildlife and happened upon a Swiss flag. The path turned out to be very well taken care of and was quite easy to walk on, but we would have never though that walking downhill would be so strenuous. It was very hard on our knees, ankles and toes, and after awhile our legs would shake if we were standing still. Getting to the bottom was a great relief! The mountain lake at the bottom was smaller than we had expected, but still very beautiful and serene. We had lunch at the restaurant on the lake and, while we ate, we enjoyed the surrounding mountain-scape. In order to get back to the train station we had to walk along the valley floor, but we didn’t reach the valley floor until we got to the train station. The path was an actual road, but it was steeper than any road I had imagined, and most of the time we were half running down it because it was impossible to walk on it normally. It put extreme strain on the hamstrings and gluteous and we felt the pain the next morning.

We had just missed a train, so we had to wait and it was then that we realized that we probably wouldn’t make it home that night. The train ride was just as beautiful as the first one and for the majority of it we hung out the windows, breathed in the fresh mountain air and enjoyed the scenery whizzing by. We made it to München that night, but it was already 12:30 at night so no more trains were running from there. On the way there we met Veronika, someone in the same situation as us, so we all went to the lounge at the train station to wait out the three hours for the first morning trains. It was uncomfortable and full of people, but at least it was warm and we had someone to talk to. There was no hope of sleeping because a group of loudly snoring punks had camped out on the floor, and didn’t show any signs of leaving or quieting down. Our train came at 3:30am, so we had to leave Veronika, because her train didn’t come for another few hours.

So overall we had a fantastic two days and could barely believe they happened. When we got home we were dead tired and slightly overwhelmed, but we both agree that going to the Alps was one of the best trips yet. We just felt at home with the surrounding nature and could it enjoy it much easier than the large, unfamiliar cities, which were still totally exciting, but too busy for both of us. So if anyone doesn’t have the money or the desire to go to Interlaken, the tourist over run hot spot in Switzerland, we definitely suggest Appenzell.

Posted by Jaana M 06:45 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Vienna, Austria

Cobblestones, Catacombs and Coffee

sunny 20 °C
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After an amazing three days in Prague, we took a train to Vienna, Austria. We had caught a mid-afternoon train, so by 7pm we were already settled in our hostel and ready to start exploring. By then all museums and such were closed, so we decided to check out our neighbourhood. Our guide book recommended a nearby bar, Das Möbel, for its unique furniture and artistic atmosphere, so we headed in that direction. The streets were all cobblestone, the buildings old and tall, and the storefronts brightly lit. We passed quite a few pubs and bars, but seeing as it was still very early they were all quite dead.

A few streets later I saw a gallery, which upon closer inspection, turned out to be still open! Inside, there were colourful Plexi-glass wall hangings, sculptures, lamp shades, vases and other decorative items. Many of the items were twirling, wriggling or swaying, either on their own, or with the help of wind and electricity. Among the large Plexi-glass pieces, there were also some other items like porcelain teacups attached to wineglass stems, feather hats, bags and heavy metal jewellery. I especially liked the cups and the bags, but decided to only get a bag, because of our limited packing space.

The bar, Das Möbel, turned out to be a snobby, über expensive, and overall disappointing place, so we went right back out. We had a couple drinks at a Billiard hall, which turned out to be quite gothic, and then at a beachy looking place called “The Green Bar”. The last place we went to was a little seedy looking from the outside, but it turned out to have a very warm, happy atmosphere inside. The walls were decorated with 50s style paintings and red lampshades made everyone and everything look rosier and happier than they perhaps were. An adjoining room had hundreds of ties hanging from the roof, which I of course had to photograph, and even though the bathroom was co-ed and completely covered in flyers, concert ads and grafitti, it was still quite clean. We met a couple of locals and spent the night exchanging stories and getting tips on what to see and what to skip during our short stay in Vienna.

The next morning we had a so-so hostel breakfast we headed to the popular Naschmarkt, and had a better breakfast. This market was definitely the best that I have yet seen. The stalls are permanent and make two long alleyways. The one alley has tons of cafes, restaurants and other hot food places and the other alley has all of the fresh food. The latter alley was a beautiful mixture of bright colours, curious smells, shouting vendors and of course, the customers themselves which ranged from tourists, to business men and women, to the regular market goers with their large market baskets. We purchased some snacks and sandwich materials and then headed to St. Stephen’s square. St. Stephen’s Cathedral dominates the centre of the square and hundreds of classy shops line the outside of the square. Horse carriages dotted the square and locals ambled their way through the herds of tourists, while a bum with only half his legs walked around on his stumps.

We entered the church and were instantly mesmerized. This was by far the nicest church we had seen so far, even though it wasn’t as big as St. Paul’s in London and not as fancy as the ones in Prague. The intricately carved stone columns stretched high above our heads and arched into each other at the distant ceiling. Stone staircases wound their way around some of the columns and partly grotesque stone carvings decorated the walls. The catacombs beneath the church sounded very interesting, so we took the guided tour.

At first we were a little disappointed because everything had been renovated and painted, so it really didn’t look old. A hallway was dedicated to the coffins of past priests, the oldest body being over 400 years old, and the newest only 4 years old. An adjacent hallway was dedicated to their organs, which were neatly stored in large iron vats. A prayer room connected the two hallways and a little room behind it stored some of the churches damaged stone carvings. Our highly enthusiastic guide brought us through a small tunnel and we entered what looked to me like ‘real catacombs’: low, dark, brick tunnels, with a dirt floor and cavernous burial chambers on either side. Some of the chambers had been emptied because they were emitting horrible smells, but a surprisingly high number of them were still full. The catacombs were only used for about 4 years, before they got full and had to be sealed up. The wooden coffins began to rot and the bodies all crashed on top of each other in a heap of rotting wood and flesh, and emitted a horrible stench. They emptied some of the rooms, which turned out to come in hand when the Black Plague hit Vienna. The number of victims was so large that they simply dug a hole in the square above the empty chambers and dumped the bodies in. We saw one of these chambers and it was truly a huge mountain of jumbled bones and skulls. Some of the other, older chambers had been ‘organized’ so that the bones formed a wall, with the skulls as decoration.

Vienna is all about the coffee and of course coffee houses, and these coffee houses can be found at every corner. We were not going to settle for any coffeehouse and were interested in a special one: Café Helvetika, the oldest and most famous coffeehouse. This is where we had a series of unsuccessful sightseeing attempts. The café was closed, the Criminal museum that the locals recommended was also closed and then the subway station that we were supposed to get on turned out to be nonexistent because it had been planned, but not built! The Kunsthaus Wien was also a little disappointing. An Austrian architect and ‘renegade artist’, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, designed it with his ideology that resented lines, geometry and organization. The idea is very interesting, but the outcome was very childish and kitschy. The famous Hundertwasserhaus was the same.

By then we were super tired, so we headed back to our hostel to make some supper and have a nap. Refreshed and full we decided to check out the nightlife district and try the strongest beer in the world. After some searching we settled for a young, popular ‘disco’, Kaktus, but decided to leave after two drinks. The bar Krah Krah was said to have the strongest beer in the world and indeed it did. It was 14%!! I found it absolutely disgusting, but Kyle claimed to enjoy it, so he finished it. The Austrian beers were taking their effect and by 1pm we were ready to go home. The underground and all of the trams had already stopped, so we had to take a bus, but we must have done it wrong, because it took us an hour to walk home after we got out.

The next day we headed back to the Naschmarkt, and then visited the Museums Qaurtier, which is a large, walled in area with various museums and galleries in it. While Kyle waited outside I checked out the Moderne Kunst Museum. Most of the works were by Sigmar Polke, and I quite liked them. If any one is interested, I found these to be the best ones:
- “Menschenbrücke” (“Human Bridge” - orange brown depiction of four people forming a bridge by standing head to head and toe to toe in an arch)
-“Weißer Raum” (“White Room” - silhouettes of two children in an orange room, looking into a white room with black walls)
- “Schrott” (“Junk/shit” - A mound of black round stones, with a net of tangled blue icicles above it)
- “Vorhang” (“Curtain” – A brown/beige curtain behind a huge rotting head, impaled on a tiny skeleton, and a smaller dried head)
- “…aus Lernen neu zu Lernen” (“…to learn from learning”- A very tall man, with extraordinarily long arms holding a wheelbarrow. A head floats in the wheelbarrow, and a bigger head floats above the wheelbarrow at eye level with the tall man
- An ominous black and white film that had one subject: a blood stained upholstered chair. War sounds like bombing and crashing and shooting were played in the background.

Back outside it was raining and I found Kyle at a café enjoying a Viennese coffee. We waited for a little, but the rain didn’t look like it was going to let up, so we headed to the hostel to pick up our luggage and board the train back to Mannheim.

Overall Vienna made quite a good impression on us. We really enjoyed the lively bars, the amazing market, and of course St. Stephen’s Cathedral and its catacombs.

Posted by Jaana M 04:55 Archived in Austria Comments (1)

Prague, Czech Republic

Romantic, beautiful and magical

sunny 24 °C
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The train ride from Berlin to Prague was so beautiful! The train wound its way along a narrow river at the bottom of a valley surrounded by steep, thickly forested hills. Small hillside villages would go by, with a tall church spire in the middle, and the houses spiraling out around it. On some of the hills were towering cliffs and on two of them we saw a hilltop fortress surrounded by thick stone walls. We spent most of the train ride running from one side of the train to the other side to catch all of the scenery.

As soon as we got off the train old men started hounding us about hostels and other things they were selling. Police were walking around everywhere and there were about ten tobacco shops in the main part of the train station. Another shocking thing was that on the tabloids there were very graphic depictions of women, which would normally only be found in special shops if you were in Canada. Overall the train station in Prague was very scary and totally made us think that Prague was a dirty, dangerous and poor city, with lots of prostitutes and other sketchy people. We were starting to doubt about our decision to come to Prague, but then I remembered that my Grandma had really liked the city went she went, so I decided that the city much be different from the train station.

On our search for our hostel we walked across a bridge that was at least 1km long, only to find out that our hostel was below the bridge and that we had to walk all the way back. When we mentioned the bridge to our hostel keeper he said that the locals call it the Suicide Bridge, because at least 3 people a month jump off it. He said that the unhappy people have often landed right in front of our hostel!!

That night we went to the bar in our hostel and met some of the local young people. After getting used to the language barrier we ended up having a great night and trying lots of foreign alcohol. One of the locals ordered a whole wheel of cheese and just ate it like that! We learned some interesting things about Prague, and it turns out that Prague is really quite a normal city, with no more problems than any other city. The Suicide Bridge came up, and the locals said that when they cross the street they look left, right and UP! So disturbing. To finish the night off we ordered some traditional Prague Pizza, and it was probably the best pizza that I’ve ever had.

The next day we went across the river to the west side of town and wandered in the general direction of the Prague Castle. The roads in Prague are all of cobblestone, and there are very few main roads or streetlights. People seem to drive wherever they want and because there are so many tourists (there are actual throngs of them everywhere) the cars go about as fast as the pedestrians. Tour groups stood on every corner listening to their guides in various languages. The roads seemed to wind around the buildings, and it was terribly easy to get lost, but for some reason it did not seem to matter. We encountered a walled in garden that was quite nice, but a little strange as well because on the back wall there was a fake dripstone wall. An interesting photo gallery of the Prague floods was displayed near the wall. We had lunch in a great little Pizzeria, where we watched people trip on the cobblestones as they walked by and gawked at everything.

The Prague Castle sat on a high hill and the steep street that led to it was lined with a hundred tourist shops. Puppets are very popular in these tourist shops and some of them were truly spectacular and sometimes downright scary. In front of the castle were some unmoving guards dressed in blue. I felt quite bad for them because they had to stand still in the sweltering sun, sweating buckets in their uniforms. From the castle yard we had a great view over Prague; the thousands of red clay roofs, the church spires and the many bridges, including the famous Charles Bridge. It is a truly romantic city.

The castle itself was a little disappointing because I was expecting a typical medieval castle, but this is more of a walled in village. At the center of the castle village there was a great church. It had a bunch of tall, dark, spires and looked like it would be amazing on the inside, but the price was crazy and the line way too long. We walked through the royal gardens first, which turned out to be the best part of the castle. There was a stone wall with grape vines growing on it and we couldn’t help ourselves - we had to take some and they were so sweet and delicious. The rest of the castle really wasn’t great and we left after only seeing half of it. On the way home we crossed the Charles Bridge, and visited the Torture Instruments Museum, which was the biggest gimmick ever. Worst museum known to the world! In that area there were many alcohol specialty stores, so we peeped in to look at Absinthe prices. It turns out that there is one kind that is said to make you hallucinate: Bitter Absinthe. The prices were all very high, and for bitter absinthe it was even higher, not to mention that fact that you would need to take at least 5 shots for it to happen!

The next day we checked out the Astronomical Clock; climbed the Clock Tower, which offered great views of the city; went to Mass in the Tỳn Church; and had lunch at a cute café on the street. Both of our pasta dishes were spectacular, but the bill was a little confusing. They charged us the equivalent of $5 each for using forks, knives and plates!

After lunch we walked to the Petrin Gardens and began the long, steep climb to the observation tower at the top of the gardens. The path was lined with pear, apple and apricot trees, so I went on a couple climbs and picked some fresh orchard fruit. Near the top we came across a rock covered in carvings and at first we were confused as to how everyone carved into the rock so easily, but we soon found out that the rock was actually quite soft. We decided to leave our own carving, so Kyle carved a large ‘J+K’ into the rock. At the top we were surprised to see two churches, a huge walled in garden and a bunch of religious statues. The climb up the observation tower was a little exhausting, but the view at the top was definitely worth it. Back at the bottom of the gardens we watched a little boy play with the pigeons before going to a neat restaurant called Club Architektu for supper. The restaurant was in a 12th century cellar, and you could feel the coldness seeping from the ancient walls. The tables were lit by candlelight and dining room settings looked very medieval. We both ordered a Golden Pheasant beer, which had a very pleasant coffee taste, I ordered a Czech rabbit dish, and Kyle had a chicken wrap.

We spent our last morning in Prague looking for the Yellow Market, but we got ridiculously lost and decided to just buy lunch supplies from a small deli before heading to the train station. Overall I would say our time in Prague was quite magical, especially because we had expected something so different. Even though there are a billion tourists it still feels like you can have unique, personal experiences which I find really nice. I also have to say that I am quite relieved that we didn’t see anyone plunge to their death!

PS - I realized that many people do not have Facebook, so I added some photos on to here. You can find them at this link: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/orderByID/users/Jaana M/

Unfortunately there is a limited upload capacity, so not all of them will be on here...but at least it gives you a peek into what we're seeing. :)

Posted by Jaana M 01:29 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Berlin, Germany

The brand new historic city

sunny 23 °C
View Britain and Europe 2007 on Jaana M's travel map.

After dropping off our luggage and repacking at our apartment in Mannheim we took the train to Berlin, Germany.

As soon as we stepped off the train we could tell that this city would be totally different from London. The atmosphere was lively even though it was 10 pm, the people were smiling and best of all: it was warm! After some stressed wandering we found our hostel, and it turned out to be HUGE! It's called the Generator, and had seven floors of about a 75 rooms each, with a happening bar on the ground floor, a large cafe-sitting area, a travel necessities store and of course the necessities like internet, information and such. if anyone wants to go to Berlin, I definitely recommend the Generator!

That night we went to the bar for awhile, but due to my tooth infection medication I couldn't drink anything, so I just had a lemonade. All of a sudden there was broken glass all over Kyle and I, and Kyle's hand was bleeding like mad. He had had the bright idea to see if he could break a beer glass in one hand...and well, it broke and ended up cutting his hand pretty badly. He probably needed stitches for at least one of the cuts, but he decided to tough it out and just get it bandaged up.

We saw a flyer for a free 'Alternative' walking tour of Berlin, so we decided to do that the next day. It was a great choice and a great day to do it on; the weather was abosultely beauitful. From 10am to 6pm that day we saw one amazing thing after another. Our tour guide was an Aussie that had lived in Berlin for 7 years, and he was quite the character. He brought along his alter ego, 'Pink Rat', which is exactly that: a hot pink stuffed rat. Pink Rat also had a hot-water bottle type pouch, which he used for hiding vodka, and supposedly he would get our guide in all sorts of trouble. The first place he took our group (about 10 ppl, all young, but from all different genres) was on a walk through his favourite neighbourhood. The apartment buildings had all been beautifully restored, and cute little cafes and shops spilled out into the streets. He said that because so much restoration and construction was happening in Berlin, the city was pretty much broke, and there were more than 300 000 empty apartments, so rent was extremely cheap. Totally made me think about moving there.

We checked a really neat clothing store called FUCK clothing; some eccentric vintage stores, like the 'Orange' one, which had predominantly orange vintage items; a metal-bakery, where the walls were decorated with metal music posters, and all the people who worked there were covered in tattoos; a cemetery that doubled as a bizarre playground for little children; and a shop that had no prices on any of the food – people just paid what they thought it was worth. We also saw a beautiful man-made waterfall, and climbed the tower

He took us to a ton of famous graffiti murals, some of them world-famous. One place had a series of real faces, famous and non-famous, painted onto the walls in vibrant colors and full of emotion. It was great to see all of the different painting styles. A bombed out building, that was saved from demolition by squatters had the largest mural in Europe on it, and the two guys that did it finished it in one night! You could still see all of the bullet holes in the walls. This building also housed a free art gallery for emerging artists and I bought a print from one of them. The guy that sold it to me was a little creepy though; he insisted on giving me his phone number, so that he would have a contact in Canada!

My favourite part was when he brought us to an abandoned factory. We snuck through a broken fence and walked around the buildings and even got to go in on. It was very dark, scary, and eerily empty. We saw the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall, which is covered in great graffiti, and the beach bars behind the wall. All four of them have a beach flair, with sand on the floor, and no ceiling, but they were completely different. One was Jamaican, with reggae music, volleyball, basketball and badminton courts, graffiti, painted cars and hammocks; one was like a beer garden, with long tables, and colorful banners; one was very classy, with red tents, white couches, and a marble bar; and one was a bohemian dance bar, with palm trees, lanterns, a broken down double-decker bus that housed the great DJs, a fountain in the middle, and flowers everywhere.

The last place we went to was a skate park, which was actually a huge complex of abandoned warehouses. One warehouse held tons of graffiti and there were three guys doing a huge piece right when we were there. The other warehouse held the skate park, which looked pretty sweet. Outside there was a huge climbing wall, and a beer garden. Nearby there’s a walled in forest where huge rave parties take place, and the entrance to the forest is through the backdoor of a PortaPotty!

Overall it was a super day and we both had a great time, but at the same time it was very tiring, so we didn’t do much when we got back to the hostel.

The next day we decided to do a free bike tour around Berlin, and it proved to be a great contrast with the alternative tour. Our guide was English and studied history at Berlin University, so he knew all about all of the historic areas. We rode city bikes all through the city and after a very informative history lesson, we went to go see most of the important historic sites. We rode to Museum Island, then to the Nazi headquarters, which is a hateful looking building that escaped all the bombing, and today houses the Berlin tax office. On the wall of the building a mural shows the perfect socialism world, and then on the ground in front of the building a photograph, the exact same size as the mural, shows what socialism is really like: an angry protest. The place where Hitler’s bunker was was just a patch of grass, because the Soviets had blown up the actual bunker. We learned that the first thing Hitler’s guards did after he died was light a cigarette because they were never allowed to that in the Bunker.

We also saw the Holocaust memorial, which is a full city block of large concrete blocks, which are all the same size, but appear to be very different because they are set into the ground at different depths, and at different angles. It is a very thought provoking memorial, and also hugely controversial because many people don’t think that Berlin should have a holocaust memorial.

For a break we went to a beer garden and Kyle and I had some great meals. While we were there it started pouring, so we waited around for it to let up. When we left it was still drizzling, but totally bearable. We saw the victory tower, with all of the gold victory rings, including the one that Hitler added before the victory he never claimed. We drove to the Berlin Opera house that was rebuilt three times due to the bombing. Between the Opera house and the Berlin Library there was the square where the huge book burning of May 1933 happened. Socialist students burned the works of any philosophers, writers, and researchers that wrote against socialism. We also went to the famous Checkpoint Charlie, were the US army and the Soviets spied on each other everyday. Nearby stands the oldest part of the Berlin Wall and it’s surprisingly low. There are crazy escape stories that are too detailed to mention here, but they are so risky that it’s hard to believe them.

This tour turned out to be just as good as yesterday’s, but for totally different reasons. We had experienced the rough, artsy part of the city, as well as learned all about the totally recent history of Berlin. We both enjoyed ourselves immensely and definitely want to go back.

Posted by Jaana M 13:07 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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