May, 2nd Half
Tues. May 26: Where are we?... Oh yeah--Krakow ("Crack-ow"), Poland. Things are starting to blur a little as far as cities go. I'll finish Rome with the Sistene Chapel. It's in the Vatican museum, which is huge--you could spend a day in there. There are four routes through the museum, all of which end at the Sistene Chapel--my first thought as I walked in was, "small". It's a rectangular room--basically just 4 walls and a ceiling--not really much of a "chapel", at least not anymore. They restored ("cleaned") the paintings so they're all brighter and prettier. It is a great thing to see, but see it before the Basilica, which is dizzying. Signs say cameras are not allowed (even without flash), but as with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it didn't stop anyone from getting their "Kodak moments." I had some 1600 speed film left over from St. Chapelle in Paris, so I shot a few pictures here and in the Basilica.
I don't think normal film would work very well in the dim lighting. Even the walk through the halls of the museum was pretty impressive--all the walls are filled with paintings done on the walls themselves. Sort of the predecessor to wallpaper I guess. When we first arrived in Rome we went to the information counter at the station. We got a map, and they made a reservation for us at a cheap hotel nearby. The youth hostel was a little cheaper, but much further away and we didn't feel like hassling with public transportation and pickpockets that early in the morning. The reservation was free. We walked a few blocks north-east of the station to The Matilde. A small hotel on the 5th floor (starting from the ground floor--6th "American" floor. Bring 50L coins for the elevator.) A clean double room with a sink (bathroom down the hall) for 40,000 L (US$33.60). On to Venice--took an early train. We've been making seat reservations for all our trips so far. It may not always be necessary since it's not quite high season yet, but it makes things easier and it usually costs only a few dollars. As in Rome, we made a reservation at the info. office when we arrived. Here we had to put a deposit down, but there was no charge. Venice is expensive. The cheapest we could get was a double for 50,000L (US$42). Again the YHA was a long way away, on another island, which meant paying for a boat to get to the center each day. It wouldn't have saved much anyway. Venice is a must-see because of its uniqueness.
But I've never seen such a tourist-dependent city. Coming from our time in Asia, it was all a bit much to take right now. Maybe it would've been different if we had gone there first. There was an endless supply of "middle-aged, tour group, cameras around their necks, hundred and fifty dollars a night" tourists. And the restaurants and gondolas were loving every minute of it. Gondolas were 70,000L per hour, and 90,000 after dark (US$58/$75), not including accordion player. There were so many gondolas in some parts that they could hardly get around each other in the canals. And the canals were not clear blue water--they were brown and they stunk.
Venice is also where I saw the dumbest tourist of all the trip. (American, of course). He wanted to get a picture of the gondolas, so he casually laid his expensive-looking zoom lens on the window sill of the building, and then walked across the sidewalk to take the picture. This was in the middle of a crowd of people walking down the sidewalk--I couldn't believe it! I've heard so many stories about loud, stupid Americans. We've really got a bad reputation overseas. Usually, among the backpackers we meet, it's not true. But I must admit that when we do meet a really stupid, obnoxious traveler, they're usually American. Much more often than European or Australian. And there are fewer of us traveling! I didn't used to believe it, but I have to say I see their point now.
But I'm really tired of hearing about polls taken of American kids showing that they can't even find Europe on a map. Europeans expect all the world to be as familiar with European geography and politics as they are. But they have a hard time naming more states than Texas, California, and New York, and I've lost track of how many times I've heard someone say there are 52 states in the US (it's 50!). And there are very few European cities (and no countries) the size of ours--but they're always quick to point out the homeless and the violence in our gigantic cities like L.A. and N.Y., even though those cities are themselves larger than many of Europe's countries. And one last thing before I step down off my soapbox--there are so many countries trying so hard to not be like America, but that are filled with American movies, music, TV shows, clothing styles, and fast food chains. America is everywhere! I've seen so many shirts, all over the world, with things written like, "U.S. Air Force", "USA", "American Football", and in Asia, even obvious rip-offs like "Dallas Redskins" with the colors green and white! Even the souvenir stands often sell caps with American cities and football teams on them. I have no idea why a German tourist in Venice would buy an American football cap. The fact is, there is no other country in all the world that has either the influence or the high standard of living that America has. Even in London there are still only pulse telephones (click click click) and you occasionally see signs saying not to drink the water. I guess I'm just getting tired of all the America-bashing. A few stupid tourists just aren't representative of a country of 280 million people.
Ok, I feel much better now. Back to Venice. After walking around the first day, then spending the night and walking around the second day, we realized that we were ready to go. So we did.
Austria exchange rate:
We took a night train that night to Vienna, Austria. My mom had received a letter from long-time friends, the Jenkins saying they were living in Vienna now. So after settling in a youth hostel we gave them a call and ended up visiting them later that night. It was good seeing people from home. We talked until late in the night and had a really good time. The hostel was very good. Cost 140 As each (US$12.70) and included breakfast (well, bread, butter, jam, and coffee or tea--I suppose it's almost breakfast). We got lucky and had a double for the same price as a dorm. They charge the same, but there's only a few of them. And it had new furniture, comfortable (bunk) beds, and a bathroom! We didn't want to leave. The only problems were they had a really bitchy staff (one lady hung up on me when I called to get directions--"you'll either find it or you won't" was the last thing I heard when I asked which direction the hostel was from the station), and a lockout from 9 am to 1 pm. Like Berne, Vienna's official language is German, so we got more practice. There are two YHAs run by the same people and around the corner from each other. One is "Myrthengasse" (the street name also), and ours, "Neustiftgasse". Took the bus from the train station to the hostel. I love their bus system. There's a coin operated ticket machine at the front--cancel the tickets in the other machine next to it. Every stop has a big sign with the stop name and a route map for the buses that stop there. And a recorded announcement is played on the bus before each stop. It's hard to get lost. And the metro is just as nice. We found out a little late that one ticket is good for an entire "trip" (one continuous direction) whether you use the bus, tram, metro, or a combination of the 3. Vienna, like Berne, is a pretty, interesting city, but doesn't really have very many "spectacular" things to see like Paris or Rome. I liked it though--there's a lot of great buildings and parks, and a good pedestrian mall--something we've seen a lot of on this trip that I wish we had more of back home. They're basically a street, blocked off at the ends, and converted to a kind of outdoor mall.
We're still working on getting visas for Russia. Went to the embassy and had a pretty frustrating day. They only spoke Russian and German, but we got someone to translate for us. We're trying to get the invitation forms from the families Dan and Trish stayed with. The forms take a long time to get, and are required unless you want to go through an official and very expensive tour sponsored by the Russian government, whose interest seems to be to get as many U.S. dollars from American tourists as possible. We recently heard that it's very easy to get a 10-day transit visa if you arrive from Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I doubt we can get one to "transfer" from Finland to Poland. By the way, that's our new plan--we're going to do Poland, Germany, and Sweden first to give the Russians more time to get the forms. But it's all so complicated and frustrating. I really don't think we'll be seeing Russia on this trip. Calling Russia from the States is much easier than from Europe, so Dan and my mom are helping a lot. On our last night in Vienna we had dinner with the Jenkins--great home-cooked food and a lot of fun. I brought the tape player (which records also) and set it in the middle of the floor while we all just talked about all kinds of things--I'll send it home soon. I think my family will really like it. I had wanted to do a few more tapes like that, but... The hostel had a pretty good restaurant, so with that and dinner at the Jenkins, we ate pretty well in Vienna. A big change from all the cheap sandwiches and junk in Italy. After our standard 3 days and nights, we took a morning train (about 3 1/2 hrs) to Salzburg. We had called a hostel from Vienna to make a reservation, so we just walked to it from the train station when we arrived. Didn't have to change money because we were still in Austria. Stayed at the "International Youth Hotel"--that's "Hotel", not "Hostel", but it's actually more of a hostel. Lots of Americans, which was a rarity. It's a fun place if you join in with all the people downstairs at the bar. Otherwise it's just a loud place 'til 1 am when the bar closes. Personally, I had fun. I really like Salzburg. It's great wandering around all the pedestrian streets and squares, filled with old buildings and interesting shops.
Lots of tourists, but nothing like Venice. The Mirabelle Gardens are really beautiful, and they look out to the castle up on the hill over the city.
Didn't go to the expensive castle (we've seen a few already) but took the elevator to the top of the cliffs at the south end of the pedestrian streets and got a great view of the entire city. On our 1st day, Sunday, we found out there was a 2-day celebration going on at the big brewery in town--500th anniversary, just like Columbus in 1492. So we got on a bus and headed out to the party in search of the band and half-litre beers for 14.92 Austrian Schillings (US$1.30). But, as usual, we got there 15 minutes after they stopped serving beer and 5 minutes before the band stopped playing--perfect! I think we've barely missed every festival in Europe this Spring. But had a lot of fun at the hostel just talking with the ton of English-speaking (mostly American, English, and Australian) backpackers. It was good to talk about all the familiar topics again--where you've been, where you're going, what you thought of that city, missing things from home, and all the differences between our home countries and how we speak. Also how long you've been gone--a subject that is always fun for us because we get to say we've been gone for almost 8 1/2 months, which always raises eyebrows. It's been a long time since we met anyone traveling that long--there were more in Asia and Australia. Most people here are doing the "Europe in one to three months" thing. And we've met very few that have been to as many places as we have. The biggest tourist attraction of Salzburg is the fact that "The Sound of Music" was filmed there. The big tour costs 250 As (US$23), so we skipped it. But the hostel shows the film every day at 1:30 in the TV room. We watched it after walking all over town and it was really great to see all the streets and buildings of Salzburg in the film. I'm almost positive that one part where she teaches them to sing was shot from the same point where we looked out over the city after taking the elevator to the top of the hill.
But the tour is supposed to be really good--it goes all around the country-side and lasts about 4 hours.
Germany exchange rate:
After a few much-needed fun days in Salzburg we moved on to Munich via a morning train--only an hour and forty minutes away. It was strange to finally be in Germany after hearing German for so long. Forgot to mention--the hostel in Salzburg was 120 As each in a 4-bed dorm, plus showers cost 12 As for a 6-minute token. The bar had really good food for all meals too--and pretty cheap. In Munich the hostels don't take people over 26, so we stayed at another small hotel, near the University. We later found out they only enforce the rule when they're full, so we could have gotten in anyway. (I'm 27, K's 25). But the hotel was good. Cost 75 DM plus 2.50 DM each for use of the shower. (US$53 total--expensive!) It was the cheapest we could find since we didn't know about the hostel. Most of Munich's sights are near the center of town, so walking was easy. The square with the Town Hall, Marienplatz, is great. Lots of people milling around. The old Town Hall building looks more like a cathedral. A huge Gothic thing with wooden figures that dance at certain hours.
Took a train and bus to Dachau, a small town about 45 minutes away, to see the memorial for the Nazi concentration camp there. I've had mixed feelings about seeing it. I've seen the films and pictures, and heard the stories, and I believe them. But I wasn't sure I really wanted to go see it. Somehow it seems like going to the morgue to see a murder victim. But I do agree that it should stay as a reminder to the world. Well, it was about like I thought. I learned a few things, and saw a few more disgusting, terrifying things--but I'm glad I went. The big sign near the museum has the words "Never Again" in a few languages. I suppose that's reason enough for people to go. I was glad to see that they were not charging an admission. The Germans seem to deal with it pretty well. For most people it's hard to believe it ended only 47 years ago in 1945.
Back to Munich. The words "Munich" and "beer" seem to go together quite well. After one expensive night and 2 full days, we decided to spend the evening at the Hofbräuhaus and then move on. We had been told to skip the Hofbräuhaus and all it's touristy atmosphere, and go to one of the other beer gardens to hang out with the locals. But those places aren't very exciting on a Wednesday night, and every night's a Friday night for tourists, so we went anyway. Had a lot of fun eating German sausage, listening to the Oom-pah band, and talking to 2 South African girls, Elmari and Aljo, who offered us a place to stay, a ride from the airport, and a tour of their city. Of course, we had beer too. So far we've been given addresses for 3 different groups of people from S. Africa offering us a place to stay. They (and several more) all rave about how absolutely fantastic their country, and especially Cape Town is. I'm convinced at this point that the streets are paved with gold and they hand out money on every corner! It does sound like a wonderful place. It was in our original plan, but since we found out the cost of the plane tickets to get there we've kind of given up hope for seeing it. We both really want to see it now, but if we can't it'll be among the places we want to see next time we take a (much shorter) trip.
Czechoslovakia exchange rate:
Wed. May 27: Krakow. I'm almost caught up! I wrote for 5 hours straight yesterday! From the Hofbräu, we (mostly I) staggered to the train station to catch the 11 pm train to Prague. Prague was not in our original plan, but so many people kept telling us how great it was that we decided to go. Supposedly, you have to go through one of the official agencies to get in a hostel. We lugged our packs across town and got to "CKM", who we thought could find us a room. Actually they just had one hostel, but it sounded ok. We later found out we could have gone straight to the hostel and paid them instead of CKM. Got back on the Metro and made it up to the stop near the hostel. Then it took us another half hour to find it. CKM's directions were less than helpful. Since that was our main problem in Prague, I'll write down exactly how to get there--forget CKM. The place is called B & B Hostel. From the main train station, take the C line of the Metro north to the last stop--the name is "something Holesovice." Step off the train and turn right--go upstairs, through the ticket cancel boxes, and turn right. Walk to the end of the hall and exit. Walk straight and up the steps to street level. You should see a building with the sign "Merkuria" or something like that. Walk over the highway overpass straight ahead, walking on the left side. On the other side, go down the steps. Follow the train tracks about 50 yards to the right and you'll see the hostel behind some trees on the right. Not exactly the best advertised place. But it's comfortable and only cost 260 Kr. (US$9.30) each, including the best cold breakfast I've had (breads, etc.) Of course, there are probably other places a little closer, but the Metro's only 4 Kr (US 14 cents) per ride. Also, there were lots of people at the station offering rooms for rent--we felt more comfortable trusting a hostel, but we talked to some people that did it and said it was fine and close to the center, which is the most important thing to check. Prague is BEAUTIFUL! And cheap! I love Prague! An endless supply of beautiful, colorful buildings and squares. There's a river running through, and the main bridge is filled with statues and people selling arts and crafts.
The main square is really big--a cathedral on one side and another impressive building across from it with a very complex, huge clock that tells the time, day of week, day of year, astrological sign, and a few other things about planets. There are wooden figures that dance on this one also.
The man that commissioned the clock had the clock-maker's eyes put out afterwards so he could never make another one like it. We finally got to a city during a festival! Prague was having it's Spring festival the last couple of weeks of May, and there were live bands playing in almost every square. We sat and watched a Czechoslovakian band play American country music one day--they were really good. We met a couple from Australia at the hostel, Lee & Allan--they were 3 months into a year-long trip around the world. Spent the day with them and another guy from S. Africa, Clyde, just exploring the city. Ended the day by going out for a couple of beers at a "popular beer garden". Actually it was more of a local hangout with a band playing Czech. folk songs and everybody (except us) singing along. It was a lot of fun though.
The city is so pretty! Not at all the old dirty city I had expected. Food was pretty cheap too. Had spaghetti for 45 Kr. (US$1.60) one night, and half-litre beers were about 30 Kr. (US$1.00). Our packs were getting entirely too heavy again, so we decided to send a few things home. Then we got the idea to send them to Bruce and Sue in Paris since we'll have to go through there before London. But they have this crazy rule that says you can only send packages less than 2 kilos from the main post office, and have to take a bus to the other one for larger packages. We ended up sending my big coat, the short wave radio, and a bunch of papers and souvenirs. Decided to stay an extra (4th) day so we could arrive in Krakow on Monday instead of Sunday. Finally figured out which train to take (go to the train information counter at the main station, not the ticket booths or the self-service computer, which was completely wrong).
Poland exchange rate:
Said goodbye to beautiful Prague Sunday night (24th) and took a night train to Krakow. Usually on night trains that cross boarders, they take our passports so we don't have to be awakened in the middle of the night. Not Poland though. At about midnight, there's a pounding on the door and we jump up, half asleep, and try to find the door lock. It's a guy in a uniform asking for passports. He goes away, we turn off the lights, lock the door, and try to slow down our heart rates. Twenty minutes go by and the entire scene is repeated with a different agent. Another twenty minutes and it happens again, but this time the guy looks at Kathey for a while and then calls over another guy. He looks at her picture, then at her, and finally asks for other ID. Kathey quickly fumbles for her driver's license and her youth hostel card. They both look at those, and she lowers her hair from her pony tail and they look some more. (The picture is a little different, but not really that much, and this is the first time anyone's questioned it.) They ask a couple of questions and find out she's my wife--then things seem to change a little and soon they're welcoming us to Poland. After another 10 minutes the customs officer is pounding on the door and wants us to fill out currency forms. (Kathey's form is in Polish, mine in English.) Well, we have about a half an hour now before we have to get off at 2:40 am and change trains in Katawice--about 2 hrs. outside of Krakow. Soon we step off the train with our packs on and it's COLD! (less than 48 hrs. after we mailed my coat to France.) The train leaves at 3:50 am, not 3:17, so we go inside and join the locals, all sitting or sleeping, waiting for trains. Soon we're sitting on the floor, eating the breakfast we brought, and saying, "Where are we? How'd we get here?" By 3:30 we're on a train again and soon we're asleep and heading for Krakow. We arrive about 5:30 and the sun is up. We join a few other lost backpackers and head for a hotel across the street that's supposed to change money. They don't, of course. And they said there's no place to change money 'til 8:00. So four of us sit down in the lobby and start to wait the 2 hours. Then suddenly I remembered reading that even the hotels are sometimes cheap here, so I check out the rates. In about 15 minutes we have 2 rooms and the 4 of us are sacked out. From train to hotel room in 45 min.--a record for us. Needless to say, we slept most of the day, but managed to get to the bank, and see some of the town. Even got some mail! A letter from my mom and another from my grandfather. Back in Vienna I got several from home also, including one from Sheryl. Also got a letter in Salzburg from my brother Michael. We've been telling my mom cities to have people send mail to so we only have to check in every 3rd or 4th city. I had heard from other travelers how ugly Poland is. It's not. At least Krakow's not. It's another pretty town, easily walkable like Munich, with parks, and a big square in the middle. On the square is a really pretty cathedral and lots of shops and cafes.
Tons of shops and restaurants on the side streets leading to the square also. The hotel is the Hotel Polonia. 240,000 Zlotys for a double without bath, right across the street from the train station, and just across from the park that surrounds the inner part of the city. With the ridiculous exchange rate the room costs $18. One Polish Zloty is worth seven and a half thousandths of a cent! And we thought the Italian lire was bad at 1,190 per dollar. Here you buy things like a candy bar for 7,000 and dinner for two for about 100,000. When we changed money, we got a couple of 500,000 bills. We're finally millionaires! So far I really like these Eastern European countries. It's a little harder to deal with officials because it's really rare that anyone speaks English (even in stores--but they're helpful anyway), but it's pretty, cheap (so we're eating really well), and not flooded with tourists. We noticed a big drop in the number of backpackers when we got to Czechoslovakia, even more so here. I've been having trouble with one knee since we were in Paris. Lately I've been wearing a brace, but we seem to walk so much that it's been getting steadily worse. Yesterday (our 2nd day) Kathey went to Auschwitz, another Nazi concentration camp, and I stayed home to rest my knee.
Today Kathey went out to run some errands like changing money, buying soap, etc., and I stayed here again. Went out for lunch though, and stopped by the post office. We each got a couple of things, including a letter from my mom and a package from Michael (my brother) with a book and a tape of country music for Kathey. Whew! I'm finally caught up! My hand hurts.