Monday, July 4, 2011

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 16 (7/2/2011) - Zürich

I got a decent amount of sleep despite the heavy snoring of one of the other two guests in our room.  And my cold had mostly cleared out, though I still had a lingering cough.  We didn't need to be anywhere at any certain time, so I slept until about 9.  After we got dressed and ready to go, we went looking for some cheap breakfast (Zürich is a very expensive city). We ended up getting some bread, fruit, and pastries at an outdoor market that we ran across.  Then we headed to the Grossmünster church, and climbed up the tower to get a look at the city.  I should add that Zürich is a beautiful city - the river (which leads to a huge lake) is clean, the buildings have a classic feel, and you can see the beginning of the Alps in the distance.  Too bad there is not that much to do there, especially if you're on a budget.

After the church tower we found a Starbucks so Galen and Matt could get a coffee (which Galen hated), and I got some mango and passion fruit frozen drink.  We then ran into a bike rental stand, and Galen and Matt rented a couple of bikes to ride down toward the end of the lake.  I bid them goodbye and headed toward the Landesmuseum (a.k.a. the Swiss National Museum).  On the way I stopped at a couple more churches - the Fraumünster and St. Peter Church (which has the largest church clock face in Europe).  I eventually made it to the museum and spent the rest of the afternoon there until it closed at 5.  I was actually not terribly impressed with the museum, though I wasn't terribly disappointed either - the permanent exhibits are dedicated to all of Swiss history, and some of it was interesting. My favorite part, though, was probably a temporary exhibit of the best Swiss press photos of 2010.  I also would have liked to check out the tower of arms, but the museum closed before I got a chance to do so.  On the walk back to the hostel I stopped at a grocery store to get a sandwich (I couldn't hold out until the 6:30 meet-up time) and some still water (I had earlier accidentally bought some carbonated water).  I was back at the hostel a little before 6.  I typed up some more of the travelogue on my phone while waiting for the other 2 to show up, which they did around 7.

We overhead some people in the hostel common area talking about a Latin festival, so we decided to go check it out.  It had overtaken several blocks in the western part of the city, and was pretty packed.  There was lots of music being played, many tents selling goods, and lots of food (both Latin and otherwise) being sold.  We walked around for a while before finally settling on a couple of tents to get food.  I got a decent beef empanada from one place and a so-called "fajita" from a tent entitled "Mexican Food" (it didn't taste very Mexican).  One of the nearby tents was bumping some decent club tunes, both Latin-inspired and otherwise, so we settled there for a bit.  We then left the festival briefly so Galen and Matt could each buy a couple of cans of cheap beer (instead of paying the exorbitant festival prices) before heading back in towards our previous spot.  After becoming sufficiently creeped out by how much younger than us most of the festival-goers were, we decided to walk back to the hostel.  As we approached the river we overhead an opera-like singer in another direction.  The others wanted to check it out, but I wanted to get some sleep before my early flight the next morning, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. I returned to the hostel and went to bed a little after 11.

There's not much to the next day, so I'll just finish up here. I got up at 5:30, got ready, and headed out to the main train station by 6:15.  I caught the 6:39 train to the airport and checked in a couple of hours before my 9:05 flight to Düsseldorf. I had some issues boarding the plane, as my electronic ticket number had been messed up (I suspected this would happen when Orbitz/Continental/United changed my flight details, and screwed up my Newark-Amsterdam connection, a couple of months before), but the guys at the Swiss International Air Lines counter eventually resolved it (at least up to Toronto, they said) and I was able to board with a couple of late arrivers.  The flight lasted about an hour, then I had about 2 hours before my 8 hour flight to Toronto.  While going through document control I was told that I needed a new boarding pass with a proper ticket number.  The women at the Lufthansa counter printed me a new boarding pass for the trans-Atlantic flight, though one just signed the empty space where the ticket number would normally go, and they were also able to print me a Toronto boarding pass.  I was able to nap a bit on the flight to Toronto, though I spent most of the time watching a couple of movies and a soccer documentary - Lufthansa has a decent personal entertainment system on their A330s.  They also served lunch and a warm snack.  In Toronto, I had another couple of hours to go though US customs (you get to skip Canadian customs if you're connecting to the US) and then go though the security checkpoint (again).  I spent some more time at the Air Canada gate desk while they tried to resolve the ticket number issue - this caused the plane to board late, but I don't feel so bad because we had to wait for 8 missing passengers anyway (and only 2 showed up).  The flight to St. Louis took a couple of hours, and I sat next to a nice young lady named Cassandra who was from Toronto and went to SLU's medical school.  After making it back to St. Louis my wonderful mother welcomed me back at the airport.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 15 (7/1/2011) - To Zürich

After getting ready we checked the train schedules online to see when the trains to Zürich were leaving.  We saw that one was leaving at 9:40, which was in 15 minutes, so we hustled down to check out and then over to the Hauptbahnhof.  We made it a couple of minutes before the train was supposed to leave, but couldn't find the train. A closer look at my phone revealed that the train was leaving from a different station in München.  Galen asked an attendant at an info desk and she gave us a timetable for a trip leaving at 9:43.  So we hustled over to catch that train.  The first leg was 80 minutes to Ulm.  After about an hour there, during which we finally got a late breakfast, we took the next train 134 minutes to Schaffhausen.  After disembarking we headed toward the stairs into the station, but we were stopped by a Swiss border patrolman who asked to see our passports.  He then took us into the office where we waited for him to do whatever it is they do in the back room.  He then came back out with our passports and sent us on our way.  At this point I realized that we weren't far from Rhine Falls, so we contemplated visiting there.  Galen asked at a nearby Best Western and they told him which bus to take.  Since we needed Swiss Franks to do this, we exchanged our remaining Euro cash at the ticket center.  After the exchange, though, Galen remembered that his friend Matt was to have arrived in Zürich at noon (3 hours earlier), and didn't want to keep him waiting at the hostel.  So we took our original 3:09 connecting train to Zürich (a 39 minute ride).

Once at the Zürich main station, our hostel (City Backpacker) was about a 15 minute walk (add 5 for doing it the first time).  Interestingly, the entrance was at the side of the building, and reception was 2 floors up (which I guess isn't as bad as Raise a Smile in Berlin, which was on the 5th floor).  Once we checked in, we left a note for Matt and then went wandering around on the off chance that we would find him.  And we the river not too far from the hostel.  After greetings and reintroductions (I apparently had met him before) we walked over to a park with Linden trees that Matt had wandered over to earlier and really liked (we later found out that the name is Lindenhof).  They have 3 garden-size chess sets there with large wooden pieces.  Galen and I were able to sneak a quick game in on one of the boards (he won, as usual in timed games) before we had to head off to meet Erin's friend Liz.

We caught up with Liz and her friend (whose name I don't recall) a couple of minutes after 6 at a beer garden that she had coordinated with Galen.  I was getting a bit hungry so I had an ice cream bar while the others each had a beer (though Matt also had a pretzel).  After the drinks we walked to a stand (it's normally a restaurant, but it was being renovated) that served Liz's favorite bratwurst in town.  I went with the "white" brat and a (hard) roll (served separately), and some of the horseradish mustard.  Next we hit up an ice cream place that supposedly is the best around (Mövenpick - I think it is a chain), and then a bar that featured an accordion player.  Liz's husband, Joe, joined us on the way to the bar.  The customers (read: mostly our group) were able to participate in the "music" making, as the bartender brought out a couple of percussive wooden instruments (spoons, some slinky slotted wood and leather thing, and something else nobody knew how to play).  Galen and Joe also joined a couple of young locals in a game that they used to determine who bought the round of drinks.  Basically, the bartender brings out the drinks, typically shots, and a nail for each player.  The players each give their nail a bit of a start into a wooden stump and then they take turns taking one strike at the nail with the sharp end of a hammer (where the hammer strike upswing must be started at the side of the stump).  The last player to hammer their nail all the way in pays for the drinks.  Galen started out slowly, but ended up finishing third (though he "cheated" a bit on the starting position of some of his good strikes).  It came down to Joe and the guy who won the first round before Galen and Joe joined in, but Joe ended up avoiding defeat.  A short while later we left the bar and said our goodbyes to the other group.  Then the 3 of us walked back to the hostel, which was pretty close by.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 14 (6/30/2011) - München

We were dressed and ready to head out around 9:15, and were planning to be in Marienplatz @ 10 for the Sandeman's New Munich "free" walking tour. We didn't remember seeing any cafes on the way there the night before (though we were wrong) so we reluctantly decided to pay the €4.80 for the hostel breakfast.  After eating we headed out in the rain.  We weren't sure if the walking tour would still happen due to the weather, but it did - though the guide made it clearly known that she would be screwed over if any of the 8 of us left early and didn't tip her (she actually wanted a minimum of 9 people).  The tour covered Marienplatz, the Neues Rathaus (this building is an interesting mixture of old gothic architecture with modern shops on the ground floor) glockenspiel (we saw the 11:00 "performance" - some say it's the most overrated attraction in Europe, but it wasn't to me since I didn't know anything about it in the first place; you shouldn't expect much from it, though), Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Dear Lady), St. Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church), Viktualienmakt (a big outdoor market), the Residenz (the former Bavarian royal residence), and Odeonsplatz, among other things.  She was probably the least good (I hesitate to say "worst" because she did an adequate job) tour guide that we've had, especially in terms of historical knowledge, but I gave her the biggest tip so far because I felt bad about the weather diminishing our group.

After the tour Galen and I went back to the Residenzmuseum and had a look around for a while.  The palace is so huge and has so many rooms (I think 90 of the 130+ were open for viewing) that we were "palaced out" after about 1.5 hours (even with the included audioguides helping).  The next stop was St. Peterskirche, where we climbed the 330 steps to the top of the tower (this was the first time in Germany that Galen was not given the student rate, €1 vs. €1.50, for not having his student ID).  Next we headed to the beer garden in Viktualienmakt to grab a late lunch - I had schnitzel (which was OK) and potato salad (it's kinda like American potato salad, but with only potatoes, and bigger chunks of them).  After eating we did a little shopping - I bought a Mesut Özil Germany away jersey and Galen exchanged some socks that were too small at H&M.  He also continued in his unsuccessful quest to find Adidas Sambas that are cheaper in Germany than in the USA (they are significantly more expensive in Germany, and that really ticks him off since he could have bought them back in the States but instead chose to wait, reasoning that they would be cheaper in the home of Adidas).  By the time we were done it was too late to go to the Deutsches Museum, so we instead walked to the Englisher Garten (English Garden), which is a *huge* park in the northeast section of the city. We walked through part of it, including a stop at the Chinese Tower, before cutting across and back toward the hostel.

We did not stay long at the hostel before heading out to grab a couple of döner at a nearby restaurant. There we met a Californian named Courtney. After eating with her, we all walked over to the Augustiner bar that we had stopped at the night before (Galen loves how they tap the wooden barrels right in front of you). And after a couple of drinks there we hopped over to the Hofbräuhaus (they had Galen's favorite beer in München, as well as a polka band), where we sat with a group of 4 from Seoul (South Korea). There was merrymaking until the place closed at midnight, at which point we parted ways. I walked Courtney back to her hostel, which was next door to ours, while Galen and one of the Koreans went in search of some more good times and liquid refreshment.

Surprising factoid about München - there is either a significant Muslim population residing there or a lot of Muslims love visiting there - I saw a lot walking around.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 13 (6/29/2011) - To München

For breakfast we had some of the remainder of the food we bought the day before.  I left the cheese in the hostel, though, as I didn't think that it would carry well in my bag.  I did take the remaining half of the dürüm from the night before, though. After checking out we took the S-Bahn from Neustadt to Dresden Hbf. There we caught the 11:01 regional express to Nürnberg (in first class, though it wasn't much of a difference). The ride lasted a little over 4 hours, and the first half of it was through some fairly winding track.  It also allowed for some nice countryside scenery.   I spent the time catching up on my travelogue, finishing up the dürüm, listening to some tunes, and catching a few winks.

In Nürnberg we had 9 minutes to transfer to our ICE to München (Munich).  We were among the last to board but we were able to snag a couple of first class seats. A few minutes into the trip an announcement was made and the train soon stopped.  After we sat at a station for a while another announcement was made.   A woman sitting across the table from us could see the puzzled looks on our faces and explained to us that there had been an accident further down the line near Ingolstadt, so the train would reverse back to Nürnberg and reroute to München via Augsburg.  Impressively, to me at least, the train was headed in the opposite direction within about 15 minutes.  Unfortunately, 90 minutes was added to our travel time, which was normally about 75 minutes.

We arrived in München a little after 6, and it didn't take us long to find our hostel (Jaeger's), which is only a 5 minute walk from the central station.  After checking in and stowing our gear I contacted Nathan, a buddy from work, to finalize our meet-up plans (that sim card came in handy after all - I was able to warn him of our late train while still on it).  Galen and I then walked over to the Hofbräuhaus, a popular beer hall, to meet up with him, his mother, and his aunt for dinner and beers (though I had the "lemonade", which was more like 7-up). We were late, though, as Galen had to make an H&M detour.  At the HBH, I had the pork steak with au-gratin potatoes, and it was pretty good - the caramelized onions were a nice touch.  I also may or may not have let Galen use my backpack to steal one of their giant beer mugs.  After dinner we said goodbye to Nathan and company, and headed down the street.  I decided to get a gelato cone while Galen started a beer at an Augustiner bar.  I later joined him in the bar, where he finished his drink off before we walked back to the hostel.  Back at the hostel, I tried to upload some photos from my camera, but the stupid computers were not set up to allow that - they had some kiosk software running on Ubuntu that neither I nor Galen could work around.  I was later able to use our kind roommate Steve's laptop to upload the pics, though. We didn't go out anymore the rest of the night.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 12 (6/28/2011) - Dresden

Let me start out by saying that this was a great day and it would be hard for another day on the trip to top it.

We were not in any particular hurry this morning, so we slept in until about 9:30 or 10. After showering we walked to the train station supermarket and bought some breakfast food for 2 days - bread, cheese, bananas, cereal, milk, tea, juice. We then returned to the hostel and ate some of it. Next we wandered over to Altstadt (Old Town) Dresden. Galen led us down the wrong street again (I failed in my resolution to double-check his navigation), but this led to the magnificent fortune that while correcting our path we bumped into 4 players from the USA women's soccer team, whose game we would be seeing that evening. Galen was the one who initially noticed them and then hinted who they might be. I had been oblivious, and by the time we convinced each other that they were probably on the team we had already walked past them. I resolved to run back and ask them but Galen beat me to the punch and yelled our question at them. Two of them answered in the affirmative and turned around to come meet us. We introduced ourselves and chatted briefly - one player was Alex (Morgan), and I can't remember the other's name, but I'll look her up later. They were also kind enough to pose with me for a picture, which was pretty freaking cool. As we parted ways we assured them that we would be rooting for them at the game later.

After that we walked through Dresden for a while, and I must say that it is a gorgeous city. Our most noble stop was probably the Zwinger, which is a palace that has been converted into a few museums. We separately toured the art museum, using the audio guides that I have now come to like (it was worth the €3, especially since we got €2.50 off the entry fee for being students (Germans are also very trusting, including if you don't have your student ID, as Galen didn't). We also walked through the armory museum as well as the uncontrolled palace grounds. After that we walked to the German Hygiene Museum, which was next to the stadium and had been recommended by one of the hostel workers in Berlin. But by the time we got there it was closing up early due to the game, and we didn't really have time to see it anyway - it was almost 4:30 and the game started at 6:15. We walked over to a huge, and faily packed, beer garden to grab a bite before the game - I had a bratwurst (no bun), fries, and a Fanta while Galen just had fries and a couple of half-liter beers. We then walked through the fan zone (my favorite game, though I didn't play any, was a penalty kick station with a computerized/mechanical goalie that pivoted to save the kicks) before entering and finding our seats.

The game itself was really good. The North Korean women probably had more pace, but the larger USA women were often able to muscle them off the ball. The game was tied 0-0 at halftime, with each team getting a couple of good chances. The USA controlled more of the ball but the North Koreans were dangerous on the counterattack. The second half saw more USA control and finally yielded a breakthrough. The final score was 2-0, and I think each team also hit a crossbar. Abby Wambach won player of the game honors, and Alex came on in the second half (Galen and I thought #7 might have been her from the start, but she turned out to have my favorite #13). I may or may not have taken a few close-up pictures of her after I realized (due to the substitution announcement) which player was her. After the win the team did a victory/cool-down lap for the remaining US fans (the crowd had been mostly neutral with a large US contingent and a tiny North Korean section), and a couple of players later signed some autographs.

After that Galen and I went to hang out by the stadium VIP exit with a small crowd. There we saw Julie Foudy and later Mia Hamm (who was my, and everybody's, favorite female player for a long time). One of the staff with her came over and semi-discretely told us that Mia would come over to the barrier if we called her - so I did. And when she came over I was shell-shocked. I just stared, unable to say anything, until Galen bailed me out by asking her if/how she gets to go to all the games. As they chatted briefly, I fumbled out my camera from my bag and asked her for a picture with me, to which she graciously obliged (!!!). After that my head was in the clouds for a while.

After hanging around for a few more minutes, we noticed a bus pull up where another crowd had gathered by an exit, so we hustled over. The North Korean team was first to board their bus, and the (pro-USA) crowd gave them a healthy applause. Some minutes later the US women came out to loud cheers. Some of them again signed autographs, including Alex. I held out my ticket and a pen for her to sign, and she recognized me. She thanked me for coming out to support them and I congratulated her for the win. She asked if we were going to any more of their games, to which I replied that we weren't. Galen and I had earlier joked about asking her if she or the team were hanging out later, and I actually did ask - I tried to do so in the most non-creepy way I could but I'm sure it probably came across that way anyway. In any case, she said that they were leaving early the next day so they wouldn't be doing much of anything. If she was indeed creeped out, she handled it very well and was super nice. I wished her good for luck the rest of the tournament and let her continue signing. And that is how the young up-and-comer Alex Morgan became my new favorite female soccer player (although Marta is so amazingly good that she'll probably be 1a).

After all that Galen and I walked back to Neustadt, this time over the nice bridge. We tried dropping by an Indian joint marked on the map, but the kitchen was closed, so we instead hit up another Turkish place for a couple of dürüm. We then walked back to the hostel to hang out and play some chess before calling it a night a little before 1.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 11 (6/27/2011) - To Dresden

We got a semi-early start this morning so that we could catch the 10:48 to Dresden.  Another guest at the Berlin hostel, Ben, was to stay at the same hostel as us in Dresden (Kangaroo Stop).  So we headed to the Berlin Hbf with him. He had a second class pass, so we separated to board the train. Unfortunately, Galen and I were slow on the draw, and by the time we got to the first class car all the seats were taken.  So we walked to the adjoining second class car to try to find seats.  We found a couple that were unoccupied, but we were not sure if they were reserved - instead of the info line next to the seat number saying the cities between which they were reserved (e.g., BERLIN-DRESDEN) or being blank, they said something like "GGF RESERVIERT", which we didn't understand, but hoped meant that they could not be reserved (Update: it turns out this means that the on-train reservation system is not up to date with the latest information from the booking system, so the seat may be reserved).  So we sat in them and hoped that nobody would kick us out during the 1.5 hour ride - which they didn't.

After arriving in Dresden we all took the S-Bahn (without paying - an attendant told me that our rail passes were valid for the local trains, which looked like the regional trains, but I'm not sure she understood what I was asking) a couple of stops to Neustadt (New Town) and then made the short walk to Kangaroo Stop.  After checking in (Galen and I had a private 2-bed room) Galen and I headed out to find something to eat.  A few blocks down we realized that we should have grabbed Ben to tag along.  But when we went back to get him he had already taken off (after not being able to find us, we later found out).  So we walked down to a Turkish place by the train station and had a dürüm (me) and felafel döner (Galen).  After that we walked around Neustadt for a while, including a stop for a couple of ice cream cones.  Next we walked into a nearby park and joined in with a couple of guys who were kicking a soccer ball around.  Then we headed back to the outdoor ping-pong tables and played some doubles with a group of three guys that had an extra paddle.  Germans are so friendly!

When we were finished playing, the ping-pong guys pointed us in the direction of a local microbrewery that Galen wanted to check out.  We eventually found the place, but then realized that the map info said that it was only open for 2 hours (12-2) each day (though longer on Saturdays).  So we walked back to the hostel, intending to rest a bit then head out to the riverside "beach" before dark.  But once we laid down we were out for a while - I slept for about 1.5 hours and Galen slept about 3.  After I got up I went out on the patio and hung out with Ben and some other guests, including a couple of Aussies and a Dubliner.  Galen later joined us, and we all eventually headed out to grab some food.  We settled on another Turkish place (eastern Germany is apparently full of them), where I had a Hawaiian pizza and some green (Exotic) Fanta.  Most of the guys each grabbed a beer and then we all wandered around fairly aimlessly for a bit (drinking in the streets is legal in Germany) before Galen and I decided to head back, and the others followed.  I went to bed sometime around 1.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Monday, June 27, 2011

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 10 (6/26/2011) - Berlin

When I woke up this morning I was cursing myself for staying out so late (especially since I had developed a full-on head cold) - 4 hours of sleep was not working out too well.  Nevertheless, I got ready and had some cereal.  Galen and I headed down to the Starbucks by Brandenburg Gate for the second consecutive morning to meet up for tours.  However, we did not go on the same tour - I did the Potsdam tour while he did the Sachsenhausen concentration camp tour.

Potsdam is about 40 minutes away from central Berlin by train, so it requires the ABC pass (C is the farthest zone).  We took the train about halfway out, and then took a bus so that we could start outside the bridge into Potsdam.  The tour went through the city and then Sanssouci Park, including a stop at Sansoussi Palace and then ending at the Neues Palais (New Palace).  The group moved pretty slowly, mostly due to a married couple with a small child in a stroller, so we ended up missing the train (and back-up bus) that our tour guide wanted to take.  So we instead spent half an hour at a nearby bar while waiting for the next train into Berlin.

I got off the train at Hauptbanhnhof and then took the U-Bahn one stop down to the Bundestag station, where I went up to take pictures of the Reichstag building.  I played the ignorant tourist role to try to see if I could get into the building without having to make a reservation (which was free, but would have given me a time after I had already left Berlin), but it didn't work (though I didn't reallz try hard).  So I walked down to the Siegessäule (Victory Column) and then to an S-Bahn stop, and took the train/tram back to the hostel (with a stop for a cheap (but delicious) döner kebap at a nearby restaurant.  Back at the hostel I hung around for a bit until Galen arrived.  Since I was tired from lack of sleep the night before and my head cold was in full force, I stayed in that night.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 9 (6/25/2011) - Berlin

The hostel provided a slim breakfast for the price of whatever we felt like donating.  I had some toast and some tea. After eating we headed to Brandenburg Gate to meet up the Sandeman's New Berlin free walking tour at 11. The tour was pretty good - we covered Pariser Platz, a brief look at the Reichstag (for which you must now make online reservations to get into, and has a 3-day wait - D'OH!), the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus (former Luftwaffe HQ), a delapidated section of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Bebelplatz (and the book-buring memorial), Museum Island, and more. 

After the tour we tried to get a Museum Island pass at the Old Museum (Altes Museum), but the receptionist warned us that it was too late (a little before 3:30) to see more than one museum.  So we opted for the Pergamon Museum, since many people had talked it up, and were not disappointed at all.  Two of the main displays (and my favorites) in the museum were reconstructions of the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.  The museum also provided a free audio guide that was very helpful - they had an option to explore the main highlights in 30 minutes as well as the option to get info on any display with an audio number.  I might have to start using the audio tours at other museums, even if they charge for them.

When we finshed with the museum, we headed back to Friedrichshain (the cool/cheap area by our hostel).  We took a quick detour into Treptow to get a closer look at the Blu piece Galen had spied from the bridge, and then walked back to Friedrichshain to eat some dinner.  We settled on on Indian food, even though it was a second consecutive night, and it was really good.  During dinner we sat next to and conversed with 4 girls from Poland.

After eating we went back to the hostel to hang out for a while with a few of the other patrons as well as a couple of the hostel workers.  Around 11 Galen and I headed out to check out the Berlin club scene.  Apparently it doesn't start until midnight.  We first tried the club in RAW, which was not yet open, then we tried to find Watergate - we found a sign, but couldn't tell where the club itself was.  We asked a couple of German girls for help, and they were looking for it as well.  They found the building, which was not marked at all, and found out that it didn't open until midnight, which was still 20 or so minutes away.  So they took us to another bar for a while before we headed back to Watergate around 12:30.  There was already a significant queue when we got there, but we got in within 20 minutes.  To improve our chances of getting in (the clubs can be selective at times - especially if you overdress), we let the girls do all the talking.

The club was still filling up when we got in, so we got a bit of a slow start.  But within another half hour or so the main floor (there was also a bottom level, water floor, that had a small pier out into the water) was getting packed.  We mostly stayed on the main floor for most of the night because the music was "better" - though it was pretty much four-on-the-floor techno the whole time.  The main DJs, Nôze (a pair from France), were scheduled go come on at 4, and they started spinning around 4:20.  But by 4:30 or so Galen and I were pretty tired, so we said goodbye to the girls and headed home.  Luckily the trains and trams run 24 hours on the weekends, so we were able to take the tram back instead of walking.  I was in bed a little after 5.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 8 (6/24/2011) - Hamburg to Berlin

We started out the day by finishing off our bread, cheese, and fruit that we had left in the hostel fridge.   We checked out around 11 and headed to the Hauftbahnhof by S-Bahn. There we waited around and caught the 12:34 ICE (Inter City Express) to Berlin Hbf.  The ride took about an hour and 15 minutes, and we rode in second class since there were some seats open in the car we boarded (we didn't bother checking first class). After arriving in Berlin we followed most of the hostel's directions (we took the S-Bahn as directed, but walked instead of taking the tram) to find it. I'm glad they (Have a Smile Hostel) provided detailed written and video directions on the HostelWorld website, because they are kind of hidden in a back courtyard.   The attendant was super-nice when checking us in - he made us some tea and pointed out a lot of things to do/see on the map.  He also mentioned that TV on the Radio was playing at a nearby venue that night.  He also invited us to join a dinner at an Indian restaurant that the hostel was organizing that night for the guests (they do an activity every day).

After putting our stuff away we wandered into a nearby neighborhood to grab some cheap eats to tide us over until we met up for the hostel dinner.  We went with a pair of noodle boxes at a Thai place (one with chicken, one without).  We next walked down to RAW, an abandoned-looking warehouse complex that actually housed a couple of clubs, a skate park, a climbing gym, and the Astra music venue (where TVotR was playing).  We walked through to check out the graffiti and then saw a poster for the show. We walked over to check out the venue, and we could hear TVotR doing their soundcheck.  Galen tried to get a guard to let us in to watch, but without success.  Another worker told us that we could still get tickets at a place called Kola which was a couple of U-Bahn stops away.   So we started heading in that direction.  We ended up walking instead of taking the train.  This turned out well because Galen saw a few large pieces from famous street artists that he knew.  After wandering and asking for directions twice, we finally found the place and bought 2 tickets.  As we headed back it started to rain.  Galen also wanted to see the East Wall Gallery (a portion of the Berlin wall that had been designated for artwork) so we walked under the raised train tracks instead of taking the train, which would have taken us too far. The rain eventually subsided enough for us to check out the works on the wall.

After that we walked back to the hostel, where we arrived in time to chill for about 30 minutes before dinner. A little after 8 we walked down to the Indian restaurant with 5 other guests and a hostel worker. We had dinner (Chicken Tikka for me) and then Galen and I left early (around 9:30) to go to the concert. We arrived at the venue after the opener and had time for Galen to grab a beer before joining the crowd to wait for TVotR. The band got on around 10:15 and played until 11:45. The show had a raw feel to it, but it was pretty good. Afterward, we walked back to the hostel and chilled before going to bed.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 7 (6/23/2011) - Hamburg

Despite waking up several times during the night/morning, I got a decent amount of sleep.  We got up at 9, showered (the bathroom and shower were separate, and not in our 3-bed room), and then had some of the bread and cheese that we had bought the day before for breakfast.  It was very sunny out in the morning and looked warm enough to wear shorts - which I did after some coaxing from Galen.  Although it did not stay sunny the rest of the day, I didn't regret this decision.

After eating we walked to the S-Bahn stop and each bought another all-day pass (which later turned out not to be the best use of €5.50).  We took an S-Bahn to the Hauptbahnhof (central station), then took a U-Bahn one stop south.  At this point I was letting Galen navigate, even though the GPS on his phone wasn't working (it hadn't been since we got to Germany, and this severely angered him).   After a while figured out that we had gotten off at the wrong stop, and then a little later he figured out how to get the GPS working again (he had previously selected some setting to use wifi over GPS for location, and it somehow didn't allow GPS location when he was offline).  He then led us to Dialog in the Dark, which was a place recommended by Steffi.  The idea is that you can experience what it's like to be a blind person navigating through the city.  She already had called to try to make a reservation for us, but they were booked until 2 days after we were to leave Hamburg.  Nevertheless we tried to see if there were any cancellations.  The attendant told us that he would try to fit us in with a school group if the group had space.  The group ended up being late (and so they would have to be split into 2 full tours instead of 3) and a tour that started while we were waiting was only in German, so we were not able to get a tour. So we next wandered down to and around Speicherstadt (the warehouse district).  We dropped by the Hamburg Dungeon and Miniatur Wunderland, but decided to skip both because they seemed too hokey and not worth the price of admission

We then walked briefly through the Hafencity then took a boat tour around the harbor. Unfortunately, we didn't check what language would be used on the tour and ended up finding out (after the boat left) that it was German. So the spoken part of the tour was pretty worthless to us. But it ended up being a worthwhile experience - it lasted about 30 minutes and showed us a nice area of the western harbor that we weren't aware of.  During all this time the cloud cover and breeze had been off-and-on, so the felt temperature fluctuated a bit.  I eventually put on my track jacket (which I had worn pretty much every day of the trip so far) and was OK despite the shorts.

After the boat we walked to/through that nice area that we had seen and then up through St. Pauli (with a stop at the FC St. Pauli stadium) back to the hostel area. For (late) lunch I wanted to have a hamburger in Hamburg, which I did, while Galen got a loaded baked potato from a place next to the restaurant - luckily, the restaurant let him eat the food from next door...though he did buy a beer from them.  While I was waiting for my food the sky became overcast and it started to drizzle a bit, so we moved to inside seating.  By the time I finished eating the drizzle had subsided.  As we readied to leave we struck up a conversation with the waitress, who recommended a club that she goes to every Thursday night (this was on a Thursday).  We were done around 4 PM, and after that it was a short walk back to the hostel (with a stop at a couple of stores on the way to pick up some replacement toiletries), where we I lounged around while Galen took a nap.

Later that night, around 10:15, we walked over toward the club the waitress had told us about - it turned out to only be 3 blocks from our hostel. Galen was a bit hungry again so we dropped by a pizza place a block further so he could snack on a slice (while I had a Fanta). Then we headed over to the club. The waitress had told us that there would be a German rap battle on the main floor and some dancehall music (which Galen had never heard of) in the basement. We couldn't find either so we stood around for a bit then asked a couple of German girls what the deal was. They explained that there was indeed a basement room and also a back room for the battle - we had already missed the battle. So we just hung out with them for the rest of the night. Oh, and the music in the basement turned out to be reggae, and not dancehall. We got back and went to bed around 2:30.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 6 (6/22/2011) - To Hamburg

So when I checked my sim card balance this morning there was somewhere around €15 of credit remaing, which is far less than I had expected based on the information that I had been given the day before.  There was no way 2 phone calls and a text message could have used another €6 of credit if I was only charged €2 to use the Internet for each of 2 days.  Further reading of the brochure indicated that the Internet charge was 9 cents/minute.  So either the salesman tricked me, or there was a misunderstanding due to the language barrier.  Either way, I just had to deal with it.

Anyway, after breakfast Steffi took us to the Wetter train station to catch the 9:25 to Bochum, where we transferred to the IC to Hamburg.  Unfortunately, we did not heed Steffi's advice to reserve seats on the train (since the next day was a public holiday).  So we ended up not finding a free unreserved seat on the train in either first or second class.  We resorted to grabbing a couple of seats in a dining car and riding most of the way in them (we were not the only ones who did this - the dining car was pretty full with people that stayed there the whole time).  We sat across from a Austrian psychologist who worked in Germany but was on his was to Copenhagen, and conversed with him for the duration of the ride (Galen is great at talking it up with strangers).

In Hamburg we inquired about reserving seats for the ride to Berlin in 2 days, but the attendant didn't think we needed to (it costs €5.50 extra) if we were going in the morning or afternoon.  We then each bought an all-day Hamburg metro pass and used the hostel-provided directions to find the Instant Sleep Backpacker after taking the S-Bahn.  After arriving at the hostel, we waited a half hour until we could check in @ 3.  At this point we realized that they only accepted cash, so we walked to an ATM to get some (and I finally picked up a lock - combination locks are apparently impossible to find in The Netherlands and Germany, and I ended up settling for a 4x10 combo version instead of the typical Master lock).  During the check-in, the receptionist recommended a falafel joint (the Felafel Factory) to us, so we wandered over to find it and each grab a felafel wrap.  Then we wandered around the St. Pauli area and down to the Reeperbahn. It had begun to rain again by this time, so we stopped for a drink at a bar.  When the rain subsided a bit we walked to an S-Bahn station and took the train back toward the hostel.

Back at the hostel, we pretty much were lazy for the rest of the day.  Galen took a nap while I used the free wifi to plan some attractions to hit up in the remaining cities.  I should note here that Google Maps has the handy feature of being able to cache recent maps so that they can be used even when offline.  Sadly, though, the cache size seems to be fixed at 30 MB on my phone (Nexus S), and the cached area is not configurable.  Galen later joined in some planning activities, and we decided to not to go out on the town for the night - the rain had been off-and-on, and the short nights of sleep were starting to catch up.  And we were both coughing and sneezing.  But I spent a bunch of time catching up on my travelogue and pictures, so I was up until after 1:30.

Oh, and daylight lasts pretty long in Germany, and especially so in Hamburg.  The sky didn't get completely dark until after 11.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 5 (6/21/2011) - Köln

After a quick breakfast, Steffi dropped us off at the Hagen station around 9 and we took the train to Köln (Cologne).  Köln's most famous landmark, the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) is right next to the main train station (though Galen led us on the scenic route around the station to get there). I must say that I was very impressed by the Dom - it may have overtaken La Sagrada Familia as my second favorite church that I've visited (behind St. Peter's Basilica).  After exploring the inside for a while, we did the 533-step climb up to the top of the tower.  As expected, Galen playfully ascended without breaking a sweat while I huffed and puffed my way to the top.  We happened to be by the bells at noon and got to see one of the little bells chime the time (though we wish they had set off the big ones).

After the Dom, we checked out Museum Ludwig, which has a large collection of modern art, including the largest collection of pop art outside the USA.  As usual with modern art museums, I didn't "get" most of it, but there were a couple of cool pieces, including one which was a 6-screen video installation inside a mini maze where each screen showed a different angle of the ridiculous scene being played.  After the museum, we wandered around for a bit, including a brief stop at the Rathaus (town hall), where we briefly wandered through without paying the €1 that I think we were supposed to (we really didn't see much, so I don't feel bad about it).  Next we headed to a restaurant by the river where Galen and I shared a vegetarian pizza.

After eating, we walked around some more to kill time before catching the train.  We stumbled upon a Vodaphone store, where I bought a German sim card for my phone.  From what I understood from the salesman, I would have unlimited Internet for €0.99 each day I used it as well as cheap international calls (5 cents/minute to the USA), even though I didn't plan on calling anyone.  So I put an initial balance of €25 on the card.  I was able get online while in the store, on 3G even, so I thought I was good to go. Well, it later turned out that the card didn't work quite the way I thought it did; but more on that later.

We then headed to the train station, where we found out that our train to Wuppertal (which we had coordinated with Steffi and Carina) was 25 minutes late. I called Steffi, using my new sim card, and she suggested that we take a different train if we could.  We couldn't figure out another train to take at first, but we settled on one that would get us there around 7, before the delayed train.  But since Steffi and Carina wanted to try to get seats at the concert (which they ended up not being able to), they couldn't pick us up at the station - so we took a taxi.  We met up with them at the venue, VillaMedia, to see the SOS:Stanke ohms Strom concert, which lasted until about 11:30.  They then drove us back home.

The weather that day was a little warmer than it had been, but not quite shorts weather.  However, during the day I began developing a cough.  I hope I don't get any sicker.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 4 (6/20/2011) - Ruhrgebiet

We slept fairly late into the morning, getting up around 10:30 for breakfast.  After enjoying the copious spread that Steffi's mom provided, we got dressed and headed out with Steffi.  She first drove us to the Ruhr Museum in Essen.  The museum is dedicated to the Ruhrgebiet area, which includes Düsseldorf, Essen, Dortmund, and Gelsenkirchen, among others. The museum is situated in an old coal mine. The significance of this is that the Ruhrgebiet used to be a an important industrial and production region of Germany. With the decline of the coal industry, they have moved to other scientific and technological endeavors, and the Ruhrgebiet still remains a big industrial region.

Next we went to a ropes course (Tree 2 Tree) in Oberhausen.  This was my first time doing a ropes course, so (Steffi and) I stuck to the relatively easy parkours.  Galen, however, did one of the super-challenging parkours.  After that we stopped by Veltins Arena, where FC Shalke plays (but it was all closed off), on the way to Profi Grill (in Wattenscheid/Bochum).  Steffi claimed that this was one of the most famous fast-casual restaurants in Germany, but we were almost the only ones there (she later claimed that it sometimes is packed).  In any case, I had the currywurst with fries, and it was pretty good.  By the time we were finished eating, we were getting a bit tired, so we headed back to the house, where we chilled for a while.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 3 (6/19/2011) - Amsterdam to Wetter

I woke up and showered in time to get a bit of breakfast at the hostel, but Galen was only able to grab some coffee - I didn't wake him up until after I had showered, and he took a shower before going down.  We eventually checked out at 11 then walked down to Centraal Station to activate our Eurail flexible pass. After this we waited around for our 12:34 train.  Galen and I slept for much of the first leg (though we were briefly interrupted by a couple of guys whose reserved seats we were taking - they showed us how to tell which seats were reserved).

We had two train transfers before arriving in Wetter, Steffi's parents' town. Steffi's friend Katrin picked us up from the train station because Stetffi already had guests over to celebrate her homecoming.  Katrin took us to the Ludwig house, where we met Steffi's parents, her sister Carina, Carina's husband Sascha, and their two kids Hannah and Clara.  We also met some of their extended family, family friends, and Steffi's close friends.  Her mom had made lots of cakes and treats, and there were drinks aplenty.

The rest of the day was spent being fed and entertained by the Ludwigs, even after all the guests had left.  We had erpsen supper (pea soup) with bockwurst (pork sausages that looked like thin hot dogs) for dinner, some chocolate for dessert, and some cheese and bread even after that.  All the while they kept the beer, wine, and other drinks (soda and water for me) flowing.  We talked until after 1 in the morning, at which time we had already lost Sascha and then later Carina.  Steffi, Galen, and I then took the dogs for a walk through some picturesque (though dark) fields before heading back and then turning in for the night.  Galen and I shared a bed in the basement guestroom, and I had the most peaceful night of sleep on trip so far.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 2 (6/18/2011) - Amsterdam

The sleep could have been better - the loud music from hostel bar and noisy street outside open window did not help. But we got up in time to grab some free breakfast before it closed at 10.  At brekky we talked with a couple of Belgian girls for a while before heading up to get dressed.

After showering and such, we headed out into the crappy weather - it had been raining all day.  Because of that we decided to take the tram towards the museums.  We had been told that you could buy tram cards on the tram but we didn't see where to do this when we got on.  So we essentially bummed a free ride.

We first went to the Van Gogh Museum, where the line was a bit long - we got in after waiting about 30 minutes.  The museum was interesting because it included a bunch of info about how Van Gogh developed his style and the contemporary artists that influenced him (and pieces from them).  However, it didn't have his most famous works.  After the museum we grabbed a late lunch at an a la carte cafe (I had the strange combo of spinach lasagna and some Indonesian beef dish) then headed to the Heineken Experience. The "Experience" was a mixture of pseudo-museum to the Heineken family, brief explanation of the brewing process, a "4-D" amusement-type ride centered around said process, a lesson in Heineken drinking, some shout-outs to things sponsored by Heiny, and a couple more free beers (I opted for Pepsi) at the end.
From there, we headed back to the hostel to chill for a bit, and then headed back out again around 8:30 to grab dinner at a nearby pub we had found the night before (after already eating at the Tibetan place). Galen was able to satisfy his fish & chips craving while I had some bangers & mash. We then headed back to the hostel where we ran into the Belgian girls again.  We had a couple of drinks with them before heading out to try to find a bar crawl that had stopped at the hostel bar.  We were unsuccessful at that, but Galen struck up a conversation with a couple of Swiss girls, and we ended up hanging out with them at a couple of bars to finish out the night. We made it back a little before 2:30 and I went to sleep around 3.

Some thoughts on Amsterdam:
  • There are bikes everywhere, which is kind of nice since it's a good way to get around.  If I had ridden a bike more than once in the last 15 years I might have considered renting one - weaving through tourists didn't look easy.  But Galen and I like the cute bells that cyclists used to warn pedestrians to get out of the way.
  • Unlike Venice, the canals did not stink.
  • There was lots of construction to fix things up around the city.
  • People seemed to be able to park their cars wherever they wanted, including on sidewalks and in the middle of narrow one-way streets.
  • There is lots of (needed) street cleaning, so the streets stay fairly clean.
  • I don't recall seeing a police officer during my whole stay, though I did hear a couple of sirens.
  • The city is as tolerant as it is reputed to be.

Some pictures from the whole trip:

Eurotrip 2011 - Day 1 (6/16-17/2011) - Arriving in Amsterdam

The trip did not start out well, as my (and Galen's) plane was late getting out of St. Louis due to bad weather in Newark. When we arrived in Newark, we took the inter-terminal shuttle, and then speed-walked/ran to our connecting gate, where the plane had already been boarded but the door was not yet shut.  As we settled in for the 7.5 hour flight, one flight attendant asked me if I was a musician - she thought so because of my hair.  When I told her that I wasn't, she saw the book on philosophy of mind that I had, and then we rapped philosophy for a couple of minutes.

Once the flight got going, I noticed that the guy seated behind me had really long legs and his knees dug into the back of my seat, so I didn't lean my seat back. So I couldn't fall asleep. For in-flight entertainment I watched 2.5 movies then played most of a chess game against Galen (who was seated 8 rows in front of me). I give kudos to Continental for upgrading to personal entertainment systems on their international 757. And they gave us dinner and breakfast, in addition to a couple of beverages.

We arrived at Schipol around 7:30 in the morning.  Surprisingly, to me, we didn't have to fill out any paperwork to get through customs.  We got train tickets to Centraal Station, where we tried to activate EuRail passes, but the office was not open. We wandered over to the hostel (St. Christopher's at the Winston) and stowed our bags, and scored a free second breakfast.  We then walked to a tour and ticket office and bought tickets to the Heineken Experience, but couldn't get them for Anne Frank House.

We started wandering toward the Anne Frank House, with lots of detours and a stop for Galen to get an Espresso.  We eventually stumbled into Dam Square, where we saw some free tours (Sandeman's New Amsterdam) about to start (around 11:15). We found out that they lasted about 3 hours and ended at Ann Frank House, so we joined up with one. Hilariously, our tour guide, Julian, took us through pretty much the exact same path Galen and I had just wandered as the first half of the tour. The second half was new, though. In any case, it was good to hear the explanation of the things we encountered and the histories behind them.

By the middle of the tour I was significantly dragging due to lack of sleep, but I somehow made it through the end.  After the tour ended we checked on the queue at the Ann Frank House, saw it was too long, then decided to walk back to the hostel.  We grabbed some bread to tide over our hunger on the way back. Back at the hostel, we both crashed for about 1.5 hours.  When we got up, it was too late to make the Heineken Experience, so we went looking for dinner.  Galen had a craving for fish & chips but we couldn't find a pub that served food, so we had some Tibetan food instead. After dinner we went exploring through the red light district, which was pretty much next to our hostel, including a stop at a coffee shop. After that we headed to the hostel, where we chilled a bit before briefly checking out the hostel bar. I called it a night somewhere around 12.

Some pictures from the whole trip: