Saturday, August 16, 2008

My Trip In Slideshow Form!

Now that I'm back in the States, I've created a slideshow with a sample of the very best pictures that I took while in Europe. It has pictures from every place that I went, and is set to music as well. All in all, it has about 350 pictures, 8 songs, and takes about a half hour to watch. I spent a fair amount of time creating it, so I highly recommend giving it a look. And I always appreciate your comments or criticisms! To view the slideshow, click on the link below and download the file to your computer (it's safe, I promise). After it's finished downloading (the file is somewhat large), simply double-click on it. That's it - the slideshow will begin to play automatically. If you like what you see, I also have a DVD version available that has super high-quality pictures, and allows you to watch it on your TV with fast-forward and rewind capabilities. If you would like a copy, simply send me an e-mail at with your address and I'll be happy to mail you one. ANYBODY can have one, so don't be afraid to give me a shout! Thanks!

Download my Europe slideshow here!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

All my Youtube Videos!

While in Europe, I took more videos than the ones that I posted on the blog. If you'd like to see all 21 videos I have posted, check out my youtube account at the link below!

Click here to see all my videos!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Returning to Abbey Road

65 days before today, I arrived in London, and one of the first things I did was to go to Abbey Road. While I was there, if you recall, I wrote my initials and the date on the heavily-marked wall of Abbey Road Studios.

Well here I am back in London, with only a few hours to kill before I board my plane for Dulles Airport. I remembered my signature that I had left more than two months prior, and wanted to go see if I could find it. When I got there, I went to the small piece of concrete that I had marked and started scanning. But alas, it was nowhere to be found. My writing, over the two months time that I've been gone, has been washed away by the elements, and given way to an entirely new generation of marker and pen...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Traveling to Moffat - My Pilgramage to the Motherland

Notice - Post in Progress - Check back soon

First, let me apologize for the serious lack of in-depth posts that were a staple of the first half of my trip. Once I lost my computer's AC adapter, I fell too far behind on the blog to make it all up, and it was stressing me out so I decided to get away from it awhile and just enjoy my time abroad. However, I'm currently in Edinburgh, Scotland, and have a few last stories to tell before I head back home to the US. And before I leave, I'll be writing a long "last post" with the final thoughts on my trip, so be sure to check back soon.

Today, however, I'm here to talk about a small Scottish town, just south of Edinburgh, called Moffat. A tiny speck on the map, Moffat is visited today for its small-town charm, scenic trails, and homemade woolen products. However, I was there for a different reason. It's not a coincidence that my last name happens to be only two letters different from the name of the town; for it is from here that our name is derived. The town of Moffat was named after one of the original Scottish "Clans" - the Moffat Clan. They are heavily documented in Scottish literature, and have their own coat of arms, motto, and tartan (fabric pattern). And although we have not yet been able to trace our roots all the way back to descendents of the clan itself, the Moffat clan is almost certainly from where our variation of the name was derived. Thus, I decided to re-live my roots by making the 2-hour journey south of Edinburgh to the small rural town.

As I went to the bus station to plan my journey, I began to realize that there weren't many public transportation options offering service to Moffat. Moffat did not have a train station, and out of the many buses traveling out of Edinburgh, only one ever went to Moffat - McEwan's # 101. However, due to the small number of travelers, the bus stopped at Moffat only once per day, sometimes twice. Looking at this limited schedule, I soon realized that it wasn't possible for me to take a day trip to Moffat; that is, on no day of the week would the Moffat bus drop off in the morning, and then pick up at night. Since I had already paid for all of my nights in the hostel in Edinburgh, I didn't want to do an overnight trip to Moffat. Moffat didn't have a hostel, and accommodations for one night would probably cost about 40-50 pounds ($80-$100). Thus, at that point, I was seriously doubting the feasibility of this trip.

But as I stood there holding the schedule in the bus station, coming to the unfortunate realization that I would never see the town after which I was named, I had a revelation. I realized that I had just traveled for 60 days through 13 countries, covering probably more than 10,000 miles in the process. It's been more fun than I can ever describe, but at times (as any backpacker will tell you) it's been incredibly difficult. I've slept in train stations, gone days without showering, been lost or stranded hundreds of miles from anywhere, and have had absolutely zero money to my name at one point. But in the end, I always got myself where I was trying to go, no matter how far the destination or how ill-fated the journey. And here I was, in the last destination of my travels, and I was about to miss out on being the very first person in my family to visit the town after which we were named. "Surely, if I've made it this far," I say to myself, "I can make it to Moffat, Scotland." I walked to the counter and bought a round-trip ticket to Moffat, well-aware that I would be sleeping on the street for the night.

I had about two hours to kill before my bus left, so I quickly ran back to the hostel, showered, and prepared my day pack for the overnight journey. I threw on my North Face zip-off pants (which are amazing, as well as the only pair of long pants I have), a shirt, and my lightweight jacket. Sleeping in most of Europe, I would get hot at night, but Scotland was like a parallel universe. It's always cold (mid-60s during the day, low-50s at night) and on the verge of raining, so I wore the warmest things I had. Next, I ran to the grocery store to pick up dinner as well as some snacks to get me through the night, as I almost certainly wouldn't be sleeping much. I got some nutella and toast, which during my entire trip has been a staple of young travelers throughout Europe.

Back at the station, I boarded the bus and we set out around 9:30pm, me being only one of four passengers taking the trip. The driver was a madman, taking curves so fast that you had to keep one hand on the seat in front of you at all times to avoid an unexpected window to the face. After about two hours, however, we did make it to Moffat alive, and I stepped off the bus to see what was in store.

At first glance, Moffat was incredibly small, seeming to consist of nothing more than a main road that went straight through the town. It was quiet, dark, and the only people around seemed to be a few standing outside the hotel bar for a smoke. But I was finally here. And thus, my first objective was to walk to the edge of the small town and take a few pictures with the "Welcome to Moffat" sign. It was nearly midnight, but I got a few shots without waking anybody up.

After walking the entire length of the town twice (in about a half hour), I decided it was time to settle in somewhere. Just for kicks, I checked the price at the local Moffat Hotel. It it hadn't have been full for the night, it would have been 70 pounds ($140). Oh well... I walked around a bit more til I spied a cozy-looking bench right in front of Moffat Town Hall - an excellent place for me to spend the night, I surmised. Luckily, I had my ipod, computer (with about 3 hours battery), and four magazines that I'd bought in Scotland (after being in non-english-speaking countries for 7 weeks, english magazines are a beautiful thing). Those things kept me occupied most of the night.

At a few points in the night, I did have a few different visitors, including a group of local drunken teenagers, a porcupine, and even the police. Town hall was right next to the police station, so I had a feeling I would run into some soon enough. Luckily, the police were pretty cool - I told them I'd missed the last bus home and was just waiting until morning. I talked to them about twenty minutes, and they even tried to get me a free hotel room for the night. Unfortunately, everything was full (as I already knew), but I thanked them for their efforts nonetheless. They went on their way, and told me if I ran into any trouble to use the call box in front of the police station. Nice guys, I thought.

For the next 8 hours, time crept by incredibly slowly. Moffat was one of the quietest places I'd ever been to. There was absolutely nothing going on - no lights in windows, no people on the street, no nothing. I listened to music and read my magazines in the dim of the street light to pass the time. Once the sun did finally rise, the town slowly came back to life again. Tourists going out for coffee and locals out for groceries would pass me by at town hall. And then, after twelve hours in Moffat, the bus did finally turn the corner once again, and it was time to go back to Edinburgh. I'm

Friday, July 25, 2008

Any Catholics In the House?

Welcome to Vatican City, the smallest country world, and home to the Roman Catholic church, as well as the Pope. The last two pictures are St. Peter's Basilica, which is staggeringly huge and incredibly impressive. In fact, it's so big that if you took a football field and stood it on end, it would fit comfortably within the dome of the basilica. It houses what are believed to be the mortal remains of St. Peter, and it was designed by Michelangelo.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The 2000 year-old ruins of the Roman Forum!

This was the center of the ancient Roman empire, which reigned supreme for approximately a thousand years (from 500BC to 500AD). These columns and arches have been standing for centuries, and the same ground was walked upon by Julius Caesar almost 2000 years ago.

More Pics From Italy

Roman Colosseum!

And, just for effect, here's the awesome scene from Gladiator, involving the Colosseum:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I Like Pictures

"But if the world could remain within a frame,
like a painting on a wall,
then I think we'd see the beauty then,
and stand staring in awe."
-Bright Eyes, Bowl of Oranges

Well, after walking around some of the world's most picturesque cities at night, I often found myself wanting to capture that moment behind a lens, to somehow reproduce it if at all possible. What is normally a hot, sweaty, and overcrowded mess by day, transforms into an empty maze of shadows and reflections by night. Thus, I started playing around with my camera, a 7.1-megapixel Canon SD75o that my brother has graciously let me borrow for the trip. Despite its pocketable size, it takes surprisingly great shots, as do most of Canon's models. Specifically, I've been experimenting with night shots with long exposures, where during the shot, the lens remains open anywhere from one to twenty seconds. Luckily, I have a little tripod with me, which has come in handy countless times, as it's the only way to get a decent shot at night that isn't blurred beyond recognition. Below are a few of my favorite night shots, but I've been taking many of them in the cities I've visited, particularly in the last few weeks. The first is Rome's Coliseum; the second is the skyline of the river in Florence; and the last two are the coastline of Cinque Terre, Italy. Those last two, although appearing rather bright, were taken at nearly midnight, with an exposure of almost twenty seconds. If you'd like to see other pictures like these, you can check out my various albums at my Flickr page.

RANT - SERIOUSLY, What Is the Deal With This Rail System?!

Preface - I wrote this post after a particularly dreadful journey from Cinque Terre, Italy, to Barcelona, Spain. On that unfortunate occasion, I was in transit for 32 hours straight, with not so much as a shower, a bed, or even a place to put my head, except for the floor of the train station. The photo above shows me, hating life, at about 5am, waiting for the 9:30 train to take me out of Torino, where I was kicked off the train because my supposedly all-inclusive railpass wasn't good enough. To my left, a trashcan, and to my right, homeless men sleeping on cardboard boxes.

Okay, I have a bone to pick with the European rail system. And since I’m traveling alone and no one speaks English, I have no one to rant to. Thus, it is you all who must receive the majority of my ranting and raving, and for that I apologize.

Okay, so I have been traveling for over seven weeks now, and I’m pretty sure that every single one of my blog entries has begun the same way: “Well, my trip here was absolutely horrible and I didn’t sleep and it took me 58 hours and there was no water and the car was full and the train broke down and we derailed and there was a strike and they took me to the wrong place, and I’m so exhausted that I can do absolutely nothing but go to sleep at once.”

For the majority of my travels between cities, that’s been the story that I have to tell. Something ALWAYS goes wrong. Always. France and Germany, you two are excused because everything is done properly, so you can stop reading now. I think the only time I got mixed up there was when I passed out on the train to Munich and missed my stop. Everybody else, WHAT is the deal?? You have had well over 100 years to perfect the intricacies of rail travel, and yet everything is still a nightmare. How can a train be 360 minutes late, when the entire trip itself is only supposed to take three hours? What possible situation could have arisen that could not be resolved in that amount of time?

And what’s the deal with my railpass? I paid a ridiculously large sum of money (about 1/6 of the entire trip’s cost) so that I could leisurely take whichever train I wanted, for free, at any given time. So what’s with the 20-euro “supplement” that I have to pay for the “nice” trains? Or the “reservation” that I have to book days in advance just to get on board? I bought the railpass specifically to avoid having to worry about things like booking ahead, or paying for tickets. And yet, you still make me do both!

Now don’t get me wrong – I think the rail system is a good thing, and can serve as an efficient and practical way to see Europe. But you guys have got to kick the service level up a notch. Get the train there at the time it says it will arrive. Have it depart on the track it says it will depart on. If you sell a railpass that’s advertised as all-inclusive, don’t make its holders pay supplements and booking fees for reservations; that goes against the entire concept of the pass. And PLEASE make the entire system more flexible for travelers that don’t book every facet of their trip months in advance. If the entire train I need to take is reservation only, and has been booked solid for weeks, then it doesn’t really do me a whole lot of good, does it? I’ve spent the night in multiple train stations for that reason alone.

I realize that for now, it may not matter if you offer crappy service – that the trains will still sell out, and the almighty euro will continue to roll in. But eventually, in the long run, people will find alternatives to rail travel; some other way to get there. With the proliferation of the low-budget airline in Europe, that’s probably your biggest threat. It may not happen soon, but it will happen eventually. And once you’re in that hole, with the reputation of being a crappy way to travel, it’ll be hard to pull yourself out. So PLEASE, for yourselves, and for all of your customers, specifically the ones that have to sleep on the black, grime-covered floors of train stations because of your mistakes… kick it up a notch.

Gelato - Let's Talk About It

When I first arrived in Italy, I knew the term gelato, but had no idea what it was or what it meant. I just assumed that it was what the Italians called ice cream. After all, I’m pretty sure I had seen some shops back in the States advertising gelato. Rita’s, I think, calls whatever they sell gelato. However, after spending some time here, I now realize that not only is Italian gelato absolutely exquisite, but it cannot be compared to anything we have in the U.S. I’m still not sure how the Italians came up with such an amazing product. Perhaps years ago, their engineers, who should have been out designing a rail system that actually worked, instead were busy creating gelato. That would actually explain a lot of different things. Whatever the case, my hat goes off to them, because this stuff is absolutely delicious.

On any given day in Italy, on any street, you will ALWAYS be able to find the following three things: A gelateria, people eating gelato, and trashcans overflowing with empty gelato cups. Each store sells anywhere from 10 to 30 different flavors of gelato, with some of the staples being chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, banana, melon, tiramisu, coffee, mint, pineapple, and other fruit flavors. Most gelaterias, however, have one or two flavors that are somewhat unique that you may not be able to find anywhere else – things like buttercream, blackcurrent, or chocolate cake.

The gelato itself is made with less cream than our ice cream, which for some reason allows more of the natural flavors to come through. There are no artificial flavorings, and everything is made daily or every few days. If they’re making melon (my personal favorite), they’ll throw an entire cantaloupe or two into the batch. For chocolate, cups of raw cocoa or shaved milk chocolate go into the mix. Thus, you can always find bits and pieces of fruit or whatever in the gelato. After the purchase, it’s eaten with a little tiny spoon, which is more like a plastic popsicle stick. And it melts much faster than regular ice cream, so if you get a cone, make sure you start suckin it down fast, or else your hands will soon be covered in a rainbow mess of sticky delicious goodness. Yeah, so anyway, I guess my point is that gelato is delicious, and everyone should come to Italy and try it. I have no idea why we don’t have it in the States yet – if I could figure out the secret behind gelato, I could make millions.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Switzerland - The Most Beautiful Place In the World

Song of the Day: Gregory and the Hawk - Avalanche, Oh Avalanche

2nd Song of the Day: Colin Hay - Waiting For My Real Life to Begin

"Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street."
-William Blake

Preface: I took a ton of pictures in Switzerland, and every single one is worth seeing. To really see how amazing Switzerland is, I recommend going through all of them, if you have the time. They can be found here, and are definitely worth a look. If you'd like to view them in a convenient slideshow, click here.

Well, here goes my attempt at trying to capture the essence of Switzerland, which was by far my favorite place that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting (not just during my trip). In addition to my rambles through Europe, I've been to Australia, New Zealand, eastern and western Canada, and every single state on the east coast of the U.S., from Louisiana to Maine, including three days of hiking the Appalachian Trail through the Shenandoah Valley. And today, I can tell you with confidence that Switzerland stands alone.

You probably already had a chance to see my previous post regarding Switzerland, consisting of only a few videos and a picture or two. Those are only a tiny fraction of the pictures and videos I took (more than 750 pictures and 30 videos total) trying to capture and represent this country in all its splendor.

From where I was staying, in a tiny village called Gimmelwald (pop. 131), the Alps literally rose from the ground in every direction around me (that picture was taken from my bedroom window). The village is perched, at 4,485 feet, on the side of one of the mountains in what is called the Lauterbrunnen Valley, just north of the heavily-touristed city of Interlaken.

In Gimmelwald, life moves at a snail's pace, which is convenient as you never want your time there to end. The village, barely hanging on in today's global economy, relies mostly on dairy farming to get by. In fact, a large part of their income is now subsidized by the government, as they feel the traditions and the importance of Gimmelwald and other mountain villages is simply too much to lose to things like mass-production and outsourcing. The people that live there have been there all their life, and their children will carry on the traditions, working the fields just as their parents did (that is, if they aren't lost to the lull of the big city). My residence for four nights, the rustic Mountain Hostel, was pretty much the only symbol of commercialism in the entire town, give or take a small B&B here and there.

After spending about an hour just sitting outside and gazing upward (I hadn't even gone to my room yet), I went upstairs to get acquainted. The whole place has a really great vibe, and on the walls of my room there were quotes and inscriptions that backpackers from all over the world had left over the years. They ranged from personal thoughts to John Lennon to Harry Potter's Professor Dumbledore. On the plank of wood across from my bunk laid a quote that I thought summed up my trip quite well: "Go far. Stay long. See deep. And may the sun rise twice before you sleep."

The next morning, I decided to go on an ambitious hike through the heart of the Alps, which some people at the hostel had been told about by one of the locals. He claimed it was the prettiest hike in the area, and gave them a topographical map with the route laid out. The map was passed on to me, and I set out around 9 am with my backpack, a bag of granola, and two ham sandwiches that I'd bought from one of the small B&Bs.

Looking at the topo lines on the map, I knew there was going to be a lot of elevation change over the course of the day. The hike started out by taking me down a dirt path to the bottom of the valley (where some cows and horses were chillin by the river) and then ran abruptly into the mountain on the other side. For 2 1/2 hours, I climbed straight up, so steeply that in some parts a rope was mounted on the side of the trail to hold onto. The views just kept getting better the higher I went. At the top of the grueling climb, the world opens up before you, and you get your first long-distance views of the surrounding landscape. I had reached Tanzebodli, a grassy meadow right by a distinctive peak we all referred to as the "Shark's Fin." The shark's fin was visible from the hostel, so everyone always uses it as a reference point. Grassy meadows and snow-covered peaks surrounded me in every direction.

By this point, my feet were already beginning to blister pretty badly. In 6 weeks of backpacking through Europe, I had never once developed anything close to a blister. I had Flintstone feet - they could go through just about anything. Yet here I was, 3 hours into my first hike, and I had quarter-sized blisters on each heel. My first aid kit had some moleskin and a plethora of creams and bandages, so I slapped some of that on before I continued.

My next destination was Obstersteinberg, another hour or two away. My blisters were killing, but as I continued on, the increasingly surreal views made the pain easily tolerable. My hike took me along the ridge of the next mountain, walking with the valley to my left. Also to my left was a panorama of mountains covered with snow, with huge waterfalls forming halfway down from the winter ice melting in the hot July sun. Along the way, I filled my water bottle at numerous similar streams and waterfalls, drinking the crystal clear, ice cold water right from the source. I'd like to see Deer Park try and top that.

Reaching Obersteinberg, I realized that at this location there was actually a mountain hotel, offering weary hikers a bed for the night or a real meal. It was nothing more than a log cabin, but it was very odd to see here. It was literally in the middle of nowhere - the nearest road was 3 hours away, and the only way to get there was to hike on a trail for at least two hours. I later found out that the hotel's supplies have to be lifted in by helicopter, or brought in by mule. There is also no running water or electricity, but for about 30 francs ($28), you can spend a night at the Hotel Obersteinberg.

It was now about 3pm, and I continued on past Obersteinberg to a trail that I knew would lead to a glacial lake, called Oberhornsee. It was here that I touched, for the first time ever I think, natural snow in July. It was everywhere, including right on the very trail in front of me. At numerous points, I had to cross the snow, including one particularly steep and slippery section that I "attempted" to film (find the video in my first Switzerland post). At one point, I misplaced a step and sunk straight to the bottom of the snow, which was about a foot deep. As all of this snow melted, it formed a raging river that was coming down the side of the mountain, which I had to cross on a rickety wooden bridge.

When I eventually got to the lake, it was amazing - crystal clear blue and perfectly still. It was rather small, more of a pond, but still really awesome to see. As I walked around it (at 7,250 feet elevation), the sky was darkening around me and I got the feeling that it was about to rain. The weather can change in 30 seconds in the Alps, and the sky got dark really fast. I was so high up that the storm clouds literally enveloped the peak of the very mountain I was standing on, sending rumbles of thunder echoing through the empty landscape. I was three hours from any sort of civilization, including my hostel, so I concluded that now would be a good time to start heading home (5pm).

Leaving Oberhornsee, I knew that the quickest way to get home from this hike would be to hike to Stechelberg, the town below Gimmelwald, and to take the cable car one stop up to the village. However, as I just mentioned, I was at 7,250 feet. Stechelberg was at an elevation of 900 meters, or about 3000 feet. Thus, I had to descend 4,250 vertical feet as quickly as possible, after hiking all day with blistered feet, on a steep rock-covered trail that was soaked from sporadic rainstorms. I slipped and slid the whole way down, and came quite close to falling numerous times, after wet rocks would refuse to hold my feet. I was so tired that I could barely put one foot in front of the other, which made it all the more hazardous. However, after hiking for nearly 12 hours total, I did make it down to Stechelberg, and eventually home to Gimmelwald on the cable car. The day's hike was incredible, and I had never been happier to be so bruised, cut, and sore.

On day 2 in Gimmelwald, I awoke very stiff, and even more sore than I was at the end of the hike. I decided to take the day off, needing particularly to nurse my heels that had grown into bright red open sores after I continued to hike with the blisters. I slept in, then walked 45 minutes to Murren (the closest other village to Gimmelwald) in order to get groceries for the next few days. Murren seems to be more well-connected than Gimmelwald. They have a swimming pool, a tennis court, an ATM, numerous log cabin hotels, gift shops, a camera store, and just more residents overall. However, the majority of the people staying there seemed to be older people, who were there to "see" the alps, but not to hike the alps. The extent of their journey seemed to be a walk through town or the occasional scenic rail trip around the valley. I'm sure they have no idea what they were missing.

On day 3, I tackled the via ferrata, the "Iron Road" that I discussed in my previous Switzerland post. Refer to that post if you'd like more information, or pictures. It was awesome, but very intense. Afterwards, I threw my equipment around my neck and walked through town like I owned the mountain. I had battled the Alps and these were my spoils of war. When I got back to the hostel and people saw the equipment, they knew I had done the via ferrata and started asking me about it. Would I do it again? Definitely... but probably not by myself.

Day 4 - Happy birthday, America... it's the fourth of July. With my heels feeling a bit better, I decided to tackle the most ambitious hike in the area: the 9,740-foot peak of the Schilthorn. The Schilthorn is a very popular tourist destination, as the peak is accessible by cable car. At the top of the peak is a revolving restaurant called the Piz Gloria, and it was used to film scenes for the 1969 James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." The Piz Gloria was used as Blofeld's headquarters in the Alps, and the ski race featured in the movie was filmed on the slopes of the Schilthorn.

While most hikers would hike up the Schilthorn and then take the cable car down, I decided to do it the other way around. Whereas going uphill would put major pressure on the blisters, going downhill relieved the pressure, even though many told me it would be harder because of the toll it takes on the ankles and knees. Even so, I bought a one-way cable car ticket for Schilthorn (only $35), and made my way up around 10am.

Once I reached the top, I was enveloped in a cloud of thick white mist. I knew that the weather on Schilthorn was hit or miss, and unfortunately, I had missed. I couldn't see a thing - if I stood at the edge of the platform looking towards the center, I couldn't even see the restaurant only 15 meters or so away. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mont Blanc, but today I could barely see my own hand.

I went inside to get some coffee, but ended up staying for lunch and waiting for the fog to go away. I had spaghetti and stayed for about an hour, but the white clouds never lifted. There were a few small momentary breaks in it, however, which I used to take pictures through the windows of the revolving restaurant. Around 1pm, even though I hadn't gotten many great pictures from the top, I decided it was time to leave since I had at least 5 1/2 hours of hiking ahead of me.

Setting out, the trail descended from the platform and disappeared into a veil of mist, which made it all the more intimidating. It was about 45 degrees and very windy at the top, so I was bundled up in my jacket (although still wearing shorts). I slowly made my way down the rocky, barren, and often snow-covered slope, and the further I went, the clearer and calmer it got. Randomly on the mountain, there was a memorial to a woman who was struck by lightning and killed here in 1865. Yikes.

Further along, I came to a big glacial lake that I had been hearing about from other hikers. It was nice, and on a clear day I hear the mountains reflect perfectly in it, but unfortunately I didn't have that luxury. I took a few pictures and continued on. A bit lower, there were grassy meadows, and I began to spot some alpine flowers. Before I'd come here, I had read that June and July was alpine flower season in Switzerland, but didn't really pay much attention to it. "Who cares about flowers when you're in the alps?" I thought. But actually, the alpine flowers are amazing. They spring up all over the mountains and paint the hills with a bouquet of colors. I found myself stopping to take a close-up macro shot only every few minutes, as there are so many different kinds of flowers. There are hundreds of varieties, and many can be found nowhere else in the world than the very ground I was treading upon. I later found out that many are heavily protected because of this.

As I continued making my way down the mountain, with the massive peak of the Jungfrau straight overhead, I soon came across my favorite sight of Switzerland. By the power of deduction, that would make it my favorite sight in the world. I'm not sure if it is, but it's up there. The place is called Bryndli Peak, and it's somewhere in the middle of the hike between Schilthorn and Gimmelwald. I'd read in my guide book that it had a good view, so I figured I'd give it a shot. After walking across a very high ridge between two valleys, I branched off the main trail and made a steep and technical climb up to Bryndli. As I pulled myself onto the very top and stepped out onto the peak, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I could see for miles in every direction, 360 degrees around. From the path I had come on, I could see for about 180 degrees, but the other half was blocked by other hills or rocks. From here, nothing was out of sight. You could look up and see the peaks of the mountains, and then look straight down and see the floor of the valley thousands of feet below. It felt as if you were standing on a giant pedestal of earth, rising thousands of feet straight up from the valley floor.

As I took in every angle, I noticed a man-made cross sticking out of the rocks on the peak. At the base of it was a small wooden chest. I went in for a closer look, and upon opening the chest, found it to contain two small notebooks and a pen, inside of a tupperware container. I sat down on a rock and opened up one of the books, not sure what I would find. Inside, dry and safe from the harsh Switzerland weather, were five years of journal entries from various travelers that had made the pilgrimage all the way up to Bryndli. Almost all of the entries had the same theme - absolute astonishment and loss for words at the scenery before their eyes. Every single person that had visited here was as awe-struck and dumbfounded as I was that a place like this could actually exist. Here's a sample entry from a girl visiting from California:

"I came here once before, living in Murren, and now I have only returned after moving away. The majesty of this place and these mountains is incomparable and continually unbelievable. I have always loved it here and will forever continue to do so. From this amazing overlook, with tired muscles, clean breath, and a happily beating heart, I send love and light to all friends. All friends gained and lost, separated, re-connected, and forever lasting. Change is healthy - It keeps the world alive. I love you, and miss you, Switzerland, when I am gone." - Shannon, 2007

After reading through both books, I left my own piece of wisdom, took one last look, and made my way back down the path. If you want to see what I wrote, take the trail for Bryndli, make a left at the ridge, climb up the rocks, and look for the metal cross cemented in the rock. I doubt the journals will be leaving anytime soon.

Although sad to leave Bryndli, I was leaving on a night train to Venice that night, so I had to be on my way. I walked the last two hours down to Gimmelwald, took a quick shower, and then headed out the door to the cable car. And that fast, Switzerland was gone.

It's needless to say that I loved Switzerland. In the last few minutes before I left for Venice, I was seriously considering ditching my plans for Italy, and just spending another week or two in Gimmelwald. But, I had other places to see and other things to experience, even if they weren't 14,000 feet tall and covered with snow. Besides, at the rate I was going I'd probably be unable to walk in just a few more days of hiking. "I'll be back someday", I said to myself as the cable car descended back down to reality... someday.

Munich - The FINAL CUT!

Saturday, June 28 - Well, just as I had mentioned in my previous post, things always go wrong when I’m traveling from one place to another. I had originally planned on going from Cesky Krumlov to Salzburg, Austria, but decided on Munich instead, because I couldn’t find a place to stay in Salzburg. This probably has something to do with the Euro Games, which are winding down in the next day or two.

I left Cesky Krumlov around 10:30am, and didn’t arrive in Munich until 6:30am the following day. The first train of the day broke down, which caused me to be late and miss the next train. I had to wait about an hour and a half for the next one. Luckily, I had met a family from Wisconsin who was headed to Salzburg, so I had some company while I waited. In fact, after hearing that I was originally headed to Salzburg, they offered to let me sleep on the floor of their hotel room. At the time, I actually decided to take them up on it, but later continued on to Munich anyway, as I’d reserved my hostel with a credit card and I had a sneaking suspicion that they would charge the whole thing if I didn’t show up.

At about 11:30pm, I was finally on my second to last train, and almost in Munich. All I had to do was switch trains in a town called Passau, and I’d be in Munich within an hour. But, I was pretty tired by this time and had sort of fallen asleep on the train. When I woke up, the train was stopped at Passau and I had 2 minutes to get on the train to Munich. I grabbed my bags and ran out the door, practically falling out of the train because I was still half-asleep. I ran down the stairs and into the corridor, trying to figure out which platform my train was on. I had about 100 meters to go, and was running as fast as I could in flip-flops and a 40-pound backpack. I got to the platform and started running up the stairs, with the train in sight. And then, as soon as I crested the last step, the train pulled away. I was 10 feet away and I missed it.

The worst part about missing the train was that that was the last train to Munich for the night. In fact, it was the last train to anywhere that night. Thus, I was now in an unfamiliar town, in a train station, with nowhere to go, and no way to get there. I couldn’t believe I’d missed that train. All I could do now was wait until morning, when the trains started running again. Unfortunately, the trains start later on weekends (this was Friday night), so the first train to Munich wouldn’t be until 5:45. Great.

I walked around the town looking for anything that was still open, but it was no use. I pulled out my laptop and walked around until I found some random wireless signal, so I got on the internet for a while and sent some e-mails, as well as looked up the whereabouts of my unfortunate location. After that, with four more hours to kill, I just walked back to the train station, the only place I knew of to go.

During the night I met a German guy who was in the same boat as I was. His case was actually a little bit worse – he was on his way home to see his wife and daughter after being away for two months. He missed the last train home. He and I talked a while, but his English was very hard to understand. After a while, I laid down on a bench with my pack under my head, and remained there in some sort of not-quite-asleep state of half-consciousness for a few hours. Eventually, the train arrived, we both were on our way, and I got to Munich just fine.

Upon arrival, I checked in and went straight to bed. I slept from about 7am until 1:30, which wasn’t too bad. I was in a 40-bed dorm (yes, forty), so most people were out on the town and I could sleep in peace. When I woke up, I went out on the town to walk around a while.

80% of Munich was leveled during WWII. However, it has been rebuilt very well, and barely shows any of its former scars. The downtown is full of broad lanes, squares, and for some reason a fountain on practically every block. I walked about a kilometer to the center of old Munich, called Mariesplatz, where a large church stands called Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. (Side note – I’m pretty sure that every town in Europe has some sort of church in honor of "Our Lady.") This one has two high towers, and I went up in one of them while I was there. Also, just inside the front entrance of the church is what’s called the "Devil’s Footprint." Here’s a condensed version of the story behind it:

When the church was being built, the devil came to it and stood inside the front entrance. He noticed that it had no windows, and because of this, he decided that he wanted it for himself, as a place where people would worship him instead of God. He told the architect that if he ever changed the design of the church, he would steal his soul. Years went by and the church is finished, and the devil comes back. He walks through the church and notices that it now has windows. Furious, he brings over the architect and shows him that he broke the original design by putting in windows. The architect then points out that the church had windows the entire time, but from where the devil had been standing the first time, the church’s large columns conveniently blocked the line of sight of the side windows, giving the illusion that the church is windowless. The devil realizes he has been tricked, and in a fit of rage, stomps his foot into the floor of the church. The indent left by his foot is now the "Devil’s Footprint."

The story is rather famous in regards to the church, but unfortunately untrue. The footprint is actually that of the architect, in a unique attempt of putting his stamp on his work. I like the devil’s footprint story better, though.

In the Mariesplatz square itself is the world-famous Glockenspiel, basically a huge cuckoo clock. I saw it, but wasn’t there at a time that it would ring, so it wasn’t terribly exciting. In the square, I bought some fresh strawberries and started to walk back to the hostel. On the way, I ran into the best street performers I’ve ever seen, and ended up watching them for nearly an hour. The video at the top of this post is them playing Canon in D. The violinist was amazing.

Sunday, June 29 – Today was a big day. First, I planned on taking a free walking tour of Munich at 10:45. Then, I would head to Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich. After a few hours there, I would come home and prepare to watch Germany play Spain in the championship of the Euro Games. This game was unbelievably huge – everyone was talking about it. Ever since I’d gotten back to Germany, you could see people walking around covered in Germany gear (flags draped around them, huge hats, jerseys, etc). These games happen only every four years, and Germany has the most victories out of anyone. If they won tonight, there would be mass chaos.
As I met in Mariesplatz for the free walking tour, I once again ran into a familiar face from home – this one even more ironic than the previous times. I ran into a girl named Becca that not only went to Maryland and was in the business school with me, but in our last semester we had a logistics course together – BMGT475. While we’d only spoken a few times before, we definitely knew each other, and were also both in Greek life. Neither of us could believe that we’d run into each other on the other side of the world, and so I had to get a picture to mark the occasion. I was hoping she was going on the free walking tour, but she was meeting there for a Dachau tour instead. It was cool to see her though – I absolutely can’t believe that I’m running into people so close to home.

On the tour, we hit a lot of cool sites, and the tour guide had some interesting commentary. One of the places we went to was the world-famous beer hall Hofbrauhaus. Las Vegas has a copy of Hofbrauhaus, that I’ve actually been to when I was out there for CES. The Vegas version wasn’t very close to the original, though.

One interesting fact about Hofbrauhaus is that it’s actually the birthplace of the Nazi party. It was there that Hitler laid out the points that would eventually become the backbone of the party’s beliefs. He also held rallies here and gave out free beer, no doubt a tool he used to get people to join his cause.

Actually, many of the sites we hit on the tour had to do with Hitler and the Nazis. In the year 1923, Hitler tried to start a revolution that would eventually allow him to forcefully take the city of Berlin. It was called the Beer Hall Putsch, and we walked in the footsteps that he and more than 2,500 other "revolutionaries" took as they marched through Munich.

Later, on the night of November 9, 1938, the Nazis ransacked Jewish homes and businesses, setting fire to buildings and beating or killing Jews that they found along the way. This incident is now referred to as Kristallnacht, or "The night of broken glass," due to the shimmering remains that blanketed the streets when the sun rose the following morning. In Munich, there are now over 100 subtle monuments memorializing those lost during Kristallnacht - all at former locations of Jewish homes or businesses that were destroyed that night. Most are tucked away in corners and down alleys, out of the public eye. I only saw a few as we walked through Munich, as I kept forgetting to look for them. I did manage to get a picture of one, though.

Another example of the Nazi occupation lies on the side of a street, and consists of nothing more than four bolt holes and a square of faded concrete. It was here that the Nazi party placed wreaths and a plaque commemorating Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. It was considered a symbol of great pride for the Nazis, and so they required every single person that passed it to give the Nazi salute. Two armed guards assured that no one passed without giving the salute. However, some people didn’t agree with the Nazis, and so they refused to give it. Instead, they would walk down a street one block before the wreaths, so as to go around it. They didn’t get away with that for long, though, as the Gestapo realized what was going on and placed guards there as well. They would take down a person’s name each time they went down that street, and if a person went down it one time too many, they would be arrested and sometimes even sent to Dachau as a political prisoner. On that little side street, there is now a row of golden cobblestones, memorializing those people that passively opposed the Nazi party by refusing to walk past the plaque and wreaths.

Another such example of passive resistance came at the end of our tour, when our guide finished by telling us the story of a publication called the "White Rose." The White Rose was a pamphlet published secretly by a group students and a philosophy professor at the university in Munich, and it aimed to expose the Nazi party for what it really was. They would write about the atrocities that the Nazi party were committing, and then distribute the flyers by dropping them by the thousands into main squares and highly traveled areas. In one of their publications, they addressed the Nazis directly, saying something along the lines of: "We are your guilty conscience. We will not be silenced peacefully." They knew that if they were ever caught they would most likely be killed for what they were doing. Unfortunately, some of them did get caught as they were distributing the flyers, and were turned over to the Nazis by the very President of their university, who was a Nazi supporter. To punish them for treason, the Nazis publicly executed them. In the end, most members of the rose were eventually caught and executed, and there is now a memorial at the university that some of the members attended. After the tour I went to visit it, which consists of copies of the White Rose juxtaposed on the concrete, as if they had been dropped out of the window.

After the tour, I had planned on going to Dachau concentration camp, but in talking with a tour guide, she told me that if I had already seen Auschwitz, there was no reason to go to Dachau. Dachau couldn’t come close to Auschwitz, she said. Thus, I just went back to the hostel to get ready for the big game.

That night, after stocking up on some cheap Germany gear, I went out to a beer garden located in one of Munich’s big parks called the English garden (Side note - check out this picture to see some sweet Munich surfers in the English Garden). There were thousands of people there, and I ended up meeting a cool group from Georgia, as well as two guys born and raised in Munich. In beer gardens and halls, they sell beer by the liter only, and it comes in a glass mug about the size of your head. You can see some glasses on the table in this photo. The beer is great, and I had three of those during the game. Unfortunately, we ended up losing 1-0 to Spain, but there was still a lot of energy. Not many people can say that they’ve watched a European soccer championship on the home turf of one of the teams. Afterwards, I just went home since I had a long day of traveling the next day.

Speaking of which, my next destination is Switzerland, and I’m currently on a train that just crossed the German-Swiss border. Switzerland’s beautiful, and the town I’m heading to is nestled high in the Swiss alps, accessible only by taking a train, a bus, and then a cable car. It doesn’t have a grocery store or any other amenities, but the view is absolutely unparalleled.
I definitely think this will be the pinnacle of my trip, and have been looking forward to this stop particularly. I’ll be doing some all-day hikes to the top of the surrounding mountains, which will give me a great view of the world-famous Jungfrau, a mountain that’s claimed the lives of many mountaineers over the years. My trip’s now officially halfway done – I can’t wait to see if the second half is as great as the first.

Oh, and also... I've been pretty good about not buying any sort of souvenirs in the cities I've been in. They're usually expensive and will make my already heavy pack just that much heavier. However, I acquired my very first TWO souvenirs in Munich. I won't say what they are (you'll have to wait til I get home, or maybe send me a personal email to figure it out), but I will give you the following three clues:

One is very light, the other is very heavy
One was very cheap, the other was rather expensive
One I acquired at 1pm, the other I acquired at 1am

Can you figure out what they are?

To see all 85 pictures I took in Munich, click here.

Cesky Krumlov - The FINAL CUT!

Song of the Day: Paul Kelly (Australian) - Deeper Water

After Prague, I was off to a small village near the southern border of Czech, called Cesky Krumlov. It was really hot that day, and none of thew Czech trains have air conditioning, so I was roasting the entire way there. Actually, the Czech rail system is probably the worst one I’ve encountered yet. Going from place to place always ends up being a nightmare, but at least in most of Europe the trains are quiet, clean, and fast. Travelling in Germany or France is heaven – their trains are always on time, and are really comfortable. I guess Czech didn’t get the memo. Whereas a German train is like riding in a brand new Mercedes, a Czech train is like riding in a 1984 Ford Festiva – the one you bought for $200 from that homeless guy that has one tire smaller than the rest and in which you have to turn off the heat and the headlights to go up steep hills.

But anyway, due to construction work at one of the stations I was going through, they made everyone get off the train, but didn’t tell us where to go or what to do. I looked for another train to Cesky Krumlov, but there wasn’t one. I went up to the window where the 85-year-old woman that didn’t speak English awaited me. "Cesky Krumlov?" I said. She pulls out a piece of paper and draws a picture of a bus, then a bunch of arrows. Okay, I think she’s telling me I need to take a bus, and that it’s somewhere far away (hence the maze of arrows). At the bottom, she wrote "400m." Okay, so I’m taking bus 400m, somewhere far away from here. I grab the paper and stumble out into the heat of the day, trying to find this elusive bus stop.

Outside, there are approximately 67,000 buses, none of which say Cesky Krumlov on the side. I walk up and down every side street looking for bus 400m, but can’t seem to find it. A long story short, there is no bus 400m. The woman was telling me to walk 400 meters in the direction of the arrows. But by the time I figured that out, the bus that I’d been trying to catch had already left. No big deal, right? Another should be here soon, yeah? Nope – two and a half hours I had to wait for the next bus, sitting on my backpack in the middle of an empty parking lot. Thanks, Czech.

I did, however, get to Cesky Krumlov eventually, although it took me about 8 hours for a journey that should have taken 3. Luckily, Cesky Krumlov is very small, so I was able to find my hostel pretty easily.

Now, one thing I’ve noticed throughout my trip is that I don’t find things nearly as impressive as I did when I first started. For example – I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals, and they’re all really nice. But after seeing something like Notre Dame, it’s much harder to be impressed with one. I find I’m taking substantially less pictures now than when I did when I first started, due to this reason. So, whenever I go to a new place, the bar is always set high as to how impressed I’ll be. Luckily, Cesky Krumlov one-upped any of the places I’d yet been to.

Cesky is really small, with a population of only about 15,000 – a big contrast to Prague, where I’d just come from. The town’s narrow cobblestone streets wind through 500-year-old architecture, often crossing the river that runs through the center of town. When it’s warm, you can rent a raft or kayak on every block and float down the river. Cesky even has its own castle, though it’s much smaller than the one in Prague. However, Prague can’t say that its castle is guarded by a bear moat, as the one in Cesky is. Yep, they dug a moat, but instead of filling it with water, they threw some brown bears in there instead. It’s a tradition that’s gone on for 500 or 600 years, so the bears still live at the castle today. Perhaps, whenever I get my first apartment, I could guard it with a bear moat.

While there isn’t a whole lot to see in Cesky Krumlov, it’s definitely a great place to chill out and relax. On my first full day, I went out and walked around for a few hours, and then checked out the castle. The castle tower gave some awesome views of the town. Also, the castle has a huge garden that I hung out in for a while. The gardens are the part of the castle that’s furthest from the town, so they were practically empty. For lunch, I ate pizza on a terrace with a view of the castle (they love their terraces here). Instead of going on for an hour about how nice this place is, just look at these pictures and see for yourself.

Now, when I got home, I had planned on getting some dinner and then getting my life organized. "Getting organized" includes updating the blog, uploading my pictures, booking my next few hostels, making phone calls, checking my bank accounts/credit cards, checking e-mail, checking train times for the following day, figuring out how to get to my next hostel, doing laundry, and normally about a million other things as well. Although I don’t talk about it much, there’s a ton of day-to-day crap that always has to be taken care of, which is always a pain. I try to allocate a few hours every day or two so that I can do all of these things. However, without fail, every time I sit down to do it, I end up meeting someone from a far-away land and hanging out with them for hours, never accomplishing anything. Tonight was no different. When I got back to the hostel, there were a bunch of people sitting at the table in the courtyard, getting ready to smoke a hookah that one of them had. They invited me over, so I sat down for a while.

This time, we had Sam (Australia) and his girlfriend Eve (French-Canadian). Then we had Jhmel, from Singapore, and finally, Mark and Andrea, a married couple from Boston. The six of us sat around talking a while, and smoking the hookah, which Sam had brought. Actually, it’s a funny story as to how he acquired it. He bought it in Morocco, but it was so big that he couldn’t fit it into his bag. Therefore, in true backpacker form, he gave away half of his belongings so that he would have more space in his pack. I remember him saying he gave away a bunch of clothes, including a jacket and a tie, so I thought that was pretty funny. He did say that he’d been wearing the same pair of pants for two months, however.

Sam and Eve were nice enough to cook me pasta for dinner, which was cool since it saved me some money. After that, Mark and Andrea went out for dinner, so the rest of us decided to go out to a tavern that was about 5 steps away from our hostel. They had outdoor seating (of course) which was literally right on the bank of the river, and it was awesome at night. We joked about how people back home would have killed to be where we were at that moment, and all we had to do was walk out our front door. We pretty much stayed until the place closed, and at that point we ordered some beers to go (which they poured straight from the tap into 1.5-liter plastic water bottles) and took them back to the hostel. Once home, the four of us sat around listening to music on my laptop and talking. Jhmel, the girl from Singapore, went to bed earlier, but Sam, Eve, and I stayed up for another hour or two. We would go back and forth playing songs that we liked, and I’ve got some new tunes that I’d never heard of before. The song of the day was actually a song that Sam showed me by an Australian artist. It was a blast, and I made sure to get their contact info before I left for Munich the next day.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Blogging Renaissance!

Well, I'm currently in Barcelona, and in possession of a shiny new AC adapter, thanks to my dad who ordered one and had it shipped over to me. It took me 32 hours to get here (an absolute nightmare but I guess you could call it a good story) so I'm about to pass out, presumably for 10-12 hours. Tomorrow, I'll be updating the entire last two weeks of my trip throughout the day. Check back very soon! Also, thanks to all who have posted comments and sent me e-mails - it's always good to hear from everyone, and they keep me motivated in regards to the blog!

Until tomorrow...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Temporary Hiatus on Posting

To all those faithful blog readers (if there are any)...

First of all, I apologize for not updating my posts on Switzerland, Munich, and Cesky Krumlov. When I was in Switzerland, I didn't have a steady internet connection. Then, as I was leaving Switzerland, my laptop computer's AC adapter broke, rendering it a useless hunk of metal that I'm no longer able to blog on. I'm now forced to pay steep fees for internet, or share a very slow computer with about 300 other people, making it nearly impossible to use. I'm currently searching for a formidable replacement charger, but they're pretty hard to come by over here. I've visited multiple shops (one even during a public transportation strike, which was a nightmare), but to no avail. If I can't find a charger, it may be the end to my blogging career as we know it (well, until I get home anyway). However, I am exhausting every resource I know of to find a way out of this predicament. One scenario even involved me performing open surgery on the adapter plug, using paper clips and a Swiss army knife to override a blown fuse, which was the root of my problems. As evident by this post, however, it didn't work. Once I do find a way to charge my computer, or a computer that I can use for hours on end free of charge, I will update every blog entry, and include entries on Venice and Rome, where I am now. Please bear with me, and check back after a few days. I have lots to talk about, especially with Switzerland... I took more than 700 pictures in four days there (twice more than any other place I've yet been to). Until then, wish me luck!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Staring Down Death on the Via Ferrata

Yes, those are actually my feet, and yes, I'm perched on the side of a mountain face, standing on iron rungs that have been mounted in the rock. The only thing below me was the valley floor... 2,400 feet down.

This was part of the via ferrata, half trail and half climbing course, that takes you 2.2 km along the edge of the mountain, crossing cable bridges, steep ladders, and these iron steps along the way. The word via ferrata is Italian for "Iron Road," because of the metal steps and ladders that form the path.

The one I did here took approximately three hours and was absolutely insane. I'm not sure how I broke the kung fu grip I had on the safety wire in order to pull out my camera and take the two pictures above, but I'm glad that I did. This via ferrata has only been open for two weeks, and apparently no one has died yet, so that's good. I did it by myself, totally alone, without a guide or a partner. In the entire three hours, I never saw another person as I made my way down the mountain. I have a ton of videos and pictures from the via ferrata, but only have time to show the two above, and the two videos below. The second video is me standing on the shorter of two cable bridges, and the first is me standing in the middle of the 80-meter Nepal Bridge, which is the last thing you cross before the via ferrata ends. That bridge was nuts... there is barely anything to hold onto on the sides, so you're basically just walking along it with your hands at your sides. In the video, you can see me holding onto a thick cable, but you can only reach that cable in the middle of the bridge. Otherwise, it is too high to grab onto. Plus, the bridge is totally unstable, so every step you take sends the bridge swinging and swaying. In the end though, I'm very glad I did it. There are only a few other people at the hostel that I've met who have done it. Even a guy I met yesterday who has hiked Schilthorn three times (the biggest mountain in the area, 7 hours straight up) said he could never do the via ferrata.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wanna know what the alps look like??

Well, yesterday on my hike I took about 87,000 pictures, but Im using a shared computer and dont have time to upload them. However, I was able to upload these 3 videos, showing me face to face with the Swiss Alps at around 2,200 meters. Enjoooy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gimmelwald, Switzerland

"If heaven’s not everything it’s cracked up to be, send me back to Gimmelwald."

I’m currently in what may be the most beautiful place in the world – Gimmelwald, Switzerland. Nestled high in the Swiss Alps (right around 4500 feet), I had to take two local trains, a bus, and a cable car to get to this location. It is inaccessible by automobile, and a cable car up the side of a mountain is the only way to get here. The nearest grocery store is 40 minutes away. I know that I’ve described many of the sites I’ve visited with a great amount of awe and wonder, but nothing I’ve ever seen is even on the same playing field as Gimmelwald. Sitting here on my hostel balcony, I see nothing but the snow-tipped Swiss Alps above, and the Lauterbrunnen Valley below. I can even see glaciers that are slowly creeping their way down the sides of the mountains. All I can hear is a waterfall that plunges about 200 meters down the mountain face to my left. For the first hour after I got here, I just stood out in front of the hostel and looked around – people that have been here for days were doing the same thing. Tomorrow, I’m going on a 9-hour hike that will take me past glaciers, snow-tipped peaks, and a sapphire glacial lake, while ascending nearly 1000 meters vertically in the process. I actually think that this may be the most awe-inspiring place I’ll ever visit in my life. Hopefully it won’t be, but it certainly is right now. To see pictures of the exact hostel I’m staying at, check out:

When I first saw those pictures, I was skeptical as to whether Gimmelwald would actually be as nice as they show. Now that I’m here, I can tell you that those pictures don’t even do it justice. I’ll be here for four nights, and I’m going to savor every last minute of it.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Czech Republic Part I - Prague

Well, I just finished spending about 5 days in Czech Republic, and I must say that it’s probably my new favorite country so far. I split my time between Prague, the capital, and a quieter village to the south called Cesky Krumlov. The two were basically exact opposites in terms of size and population, but they both were absolutely gorgeous and I had a great time in each.

After leaving Krakow, Poland (on the night train), I arrived the next day completely exhausted. For the first few hours, the night train was amazing, as I had the entire compartment to myself. But as the night went on, I got tired and wanted to go to sleep, but couldn’t sleep on the loud train. To make things worse, more and more people kept getting on, so by the end of the trip we had 7 people in my compartment, so none of us could lay down. Needless to say, I was beat.

Once I got to Old Prague Hostel, my accommodation for my time there, they told me that I wouldn’t be able to check in until 2pm. Not good. They had free breakfast in the kitchen, though, so I decided to go there and wait out the next few hours.

After getting some food in my stomach, I was feeling a bit less tired and decided I would map out all the sites I wanted to visit in Prague. Well, while I was doing research online, I somehow caught some second wind of energy and decided I would go out and take advantage of the day. So out I went, map in hand, to see what I could find.

As I mentioned earlier, Prague is absolutely gorgeous. It was probably the prettiest city I’d been to at that point. Some other cities such as Vienna or Amsterdam have small areas that can rival Prague’s beauty, but Prague’s entire old town was that way. You could walk around for an hour and each street you encountered would be prettier than the last.

The first stop I hit was close to my hostel – the Powder Tower, which dates from 1475. An expert at ascending steep spiral staircases at that point, I made the trek to the top. Stepping out onto the top of Powder Tower shows you just how cool Prague is. Looking towards Prague Castle and the Tyn Church, it looks like something out of a fairy tale, with their spires and towers eclipsing the rest of the town. After hanging out there for a while and savoring the views, I continued on my way.

The next stop was Old Town Square, which is the location of the Tyn Church that you saw in my pictures from the tower. Also in the square is the 600-year-old astronomical clock, which dates all the way from 1410. I happened to be walking by at the hour, so I stuck around for a few minutes to see the “Walk of the Apostles,” a rather uninteresting display of different wooden figures walking by the window of the clock. Some people loved it, though, as there was a crowd of about 500 people there to see it. I call those people “bad tourists,” because they’re always standing in the middle of the street, blocking other people from walking, and snapping pictures of really lame stuff on their obnoxiously oversized camera. Then they would typically go to a highly-overpriced tourist restaurant to eat dinner with 100 other bad tourists from the same country as them.

Leaving the square, I headed to Charles Bridge, the famous historical bridge over the Vltava River, which was started in 1357 and is now protected by UNESCO. On the way to bridge, I snapped about a million pictures of the city and the landscape, as it was all so picturesque. This bridge joins Prague Castle with the rest of the town. Before crossing it, I paid 30 crowns ($2) to go to the top of the south bridge tower, as I knew its views were unparalleled. I got some amazing pictures at the top of the bridge, the castle, and the old town.

Going across Charles Bridge at midday means that there are throngs of tourists doing the same. You can barely walk because there are so many people. To make thing worse, there are sketch artists along the sides, which people stop to watch, blocking up the entire bridge (more bad tourists). However, the views are indeed pretty amazing, so it’s understandable why they’re all there. I’d have to say that walking across the Charles Bridge (even though it is super-touristy) is one of the most amazing things you can do in Prague. The river, the castle, the bridge towers – they all come together to make one of the best panoramas I’ve ever seen.

On the other side, I began the steep trek to get a glimpse of Prague castle up close (it sits on a massive hill on the bank of the river). I was amazed that I hadn’t collapsed yet, as I hadn’t really slept at all yet. However, I did make it to the top, though I was pretty sweaty from the 85-degree weather. Once again, some of the best views that I’d encountered in all of Europe awaited me at the top.

Even though Prague Castle had closed for the day, its top attraction was still open, and free of charge – St. Vitus’ Cathedral. I went in with no line and walked through the whole thing. It was a good thing I went in then, because the following day, there would be a line about 200 people long waiting to go in. After walking through, I used my tripod to get some sweet shots in the square by the cathedral.

After the cathedral, I left the castle and walked even further up past the castle, away from the direction I’d came from. On that same side of the river, there is also a large forest area, with lots of trails that you can walk through. Since it’s on the same hill that the castle is built on, the entire thing overlooks the city of Prague. I walked around for a good hour or so before deciding to call it a day at about 8pm. On the way back to the hostel, I got these funny pictures of a puppy fighting with a stuffed animal (totally random, I know).

Anyway, for the rest of the night, I took it easy since I’d done so much that day. I hung out in the lounge of the hostel and met some people from Oklahoma and Texas that were pretty cool. We planned on doing a pub crawl together the following night.

Tuesday, June 24th – On this day I decided to go back to the castle to go into its many exhibitions, which were closed the day before. I took the “short unguided tour,” which included the royal palace, the Basilica of St. George, and some tower. Everything was really cool, but every sign and description was only in Czech, so I couldn’t really understand anything. I wasn’t about to pay 200 extra korunas ($14) for an English audio tour though. The palace was my favorite part – it was huge and had lots of balconies that overlooked the city.

For the rest of the day, I went to the museum of Franz Kafka, whose writing is considered to be some of the most influential in western literature. Kafka was born and lived in Prague for most of his life, and wrote stories that dealt with the bureaucracy and impersonal nature of the modern world. He was a strange guy, and the museum is no different. The space was very interesting. For example, one exhibit had photographs and descriptions of Kafka’s life, but they were on plaques that had been placed in a shallow pool of water that went around the outside of the room. Another consisted of “mirage machine” – a room designed to make you think you are seeing something when you actually are not. Even though it was kind of weird, it was pretty interesting, and it was rather cheap for a student ticket.

Back at the hostel, I met up with the people I’d met the day before, who I’d planned on going on the pub crawl with. After some deliberation, we decided that the pub crawl wasn’t worth it, so we would just go out to a bar for some drinks. But first, we watched an entire season of the Ali G Show on the hostel’s TV. I’d bought some beers at a grocery store earlier that day, so I had those while we watched. I’d heard legendary things about Czech beer, and for the most part it was true. They were all really good, and all less than two dollars for a half liter can. My favorite was probably Budweiser Budvar, but it has nothing to do with its mass-produced American counterpart. The two companies have been fighting in international court battles for decades, as to who should get the rights to the name. Well, a unanimous decision was never reached, so every country has different regulations towards Budweiser beer. In Czech, obviously, it is just about 100% impossible to get an American Budweiser. In some countries, they have both, or sometimes will have one under a different name. Either way, the Czech Budweiser was better than ours, hands-down.

After pregaming, a group of us headed out to a little café right by our hostel – the Café Bambus. The group consisted of: Jimmy and Patrick from Oklahoma, guy from Texas and his girlfriend (I talked to them the whole night but can’t remember their names), guy from Eugene, Oregon (should also his name but don’t), and the Frenchies (two girls from the south of France), and myself.

Luckily, the bar we went to had really cheap prices on beer, which was nice. Pilsner Urquell is also from Czech Republic (though you can get it everywhere in the States), so we had a few of those at $2 a pop.

Afterwards, we decided to find a bar or a club to go to. Oddly enough, Prague was very quiet at night, and we had a lot of trouble finding a place that was open. I was considering just calling it a night, but we finally found a place that was open.

It was a seedy place, with a thick cloud of smoke enveloping you as you walked in the front door. It was two levels, and the basement (felt felt more like a dungeon) was where everyone was. When I first walked in, I found it odd that surrounding the entire room were a group of black guys (maybe 25 or 30) who all seemed to know each other, but yet none of them were dancing or at the bar. They would just stand there with a drink in their hand, talking to someone occasionally, but always on the outskirts of the room. It didn’t take long to realize that they were all pushing drugs. On the way in and out of the bathroom, you always get a “Hey man, you good?” from one of them, trying to peddle their wares. On the dance floor, a number of girls had lollipops in their mouths, which is a tell-tale sign that they were on ecstacy at the time. Apparently, the guys were selling everything from ecstacy to cocaine, right in the club. That was pretty sketchy, and it was impossible to breathe in the smoke-filled lair, as it had no windows. Thus, we decided to go home after only a half hour or so. I had to check out of the hostel by 10 the next morning anyway, so it was about time to call it a night anyway. The people I went out with were really cool though. Unfortunately, I forgot to get their contact information before I left, but it was fun hanging out with them that night.