• Eurail Analysis

    I was curious to see if the Eurail pass paid for itself, and it did… almost twice!

    railTime is in 24 hour notation because I copied it straight over from the pass. Cost is what tickets would be if you had to pay full price. We paid somewhere between 3 and 10 euros per ticket, although a number were free (Hamburg to Berlin, Vienna to Bratislava and back, anything after Genova). I couldn’t find next-day tickets online for some places, so it’s possible this would actually cost more!

     

  • Prague

    Wednesday, June 24th

    The train out of Berlin was operated by the Czech railway. It seemed like a fairly nice train, but was a bit different as I think it was meant to be used as a sleeper train. While most trains so far has seats set up in rows, sometimes facing each other, sometimes not, this train was set up so little groups of six seats had their own room. Good for sleeping but a little cramped otherwise. Our little compartment was already occupied by a father, son, and an older woman when we got on the train. The scenery was pretty nice leaving Berlin and heading south. Near the southern edge of the country are some mountains, not very tall but still a lot more scenic than going though endless countryside.

    Arriving in Prague, something comes apparent very quickly: hills. Having a knack for picking hostels in the hills, the walk from the train station seemed like it was almost entirely uphill. At least that had the benefit of making the walk into town almost entirely downhill.

    Another thing that you’ll quickly notice is the seemingly erratic parking. In most European cities, you’ll see parallel parking and the occasional slanted parking. In Prague, it appeared people just felt like parking on the sidewalk. That was actually how you were supposed to park. There was a line on the sidewalk marking the forward limit of parking and another line on the pavement showing the other end of the parking space.

    Speaking of sidewalks, Prague had some amazing sidewalks. They were made out of small stones, probably inch to an inch and a half cubes in black and white. The stones were laid in patterns, sometimes for multiple city blocks. I guess I should also note that these weren’t the sidewalks that people parked on, usually.

    Walking around, I soon came across a strange sculpture. It was like someone took a head, cut it into horizontal strips, and let them rotate. Also, this sculpture was 20 feet tall and metallic. I looked it up later and I guess it is supposed to be a memorial to Franz Kafka, who apparently was Czech as there were a couple of other things dedicated to him around the city.

    The heart of the old city is on a river. To enter the old part of town, you have to go through a literal tourist trap. It’s a narrow path through a building lined by tons of souvenir shops. Cars don’t have it much better, as they also have to drive through part of the building and share their lanes with the city’s tram.

    Immediately after the tourist trap was the Charles Bridge. I guess it was built in the 1300s, and there obviously aren’t too many bridges left from that era. It is a pedestrian bridge now, with the occasional city vehicle also crossing. Along the bridge are at least a dozen statues and most of them a very old. Some might be original, but it was hard to tell. There were tons of artisans, I guess you could call them, on the bridge. People selling handmade things and sometimes making more of them on site. Portrait and caricature artists. The occasional musician. It wasn’t the normal selfie stick or other knick knack selling crew. One of the musicians was pretty unique. He played wine glasses filled with different levels of water. Each glass had to be wired with a microphone to be audible. The other end of the bridge was more old buildings, often only a couple stories tall. That side of town was also home to the old Prague castle, set high on a hill.

    Back across the river is the core of old town. It had a large town square, as I had come to expect in old towns in Europe. Like many town squares, it had a large town hall with a large clock. Of course, you could also climb to the top of this tower and get a really good view of town because everything was much shorter than the tower. This clock tower was unique because it has a famous astronomical clock on one side, and also does an animation once an hour, which a large crowd gathers for as it gets close to the top of the hour. In a nearby shop we found a shop selling nesting dolls featuring various sports teams. They didn’t have any K-State Wildcats, but they did have some Jayhawks and Chiefs. They even had some baseball teams, eight or so. One of those teams was sold out, the Royals. I guess their success over the last two seasons has a worldwide effect!

    Thursday, June 25th

    Many of the days attractions were located in the area near the Charles Bridge. First was the Lennon Wall, a graffiti filled wall dedicated to John Lennon. I’m not sure what his connection is to Prague but I guess at some point someone felt that it was necessary to start a wall with his lyrics and other things painted on it. Next was an attempt at finding an efficient route to the castle. I don’t think there really is an efficient route since it’s at the top of a huge hill, but our route definitely was not efficient as we wound up above the castle at one point. On the way uphill was the American embassy. It was a normal neighborhood building on a quiet street, and the only sign that something was different was that the street had security about a block away checking cars trying to get into the area.

    Finally arriving in the castle area, it feels like the castle is its own neighborhood. By this time, a lot of the castles started to blend together. It was neat, and it was old, like many of the other castles. There was a monumental church too. One different thing about this castle were what appeared to be servants quarters, a bunch of really tiny houses lining the castle walls. This place also had a weird thing about photography permits, or an attempt to get a couple extra bucks out of the tourist. No one obeyed the permit thing in the church, and many of the rest of the buildings weren’t worth taking pictures of anyways. In one particular building the staff member overseeing it cared quite a bit about enforcing the photo permit thing, although the older guy taking photos probably should have quit the first time he was asked. Another interesting part was little museum for the castle guard and how their role had changed over the years. As Czechoslovakia was one of those countries that was communist after World War II until 1989, there was a pretty big gap in the guard’s role (the castle was closed to the public and guarding it became just another normal job) but they’re now bringing back an old tradition.

    Google Maps indicated a large garden space near the river. The entry to the area was rather narrow, and easy for many tourists to miss because it looks like a fairly simple courtyard from the street. The space opens up into a large fountain and pool that felt nice and not overdone. Just some water plants and some large koi swimming in it. The area had some peacocks that occasionally let out loud squawks. The garden got more interesting with more fountains in statues. One area had a huge wall made to look like a grotto. There was also a stage that looked like it was being set up for a concert. After reading the sign that was completely in Czech, we decided to come back after walking around the neighborhood a bit more closer to what appeared to be a listed time on the sign.

    Coming back for the concert was a great idea. The area was full of people and we got a free, hour-long concert featuring many classical music pieces. I know there was at least one Bach and one Mozart piece played each, but I couldn’t tell you which ones were played. There were probably a dozen or so instruments in the ensemble and it sounded like they were some of the top players in the country.

    Friday, June 26th

    Friday continued the tradition of the last day in a city being a rather lazy day. The major attraction for the day was the Jewish Museum in Prague. It was tucked away in a part of Old Town and everything was within a couple blocks of each other. One of the weird things that first strikes you about the place is that it appears to be walled off from the outside. I’m not sure if that was done to make it into a ghetto at some point or if it was for security, but it still seemed a bit strange. It was also a bit annoying that they only accepted cash, so I had to spend most of my remaining Czech cash on the admission. The ticket allowed admission to about six buildings in the area, but a few of them stuck out.

    There was one building that was pretty empty. It had an elevated box seat area in the middle of the room, otherwise the focus was on the walls. On every available wall surface were handpainted names of every Czech Jewish victim of the holocaust, organized by their hometown. It was a very striking sight when you consider that this was only a monument to one country out of many affected by the Holocaust.

    A large portion of the area was a cemetery. It was ancient, with the first burial hundreds of years ago. The Jewish people will bury bodies on top of each other as long as their separated by a certain amount of dirt, so the area was very dense with headstones, which were all in Hebrew. The burial method also meant that the cemetery was rather hilly even though the paths were flat because there were so many levels of bodies.

    There were also a couple of active synagogues. The first seemed fairly new and had just a few pews. The other is apparently the oldest synagogue in Europe despite its name as the Old New Synagogue. It’s rather plain from the outside. Inside it’s even stranger as the main area was a series of booth-like chairs on the outside edge and a ring in the middle of the same type of chairs facing towards the outside. Some of the seats had names assigned to them. As a bonus, I got a souvenir kippah for going to this synagogue since they require them for all men.

    Another walk through town took us by the astronomical clock and its square once again. Today though, the area was far more crowded as a film crew was trying to shoot a scene in front of the clock. A bit of searching on the internet revealed that it was the crew for Legends, a mediocre Crime/Thriller/Action/Drama on TNT entering its second season. It turns out that filming is rather slow and grows boring pretty quick as a guy tries to micromanage an area that has a ton of pedestrian traffic. Maybe they should have tried to shoot during a time that isn’t at the peak of tourist season.

    Heading south and across the river again was a park called Kampa Island. It had a lot of open space and in one area they had these really creepy crawling baby statues. We would later see the same statues crawling on a large TV tower.

    … and now it’s picture time:

    A view from the building that houses the astronomical clock.

    A view from the building that houses the astronomical clock.

    Inside the castle complex.

    Inside the castle complex.

    The concert at the Senate.

    The concert at the Senate.

  • Berlin

    This one should be shorter than some other recent posts.

    Sunday, June 21st

    Wallyard Concept Hostel was to be the home camp in Berlin. When we arrived, it was easy to see how it got it’s name. Their courtyard faced a large, blank wall of the building on the next street. At least it didn’t face a noisy street, and the courtyard was pretty quiet since all of the surrounding buildings were tall and took up their entire lots. This hostel also wins the award for most industrial feeling interiors, as a lot of the surfaces just appeared to be concrete painted black. The hostel was in a West Berlin neighborhood and just a couple blocks from a subway station.

    The subways in Berlin were different from those in every other city. It seemed like it was just one big honor system. There were no gates to get in or out of the station. You just needed a valid ticket and if you got caught without one, the fine was something like 40€. Despite this seemingly free access, neither trains nor platforms were full of people in many places. Busy, but not as packed as some other cities.

    Walking around the area in Berlin the first night, we decided to not take the subway. Before we got too far from the hostel, I noticed a little orange square embedded on the ground. At first, it just looked like a utility marker, just one that on the ground instead of on a pole, like most had been in Europe. Then, I noticed that there was a name on block, two dates, the second one during the war, and a location. It was pretty obvious that these were markers related to the Holocaust. I would later look them up online and find out that there’s a guy who’s been making these for the past 20 years or so on behalf of Holocaust victims’ families, etc. and placing them at their last known addresses before the war. He started it because people where he was from didn’t believe there were victims from their neighborhood. Now there are tens of thousands placed throughout Europe. The first one I saw was outside of a large apartment building that was obviously built after the war. I would later see them a few more times around Berlin.

    The first major destination we headed towards was an old war monument from a victory over France some 200 years ago. It was mostly just a tower, and I found it kind of funny that the statue on top faced towards France. The bronze(?) murals on the side of the monument were taken at some point, wound up in France, but they later returned them sometime after World War II. Immediately after the war, France wanted the monument torn down and not restored. Curiously, parts of the returned murals were missing, so there would be large and irregularly shape blank gaps on the sides of the monument base. By looking straight down the road, you could see the Brandenburg Gate.

    We wound up walking around the zoo to head towards one of Berlin’s centers. I guess that’s another thing that makes Berlin different. It has three “centers” in three different areas of the city. There was supposed to be a large music festival going on throughout all three of these centers. This center was focused on the main shopping street in Berlin, which was closed of course, because it was Sunday. We just wound up walking this closed shopping street for a while and looking at the buildings. Pretty close to the zoo was another church that had been bombed during the war. They intentionally did not restore its tower except for the clock face, so it provided for some stark contrast from the upscale shopping surrounding it.

    Another unique part of Berlin was the pipes. It didn’t take long to realize that there were a lot of above ground pipes for something. They were either pink or a navy blue, and would seemingly wind around and follow roads. They didn’t seem permanent because most their supports were just large concrete blocks, and what appeared to be sections of the same pipe. This was another thing I had to look up online. It turns out that Berlin gets it’s name from an old word “Berl” in some language, and that meant swamp. The city is still very swampy and the ground is not too stable in a lot of places. The pipes pump water out of problem areas and takes it to a larger body of water nearby. I guess this also makes construction very difficult in Berlin because anything with a basement has to constantly pump out water until the entire below ground section is finished while not disturbing the water table too much, as pumping out too much water could cause surrounding buildings to become unstable.

    Monday, June 22nd

    Having researched transit options in Berlin, I found out a day card good for both the above and below ground trains, as well as busses was only something like 7€. That didn’t seem like much of an issue until I found out that the ticket machine only took coins. Collecting coins when 1€ and 2€ (and anything smaller) only come in coins means it’s pretty easy to have 7€ in change, right? Well, we were both short after depositing our entire pockets full of change. An obvious solution would have been a change machine or to accept bills at the ticket machine, but neither was available. I would later notice change machines at other stations. Anyways, it was back to the surface to find places to make small purchases and get large amounts of change. A couple doors down from the station was the best, cheap, little bakery in Berlin. I would get 2 or 3 pastries each morning and be completely full for less than 1.50€.

    With enough change to buy a subway ticket, we headed towards Checkpoint Charlie. There was a museum located next to it, but it was a bit hard to find the entrance so we wound up going in the gift shop first instead of the entrance. This was also the first museum where a beggar managed to make it past the entrance.

    I’m not sure if I covered it in the Paris post much, but in summary there are plenty of people going around with “petitions” to help out the disabled, and they’ll often ask for a donation. The donation of course just goes straight to that person, but there’s enough dumb tourists that I guess it isn’t too hard for them to make a living out of it. The beggar only made it through a couple of rooms before being kicked out by the staff.

    It was a pretty interesting museum. There were plenty of displays on the creative ways people managed to successfully cross the barrier. That really helps you realize how sick the DDR (short for East Germany) was to put up the wall. Remember, the purpose of the wall wasn’t to keep people in West Berlin, it was to keep people from East Berlin and the rest of the DDR from using West Berlin as an escape route to West Germany or pretty much anywhere else. I think it might be a very good sign that there’s something wrong with the way you’re country is run when people want to leave it so desperately. The museum itself had a pretty obvious negative attitude towards the DDR and USSR. It was a bit funny to see how Britain, France, and the US handled the wall and its security. On the East Berlin side, there was this big huge strip cleared of everything with very heavy security, and often on the West Berlin side, streets dead ended at the wall and people would park right up against the wall. The museum didn’t just focus on the wall or Checkpoint Charlie, although those were very large parts of it. They also had pretty large displays about the end of communism in various European countries as well as a pretty extensive photography display from the recent happenings in Ukraine.

    On the site of the actual Checkpoint Charlie, there’s a replica station that seemed to be manned by actors… who’d stamp your passport. I am not sure why anyone would want a fake stamp on their passport, or if they realize the headaches that might cause when they try to get back home.

    A few blocks along the location of the wall (the location is marked with a double wide strip of cobblestones in the middle of the street, sidewalk, grass, wherever it might be) was a place called the Topography of Terror.  It was on the site of the former SS headquarters that had been bulldozed after the war, used as a dump for a while, and then the remaining foundation of the SS building was excavated to create this exhibit. The remaining foundation was on the side of the wall, which remained mostly intact for the block or so that the memorial took along the street. In the foundation was a chronological exhibit about the Holocaust. They also had a fairly new building on the site that contained much of the same type of information, but was more in depth.

    Potsdamer Platz was a short walk away. The entire area remained empty from the time the war ended until the fall of the Wall, which runs right through the middle of the area. This meant that it was filled with tons of new buildings and many of them were skyscrapers. It felt like a completely modern downtown area, something that you don’t really find in too many European cities, at least in the center of town.

    The next stop was the Brandenburg Gate, but before we got there, we came across a very large Holocaust memorial. From afar, it looks like a bunch of concrete rectangles with varying heights. I think the idea was to make the rectangles about coffin size, and there was probably three or so feet between rectangles, enough that you could walk between them. The rectangles were all on a grid so they lined up perfectly with each other. The ground was uneven and the rectangles got taller as the ground also lowered, so you could only see the path in front of you and that was it. On one side of this memorial there was a museum underground, but it was closed on Mondays.

    The Brandenburg Gate was cool, and the restoration work done since the wall fell made it look almost new. Likewise with the Bundestag (home of the German legislature), although the big glass dome on the Bundestag felt a bit out of place on the building.

    There was a bit of time left in the afternoon, so we headed towards the DDR Museum, located on the east side of town, of course. It was located on one of the main streets in Berlin (Unter der Linden) where the Brandenburg Gate is also located. This particular part of the street was home to a lot of new buildings. This museum was right next to the river and directly across from the Berlin Cathedral. This was a different museum. It had a lot of hands on things that they encouraged you to touch. It focused on daily life in East Germany. Things like transportation, jobs, housing, furnishings, kids toys, leadership, and more. There was not too much focus on the wall or other border security in East Germany.

    There was a mall near Potsdamer Platz and I thought it might be a good place to look for food, especially because it was still raining lightly. I thought it seemed like a fairly small mall to call itself “Mall of Berlin”, but it turned out that it was a pair of buildings with a big courtyard between them. There was a fairly extensive fort made out of cardboard boxes in the middle. I think it was supposed to be some type of architecture project. The mall turned out to be good for a few things other than foodcourt bratwurst (which was really good). They had a huge electronics store that had cheap battery packs, so I picked one up for recharging my phone, even though I had already figured out the problem that was causing my phone to take all night to just barely get charged. At the other end of the mall was an Aldi’s. Like the one in Denmark, this is the Aldi related to Trader Joe’s in the US, so they even had some Trader Joe’s brand stuff on the shelves. The Aldi you see in America is the other Aldi from the other part of Germany. It’s complicated (this Aldi was set up like the American Aldi but not like Trader Joe’s) but there is a Wikipedia article about it. I got some cheap chocolate that turned out to not be cheap everywhere else (Ritter Sport) because it came in small squares and had a variety of flavors included in the package, so I knew I could try a few different things. Since it was an Aldi’s, milk was very cheap. I think I paid something like fifty cents for a liter.

    Since it had quit raining, it was time to catch a train out to the east side of town to visit the East Side Gallery. The gallery is actually the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, I think. It’s probably half a mile long and is continually painted with murals. Some of these murals have graffiti over them since they were painted a few years ago. The opposite side of the wall, facing a river, is just continuous graffiti that seems to get painted over every few months based on the dates of signatures on that side.

    Tuesday, June 23rd

    The precipitation from Monday continued into Tuesday, which made it a good lazy day. Having learned a lesson the day before, I had plenty of coins saved up to buy a subway pass in the morning. The remaining part of the morning was spent waiting outside in the rain and then visiting the Holocaust memorial that I described earlier. It contained a lot of personal stories and stories about how entire families were affected.

    Located close to the DDR Museum was the German History Museum. It had been the premier history museum in Germany for something like 200 years, including the time it was in East Berlin. Over the past 25 years, it has been renovated extensively and has become a modern museum. They had viewscopes set up in certain rooms so you could see how the rooms looked in the 1800s through the early 1900s, during recovery from World War II (the area was bombed pretty heavily and a wing of the museum was destroyed), and during its time under East German control, when it hosted a large number of exhibits about social things like the education system. The entire first floor of the museum is now dedicated to the century since the end of World War I, and thus provides a really good overview of everything that’s gone on in Germany since then. It was kind of like a combination of all of the other museums since the breadth of the museum was so large. We didn’t have time to do the other level of the museum, which covered German history from something like the years 1000-1914.

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    Church in the middle of Berlin.

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    Part of the Berlin Wall at the Topography of Terror

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    Brandenburg Gate

  • Hamburg

    Saturday, June 20th and Sunday, June 21st

    Almost all day on Saturday was spent traveling back to Hamburg, arriving there sometime around 10 pm. We had to take the train on the ferry again, and this time they even told us which deck to go to instead of letting us figure it out for ourselves. I also found out that there were two viewing decks, not just one. The hostel in Hamburg probably provided some of the worst sleep. They had a courtyard in between the set of buildings, which had great acoustics. Great enough that you could hear people out there all night long. Someone was yelling in German when I went to sleep. Someone was yelling in German when I woke up at 6 am. I am not sure why there were so many yelling people in Hamburg, but at least they are expressing themselves, I guess.

    Leaving the hostel there was a plaque on the building that it had been part of the concentration camp in Hamburg. Really glad we didn’t see that before checking in.

    It was Sunday, which apparently means that no stores in Germany are open. We found what looked to be the main shopping area in Hamburg, but none of the stores were open, just a few cafés here and there. That didn’t matter, we were trying to make our way towards the big park area lining one side of the city. We come across a church with a really large clock tower. I notice that there’s people at the top of the tower, so we decide to go investigate. It only costs a couple bucks to climb to the top, so we do that. It’s some 330 feet to the top, and we take the stair route because there’s a long line for the express elevator. It was a good tower to take the stairs. On one floor they had the clockworks for the tower. I wasn’t expecting them to be so large or have so many gears. The view from the top of the tower was worth the climb. You could see the entire city, and there was enough space that it wasn’t too crowded. The bells were ringing for noon as we walked towards the tower, and the 12:30 bell that went off while we were at the top made me thankful that I didn’t get to experience all of the noise for noon so closely. For some reason there wasn’t a long line for the elevator on the way down, but it did make it quick and easy to return to the bottom. I thought it was a bit funny that the elevator had a screen that showed the elevation and had an animation of where you were in the tower because the whole ride down only took a minute.

    Heading back towards the train station, we came across a bombed out church. The main tower of the church was the only part left standing relatively intact and was undergoing some type of long term restoration. The opposite end the church was left as a shell, just a couple of walls and empty spots where windows used to be.

    All of the exploration had built up quite an appetite. We came across a nice looking hamburger joint and decided to eat there. It turns out that hamburgers are taken pretty seriously in a city that shares its name with the sandwich. All ordering was done with an iPad that popped out of the table. The burger was delicious. As part of the tablet system, they had these plastic cards that you held up the the tablet screen to capture your order. At the end of the meal, you took that card over to the cash register to pay. It seemed a bit silly to me. 

    It was time to head back towards the train station. We had left our bags in a locker, so we retrieved them and went to the Deutsch Bahn office to make reservations for the train towards Berlin. The lady told us we didn’t need reservations since the train was completely within Germany. That turned out to be a bit of a mistake because the train was completely full, so I ended up sitting on the ground for the entire hour and 45 minute journey. It wasn’t all bad, as I could easily get up and stretch whenever I wanted, and I also had plenty of legroom. There were also plenty of other people without a seat.