Sunday, October 30, 2011
Knowing that we were going to a city we didn't have a good idea of how to get around in, we had scheduled a ride with a driver affiliated with the apartment rental we had reserved. If we'd known how amazing easy it was to get around in the city and how close our apartment was to everything, we could have easily walked it, but it was nice to not have to worry about that upon arrival. After a quick ride from Praha hlavní nádraží (the main train station in Prague), we arrived at our apartment located at Pštrossova 33, Prague 1 on the northern edge of Nové Město (New Town) just steps from Staré Město (Old Town). The driver dropped us off and not longer after, our contact showed up to let us into the apartment and give us a quick rundown of how to get in and out and use the various amenities. One of our favorite things about the place was the notebook that people who had previously stayed in the apartment wrote various tips and tricks in. It was full of hints about places to eat (or not), things to see and do, and general advice about things like how to use the shower without accidentally hosing down the entire bathroom. Being famished by this point, we tossed our bags in the wardrobe and did a quick cross reference between the apartment notebook and one of the guidebooks I had brought to find someplace local to eat.
Na Struze 7, Praha 1) right around the corner which had gotten favorable reviews from past travelers and met our requirement of having food. In preparation for our trip, well-traveled friends had told us about how wonderful Czech beer was, but how bad the food was. We made our way down the block to the pub and, wanting to continue our "tradition" of eating local cuisine on this trip, ordered up some Czech pilsners and Czech food. I had the traditional Czech plate which consisted of three different types of dumpling, a nice slab of roast pork, some sauerkraut, etc. In the States, I've never met a sour kraut that I haven't despised, since it's typically closer to rancid than fermented. The sauerkraut in Prague was so amazingly good. It was a mix of sweet and sour and was what I had always thought sauerkraut was supposed to be. All the food was wonderful; however, the beer was a let down.
The next day was go, go, go. We started off by taking the advice of friends and got breakfast at The Globe, a hip, english-speaking book store/art gallery/cafe/brunch spot that had been recommended by a friend. From there, we headed toward the bridge to cross over into Malá Strana to the foot of Petřín Hill. On the way, Coral needed a pitstop, so we attempted to swing by the public one under the performance hall, but as we descended, we witnesses an english-speaking gal screaming "get off me you crazy bitch" as she wrestled herself away from an older Czech woman who appeared to be the bathroom attendant. After that episode, Coral thought she'd rather not go in there. We walked across the bridge to the foot of Petrin Hill to take the funicular railway up to the top (grab a day pass for the public transportation system across the street at the tobacco shop) and wandered around for a while, coming across the observatory, the tower, a walled garden, lots of walking paths, and some nice views of the city along the way.
Charles Bridge (lots of touristy crap going on and near the bridge) over into Old Town. We were going to go to the old Jewish Ghetto and cemetery, but the entrance fees were really steep, so we skipped those and got a picture of Coral with the Franz Kafka statue across the street from the Franz Kafka cafe before stopping in a bakery for a quiche lunch. From there, it was an nice winding walk through the middle of Old Town to check out the Astronomical Clock. While wandering around in the central area, we stopped in several shops to look around and found a little phonograph museum tucked away back down a little side street.
Wensaslas Square (where the velvet revolution occurred just before the fall of the soviet union) which is a huge, modern shopping area in New Town. The amazing thing about this area was that the shops weren't just along the street like in many cities, they extended back into the interior of the city blocks like malls, forming a labyrinth and making it difficult to figure out where a particular address might be. Coral's determination paid off though and we found the gallery by going through the giant, three level camera store we came across, out the back into an interior courtyard area, and into a house-like building. The exhibit at the time was hundreds and hundreds of photography books, magazines, and other print media stretching back years. We browsed for hours looking back through the history of photography before getting hungry and deciding it was time for dinner. While completely unnecessary for the distance we were going, we thought we ought to at least use our day pass once to ride the metro (which is deep, deep, deep underground) to the station close to our place which was only one stop away.
After a little rest, a few walkable blocks away from our apartment, we had dinner at the Lemon Leaf, a fusion restaurant with really fantastic food and wine, which put us in a great mood for a night walk along the river where we saw Frank Gehry's dancing building, Prague Castle and the Cathedral, and other folks out enjoying the brisk, but fantastic evening. Having made our way up to and across the Charles Bridge, we decided we were done and headed back to get some sleep to prepare for flying back to London the next day.
Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland and the ash cloud that had spread over northern Europe, all flights were canceled. Not knowing what to do at first or realizing the scale of the travel disaster, we got in one of the long lines for the airline window where they really just told us that they could reschedule us for another flight two days later. After a running around to the windows of some of the other airlines and finding expensive prices, we grabbed a quick bite in an internet-enabled cafe to figure out what to do next. There just wasn't any way to get on the last flights out, so I looked at Coral and said "We've got to get back to the central train station as fast as possible before everybody else figures out that's the only way to leave."
Hlavní Nádraží , we sped to the travel agency to see about a train ride. At the first travel agency, the guy was incredibly helpful and found us a really inexpensive two-person private cabin on the night train to Cologne (I was amazed at how much less expensive it was than the night train tickets we had bought at the Florence train station which goes to show you should always use the little travel agencies near the station rather than the station itself for this kind of travel). When we asked about getting the rest of the way to London, he told us we'd have to go around the corner to the other travel agency because trains leaving from Cologne were by a different company. As we made our way to the next agency, it was getting a bit more chaotic as the scope of the problem was becoming more clear. The next agency had quite a few people in it, but we patiently waited our turn. The gal that helped us was very nice and managed to get us a connecting train from Cologne to Brussels, but she wasn't able to get us any further than that because the last legs across the channel were filling up with all the travelers returning to the UK from their Easter holidays. With as many train rides as we were able to secure, there was nothing left to do but kill some time before our night train, so we stopped at a restaurant at the station where we met an Irish/English guy that used to be a security consultant (he was pretty cagey about the particulars of what that meant) who was in the country looking to buy some rural land to build a house on. We learned that while the land is incredibly cheap, the building materials are super expensive in the Czech Republic. He was quite the paranoid guy and several times told us how we needed to be really careful on the night train and how if anyone knocks on our door during the night, we should position ourselves thus and so and put our foot in a particular place, so that the door couldn't be forced open. Interesting guy.
We arrived at Brussels South station which was packed with people trying to figure out how to get to wherever they were going that had now been made incredibly challenging by the volcano which the news revealed was still erupting with no signs of letting up. Searches online for buses, trains, cars, planes, etc all came up as full for many days into the future which made us start to freak out a bit because all the hotels nearby were filling up and getting expensive quickly as well and my flight back to the States was leaving in a couple of days. All the ATMs we could find at the train station an in the surrounding neighborhood were either out of money or out of service which didn't make us feel any less stressed. The only solution Coral and I could think of was to try to get in contact with our relatives that live in Belgium to see if they had any ideas of where we could stay or perhaps put us up until we could get back to England. The only problem was that we didn't have any of the contact information for any of them. After attempting contact via an old email address to no end, we decided to use our last Euros to get a phone card and see if calling information would yield anything. When we were last in Belgium, Coral and my mom had stayed with one set of relatives and my cousin and I had stayed with another. Luckily, I remember where they lived and information was able to give me a telephone number. While not being able to get in contact with anyone, we felt a little better just having at least some bit of hope for assistance.
Eurostar has just added another train for the next day, so we snapped those tickets up and heaved a sign of great relief. We then got in contact with Patrick who told us to grab a ticket for the local train that would take us to Hasselt where he and Connie would pick us up and take us to Remi and Rachel's to stay for the night. Our relatives took fantastic care of us, even having the next door neighbor come over to translate for us while Patrick was gone until his Johnny and Frieda could come over. We had a great time talking to everyone, seeing Russel (the dog) and enjoying some awesome St Petrus Belgian beer (dubel, tripel, and blonde and all terrific) which made us sad that we had tickets to leave the next day because we would have loved to have stayed longer to enjoy our relatives.
volcano and the continuing havok it was playing on air travel which caused me to start worrying about bills and rent coming due and other stupid things like that. My original flight got canceled as well as two rescheduled flights that they had put me on which initially made me wonder if I was ever going to be able to get back home. Eventually, I stopped worrying about it, since there was nothing I could do about it and settled in to enjoy where I was. Coral and I went to London to see some sights and walked the Queen's Way (which is really friggin' long) when the subways stopped working. I also got to meet several of her study-abroad friends, see Hatfield and St Albans (where we had an amazing real English breakfast) and have a good time just hanging out with Coral.
MetOffice stopped being overly-cautious which allowed me to finally catch a flight home after an additional week of being "trapped" in England. What was really disturbing about returning home was how absolutely ridiculous and assinine "Homeland Security" and the TSA are. Going through the horrendous lines at customs at the Chicago airport and all the unnecessary and ineffective security that exists at US airports these days made me pretty angry. During all our travels and going through heavily-used hubs in many different countries, airline travel in the US is by far the most frustrating and sad experience. Even in places where there are far more security risks than in the US, the security process is much more humane and reasonable.
Upon getting home, it seemed like I had been away an awfully long time due to the number of places I'd been, things I had seen, people I had met, and adventures I had had with my sister Coral. If anything, this trip made me want to go to even more places that put me out of my comfort zone and experience many more different cultures and countries.
Monday, September 13, 2010
While a bit tired from the travel, arriving in Rome was exciting, since my last visit was in 1999. Coral and I grabbed a couple train tickets and a local calling card and then hopped the train from the airport in Fiumicino into Rome. After arriving at Roma Termini, we phoned to let the B&B know we were on our way via the metro.
Cross-Pollinate) just off of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele and met our host Anselmo, a pretty cool older gentleman. Anselmo showed us around the B&B, which is decorated with interesting vintage posters and toys, and got us acquainted with our keys, timed light switches, and our vouchers for breakfasts at the Piccolo Bar across the street. There was a catch though: Anselmo only speaks Italian and French. On the plus side, those are the two non-English languages that I have some basic knowledge of, so by using both of them, we were able to figure things out. It had been a few years since I had been in Italy, so it took a few days for me to really get my ear back and start being able to form responses quickly enough in Italian. What sucked was that by the time I was really getting in the groove, it was time for us to leave Italy.
Trajan's Column, which depicts his victory over those pesky Dacians, and the Imperial Forum. Next, we walked across the street and up the back path to the Capitoline to grab our Roma Passes and back down to the Roman Forum where we used one of Rick Steves' audio tours to learn about the site. From there, we moved up to the beautiful Palentine Hill and over to the Colosseum.
St Peter's Basilica, went through the security cordon, and got in a long line to go up to the top of the dome. It is well worth the cramped and slanted trek up the several hundred steps to get to the top as the view of Rome from up there is incredible. I debated whether to take Coral there on our first day or on a later day after we'd seen more, since it's fun to pick out all the places you've been, but it's also just a stunning introduction to the city. Once we'd had our fill of being packed together with a bunch of other people all competing to see, we descended back down to the interior of St Peter's to take in all the amazing art and architecture. By the time we were done, we were almost completely exhausted from our very long day of walking, but not quite exhausted enough that we couldn't make a slight detour on our way to homebase to get Coral her first taste of the best gelato ever at Giolitti's.
Ostia Antica. The weather was beautiful and Ostia was really nice. Once again, we used an audio tour by Rick Steves as our initial guide to the history of the place. When we finished with the audio tour and had some lunch, we spent most of the day just wandering around and exploring the nooks and crannies, which are full of interesting mosaics and other signs of ancient life, that you find when you leave the main path behind.
an evening stroll across the Centro Storico. Jumping off the metro at either Barberini or Spagna station, we started by the Spanish Steps and walked over to the Trevi Fountain. Coral and I spent some time people-watching, since I wanted to wait until the sun set and get some evening pictures of the fountain. On our way from the Trevi over to the Pantheon area, we encountered Bartolucci: a really nifty shop selling a variety of whimsical items made from wood as well as some incredibly intricate larger works of wood craftmanship like a full-size cruiser motorcycle. We also found a great little supermarket just off the Piazza Rontunda by the Pantheon which we used whenever we needed supplies. Our energy reserves were getting a little low, so we took a break and hung out at Piazza Navona, which used to be a circus (the chariot race kind, not the elephant kind), while we decided what to do for dinner.
Campo de Fiori, since it sounded like a more "local" place than a lot of the other stuff around. The part of the description that really caught our eye was that it was a place that doesn't have a menu, you get whatever the lady that runs the place has decided to make that day. Talk about a great decision. This is where we relearned how to eat the European way and love it. It was a complete five course meal filled with amazing delights: fantastic jug wine, yummy appetizers, one of the best garlic lentil dishes we've ever had, pasta course, meat course, desert, the whole shebang. At first, we were idiots and were eating like we would in the US, wolfing down whatever was set in front of us. That was a mistake and we quickly found ourselves nearly full before we'd even made it through the appetizer course which was huge. This led to a hushed discussion about how in the heck we were going to make it through the rest of the meal without exploding. Then it dawned on us, we were in Rome, in Europe, where you're expected to hang out and take your time and not only enjoy your meal, but also enjoy the people you are with because they aren't going to rush you out of the place in order to reuse the table. Once we figured that out, the rest of the meal was something to enjoy rather than a mission to be conquered. We were perfectly happy to continue to sitting there even after desert, but it was getting late and we needed to catch a bus to get us to the metro in time for the last run of the night that would get us back to homebase.
Sistine Chapel, where our disgust for tourists grew when the idiots packing the place refused to respect the simple "no talking, no photography" rule, and the massive Vatican Museums which have one of the most amazing collections of statuary you'll find. The most amusing part of the day was the look of horrified disappointment on Coral's face when we stopped on the way back to homebase and she got some of what most shops in Rome try to pass off as gelato. I had tried to warn her. She grudgingly finished her cone and then demanded that we go back to Giolitti's at least once more before leaving Rome. That evening, we had some fantastic pizza at a tiny trattoria between the Pantheon and Bartalucci's and to my dismay, Coral had enough room left for us to fulfill the Giolitti's requirement.
Bocca della Verita, were stunned by how gigantic the Baths of Caracalla are, and then bid farewell to Anselmo as we headed off to board the train for Florence.
Hotel il Bargellino) owned and operated by a Bostonian expat (Carmel) and her Italian husband (Pino), it was time for a quick bite and then some pictures of the Duomo and it's gorgeous pink, green, and white marble exterior. There was a groovy outdoor sculpture exhibit between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery that we checked out before crossing the Ponte Vecchio where it was time for some gelato and a stop at a little shop that sold porcelin masks.
Museum of Science. It was pretty disappointing that so much of the collection was unavailable during the construction, but we made the best of it. Next up, a look at the tombs of notable dead people at Santa Croce and some confusion as we tried to figure out what else we were going to be able to see, since it turned out to be a day when many of the awesome museums were closed for the day or for some other temporary reason. We made the best of it and went to the botanical gardens and then spent some time just sitting on the veranda back at the hotel while waiting for our night train which would take us to Prague via Vienna.
... next episode, the Czech Republic and Volcano fun.
Saturday, June 19, 2010
It was pretty interesting to be so far out of our element. We went to a country where we don't speak the language and weren't familiar with the culture. We did do this on purpose, so it wasn't as big a shock as it might have been. Instead, it was a pretty fascinating learning experience.
Our first stop was Luxor in the south (Upper Egypt). We stayed at the Nefertiti Hotel where we took advantage of their sister company Aladin Tours to take a couple of half-day tours. Coral and I both really liked the Nefertiti. Both the night and day staff were very helpful with any questions we had or tour arrangements we wanted. At no point did it seems like they were more interested in selling us something than simply being helpful and wanting us to have a good time which wasn't the case at our Cairo hotel.
West Bank, or the land of the dead, where we got to tour Hatshepsut Temple, the Valley of the Kings, and the Valley of the Queens. We hadn't had time the night before to get any Egyptian pounds and our tour was leaving early enough that there wasn't an open ATM around, but the day manager at the hotel amazingly lent us the money needed to get into the sites for the West Bank tour. The temple was pretty amazing and our guide, Alladin, provided a wealth of information about the site as well as pointing out the bullet holes from when 60 tourists were gunned-down by terrorists in the early 2000's. Alladin was great at giving us not just the shiny side of things and talked about how devastated the local economy was by these attacks. Over 80% of the people in the Luxor area are employed either directly or indirectly by the tourist industry. When the attacks occurred, tourism went from over 6000 people a day to below 800. Even today, things haven't fully recovered and they are only seeing around 3000 people a day.
After the sites, we got introduced to haggling at the alabaster "factory". Unless you specify otherwise, tours in Egypt will inevitably stop at a local factory of some sort. Alabaster, rugs, papyrus, etc. While the products were interesting, it was our first day in Egypt and we weren't quite prepared for the experience. We came away with a handmade alabaster vase, a scarab, and a pyramid for probably about one and a half times what we could have gotten them for, but that was ok.
Karnak temple complex and Luxor temple. Our guide for this part of the tour was Mohamed Ali who also provided great information about the sites. The Karnak temple complex is amazingly huge and what struck us the most was how the ancient Egyptians managed such feats of engineering.
The next day we headed for Cairo for a couple of days and stayed at the Windsor Hotel which was a bit of a disappointment. My next trip to Cairo, I'll probably stay somewhere over on Zamalek. The front desk seemed more interested in making a buck rather than being useful.
Spring Day), so not much was open. This ended being a good thing as it allowed us to more casually wander around in what we learned the next day is normally a VERY crowded and bustling city. We walked down towards the middle of the downtown on Talit Harb road and had a great fatteh and kebab lunch at Felfela. After a brief stop back at the hotel, it was a walk through Islamic Cairo over to the Khan el Khalili bazaar. Weird but interesting to be the only "white people" we saw during the entire trip over and back. We did encounter some westerns at the bazaar, but the best parts were Coral getting a chance to talk to some local girls about their studies and then her haggling with the scarf vendor.
Saqqara where we got to see the experimentation with mastabas and other early structure which were the precursors to the "true" pyramids.
After a stop at the papyrus "factory" in Giza and a misunderstanding between our Canadian van mates and the driver about whether they wanted to rent camels or not, it was off to see the Great Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. They were great. Pretty pushy touts (vendors) at the Giza plateau, but other than that, amazing stuff. Again, the feats of engineering are just stunning. They're having some trouble preserving the sphinx due to the water table and encroaching city, so it was good to see it before it disappears in another few thousand years.
After our grueling tour it was time to head back to Cairo for a quick nap and then some lunch at Gad which was quite the experience. The young guy working the cash register knew enough English for us to order a kebab sandwich and a chicken sandwich. If not for that, we'd have been pretty screwed. The menu was entirely in Arabic and the place was completely packed with people. While waiting for our order, we met Sammi, a super nice, half-Egyptian, half-Canadian petroleum engineering student who was in town to visit family. He stopped in off the street after seeing how badly we stuck out in the crowd and wanted to see if we needed any help. The most amusing part was when the three of us got to look disdainfully at the stupid American who stopped in and asked us if the place took US dollars.
My next trip to Egypt, I will probably want to either stay with locals or at least meet up with some local folks to explore with to make it a bit easier and to also get to see more of the local culture. Coral and I made a pretty good go of it, but it was definitely a little tough not speaking the language and not quite having enough time to really grok the local culture.
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Monday, August 04, 2008
Disturbing: Speaking of sparklers, here's a wonderfully disturbing flickr collection, and the dude's site is here.
The dollhouse photos over here are pretty nifty too.
Car: Getting ready to put one of these in my car. Taking apart the dash was pretty darn easy, so we'll see how it goes once I get the part in. Just could stand the static when using the FM transmitter with the iPod.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Went to San Francisco a few months ago (check out the pictures hee) and loved it. I recommend everyone check it out. Got to see quite a bit while I was out there. Some of it was the regular touristy stuff, but I also got to see one of my favorite bands play an amazing show: Rilo Kiley. Man, that was a great show. One of my friends found a taper copy of the show online somewhere and the fidelity turned out great.
Besides the concert and touristy stuff, I also went and had a look at Berkeley (which was also very cool), and just kind of hung out soaking up the atmosphere. If it wasn't so friggin' expensive to live out there, I wouldn't mind living there for a while.
So, here are some links...
I was so disappointed that these button over at Etsy sold out.
A couple of these t-shirts were kind of amusing.
Definitely check of this friggin' cool pocket synth.