Cassie's World Travel
Thursday, 23 October 2003
Oct. 15th MUNICH II
Just to split my time in Bavaria in half...
The 15th and the 16th I spent taking day trips around the alps just west and south of Munich. The 15th saw me enter a small town called Prien an Chimsee (preen an kimsee). It seemed like a very nice place, very cosy. I walked straight from the train station to the ferry docks on Chimsee Lake. I grabbed the first ferry to the island Fraueninzel. On it is the first of three palaces/castles created by King Ludwig II from the 1860s-70s. He was a young king, and a little crazy, and he wound up spending his entire family fortune on these castles. At age 40 his family had a doctor label him unfit to rule, and a few days after ousting him he was mysteriously found dead in a 3ft deep pool of water, another doctor dead nearby. Was he murdered, or was it an accident? Hmm, tough call..
This palace is a miniature version of Versailles. Ludwig was incredibly enamored with Sun King Louis XIV. Every painting and statue in his castles are of Louis. Himself, he was shy, and there are no pictures of him. This castle only lacks the two wings and impressive gardens, but its Hall of Mirrors is actually longer than that in Versailles. Also, it is not finished. Ludwig only managed to complete the smallest of his castles before running out of money. But that doesn't stop its finished rooms from being amazing. Every white statue and wood panel carving is unique. Every chandelier, whether bronze, silver, wood, or porcelain (the most impressive) are carefully detailed. From wall paintings to floor inlays, I was impressed. And outside, the fountains with their statues of roman gods, cherubs, horses, dogs and lions slaying beasts, caught my eyes and camera for a long time. I also visited the other island and an abbey with nuns who make their own liquor. Of course, I bought a small sample pack. They were quite herbal.
The 16th took me on a bus tour to Ludwig's small castle, a mansion really of only 20 some rooms, the Linderhof, and the Disney Castle, the Neuschwanstein. Ludwig had an eye for the fairy tale setting. The mini-versailles is in the middle of a lake, Linderhof has the alps and forests as its backdrop, and Neuschwanstein is on top of a mountain, often draped in mist. I must say, I am quite satisfied with castles now (except Edinborough's I missed it!). What more can I say about these two castles? They are huge, beautiful, full of fine objects, places to be seen and not described. Again, "Disney" is unfinished, but it is easy to appreciate anyway.
These are the two nights I wrangled free dinners from other tourists, to who I am deeply grateful. I enjoyed a small town restaurant and the official Hacker-Pschorr brew pub. I even tried pig knuckle, which I don't find that appetizing. Too tough and too much fat. I have to say, the germans eat WAY TOO MUCH! My god, throw in what I had in Austria with Prague and Munich and I must have put on at least 3 kg! Meat and fat, potatoes, gravy, salads or coleslaw with lots of dressing, and all the beer you can drink. It's worse than America!
Oct. 12th MUNICH
Thank god for friends from home! In Munich I met up with an old fellow waiter from Tutto Pasta, Soren. I wound up staying on his pull-out couch for 5 nights (thanks Soren!). Munich seemed to be a magnet for midwesterners. First, I met another friend of Soren's from Madison, Connor, who stayed with us and is going to work in Munich. Later, I met a man named Louis also from Madison while I visited one of three castles (read later). Next day I met 4 people from Milwaukee and Chicago at the other two castles. From both I managed to sound intelligent enough that they invited me out to dinner. I had two days in a row of very filling German food.
Starting from the beginning, Soren played an excellent tour guide and showed me around most of Munich's center. It's a relatively calm but lively city, if a bit on the pricey side. The Viktoralien Market is wonderfully set up outdoors and full of exotic foods. The shopping streets are well lined, there are many narrow alley off-shoots with surprising small squares and statues, and the gay neighborhood seems the most lively and fun for cafes. There is, as always, a wide river, but the bridges are short and don't hold a penny to a quarter to those in Prague. We watched the immense clock tower in town square chime and dance to 5pm. Later, we found ourselves in a nice, oaky Irish Pub where I swapped Galway pub names with a barback from Castlebar.
Next day I visited the BMW Museum. The architecture is modern, shining steel, and looks rather like a smooshed bubble. The BMW offices look like shiny pistons. The Museum is interesting and full of old and custom cars and motorcycles, and engines and planes, but I think I would have preferred a large show room. Afterwards I visited Olympic Park with some amazing, swooping glass ceilings covering half the buildings. They were setting up for a Christina Aguilera concert (darn, I didn't have a ticket) as I walked through. I considered taking a lift to the top of a high radio tower, but instead moseyed on to the Augustiner Brewery. It's a Bavarian beer they don't export. Very good light beers. Unfortunately neither they or Hacker-Pschorr give tours, so I resigned myself to sit in the Augustiner Beer hall and eat a hearty meal. The hall is large, long, and full of germans sitting together at park benches and large booths. I ate a tender half chicken, potato and cucumber salad, and delicious apple strudel. I recommend it! Afterwards, it was dark, but I still braved the now empty ghost town that is Oktoberfest. All of the buildings were still up but gutted inside. I visited a few just to see their immense size, and enjoyed what I could see of the huge signs of beer mugs, leiderhosen men, lion heads, you name it. It looks like they'd be pretty amazing surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people.
Oct. 9th PRAGUE
Prague is another beautiful city. A large area of downtown, on both sides of the river, looks very old, the buildings mostly brick and plaster, well embellished, and quite pointy at all edges. The castle is immense, much like Edinborough's in that it is quite long and on a hill. It isn't incredibly tall, except where the large cathedral rises in a central square. I most admired the views from the bridges and the designs of the theatres and concert halls. I stayed first in an excellent but small and noisy hostel called The Golden Sickle, smack in the center of town. There I met a large group of Aussies, Canadians, and Brits. I visited most of the small museums, one sex museum, bridges, the castle, and many churches with one Aussie on my first day. One of the churches had some scary cherubs with scrunched faces, some holding scissors, pliers, and even a plate with breasts. That night we had a LONG evening of drinking and bar tricks (instigated by me of course). Someone solved my heretofore unsolvable trick so I bought him and myself some blue absinthe. 70%!
Next day we all had to move out of the hostel because a large group of Brits moved in. We went to The Boathouse (recommended!) which unfortunately was a 20min tram ride south of the centre on the river. But it was so comfortable I stayed there 2 nights instead of one. I had a rest day, and saw the movie Kill Bill with the guys who followed me to the hostel. I still didn't manage to make it to any opera or symphony, but day 3 I visited a large church on a hill and walked its important cemetary with very ornate gravestones and tombs. My favorite was a dying stone eagle. The cemetary included Kafka's tomb. I also visited the museum of contemporary art, which was quite worthy, stopped in Mucha's museum briefly (he has GREAT art), and then met the last two guys left to watch the UEFA Champions League games. England beat Turkey, but Ireland played terribly against Switzerland. And then, falling asleep rather late, I moved on in the morning.
Wednesday, 22 October 2003
Oct. 7th KRAKOW
So easy to get behind... I took another long bus ride from Vilnius to Warsaw. This one was quieter, with less people, but I still think busses are tough to sleep on! Plus, near the polish border, after all of us with green bags had to show their innards, the bus had tire trouble. It was a bumpy ride when the spare started to fail! But it was nice seeing Warsaw slowly to the train station.
Krakow is a city most beautiful at night. The central square houses a covered market selling all sorts of trinkets, and a large cathedral with two completely different towers. The castle is a short wide avenue walk away, but...hate to say it, but I only saw it from afar. Instead of seeing Krakow the city, I saw Krakow from busses as I took two day trips. I went to the Salt Mines which are no longer in use. Amazing. There are so many rooms and tunnels, and the people have carved out huge statues and even a massive cathedral. Everything is salt, even the chandelier pieces. The next day I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. What do I need to say about this place? It was the premiere extermination camp in all of Europe. It was very sad. We saw heaps and heaps of leftover glasses, artificial limbs, combs and brushes, suitcases. It was also very busy, our tour group was massive. After both day trips I spent the evenings with australians I'd met on the busses. Good people, who knew good places to eat and drink.
Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Oct. 6th LITHUANIA
Finally, back on track, and updated!
(I am writing from Krakow, Poland, but I am not done with the city yet).
I did not stay the night in Tallinn. Instead I took a Eurobus the 11 hours to Vilnius, Lithuania. I also took the Eurobus 9 hours to Warsaw last night instead of staying in Vilnius. Here's what with overnight busses..................... Exactly. It was the right choice. Everyone, I mean everyone told me not to take overnight trains around the east because everyone gets robbed. The busses themselves are comfortable and heated, but if they are full (Tallinn) then it's a battle trying to sleep next to some stranger. If another passenger decides to lean -both- the chairs in front of you back all the way (Vilnius), then you are cramped and can't do anything because you don't speak her language and no one on the bus speaks yours. Needless to say, I'm sleeping well tonight!
The ride from Vilnius to Warsaw became interesting at the Polish border. I think they were looking for someone. They came on the bus to stamp passports, though they had to take mine inside for a different stamp. They also asked anyone with a green bag to step out and show their bags. My backpack is green. I guess they weren't looking for me! Also, the bus got a flat tire which our driver had to change. Around Warsaw when I fully awoke in the morning I realised we still had tire trouble. The last leg was tepid, the bus shook and stumbled a fair bit. I never got a good look at the left side, but I imagine a tire was about to come off after we reached the train station.
Ummm, right, this is about Vilnius! It has many things in common with Tallinn except that it is still in the throes of reconstruction. The old city is more incorporated with everything else and has more churches of all sorts. Also, everything still looks rather run-down. Lithuania is new as well, and I applaud their mere 3.5 to 1 exchange rate. At first I didn't like the city much. Still dirty to look at? But then I wandered into a church and realised what original structures look like. It was faded and old and missing bricks, but it was beautiful. I just barely made out frescoes on the walls and saw remnants of the stained glass and even could see behind the plaster at hidden alcoves beyond the great stone effigies that hang on the walls. It was fantastic seeing the original. And it shed a new light on Vilnius for me. Also, Vilnius' city legend includes an Iron Wolf who supposedly showed their first king where to build. The central white cathedral and its bell tower are immense, and Lithuania is rebuilding the lower royal palace. It should look fantastic in 2009.
I ate dinner at a local pub. Lithuanian food, like all the Baltics, is about potatoes and fat. I had Borsh soup and potato pancakes with meat filling, and finished it off with a beer and cherry cake. Then I started chatting with a nice guy up from Poland visiting his new boyfriend. He convinced me to see Trakai, a town 40mins away. I took a small bus there and wandered an absolutely fabulous island of a fully restored old redstone castle. It was closed! I was gutted, as the brits say. Someday, I have to see the insides.
Oct. 5th (oops!) ESTONIA
Instead of 3 days in Helsinki and 3 in Russia I wound up spending 7 in Helsinki enjoying the comfort. It was sad leaving, but I must admit the air was very fresh Sunday morning and my feet felt good on the road. I caught a morning ferry for Tallinn, Estonia. How many of you know where Estonia is?
Quick lesson, it's the northernmost Baltic country, which puts it maybe 20km south across the ocean from Finland and flat against Russia's border. From WWII until 1991 it and Latvia and Lithuania were part of Russia. Nowadays Estonia seems to be doing -very- well for itself despite the recent independence and fact it is 30 krone for 1 euro. It may have something to do with it being a favorite tour stop for Finns. I had the pleasure of walking from the international bus station (had to buy a ticket) through the "new town" into the Old Town. The transition was like stepping from a yacht in Cannes to a chinese junker. Kind of...Estonia is growing immensely with dark glass skyscrapers casting shadows over wide, clean streets and sweeping pedestrian strolls. It looks like it will be quite a metropolis someday. But then you reach the end of construction and see two fat guard towers covered with red ivy protecting a wide arch. Inside the still completely intact city walls is the Old Town, a maze of cobbled streets and clean, colorful shops, churches, homes, and more. It's untouched by war. The pharmacy even dates into the 15th century. I watched a fine sunset from the top of the hill where the fortifications of the original Danish castle still sit around the 'new' royal palace. I saw a useless little monastary (4 rooms of it) that supposedly houses a Pillar of Energy for spiritually inclined. And I learned all of Tallinn's history in a superb museum. All I didn't go to see was the large city park that houses a russian palace where the president resides. I recommend Tallinn. It's clean and comfortable, if not much cheaper than scandinavia.
Sept. 28th HELSINKI
Ahhh, arrived in Helsinki at 8:40am Sunday morning to be greeted by a very drunk but loopy happy friend I'd met in Granada, Spain. It was fantastic knowing someone there. I went straight out of hostels and cheap food and into a quiet apartment with home cooked meals and free laundry (which was desperately needed). And Timo made my stay one of the best in Europe. I didn't want to leave!
I have to admit, I didn't do many touristy things. Although Timo did take me for a few walks, they always had a purpose. The first was to find the Russian Embassy and discover how long it would take to get a Visa there on the spot. 4 days if I rushed it, which would have cost a lot, and since I waited 3 days to get into the Embassy - which is open 9-12 only - I decided I didn't have time. St. Petersburg drifted back to it's mysterious, fanciful image beyond the horizon. So I learned where to buy ferry tickets to Estonia instead. I also saw both major areas for outdoor markets and Timo took me to an island a short ferry ride from Helsinki harbor where old Swedish/Russian/Finnish fortress walls still exist. He knew lots about the history and we wandered some pitch black tunnels and stared at the ocean and the old cannons and guns for a few hours.
Other than that I wound up meeting most of his family and friends and simply drinking, hanging out, and having lots and lots of fun. It felt good being around local people and just relaxing instead of rushing from monument to museum to tour. I did still get a feel of Helsinki rising out of communism, what with its statues and dark red russian cathedral facing a bright white lutheran one, though is had nothing on the next cities I visited. The strangest part of the city? It's Black Death Park. It's a small green with tombstones from that era marking graves of dead inflicted with the disease. Creepy. The best part? The great memories Timo gave me, and the fact the Finn way of cheering is easy to remember in english: Get Pissed! Er... Kippis! (or however it's really spelled!).
I completely forgot to mention...Apparently I look a hundred times better, cuter, more girly maybe, than I did in high school. (winks to all my hs friends!) Bloody receptionist in Aarhus made fun of my 18 year old picture on my driver's license. "Is this you??" Of course! "You look like a boy in this." Yeah, great, thanks!
Sept. 27th-28th TRAVELING...
Thus ensued a long evening of adventure. The afternoon bus on Saturday took me up to a little town called Happaranda flush against the Finnish border. It was a short 1km walk across the border to the twin town Tornio. Then I discovered the busses don't run that late from Tornio on Saturdays. There I was, staring cluelessly at finnish words on a dark billboard outside Information, getting spattered with light evening rain, when a car suddenly pulled up beside me. Three boys poked their heads out and asked if I needed help. I didn't even have to stick out my thumb! I was wary at first (3 boys vs. me?) but they weren't older than 18, so I hopped in. They drove me the 20km to Kemi and left me at the train station. Great kids! Only two knew english, but it was more than enough! So, eventually the bus (not train, the tracks were apparently broken) came and took me and lots of tired visitors and workers down to Oulu where we all caught the train to the south, away from the arctic circle. I just wanted to use this section to point out that Finnish sleeper trains are the best in Europe. Sinks in the compartments, little towels, bottled water, and only 3 beds (instead of 6). The comfort!
Sept. 26th LULEAA
Many thanks to Stefan, a man I've known now over five years and finally saw face to face up in Sweden's frigid north. The weather was still lovely, and the train ride up was gorgeous - passing aspens and pines, lakes and rapids. I recommend the north of Scandinavia and of the Baltics for anyone who likes Autumn. Luleaa is a smaller town in Sweden with still a somewhat bustling feel. All I didn't know is where they were bustling to. Stefan took good care of me and we visited quite a few coffee shops and I enjoyed the views of two lakes squishing Lulea center together (much like Madison). I spent a quiet night in a local hostel and the next day wandering before packing up for my first bus trip since Spain. Thanks again for the fun, Stefan!
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