Saturday, April 5, 2008

prague

Sam and I took a bus from Vienna to Prague and we arrived in the early afternoon so we had most of the first day to just look around. The first thing that I noticed was that Czech is a ridiculously hard language to understand.
When we were in Vienna, German was obviously everywhere but at least partially manageable because since English was derived from it, most of the words sounded exactly like English. Not the same with Czech (oh and side note, Prague in Czech is Praha. I think Prague sounds better though). Also, English wasn't plastered everywhere alongside it as was the case most of the time with Austria.
But anyway, language barrier aside, Sam and I arrived somehow at our hostel (Sir Toby's=nicest hostel of all time), grabbed a map, and headed into town. Our plan for the first day was to just head into Old Town, which was where a large clump of the major sites were in the city. The thing about Prague, though, was that you don't really need an agenda. The streets all along the way into wherever you want to go are worth looking at and taking pictures. Anway, so as we slowly made our way into town, somewhat distracted by the fact that Prague may or not have been the most beautiful city I have ever been in, I took plenty of pictures and we saw plenty of tourists. Unlike Vienna, where all the tourists were Asians, Prague was filled with Italians. I have no idea why this is true but they all looked exactly the same: black skinny jeans, black jacket (with our without fur lining), and sunglasses. Guys and girls. I think the reason why I noticed the sunglasses bit was because it was not sunny in Prague. It was rainy and cold. But despite this somewhat important fact, sunglasses were everywhere.

The first big thing we saw was the clock tower of the Old Town Hall, where its astronomical clock (left) entertained hords of tourists on the hour, every hour. Why you ask? I have no idea. The clock itself was whoa beautiful- it had 1 dial which represented the position of the sun and the moon, and then a calendar thing that pointed to what month it was. Maybe the day too but I don't know. The reason, though, why the entire square becomes clogged with tourists on the hour, every hour, is because the clock puts on like a 30 second show with slow-moving Apostles and a bell-ringing skeleton every hour. On a scale of excitement, I'd rate it a 2 (1.5 of that score was from the excited anticipation of what will happen when the hour struck). But it never failed, the square magically filled up again 59 minutes later with more hopeful tourists.
We walked around Old Town some more and saw the famous Tyn Church, the Municipal House (above right), the Jewish Quarter (right), several more churches, and many many more random buildings- all of which were completely different and completely beautiful. Prague was different from Vienna in that every single building was different than the next. In Vienna, I felt like everything was beautiful but everything was white. Well, kind of eggshell. In Prague, though, there would be these long stretches of houses and shops, all connected, but every one would be a different color and style.

Disclaimer: this panoramic shot is horrible. Note to self: do not just slap together one of these things and think it will turn out when you get home. It won't. But anyway, it looks kind of distorted but below is one of the main squares in Prague and you can get a good idea of what the city was like:

At this point, the sun was starting to set so we headed toward Charles Bridge- the biggest tourist bridge ever. But totally worth it. On the way, we took several pictures of some of the smaller bridges, as well as several million of the sun setting over Prague. It was a good night.

We reached Charles Bridge, and the first thing I noticed was all the statues. The bridge had 30 statues, which dated back to the 18th century (according to Lonely Planet). The other major feature of the bridge is the people on it. There were insane amounts of vendors, artists, and street(bridge) musicians. We actually visited the bridge at several points throughout our time there and each time different musicians were entertaining on the bridge. Two of them in particular caught our attention and we watched them for a while. The first was this old-school style Czech band with all kinds of instruments-including this guy with 2 whisks and a washboard. One guy sang (or at least I think he was) sporadically along with the music. Pretty cool. The other guy, though, was the best. By far. Homeboy somehow figured out how to play champagne flutes not only one at a time but all together into songs like Stairway to Heaven, Yesterday, and of course My Heart Will Go On. Classic. Seeing as how all of my entire repertoire of piano playing resides in that one song, I thought it was only fitting to include it as a tribute to Mom and Dad and Laura who I'm sure love hearing it as much as I do:
video


The next morning, Sam and I met up with this guy who we had met through CouchSurfing and he was so cool. I am not sure if he was a gypsy or just in a hippy cult, but he reminded me and Sam of Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. He was this really serene, calm, peace and love kind of guy with long brown hair who showed us around the city. His friend came and met us, and he was really cool too. I think at one point he had dreads, but all that was left of those days was 1 very long single dread, which kind of stuck out of his head awkwardly. Anyway, those guys were really nice and that morning we had coffee with them and listened to Jack play gypsy music on his accordion. Then, that afternoon the guys took us on a whirlwind tour of Prague where we saw the Prague Castle, climbed the Petřín Tower (a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower- right), walked through one of the parks, had lunch at a hot dog stand, and went out at night to this completely crazy looking industrial music bar called Cross Club. The whole place had this weird green glow to it and everything moved- for example: in the foosball room there was this huge foosball table mounted upside down on the ceiling and all the players were spinning and rotating in slow motion. Crazy but really cool.

The next day, Sam and I made a trip to the Vyšehrad Castle, which had probably the most intense cemetery I've ever seen, which contained the remains of several famous people in Czech history. The castle itself was situated outside of the craziness of the rest of the city, so it was really peaceful and calm when we got there. I think it may have been my favorite place in Prague, and probably part of it was to do with the fact that it was so peaceful there. Sam and I spent a couple hours just walking through the cometary, looking at all the grave sites. Every single one of them was extravagant and individual. Flowers of all kinds were everywhere, as well as large statues and monuments overlooking each grave. There was this small path which lead up to the top of the city and we just sat there for a while, looking at Prague below us. I remember talking with Sam about not believing that we actually were in Prague, of all places, and that very soon we'd be returning back home and all the craziness of this semester will just be memories.

This past Spring Break '08 has been amazing in that we were able to go and do some of the things that I'd been wanting to do for so long and didn't think was possible (ex- the Vienna Boy's Choir). We met some really cool people traveling, especially on the Paddywagon tour, who have made me really think a lot about what it is exactly I'm doing with my life and where I want to go with it. I still really have no idea what my future plans are, but somehow I want traveling and seeing as much of the world as I can to be a part of it.

vienna

SB Part 2A: Vienna

After giving ourselves a few days to do laundry and re-group, Sam and I packed our suitcases once again for Vienna and Prague. When we were planning our spring break originally, our first plan was to visit about 5 countries back-to-back and give ourselves 1-2 days in each place. Luckily, we changed our mind to only visit 2 cities and stay long enough to actually experience each place.
We began our trip by flying into Vienna, Austria. We arrived there late Saturday night, and my first shock was that everything was in German. I knew ahead of time that this would be the case, but everywhere else I've traveled consisted of either French, Spanish, or English- the first two being ones I could at least get myself around in. German is a whole other story. I had no idea what any signs read or what anyone was saying. So getting from the bus station to our hostel (which ended up being in an alley off of another alley off of another street that wasn't labeled) in the dark was pretty hard. We ended up just getting a cab (our first and only cop-out of the trip) and found our hostel that way. We stayed at the Wombat hostel and it was really cool. Actually, all the hostels we have stayed at were really cool. I think Sam looked them up in the Lonely Planet first though, so it wasn't just a coincidence that they all have been fun.
The next morning we got up really early in order to go see the Vienna Boy's Choir at the mass in the Royal Chapel. Our first shock that morning was the weather. It was really sunny and actually warm- unlike Ireland which can get sunny but is still whoa freezing. Map in hand, Sam and I ventured out once again into the streets of Vienna, this time actually being successful in orientating ourselves in German. The Hofburg Palace housed the Royal Chapel, and both of them were stunning, especially contrasted against the bright blue sky. Everything pretty much in Vienna was huge, white, and gorgeous. Anyway, following a very long and complicatedly disorganized ticket buying procedure, we enter into the Chapel and were escorted by young guys who looked like they had all just hit puberty (our theory was that they used to be members of the Boys Choir and then got kicked out because their voices changed and were demoted to ushers) to our seats and waited for mass to begin. I had never been to a mass before, but hearing it all in German was really weird but interesting. I couldn't help but remember the scene in While You Were Sleeping where the grandma says that she likes mass better in Latin because you can't understand what they are saying. This was exactly what the mass in Vienna was like. Intermittently between segments of mass was the Boys Choir. They sat above the audience/church goers and sang for a few minutes off an on throughout the hour. There was something about sitting in that Chapel and listening to their amazing voices but I definitely got chills every time they sang. There was this one little Asian boy who was brilliant. He was obviously the star of the Choir and sang independently multiple times. Not going to lie- he was amazing:
video

After mass, we took some pictures outside of the palace and met Mozart (who, by the way, was exploited like whoa not only by really cool gold statue people but also by chocolate makers. Mozart chocolate was sold everywhere-I'm sure Mozart would be proud). Then, Sam and I wandered into the middle of the most shopping-intense street I'd ever seen. Back-to-back were stores like Gucci, Prada, Tiffanys, Lacoste, Chanel, etc. Also, everyone smoked. Everyone. There is a smoking ban in Ireland where you can only smoke outdoors, but the weather outside is such crap that you don't really see that much of it. Not the case in Vienna. Sitting outside (or inside) as far as the eye can see are people smoking. I think if I were to have studied in Vienna I would have picked it up, so I think my lungs are probably pretty happy I chose Ireland instead.
We stopped at this red-umbrellaed sidewalk cafe for breakfast. Sam and I had heard about this chocolate cake called sachertorte, which was this famous layered cake with apricot jam in the middle which was big in Vienna. We both got coffee and split a piece of the cake and took off our coats and just relaxed in the sun in the middle of Vienna. Not going to lie but I was really happy that morning.
After the cafe, Sam and I wandered around some more and toured the different sights in city center. We saw St. Stephen's Cathedral (right), which is supposed to be one of the biggest landmarks of Vienna and has been under continual construction since 1147. Kind of like NC State campus. Sure enough, there was work being done on it when we were there. The inside was just as beautiful as the out, and it was cool because mass was going on there as well so we watched that for a bit and then headed on to more touristic goodness. With no real agenda, we took pictures along the way as we picked out stuff on the map to see and as we passed buildings along the way. Along with huge and beautiful white buildings were huge numbers of Asian tourists (as opposed to huge groups of Italian tourists in Prague). The city center was super crowded in front of the Albertina (left), which was a museum I would have liked to have gone into but it was closed both days we were there. We looked around for a while, and then ended up in a massive park in front of another large glass-enclosed greenhouse. I was amazed by the number of people just hanging out in the huge green field. I think what was so different from America was the number of completely grown adults (both men and women in very nice clothing I might add), who were just relaxing or playing around with their kids. I'm used to parks back home which are filled with stay-at-home moms, and even they don't look that relaxed because they are yelling at someone to stop jumping off something or to stop throwing something at someone. This park was just completely relaxed, and since it was Europe, no one was working overtime on weekends and everyone was just hanging out. Some guy had his guitar and was jamming with one of his friends near us, where we had set up camp just laying in the grass in the sun for a few hours.

Once the sun went down and it got colder, we picked back up and headed back into the city. We passed by several street entertainers- artists, break-dancers, and more painted individuals ranging from ghosts to old-fashioned travelers. According to our Vienna map, the best ice cream was at a place called Zanoni & Zanoni. Since our breakfast consisted of cake and coffee, we decided to hit up the dairy section of the food pyramid and make an ice cream lunch visit. The map was not lying- and that ice cream was amazing (we would proceed to eat there every day until we left for Prague). A few more hours of wandering and then we had dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant and ordered the only logical option: wienerschnitzel. I had heard the name many times, but had no idea what it actually was until that night. Turns out wienerschnitzel is just pretty much breaded and fried pork, which kind of tasted like Chinese food, but it was whoa good. We also ordered the local beer (Stiegl) and sausages. It was a huge meal, but wasn't that expensive because it wasn't Ireland and food wasn't taxed like crazy.
Oh, and there was this dog in the restaurant who I think belonged to the owner and who just like hung out and ate scraps. This is completely unrelated to anything, but I just remembered it and thought it was funny because if it were America, that restaurant would have been shut down so fast. Turns out Austria isn't a stickler on things like dogs roaming freely in restaurants.
That night we hung out at the bar at the hostel and met some more cool people, one guy from England who had been all over traveling and this one guy from Iceland who had sweet dreads. Actually, he was also cool because he was from Iceland. No one is ever from Iceland.
The next day we did some more sightseeing and did a little H&M visiting since we were in the EU again and were back to Euros. We went to see Mozart's house (I'm not sure if he is actually from Austria but he definitely lived there at one point) and then saw the Museumsquartier, which was a big area of museums and cafes and shops.

We cut our sightseeing a little early in order to meet up with a girl from Vienna who let us stay with her that night. She was a recent graduate of Meredith back home and was living in Vienna and working at an elementary school there. Her flat was beautiful and we had a really fun time hanging out with her and one of her friends. We ended up going out to a bar that night which was supposedly an 'Irish Pub' but there was really nothing Irish about it. Sam asked the bartender what, other than the fact that they sold Jameson Whiskey, made their bar Irish. The bartender answered her by saying 'Well, we sell Guinness too.'

Sam, Carolyn, and me:

belfast and the causeway

SB part 1B: Belfast

The last day of the Paddywagon tour left us in Dublin, where Sam and I stayed at yet another hostel and made yet another dinner of pasta (our cheap way of not spending money on dinners, except pasta for 3 weeks in a row eventually loses its appeal) and went to bed early in order to get up early for part 1B.
The next morning we woke up, walked around Dublin's main university college campus- Trinity College- and then hopped on a bus headed to Belfast. The bus ride was a couple of hours and fairly uneventful, but the weather was nice yet again. When we got to Belfast, we checked into our really nice hostel (Belfast International Youth Hostel in case anyone was planning on going to Northern Ireland) with the intention of leaving the next day and catching the bus back to Dublin and from there, Cork. While planning out our day, we looked at a brochure about the Giant's Causeway up in even further North Ireland, which happened to have a tour bus that went every day and left from our very hostel. Being as that there was absolutely no way to go see one of Ireland's major attractions and still catch that bus back, we decided that the only logical decision would be to just stay another day in Belfast. With this new plan formed, the plan for that day just became to wander around the city and see what all we might happen upon.
I would just like to say that while I'm sure some people really love Belfast, it was whoa rough around the edges. Sam said that it used to be one of the 5 B's of places you did not want to travel to (Baghdad, Belfast apparently, and 3 more that I'm sure are equally sketchy). Now Belfast is fine, especially since it is not being bombed anymore, and tourism is starting to skyrocket. But that being said, it was still not a city that I would rank as safe as Cary. For example, while we were taking pictures of Queen's University (left), we got approached by this mostly-likely homeless guy on a bike who I swear was an idiot-savant because he was slightly mentally disabled, but had an unbelievable photographic memory. He was asking us things like where we were from and what we studied, and with every answer we gave him, he started spouting off random and complicated facts about everything and anything related. It was fascinating at first, until we got kind of sketched out and weren't sure what exactly he wanted so we peaced out. Queen's University had really pretty botanic gardens and green houses, so we decided to duck in there to avoid said creepy guy. The gardens around the university were very well kept and pretty, but what was really amazing was the 'Tropical Ravine' and 'Palm House', two huge plant and flower sanctuaries. From the craziness of the streets in Belfast, the two houses were a huge stress relief. We stayed in the Tropical Ravine for a while, and then barely made it into the Palm House before it closed. I think if I could have any job in the world, other than a National Geographic photographer, it would be the maintenance person who kept up the Palm House. The fragrance and serenity of a huge glass house of flowers is pretty much the most calming experience I've ever had. It'd be the exact opposite of working at K.B. Toys in the mall.
After getting kicked out of the flower house, Sam and I wandered around the park some more and then headed into town. Being that everything was on the English pound, we didn't do much shopping. Actually none at all-towards the end of the trip Sam and I were even counting out our change to make sure we had enough for pasta dinner #2324. Why Northern Ireland doesn't just become part of the Republic, I don't know. Euros are so much better. Anyway, we wandered past all the H&M's and went sightseeing in the city center. On our way into town, we passed this billboard:


2 things:
1. What is Dolly Parton doing still in concert?
2. How in the world is it sold out?

Next, we passed by the Belfast Opera House, and then a church or two which were quite statuesque, and finally the City Hall (left)...and its accompanying Ferris Wheel. City Hall was beautiful. We spent quite a while looking all around it at all the beautiful statues and white columns. And then, of course, we rode the 'Belfast Wheel'. Apparently it was for raising money for the new and safer Belfast, but we didn't really care about that seeing as how the Ferris Wheel was only like 6 pounds and was a 15 minute interactive tour of the city from above (right). It was really high-tech and had music playing on the inside, as well as this somewhat annoying man's voice pointing out all the buildings in sight. Well worth 6 pounds in our opinion. That night, Sam and I cooked more pasta, changing it up a bit by trying a new brand of sauce, and met some really fun Australians who were in Belfast for their daughter's Irish dancing competition. The whole family was there, down to the crazy grandma who shared her wine with us. Why Irish dancing is popular in Australia is beyond me, but apparently the daughter was really really good (and would end up winning 10th in the world the next day).
The next morning, Sam and I got up early again for our tour of the Giant's Causeway. Our first stop was at the Carrickfergus Castle, which was pretty much just a standard castle, and then got back on the bus and headed down the coast, where off in the distance was, I believe, a glimpse of Scotland. We took another break at Carrick-a-Rede, which was the home of a 30m rope bridge high up in the cliffs that is put together every year by fishermen who are in search of Atlantic salmon. I was picturing a really terrifying rope bridge with unstable planks, similar to the one in the Emperor's New Groove, but it turned out to be quite a safe one, despite the fact being very high up in the air. After crossing over to the other side, we explored the small little island and took a million pictures of the Northern Ireland coastline. I think the whole bridge thing is supposed to be the 3rd most touristically visited place in the UK- the 2nd is the Giant's Causeway and the 1st is the castle where the movie Harry Potter was filmed. Another Harry Potter fact which I forgot to mention on the paddywagon tour post is that according to Joe, within the next 10 years, Harry Potter will be the most read book in the entire world, even more so than the Bible. Crazy. Then again, that's another Joe fact.
The last major stop of the day was the Giant's Causeway (we did stop off at Bushmills, the world's oldest whiskey distillery in Ireland but I didn't have any money and didn't like whiskey so I think I was eating a sandwich or something during that photo opportunity). The Giant's Causeway was unbelievable. According to the Giant's Causeway brochure, it is called the '8th Wonder of the World', but despite this quite biased opinion, I would have to agree. It reminded me a lot of Stonehenge, in that it was a completely natural phenomenon that got its name because people claim that giants built it. The Causeway was a huge span of coast, filled with perfectly hexagonal columns of stone, some small enough to jump from one to the next, while others were so huge that I couldn't even link fingers if when I hugged one (for an example, see left). There was a cliff walk up over top of the causeway, which Sam and I walked and it was really cool to see everything from above. We took about a hundred pictures because everywhere you turned you could see hexagonal pillars coming out of the earth, in varying sizes and directions. When we walked down toward the coast, there was a whole section of them that were a lot smaller and that extended out to the sea. I climbed out on the farthest one I could in order to touch the tip of Ireland's North Antrim Coast. I think that the stones were made from ancient volcanoes or something, but it was really crazy the way that everything fit so perfectly together. I had never heard of the Giant's Causeway before coming to Ireland, but I'm really glad I went especially since I'm not sure when I'll be back to the tip of Northern Ireland again.