Thursday, October 21, 2010

midnight train to vienna

I caught a train from Berlin to Prague and was able to meet up with my friend Brendan, who I met in Ireland. Brendan had a place in the city where I could crash, which was an immediate bonus. If ever you can find a place to stay for free while traveling, the rest is cream cheese.

Brendan took me around the city at night and showed me all it had to offer on a Tuesday night. I drank cheap beer, ate a greasy sausage, and played a drinking game at a bar where you have to pound a nail into a giant tree stump with the chisel end of a hammer. As I drove the head of my nail home to narrowly avoid a first-time loss, I remembered what my grandfather always told me, "Conor, wherever you go, always leave your mark..."

I spent the next day exploring Prague. I cruised through the Old Town Square, Mala Strana, the Castle District, Charles Bridge, New Town, and Wenceslas Square. That night I was catching the night train to Vienna, so I managed to sneak in a few Pilsner Urquells before leaving to help me sleep on the train.

I got in to Vienna at six and caught the next train to Budapest. I would be back in Vienna later that night, but I wanted to see Budapest and with my Eurail Pass it made sense (I have 10 "travel days" within 2 months when I can catch any train and ride for free). So for one of my travel days I went from Prague to Vienna to Budapest, and then back to Vienna. Three cities in 24 hours. At least I got my money's worth. Backpacking is all about value....

I rushed through Budapest in seven hours but I feel like I did right by it. I walked through Heroes Square, City Park, and then saw Parliament, St. Stephen's Basillica, and the Opera House. Then it was on to Buda. I saw Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and hiked up Gallert Hill to see the Citadell along with a stunning view of both Buda and Pest. After that I rushed back to the train station to catch the 5:10 back to Vienna.

My friend Kyra (who I met in NZ) picked me up at the train station in Vienna and gave me a walking tour of the city after catching up over a beer. Vienna has a perfect blend of old-school architecture, progressive social values, and an unassuming, casual attitude among its people that could only be attained through genuine contentment.

After checking out the typical tourist spots (Stephen's Dom, Hofsburg Palace, Karl's Church, Museum Quarter) I made my way down to the Central Cemetary and visited the graves of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Strauss. Then I sought out the much smaller St. Marx Cemetary where Mozart was buried somewhere in a mass grave along with other victims of the Black Plague.

I don't have strong feelings for any of those people, nor do I listen to any of their music, but there's something strangely intriguing about discovering someone's final resting place. I think it says a lot about the person. And besides, it's both peaceful and captivating to walk through a plot of land where there are thousands of decomposing bodies under the ground, and as many beautiful flowers and trees protruding from the same soil. There's got to be some metaphor to be gleamed there... a ying and a yang. Growth and decay. But mostly I think that so many artistic geniuses chose to forever reside in Vienna says more about the quality of its earth than it does for those who lie beneath it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

whirlwind tourist polka

Oktoberfest. The world's most prolific celebration of consumption. It's basically Coney Island on steroids, plus beer by the liter. There were amusement park rides, a Ferris Wheel, Fun-Houses, carnival games, food vendors, sweet shops, and souvenir huts. But the main draws were the beer halls.

People travel thousands of miles, pay hundreds of dollars, and sometimes wait for hours outside just to sit at a table and drink beer. The beauty is in the simplicity. There is literally nothing else to do in a beer hall but sit, drink, sing, and talk with strangers.

I learned very early that a table is a precious commodity. If you arrive early in the day, or reserve a table, you can walk right in , sit down and order a €10 liter jug of beer. If your table is not already full, it soon will be. It is best to position your bulkiest, most intimidating members at the end of the table to fend off the standing-room crowd when others get up to use the bathroom. When the brass band on stage starts playing the Beer Barrel Polka, or a traditional German song, you stand and shout with everyone else, pretending to know the words. Also important to note: after toasting with everyone at your table, be sure to bang the bottom of your jug against the table before taking a drink or the next round is on you. I learned this technicality very quickly, as a slip-up would have been catastrophic for my Oktoberfest finances.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. I spent two full days biking along the Rhine River, stopping at Boppard, St. Goar, Bacharach, Bingen, Rudesheim, and Eltville. The biking trail was easy to follow, as it hugged the riverbank from Koblenz all the way to Mainz. I took my time since my pack was heavy and the scenery was straight out of a classical painting, but also because my bike had probably been around since before the Berlin Wall was built. It might as well have been one of those bikes with the enormous rear wheel and handlebars that wrap around your waist. Nonetheless, I made it into Mainz, grinding gears, bald tires and all. My friend Matthias picked me up and drove me to his house in Trebur.

I stayed with Matthias and his wife, Katja, for three nights. I had met them in Australia while touring the Red Center. They showed me the meaning of German hospitality. I was introduced to proper German beer, authentic Schnitzel, Rhine Valley apple wine, and an unbelievable homemade onion cake. I feel like I learned more about German culture there in three days than in any of the cities I visited. It was difficult to leave, but Oktoberfest beckoned....

I stayed in Munich two nights, spending nearly all my time in the Oktoberfest grounds. I was able to meet up with my friend Evi, who I also met in Australia, and she let me tag along with her group of friends at the festivities.

After Munich I caught a train to Berlin, spending three nights in the nation's capital. With such little time to spend in a playground of tourist attractions, I thought a whilrlwind tour would be appropriate. I visited the Reichstag, seven museums, Brandenburger Tor, Olympic Stadium, Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall Memorial, The Jewish Memorial, the Berliner Dom, Gendarme Market, Hitler's bunker (which is now nothing more than a hotel parking lot), and the Tiergarten.

Now I exhale on a train on the way to Prague. Future stops include Budapest, Vienna, and Murren, Switzerland. As I leave Germany after staying only ten nights, I feel like I've only taken the first few sips from a deep, frothy stein. There was so much I missed. But the train doors abruptly close and the carriage rolls forward, inching south along the rails for the former Soviet bloc and another whirlwind sampling.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

american flyer

Dim are the prospects for a backpacker in Koblenz, Germany. The only hostel in town is closed for renovation. Hotels cater to older travelers looking for a romantic getaway on the Rhine. Winebars far outnumber the pubs. I had as much business there as Bill Murray at Bushwoods. Yet there I was. All because when I was sitting on a beach in Rye I thought it would be fun to bike from Koblenz to Mainz, a route that is considered to be the most scenic in the Rhine Valley. Like most of my hare-brained, half-baked plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the tourist center I was told there were rooms at an out-of-the-way hotel for 25 euro, but after a 3km hike, I found they were about twice that. The walk back into town felt much longer.

I decided to go back to the train station and see if it was open all night. The man behind the ticket counter squinted back at me and said, "Eez open, ya."

"Is it OK to sleep here?"

He shook his head and said, "Because zee cops..."

My first night in Germany was beginning to look fitful and cold. But it was a Saturday night, and hope springs eternal. "Where's a good pub?"

Sugar Ray's was the kind of place where an ex-pat in Germany might go to feel at home. Boxing promos and posters lined the walls and the bar was adorned with American beer cans. I thought it was as good a place as any to find someone willing to put me up for the night.

I left my backpack with the bouncer and went to get a beer, armed with about four words of German I learned from Indiana Jones movies. The odds weren't with me.

As it turned out the owner of the bar saw me walk in and sit by myself, and somehow pegged me as American. He sent a beer over, on the house. Then another. And another. Soon I was behind the bar, talking to him about Las Vegas, national parks, and German beer. That's how I learned how friendly small-town Germans are. Before I knew it I had more German friends that I knew what to do with. They couldn't have been nicer to me. I ended up following them to a club and staying out until five in the morning. Unfortunately none of them actually lived in Koblenz, and I didn't feel like driving 50km back home with them, so that left me without a place to stay.

So I picked up my bag and headed down to the Rhine. I slept under a tree by the edge of the river. I laid down my poncho because the ground was a little wet and bundled up in several layers. I woke up after only a couple hours from the cold and moved to the train station. The police didn't bother me and I got another couple hours of sleep. It was surprisingly peaceful sleeping among the comings and goings of trains and travellers. Say what you will about passing up a bed for 50 euro, a backpacker's got to have his principles....

I woke up when a bum asked me for a lighter. It was 9:00am. I got four hours of sleep after a long night out, and I desperately needed a bike within the next few hours or my much anticipated journey down the Rhine would be experienced through a train window. This was the definitive low point of my trip. To compound my problems, it was a Sunday, and both bike shops in town were closed. But Goonies never say die.

After walking through the city center for a few hours and propositioning strangers on bikes for an impromptu sale, I decided to hang out at the bike stand at the train station. Within ten minutes I had a bike for 40 euro from an Arab who didn't speak a word of English.

Suddenly, with two wheels and a pair of pedals, my whole world changed. I left Koblenz behind. The bike trail hugged the river for 70km, cutting through the flat, green vineyards of the Rhine Valley. I pedalled slow. Ahead was open road, unfolding upstream, leading to new places that might have cheap beds, a hot shower, and fully-baked ideas. But maybe not. It just felt good to move again.