Monday, July 26, 2010

Cruising the Baltic

I am a blogging delinquent, and now I find myself in the unenviable position of trying to summarize a ten-day Baltic cruise in a few paragraphs, nearly two weeks after the fact. So here, in one photo, here is that summary:

(I'm on a boat.)

The ship was very elegant. It was the Ritz of the seas: attentive service, bountiful food, and lots of old people. Quite a change from the hostel life, and a welcome one.

Some highlights: Within hours, every waiter on the boat seemed to know my default drink (Perrier, to replace the Diet Coke in my life) and would bring them unprompted. I actually managed to tire of eating lobster tail. And with the ship's near-geriatric clientele, my sister and I found it easy to be the life of the nightclub on karaoke night.

The Baltic itself was stunning. With still waters and slow-motion sunsets, it looked like we were floating on a sea of iridescent mercury.

With only two sea days, though, we had very little time to lounge by the pool. We were booked on excursions at every stop: Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Warnemunde, Kiel and Copenhagen!

Stockholm was everything I expected: clean, green, simultaneously historic and modern. Beautiful people speaking impeccable English. The clear highlight of our couple days there was a visit to the Vasa museum. The Vasa is an enormous Swedish warship which sank in the... oh gosh, was it 1600s?... because they put too many canons too high on the ship. It's first and only sailing was about 300 meters. Oops. Now this titanic ship (pun intended) lives ashore in it's own building, astonishingly well-preserved.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, was not what my family and I expected. We were picturing a very eastern, very foreign looking place with visible scars of communist repression and, perhaps, ongoing limitations on freedom. What we found was a European-feeling city, except for the Cyrillic alphabet and the, ahem, provocative attire of nearly every woman on the street.

Our guide Maria pulled and pushed us around the city for three full days. We saw museums, churches, palaces, gardens, canals, monuments, and even an opera. Having a private guide felt very exclusive. We ate several of our meals in former palaces (nothing but the best for the Levin's), took a private boat ride around the city, and even got a tour of an art museum from the director on the day it was closed. Best of all, we got to set our own pace, which got slower and slower as the days went on.

The highlight of St. Petersburg for me were the gardens, the name of which I of course forget, with their incredible fountains.

Helsinki was small, picturesque and enjoyable. We took a scenic bike ride around the peninsula of the city wearing ridiculous safety vests.

In Warnemunde, we trekked three hours inland to Berlin, toured for six hours, and came back. It was a brief but amazing time. Our guide carried with him a self-assembled flip book of historical images of the city. At every vantage point, he could show us what the city looked like before the Nazis, during the war, and during the postwar period. The history of Berlin is befuddling, but he made it come alive. The photo below is taken at the Jewish memorial in Berlin. I hesitate to call it the highlight-- that was our guide-- but it was the most visually stunning.

In Kiel, my family cancelled our bike tour due to Berlin fatigue and instead spent the morning walking around town trying to find free wifi. We did, and it was glorious.

Our last stop was Copenhagen. We took a beautiful canal tour of the city, saw the quiet residential streets of an old fishing village, bought the day pass for rides at Tivoli Gardens, and visited the ice bar.

This blog post doesn't do justice to the months of planning, thousands of dollars, or many unforgettable moments that happened during the cruise. But I'm writing this from the airplane ride home, and I need to get you home at the same time as me!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Baltic Sea Change

Goodbye Budapest. Goodbye to traveling alone. Goodbye to bunk beds and security lockers and sweaty nights without climate control and lines for the bathroom.

Goodbye to complete independence. Goodbye to the privileges and pressures of setting my own itinerary every minute of every day. Goodbye to one kind of irresponsibility, and hello to another.

Hello Stockholm. Hello family!

Hello to free little shampoos in clean showers, to Mom and Dad treating to nice meals, to pre-arranged plans and snap-happy photographers. Hello to safety in numbers and someone to watch my bag while I go to the bathroom and people to talk with at every meal.

Hello to the Crystal Symphony.

Hello comfort. Hello luxury. Hello family. Nice to have you back.

And helloooo assortment of pickled herring!

Location:Stockholm, Sweden

Budapest: When Everything Goes Right

Sometimes, everything just goes right.

In Budapest, that's how it was. This was my last stop on my own and my most fun since Switzerland. I got off the overnight train at 8 am with four days to explore the city, nothing could have gone better.

For starters, my hostel was the perfect place to meet people. Paprika Hostel was more of an oversized apartment than anything. Mick, Steve and Nico live there, run the place, help you get your bearings in the city, and organize outings at night. When you're traveling alone, it makes all the difference to feel like you're staying with a bunch of friends. Here I am with Steve and Mick on one of several karaoke nights.

Secondly, the city of Budapest has all the beauty and history of Prague, but without the crowds. This means that you can actually see the city and feel the pace of life while you are walking down the street. You can eat in restaurants that might exist even if you, the tourist, weren't there. And locals, far from resenting tourists, will even stop to help you find your way.

Third, the serendipitous moment that can make your whole day. While sitting in a Rick Steves-recommended cafe, I got to chatting with a gentleman named Claus. His wife, wouldn't you know it, is the Israeli ambassador to Hungary, and by the way, would I like a tour of the Jewish quarter?

Claus spent two full hours walking me around the sites that I would never have known to look for. We saw the largest synagogue in Europe, which now has trouble getting ten people to services on Friday nights.

We walked through the new real estate developments in the Jewish quarter, built by Israeli investors who are coming under fire from the local Jewry for razing the authentic, but ugly, old buildings. To pacify the locals, the developers reconstructed part of the old ghetto wall, but you have to trespass inside a private courtyard to see it. (We did.)

That afternoon was EXACTLY why I am traveling.

Fourth, the baths. There is nothing so rewarding after a long day of sweaty sightseeing as a two-hour soak in the public hot water springs. I don't have any photos of the inside, but to give you a sense of the scale and importance of these things, here is an exterior shot of the Gellert Baths, which are not even the biggest in the city.

My first day at the baths, I made some Scottish friends and we had a post-soak drink... and where else but on a boat?

Fifth, did I mention our nights out? Here I am with that guy from Lost.

Just kidding. His name is Mike.

Sixth, the market. Top floor: souvenirs and stuffed cabbage. Main floor: meat and produce. Basement: Asian markets and pickled things floating in jars like scientific specimens.

So much else. The Terror Museum was a dramatic way to see the brutal tactics of Nazis and Communists alike. The goulash and potato dumplings and pork and cabbage and late night instant noodles were all exquisite. The views were dramatic.

But nothing could have made my last solo stop as worthwhile as the people I met at the baths, in the cafes, and at my hostel.

Location:Budapest, Hungary

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Yes, I'm Behind on my Blogging

Yeah, okay, so I'm about two weeks behind on my blogging. For those of you who are agitating for more up-to-date blog posts, her is a summary of my yet-to-be-blogged happenings:

Budapest was awwwwesome. What Prague was supposed to be, and more.

A happy reunion with my family in Stockholm.

Boats. A boat ride, then a boat museum, then a cruise ship.

Living in luxury. Hot showers. Waiters pushing in my chair. Caviar and champagne breakfast. Drinks with the Captain.

St. Petersburg is more European than Russian. Beautiful, modern, remarkably unrepressive to the casual observer. Left me St. Petered out.

Still resisting Diet Coke.

A nice bike ride around Helsinki. A whirlwind five hours in Berlin.

Buffets FTW!!

Oh, and lots of this:

Stay tuned people...

Location:Kiel, Germany

Prague: My, What A Nice Iron Curtain You Had!

Prague was my first stop behind the iron curtain. If I were a local and had to decide between the old communist regime or the new tourist regime... well, it would be a tough call.

Kidding, of course. Tourism is probably less oppressive than communism.

Prague is a sea of tourists. I didn't meet a single local while I was there. On some streets, the crowds were so thick that it was hard to walk. The old quarter, which is a tourist hub and meant to be a main attraction, was hard to enjoy.

From the river and the surrounding mountains, though, the city was spectacular. I climbed to the top of their Eiffel Tower knockoff to get the best view.

It wasn't hard to imagine the place under communist rule. The imposing TV Tower on the horizon was a chilling monument to the days when they used it to jam Radio Free Europe broadcasts.

I also found these creepy baby sculptures hiding in a park which I assume were making some statement about communism. They made me want to run away screaming.

I spent my evenings seeing shows in the city. The first night was a concert at the Municipal House... an underwhelming recital of chamber music and ballet in a magnificent concert hall.

The second and third nights were "black light theater" performances. These naturally caught my eye because they are dance and special effect shows with minimal dialogue... exactly the sort of crap I love. One in particular was great: Lanterna Magica. They did an amazing dance show behind a translucent video screen, interacting with the video, disappearing behind it, and at times even dancing with it.

I suppose I should mention the proper sightseeing that I did. I saw the castle. I walked Old Town. I saw the apartment-sized Communism museum and read through every poorly translated paragraph. And I saw the Jewish quarter, which I am sad to say felt as commercialized as everything else in the city. The cemetery was the most powerful of the Jewish sites, where you can really feel how crowded the Jewish ghetto was by counting the piled-up graves on top of graves.

I had a nice rendezvous with Paul Belin, a future classmate of mine who has been living in Prague for eight years. It was nice to have a friend in town, because it was otherwise quite difficult to meet anyone.

I had several delicious plates of goulash, cabbage, potatoes, and various permutations thereof.

At the end of three days, I'd had quite enough of Prague. Although I know the city has a lot of history and is quite beautiful, it was too hard to find my way away from the crowds.

Besides, everything I wanted Prague to be was just an overnight train ride away in Budapest.

Location:Prague, Czech Republic

Thursday, July 1, 2010

And Then I Went To Munich

Coming down the mountain from Gimmelwald was like waking up from a nap... hard to do, but boy did I feel refreshed.

To catch one last breath of natural beauty, a few of us stopped at Tremmelbach Falls on the way out. This series of waterfalls cuts through a mountain in a way that is impossible to photograph but uncannily similar to the water slide scene from Goonies.

Five hours later and I was in Munich. Over three days, I enjoyed myself but didn't fall in love. I was lucky to have the company of three fantastic roommates for sightseeing and eating. Here they are, with pretzels.

Here are a few observations about Munich:

1. It feels like Disneyland. Specifically, Fantasyland. This is probably because Fantasyland is fashioned to look like Bavarian, with the famous Disney castle modeled after one of Mad King Ludwig's countryside castles. (His castle, however, is not plastic.)

But then again, most of Munich is as artificial in its construction as Disney. Not much survived the WWII bombings, so the town was rebuilt at great expense to look exactly as it used to, but the structures themselves are mostly just a few years older than the ones at Disneyland in Anaheim.

2. I found it hard to get off the beaten path in Munich. It felt overrun with tourists, whose activities divided neatly into dull-but-historic sightseeing and beer-and-brat binging. These two activities coincide nicely at Hofbrau House, where Hitler famously roused the rabble and started the Nazi movement.

Today, the swastikas are neatly painted over with Bavarian flags... and that is a pretty good metaphor for how Nazi history is remembered throughout Munich.

3. Except for one place: Dachau concentration camp. That was my first visit to a concentration camp, and it was powerful. Something I will never forget. The entrance is terrifying to see in person: "Work will set you free."

I only lost control of my emotions and properly cried once, at the Jewish memorial. It isn't the gas chambers or the crematorium or the barbed wire that haunts me. It's hearing the words "Never Again" when I know perfectly well that it could happen again. I felt sad and angry and helpless and scared knowing that there are those today who hate the Jews every bit as much as the Nazis, and that our best effort to stop them from starting another Holocaust is.. sanctions. Even as I write this this, I feel sick.

There were much more upbeat moments in Munich, too. Lots of bratwurst. Lots of beer. Pretzles and spetzle, too.

And a big win for Germany in the World Cup, which made for a boisterous walk home to the hostel.

All in all, I am glad that I visited Munich, as much for the friends I made at the hostel as for the sights. I don't need to go back any time soon.

Location:Munich, Germany

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Epic Mountain Adventures in Switzerland

One of the nice things about staying on top of a mountain is that you don't have to go very far to find a good, modest hike.

On my first morning in Gimmelwald, I had planned to take just such a hike. Perhaps I would walk an hour to the Sprutz Falls, where you can walk behind the waterfall and, as they say on the Disneyland Jungle Cruise, see "the back side of water." Just a modest hike on a rainy day.

Well, I got more than I bargained for. I joined up with four students from Utah who were hiking to Rotstockhutte (pronounced RAHT-shtock-hooteh). It was much further on the map, and had some unsettling elevation data, but it was a better proposition than hiking alone, so off we went.

Chip and Briana led the way, and thank god. Chip is as confident as he is athletic, and Brianna is a cheerful optimist. We needed all these virtues for survival. They also told me that I could eat the mountain strawberries!

The trails were muddy from days of rain, and at times we were walking through more, uh, bovine sludge than mud. Our hike took us down to the bottom of the valley and along the basin. It was stunning.

We should have seen the first bad omen. A herd of cows blocked our path, as if to say, I wouldn't go up there if I were you. They eventually relented, with three of them leading us up the hill for about 15 minutes.

Then the uphill climb began. Steep and muddy the whole way. Shoes and hair soaked through. We had only seen one other group of jokers the whole day, and we lost them. But halfway up the mountain, we got a beautiful reprieve: a meadow with a clear view into the glacier, plus lots of cows.

But as we went uphill, things went downhill. We saw our first flakes of snow, then fog, then lots and lots of white. And then we lost the trail.

Picture the scene: on a snowy slope with ten feet of visibility, the group splits. Chip and Briana, rugged and eager as ever, want to charge ahead and find the trail. The other two girls, whose sandals were not holding up to the rigors of the hike, were ready to turn back. Chip offers to run ahead to find the trail, and disappears into the fog. The girls turn around and try to find the way we came. And I think to myself, I've seen this movie, and someone's not making it back.

We found the trail. Briana and I caught up to Chip some ten minutes later. We came to our first signpost in a while, which told us that... WE MISSED ROTSTOCKHUTTE! Apparently our off-trail detour avoided our destination entirely. With the fog as it was, it could have been right in front of us and we'd still have missed it.

Things got much better on the downhill walk. The views were breathtaking, the snow and fog subsided.

And in the end, we even got to see the Sprutz waterfall. I was ecstatic.

YouTube Video

We made it back to the hostel six hours after we had left. I ate pizza and drank beer and washed clothes and hoped my shoes would dry and fed coins into the shower for one-minute spurts of hot water. I have never been so happy to have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.

Epilogue: The girls made it back an hour and a half after we did, just a few minutes before Chip was going to go searching. They had borrowed clothes from a local living in a hut up in the mountains, leaving their camera as collateral. And I thought, yep, I've definitely seen this movie before...

Location:Gimmelwald, Switzerland

Gimmelwald: As Close to Heaven as I'll Ever Get

Directions: From Zurich, take the train to Bern. Transfer and take the train to Interlaken Ost. Transfer again and take the train to Lauterbrunnen. Get on the bus and ride twenty minutes through the valley to Stechelberg. Then it's just a five minute ride up the Schilthornbahn gondola through impenetrable clouds and...

Welcome to Gimmelwald.

Perched precariously upon a mountain, Gimmelwald is insulated (if not isolated) from civilization. It has one main street, one side street, and no stores. The Mountain Hostel, my home for three days, is also home to the town's main restaurant and bar. The nearest grocery store is a 30 min walk, or five minute gondola ride, up the hill in Muren.

I'm finding it hard to articulate what I loved so much about this place. It wasn't the tranquility per se, nor the beauty, although it had both. It was the comfort in knowing that there was nothing else to see or do other than sitting with friends in the Mountain Hostel common room.

The hostel itself was cozy, like a ski lodge without the slopes. There were four dormitories: the Little Boys Room, the Little Girls Room, the Family Room, and the Lovers Room (with bunk beds pushed up next to each other, for lovers and coed groups alike). There was one coed bathroom. In the shower, 1 Swiss franc buys you five one-minute bursts of water. The kitchen was clean but overcrowded. Except for the view, this place is nothing glamorous.

But when you get back from a day of hiking, there's only one place to be. There are no bar crawls, no clubs, no trying to decide between restaurants or shows or tourist traps that want your money. There is just the common room. And I loved that.

On a walk through town, you'd meet Erika Rosen, purveyor of cheeses, eggs, sausage and milk. We visited her cheese hut which had a wonderfully sweet aroma I'll never forget. After sampling, I opted for the 2008 cheese over the 2009.

And what customer service! The first time we visited, Erika didn't have enough eggs. So she ran out to get more!

Needless to say, the next morning we had fresh scrambled eggs topped with fine aged cheese. Yummm.

Past the cheese hut, the town is just perfect.

I'll have to save my post about our epic hike for another time. Suffice it to say that this was my favorite stop so far.

Location:Gimmelwald, Switzerland