Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Prague / Travel Recap

I spent two nights in Prague before going back to Vienna. By that time, I was so tired of being a tourist, that I had a hard time motivating myself to “cram everything in.” Sometimes, it’s easier to stand in the gift shop and read the guidebook than actually go see everything (JUST KIDDING). Seriously though, I was so excited to be heading home, that I got on an earlier train just to be back in Vienna (which is lucky, because I ran into my fellow SIT Balkaner, Becca, at the hostel that night). The slide from eager hosteller to grody degenerate transient backpacker is QUICK.

Prague – the city of a thousand spires – was so beautiful. The Czech language is very similar to Croatian, so I had a pretty easy time getting around. Their subway system sort of reminded me of DC’s Metro. The first day, I spent the morning in Old Town Square, just people watching. That was definitely the tourist hub of the city. The astronomical clock tower is there (not overrated in the slightest, please watch it chime on the hour). There are so many different styles of architecture in this one city, it is really a feast for the eyes.

In the afternoon, I took another 3 ½ hour walking tour with the “FreeEurope” company (I also did their tour in Berlin). We explored the old city, the new city, the Jewish quarter and many other places. We ended up on the other side of the river, so I walked back to the square via the Charles Bridge (also very cool).

Thursday morning, I checked out of the hostel and stored my bags, then made my way up to Prague Castle. I wasn’t sure of how to exactly get there, except for a subway stop at the bottom of the hill. It’s sort of hard to miss, so I just took a number of trams up the hill until one dropped me off at the gate.

The castle was not anything like I expected – it is like another city within walls. You could spend all day there. I bought a pass to see everything and proceeded through some of the old living quarters, the cathedral and saw the current-day Czech executive government offices, and of course, a fantastic view of the city of Prague on the other side of the river. There was this one place, called Golden Alley, where there are little cottages built directly into the fortress’ wall. There is a little placard on the house were Kafka lived.

After that, I just needed to sit down for a while, so I picked up my bags from the hostel and caught the next train to Vienna.

Friday, it was SO rainy & cold, but I went to Schoenbrunn Palace anyways. I think it was my most favorite palace. I took the full tour (with an English audio guide!!) and went all over the grounds. The first time I was in Vienna, I saw them filming for a movie in another part of the city – on this particular day, the crew was setting up at Schoenbrunn (I need to check to see which movie it is!). I also watched an apple struedel baking demonstration in the palace kitchens!

I went back to the airport that night, where I camped out. Luckily, they let me check my bags that early and no one gave me a hard time about sleeping in a corner of the concourse. AND Vienna Int’l has free WiFi, so once I got my laptop & other stuff out of the long-term storage, I caught up on various things that I hadn’t kept track off while abroad.

Enjoyed a relatively pleasant flight on May 30th – imbibed on a glass of wine (last legal drink for the time being) with dinner and slept over the Atlantic. With an hour left of the flight, I was wired and so eager to see America. The customs form didn’t fit all the countries I’d been to, so I sort of gave up. The CBP officers all laughed at me and said “welcome home.” I knocked over a few drivers, Asian tourist and some old grannies when I saw my mom walk into the terminal.

First meal? Peanut M&Ms, a McDonald’s cheeseburger and a fountain Coke at JFK airport.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Prague

Hi everyone -

On my last jaunt of The Tour, Prague.

I really enjoyed the last few days in Berlin. It is a very special city! Everything was great - I think celebrating the the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) on Saturday at the Brandenburg Gate was the highlight. I saw Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor (forgot to mention that in the last post!).

I went to Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and KaDeWe (the biggest department store on the European continent) yesterday, and did a few other things that are now slipping my mind.

I had a nice train ride from Berlin, about 4 1/2 hours, this afternoon and found my beautiful hostel very easily. I am so surprise at how closely the Czech and Croatian languages are - I can read signs with almost no problem!

Enjoying the free internet and a quiet evening in before touring Prague tomorrow...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

In Berlin

I love, love, love Berlin. I love Germany. I love speaking German. I love hearing German. I love directional signs. I love S- and U-Bahn maps. I love German efficiency.

It is such a relief to be in a city that is well ordered and doesn't make my life as a foreign tourist impossible. After Istanbul and Athens, I needed a break. We were both worried about getting lost on the way to our hostel late Friday night and then were like, "Oh wait... this is Germany... there are signs..."

Yesterday was great. It feels cold here, even though its not, but it's chillier here than in the last few places we've been. I took a (free!!) 4-hour walking tour of the city to get my bearings. It was led by a great Aussie and it was a good time.

Today I went back to the Checkpoint Charlie/Berlin Wall Museum and the exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial. Then I went up in the dome of the Reichstag building!! It was so cool, but hot as a greenhouse in the glass dome.

I'm waiting for Rachel to meet me at the hostel (we're staying at "The Generator" - a huge 900-bed/EUR 8 per night place in East Berlin. It's so much fun!)... then, hopefully, dinner!!

Home at the end of the week!!!!!

Friday, May 22, 2009

It's all Greek to me (wonk wonk)

I'm heading to Berlin later today, so I thought I should write a quick post about the end of Istanbul and Athens.

We met up with 3 girls from our SIT program on Sunday and Monday in Istanbul - I was so happy that it worked out that way. It was great to see them again, plus easier to get around in Istanbul as a bigger group, instead of a two American girls. Athens is so peaceful compared to Old Istanbul. I was getting so tired of the "hey lady... hey lady... lady, where you from?" on the street. It's hard to ignore people!!

Hostel Pagration in Athens is great. There are a ton of other American students who have just finished their study-abroad programs here and we had a blast with them. It was much friendler than our rather grim guesthouse in Istanbul, even if it was quite a hike from the sights in Athens.

On Wednesday I found myself at the Acropolis, which was amazing (although it looks a lot bigger in pictures). Crowded with hoards of tourists, even at 9am. From there, I explored the ancient Agora (my favorite!!!!!), the Athenian flea market, and some notable buildings like the Greek Parliament and Presidential Residence. I had some yummy spanakopita (I think that is how you spell it?? The only Greek I know comes from APO) and then went to Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of the Olympian Zeus (also very cool), and the Olympic stadium.

Yesterday I sort of retraced my steps again and went to the Kerameikos, the ancient area where many potters had their workshops and also where a large cemetery was. It was incredible to see a archaeological site that has been under nearly constant excavation for almost 100 years. The site of Kerameikos (and Classical age Athens), is 8 to 9 meters below the surface of present day Athens and one can easily see that change in elevation.

I took the Metro up to the National Archaeological Museum after that. The Metro is so neat. So many remains were discovered during the construction of the Metro, that some stops have curated exhibits of the artifacts found there, so taking the Metro is a museum in and of itself.

The National Museum is overwhelming, I only spent a few hours, but it could take days. It was great to see assemblages of artifacts found at, say, the Acropolis. It is easier to imagine what the temples looked like once I saw all the statues, ceramics, etc. that belonged there.

That's about it... sure there is much more to say, but I have limited time. More from Berlin!!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Easy Days in Istanbul

Yesterday we got up early and took a ferryboat to one of the Prince's Islands (Adalar), which are off the Asian coast of the city. It was a nice excursion from the hubbub of the city & those intense travel days. There are no private cars on the islands, so people get around with horses & bicycles. It was very quiet! We went to a public beach and tanned... the water (Mamara Sea), was super cold and had a film of oil on top from the many barges and boats going by - no thanks, I'd rather not swim in polluted water. The sun was very strong though, so we decided to leave after a few hours. The town center was very crowded with tourists by the time we left.

Today, we went to the Grand Bazaar again, to find some souvenirs. Prices are not displayed, so much haggling is required. It's quite an experience. We tried not to let any one find out we are American, because that makes the price double - today, I have been from Australia, Canada, and Croatia. Rachel and I usually pretend to speak Croatian when we're on the street - it usually throws off the many guys who are trying to get us to come sit at their cafes, eat at their restaurants, or buy their souvenirs. Usually, they just assume we are Russian and give up.

Our Serbian/Croatian disguises backfired on us today, when Rachel managed to interact with the only Bosnian shopkeeper in the Bazaar. We went up and did our "Ohh, ne govorimo engleski!' (We don't speak English!) spiel and then the guy goes, "Ah! Dobrodoshli!" (welcome!). It took Rachel nearly everything she had to continue a conversation in the language and me nearly everything I had to keep from laughing!

We rounded out the afteroon with a tour of the Dolmabahce Palace and an early dinner. Tomorrow, our classmates Alex & Emma join us here - looking forward to seeing them again!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Whirling Dervishes, I'm in Turkey!

Filling out a health certificate on the plane from London, I realized that I have been to 5 countries in the last two weeks. Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, Austria, Britain. Now, Turkey.

We had our going-away dinner with our host families and professors on Sunday night in Zagreb and I flew to Vienna early on Monday morning. Most of the group continued on to JFK, but me, Fiona & Emily met up with Rachel (who took a train from Zagreb) in Vienna for the night. Vienna, at face value, is one of the most beautiful cities I have been in. It was a bit of culture shock, seeing my first Starbucks after 3.5 months, no graffiti for blocks, and being able to overhear conversations in a language I could understand. We went the Hofburg Palace complex, which is great. I saw various churches, the government buildings, national theater, university, etc. I also saw the Spanish Riding School & the Lippizaner stables.

Tuesday morning I went to the Belvedere palace (now an art museum), where I saw my most favorite painting in the whole wide world = Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss" as well as some of his other works. From there, we headed to the airport and boarded our 3pm flight to London!

Got to Gatwick with no problem and took a transfer to the city. I was mesmerized by the traffic oncoming from the opposite side!! We hit the ground running, taking the Underground (mind the gap!!) to Westminster - saw the River Thames, the Eye, Parliament, Westminster Abbey & Big Ben. Westminster Abbey is SO cool. We walked to Trafalgar Square and then took the U to the Tower of London (which actually isn't a tower, its a fortress... silly me). Then on to Buckingham Palace around nightfall, where we met Rachel's friend Joy - we crashed in her LSE dorm for the night. I would like to note that we ran around with giant backpacks all day... my shoulders are never going to forgive me.

Yesterday was an intense travel day. We took a bus to London-Luton airport and flew to Sabiha Gocken, on the east side of Istanbul, on the Asian continent. Met by Turkish health officials wearing masks as we were getting off the plane - they take this swine flu thing very seriously. We had quite the run-around when trying to buy our visas into Turkey, but now I have a cool sticker and stamp in my passport! Using public transportation from the airport, it took us 3 buses, a tram, a whole lotta walking and about 3 hours to get to our hostel, located in the heart of the Old City - luckily, we are flying out of the more convienent airport next week!!

We were dead tired last night and collapsed around 10pm, even with the 2 hour time difference from London. I was awoken by the call of prayer at 5am from the mosque next door - but slept in until after 8! We went to the Topkapi Palace this morning and then headed up to the Spice Market & Grand Bazaar this afternoon. It's cooler today (in the 70s), but supposed to be in the 90s over the weekend. Many locals are still wearing overcoats and of course, many women are covered from head to toe. I barely made it in jeans & a t-shirt today! We're planning a cruise on the Bosphorus or a trip up to the beaches on the Black Sea tomorrow... will update again soon!

Reporting live from Istanbul,

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Final Seminar on Island Krk!

Krk is so beautiful and it is so great to be done with all of my work. The 16 of us did our final presentations, handed everything in and we are so glad to be relieved of the work, but sad that the semester is coming to a close.

We are staying in a small pension just outside the old town of Krk, on Krk island in the north Adriatic Sea. It's a stone's throw from the water and we have a beautiful patio where we've all hanging out and sharing meals together. Our program director, program assistant and our language professor are all here with us.

Some of us get up and go swimming every morning around 8, which is wonderful. It is very hot here, but the water is still ICY. It's only in the 50s. So, we can only swim for 30 minutes or so, before getting out to warm up. We had a free morning on Friday and we spend it exploring some of the other beaches near our hotel. The water is clear - you can see straight to the bottom, even where it is 20 feet deep. And perfect salinity! The only drawback is that there are no sandy beaches - just pebbly and rocky beaches. There are also sea urchins everywhere! I cut my foot on one, before I realized that all the little black things on the bottom were spiny little buggers and not rocks. On the rocks on the island, little green lizards are sunning themselves.

Friday night we had a blowing-off-steam party on the dock. It was a lot of fun! We had food & drinks, music (& karaoke), and a slideshow of all the pictures from the semester.

Last night, we all went to a neighboring town for the Crna Ovca (Black Sheep) Festival. Lots of lambs roasting on spits and other local festivities. We had one last big group dinner together with lots of food (lamb) at the festival and came back late last night. I'm getting ready to pack, eat lunch outside again and then get on the bus back to Zagreb (can't I just reschedule everything and stay here????)

It's been a very relaxed end to what was, at times, a very stressful semester.


Island Krk

Crna Ovca Festival