Saturday, June 18, 2011

The midnight train to Berlin

I don't know if we will ever update this blog with details of the rest of our trip. Reliable internet can be hard to find for cheap people!

I thought the least that I could do was post this rambling document written at 3 am on the train from Amsterdam to Berlin. I am not responsible for the spelling/grammar/judgement errors resulting from sleep deprivation.

- Heather

Written at 3 am on the overnight train from Amsterdam to Berlin, Saturday 05/28/11.
There is nothing romantic about overnight train travel. Or, there's nothing romantic about budget overnight train travel. It's possible that first class passengers find the trip quaint and relaxing. Maybe they feel like they're roughing it. They're not. Sure, economy train travel doesn't compare to the experience of the jig-dancing working class passengers on long haul steam ships or the railcar hopping hobos of the Depression, but the fact remains that traveling overnight by train is not pleasant. For one, there's less Dickensian fun involved. Whatever misguided conclusions you may have drawn about train travel from Russian literature as a child are ridiculous and naive.
First, you may think that you have booked a bunk. You haven't. That hypothesis based on prolonged Internet searches after several failed attempts to translate whatever foreign language the train ticket is written in was falsified in a major way. Not only are you apparently not as good at googling as you've always thought, you do not have a bed. You are sharing a six seat cabin with five irritable, snoring, and farting thrifty travelers, all of whom speak different languages and have varying concepts of personal space.
Second, you probably forgot to bring any water and couldn't bring yourself to buy any mayonnaise soaked pre-made sandwiches at the train station in Amsterdam. You will be hungry and cranky, especially if you're the world's least responsible hypoglycemic.
Third, all of your electronics will most likely become drained over the course of the nine and a half hour journey. Since it's too dark to read a book, you will entertain yourself by desperately observing any lighted up place or object you pass. Sometimes you will glance over at the gape-mouthed faces of your fellow travelers, but mostly this will make you feel awkward and you'll look out the window.
Finally, you are not the last stop. There are many uncomfortable methods of traveling overnight, it's true. Eight hour bus rides from point A to point B are miserable and cold, and overnight planes are claustrophobic and disconcerting. More often than not, however, your destination on these modes of travel is the last stop. That is not the case on a train. You are not the last stop. Sure, you could set an alarm. You could trust your keen sense of time and your surroundings and assume that you'll wake up just as the train pulls into your stop. You can also decide that it is necessary to remain awake and vigilant, spending the night in sleepy terror about the possibility that you will sleep through your 4:30 am stop in Berlin and end up somewhere else, like the last stop in Moscow. As there is still some lingering doubt that you are on the correct train, and stops last two minutes on average, you will most likely chose this option.
The forced vigilance is by far the worst part of the trip. The rest is manageable for a (more or less) experienced traveler, already hardened and exhausted from a couple weeks of European city hopping and a heavy backpack. With the prospect of four more cities and yet more train journeys ahead, messing things up now is not on the top of your to-do list. A day of zombie-like wandering and a furtive nap when you can check-in to your hostel the following afternoon seems like a small price to pay for a successfully completed train journey.
The only thing left to worry about in your final hour and a half (beyond staying awake at all costs, obviously) is how you will retrieve your backpack from over the heads of your sleeping companions without dropping it on one of the them, waking the lot, and most likely missing your stop due to the ensuing argument.

Things I saw on the cityline overnight from Amsterdam to Berlin:
1) A metro car full of middle-aged women wearing all white with gold embellishments
2) Three windmills
3) One (probable) meth house
4) A baby alpaca playing with a foal
5) A field full of rabbits and a single cat with no interest in any of them
6) Uninspired graffiti
7) What I assume is the largest parking lot in Germany (empty)
8) Passenger trains, cargo trains, and empty trains, but mostly no trains
9) An orange crescent moon
10) Endless countryside
11) Abandoned German train stations for towns and cities I've never heard of
12) A Toys 'R Us
13) Multiple people in leather jackets loitering outside of our train car
14) A river with extensive docks but no boats
15) An long section of track with flashing lights pointed directly at my eyes
16) A 4 story car park with no walls to stop cars from driving off the edge
17) Multiple train officials, none of which checked our tickets

Friday, May 27, 2011

On Castles, Haggis, and Stairs

I want to live at the Castle Rock Hostel for the rest of my life. First of all, the hostel is located just minutes away from the famous Castle Edinburgh (which was the main reason Heather and I decided to visit Scotland), but the place itself is just awesome. The website describes it as "Edinburgh’s most central, palatial and amazingly located backpackers hostel" which is a perfect way to describe it. Walking into the building feels like you´re stepping back in time, but some crazy version of it. The old stone walls were adorned with posters promising "Half price All Australian Beers at the Walkabout Bar", or whatever a "Silent Disco Rave Night" is. This hostel is clearly aimed at the traveling youth such as myself and Heather.

The one complaint I have about Castle Rock Hostel is that it's situated at the top of a giant hill. A hill seemingly surrounded by long scary staircases in dark, sketchy alleyways. By the end of our stay in Edinburgh, Heather and I never wanted to see stairs again. It was that bad.

If it weren't for the rafters covering the entrance of the hostel (of course this place was under renovation, construction has followed us all over Europe.), you would have a picture perfect view of Castle Edinburgh. This castle is a work of Scottish art, they way it's seemingly carved into the cliff, the family of rabbits hopping cheerfully in front of it, and of course, the castle itself is just awesome to look at.

Despite the fact that Castle Edinburgh was just minutes away from us, Heather and I elected to wait till the next day to actually see it. Instead we went on our very first free walking tour. We had no idea what to expect from it, we had been on tours before in Europe, all of which were paid for, could a free tour really measure up in quality? The short answer is yes. Our tour guide, a local Scottsman by the name of Jonny, took us on a 3 hour walk through the streets of Edinburgh, telling us stories of trick stairs, murdering people for beer money, the penalty of stealing onions, and the fact that the church ion the town center was the only one in the world where an angle is playing the bagpipes. the tour ended in a small garden behind Castle Edinburgh, Jonny told us one more tale about the Stone of Destiny, and how some drunkenly brave Scottsman stole it back from the English. We gave Jonny a nice tip for being so great (sorry Ross and Trinity Sweater guy, but he is my favorite tour guide so far), and we walked our tired feet back to our warm beds at our awesome hostel for a quick nap before heading out again later to hang out with Heathers friend Anna. We stopped by a chippy on the way home for a quick bite since we couldn't even remember when the last time we ate was.

We met with Anna around 9 o'clock at a Scottish pub a short walk away from our hostel. I had a great time, something I wasn't really expecting seeing as how I was the odd one out at the table, but Anna instantly felt like an old friend. She greeted us with a smile and a hug before walking us into the pub for our dinner. We talked for hours, each taking turns buying rounds of drinks when our pints (or in my case, whiskey glass) ran dry, laughing and joking the whole time about what ever was on our minds. Anna is one of the few people I've met that has watched both "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus" AND "Pterodactyl", two incredibly bad Sci-Fi original movies. We left about 3 hours later full of burgers, beer, whiskey, and laughter. Heather and I had to once again climb the giant staircases and steep hills to our hostel, but this time it didn't feel as bad.

The next day was the touristy day for us. We visited the church shown to us on our tour, sneaking into the area where the angle was playing bagpipes, and were disappointed when we found out that the "3-D Loch Ness Experience" wasn't free. Castle Edinburgh was beautiful, but like the rest of the city, was nothing but hills and stairs. I swear, locals must have the strongest legs in all of Europe due to the way this city was built. Walking this city is like spending 6 hours on a stairmaster. We visited the National War Museum and a makeshift dungeon in the castle walls.

The next stop of the day was something that Jonny had shown us the day before, the National Museum of Scotland. It's an odd place to say the least. It talks about Scotlands colorful history, the early days, how tartan came to be, and various other things that make Scotland great. The best thing, the thing that made me wanna go, is that they have a stuffed Dolly in the museum, slowly rotating forever in the Children's Hands-On Learning Center. It's actually quite sad, since she's just standing there, rotating forever more, with nothing more than a short description and an interactive poll on whether or not cloning is immoral. Now, the museum itself is the most confusing thing I have ever been in. From the outside it is modeled to look like, I kid you not, a filing cabnet, complete with an open drawer on one side, and giant handles on the other. The inside though, is what makes navigating this place a nightmare. It has 7 levels if you include the 2 outside areas. You can't just take a lift all the way outside, no, that would be too easy. Instead, you have to go to the fifth floor and find a small side passage that'll take you to a special "Sky Terrace" lift. But, just our luck, it was under construction, so we never actually got to go outside and look over the city. There's also this weird split in the museum. It's kinda hard to explain, but I seem to remember looking out a tiny window at one point just to look into another tiny museum window on the other side. There was supposedly a basement floor taking about pre-Scottish history and the first settlers, but after an hour orr so getting lost in the museum, Heather and I couldn't wait to leave.

After lunch we walked up and down the royal mile till our feet hurt, and made our way to the hostel for a quick break. That night we decided to walk a short way to a pub and get the local delicacy, haggis, for dinner. For those of you who don't know what haggis is, it more or less is grains and scraps of meat cooked in a stomach and served with tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips). Trust me, it's much more delicious than it sounds.

we made our way up the stairs to our hostel one last time, full to bursting with haggis. We were gonna sleep well tonight.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Aran Islands

Obviously, Brendan and I couldn't leave Ireland without visiting the western part of the country, where people still speak Irish and selkies live off the coast. We chose to book a couch tour to Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran islands. Ross was our friendly driver, cheery even at 6:30 in the morning when we set off for Galway. There were only four of us on the tour, and only Brendan and I were paying any attention to Ross on the two and a half hour drive to the west coast, so he felt free to rant and speak 'off script.' We heard about his love of VW buses (smart man), his lack of love for the Irish language and its requirement in schools, and finally the theme of all our conversations with Irish people - their extreme displeasure with the Queen's visit (appropriately set to Irish rebel music). After a rough ferry ride to the islands, we finally set foot on Inis Mor.

The island can only be described as mythical. Once your imagination removes all traces of the tourist industry that is keeping the island alive, it's all rolling hills, marshy land, rugged coast, and rock walls. 450 people currently live on Inis Mor, leaving half the houses empty. Judging from the pub and the people offering guided tours, the population is almost entirely composed of barely understandable old men. Most of the young people are attending university in Galway or have moved to Boston. If your mind immediately goes where mine did, i.e. can I cheaply buy one of these empty houses, you will be disappointed. While land plots went for £200 a few decades ago, homes will now run you at least €135,000 (based on the only one we saw for sale).

Once we landed on the island, Ross hooked us up with a local guide named Thomas O'Toole. Like most of the population, he is a native Irish speaker who spent his life on the island, apart from the seemingly mandatory stint in Boston. He is also hilarious and gossipy. Brendan and I now know where everyone on the island lives, including his friends, relatives, and the Leprechauns (both Irish and Polish).

The major draw for tourists is the large Iron Age fort DĂșn Aonghasa. Built right on the edge of a 300 ft high cliff, the fort is semi-circular in shape. The wind is strong on the cliff edge, and several times we thought that we might be blown right into the sea. Although is was cold and overcast on the day we visited, there were still breathtaking views of the houses (and donkeys!) from the top.

After some quality time looking at the sea, our tour continued with a drive through the country and a short exploration of an old monastery. Thomas dropped us off at the pier with more than an hour before the ferry left for Galway. Without the money to spend on knitwear that the island is famous for, we chatted up a old man in a horse cart. Well, I say chatted up, but really I mean tried to communicate with. He ended up convincing the four people in our group to hop up in the cart for a trip to the "small church," price to he determined later. Without anything else to do, we agreed. We never got his name (his horse is called Molly), but he was as great as Thomas. He even tried to teach us Irish (with very little success). The small church turned out to be exactly that, a tiny church with accompanying monastery at the top of a tall and rocky hill, accessible by stone steps and a bit of shallow rock climbing. He described the church as the smallest in the world, which may be true or may be blarney. Regardless, the views were great, and the church itself was pretty incredible.

We ended our visit with a drink with Ross at the American Bar, the most central and popular of the six pubs on the island. The place was certainly crowded for the size of the village by the port, although it should be bared in mind that this area is a metropolis compared to the villages of seven people we saw on our tour. As Thomas said: The bank is open one day a week and we have one grocery store. There are four churches on the island and six holy places. All of the holy places happen to be pubs."


Location:Inis Mor

Friday, May 20, 2011

Guinness Storehouse video!

Sorry for the very long wait, but I finally completed the video of our day at the Guinness Storehouse in beautiful Dublin. It's been much harder than I thought it was gonna be to make these videos and write this blog so I'm gonna try as hard as I can to get it up to date over the next couple of days

Thanks for the patience!


p.s. please excuse the spelling of "ingredients" cause I think it's wrong, but forgot to edit it before everything was all compressed and ready to upload

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2 days of Dublin

My first overseas flight!

We landed safely after a long day of travel after 3 hours on a bus and a total of 9 1/2 hours in the air. The travel wasn't so bad, the bus was comfy and had free wi-fi, and the plane was (for the most part) a fun time had by all.

The overnight flight was pretty fun. We started out watching a Ben Afflec movie called "The Company Men." I thought it was alright, but it wasn't Heather's cup of tea. Since the flight was gonna be long, we had the option of watching another movie after the first one ended. Heather and I elected to pull out my laptop and watch episodes of "The IT Crowd" and "Freaks and Geeks" over "Country Strong" (aka, Always Be Crying, seriously, why is Gwyneth Paltrow always crying in the movie?). I feel as though we made the right choice. When we arrived in London after our first flight, police entered the plane and possibly arrested some dude. No one knew what was up but it had to be serious, otherwise they wouldn't have needed 8 police officers!

The flight from London to Dublin was shorter than expected, meaning that we'd have more time to be tired and wander the city before we could check into our hostel. We landed, hopped on a shuttle bus, and quickly made our way to the Globetrotters Hostel. Since we had arrived so early we couldn't get into our room, but the receptionist was nice enough to let us sign in and drop off our heavy bags in their baggage room. Free from the awesome weight of our backpacks, we walked the streets of Dublin around our current home base. The lack of sleep eventually caught up with us as we made out way back, and we decided to spend the last hour before check-in in the breakfast area watching shows.

It was 2 o'clock, we got our key, went to our room, and slept. Even though it was only an hour and a half nap, it felt (to me at least) like an 8 hour slumber. I woke alert, and filled with a lust for life I was finally ready to seize the day. We wandered the streets again, this time leaving the comfort of our block to go see the sites.

Full of seafood and Guinness we shuffled our way back to our hostel. It wasn't late, but the long day and lack of sleep took its toll. We tried our best to stay up though, fighting a losing battle against sleep with the first seasons of "the Wire" and "the IT crowd". We put up a good fight, but at 11, it was finally time to sleep.

Today was our first full day of Dublin with some amount of real sleep. We had lots planned for this day, big plans to see the entirety of the city on one day. Our first stop was Trinity College, which was a short walk from our hostel. We got a short tour from an adorable Irish undergrad with a sweet sweater and the most pinchable cheeks I've ever seen in my life. The tour was short, about 30 minutes, but we did get to learn some fun things about the campus. The main attraction was the Book of Kells and the giant library they have at Trinity. The book was cool and all, but the best part of the exhibit was the faces of all the illustrations; the eyes seemed to stare into your soul. The Long Room was also amazing, over 200,000 books all in one giant 2 story tall hallway lined with busts of famous philosophers. It was absolutely stunning.

The next stop was Dublin Castle, it was not exciting at all.

The cathedrals, though, were all beautiful. For a small admittance fee, Heather and I got to walk all through the grand halls of Christchurch and St. Patricks' cathedral. Both were stunning, filled with beautiful stained glass windows and the most incredible architecture I've ever seen. Christchurch was our favorite. Not only was it cheaper (always a bonus), but you also got to go into the catacombs beneath the building.

After a terrifying lunch surrounded by the bravest pigeons in Ireland, we made our way to the Guinness Storehouse for a pint. We thought we'd be able to make it there easily enough. I mean, there are signs pointing in the general direction of the Storehouse, but Heather and I panicked and ducked into a nearby ally way. I was the one who brought us there, seeing a giant sign reading "Guinness served here!" in a window, and another one reading "Guinness Storehouse", but alas, the door we walked into was not the fabled Storehouse. After a short and confusing talk with an old man inside the building, we finally found our way to our final stop.

We bought our tickets and made our way into the main building. After a short introduction by an employee who gave us fun, but utterly useless facts about the building, we walked into the actual museum. The first floor went over the brewing process, the second was history, the third went over advertising, the fourth talked about Guinness around the world, and the fifth floor was a bar. Admission to the museum meant that we got a free pint of Guinness that we could either pour ourselves in the fifth floor, or that we could go up to the skybox, called the "Gravity Bar" on the very top of the storehouse. It gives you a beautiful 360 degree view of the city, which was half spoiled due to the rain storm that seemed to follow us from Madison. Heather and I got our pints, found a seat, and drank em down. It's true what people say about Guinness, it's much better to get them on tap in Ireland.

The final stop of the day was the magical, and highly entertaining "National Leprechaun Museum". I may have been more excited for this stop than anything else Heather and I had seen, or were going to see. The tour starts with a trippy hallway that makes you appear to grow, and makes everyone else left behind look tiny. It then leads to the underbelly of the Giants Causeway, which was a maze like room of hexagonal pieces of wood that you had to work your way through to get to the next room. The next room was simply called "the Giant Room." It couldn't have been more appropriately titled. The room pretty much consisted of 3 giant chairs and two giant tables. This was the room that made me realize that this museum was built for children, but that didn't stop everyone on our tour from climbing on the chairs, drinking from the giant tea cup, and giggling like children. There's nothing like a room full of giant furnature to make a group of adults feel like kids again. The next few rooms weren't nearly as exciting. There was a rainbow room where string was hung from the ceiling in the, which formed a rainbow that you walked through. Than we learned about faeries and a brief history of the Otherworld. This entire time, we only saw our guide once, so I was kinda shocked when she showed up for the last half of the tour. She told us tales of leprechauns, faeries, heros, and wishing wells. The last stop of the tour brought us to a room were everyone got to draw something dealing with whatever we learned in the museum. Heather and I drew a fat leprechaun riding a Scottish Terrier, for our efforts we received a sticker and were sent on our way.

Next up, the Aran Island, and the most terrifying fort ever!


btw, internet everywhere is terrible, so we're trying to keep up as well as we can!