Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Day 5: Interlaken

We woke up to find it was perfectly clear!!!! We jumped out of bed for our 8:30 paragliding departure. Although I had butterflies every time I had mentioned this to someone earlier in the summer, I surprisingly had no nerves that morning. Maybe because the thought of not being able to do it was so dreadful to me, I knew I wanted this. We signed in and drove up the mountain, where I met Dani, my paragliding partner. He was SO painfully quiet, but still a very nice guy. We waited for the fog to clear for almost an hour, but life isn't so bad at the top of a mountain watching the fog rise to become clouds surrounding you. Suddenly, it was time to go! We quickly stood up and Dani yelled 1, 2, 3 and we started running off the mountain! The entire experience was peaceful and absolutely beautiful. This is something I would do again, again, and again, and I hope I have the ability (and funds!) to do so in the future. Landing in the middle of downtown Interlaken, I ran to give Jamie a high five. We did it! Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at a cute sandwich shop for awesome, Swiss turkey +cheese sandwiches. We decide to walk back to Interlaken Tent Village, and along the way changed our plan for the day entirely. Instead of a hike, we were going to go to the Top of Europe, Jungfrau. I'm soaking in every opportunity I have to just make and change plans on the spot, or not make any plans at all. This freedom is something I have never experienced before, and am sure is not the same in "the real world" either. Anyway, I am SO happy we made this decision. Even though it was a longggg journey to the top, the view was incredible. Once we made it to the top, we did not even know where to begin. First, we checked out the surrounding views, before realizing there was a Lindt "Chocolate Factory" upstairs. It was the perfect snack break. We continued to walk around Jungfrau, which actually had a ton to offer. First, the tacky moving walkway about the history of the railroad to the top. Then, a giant snow globe showcasing Interlaken. After, we moved to the real deal, I have no idea what to call it except the "Ice Castle" as Jamie has named it. This puts every Ice Bar/Pub to shame. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all made of ice, and we found ourselves shuffling down hallway after hallway looking at various ice sculptures. It was HUGE! I had a great moment singing "Let It Go"and dancing around like a child, while Jamie wandered into every ice cave. Finally, when we couldn't feel our feet, we went to the veryyyyy top of Europe, which you reach by elevator. Once there, we legitimately could not see a foot in front of us. There was so much fog/clouds/snow that the entire world looked white. Given we had seen plenty of views on the way up, this was honestly better, I have never seen anything like it in my life. From there, we went on our scenic train ride back down the mountain. Back in Interlaken, we stopped at the grocery store for dinner. So far, every country has made me miss the wonderful currency in Prague, Switzerland is SO expensive. We opted for "homemade" dinner and stopped at the grocery store. I enjoyed a wonderful meal of rice cakes, hummus, and more of this local turkey that I loveee, which sounds odd but was actually a wonderful combo. In a way, it actually was nice to not have restaurant food for once! Now, as I write this, sitting on a couch by the bar with beautiful views of sunset in the mountains, life is pretty good. I can't wait for another day of relaxing tomorrow, the Swiss countryside is so great.

Day 4: Transport

Jamie and I woke up and quickly packed up for the second time thus far. It was evident that we are already getting better at managing our bags at least! We first went to the Hackerbrucke bus station down the street from our hostel. Here, we boarded a bus to Zurich, which should have taken approx. 5 hours. Unfortunately, because of an accident, it took about 7..but I honestly could not care less because this was the most tricked out bus I had EVER seen. Two stories of giant, movie theatre seats with tables, a vending machine, and plenty of room. I stretched out over an entire row and enjoyed the ride - by far the best I had experienced in Europe. From there, we transferred to Bern, and again to Interlaken. I was shocked by how flawlessly we executed this. I had been nervous about this day since we booked it about two months ago, and it could not have been easier. We even arrived an hour earlier than we anticipated! While rainy, the scenery was still incredible and the trains were very comfortable. The entire way there, we kept praying for the rain to clear. As we approached Interlaken, it definitely seemed to be clearing up, but this was quite deceiving given that it was POURING the second we stepped off the train. We made our way to Balmers Tent Village. This famous hostel was our humble abode for the next two nights. We approached a  cluster of yellow and white striped tents across a big lawn. Walking up, we saw an above ground swimming pool, hot tub, hammocks, a bar, and music blasting. We checked in and found our way to the "Shanghai" tent, which was a platform with tarp and a double bed, two chairs, and a table. It actually looked SUPER nice, at least compared to other tents I have stayed in. The rain hitting the top was incredibly soothing, but, we were a bit concerned about our travel plans. We went back to reception to see what our options were in terms of activities. A pretty pessimistic staff member essentially told us we could not do a single "Interlaken" activity while there. But we did not give up hope, and thank god we didn't. Another staff member came over to inform her the next day was supposed to be clear, and we quickly booked paragliding - our main goal - and made plans for hiking the rest of our day. Feeling much better about this, we headed into town. Interlaken itself is an adorable small town. Especially on a rainy night, all of the colors actually seemed brighter and the lighting was beautiful. Jamie and I decided Indian food would be the perfect comfort food on this gross night and had a great dinner on a covered outdoor terrace. Coming back, we immediately got ready for bed and just spent the night lounging. It was awesome to be able to have my first night in literally SEVEN weeks relaxing to this extent. It was such a nice change of pace! Full and happy, we quickly passed out!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Neuschwanstein Castle

We started the day bright and early, returning to Mikes Bikes for our day trip to the castle! With about 40 others, we boarded a bus to get an introduction by none other than Mike himself! I thought this was a nice touch, as was the video of our tour guide on the way down, explaining tons of info about Ludwig II and his mysterious death. On the way there, we were warned of the bad weather that was coming our way. The guides proposed that we could go on a modified tour of a second castle, or continue with the regular plan and bike through the rain before going to the castle. Given that my leg feels better on a bike than walking, I pleaded with Jamie to stick with the bike ride. Wide eyed and reluctant, she somehow agreed. We got off the bus and were hit with freezing rain. Mounting my bike, I experienced some PTSD from a bike trip my Dad dragged Brandon and I on in Alaska. Determined to cross the Canadian border by a fourth(fifth?) mode of transportation he made us go with him on a crazy bike ride. We were dropped at the top of a huge mountain, given suits to wear over our 8 layers already on our bodies, and went speeding down a hill in hail, snow, and rain. I SWORE after this, NEVER AGAIN. Yet, here I was, in my already soaked jean shorts, knees shaking, toes and fingers completely without circulation, on a damn bike. However, this time, on my own dime and my own will, I was determined to do this and enjoy it. This castle was one of the things I was most excited for, and even if it was surrounded by clouds and I couldn't feel my feet, by god, I was going to enjoy it. I heard a little Steve voice, "what do Alloys do? They tough it out!". Making the most of it, I bonded with another guy in the group over the lack of blood in our fingers(I wish I was kidding haha but hey us Raynauds folks gotta stick together) and learned their entire group was from VMI and almost all from my area, which was a weird slice of home. It actually was very peaceful and beautiful despite the bad weather. On a pretty day, I bet this is one of the greatest excursions in all of Europe! 
View of the second castle from the bike ride! 

After our bike ride, we stopped for lunch in a little local restaurant. As it turns out, our tour guide is a part of the international magician circle or something of that sort and was INCREDIBLE. He started with one of the top 10 tricks in the world (the only card trick in that listing) as decided by this magic association, apparently a trick Churchill stopped a meeting to see. He executed it flawlessly. I was blown away. it was by far the best trick I've seen. This continued for another half hour at least and was so entertaining. 

After that, we finally went to tour the castle. It was so cold we spent our free time in the bathroom warming up with the hand dryer. seriously. But it was actually hilarious. This was quite the bonding experience, as we made some friends from Florida, Arizona, and Australia! Two of them were part of a program called busabout which seemed so cool, definitely want to do that at some point. We then went to the castle which was as beautiful inside as it was out! 

Coming home, I learned the chores side of backpacking. We put newspaper in our shoes, washed our clothes in the sink, waited for the dryer at the hostel, tried to figure out our tickets, etc. but still, gotta keep up that attitude of gratitude! Still rather be here than anywhere else!

For dinner, Jamie and I tried Ocui, which is essentially German Vapiano with an Asian station. Our noodle bowls and coconut soup were perfect for a rainy night. From there, we finally made it to the famous beer garden Hofbrauhaus. While it was looked a lot like any restaurant in Prague and smelled a lot like a frat house. I'm starting to realize that going to the really tacky things "because I should" never brings me as much joy as finding something authentic. But, I'm not much of a liter beer drinker/pork knuckle eater anyway, so for that, it served it's purpose as seeing "culture" even if it was over the top. 

Regardless, I had SO much fun today and am beyond happy I finally saw Neuschwanstein castle!

Day 2: Exploring Munich

We woke up early for breakfast before our tour. Aroma kaffebar was our destination of choice, and it definitely didn't disappoint. This was an adorable cafe, with awesome omelets, gummies(what?) and even a social enterprise aspect! I was in love, and Jamie was in love with the fact that there were flowers in our eggs, and it was a wonderful morning.
Shades of love, featured at Aroma!

After, we went to mairenplatz to wait for our bike tour. We happened to be there during christopher street day, which is a gay pride festival, and there were tons of things to see! At 11, we even caught the glockenspiel, which, in my opinion, was more overrated than the astronomical clock. Still, marienplatz itself was absolutely beautiful! 

Our bike tour was also phenomenal. Mikes bikes is suchhh a great program. Our guide was hilarious and it was a really fun/informational day. We saw many of Munich's sights and were able to have lunch in a beer garden in the English garden. Wow, is German food heavy. While it was delicious, I am definitelyyy ready to get out of Central Europe to try some different local food! When the tour ended, Jamie and I decided to go back to the English garden. I had never seen anything like this before. First of all, there is a part at the top where people SURF across the entrance of the river where the water falls down like a wave. apparently this has been going on since the 70s and it is so cool to watch. 
From a little further down, you can actually float down the river like a natural lazy river ride. When we were bike riding, it was 95 degrees and it seemed as if the whole city was in the river. After a big rain storm and a serious change of temperature, Jamie and I counted 3 people in the water over the course of an hour or so. Still, we had gone back and changed for this. We had talked about it alllll day. And so, after weighing our options back and forth, we went for it. It was FREEZING but hilarious and totally worth it! 
^This is so embarrassing but the fear/frostbite was so legitimate

That night, we went to dinner at Hamburgergei, which was equally awesome. All day, I was freaking out over the spottedbylocals app. Without needing internet, it tells you all of the cool local spots surrounding you. It is so ideal for quick travel when you don't have time to learn about a city and it definitely proved itself today. Exhausted, we crashed immediately. It was a great day!

Day 1: Prague to Munich

Saying a sad goodbye to my wonderful apartment on Seifertova, I headed down to the H.L stop for the last time, this time heading to the real train station rather than the metro or tram. In typical fashion, I was running absurdly late, and quickly realized both my timing and wearing leggings on a 95 degree day were both horrible ideas. Somehow,  I ran onto my train at exactly 1:12 with 3 minutes to spare. I found myself sitting in the middle of two traveling duos. The guy to my left started the train ride with "omg I know you!" ...I didn't know him...I tried racking my brain: "did we meet in Prague?" "No! We met at Princeton for model UN!" THANK YOU, random stranger, for already pulling out the dorkiest event in my life as my first impression. Still, this was so bizarre! So, so bizarre. I spent this leg and the next with the other pair, best friends from LA who were traveling for 5 weeks. 7 hours on a train, and I know neither of their names, but essentially everything else about them, down to the fact that the one on my right is number 41 on his Norwegian football team, or that the one across from me had a volleyball scholarship and now is a real estate agent. It's weird how much information you learn in transportation, but it's also so transient that I will never know their names, or ever see them again. I find this entire concept so interesting, the depth and longevity could not be more opposite. Still, I had no water, food, or euros (smooth dana) and they offered their bottles, helped spot my dinner(thank you for the €3 in coins claire it almost got me there), and saved my seats when I had to pee. Train friends are really nice to have. Anyway, finally getting to Munich after a 2 hour delay, I was relieved to learn my hotel was nearby, as was Jamie, my cousin who I hadn't seen in way too long. Heading to my room, I heard down the hall, "she was supposed to be here forever ago I'm freaking out!!" I pounded on the door dramatically and jumped on my dear little James. It was GREAT to see her. We quickly left for dinner, finding a cute vegan place around the corner. I don't know why this is becoming a thing for me, but I'm really getting into it haha. My salad and her soup were both great! Given how tired we were we called it a night right after. Not too shabby of a travel day! 
Free appetizers to start the trip off right!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Closing Thoughts:Prague

The last day. Crazy to think about. Somehow, after only 5 hours of sleep, I woke up completely energized. After 6 weeks of passing it by, I poked inside Pradelna café on my way to the JzP market. Finally, here was the eerie feeling that I did not have another afternoon to spend time here, I had discovered what I discovered and that was that. Still, I felt no regrets, everywhere I had been was just right. I had done Prague right. It was a good feeling. Coming full circle, I finally was able to go to the stand I had seen and passed by my very first day in Prague. Since then, I had regretted not trying one of these natural, homemade granola bars that had caught my eye. I had tried every Friday to make my way there, but neither I or the stand could coordinate and it had not happened. On my last day, there it was. I explained this to the vendor, who threw in an extra snack J For the final time, I found my eggs, my tomatoes, my apricots, my coveted dried fruit, and I walked away from one of the most homey places I had created for myself here. So sad! Running some errands, I decided to finish my blogs at Muj Salek Kavy, which had been a last minute find but a wonderful one, and was exactly where I wanted to spend my last afternoon. Now, sitting in the back corner against the painted brick wall that is so characteristic of this place, eating a fantastic salad with Czech apricots and Czech turkey, listening to “Dancing in the Moonlight” oddly play through the room, bent over my computer and journal, this somehow feels like it is the perfect exemplary sliver of my time in Prague. This city has been so perfectly quirky for me. The weird art and the misplaced pop music. Edgy people and granola ones, adorable Czech friends.  The bright coffee shops and breakfast. The literarni kavarnas which are more suited for wine, writing a novel or reading one. The authentic, no nonsense Czech pubs, and the opposite response that can be found in the countless veg places with their kooky green décor. The views and the parks, surrounding the city, everywhere, made for meeting with friends and just appreciating life. This place has given me so much, and I am forever grateful. I could not imagine a better place to study abroad and I will be incredibly sad to leave in the morning. Ahoj Praha, you will definitely be missed.

The Wall and the Sun

FINALS….yikes. I’m sure they went fine, but definitely put a damper on the day. After the first, I found myself with 3 hours to kill before the next. Julie and I decided to sneak in some fun, and it was awesome. First, the John Lennon wall. I am so jealous of Julie’s idea and wish DC had something fun and quirky (obviously not)  that I could have contributed. In Austin, there is a wall with graffiti “I love you so much!” that is a popular place to take pictures. Julie decided to replicate this on the John Lennon wall and it looked great. I had spent the past day contemplating whether I wanted to write something or not. It had become a pet peeve of mine when big groups of tourists all went and signed the wall. That is not what it is about, and doing that just detracts from the true meaning and powerful messages that belong there. Still, I felt after 6 weeks, I wanted to add something. Everything seemed too cheesy or selfish. As Julie painted, I walked along the wall, looking for writings I liked. As I walked, it literally hit me. It was such a strange feeling. As I was walking, thinking about my time in Prague and the backpacking trip I had to come, I began to think of how my time in Prague had added extra strength to my next journey. I knew that after everything that had happened here, my trip would be further enhanced in a way that would not have occurred had I just left directly from the U.S. without this incredible experience. I thought of a quote I had read during my time in Prague, adding even more meaning to me, and found someone with a sharpie. Selecting a small spot between “Whisper words of wisdom, let it be…” and “love is all you need” I added:
            To move, to breath, to fly, to float
            To gain all while you give
            To roam the roads of land remote 
            To travel is to live

Thanks Hans Christian Andersen, this was exactly what I was thinking at this moment, put into words more eloquent than I could ever conjure. Julie then spray painted a giant J+D on the wall, cause obviously were in love, and we laughed and continued walking. It is crazy how we had gone from aimlessly walking everywhere, very confused, to navigating our way literally across the city with ease. We went all the way to JzP for lunch, just because we wanted to. Look at us! Moment Café was a vegan coffeeshop that was listed in the CitySpy Prague map we had picked up when we met Chrissy, and surprisingly, we had not heard of it before. It was fantastic to be able to fit that in, and my salad hit the spot. The café itself was great, with interesting artwork, a cozy atmosphere, and gooood food. I totally recommend the JzP area to anyone visiting Prague. It is beautiful and has way more to offer than one might suspect. We went all the way from Prague 3 to Prague 6 for class, and back to Prague 3 again for naps(more on why later). That night, Bri, Claire, Julie and I left the apartment to meet with ISA for the last time. We were “surprised” by Daniela with a boat cruise! The weather was great and we all hung out as a group for the last time. 

Afterwards, Claire, Olivia, Steph, and I went to Black Angels, which had become a “spot” for Claire and Olivia. This bar, located below the Hotel U Prince in Old Town Square, is far from a tourist trap. With no phones allowed, live piano, and INCREDIBLE drinks, all in a little cave of an underground bar. Sitting at the bar, we watched the bartenders concoct the craziest mixtures. They only as one question, “what do you like?” Olivia responded with “tequila” and I followed suit with “gin, something fresh”, as Steph went with “sweet” and Claire tried out “vodka, slightly sweet”. Every drink was legitimately like a piece of art. They were completely different, exactly to the request, and like nothing I had tried before. The only way I could describe my particular drink was “like a spa”. But seriously it was! The craziest part about this was that all of the drinks were only 7 dollars. Lesson of the day: Skip the shots and the red bull and vodkas, Money is well spent at a place like this. As ridiculous as it sounds, this actually felt like an enriching experience and I was happy to have a last night out to spend time with these friends for the last time.  Coming home, I chained myself to my desk, making a to do list of everything that MUST be completed before I could leave. Finishing all of my tasks promptly at 2:30 AM, I was impressed I had stayed awake and completed everything before my trip! I immediately called Julie. In a wonderful coincidence, she was going to be home soon. At 3:15, we started out for downtown. Who am I?! Working until 3 am and then going out? But, with good reason. We stopped at our favorite Dlouha spots, grabbed some Burrito Loco tacos around 4:30, and headed for the bridge. Julie and I have been talking about the Charles Bridge at sunrise for a longggg time. On our last possible opportunity, we finally did it! It was just as beautiful as imagined, and a perfect way to end our time in Prague. Lesson of the day: SEE SUNRISE. That one is self-explanatory.