Prague has been on our list of places to visit since we began planning out our tour of Europe. We always pictured it as a wild Bohemian, Eastern European city of crazy partying and backpackers everywhere. Turns out, there’s a bit of partying (though there’s much more than that) and, contrary to what some believe, it’s in central Europe and the local people don’t like to be associated with Eastern Europe. We only had three days, but we really packed a lot into our time while we were here. And for those who are wondering, this region is Bohemia, but it’s not really bohemian in the nineteenth century French use of the word; that was just a geographically-challenged stereotype.
The first thing we noticed as we walked to our hostel was the bright, often pastel, colored buildings. Everything seemed in such great condition, which is not what I was picturing. Nikki’s relatives visited Prague many years ago, and didn’t think it was very nice. Since then, apparently, times have been good because the city was gorgeous.
The historical part of the city is centered around the snaking Vltava River. We saw the major highlights, including the T??n Church, Charles Bridge, and Prague Castle. One day, we went up to the hideous Soviet TV tower, where we could see all the green-colored old copper roofs. Mostly we just wandered around and soaked in the beautiful sights and weather.
We also made a stop at a local beer garden, our first proper beer garden on the trip. Czechs drink a lot, about 160 liters per year per person. And with beer prices so low, it’s hard to resist a quick afternoon liter of pilsner.
Top three experiences?
- The historical city center.
- The stained glass in St. Vitus Cathedral.
- Sitting in the egg chairs in the top of the TV tower.
- Prague Old Town. There are so many really cool buildings, and there must have been a lot of restoration done recently because they look great. I really liked the T??n cathedral and astronomical clock.
- Charles Bridge at sunset.
- Everything is very reasonably priced. The costs are a bit lower in Central Europe in general compared to Western Europe. Beer here was especially cheap, maybe $1.50 for a half liter.
Bottom three experiences?
- The loud Asian group that woke everyone in our room up at 4 in the morning.
- The trams were always really crowded.
- The internet at our hostel was really bad.
- The Internet at our hostel was really slow, and at night it flat out didn’t work. We’re looking at apartments and other things, and I wish we had good enough Internet to Skype or at least write an email.
- Czech Republic uses their own currency. It wasn’t a problem getting cash, but going through Europe and not having to change currencies every country has been great.
- We had another snorer in our dorm room. If you snore, please don’t stay in a dorm with other people.
Nikki: Fried cheese for dinner. Somewhat like a cheese curd, it was a big, thick slab of breaded and fried cheese. Super yummy!
Brad: Nikki and I split two dishes: I had a potato pancake covered in beef goulash and cheese and she had fried cheese with fries. They were both great, but I liked mine better.
Nikki: Can’t think of anything in particular…
Brad: We ate good food throughout, so I don’t know what to say. Maybe the night we had pasta, since it wasn’t special.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Omar, our Spanish roommate was friendly, talkative guy.
Brad: Omar from Spain, whom we met in our dorm. He was fun and friendly and on a six-month trip similar to ours going in the other direction.
Brad: No problems.
Nikki: The baby statues on the outside of the TV tower. I guess it’s art?
Brad: If the Soviet-built TV tower wasn’t weird enough, the giant black, ant-like babies crawling up and down it surely take it to a level of weirdness not normally seen in nature.
I’ll just go ahead and admit that I’m not at all interested in the history of Berlin. Not even a little bit curious. I don’t know why, but the city has never appealed to me. We were planning on skipping it, but we decided to stop there after talking to so many backpackers that loved it.
I didn’t exactly fall in love with Berlin, but I’m glad we saw it. While we were there, I mainly felt like I wasn’t cool enough to belong there. If you are an artist, or a hipster, or a punk rocker, or a skater, or really into any alternative scene at all, I’m sure Berlin would be your favorite place in the world. It’s filled with art galleries, clubs, vintage stores,??gutter punks, and graffiti. I don’t think you can walk ten feet without seeing “FREE PUSSY RIOT” scribbled on a wall. However, as I am not specifically involved in any subculture, I mostly just felt out of place.
First we went to see what’s left of the Berlin Wall. Even this was boring and stupid for me, mainly because the original??graffiti??has been replaced by ridiculous murals of doves and children. I’m sure they were trying to make a monument to peace, but most of it was over-the-top cheesy. I think the original graffiti would have been fascinating to see.
Since Berlin has many different districts, it would take quite a while to explore them all. Because of that, most of what we saw was in the Mitte. The most striking landmark in that entire area is the Fernsehturm, a TV tower that was built in 1969 in the Communist side of Berlin. The people of Berlin call it “the asparagus,” but we think it looks like a disco ball. Besides how ugly it is, what’s really funny about the secular Fernsehturm is that when the sun shines on it, the reflection looks like a cross, something the Soviets weren’t planning on. The effect became known as “The Pope’s Revenge” and supposedly the architect paid a heavy price for his mistake.
I was surprised by all the beautiful old buildings, especially those in the??Museum??Island area. (Once again, we didn’t actually go inside any of the??museums, we just looked at them from the outside.) But by far the coolest place we went was the??Tempelhof Airport, once the site of the Berlin Airlift, now a park. They haven’t changed much of it, which is what makes it so cool. The runways are perfect for running, biking, roller blading, or just walking. In the huge fields between the runways we saw people eating, playing soccer, and flying kites. We saw several young guys kiteskating, using large kites to pull them on skates or skateboards. Some of them could jump about twenty feet high and do tricks. I thought it was cool to see how many ways people could enjoy an abandoned airport.
So overall, I’d recommend a stop in Berlin, especially when you factor in the cost. It’s quite a bit cheaper than the other European cities we’ve visited. We probably should have spent more time there, but at least we saw it.
In the last couple weeks, our trip has devolved into a whirlwind tour of Europe, so it’s been hard to keep the blog up to date. ??It’s also become mostly an eating and drinking tour because that’s about all we want to spend money on these days. Historical buildings? Cathedrals? Museums? We’ll look at them from the outside and poke our heads in the door, but as soon as we’re asked for money, we leave. Maybe we’re missing out, but at least we’re keeping our costs down.
Anyway, we enjoyed the couple of days we spent in Hamburg. I thought it was an interesting place. Apparently Hamburg is a bit different than the rest of Germany because it was an independent city-state for a very long time. Even today it remains as independent as possible from the rest of Germany. The city earned its wealth through trade and its port is still the second largest in Europe. Large areas of Hamburg were destroyed in WWII. In the postwar years, the??Reeperbahn in Sankt Pauli became one of the most famous red light districts in the world. This??debaucherous neighborhood is where the Beatles played for a couple of years before they made it big. I also learned, to my disappointment, that the hamburger was not invented in Hamburg, but the people who live there are referred to as hamburgers (pronounced in the German way, so it doesn’t sound quite as silly.)
We visited the historical areas and tried to take a tour of the beautiful City Hall, but??parliament??was in session that day, so all tours were cancelled. After that we went to the harbor to see all the freighters and the trendy buildings. That area has been transformed into a trendy, upscale district with cool apartment buildings and clubs. Most of the buildings were in kind of an industrial chic style with lots of metal, brick, glass and funky??architectural??elements.
That was all fun to see, but what I really enjoyed was the bar we went to on our first night in town. We just randomly wandered in while we were walking around and it ended up being an awesome place. It was all wood on the inside, but nothing fancy, more like the type of place people stop in after work. We had a great time just hanging out there and trying different German beers. I can’t wait for Oktoberfest!
It’s a little misleading to call this post a country recap, because we only went to one city in the Netherlands. Amsterdam was everything I expected it to be: beautiful, cultural, fun, and filled with vice. We loved it!
The layout of the city is extremely confusing and difficult to navigate. The center is made up of concentric half-circles of streets and canals, so you might think you’re walking to the west, but in reality you are slowly curving north. Plus, I swear every single street looks identical. They all have brown brick buildings, a bridge, and bikes parked everywhere. It probably makes sense if you’re familiar with it, but as a visitor, I typically had no idea which area of the city we were in.
Of course, we took a walk through the infamous Red Light District. We went during the day, which made the experience especially weird, because the whole area is basically a normal part of town. One minute we would walk by a fetish shop, then we’d see a florist and a fruit vendor, then lingerie-clad prostitutes posing in the windows, and then right after that elderly tourists rolling their suitcases into a hotel. It was like, what is going on here?
The other thing Amsterdam is infamous for, of course, is marijuana. Even though I was expecting to see it around, it was still very weird. We saw plants growing in some of the windows and it wasn’t uncommon to see people smoking. The stores that sell pot go by the euphemism “coffeeshop” and they are pretty much all over the place. They are not allowed to use garish advertising, so usually the only thing that gives them away is the Jamaican colors or the smell of joints. For the record, pot is illegal in the Netherlands, but the Dutch have decided to tolerate its use. However, it sounds like a conservative government has been voted in and tourists will no longer be allowed to enter the coffeeshops starting in 2013, so if you want to join the masses of “marijuana tourists,” you’d better buy your plane ticket.
Top three experiences?
- Going out. It’s a lively city!
- Seeing all the bicycles. I love that biking is a primary form of transportation here!
- Hanging out in Vondelpark, Amersterdam’s giant park.
- The transport system. Their tram system is wonderfully convenient, and the inside of the subway cars was covered in artwork. Not to mention all the bikes everywhere! The roads were designed for bicyclists, trams, and pedestrians, not vehicles.
- Just like in Belgium, the junk food was really, really good. We ate a lot of fries, and my waffle with chocolate and whipped cream was yummy.
- The Vondelpark was a great place to hang out.
Bottom three experiences?
- Getting lost all the time.
- Dealing with bad weather. It was nice our first day, but after that it rained off and on.
- Watching the Packers. That was the first Packer game we’d seen in over a year, and of course they lost!
- Amsterdam is an expensive place! Just our tiny Airbnb room cost more per day than most Asian countries’ per-day costs, and this was one of the cheapest options we could find.
- All of Amsterdam really does look the same–brick buildings and a canal running through the middle, bordered by small roads, a line of trees, and a bridge with maybe a tram line running over it. Most of the time we didn’t know where we were.
- The nonalcoholic beer fiasco, only because Nikki kept calling me a buffoon afterwards. Strangely, it tasted fine.
Nikki: Frites and mayonnaise. I know, it sounds gross, but Dutch mayonnaise is a little different than ours and it actually tastes great with fries.
Brad: We had fries a lot here, and they were really, really good.
Nikki: I don’t remember anything especially bad. Everything was so expensive, though! It was hard to find reasonable prices.
Brad: We had a picnic lunch ready, but the weather went to pants so we ate it indoors. However, the baguette I got didn’t taste very good. The outside wasn’t firm at all. Definitely not in France anymore.
Nikki: Our night at the jazz club. I wanted to hear some live music while we were in town, so we did a little research and found a club that everyone said was awesome. We went there early to get a good seat and the place seemed perfect–all wood interior, dim lighting, chill atmosphere, good mix of customers. I thought it was going to be one of our most fun nights…until the band started playing. They were AWFUL. It sounded like elevator music with an 80′s synthesizer. We gave it about eight minutes before we called it quits, but a couple other people left thirty seconds into the first song.
Brad: Nikki gave me some money and sent me to the store to get lunch supplies, including some good beer. I, in my infinite wisdom, really only looked for the cheapest beer in the “good” beer section and ended up with Amstel 0.0% alcohol-free beer. Oops! Strangely, that beer tastes better than many American beers.
Nikki: The Red Light District. The sex stuff on its own didn’t really weird me out. It was more the mix of normal, everyday things along with the sex shops and prostitutes that seemed extremely odd.
Brad: The red light district is so strange: strip clubs, window prostitutes, and coffeeshops were intermixed with average businesses, homes, shops, and the Chinatown.
Nikki pretty much summed up our short stay in Belgium: lots of wonderful food and beer, in a relaxed, laid-back, pretty surrounding. I wish we could have stayed longer in Belgium, perhaps cutting some time from France, so we could see more of the country.
Top three experiences?
- Hanging out with Jeltse in Antwerp.
- Walking around Brugge.
- Eating and drinking!
- Brugge. It’s such a beautiful, old city. It was fun just to wander on the quiet roads and canals.
- Belgian beers. Trappist beers, which is a protected name like Champagne and Chianti, are really, really good.
- I had a great time in Antwerp when Jeltse showed us around, and especially the dinner of currywurst and fries!
Bottom three experiences?
- Staying with the weirdos in their disgusting house.
- Trying to find a cafe that was open for breakfast in Brugge. For some reason, they were all closed while we were looking.
- It was always tough to find a bathroom while we were wandering around.
- Our Airbnb experience. It was not a nice place and the hosts were weird.
- Finding breakfast in Brugge was difficult, and we ended up just eating an early lunch at a massively overpriced restaurant in the tourist district. Apparently people don’t go out for breakfast in Belgium.
- Only having three days in this awesome country.
Nikki: Hard to pick just one, but I’ll say the fish and potatoes I had in Brugge.
Brad: We had a great dinner in Brugge. I had the roast beef with tomato sauce and Nikki had fish, with fries and good beer.
Nikki: The ridiculously overpriced sandwich I had in Brugge.
Brad: Probably the dinner that never happened on our first night. Our Airbnb hosts took us out, and kept taking us to places they said had dinner, but all we ended up getting was beer and appetizers. I felt like they hijacked our night. We ended up ditching them and going home without a dinner.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Jeltse’s sisters were both just as friendly as she is. Too bad we couldn’t meet the whole family!
Brad: I’d say Jeltse, but she was my answer for Mongolia. So it’ll be Antony, one of Jeltse’s friends who we met up with. He explained a lot about Belgian beers.
Nikki: No major disasters.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: With Jeltse and her family in Antwerp! So much fun and a very nice house.
Brad: With Jeltse. Her family has a really nice house, and I’m grateful for her taking us in for the night.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The house in Brugge.
Brad: In Brugge, with the crazies from Airbnb.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: Dinner at ‘T Ganzespel in Brugge. The restaurant is only open two nights a week and the owner serves homemade classic Belgian dishes. It was a really cute place and the prices are great. Definitely recommend going there!
Nikki: Jeltse translated Dutch names for us and some of them were pretty funny. The new mall is “The City Party Room” in English and one of the street names apparently translates into “Jerking Off Road.”
Brad: That Antwerp is named after throwing a hand and there are hands all over the place.