Where are We?

Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Switzerland

Switzerland is amazing! We have had so much fun in the little bit of time we’ve spent here.

Zurich is a nice city, but the real highlight of our time there was staying with Laura and Brad and their son, Nathan. Before moving to Switzerland, they lived in Waunakee and became friends with Brad’s Aunt Michelle. Now they’ve been in Zurich for four years, but luckily for us they still keep in touch with Michelle and invited us to stay with them. Besides giving us advice on our trip, keeping us entertained, and letting us play with Legos (Legos have come a long way these past twenty years!), they also introduced us to one of the best inventions of modern times: raclette. Forget Swiss Army Knives and velcro. Raclette is the best thing to come out of Switzerland. Basically, raclette is a type of cheese that everyone melts in small pans in a grill on the table and then eats with potatoes and vegetables. Laura and Brad add a Wisconsin touch and serve it with sausage, too. Amazing.

We also spent a couple of days in the Jungfrau Region of the Alps. I’m sure this won’t surprise any of you, but the Swiss Alps are stunning. Just look at the pictures. Our first day was overcast and drizzly, but luckily it was clear the next morning. We went hiking and saw incredible scenery. It reminded me of New Zealand. The crisp mountain air was invigorating and we only saw a few other people the whole morning. All we could hear were brooks, waterfalls, the wind, and chiming cow bells. This was definitely my favorite hike.

I could probably spend a long time in Switzerland. It’s beautiful, clean, organized, and hyper-efficient. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive countries in the world. Everything is about double what it would be in America.??A hot dog will cost you $7, a burger is about $15, and a bunk in a large dorm will be at least $40. It’s a great place, but not if you’re on a tight budget.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Hiking in the Alps.
  2. Our day trip to Lucerne.
  3. Eating raclette with Laura and family.

Brad:

  1. Hiking the Alps. One of the highlights of the trip!
  2. Lucerne. It was our first trip to the mountains of Switzerland and the city was gorgeous.
  3. Staying with Laura, Brad, and Nathan.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. The cost of everything! So expensive.
  2. Bad weather our first day in the Alps.
  3. Not spending enough time here.

Brad: The expensiveness of the country! Take the price of things elsewhere in western Europe and double them and you have Swiss prices. (Otherwise, Switzerland is great, so I only have one.)

Best meal?

Nikki: The raclette!

Brad: Fajitas that Brad made one night. And they were made with Penzeys Spices from Madison, so we’ll have to get some when we get back.

Worst meal?

Nikki: I don’t think we ate anything bad.

Brad: Our $7 slice of pizza at Z??rich HB when we got in. It tasted OK, not $7 though.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Of course it’s Laura, Brad, and Nathan.

Brad: Laura, Brad, and Nathan.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: With Laura, Brad, and Nathan.

Brad: With Laura and Brad. They were amazing hosts!

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Our daytrip to Lucerne. Really cute city on a lake.

Brad: Lucerne! It’s a beautiful little town in the mountains.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: Apparently the Swiss all turn their cars off while they’re waiting for trains to pass.

Brad: The bomb shelters. It was once required that all households have them, and Laura and Brad’s place had one. And it actually gets inspected to make sure it works! I can’t believe 10 people and a chemical toilet could be expected to live in an area that small. It does make a nice storage area though.

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Country Recap: Austria

We stayed with an awesome group of people in Vienna. It was an Airbnb place, but it felt more like couchsurfing. Our host, Chris, and her flatmates welcomed us and kept us entertained the whole time we were there. They made us quality coffee each morning and baked a marble cake one night. Chris gave us two really good restaurant recommendations and some ideas for sightseeing. It was just fun to hang out with nice people again.

The highlight of our sightseeing in Austria was Sch??brunn Palace, former residence of the Habsburgs. The grounds outside included a hedge maze for us to wander through and perfectly manicured gardens. Inside, we took the grand tour and saw the Rococo??interior. Some of the rooms looked great, and some were hideous.

Salzburg is famous for two things: Mozart and the Sound of Music. All of the Sound of Music tour groups got especially annoying, as they would sing at every single film location they visited. But it was still a fun place, even with all the “Do-Re-Mi” choruses following us around. The town buildings and gardens are beautiful. We walked up to the??Festung Hohensalzburg and got a good view of the fields and mountains.

The best part was the party we found. We had no idea what was going on at the time, but we later found out it was the annual Harvest Festival. There was a huge tent decorated with red and white ribbons and??filled with crowded tables. There was a band playing festive marches and everyone was talking and laughing. Many of the locals were wearing traditional clothing, which seemed to be??lederhosen for men and??dirndl for women. The beer was good, but the grilled chicken was incredible!??We had such a fun afternoon there!??If Oktoberfest is anything like this, I’m sure we’ll love it!

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. The beer tent in Salzburg!
  2. Staying with Chris and her friends in Vienna.
  3. The Sch??brunn Palace in Vienna.

Brad:

  1. Sch??brunn Palace and its huge gardens.
  2. The Salzburg Harvest Festival beer tent. I especially loved when the church bells started ringing at three o’clock. The band finished their song, and the bells’ ringing was a constant roar of sound. Very cool.
  3. Salzburg’s fortress.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. All of the Sound of Music stuff in Salzburg.
  2. The weather. We got rained on a couple of times.
  3. The museum in the castle in Salzburg was really boring.

Brad:

  1. The Esperanto museum. It’s really cool there’s a museum, and it had a few moments, like the Soviet and Nazi persecution of Esperanto speakers. But it’s missing key information about the creation of the language and an explanation of its grammatic advantages.
  2. The museum in Salzburg’s fortress was bad. It was also here that I realized how dull European history is compared to other places we visited.
  3. The Sound of Music tours in Salzburg and all the Mozart souvenirs everywhere. Kind of cheesy.

Best meal?

Nikki: Hard to choose. I think the turkey schnitzel in Salzburg was the best.

Brad: Fried chicken with fries at the beer tent in Salzburg.

Worst meal?

Nikki: Whatever pastry thing I got at a bakery in Vienna. I think it needed to be heated up, but the guy didn’t put it in the oven.

Brad: For breakfast in Vienna, we stopped at a bakery and got some pizza-like thing that looked good, but since it was cold it didn’t taste very good.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Chris, our airbnb host in Vienna.

Brad: Christine in Vienna. Her place was great and she was very nice. 

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: We finally paid some money to visit a couple of museums: the Globe Museum and the Esperanto Museum. They were both tiny and quirky, but very well done and interesting.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: We saw deer in farms. They must eat veal.

Brad: The outfits that people actually wear in Salzburg. Very Bavarian.

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Country Recap: Czech Republic

PraguePrague 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?

Nikki:

  1. The historical city center.
  2. The stained glass in St. Vitus Cathedral.
  3. Sitting in the egg chairs in the top of the TV tower. 

Brad:

  1. 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.
  2. Charles Bridge at sunset.
  3. 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?

Nikki:

  1. The loud Asian group that woke everyone in our room up at 4 in the morning.
  2. The trams were always really crowded.
  3. The internet at our hostel was really bad.

Brad:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. We had another snorer in our dorm room. If you snore, please don’t stay in a dorm with other people.

Best meal?

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.

Worst meal?

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.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: None

Brad: No problems.

Weirdest thing?

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.

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Berlin

Berline Wall

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.

Country Recap: The Netherlands

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!

AmsterdamThe 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?

Nikki:

  1. Going out. It’s a lively city!
  2. Seeing all the bicycles. I love that biking is a primary form of transportation here!
  3. Hanging out in Vondelpark, Amersterdam’s giant park.

Brad:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The Vondelpark was a great place to hang out.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Getting lost all the time.
  2. Dealing with bad weather. It was nice our first day, but after that it rained off and on.
  3. Watching the Packers. That was the first Packer game we’d seen in over a year, and of course they lost!

Brad:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The nonalcoholic beer fiasco, only because Nikki kept calling me a buffoon afterwards. Strangely, it tasted fine.

Best meal?

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.

Worst meal?

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.

Worst disaster?

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.

Weirdest thing?

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.

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