Adventure in the Alps

For our vacation this year, Tracey and I decided to go on a more hike-oriented trip through the Alps. Hitching a ride on one of our My Way Alpine Tours, we packed our bags, left scorching Seattle, and started our adventure in even more scorching Salzburg!

The itinerary roughly went East-to-West, and is likely best visualized with a very handy map.

my-way-alpine-europe-tour-map-15
The Handy Map

Salzburg

Flying out to Munich via Reykjavik, we landed Saturday afternoon, cleared customs, and immediately took Munich’s hybrid commuter rail system to the main train station in town. Grabbing our tickets, we settled our tired selves into one of the hourly trains to Salzburg, Austria.

Arriving in the very warm and muggy Salzburg was especially fun. Trudging to our AirBnB we quickly settled in before going off to buy groceries and water. Lots of water. The time is 17:40. We quickly find that the store closest to our apartment closed at 17:30 and reopened on Monday. Well, okay, so we started walking to the center of town: surely there is a store open later there, right? Spending our energy in the form of sweat, we discover that this is indeed a terribly incorrect assumption: everything is closed until Monday. Things are not looking so great when I dash off a quick tweet of forlorn sadness about our current situation. And then an angel appeared in the form of a coworker who had edited our book section on Salzburg a few months before and noted that the Spar in the train station was open until very late in the evening. We were saved! The recon was correct! The night was warm, but we settled into the warm apartment at least on the road to hydration as the skies filled with rolling thunderstorms.

Continue reading

Exploring Eastern Europe: Slovakia

Slovakians are the country cousins of the industrial Czechs. Once mashed together into Czechoslovakia by the Soviets, these regions have once again split off into independent nations.

We didn’t spend much time in Slovakia: only a few hours between Poland and Hungary in the Tatra Mountains.

Despite our short time there, we did make some notable discoveries.

2014-09-28 09.51.08

We remembered about Kinder Eggs, the forbidden fruit of Americans! All-Strawberry packs of Mentos are commonly sold!

_MG_2342

There were some cool-as-hell mountains too.

_MG_2359

Our tour group. The demographics are just about what you’d expect.

_MG_2349

Whoohoo scenic beauty.

Before leaving Slovakia, we stopped for a picnic lunch at Levoča , a small town that is remarkable for its largely intact defensive ring wall that protects the city. After some sandwiches, Tracey and I explored the UNESCO world heritage site by ducking and dodging around the walls.

The Angst of Touring

One of the perks for working where I do is that I can hop on any of our many tours for free, and my significant other can go as well for essentially very little cost. I figured it may be a good idea to see what our tours are all about since they’re a significant portion of our company and I spend much of my time working on ways to make our business operation software run smoother.

So Tracey and I signed up for the Eastern Europe in 16 days tour. We’ve been throughout Western Europe fairly thoroughly, but neither of us have been to (or spent any significant portion of time) in Eastern Europe. This comes with some angst, however. I’ve always been very much a DIY traveler, and the idea of being a member in a tour group (you know, those people) is a very new idea.

I look forward to seeing what we have to offer, and certainly start exploring Eastern Europe. We have plenty of free time before and after the tour, as well as during, so I hope to get lots of good exploration in without getting too entrenched in the tour group culture.

Paris: Apparently they speak French there

After our lovely, if not inspiring, visit to Amsterdam, our next stop was to a city you may have heard of before: Paris. Due to the vagaries of train schedules, we would be spending three nights in the city, but only have two full days of exploring: we were scheduled to arrive very late the first day, and leave very early on the third. We knew this would be the busiest schedule, and probably the most complicated plan. Our apartment was going to be very small, located in Montmartre, and I should mention that we knew basically zero french between the four of us. We could hack Italian, Spanish, and German pretty well between us, and could get enough by in Scandinavia so that we at least got our general point across. No such luck in France, and we knew it.

Anyway, we’re arriving at Gare du Nord, which is the train station that the high-speed transport from Amsterdam arrives at. It’s already behind schedule due to a breakdown in front of us, and we’re quickly getting our stuff and leaving when we notice a couple of heavily armed French police at the terminal. They seem to be guarding some guy who is searching through his own bag for something, and we start walking past when one of them (with a rifle, of course) approached us and said something in French while gesturing what appeared to say “nothing to see here, move along.” So we start moving, and then he says something again.

We’re just staring at him, and I’m fairly sure none of us had anticipated this particular situation. It wasn’t even cached in our minds. After a few seconds of staring, he says “speak English?” Heads nod YES. “Passports and train tickets please.” Okay, we understand that. As we all start rummaging through our coats to find passports, I manage to snag my train ticket before anyone else and hand it to him. he seemed satisfied that at least one of us had a ticket, didn’t seem to care about seeing a passport, and let us go along. Strike one.

Getting through the Metro wasn’t an issue, and we soon step off into Montmarte, which is one of the more “lively” hubs of Paris, and home to the red light district. We soon find our apartment. Down a small side street that is quickly named “Shank Alley.” Finding our host and our room, she starts explaining everything in very rapid French. Oops. Strike two.

We get our room, get online, and we all immediately look for as many French apps as we could find. I’m not kidding in the slightest, all of our phones and tablets were downloading “learn French survival words” books and were quickly memorizing and horribly pronouncing basic phrases. We didn’t have a French speaker, and we knew it was going to be rough. The French are a lot like Italians, they may know English, but will pretend not to know anything because they like messing with tourists.

Let’s talk about the apartment. It was an economy studio with two small beds, a small dining table, and a bathroom where you literally had to straddle the sink in order to use the toilet. This is not sarcasm in the slightest. I’m not sure how anyone who is overweight or not flexible even use this bathroom. It was absolutely amazing.
Our first full day in Paris consisted of a plan somewhat like this: a) take a bike tour of the city in the day, b) kill a few hours, c) take another bike tour and river cruise of another part of the city at night. Easy? Easy.

IMG_4103

Nova had to use the restroom, and we all had to hide when she managed to mess it up and caused it to enter cleaning mode. Almost while she was inside.

Nova, uh, had issues with this Toilette

IMG_4117
The bike tour was pretty rad.

IMG_4267
The night tour was even more fun.

Photobomb III
A blurry picture of us on the river cruise. Note Oury photobombing us the hardest.

IMG_4107
On the second day we checked out the Eiffel Tower again.

IMG_4422
Notre Dame was pretty rad.

IMG_4469
Outside Notre dame.

Holocaust Memorial
The Holocaust Memorial was at the tunnel where most of the Parisian Jews were shipped to the camps. It was quiet, simple, and fitting.

IMG_4350
I think we all recognize this particular object. It’s also the home to an extremely bruising traffic circle.

BUT HOLY CRAP GUYS. IT’S TIME TO GO TO SAINTE-CHAPELLE. This is one of the few buildings that I absolutely had to see on this trip, and verily, one of the few structures that I had to visit in my life. Even though it was partially under reconstruction (the stained glass was distorting over time and they were in the process of fixing/replacing a lot of it), Sainte-Chapelle was an astounding structure. It was remarkable, and even more so for a building built in the mid 1250s. The walls appeared to be made entirely of stained glass, and the atmosphere, even in the evening, was even better than I imagined it.

I think I just stood around in awe.

I'm so happy right now you don't even know
I was too much in awe to smile.

After Sainte-Chapelle, we went to Sacré Cœur, which is much more impressive from the exterior than the interior.

We returned back, had some sleep, and went off to the Eurostar Terminal early on the third day to visit the Isles.

Full Flickr Album

View the full album here!

Copenhagen: Actually Quite Cool

Admittedly, Copenhagen was the city that I wasn’t expecting to spend much time in: I was advocating another day in Stockholm and just kind of briefly touching Copenhagen before heading off for home. Thankfully I was overruled.

As previously mentioned, we took the train to Copenhagen and arrived at central station at 7:30am. On a Saturday. Our first order of business was to locate the dorm, hopefully drop off our stuff, and go explore the city ASAP. After crawling along at a very slow pace, we ambled into a neighborhood that was very lacking in open coffee shops that we so desperately needed. Eventually stumbling into a bakery that advertised lattes, Tracey and I rushed inside for some tasty pastries and coffee. It was here that I first thought up of the idea to pronounce Danish words very poorly, and when the shopkeepers switched to English (which most people fall back to), I would speak in poor English. The purpose was to have them think I wasn’t American and that English was my second language. I’m not sure if this actually worked, but this was my thought pattern at 08:00 in the morning while getting sick and running on little sleep.

Outside, Brian and Justin said that they had been “shot at” and that we were in the “ghetto of Copenhagen.” Noting a surprising lack of commotion for a gunshot, I expressed disbelief. Apparently, so they claim, a “very scary looking man on a bike” stopped next to them, pulled out his hand, made it in the shape of a gun, aimed it at them, and said “bang!” before peddling off.

Where Oury and Brian were "shot" at.
Site of the fingerbanging.

Eventually, after going through some increasingly “scary” blocks, we made it to “Sleep in Heaven” where we were able to stash our bags and take a moment to rest before heading off downtown to catch a history tour. We managed to be in a 90 minute tour with a local resident who walked us through the old down while focusing on the locations and history of Hans Christian Andersen.

IMG_5116.jpg
On the tour, next to the Danish seat of government.

After the tour, Brian was fading fast. We went on a scramble to find some suitable place to eat near the City Hall before eventually, out of desperation, went to “The Brooklyn Deli” or something like that. Oury and Tracey got the buffet, which was pretty good, while Brian and I opted to order some dishes. Brian was feverish at this point and not feeling well *at all*, so it was particularly maddening that the restaurant had forgotten to submit our orders to the kitchen. After about an hour of waiting and bugging them, we finally got our food before quickly booking it to the hostel to meet the Hamricks, check in, and get some rest. The rest of the day was basically a bust. Brian was in bed for the rest of the day, and I took a long nap before most of us decided to go wander and find some dinner.

The next day, however, we had to make up for lost time. I had a full two days of touring planned, and gosh darn it, we were GOING TO DO IT ALL. And that will start with a harbor tour. Leaving our hostel, we immediately run into a massive run of some sort.

There was some kind of massive run going on that morning.

This complicated things as they seemed to be going where we wanted to go, and there was no real way to cross the runners without actually getting up to speed, running with them, and slowly cutting over to the other side of the lane before disengaging. Anyway, we made it across and started on the harbor boat tour after eating some breakfast.

Opera house.
The (in)famous Opera House.

There are a few awesome buildings we saw on the tour that I’d like to highlight.

These are condos that were made from the frame of a WWII-era torpedo facility.
This was a former torpedo storage facility during World War II, and as you can see, they renovated it into condos. A very cool idea of urban reuse.

These blast points are too accurate for sandpeople...
A black Jawa Sandcruiser. Or the “black diamond” library. I prefer the former.

Maersk Headquarters
The Maersk headquarters.

After the refreshing and relaxing harbor tour, we went to Rosenborg Castle, which was a former royal castle that featured a lot of period relics, artwork, and the Danish crown jewels.

Rosenborg Castle.

The castle had a lot of propaganda inside: especially the large murals in the throne room that all featured Danish forces defeating the Swedes in battle. Literally every mural featured a sinking Swedish ship, surrendering Swedes, or otherwise the destruction of Swedish forces in some form. To top this off, the four corners of the room had designs and scenes from each of the four known continents. America was still young at the time, and it featured, of course, a decapitated head with an arrow going through the eye of the skull. Wonderful.

IMG_5324.jpg

Travelling back down to the waterfront, we stopped by to check out the current Royal Residences (above), before taking a small ferry to the other side of the harbor to visit Freetown Christiania.

IMG_5335.jpg
Harbor Ferry

Christiania, if you haven’t heard of it, is a semi-autonomous nation of hippies that broke away in the 1970s, and somehow have managed to keep up a free-living society unbound by modern laws and building code. They took over abandoned military barracks and have been there ever since: with the Danish government either unwilling or unable to evict them. It was the day before their 40th birthday, so things were in full swing when we arrived. I didn’t get too many pictures inside, but I think these are fairly representative of the area.

Freaking hippies.
Typical backyard.

Building codes? Who needs 'em.
Want a deck? Just build one, man.

They banned hard drugs.
Hard drugs are forbidden, but they have a “green” zone that features, well, you know what. And selling it openly for all who wanted it.

After getting our fill of freedom-loving hippies we took the metro back to downtown and had a nice and relaxing dinner at an all-you-can-eat Mediterranean place. We hung out for a while before going to bed early in preparation for awakening at 6 for the bus and train back to the airport. My public transit planning was perfect and we made it well on time to the airport and begin our journey out of Scandinavia. Three flights and 16 hours later, we were back in Seattle!

Copenhagen, despite not seeing as much as I would have liked due to Brian and I being sick for day 1, was a really cool city. They had a lot of different things to see, do, and experience, and overall it had a very “Seattle” feeling to it. In a sense Copenhagen was what I want Seattle to truly be, a calmer and more cultured beacon of civilization. I’ll leave you with this graffiti.

IMG_5372.jpg

Interlude: The Train of Hate

Continuing the trend of taking transportation+ accommodation trips, Brian and I took it upon ourselves to find and book the train from Stockholm->Copenhagen that was an overnight trip. Rick Steves claimed it existed, but we weren’t so sure.

This train seemed to be some mystical creation that didn’t actually exist on any site. After fighting the Swedish train website for hours and clicking different things in a manner in which we still don’t fully remember, we finally found this train of lore and booked it, jokingly making references to the fact that it may all be made up and we just handed the company cash for no particular reason. While booking, it claimed that we had something called “couchettes,” which seemed to be what we were looking for. There weren’t any options to downgrade or upgrade our seats, and since the name of the seats matched our expectations of a cheap sleeper car, it all seemed okay.

That is, until I actually looked at the receipt. In Europe. It said “chairs+table.” This might have thrown up danger signs, but I didn’t fret too much. The couchette myth seemed too prevalent. Come 2200, we went to Stockholm Central and printed our tickets before going to the spar that held our awaiting chariot. We checked in and started walking past car after car of sleepers.

It’s at this point where I should point out the collective mental state of our travelling group. Brian was beginning to get what would be an extremely high fever, and his energy level was slumping fast. Tracey had the misfortune of sleeping in the bunk below me the night before, and as it was a squeaky IKEA bed, my constant tossing and turning meant she was up most of the night and somewhat pissed at me. Oury, well, Oury was just looking for a bed to sleep in. I was pretty full of energy, and was planning on spending most of the time on the train planning our Copenhagen adventures.

We come to our car. Which looks different then the rest. It’s a little more dilapidated than the others, and as we enter the main aisle, there comes the sinking feeling that we may not be in a car like the others. There were no sleepers here, only chairs. Red chairs. Dirty red chairs from the early 1990s. And an interior that could have come out of the Soviet Union. As we approached our assigned seats, I felt the red hot glares of death upon me.

I make some sort of explanation about how it said couchette, and there were no upgrade options. This did little to placate Tracey, who was leading the charge of hate at this point, with Oury right behind her.

IMG_5075.jpg
Less than amused.

IMG_5073.jpg
Brian is pleased. For these were cheap tickets.

IMG_5077.jpg
Oury immediately falls asleep.

IMG_5078.jpg
I spent most of the night planning while everyone else had fitful and wholly unsatisfying sleeping experiences.

Brian and I, fighting the inevitable battle towards illness, were popping cough drops like they were candy, and tried to remain nonplussed at the situation which we now found ourselves in: a good night’s sleep which we all needed was no longer an option, only the train awaited, and our transfer at 6:00am.

The Aftermath