Saturday, May 23, 2009

Recaps: Zurich and Munich

Zurich, Switzerland
When Kristina and I planned our trip, we found that there was no direct train from Bern into Munich, so we decided to take a few-hour break in Zurich first. We caught an early train out of Bern and had an uneventful train ride into Zurich.

When we arrived, we wandered up the main road to find, essentially, nothing. We wanted to find some lunch, but for a pretty long way, there were no restaurants... or anything else, for that matter. There were few shops; no churches, parks, or anything else of note jumped out at us. We finally found some food (we split a plate of spaghetti), but after staring out the window at a quiet intersection, we eventually decided that we'd just catch the next train out to Munich. So all told, we only spent maybe 2 or 3 hours in Zurich. Probably not enough time to form a proper impression of the city, but we did need to move on to Munich.

We hopped on a train and crossed the border into Germany.

Munich, Germany
When we arrived in Munich's main train station several hours later, we thought we'd be able to find our hostel, no problem. After all, my directions were clear and concise, and the hostel's owners expected us to make it there in about five minutes. So we grabbed a map from the station, only to become immediately confused because, for the life of us, we couldn't find the street we wanted on the map. After walking up and down a busy sidewalk, we finally asked a pair of women if they knew where we wanted to be. At first, they told us they couldn't help us, but after we thanked them and walked away, they actually ran after us and started examining our map - and fortunately, pointed out the street we wanted. It was QUITE close to the train station after all.

The unique aspect of our stay in the Munich hostel was the fact that they had Kristina and I sleeping next to each other in a double bed, instead of two single beds. This wasn't a problem - the beds were wide, pink, and comfortable - just interesting. I liked the hostel overall. It was very clean and pretty.

We spent a lot of our day touring Munich inside the Nymphenburg Palace, which was comprised of the main palace, as well as three or four restored guest homes and a couple of lakes covered with birds. (The video on YouTube about the diving bird, as well as one in the main palace and one showing the carriages are all from the grounds of the Nymphenburg). It was lovely, and the grounds were absolutely enormous.

That night, two things happened. First of all, we saw this awesome string quartet under a bridge, and they played excellent music. The violinist in particular was very good, moving with his instrument dramatically and playing quite complicated solos. The group played everything from classical to modern pop music, and we enjoyed standing there and listening for a good half hour or so. Secondly, we got a box of fries from McDonald's (don't judge, we needed the pick-me-up) and then Kristina lost the map in their bathroom. So we thought we knew where we were going and that we could get back to the hostel without the map, but we just ended up going completely the wrong direction. Proof that God looks out for us: We ran into a tourist who didn't know which direction to go anymore than we did, but he actually had an extra map and gave it to us! That was fantastic, and I navigated us back home that night.

Next up: Brussels.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Recaps: Bern

Bern, Switzerland
Kristina and I arrived in Bern mid-afternoon on a Saturday, to find that, once again, the directions I'd copied from the hostel's website were a bit unhelpful. They instructed us to get on a particular tram, but gave little to no indication where the tram station might be. So we set off in a random direction, hoping that we'd find street signs, but all we really managed to find was a residential area. After we turned around, though, we ran into a few middle-aged women who, despite not speaking a word of English, we got directions from. (They say "ciao" in German-speaking countries too, interestingly. Must've borrowed it from the Italians.)

Our hostel, once we found it, instantly made a better impression on us than the Parisian one. It was clean, roomy, and comfortable. The staff was friendly, spoke great English, and gave us a map and information about the town. After we settled in, we wandered around a bit, but the streets were very quiet and most of the shops were closed.

The next day, EVERYTHING was closed, since it was Sunday. A bit bummed out because we could foresee nothing to do with all the shops closed, and no particular attractions in Bern, we went into the church we'd decided on for morning Mass. That, too, was silent and empty, and I was beginning to wonder if we'd arrived at the wrong time when a young priest walked up to us and said something in German. We shook our heads, and told him we only spoke English - and to our surprise, he answered not only in perfect English but with hardly a trace of an accent. He explained to us that because it was Palm Sunday, Mass would begin half an hour later - and also downstairs. We followed him down a winding flight of stairs into a cold, cavernous basement of a room... but it was also fully furnished as a church, complete with altar, pews, and a very small organ. He explained to us that Mass was held here throughout Lent, but today, we'd only begin downstairs, then go outside and up to the main church in the Palm Sunday procession. In concern that we only spoke English, this amazing man also found a woman, Margot, who agreed to translate parts of the Mass for us!

The Mass was lovely, as well as interesting because, in the lack of palm branches, they handed out sprigs of holly instead. Also, at the conclusion of the service, the priest said, in English, that there would be a coffee and breakfast across the street - something he only did for the two of us, as the rest of the congregation spoke German. :) We, of course, went to the breakfast - which was mainly coffee, tea, and chocolate Easter eggs.

Margot, as it turns out, is an art history professor at the university in Bern, and it was her pleasure to show us around the town, and particularly the formerly-Catholic-now-Reformed cathedral in the middle of town. We walked around both the outside and inside of the church, learning far more about architecture and the old protocols for building a cathedral than I ever thought I'd know. We inspected carvings, stained glass, the columns, the ceiling.... It was fascinating. The three of us went to lunch across the street from our hostel, and then said our farewells.

We took a siesta at the hostel, then got dinner - cheese fondue. It was my first experience with non-chocolate fondue, and to be honest, it's not my favorite. Kristina was a little cheesed-out by it as well. But it was pretty good, and a quiet end to a quiet day.

The next day we went briefly to Zurich, Switzerland, then Munich, Germany.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Recaps: Part 1: Paris, France

So, I know that I've been utterly and woefully neglecting this poor blog ever since I went on my trip, so I'm going to try and recap what Kristina and I did in each city. I apologize right now, because my memories have already faded, and I'm probably going to forget a lot of stuff that happened, but I'll do my best. And I'll come back later and fill in any information I remember later, too.

We took the train from Cork into Dublin. This was our first of many, many experiences with the train system throughout Europe, and we had our shiny new Eurail Passes validated at the Cork station. I loved watching the Irish scenery fly past our window, greener than green, with horses, cows, and sheep at frequent intervals. When we arrived in Dublin, we took the convenient shuttle straight to the airport, which took, to our surprise, nearly an hour. Fortunately, we'd left plenty of buffer time, and still arrived in plenty of time to catch our first Ryanair flight into Paris.

By the time we got to Paris, it was quite late, and the shuttle into the city from the airport took nearly as long as the one in Dublin. Fighting off exhaustion, we hunted down the Parisian metro, on which we promptly went the wrong direction. Unfortunately, Paris's metro is the most unforgiving of all the ones we encountered, and we were forced to pay again in order to get on the correct one. By the time we made it to the right metro stop, it was about 1:30 in the morning, and we didn't have a clue which way to go to get to our hostel. Fortunately, we ran into a small pack of college kids who knew where we wanted to be - good thing, too, because I probably would have walked right past it. From the outside, it just looks like a bar. Which it is. It also happens to have a damp, unkempt courtyard out the back door, with stairs leading to probably twenty or so cramped, bed-filled rooms beyond.

Sorry. As you might guess, I'm not a big fan of our Parisian hostel. The whole place only had one functional shower to its name, which you had to go outside to access. It had no lockers, twelve beds in our small room, and the rooms were left unlocked most of the time, because there were only two keys. They did provide breakfast free of charge, but they were stingy even with that.

Anyway. We headed out the next morning, immediately in search of the famous Eiffel Tower. Having obtained a decent map, we found it in short order, along the River Seine. We also saw a long rack of identical bikes that the city makes available to anyone who cares to use them; we played with the idea of hopping on a couple, but they apparently required a mysterious card that we had no idea how to get. We got to the Eiffel Tower (see video), which was pretty awesome, if tiring to climb. Additionally, we saw the Louvre, and a bunch of buildings in between that we thought might be the Louvre but weren't - one of these was the Museum of Modern Art (we didn't go in, but wanted to.)

Paris is a very awe-inspiring place. People call it romantic, but I didn't feel that so much as its grandeur, the way everything towers over you. It's all elegance and beauty, but I felt like an outsider there, very much a tourist and not at all a part of the environment. Paris is to other cities what a supermodel is to other women - lofty and beautiful, but not familiar.

After our failed, hasty expedition to the Notre Dame (again, check out the videos), we took some roundabout trains into Bern, Switzerland.