Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bavarian Alps

My parents made their first-ever international trip a few weeks ago and we spent a few days in Vienna to take in all the sights. After my last exam, we left for a day in the Bavarian Alps. We had a quick stop in Salzburg and after a difficult time finding a bus, we headed out to Berchtesgaden. This is a nice little German town...but it is best known for its association with Hitler and the Nazis. It was basically their home away from Berlin. Just a few minutes outside of town is Hitler's Eagle's Nest. The only way up to the top of the mountain is a difficult bus ride and then an elevator ride...but the house was already closed for the winter. You can still see it overlooking everything in the area though:

So we couldn't go in there, but we did visit Obersalzberg, the Nazi Documentation Center. This was a pretty intense museum that showed how Hitler gained control of Germany, and then what happened after he had control. The purpose of this place is clearly to show the horrors of the Nazis and not glorify them. Based on the pictures inside, the museum definitely succeeded. Underneath the Documentation Center are the bunkers that the Nazis built for their last stand. This was all fairly impressive to see:

After seeing that, we decided to visit nearby Lake Konigsee. To get to the lake, you take a bus from Berchtesgaden and then walk through a typical (or at least what I would think of as typical) small Bavarian town. It's a beautiful lake with views of the Bavarian Alps all around. We got there too late to actually go out on the lake, but it was still impressive to see.

Great views of the mountains all around as well.

Overall, it was a nice trip to Bavaria. It'd definitely be nice to spend a few more days here and also visit in the summer when the lake's warmer and the Eagle's Nest is open.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Slea Head & Dingle Peninsula

I'm running way behind on this blog--lots of work, travel, and inability to connect to the Internet. But one last entry on Ireland...

This point marks the Western-most place in Europe. Right where the Spanish Armada crashed in 1588. This is far off the beaten path. In fact, I had to get from this very point to Vienna for a class the next day, and this is how I got back home:

-Biked 14 miles to get back to Dingle town
-Took the bus for 1.5 hours to get to Tralee
-Took the bus for 2 hours to get to Limerick
-Took the bus for 4 hours to get to Dublin
-Walked through downtown Dublin and took a bus to the airport
-Got on the plane and waited for an hour
-Got off the plane and moved onto another plane
-Flew for 3 hours to get to Bratislava
-Took the bus for 1.5 hours to get back to Vienna
-Took the train to get to my class in northern Vienna

It's a bit of a reach to get there, but it's still worth it. The Dingle Peninsula is one of the most beautiful places and one of the most unique cultures that I've seen. This is the Anti-Dublin--it's more like Ireland was a couple hundred years ago. (Cliff Death Warning signs excluded.)

The town of Dingle is a small fishing village. You can basically walk around the entire town in about 15 minutes. It's a fishing village, but I don't think it would still exist without the tourists. Lots of Irish pubs and touristy gift shops. Of course, lots of tourists to fill those pubs and shops too.

So the first day I was in Dingle, I walked around the town and went to a few of the pubs at night. The town is well known for the traditional Irish music in the pubs, which was great to see.

On the second day, I decided to bike around the peninsula. I wanted to visit Slea Head and Rick Steves recommended that I rent a bike for the trip. I went to a bed & breakfast and found a woman who was willing to rent me a bike. In fact, it was a B&B with Rick Steves' name on the sign nonetheless:

Well my bike was not exactly a mountain bike. In fact, it wasn't even a men's bike. The best description would be a grandmotherly bike. The only thing it needed was streamers on the handlebars.

I set out on my trip with my grandmotherly bike, Rick Steves' handy directions and a large bottle of juice. On a side note, I had been drinking juice during my entire trip in Ireland. When I tasted the juice here, my first thought was "This is the worst juice I've ever had in my life." It was some type of fruit that we don't have back in the States and it was cheap, so I thought maybe it was just a cultural difference. I tried a different one the next day and thought the same thing. At the end of my stay, I found out that I'd been drinking concentrate over here. It wasn't listed on the bottle, but it's concentrate. Keep that in mind if you're visiting.

So I set out on my trip with my directions and my large bottle of concentrate. The first few miles were pretty straightforward--mainly back roads and little traffic. Then you get to the main road to Slea Head. Now I was expecting a nice bike path and lots of other bikers out here. Well there is no bike path. I basically rode my bike on a highway around the peninsula. Granted, there wasn't much traffic, but not exactly the safest route. On my 5-hour trip I didn't see one other biker on the road. There were tourists driving around, but not a single person on a bike taking this tour.

It wasn't dangerous because there weren't too many cars around. Plus the view is much better when you ride a bike around the peninsula. There are lots of cliffs, huge waves on the shore, and thousands of cows and sheep.

There are also stone beehive huts on the way to Slea Head that look like igloos. No one knows how old the huts are (estimated that they're somewhere between 800-4,000 years old--kind of a wide range).

Plenty of great views as you continue up Slea Head. Note the currach boats in the bottom of the picture.

Alright, so after the long trip back from Dingle, I traveled back to Vienna. More updates later this week...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dublin Part II

On the second day in Dublin, I visited the two sites that I really wanted to see. First up was the Kilmainham Gaol. This site is most famous for its role as a political prison up to the early 20th century. (If you're British, I wouldn't recommend going here.) This is one of the most important historical sites in Ireland because prominent leaders in Ireland's many revolutions were held and often executed here. We had a great tour and it was fascinating to walk through the jail and go in the cells. Very similar to Alcatraz, but with much, much more cultural significance.

I'm going to go off on a tangent, but I've developed this huge pet peeve since I've been over here. It's the habit of people taking Facebook pictures in historical places. (I define a Facebook picture as: a picture of only yourself where you're smiling and giving a thumb's up sign or some other gesture. Preferably the picture is taken somewhere that will make you look cool. Bonus points if you can see your arm holding up your camera to take the picture.) Some places are appropriate for this, but there are other places that just aren't. I consider the jail to be one of the latter. More than once on this tour, the guide would give a detailed description about how a tragic event took place in a particular spot, and then 2 seconds later some idiot was giving a thumb's up posing for a picture. But enough of that...

After the jail, the next stop was the Guinness factory. I have to admit that this was probably the main reason why I wanted to go to Dublin. Guinness is basically my favorite brand of anything, so I was excited to see what the the brewery and the museums were like. Once you're inside, you keep going up stairs in the storehouse--you see the detailed history of the company and the process that's used to make the beer. You also see all of the ingredients that are used. The process was a bit more complicated than the bucket I use to make beer at home.

I think most people do the tour in about an hour and a half, but I was here for 5 hours. There was a huge exhibit on Guinness advertising, and I'm a bit of a marketing nerd. Naturally I took pictures of every single ad and other historical items that they had here. It was at least a few hundred pictures. Donald Draper would be proud.

Once you get to the top of the building, there's a Gravity Bar. Of course, the only thing on tap in the bar is Guinness. In the bar, there's an amazing panoramic view of the entire city--probably the best view in town...when the sky is clear. (Note: the sky is never clear in Ireland, so I'll let you figure that out.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dublin - Part I

I had no intention of going to Ireland, but the flight was just too inexpensive to pass up (60 euros roundtrip). Unfortunately for that price, I had to take a bus to Bratislava to catch my plane. I don't know a whole lot about Bratislava, but I'm a firm believer that you can tell a lot about a city by their airport. For example, San Diego's airport smells like the beach when you get there...on the other hand, Baltimore's airport smells like garbage. At the airport in Bratislava, there's a big sign when you check in at the service desk. It shows pictures of all the items you're not allowed to bring with you when you leave Bratislava. The banned list includes staples like: grenades, gasoline, and poison. I made a quick note to return here for Christmas shopping.

There are some fun things to do in Dublin, but there are also some negatives too. For one thing, Dublin is very expensive. I subsisted on a healthy diet of cookies (35 cents for a box) and apple juice, but expect to pay 4 or 5 euros for a Guinness here...even though they can basically walk the kegs from the brewery to the bars. The nightlife scene is very cosmopolitan, and it didn't feel like true Irish culture. Lots of tourists and expatriates around.

Aside from that, there are still a few places that you have to see. The first one that I visited was the National Museum. This museum had artifacts that were thousands of years old, including swords and other items from the Vikings. It was a massive collection, including a number of items from other countries--Egyptian mummies and Roman artifacts among them. The most impressive item was a 2,500 year-old longboat that was carved out of a single oak tree. As always--no pictures allowed, but I tried to grab one:

I went on a 2-day whirlwind tour of Dublin to see all of the major sites--Temple Bar, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin Castle, O'Connell Street, St. Stephen's Green. It's actually fairly easy to walk around to anything in the center of Dublin in 10-15 minutes.

The first day ended with an eventful night at the hostel. I've stayed in lots of different places over the years--some sketchier than others--but this was the first time that I ever demanded to be moved to a new room at 2AM. That's a story for another time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Long Night of the Museums

I'm back from a week in Ireland and promise to have new pics and posts up by this weekend but first, before I left, we went to the Long Night of the Museums in Vienna. Basically this is an event where you can visit all of the museums in the city for one night. It's a cheap and entertaining way to see a number of different museums in the city, but then you realize that there are over 90 museums in Vienna. There are some amazing ones here--including the Albertina, the Belvedere, and the Hapsburg Treasury, but I'll bet you didn't know that we also have the world-renowned museums for snowglobes, shoes, contraception, and chimney sweepers as well. (Not all in one museum because that would just be strange.) Unfortunately I'll have to visit those last few another time because 7 hours just isn't enough time to see all the museums in the city.

There is a great Van Gogh exhibit in the Albertina and we also saw an unusual exhibit on the history of blood and violence around the world. Lots of people were everywhere around town, so it was very difficult to see the more popular exhibits--I'll have to go back another time to look at the Van Gogh collection. The treasury is probably the most unique museum in Vienna because you can see all of the crown jewels and other items from the Hapsburg Dynasty. So many scepters and capes--I find it hard to believe that people actually wore those things in real life!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


For the final activity at orientation, the Buddy Program at the university took a group of 200 students to Oktoberfest in Munich. It was only one day, but the trip basically consisted of three very distinct parts--the train ride to Munich, the Oktoberfest celebration, and the train ride back to Vienna. It was an exhausting trip, but all in all, Oktoberfest is something that everyone should go to at least once.

The train ride to Munich was basically a pre-Oktoberfest party (meaning no chance to sleep). We took the overnight train from Vienna and reached Munich at about 6AM. There were definitely some problems with the organization of the trip, but that's a story for another time. It can be a bit difficult to find things to do in Munich on a Sunday at 6AM, but after a short rest in the train station, we headed for the English Garden. The English Garden is one of the largest parks in the world, and I was surprised by the number of people that were out in the park at that time of day. Not all of the places were open on a Sunday morning, but there was still plenty to see in the park:
(I don't think anyone expected a lovely picture of a swan in an Oktoberfest post.) After the park, we toured around Munich for a few hours. We mainly walked around the Marienplatz square and saw all of the famous buildings around town. I won't even attempt to explain the history of these buildings--although I know that a large number of buildings were destroyed during World War II, and the government decided to rebuild Munich with its classic look as opposed to a few other German cities that opted to modernize. (My thanks to Wikipedia.)

After the tour around Munich, we finally ventured into the Oktoberfest area. I guess the closest comparison for the U.S. would be a giant state fair...if the men at the state fair wore leather capri pants...and they served beer by the liter. There were rides, carnival games, and plenty of food inside the grounds.

Each of the major Munich breweries has a tent inside the festival grounds. Our group had reserved a number of tables at the Hofbrauhaus tent. The atmosphere outside the tent is similar to what you'd find at a family barbecue or picnic. There are a lot of people at picnic tables eating the popular foods--the only difference is that there are barmaids that carry 10 glasses of beer to the table at a time.

The atmosphere inside the tents is completely different. There are traditional German bands and thousands of people singing and toasting inside. You see the occasional fight, but for the most part everyone is extremely happy to be there. This part is something you actually have to see to understand how enormous it is.

Naturally with the crowd that's inside, outside of the tents there's a hill where the attendees can take their friends who've passed out. I think the picture is pretty self-explanatory:

So after you've been to all of the different tents and avoided upsetting the leather capri-wearing Bavarians, it's time to try the food. Basically the food here is cooked whole and on a spit. I opted to try the hendl, which is a small whole chicken...and an oxen sandwich on the side. I guess anything might taste good after a full day at Oktoberfest, but the food was some of the best that I've had since I've been in Europe.

So that leads me to the trip home...At 11 PM, we headed back to the train station to leave for Vienna. I'd been up for almost 2 days, so all I really wanted to do was to sleep for a few hours on the train. Unfortunately the Austrian rail system had completely lost our group's reservations. Now keep in mind this was a reservation for 200 people on the fully booked Sunday night train. After an hour of indecisiveness, they decided that they would just put everyone on the train and figure out the details later. Seats weren't an option, so they sent us to the luggage car. I managed to find a small place to squeeze halfway into the aisle, which was at least palatable until a few students decided they wanted to turn the train into a party train. A couple more hours of that, and then we were ushered off the train so that they could add 2 more cars. We waited for another hour, and then I managed to grab a very small seat for the final few hours. Definitely one of the worst rides I've ever taken. I finally got back home in Vienna at around 7AM and happily slept for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Orientation Week 2

The second week of orientation included another week of German class, as well as other activities around Vienna. Over the weekend we visited Schonbrunn Palace, the massive home of the Hapsburg dynasty:

There were a few rooms that really stood out inside the building. The Porcelain Room was decorated with over 200 pen and ink drawings in blue and white. The Lacquer Room was decorated with Chinese pictures and these amazing wooden panels. There were large dining rooms and huge ceiling paintings...but after you've seen enough palaces, they begin to run together. We also toured the gardens surrounding the palace. It amazes me that Vienna still has these enormous palaces and gardens inside the city when the rest of the city is so crowded.

On Monday we participated in a scavenger hunt covering the entire city. It was a good time, but the language barrier created some problems with a few of the activities. On Tuesday we visited the Opera to see Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Vienna is most famous for its musical history, so this was a great experience. For 3 euros you can purchase a standing-room ticket--although it was a great performance, I was too tired to stand for 3 hours, so I left for home during the intermission. No photos allowed during the performance (for good reason), but here's one pic from the Staatsoper:

Wednesday was another party for the orientation program at an Irish bar in downtown Vienna. I was most impressed with the selection of food that was provided--buffalo wings, fries, and other American appetizers. I think the Europeans were a little offended by the amount of food that some of us Americans ate...but this was the first American food I'd eaten in a month, so I wasn't too concerned. Now if I could only find some barbecue and sweet tea here...

Thursday and Friday were the final two days of German class. Thursday included a trip to Kunst Haus in Vienna. The building, designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, is one of the most unique homes I've ever seen. They had a great collection of Hundertwasser paintings as well, which I enjoyed. At the end of the week, I also began meeting with my group for my first class in Vienna. The final two days of orientation included a trip to Munich for Oktoberfest, which I'll try and get up here tomorrow. Here's a shot from outside Kunst Haus: