Falling in Love with Ireland

The final leg of my three-weekends-in-a-row travel extravaganza was a Friday to Monday trip out to Ireland. I had mixed feelings about this trip from the very beginning, partly because I was getting a bit burnt out from all the travel and partly because I had heard that Dublin wasn’t all that great of a city. But I had a friend out in Galway I wanted to visit (Eilish!), so decided to organize my trip so the bulk of my time would be spent outside of Dublin.

The flight over was uneventful, featuring another exciting trip out to the mysterious Frankfurt Hahn airport to experience the wonders of flying budget airlines. We got into Dublin around 8 p.m. and didn’t get into the city proper until close to nine. This put us in a bit of a bind, because we all were starving, but apparently most pubs in the city stop serving food after 9 p.m. Tired and hungry, we decided to swallow our pride and go somewhere we knew was still serving food and where we knew we could find something we’d want: TGI Fridays. Not our finest moment (14 euros for chicken fingers? Really?), but at least our hunger was sated.

After eating and dropping our stuff off at the hostel, it was about 11 p.m. We were all tuckered out but unwilling to go to bed without sampling at least a little bit of Dublin nightlife, so we wandered over to the Bleeding Horse Pub for a nightcap. It was a pretty cool pub – very loud and lively inside, with a trendy décor. We quickly realized, however, that everything—not just your TGI Friday’s chicken fingers—was expensive in Ireland. Many of the beers cost more that 5 euros ($7)! For a pint! Compare that to 2 – 3.50 euros for a half-liter in Marburg. Yikes! So we sipped our pricey beers, enjoyed the loud music and general chatter, and then slipped off to bed.

The next morning, I caught a 10 a.m. bus to Galway to visit Eilish. I used the 20-minute or so walk over as a chance to see some more of Dublin, and overall I just wasn’t impressed. Granted, I was seeing it at about 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, so not exactly the time when Dublin comes alive, but I just didn’t find the city very pretty or inspiring. I’ve seen Paris and Munich and Budapest and Salzburg and, well… Dublin just didn’t seem that special. I was also surprised and annoyed at how hard it was to find a simple café on my way over where I could pick up a fresh-baked pastry and maybe a hot chocolate. Many places advertised themselves as cafes, but when you went it, it be more of a convenience store with some baskets of croissants or donuts whose freshness was suspect. Color me unimpressed.

Shops in Galway

The busride to Galway took about 2 ½ hours – it’s a harbor town on the other side of Ireland. In many ways it’s not unlike Marburg – a small town that thrives on a significant university student population. Eilish picked me up at the bus station, I dropped my stuff off at her apartment, and then she took me on a tour of the town.

I was immediately smitten with Galway in a way that I had not been in Dublin. The best word I can think of is charming—lots of cute shops, friendly people and interesting bits of history. After walking a bit we hopped on a boat to take a cruise on the River Corrib, which offered me the chance to see more of the Irish landscape as well as some bits of historical significance in the form of castle ruins and other abandoned structures.

That night, Eilish took me out to one of her favorite pubs. The entire experience was just wonderful. The pub was fairly small but quite packed. There was a traditional Irish band playing in the corner, and people would occasionally attempt to dance in what little space they could find. I was also amazed at how friendly people were, and how willing they were to talk to strangers. Eilish and I talked for a bit with a few Irish guys who began the conversation by complimenting us on our drinking Guinness (“You look like real Irish women!”). The whole atmosphere was just so warm and convivial. It was unlike anything I had experienced in my travels.

Dunguaire Castle

The next day, Eilish and I hopped on a tour bus that would take us around several points of interest in the surrounding area, including the much-hyped Cliffs of Moher. It was my first experience doing any sort of organized tour, and I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but overall it was a very positive experience—certainly an efficient way to see a lot in just a day. The only downside was that there were many times I wish we could have just pulled over and stopped to admire the view. It would definitely be nice to do a tour of the Irish countryside by car some day.

The tour took us to the lovely Dunguaire Castle, situated on a placid lake and then to a fairy fort, basically a ring of trees with a grassy clearing in the center. It’s actual purpose is unknown, but was probably either used for farming or ritual purposes thousands of years ago.

From there we wound our way up to the Burren, which is a hilly, barren part of the country. The landscape was very interesting, much of it being very rocky and somewhat treacherous to walk on. Our main stop here was a portal tomb, an ancient tomb marked by massive stone slabs. I thought this was totally cool, unlike anything I had seen so far in Europe.

We had about an hour stopover in Doolin for lunch, one of the adorable small towns that, as far as I can tell, pretty much dominate the Irish countryside. Then it was on to the main event, the Cliffs of Moher.

The Cliffs were the one thing I knew I absolutely had to do in Ireland. I had heard so much about their epic beauty. I prayed that the volatile Irish weather would be kind to us for just forty minutes, and thankfully it was cooperative, at least as much as could be expected.

The Cliffs of Moher

The sun was shining beautifully on the cliffs, though the wind was incredible. Honest to god the most intense wind I had ever experienced, and anyone who has ever lived in Milwaukee knows that I have experienced some serious winds. But the cliffs provided an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of lush, green countryside and deep, mesmerizing blue ocean. It’s easy to understand how so many before me have been captivated.

We then wondered over to the visitors’ center, since we had tickets to the exhibit portion of it as part of our tour. The exhibit was interesting, but if our tickets hadn’t already been covered, I certainly wouldn’t have paid for it.  The cliffs are enough of a treat in themselves. We also timed the weather perfectly, for as soon as we began to move into the visitors center the rains moved in.

After the cliffs, our tour had one more stop along the seaside, to sort of offer a perspective on what the rest of the Irish coast looks like. I thought it was as beautiful as the cliffs, just in a different way. It was not unlike the coasts in the Pacific Northwest—very rugged, with high waves crashing against the rocks.

I really fell in love with the Irish countryside during my trip. In every way that Dublin unimpressed me, the countryside rose to the occasion. It was beautiful in a way I was not used to experiencing—I’m used to the mountainous, forested beauty of the Pacific Northwest, or the medieval beauty of Germany, or the architectural beauty of places like Paris and Salzburg. The Irish countryside was none of this—just rolling, verdant fields or pleasant woods. But there was such a simple beauty in all of this, and such a kindness in the people, that I couldn’t help but be won over.

The next day, Monday, I headed back to Dublin with the rest of my group. I had originally thought that I would use this day to do some proper sightseeing of Dublin, but they had already done most of their major sightseeing and I just wasn’t feeling a strong desire to explore the city. We walked around a bit, seeing St. Stephen’s Green, Trinity College and some other parts of the city, but I ultimately was not won over.

However, the adventure didn’t end in Dublin. You see, getting back to Marburg was going to be quite the ordeal, because after we booked our flights, RyanAir changed the departure time of our flight back to Frankfurt so that we would be getting into Frankfurt Hahn around 11 p.m. This was problematic because it meant that by the time we reached the train station in Frankfurt, we would miss the last train back to Marburg and have to wait until the first morning train the next day. Oh boy.

So we got into Frankfurt Hahn right on time, around 11:10 p.m. We then waited around the airport until 12:30 a.m., when we caught a bus that would take us back to the train station in Frankfurt. We could have taken an earlier bus, but given the choice between loitering in the clean, safe Frankfurt Hahn Airport and loitering in the shady, unclean Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, we chose to maximize our time in Hahn.

We arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, chipper and alert, around 2:15 a.m. When we went to enter the train station, not wanting to wait around with Frankfurt’s finest citizens outside, we found that all the doors were locked. Uh-oh. We walked around to the front of the train station and saw several security officers loitering outside of it. Still in a sleepy stupor, I attempted to speak to them in German, and thankfully was coherent enough to explain we had just arrived from Hahn and that we were taking an early morning train to Marburg. This was enough for them to let us in – after we were in we realized we were thankful that they were being more discriminating about who was actually getting into the train station at these hours. So then we sat for three hours, trying to fight the mind-numbing boredom. At 5:21 a.m., we hopped a train to Marburg, and around 6:45 a.m. we finally arrived at our dorms, a mere 12 hours after we left Dublin. The things you do for a cheap flight!


Parisian Ponderings

The next leg of my whirlwind, three-week jaunt through Europe took me to our neighbors to the west, good ol’ France. Two days after my Easter trip to Budapest, I took off for Frankfurt to catch an overnight bus.

This was certainly an experience in itself. Our bus departed the train station in Frankfurt at 9:30 p.m., set to arrive at 7 a.m. the next day – yech. It was, however, 40 euros cheaper than taking the train. The trip included an hour-long stop in Metz, France, which I hear is lovely, but less so when you’re at a gas station at 2 in the morning. Overall, I think the bus ride went as well as could be expected. You’re never going to sleep well sitting on a bus for nine hours, but I at least was able to sleep a few solid hours.

We got into Paris at around 6:20 a.m., which was a bit confusing for my travel companion, Larissa, and I, since it meant we were 40 minutes early. I asked the bus driver in German if this was the last stop (we had made some stops previous to this one), and as far as I could tell he affirmed this (and probably also thought we were a bit daft for even asking). So we wandered off the bus, uncertain what we were going to do until my friend Kaellen met us at 7.

Luckily Kaellen, who studied in Paris this semester, was running on time and we didn’t have to wait too long. We hopped on the Metro to go back to her apartment (she spent the semester living with a host family) to drop off our bags. On the way, we stopped at your stereotypical French patisserie and got a stereotypical pain au chocolat – basically, croissant-type bread filled with chocolate. And, in short, it was amazing. It was amazing how something as simple as a croissant could be a thousand times more delicious in Paris than anywhere else I had ever had one.

Sufficiently energized for the day, we set off on our sightseeing expedition. The first stop was Notre Dame. Upon arriving, I realized that I think church fatigue has finally settled in for me. I have heard all my other friends who have studied abroad in Europe express the same sentiment again and again—no matter how cool or beautiful they are, eventually you will get sick and tired of seeing so many damn churches all the time.

Don’t get me wrong – Notre Dame is a beautiful church. But I think the Dom in Köln was definitely the high point of all the churches I have seen, and so everything after is pretty, but not exceptional. It’s weird to even write that – weird to think that I’ve seen enough in Europe that I can say the Notre Dame is lovely, but nothing exceptional.

View of Paris from the top of Notre Dame.

We did however pay the 5 euros to climb to the top of the Cathedral, and that was absolutely worth it. It was a long climb on a very narrow spiral staircase, but we were rewarded with a great view of Paris as well as the upper parts of the cathedral. We were able to see some of the gargoyles up close as well as to explore the Belfry, where much of The Hunchback of Notre Dame takes place – pretty cool!

From there we went to find lunch, using a guidebook Kaellen had to select what we hoped was a tasty and reasonably priced French restaurant. I had a sort of open-faced roast beef sandwich for about 10 euros, which was quite pricey for me but reasonable by Paris standards.

We stopped by the Pompidou Centre, which houses a modern art museum, among other things. The building itself has a very modern design, looking sort of like the outer walls were stripped away, exposing a network of structural beams and escalator tunnels used to get to the top. The elevator attendant on the outside of the building was nice and let us go straight up into the building, instead of having to wait in line for tickets (which I believe would have been free for students, but at least we saved time!). There wasn’t a lot to see up there besides the art museum, but at least it provided another nice view of Paris.

Our last major stop of day one was the Louvre. We went in knowing there was no way we would be able to see everything, instead intending to just hit the highlights. The Louvre is a museum whose scale you’ll never truly appreciate until you visit it. I knew it was huge, but seriously – it’s HUGE. I was just overwhelmed by how many rooms full of priceless collections there were.

Somewhere back there is the Mona Lisa... also note pretentious beret-wearing art snob with hands on hips.

We saw the Mona Lisa (of course) which, like everyone says, is much smaller than you expect. The crowds there actually weren’t as bad as I thought they would be – certainly, there were a lot of people, but it actually didn’t take that long to get close. It would have been nice to been able to stand there longer though and actually appreciate the picture, instead of feeling like you have to take your picture and then get out of the way for the next person.

The next day we all met up in the Luxembourg Gardens. One thing I did not realize about Paris that there are dozens of gardens across the city, all saturated with perfectly maintained hedges, elegant fountains and beautiful flowers. So they’re all quite lovely, yes, but the novelty does wear off quickly.

From the gardens we headed to the Pantheon, which as far as I could figure out is basically France giving itself a pat on the back. Ok, that’s probably not a fair reduction of the building – it’s primary purpose is to serve as a place of entombment for prominent French men and women, such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Marie and Pierre Curie. The architecture of the building itself was very classical, and reminded me a lot of the Capitol building in Washington D.C.

The Arc de Triomphe was our next stop. It’s possible to go to the top of the Arc and get yet another panoramic view of Paris, but Larissa and felt that would have been a bit excessive, since we had already seen the city from Notre Dame and the Pompidou Centre and still had impending visits to the Eiffel Tower and the Montmarche. Still, the Arc was an impressive sight from the ground, definitely bigger than I had realized. I particularly liked all the detailing on the Arc, with reliefs on the sides depicting angels charging into battle or something like that. It looked epic.

Oh hey EIffel Tower

The rest of the day featured some ambling around the Champs d’Elysee and various other pretty parts of Paris (this is my way of saying we saw a lot of things that seemed significant but I have no idea what they were called and I am too lazy to look them up). In the evening, we headed to the lawn of the Eiffel Tower for a stereotypical meal of wine, cheese and baguettes. When in Paris, one must do as the tourists do.

We got there in the evening, and immediately I was overwhelmed at how many people there were. The lawn was full of people doing exactly as we were as well as children playing soccer, dogs running around and the omnipresent vendors trying to sell you five key chains for the low price of one euro!

I quickly became disenchanted with the overall environment. The space was just so crowded, the vendors too persistent and numerous, and the soccer-playing-folks  too inconsiderate of people trying to sit and enjoy the day. The final straw was when someone’s dog – off its leash – suddenly jumped into the middle of our picnic and began eating our food! If that wasn’t bad enough, the dog’s owner simply laughed, grabbed the dog and walked away without so much as an apology.

The magic lost, we quickly packed up and moved to get in line to actually go up the tower. We had timed our visit so that we would either make it up around sunset or nighttime, hoping that either way it would be a distinctly pretty view of the city. The process of going up the tower was a bit overwhelming – there were just many people, several different lines, and vendors! Vendors everywhere! Luckily Kaellen had done this before and was able to steer us in a shorter-looking line. I’m not sure how long we waited for tickets and then to get into the elevator, but I don’t think it was more than 45 minutes, so not too bad.

Like many other things this trip, the tower is just so much bigger than you realize. Standing under the base of the tower, looking at the massive steel legs supporting it, I just couldn’t believe how a structure like this could have been built before the ease of modern technology.

We bought tickets to go to the very top, but you go up in stages. First you take an elevator to the middle level, get off and walk around to your heart’s content, and then you line up for the next elevator to take you to the very top. Both levels were certainly crowded, but it wasn’t too terribly difficult to find a spot against the fencing to look out to the city below.

Paris at night. That beam of light you see is the searchlight from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

I will say that the view from the middle level isn’t really all that different from the view at the very top – you probably are better off saving your money and paying only for the middle. But, I suppose there is something to saying that you went to the very top of the Eiffel Tower. The view itself is everything you think it is. It was particularly nice to see it at night though and to see the city begin to light up. Overall, this is one super-touristy destination that’s still probably worth your time, no matter how above it you think you might be.

The next day, our last day in Paris, our primary destination was to see the Sacre Coeur Basilica, located on a hill overlooking the city (the Montmarche). This was something I really wanted to see, because, based on picture, the church itself looked just beautiful, and it also seemed to provide a nice view of the city.

Ultimately, however, the church was a big disappointment. To be sure, it’s a really beautiful structure, certainly one of the most elegant churches I’ve ever seen. The main problem was the people. There were SO. MANY. PEOPLE. It was hard to move. Even worse, there were an incredible number of shady street vendors, and they were much pushier than any of the ones I had seen elsewhere in Paris. They’re the kind that don’t take no for an answer, and it was very obnoxious

Additionally, by this time we had seen so many different views of Paris, that it really wasn’t that special to see it from the Montmarche. Sacre Coeur ended up being the most touristy thing we did in Paris, and ultimately, I just didn’t care for it. Which really is a shame, because I loved the church itself. I just couldn’t stand being near it because of how crowded it was.

The last highlight of our trip to Paris was a visit to Angelina’s, a fancy coffee-pastry-sandwich restaurant. We were lured here by Kaellen’s food guidebook, which said Angelina’s had the best hot chocolate in Paris, possibly in the world. How could we resist?

It was somewhat difficult to commit myself to the experience, because they also price their hot chocolate as if it is the best in Paris – 7 euros ($10, for those of you following along at home) for a personal pot. Yikes! But what’s more Parisian than spending excessive amounts of money on decadent treats?

So we did as the Parisians do, and it was definitely worth the money. It was the thickest, sweetest, and tastiest hot chocolate I had ever had, and I consider myself to be somewhat of a connoisseur. Essentially it tasted as though someone had melted down rich milk chocolate bars, which is to say, it tasted amazing. Money well spent.

I feel like we got as much out of three days in Paris as we possibly could have – definitely my most successful trip to date.

Easter in Budapest

I apologize for how long it’s been taking me to update on my adventures. Life here is just so busy, between traveling and the occasional class. It’s hard to find the time to sit down and recount an experience, because before I know it I’m off somewhere else. What a problem, huh?

Over Easter break I traveled to Budapest, Hungary to visit my high school friend Clint. This would be my first real trip out of Germany (save a previous day-long foray into Austria), my first big solo journey, and my first visit to a country where speaking German and English would not necessarily be enough to get me by.

The journey began immediately, because I was flying a Hungarian discount airline, WizzAir, to Budapest, and all the discount airlines in the area fly out of the Frankfurt-Hahn airport, rather than the main Frankfurt Airport. Still, Frankfurt-Hahn has Frankfurt in the name, so it can’t be that far away, right? Right? Wrong.

Hahn is actually an hour and 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt. I have no idea where it actually is. All I know is that I hopped on a bus outside of the train station in downtown Frankfurt, and when I hopped off all I saw was a small airport and wide, desolate fields – definitely nowhere near Frankfurt. Thus the eternal question remains: Where the hell is Hahn?

The rest of the trip was uneventful – WizzAir was very painless to fly, even for a budget airline, and the journey was fairly quick. Clint met me at the airport in Budapest, and away we went.

Immediately, it was clear that Budapest was not like the other European (read: German) cities I had seen. Their buses and metro cars just looked…dated. Not necessarily archaic, but still clearly from an era that Germany (at least the cities I have been in) has definitely since moved past.

Riding the public transportation was also immediately overwhelming because the Hungarian language is just so radically different from anything I have experience with. It’s a language where it’s hard to tell both how a word is pronounced based on its spelling and how a word is spelled based on its pronunciation. Thus, hearing stops called on public transportation or reading them on a sign did not necessarily mean I had my bearings. I immediately resolved to shamelessly cling to Clint.

I arrived on a Saturday evening and the first order of the night was to go to an Irish pub (naturally) to see the end of a soccer game. After that, we had some drinks at an outdoor café area, outside of a bar that was essentially a converted metro station (the city had begun to build a new station and then abandoned the project). This sort of set a theme for the trip. Budapest is a fascinating, lively city plagued by a constant lack of money. Amidst beautifully preserved, classically designed buildings there will be crumbling structures in near ruins. It’s almost part of the city’s charm—it gives Budapest something that makes it distinct from other European capitals (besides, you know, the unintelligible language).

That night also involved hitting up a Budapest club, a secret/illegal bar (you literally had to know exactly where to go and ring the doorbell to gain access) and then watching/participating in karaoke until six in the morning. Not a bad first day in Budapest.

A Soviet statue in the middle of a Budapest park. Guess we're not in Western Europe anymore!

The next day got an understandably late start, but eventually Clint and I wandered out for a proper city tour. Overall, Budapest is an incredibly beautiful city, with a fascinating juxtaposition of classical European architecture with more eastern-inspired art-nouveau buildings. There are also clear reminders of the Soviet legacy in Budapest, with many starkly utilitarian buildings butting up against the classic architecture or art-nouveau structures. There’s even a Soviet-era statue remaining in one of Budapest’s parks, which I found absolutely fascinating. Apparently a deal was made with the crumbling Soviet government that the statue would remain if the Soviet Union agreed to protect some Hungarian graves on Russian soil (or something like that), and so to this day there remains a statue honoring the Soviet Union in the middle of a Budapest park.

One of my favorite sights was the Parliament in Budapest, which simply has to be seen to be believed. It’s massive, excessive and beautiful—sort of like the Rathaus in Munich on steroids. Apparently only a small fraction of the building is even used for day-to-day operations.

There was one building across from the Parliament that I was intrigued by, because the façade was covered in small metal balls that seemed to serve no aesthetic purpose. I asked Clint, and he told me that each ball was situated over where a bullet hole used to be, remnants of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets, which was eventually crushed. This uprising is well-remembered throughout the city, as we stumbled on several memorials related to events or people associated with the 1956 revolution.

After the parliament, we crossed the bridge across the river into the Buda side of Budapest, in order to walk up to Buda Castle, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. The climb is steep, but it rewards trekkers with a wonderful view of the city as well as a close-up look at the castle itself. There is also a lovely church in the vicinity, St. Matthias.

Looking at the two different sides of the city (Buda and Pest) from the view at Buda Castle. The Parliament is that big fancy looking building.

The next day featured more sightseeing, with one particularly notable stop: The Budapest Opera House. Clint had floated the possibility of going to see the opera this night, because apparently they sell some incredibly cheap tickets ideal for students, costing 500 – 1,000 Forints ($2.80 – $5.60). I thought this sounded like a great idea—I had never been to an opera before, so why not see one in one of Europe’s greatest venues?

We arrived at the opera wearing the same clothes we had been walking around in all day, meaning I felt very underdressed for such a fancy occasion. But, given how much we paid for our ticket, we were in good company once we went to our seats – the attire was decidedly more casual in the cheap seats.

The opera itself was an interesting experience. There were some major impediments to our understanding of the performance: 1) we didn’t know anything about the opera (Puccini’s Tosca) beforehand; 2) it was sung in Italian; 3) the subtitles were in Hungarian; 4) perhaps most critical, from our vantage point, we could only see about 25 percent of the stage, and it just so happened that most of the play occurred on the other 75 percent of the stage.

All that said, it was still a great experience – just getting to hear the opera in the building’s phenomenal acoustics was an experience in and of itself, as was just getting to sit there and take in the beauty of the building. It was easily the highlight of my trip.

Inside the opera house!

That night we hit up a couple of ruin bars, something Budapest in particular is known far. Basically, these are bars that take up residence in old, abandoned buildings – so, from the outside, it looks like there couldn’t possible be a bar inside, because the building is practically falling apart. But the insides of these bars were too cool – gritty, but lively and loud. They were unlike any bars I had even seen before.

Ultimately, Budapest is unlike any other European capital, particularly because of its fascinating mix of east and west. It definitely deserves to be at the top of anyone’s European travel must-sees, and I’m extremely grateful I had the opportunity to visit.

Journey with the Parents: München

The Great Parental Adventure continued with a four day stint in Munich, chock full of adventures.

We got into the city in the afternoon. Famished from a long journey, dad leapt at the first food vendor he saw, directly outside the Hauptbahnhof. He got a wurst there which was seemingly ordinary, but apparently it was one of the most delicious things he had ever eaten. Based on that first impression, we knew Munich was going to be a good time.

The Neues Rathaus in Munich.

After getting settled into our hotel, we immediately set off for Marienplatz, the heart of Munich’s old city. Our specific target was the fabled Hofbräuhaus. After some early missteps, we were able to find our way into the city center. From the first sight of St. Peter’s Church (Alter Peter), I was in love. There is so much beautiful and incredible architecture in Munich as well as history. To me, Marienplatz was totally overwhelming because it seemed like everywhere you turned there was something to see or explore or look at appreciatively.

The Neues Rathaus is particularly stunning. It’s most well-known for its Glockenspiel (one of Europe’s most overrated tourist attractions!) but to me, that was just a footnote. The building itself is just beautiful and so intricate, full of charming details that reward careful observers.

No touristy visit to Munich would be complete without a visit to the Hofbräuhaus, so we made sure that was one of the first things we did. We’re thorough like that. But the Hofbräuhaus is a must-see for obvious reasons. Yes, it’s crawling with tourists and saturated with Bavarian stereotypes. But you know what? It’s also ridiculously fun. The atmosphere is convivial, the music is entertaining and, most importantly, the beer is delicious.

The next day, we took a train out to Dachau in order to see the concentration camp memorial there. I was very conflicted about this trip. Obviously, this is a place that is powerful and worth seeing. But it’s still not an easy thing to commit yourself to, no matter how important you think it is.

Still, I am glad I went. The camp is very well-preserved and extremely interesting and moving to visit. It was much, much bigger than I expected – walking into the camp and immediately seeing the open square where the prisoners used to line up for roll call was a somewhat surreal experience.

I am quite glad that I got to visit the camp in April, instead of the summer when there might be more tourists. It was already a little too crowded for my tastes, and this was on a Wednesday in the low season. I experience places like Dachau better when there is more solitude, and it was quite distracting—and a little disheartening—for there to be so many tourists there who only seemed to want to take pictures, rather than take a second to internalize what they’re looking at.

The third day, we took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria. I was excited for this both to see the city—I had heard it was beautiful—as well as to actually leave Germany for the first time. Granted, going to Salzburg was not exactly a huge departure from what I knew in Germany, but still. It was a new country!

Overlooking Salzburg, with a glimpse of the Alps to the right of the fortress.

The weather was phenomenal and Salzburg certainly lived up to its reputation as a beautiful city. A friend described the city as “excruciatingly beautiful” and by the end of the day, I think I understood what he meant. It was all just almost too perfect—a historic fortress looking down at the city from a hill, winding streets through a thriving old city, wide squares with picturesque fountains and white marble buildings… seriously, Salzburg pretty much has everything you could ever want in an ideal European city.

We paid several euros in order to take an elevator up to the top of  a hill so as to get a better look at the city, and I think that was definitely money well spent. It was a great vista from which to appreciate the beautiful white-and-green motif that dominates the city as well as to get a look at the Alps in the distance. To sum it up, Salzburg is simply gorgeous.

The original plan for our last day in Munich was to go to Neuschwanstein, which is basically THE German castle to visit. However, it was clear that energy levels in the group were dwindling and none of us were particularly enthused by the two-hour train ride that would be needed to get us to the city of Füssen, from where we could obtain transport to the castle.

We decided instead to use Friday to see more of Munich, and filling the day was not difficult – again, there is so much to see in Munich.

We started with a tour of the Residenz, the former palace of Bavaria’s royal family. It was an interesting tour, but I’m not sure it was worth the money to me—it was just a lot of elegant rooms, many of which were reconstructions, since much of the Residenz was destroyed in World War II. The part I enjoyed most was actually seeing the display of the valuables that belonged to the family,, such as swords, crowns and gem stones.  This was actually a separate part of the museum that you could pay individually for, and I think I would have been just as contented if we had only paid for the treasury portion of the museum.

After the Residenz, we wandered over to the Viktualienmarkt to find some food. The Viktualienmarkt is basically a huge outdoor market where you can buy ready-to-eat food as well as things like vegetables, breads, etc. From there we went over to the beautiful St. Peter’s Church, which was largely destroyed in World War II and was then reconstructed in the aftermath.

I’ve really come to appreciate the devastation that actually ensued from WWII. We don’t really have any conception of this in the United States because there has never been any sort of assault on our soil that has caused such widespread devastation. Yet time and time again, I visit places—structures as well as entire towns—that were something completely different before the war. I can’t help but wonder what Germany would look like if WWII had never happened—so much history was lost amidst the onslaught.

Green space! People!

Our last stop was the English Gardens, a massive public park similar to Central Park in New York. The park space is absolutely massive from what we could see, and we really only saw a sliver. The University of Munich is situated along one edge of the park, which I think would be absolutely wonderful if you were a student. I was instantly jealous, suddenly no longer satisfied with grilling on the banks of the Lahn River in Marburg.

All in all, I absolutely loved Munich. It’s everything you expect it to be, but it does that so well. If you can get over the fact that it’s crawling with tourists and accept its clichéd charm, you’ll have a blast. And seriously, the beer is awesome.

Journey with the Parents: Bacharach

The tower of St. Peters Church

After Köln, we took a train to Bacharach, a small village on the Rhine. It must not be particularly well-known among natives, because every German I have spoken to has never heard of it. I swear it exists!

We arrived on a rainy Sunday evening, and the village was pretty much dead. Which wasn’t surprising, since most German towns pretty much shut down on Sunday, but I was nervous that a town as small as Bacharach wouldn’t be much livelier on a Monday.

We spent the next day exploring the town. It’s incredibly small – you definitely don’t need more than two days to feel comfortable that you’ve seen everything, and even that might be stretching it – but very cute, full of timber-frame houses and cute little shops. My parents’ main goal in visiting Bacharach was to do some wine tasting, but we were largely unsuccessful in these efforts. Most of the wineries were closed, since this is low season for tourists, and not exactly prime wine season regardless.

Still, it was a very pleasant town to walk around, with plenty of history to explore, such as the ruins of a 13th-century church. There’s also a castle atop a hill overlooking the village which is now actually used as a youth hostel. I think the walk up would be pretty below average if you had a heavy pack – it’s about 15-20 min, uphill the entire way – but hey, then you get to sleep in a castle. That’s pretty cool right? I walked up there just to explore, and it seems like a very nice place to stay. Moreover, it offered wonderful views of the town and the river valley.

All in all, if nothing else, Bacharach offered a great middle point between bustling, modern Köln and our next stop, Munich. It was a lovely chance to stop and enjoy the quiet life along the Rhine.

Looking down the Rhine River Valley from the vantage point of the castle.

Journey with the Parents: Köln

The Kölner Dom.

I apologize for my lack of posts of late – it was a combination of not doing anything particularly interesting for a short bit and then suddenly doing many things that were extremely interesting and which robbed me of the time and energy to update.

My language course ended on March 31st and the next day I took a train up to Kôln (Cologne), where I would meet up with my parents to spend a week and half traveling with them. Our former exchange student, Kiri, lives in Köln, and we were excited to finally meet her and her family in their home city ten years after she had come to live with us for a year in the states.

I was particularly excited to see her and her family again since I now have some German language abilities. Kiri’s parents had come to visit us in the states, but they spoke no English and we spoke no German, so when Kiri wasn’t available to translate, the exchanges weren’t particularly fruitful. Not so this time, I hoped.

I really enjoyed the train ride up to Köln. Part of it snaked along the Rhine River Valley, offering great views of all the adorable little villages nestled in the hills. Many of them had small castles topping the hills in various states of preservation, from ruins to near perfect. It just felt so German, so far from anything I would ever experience in the U.S.

This was also my first solo train trip since arriving in Germany, so I was also excited to test my traveling independence. Evidently, I was successful.

I arrived in Köln a couple hours earlier than my parents. I had hoped to use the extra time to wander around the city, but I quickly realized the combination of my heavy bag and inclement weather meant that my time would be much better spent using the free wi-fi at Starbucks.

Still, it was pretty impressive walking out of the Hauptbahnhof in Köln and immediately seeing the city’s most striking building – the Kölner Dom, a huge cathedral. I had seen pictures, but none of them could ever do it justice. The church is MASSIVE, and truly beautiful. It’s easily the coolest thing I have seen so far in Germany.

Spending time with Kiri and her family was wonderful. My German was not stellar, but certainly functional, and I did a reasonable job serving as a translator between Kiri’s parents and my own when Kiri was not available.

It was also very interesting to see where her family lives and works. Her parents own a butcher shop and actually live above the store, so every time we would come and go, we’d have to go through the shop itself, snaking through the line of customers. The building was also one of those classic European homes that are quite narrow and quite tall. The building had more floors than I had ever seen in a home, but there were only one or two rooms on each floor since it was so narrow.

Köln itself was unlike any city I had seen so far. It was distinctly modern, but still full of character. There’s plenty of shopping and restaurants to explore, but also some lovely park space, especially along the Rhine. There is also a delicious local beer called Kölsch, which I highly recommend. More importantly, however, I just got the feeling that everyone from Köln is extremely proud of their city and excited to share it with newcomers.

One thing I got to do while in Köln was participate in a pillow fight (Kissenschlacht) in front of the Dom. It was a sort of flash mob organized on Facebook, and it was a ton of fun. It lasted about a half hour and by the end of it, I was covered in feather residue (and kept finding stray feathers the rest of my trip).  It was so funny to see all the tourists who had no idea this was going to happen looking on in confusion, wondering how a pillow fight could just spontaneously erupt.

I really hope that I can return to Köln in the summer and see more of the city. It doesn’t have the old world charm of cities like Marburg or Munich, but it more than makes up for that in its overall joie de vivre.

The scene in front of the Dom - too fun!


A museum in downtown Kassel.

On Sunday a group of us went up to Kassel to see what there was to see. We took an 8:30 a.m. train and arrived in Kassel around ten in the morning. Our first impressions of Kassel were less than glowing… basically the main train station in Kassel is situated in a not-so-nice part of the city, unless you consider strip clubs and erotic shops high-class, in which case Kassel is nothing short of glamorous.

We wandered around a bit without a real game plan – we just wanted to see what was in the city. We had intentions of finding some food but the combination of it being a Sunday and somewhat early in the day meant that choices were quite limited. We managed to find one café that was open and worked our way to the nicer part of Kassel’s downtown.

From what I’ve read, Kassel is an example of a city that had an extremely different fate than Marburg in World War II – around 80 percent of the city was destroyed in the war, meaning Kassel is severely lacking in old-world charm. The vast majority of the buildings in the city are relatively new and not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing. Granted, there were some nice parts of the city, including a lovely little square of grass and a pretty museum building.

Schloss Wilhelmshöhe

Once we were satisfied that we had seen what downtown Kassel had to offer, we worked our way to the outskirts of the town to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe Park, a sprawling park with a palace built in the late 18th century. The German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II used the palace as a summer home in the early 1900s.

The park alone was worth the trip to Kassel. The grounds were absolutely lovely, full of trees and well-maintained lawns as well as scattered neo-classical buildings and statues. You could spend hours wandering around.  The park also offered a nice view of Kassel, since it is situated high on a hill. The Schloss (palace) itself, where the emperor lived, is also quite pretty. The overall feel of the park was very idyllic – peaceful and full of nature.

The park is most famous for the statue of Hercules that rests at the very top of another hill facing the palace. The pictures I took don’t really do justice to the size of the statue or how high above the park it looms. You can walk up the statue if you are feeling intrepid, which some members of our group did. Others of us weren’t quite feeling up to it on that day, however, so we hung back and just soaked up the beautiful spring weather.

As is becoming common with our adventures, we all agreed we would love to come back again in the summer and picnic out on the lawn. Those of us who did not climb up to the statue would like to come back and conquer that challenge. Additionally, twice a week in the summer there is an artificial waterfall that runs from the top of the Hercules statue down to the base of the hill, which is supposed to be quite the sight to behold. So, expect another jaunt to Kassel in a few months.

Waaaay out there is the statue of Hercules, at the very tip of the point. So yes, a bit of a hike.