Archive | August, 2010
August 25, 2010

Syria Killer

Syria Killer

Half the fun of long-term travel is planning– planning which train to catch, city to visit, hostel to book, sight to see…. Unfortunately, sometimes plans don’t pan out.

To get from Istanbul to Cairo, we had always planned to travel overland across Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. This route was popular among hippies, and we were looking forward to seeing Palmyra and Damascus especially. The problem was always getting into Syria. Despite frosty diplomatic relations, Americans could usually obtain visas at the Antakya-Aleppo border crossing. You may have to wait for 5 hours, but you would eventually get in.

This is no longer the case.  According to several sources, Syria just cracked down on this practice.  Americans can no longer obtain a visa on arrival. Of course, this was always the official policy but now it’s actually being enforced.  We might be able to get Syrian visas in Ankara, but I think it’s unlikely.  Plus, Ankara is out of our way. We will need a new plan.


Plan A:

1. Travel overland from Istanbul to Izmir
2. Fly from Izmir to Cyprus
3. Fly from Cyprus to Tel Aviv
4. Travel overland to Jerusalem
5. Attempt to cross into Jordan (tricky)
6. Travel south to Petra
7. Cross into Egypt at Aqaba
8. Travel across the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo

Pros: Interesting; unique; very memorable; get to see Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, and more of Egypt
Cons: Moderate risk of failure, potentially dangerous, Israeli passport stamp, border issues, cost, time (three weeks minimum)

I really like this itinerary. It would be great to see Jerusalem (not to mention the lox and bagels). I think time and cost are major obstacles though.

Plan B:

1. Fly from Istanbul to Cairo
2. Fly from Cairo to Amman

Pros: Cheap, safe, low risk of failure, fast
Cons:
Kinda’ lame, no Jerusalem, more flying

I hate to say it, but I think we will probably go with the slightly lame Plan B. Otherwise, we would not reach Kathmandu until Thanksgiving.  That would cut into our Asian itinerary too much. Maybe we’ll have time for Myanmar now…

Have you traveled from Istanbul to Cairo overland? Any tips?

August 24, 2010

Hostile Hostels

Hostile Hostels

I hate hostels.

I hate the shirtless, guitar-toting Canadian that wouldn’t shut up about flowing lines in modern art. I hate the naked Danish guy that stared at us at 2 a.m. while we made our beds. I hate the “dude”-saying Brit who sprayed Axe in my face at eight in the morning. I hate the U-shaped, mildew-covered nightmare of a mattress in Bratislava. I hate being mildly electrocuted from faulty wiring in Poznan. I hate 10 a.m. checkouts and single-key dorms and cold showers. I hate it all.

Almost.

I don’t hate the great people like the Portugirls in Lisbon, those dozen Australians in Salzubrg (I insisted on calling the blond one Claire), the Fado/Port tour group in Porto, etc.  The people we meet are usually great, but the facilities are sometimes not.

After the exceptionally disgusting night in Bratislava (i.e. U-shaped nightmare), we decided to upgrade our accommodations for Prague. I turned to HostelWorld to assess our options. Several stood out, but I kept coming back to a newly opened joint called the Mosaic House.  We sprung for a private for our first night.

This place is ridiculous. Power outlets for each bed, climate control for each room, door locks and keys, en suite bathrooms, cloud-like mattresses, silky smooth sheets, towels, towel warmers, hot showers— this place has it all. There is even a stage for live music in the bar. It’s the fanciest 4-star hotel hostel I’ve ever seen.

I would, however, stop short of saying Mosaic House is a good hostel. It is very comfortable, and we were glad to have a little luxury after a string of disappointments. In my opinion, hostels should have character, encourage interaction among the guests, and represent some of the local culture. Mosaic House is a little sterile. I felt like I could be anywhere.

Mosaic House also boasts many “green” innovations like gray water recycling and motion-sensing lights. Now, I have no problem with conservation, but I would rather not have to waive my arms wildly to keep from showering in the dark. On several occasions, we were simply sitting in our room and the window blinds would inexplicably rise and then lower again.  What’s with that?

Their common room has a projector and trendy shag carpet, but I wouldn’t say it was a good common room.  Floor plan plays a big part.  Lisbon Chillout‘s common room was in the middle of the hostel.  You had to pass through it to go to the kitchen or bathroom.  You couldn’t help but bump into other guests, and it got everyone talking.  Did it have rain shower heads?  Hell no.  You could barely even fit inside the showers, but we still liked it.

Belushi’s Bar at Mosaic House had a stage for live bands, an impressive beer selection, and a pretty tasty breakfast, but I wouldn’t say it was a good bar.  The dimly lit bar at YoHo International Youth Hostel in Salzburg had cigarette-burned curtains and one beer on draught.  However, the bar tender was friendly and the drinks were cheap.  This is where we drank with the dozen Australians ’til 4 a.m. (see above).

I like hostels. I like atmosphere.  I like meeting new people.  I like changing scenery.  I like feeling like I’m traveling.  I like it all.

Almost.

August 14, 2010

A Bona Fide Work of Art

A Bona Fide Work of Art

Maybe it’s just me, but a Saturday afternoon just isn’t complete without 60,000 skeletons.  We decided to pay a visit to the Sedlec Ossuary to remedy the situation. But first, we had to find the damn place.

It’s Not the Destination, but the Journey.

The day started so well...

We heard plenty about this chapel, so we were excited to make the short ride to the ‘burbs.  Prague is great, but a chandelier of skulls?  Sign me up!  We grabbed our umbrella and hopped on the next train to Kutna Hora.  We soon realized we failed to look up the address.  Where exactly is said ossuary?  We didn’t know, but there would be a sign or something.  Also, what time was the train back to Prague?  We didn’t know, but there would be a schedule posted or something.

There was no sign.  There was no schedule.  However, there was a tour group, which trumps both in my book.  The group had a dozen or so members—matching T-shirts and all.  Their guide was reciting the story of the Ossuary and reminded them the train to Prague was at 5:00 pm.  Now we knew how to find the chapel and how to get back!  This must have been our lucky day.  I wanted to follow them, but Kim wasn’t convinced.

“This will be nothing like that train ride in Vienna, I promised her. “It’s foolproof.” We followed them on the bus, paid our 30 Koruna, and off we went.  The rain was coming down harder now, so I was very pleased there was a bus involved.  We’d be bonin’ it up in no time.

We seemed to be riding for a while.

How far away is this place?  We must have stopped a dozen times.  Behind us, two British med students discussed how this week’s House was exactly like Renal Pathology 405, so we definitely didn’t miss the stop.  Finally, the tour leader announced that they had arrived, and we gladly followed the mob off the bus.

We were in the middle of nowhere. During the “discussion” that ensued, we lost the group.

We took a moment to assess the situation.  No group.  No map.  No chapel.  No damn umbrella.  Apparently, in our excitement, we left it on the bus.  We had no choice but to start walking.

We seemed to be walking for a while.

We finally saw a church in the distance.  We made it!  We merrily skipped to the entrance with our 60 Koruna and student IDs ready. “This is Sedlec Ossuary, right? The bone chapel?”

Wrong.  We weren’t even close.  The bone chapel was six kilometers away, and the ticket woman was obviously annoyed that we were asking her for directions to a different church.  Luckily, she sketched us a map on a Kleenex anyway, and we followed it faithfully.  After only two hours of wandering in the rain, we finally found the elusive Sedlec Ossuary.  We were literally soaked to the bones, but we made it.

The Destination

The chapel was built around 1400, and the surrounding cemetery dates from the 9th century.  What’s the deal with the bones?  In 1278, the local abbot traveled to Jerusalem and returned with a handful of soil to sprinkle on the cemetery grounds.  Soon enough, half of Europe was vying for a plot in Kutna Hora.  That was well and good…until the bubonic plague popped up.  Then they were dying to get in.

The abbot soon found himself up to his eyeballs in corpses.  He probably should have left that soil on Golgotha hill, in retrospect.  With no graves available, he had a great idea: dig an ossuary!  They exhumed the oldest graves, dumped the bones in the cellar, and plopped the quickly ripening bodies in the emptied graves.  Problem solved.

Dogs are strictly prohibited at the Sedlec Ossuary.

The bones remained in storage until 1870 when the chapel was purchased by the Schwarzenberg family.  The Schwarzenberg’s figured these corpses were a gold mine, so they hired a local woodcarver, Frantisek Rint, to spruce up the place.  Why pay for overpriced sconces at Crate and Barrel when you’ve got thousands of perfectly good bones?  Rint constructed four giant bells in each of the chapel’s corners, the Schwarzenberg coat of arms, and a chandelier comprised of at least one of every bone in the body.  He even made his signature with bones at the entrance.

It’s not exactly an upbeat destination, but it was interesting.  Our moods quickly soured again when we returned to the rain and glanced at a map outside.  The train station was only 700 meters away!  We rode that bus for 20 minutes, walked 6,000 meters in the rain, and lost our umbrella en route when the church was practically next door to the station.

I almost forgot.  We got to the station at 5:10 pm, so we missed the train to boot.  Kim spent the next two hours reading her Sookie Stackhouse book, and I played Angry Birds while trying to sound like Bill Compton.  “I do declare.  This level is very difficult, Sookie.”

Overall, it was a good day, and it will make the list of Kim’s Tips for Prague.  Check out all the photos from the day on Flickr.

August 13, 2010

Welcome to the New Site Design!

Welcome to the New Site Design!

It feels like I’ve seen more CSS and HTML than Europe over the last few days, but at least the new site is up and running!

Our old theme had some severe limitations, and I’ve been wanting to redesign it for some time.  I think you’ll find this layout loads faster and is easier to navigate.  Take a look around and be sure to subscribe to RSS updates by email, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.  We have a bunch of posts in the works, and RSS will keep you up to speed.

Also, you’ll want to check out Kim’s Tips for Kicks.  You can find her peaking out on the top of the site.  She has Dresden, Stockholm, and Vienna posted to date with 20+ more on the way.  These guides are geared toward independent travelers planning a trip around the world.  Kim highlights her favorite sights as well as some off-beat spots the guidebooks miss.  She ranks each city based on three criteria– cost, sights, and quality of ice cream.  Hey, ice cream is important!  Even if you aren’t traveling, check them out for an idea what we like to see and do.

So, what do you think?

August 5, 2010

Germany and Austria or: How I Learned to Kill Two Biers with One Stein

Germany and Austria or: How I Learned to Kill Two Biers with One Stein

To commemorate our two month anniversary as world travelers, we finally finished this post.  Sorry, we have been busy traveling through Bavaria, Austria, Slovakia, and now the Czech Republic.

Germany

Buses and trains are great, but it’s difficult to visit small towns using public transportation alone.  So, we splurged a little and got a car.  Three hundred bucks bought us a Nissan Micra (for the week, at least).  Definitely pricey, but you only quit your jobs and travel the world once, right?

We did the typical Romantic Road route of Wurzburg to Fussen.  The term was invented by travel agents in 1950 to describe the traditional, stereotypical German/Bavarian sights along the route.  Apparently, there was some kind of conflict in the country five years earlier and tourism (along with the rest of the country) needed rebuilding.

This is a popular route for tourists, but we mostly avoided the hordes—except in Dinkelsbühl.  We made it just in time for the Kinderzeche Festival, one of the biggest festivals in Bavaria. We had no idea this was going on.

The Swedes were all up in Germany’s shit during the Thirty Years’ War, and the Swedish army besieged the town of Dinkelsbühl for kicks.  The city councilors would not surrender, and the decision was made to pillage the town.  The children allegedly went to Colonel Von Sperreuth (the leader of the Swedish forces) and pled for mercy.  The Colonel was just informed of the death of his young son, and he decided not to destroy the city for the childrens’ sake.  Good call sending the kids. Eventually, the Lakrisal-loving Swedes took off. The Kinderzeche Festival celebrates this event each year.  Just look at these thrilled faces.

After Bavaria, we spent a three nights in the Tyrol Alps—one in Fussen and two in Berwang.  On the drive through the mountains, we found a lake that was so clear, you could see straight to the bottom.  Giardia be damned, Kim waded in to take a sip.  We ended up drinking about a half liter.  On our hike to Neuschwanstein Castle, we found a stream where we drank up again.  We just stuck our bottle right in the stream. Ice cold and crystal clear.  Take that, Evian.

Two of our nights were spent in the thriving city of Berwang, Austria (Population— 400).  We arrived in time to catch the tail end of a Wednesday-night band concert.  Lederhosen and all.  Not unlike the Big Red Marching Machine, the musicians took a shot after each solo.  Not a bad policy, but I can tell you some of the marches sound a little rough by the end.

After the concert, we checked in at Gästehaus Zugspitzblick.  Well, when I say “checked in”, I mean knocked on the front door for about 10 minutes before going to the Café Mirabell next door to ask for help.  It turns out Mirabell ran the hotel?  Well, she took our money at least.  We were the only guests.  She seemed to pick up that our German was poor nonexistent, but she was not deterred.  Every time we saw her, she would recite these long monologues usually beginning with “So…” while we stared blankly.  Our usual response was usually “Ja! Ja!” or “zwei bier, bitte!”  This photo was taken about 200 yards from our front door.

We said goodbye to our Micra in Munich after 1500 kilometers driven, a dozen or so strudels eaten, and many liters of bier drank. The highlights in video form:

Austria

We had five uneventful days in Salzburg before heading to Vienna. Like many cities, their metro is on the honor system. Suckers.

So, I came up with a four-step plan.

1. Buy two 48-hour passes (but do not validate)
2. Ride the Metro for 72-hours

3. Sell the unused passes on the street

4. Laugh all the way to the bank!

    It was perfect.  Brilliant, really.  If they ever checked, we would feign ignorance on the validation.  We’re tourists!  We don’t know how you fancy, Austrian-types do things.  We purchased the tickets, didn’t validate, rode the Metro about 15 to 20 times, and even found buyers for our passes.  Success!

    Now we had to get one last ride in to the train station.  This time without our unvalidated-ticket insurance.  I wasn’t worried, but I kept an eye out for ticket checkers.  We hopped on the U3 like any other time.   Only five short stops, and we would be on our way to Slovakia with an extra 10 euros in our pockets.  As we rode, I decided the spot checks were a myth.  We rode for three days and never saw anyone get checked.  We were home free.

    And we would have been too.  If only we left one minute later, waited for the next train, or even boarded a different car.  But, we didn’t.

    We were one stop away from success when four plain-clothes transit cops whipped out badges simultaneously.  I couldn’t help smiling a little even as they escorted us and four other free-riders off the train.  We told them about the two-day ticket.  We must have left it at the hostel!  Silly us!  Come on, we are just one stop from the station!

    They were unsympathetic.

    The fine was 140 euros (70€ each), but they were charging us with one violation only.  I claimed we didn’t have any money.   I offered them the 10€ note in my pocket (from the street sale), but alas, they already saw the 50€ and 10€ bills peaking out of Kim’s wallet.  The worst part?  We had to buy tickets to get back on…to go one stop.

    That’s how it goes.  As The Stranger said to The Dude, “Sometimes you eat the bear, and well…sometimes he eats you.”


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