Travels with Skyla
Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Budapest, Berlin, and more...I plan to see it all this summer. My friend, Gabby, and I are taking our first solo trip to Europe, bearing rail passes and a handful of hotel reservations. We've been saving up for this pre-college trip for years now, and the month has finally arrived. Join us as we experience these incredible cities on our trip and blunder through independent travel. Thanks for reading!
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It’s unbelievable that we’ve reached the final day of our trip. This month has sped by. Paris, the Swiss Alps, Venice, Budapest, Kraków, Warsaw, The Rhine, Berlin, and finally Amsterdam. It’s been more of a series of misadventures than adventures, but we’ve loved every second of it. Well almost every second, I’d say the theft of my money is still a sore spot. It was definitely a learning experience though. Always have a backup card and cash in your money belt, that is advice I wish I’d listened to.
Speaking of advice, I’ve learned so much I don’t even know where to start. In Paris, I learned that it’s very possible to budget travel too much. You don’t have to spend hours hunting down the cheapest pizza place in the city to have a fulfilling meal. In the Alps we found out that every restaurant kitchen closes at nine. Venice was where we ditched the map, and learned to enjoy the crowds of people. In Budapest, I realized that taking the metro isn’t always the solution, it doesn’t feel like you know a place unless you can get around on foot. When we almost missed our train in Kraków I knew I’d never not double check the departure time. In Warsaw, I learned that an incredibly modern European city could still have the charm of a quaint village. I learned never to bike in a headwind along the Rhine. Berlin was where we saw how a country confronted its terrible past. Finally, in Amsterdam, I learned all about debit card fraud. What a nice way to end the trip.
One thing I didn’t expect to be so hard was being away from the people I love. I’ve never been one to get homesick, but I’d find myself missing things like the Seattle tap water all the time. Gabby and I have definitely learned a lot about traveling, but more importantly we’ve learned how to be independent. It’s weird to think that we’ve been entirely on our own for a month. There are no parents planning sightseeing days, or finding routes to the train station. That being said, I couldn’t have done this without them. My parents, my sisters, Rick, my friends, and my boyfriend have been so incredibly supportive of me throughout this and I’m so grateful to them. I’m learning how to be on my own, but with people like them I’ll never truly be alone.
While I’m on the subject of thanking people, I’d also like to say thanks to the people reading this. It means so much that you’ve stuck with me through all of my trials and tribulations, or travels and tribulations as I like to call them. I hope I’ve inspired you to go to the places I’ve gone to, or to dust off the backpack and start traveling again. I’ll sign off for the last time with the Italian “arrivederci,” meaning “goodbye until we meet again.” Happy travels.
Our first full day in Amsterdam was primarily a shopping day, which is rather odd considering I’m penniless. I refuse to let the thief that made away with my bank account funds win. And Kalverstraat was just too enticing to pass up. I’ve been borrowing money from Gabby to pay for my expensive needs. She keeps joking that she’ll have to charge me interest. We actually ended up accidentally doing the Amsterdam City Walk in our guidebook.
We caught a tram from Leidseplein to Dam Square, and walked to the Anne Frank House from there. We could see the line snaking through the streets from three blocks away, so we decided to try again tomorrow in the early morning. With no solid plans until the early evening, shopping was the obvious choice due to our location. Leidseplein and Dam Square are connected by Kalverstraat, a long, largely pedestrian, shopping street. I wouldn’t call it entirely pedestrian because of the bikes that whiz by occasionally. Kalverstraat is described as “soulless” in the guidebook, but in my opinion it’s a teenage girl’s dream. Filled with chain stores and boutiques, it gives you ample opportunity to spend money.
Along our accidental city walk, we went through the Bloemenmarkt. Meaning the “Flower Market” in English, it has a surprising lack of its namesake. The main commodity at the market are tulip bulbs. The Netherlands are known for a very strange mix of things, from prostitution and marijuana to tulip bulbs.
Speaking of prostituion, after a bite to eat we caught the tram back up to Dam Square for our Red Light District tour. I was a little worried about the seediness of it all, but it really wasn’t that bad. The De Wallen neighborhood, creatively named for the old city walls, seemed downright cheery. Young and old people alike mingled in the street under cheery gay pride flags. Even the sex shops and marijuana “coffee shops” seemed to be more touristy than sleazy.
Walking around the church we got our first dose of the Netherland’s famous legal prostitution. I was expecting to see what was described in our guidebook, women behind windows waiting for prospective clients. Instead, I saw a much less sterilized scene. Women lounged on doorsteps in lingerie, a few said hi to us as we passed. I saw some of them closing up shop and heading home. We walked past some men leaving the rooms hurriedly zipping up zippers and trying to blend in the large crowd of curious tourists. One woman locked the door to her rented room and walked straight to the preschool nearby to pick up her kid. Once again Amsterdam mixes together strange things, within a block you can find a brothel, a church, and a preschool. Continuing deeper into the Red Light District got consistently grosser. Strip clubs advertising “live sex with live couples” lined the canals. I actually found the neon signs quite amusing, what would people expect? Live sex with robot couples? Prostitution was legalized here in 2000 to give women safer conditions and so brothels would officially be under the watchful eye of the government. While giving women and men prostitution licenses helped a little with diminishing sex trafficking, it hasn’t even come close to stopping it. Brothels and sex clubs are suspected of having ties to criminal gangs and prostitution rings. While making it illegal would put hundreds of people out of work, I think it’s good that the Dutch government has started shutting down sex and marijuana related places suspected of criminal activity and violence. The Netherlands are ahead of most of the developed countries in the world, and it’s obvious that it’s still uncertain whether or not that’s a good thing. While marijuana legalization has worked for them, and will hopefully work for us Seattleites, prostitution legalization is still in a gray area.
We left the Red Light District around seven. Though it was still pretty early, the strip clubs were in full swing and it was a relief to get away from the bouncers trying to lure us in. We have some early sleepers and risers in our hostel, so the lights were already off. Staying here feels like a summer camp, everyone sleeps in bunk beds and eats breakfast in the cafeteria. Of course, my bed is right next to yet another snorer. Thank goodness I brought earplugs. Thanks for reading! I’ll be back tomorrow on the LAST DAY of our trip.
In order to avoid taking a night train and risk missing our hostel reservations in Amsterdam, we took a very long day train. Leaving at 10:36 in the morning, it wasn’t scheduled to arrive until 5:00 at night. It was easy to get to the train station. I used Google Maps to figure out the fastest way to get there, and to time our arrival with the train’s departure. I love easy-to-read subway maps, but Google Maps is a worthy supplement. I didn’t even think about the fact that the app would work in Europe, if I had earlier it would have saved a lot of confusion.
I’ve enjoyed Berlin, but not as much I like Amsterdam. Berlin is very clearly a combination of several large neighborhoods. The neighborhoods didn’t even seem like neighborhoods they’re so spread out. It’s a city connected by sights and landmarks and a massive transit system. I couldn’t even find the center of our neighborhood, Prenzlauerberg.
The train ride actually went by pretty quickly. We had our passports checked for the first time, and I munched on M&Ms for lunch. But anyway, I should probably explain today’s title. When we arrived in Amsterdam, Gabby and I went straight to the tram station and hopped on one. As it pulled away from the stop, I started rooting around in my bag for my coin purse so I could buy a ticket from the conductor. After emptying the entire bag and turning every pocket inside out, I realized the sad truth. My wallet had disappeared. Luckily, there hadn’t been much cash in it, it was mainly leftover bills from other countries. I still had my debit card, which could easily fulfill all my money needs. Or so I thought. I tried using it at our hostel about half an hour later, and the machine wouldn’t accept the card. I know that debit cards sometimes don’t work on European scanners, so I figured it was nothing and let Gabby pay with hers.
It wasn’t nothing. Immediately after logging into the wifi, I got a text from my Dad saying that my card had been frozen. A scary email from BECU “Fraud Detection” verified it. My account was inaccessible until I called the bank. My phone was unfortunately not able to make international calls and, as luck would have it, the hostel’s phones couldn’t either. Luckily, we were staying only a few blocks away from the hotel we’d started at the beginning of our trip. Not wanting to drag Gabby throughout Amsterdam after a long travel day, I set off on my own.
The hotel staff thankfully remembered me and let me use their phone. I learned, after listening to several minutes of infuriating “hold” music, that someone had gotten my information and was spending my money in Greece and Bulgaria. On makeup and shoes, of all things. At least the thief had a fashion sense. The people I talked to were optimistic that I’d get my money back, especially because I’d notified them of the countries I’d be visiting on my travels. The bad news was that I’d be penniless until my fraud report went through. Suddenly my missing wallet seemed much more important.
With no money and an expired tram ticket, I had to walk the three kilometers back to the train station. I knew I’d left the coin purse on the train, so maybe one of the crew had spotted it and turned it in. I soon found out that lost property offices are not the most organized places, and if they had my wallet they probably wouldn’t even know it. The only thing I could do was to fill out lost property reports. I did, and then remembered something that made the day a whole lot better. I had five crumpled twenty dollar bills jammed in my money belt. I’d brought them as a last minute thing, thinking there was no way I’d actually need American money. To all the budding travelers out there; always have cash in your money belt.
One exchange office later, and I was the wealthiest woman alive. Strutting around with eighty euros, I was on top of the world. I picked up 48-hour tram cards for Gabby and me, I ate a giant pizza, I drank a giant beer, that money was burning a hole in my pocket. I’d taken having a debit card for granted, it’s pretty scary to suddenly have that flow of money taken out from under you.
When I got back to the hostel around ten at night, Gabby and I came up with a plan for the next two days. She would buy things for me, and I would reimburse her the second I actually could. I’m so glad I’m not traveling alone, I’m not sure what I would have done in this situation. One thing I can tell you is that I’m ready to relax after a long, stressful day. See you next time.
It’s our final day in Berlin! We’d planned to use it to go swimming, but the second the thermometer hit 95, Gabby and I threw out our meticulously planned schedule and hit the lake. Today, a nice cool 85 degree day, became our speedy tour of Berlin’s greatest hits. The Berlin walking tour in the Rick Steves guidebook suggested to split the walk into two days, but we figured we could do it one. Beginning at Alexander Platz and ending at the Brandenburg Gate, it was an incredibly long walk filled with all kinds of different history. If anyone plans on being in Berlin with the book in the near future, I actually suggest doing the walk backwards. It’s more interesting to see the monuments and landmarks listed if you’ve learned about them first in the museums.
Emerging from the metro, we came face to face with a German Space Needle. Rising high above Alexander Platz, the TV Tower is an odd communist built landmark. Complete with a revolving restaurant, it’s a much clunkier version of its famous Seattle counterpart. When we tell people we’re from Seattle, they immediately ask about the rain and the “big needle.”
In the park below the tower, I found an equivalent to the huge wading pools in Amsterdam and the sprinklers set up in Warsaw. A giant fountain stretched from the tower to Marien Church. Kids were running in and out of the sporadic water bursts, shrieking with glee. One of the spurts of water was so big that I actually saw a little boy walk into it and completely disappear. It’s good to know that Berlin also has a solution for hot weather.
The first museum on our list was the DDR Museum. The Deustche Demokratische Republik was the name for Soviet controlled East Berlin. It’s basically a huge collection of communist era artifacts. Because of its crowds and confusing layout, I didn’t actually learn much about East Berlin. The coolest part of the exhibit was an interactive Berlin Wall. With spray can remotes, people could add their own graffiti to a projected image of it.
I decided to skip Museum Island, we only had a few hours and I knew that going to five museums would take up the better part of our day. We passed them by and continued to the German History Museum. While it was a very informative stop, the history was told as if through a textbook. It was a more in-depth version of the Topography of Terror timeline. I successfully made it to the end of WWII and, realizing there was still another wing to go through, gave up.
A temporary exhibition also housed at the museum was much more interesting. Called Homo, it was a rare exhibit dedicated to gay people. I’ve never seen anything like it. Beginning with paintings and artwork depicting homosexuality, it told stories of love, triumph, and discrimination, through visuals and testimonies. As the exhibit progresses, so does the situation of these people. Restrictions are lifted, gay marriage is legalized, and a transgender person, Laverne Cox, is featured on the cover of Time Magazine for the first time. Exhibits I’ve seen on the Holocaust and communism and WWII have a finality to them, they’re horrible events in the past that we need to remember so we can work to prevent in them in the future. Discrimination towards people that defy gender stereotypes is something we can change now. If you happen to be in Berlin before the exhibit leaves on December 1st, I highly suggest a visit.
Having spent a good few hours milling through history, we were glad to be done with museums for the day. We still had a couple of other things to check off our list, though. The Brandenburg Gate was up next. Built in 1791, it isn’t exactly old by European standards. It’s the last remaining gate of the city wall from that time, and it’s meaning has changed quite a bit over those two hundred years. Primarily meant as an arch of peace, it was used by the Nazis as a symbol of their power and aggression. Now, it’s returned to its original meaning, and I also see it as a symbol of the perseverance of Berlin.
We saw four memorials after that. The Memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler, the Berlin Wall Victims Memorial, the Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We unfortunately missed the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime, but I’m sure it was just as moving as the others. To my understanding, Germany didn’t put up any of these monuments until half a century after the fact. It’s good that those murdered are finally getting the recognition they deserve. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was the most impressive of those we visited. According to guidebook, there’s no clear symbolism behind the hollow cement rectangles covering the square. I think that the confusion people feel when they look at it is good enough symbolism for me. The ground slopes downwards as you walk between the columns, and they get higher and higher. Standing at any point you can see two different ways out, but you only see people if they’re in your exact line of sight. Gabby and I got separated and couldn’t see each other even though we were only a few feet apart. It’s a lonely, and unsure experience.
Our final stop was Hitler’s as well. We went to the location of his bunker where he committed suicide. The bunker was filled in long ago, and is now the location of a parking lot. I find that so fitting. The only thing marking the spot is a small info board, mainly describing the layout of the bunker. I like that nothing in Berlin glorifies him as a great and terrible dictator. Yes, he was pure evil, yes he was a terrible dictator, but he’ll never have a memorialized legacy. Even in museums here, he’s only mentioned in context with politics. I know nothing about his personal life because he doesn’t deserve to be seen as a human being. Berlin was his home base, but there is nothing here that condones his actions or even remotely tries to excuse them. I really admire Berlin, and Germany, for that.
Our long day over, we headed back to the hostel to pack for our train ride to Amsterdam tomorrow. Due to a confusing website layout, Gabby and I accidentally reserved for an extra night in Berlin. Helpful tip; the day of departure is not the same as the last night you book. It’s hard to believe our trip is almost over. We have a travel day tomorrow, then two days in Amsterdam, and then it’s time to catch a flight home. Time’s really flown by. I’ll see you all in the next post, auf Wiedersehen!
Our plans to visit as many museums as possible faded as the weather got hotter. The third day we had in Berlin was supposed to be reserved for swimming, but due to the increasing temperature, we swapped our days. A hectic day of museum visiting was replaced with a relaxing dip in Schlachtensee Lake. One of my friends is from Berlin, and he said it was the most beautiful place you could go in the city. We set out on the metro, hoping he was right.
The lake was about an hour away, with a transfer from the U-Bahn to the S-Bahn in the middle. I still have no idea what the difference between the two is. The former is primarily underground and the latter above ground, so maybe that’s the differing factor.
With only a transit map to go off of, I was a little worried we wouldn’t be able to find the lake. However, the closer we got to the lake, the more beach-goers hopped on the train. We followed them off the platform and directly onto what wasn’t really a beach. It was a dusty grass clearing sloping down to a path bordering the lake. We set up our towels amongst the sunbathers, and took a dip in the water. It was incredibly refreshing and cool in the heat. Rowboaters and paddleboarders passed by as we floated amongst a primarily German group of swimmers. The lake is far from touristy, I only heard one person speaking English and I am pretty sure he was from the UK. People from all walks of life were spread out on towels, enjoying the sun. From babies to elderly people, everyone was having a great time. The longer we were there, the more crowded it got. Teenagers showed up with beer bottles and guitars as the families left. I have a feeling that if we’d stayed longer, it would have turned into a laid back outdoor party of sorts. Something unexpected about the lake was the acceptance and nonchalance towards nudity. Several women were sunbathing topless, and I didn’t see a single kid wearing a swimsuit, or clothing for that matter. I had researched other Berlin beaches the night before, and had seen that several of them offered special “nude sections.” No one seemed to mind that the sections were obviously merged. Here’s a picture of the scene at the edge of the water, sans nude Germans.
Heading back after a few hours, we briefly stopped at the Sony Shopping Mall. While it didn’t seem to house many teen-friendly shops, the detour was worth it for the giant canopy over everything. I’m not entirely sure what they do when it rains.
Our first task back at the hostel was laundry. Our lack of clean clothes took us by surprise, but luckily they have a laundry service at the hostel. I dropped our basket of clothes off and asked when they would be ready. The receptionist had no idea and said “Midday tomorrow, if you’re lucky.” Apparently a lot of travelers are in need of a washing machine too. Tomorrow we’ll go to the museums we skipped today. I have a route planned out including the German History Museum, The Brandenburg Gate, and the museums on Museum Island. See you then, bye!
Our first morning in a Berlin hostel was very tiring. Because the hostel was completely booked up, we have to change rooms every night. That meant we had to pack up and lug our giant bags down 70 steps. We finally got downstairs and were told we had to bring our sheets down too. 140 more very hot and sweaty stairs later, we returned the sheets. The woman at the desk checked us out and told us our next room number. It’s also on the fourth floor. When she realized that, she informed us that we could have just stowed our bags in a closet up there instead of walking up and down the stairs multiple times. Relieving ourselves of our backpacks in the ground floor storage room, we headed to the metro. Berlin’s transportation isn’t as confusing as I originally thought, especially because I picked up a transit map on the way out of the hostel. Potsdamer Platz was our first stop. We ate breakfast under the shadow of skyscrapers surrounding the modern square.
I planned our days according to museums closed on Monday and the locations of our destinations. Today I decided we’d walk down from Potsdamer to the Topography of Terror museum, the Checkpoint Charlie museum, and finally the Jewish Museum. They were all in the same general area, and all open on Monday. Turns out, we didn’t even go into the first two. I think museum tickets in Berlin are so inexpensive because a large part of the history is on display outside of them. The Topography of Terror museum has a stretch of the Berlin Wall outside of it. In front of the wall, there’s a stretch of panels with pictures and descriptions of life in Germany before, after, and during WWII. Because it’s on the grounds that the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS were on, it focuses primarily on the government. This was a big change from the previous museums we’d been to, that were about concentration camps and Jewish persecution. As you walk down the wall, you slowly see the Nazi Party’s rise to power. Standing in the direct sun, seeing the wall and the incredibly long exhibit stretched out in front of me, there was an overwhelming feeling of the hopelessness that the German citizens went through. I wasn’t learning about this in a cool, air-conditioned museum, I was standing in the blistering heat with the Berlin Wall leaning over me. It took history to a level of desperation as I watched Hitler become prime minster, then president, and then the ultimate dictator. It helped me understand how the Holocaust could happened, triggered by something as common as an economic crash. It also went into the discrimination of Gypsies and homosexuals, something that other museums didn’t do.
Checkpoint Charlie was less about hopelessness and more about hope. Ringing the small museum, there were walls that documented the numerous escape attempts, and told more about the Berlin Wall itself. Named for its letter in the military alphabet, the checkpoint marked the border between America Berlin and Soviet Berlin.
The small museum was very crowded so we decided to skip it. Walking out of the grounds, we were surprised to see a sign marking the entrance to West Berlin. Notice the McDonald’s in the background, symbolizing the apparent evils of capitalism and America.
The Jewish Museum was our last major stop of the day. It surprised me so much. I was expecting a somber collection of Jewish history and artifacts, but it was so much more. It’s housed in a building that was designed specifically to show the history and culture of German Jews. Each architectural element stood for a different part of the past. There are long hallways symbolizing the three different axes of the lives of these Jewish people. Most of the hallways lead to exhibits that are surrounded by empty rooms and passageways. These are supposed to show the absence of Jews in Germany after WWII. One of these voids is filled with thousands of metal faces representing those murdered in the Holocaust.
The main exhibition was more lighthearted, displaying elements of Jewish culture.
They had a pomegranate tree at the entrance, where you could hang wishes written down on paper fruits.
We walked through the history of Jewish persecution as well. Beginning in 70 CE, a bloody timeline of death and discrimination followed. Dispersed throughout however, there were stories and fun displays. I learned that at weddings, one traditions is for the groom to smash a glass under his foot. Because smashing a glass is harder than it looks, now special, very breakable, glasses are made specifically for weddings.
I have even more museums I want to see tomorrow. I think we’ll have exhausted ourselves so much that on the third day we have here we won’t even get out of bed. Climbing down the stairs will be enough to deter us from going outside. Thanks for reading, see you next time!
I gained a lot of arm muscle this morning. We reserved our train ride from the Rhine to Berlin so we wouldn’t have to deal with the stress of finding seats. Of course, our plans went awry. Sitting in our cabin was a family of four without reservations. They really wanted to stay together and I’m a sucker when it comes to helping people out. Gabby and I told them that we’d see if there were any open seats for us, and if there weren’t then we’d kick them out of the cabin. I lifted my bag up the overhead compartment and took it back down when I realized a seat was reserved so many times I lost count. We finally settled into two, possibly temporary, seats next to a woman that was not very happy to lose her empty row. They were actually better seats than we’d reserved for in the first place. We were in a car with no separate cabins, just seats, and giant windows. I sat back and watched the Rhine go by. My new favorite game is “spot the castle.” The castles dotting the hills seem to blend in with the terrain, they’re difficult to see sometimes.
The train ride was so incredibly long. I fully understand why people take night trains now. It’s much nicer to pass the time by sleeping. I spent the first hour looking out the window and praying no one had a seat reservation for where we were sitting. The second hour was used to plan our time in Berlin. The third, to buy food in the restaurant car. If it actually was food. I got a weird whole wheat sandwich that looked and felt like something from a different planet. Turns out train food and airplane food are pretty much on par with each other in terms of quality.
The remaining five hours were spent aimlessly staring out the window and trying to get comfortable. When we made it Berlin, it was about nine at night. We were greeted with an oddly creepy welcome. Hopefully the rest of Berlin is not Bambi obsessed.
Due to some badly worded directions, we ended up trying to take a tram to a stop that wasn’t there. Wandering around Berlin in the dark was actually pretty safe because, as my German friend told me, It’s a city that’s almost too connected by public transportation. Sure enough, we walked five minutes in one direction and found the right stop. The same directions that got us lost in the first place also made it very difficult to find our hostels. Some European tourists took pity on us and used their smartphone to google map where our destination was. We thanked them profusely and they said they’d been in our shoes a few days before, and they were happy to help.
Tomorrow we’re going to an overload of museums and sights. I thought that three days in Berlin was enough, but it’s definitely not enough. I’ll report back on excursions in the next post. Bye!
Only a few minutes after I finished my last post, the train grounded to a halt at one of its stops. I’m starting to think that Eastern European trains stop for a long time at every station just to stretch out the time of night trains. It’s like the conductor thinks, “oh these nice people need to get their eight hours of sleep, so we’ll take a break here.” Trains to Germany were no exception. I somehow thought it would be a shorter, less hectic ride because we were heading to Germany. Eager to use the sleeperette and get some shut-eye, I reclined and closed my eyes. Opening them a half hour later, I realized that the overhead lights were still on despite it being past midnight, and the train was still stopped. The air-conditioning had turned off with the train, and our car soon became an airtight container filled with sweat and smells. Two hours later, the AC finally kicked on as we pulled out of the station. I slept for a blissful three hours. At 5am we had another long stop at a station. This time, a group of German college-age boys decided to give us all a wake up call. They actually ran down the length of our train, beer bottles in hand, yelled something unintelligible in German, and left. Before exiting the train, one of them turned around and said “I love you all,” as an apology.
Our transfer in Köln was a little confusing because it’s spelled Koeln, and pronounced Cologne. Three different names are a lot to process at 6am. We stopped at a Starbucks for breakfast, and ate under a massive cathedral.
The pronunciation of Bacharach was also a little confusing. On our second train, we were waiting for our stop to be announced when we heard something in German followed by “Bahaha.” Assuming that was Bacharach, we hopped off the train and into small-town Germany.
People were biking, birds were chirping, the sun was shining, it was beautiful. The hike to our hotel was not as great. Thankfully, we are not staying in the hostel that’s in a castle. While very cool, it’s too many stairs away. We had a slightly less exhausting walk to our hotel. They let us check in early and we relaxed for a few minutes before heading out to buy lunch, train tickets, and to rent bikes.
Because Bacharach to Berlin is a domestic train trip, we bought tickets at a kiosk for the first time. It was so easy. The only downside is that our tickets printed in German and they only showed the leg of the trip we’d specifically reserved on. Eh, we’ll figure it out.
Our next stop was a Rhine essential: biking. The towns along the Rhine — Bacharach, St. Goar, etc. — are all close enough in proximity to bike to. Or so we thought. Biking down the river, we were met with such a strong headwind it felt like we were constantly going uphill. Eventually, we realized that every biker on the path was smartly going in the opposite direction as us, so we followed their lead. Even with the extra push from the wind, we tired out after about six miles. The man we rented the bikes from was surprised to see us back so soon.
Although it may not seem like it, we had a pretty long and fulfilling day. It’s too bad we don’t have another day here. I would have liked to go biking earlier in the morning before the 90 degree weather hit. We don’t actually have a confirmed hotel room tomorrow. Hopefully one of the six places we emailed will contact us by morning. I don’t even know if tourist information offices are open until 8pm, which is when we’ll be arriving. Fingers crossed we don’t spend the night on the streets! See you next time.
I’m a little embarrassed to write about what we did today. Our list of museums had run dry, and we both really wanted to see the movie “Paper Towns,” so we became temporary locals. Well, kind of. We went to the biggest, nicest movie theater we could find, and fell back into our American ways of bottomless popcorn and Coca Cola. Technically, we were doing what the average Polish person would do. Therefore, we became temporary locals. The movie theater was in the futuristic Zlote shopping mall. So, of course, it was very modern as well. Near the entrance, they had a motion-sensing body scanner that could reflect your image back at you, adding in a Marilyn Monroe dress or a Darth Vader getup. There were also cell phone chargers that would only work if you supplied the electricity yourself, through the power of biking.
Waiting in the theater for the movie to start, we sat through half-an-hour of commercials. There weren’t very many movie trailers, just ads. It was fun to watch them in Polish and guess what they were for. One ad that I still can’t figure out had a man riding on a giant pug in the middle of The Outback. When the movie finally started, we were delighted to find that it was in English. We’d expected either English subtitles or a very confusing two hours of only Polish dialogue. Watching it in a language we could actually understand definitely improved our viewing experience.
Continuing with our “temporary local” theme, Gabby and I took advantage of our location and went shopping. We only bought things to use up our Polish money, of course. Unfortunately we were not able to spend the final 180 zlotys, so a currency exchange was necessary. It was a pretty painless process, but I got the feeling the guy at the counter was not thrilled to get more of his own currency.
Armed with euros and suspiciously heavier backpacks, we made our way to the train station in 97 degree heat. Upon arrival, we had trouble figuring out the platform number, so Gabby waited in the long tickets and information line while I camped out with the bags. Twenty minutes later, she came back and said that the woman at the desk didn’t know the number and seemed downright confused when she was asked. It was so strange. Anyway, we finally found the right platform and hopped on our train. The reservation ticket said we had “sleeperettes,” which we assumed meant the terrible seats on our first ride. We were pleasantly surprised, maybe even thrilled, when the car we were assigned to had fully reclining seats with mass amounts of leg room. Because everything was too perfect for nothing to go wrong, my seat was broken. I had to throw myself backwards into it to make it go down. Some other drama occurred when a family of four couldn’t find seats. They had reservations for the car, not specific seats. I have no idea why train companies do this. It’s such a hectic environment when half the people have seat reservations and half have free seating tickets. Maybe there’s a reason for this but I sure don’t see one.
After the stress of seats was over, I was able to relax into my forcibly reclined seat and look out at Poland. It has such an interesting mix of architecture. One minute we’d pass idyllic cottages surrounded by farmland, and the next a stark communist style apartment block would pop up. My favorite communist era building in Poland is the Palace of Arts and Sciences in Warsaw. The Soviets built it as a gift to the Poles in the early 1950s. It’s a terrifying mix of soviet architecture and a misguided attempt at traditional Polish style. I don’t think anyone has ever looked at that building and thought “wow that’s beautiful, how nice of those lovely communists.” My reaction was more of a “dear god what is that monstrous creation?”
On that note, I will say do widzenia for the last time. Tomorrow we’ll wake up in Germany!
It’s our second day in very hot Warsaw. Missing American food, we planned to go to KFC and get some biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Fate intervened, however. Due to the lack of biscuits, we had to eat at a non fast food restaurant. Oh, the horror. Wandering aimlessly for food, Gabby and I spotted a woman riding a bike in heels. I can barely ride a bike in sneakers, let alone on shoes with four inch spikes attached. I was so impressed I took a covert picture.
We stopped at a place en route to the Copernicus Science Center. It was a hybrid used bookstore and cafe. They had the best breakfast I’ve had in a very long time. All the buffet breakfasts we’ve been to in Europe seem to only consist of yogurt, very hard toast, and some cold cuts. This food was heavenly compared to that. I had real scrambled eggs and toast. It would have been perfect if we hadn’t been visited by the birds and the bees. A wasp terrorized us for quite some time before deciding our food wasn’t good enough and moving on. The birds were a little friendlier.
Full of food, we walked to the science center. We tried to go yesterday, but it was over capacity and they had stopped selling tickets. Even at 11am today, the museum was bustling with school groups and families. It’s definitely worth going to early in the day to beat the crowds. Even though it was filled to the brim with people, the science center was still awesome. Almost every exhibit was an interactive one. We rode bikes through Warsaw to practice our spacial awareness, and danced on a stage to generate enough power to turn on the jukebox. The bubble making thing was also fun. People on the second floor had to work with people on the first to get a big bubble out.
The center also had a large amount of robots. Gabby and I saw a 20-minute “robot play.” It would have been a little cooler if it wasn’t entirely in Polish. My favorite robot was one at the entrance. It could do reenactments of scenes from American movies. The Sound of Music was the best, in my opinion. There’s nothing quite like hearing a robot try to impersonate Julie Andrews. Another funny thing about this particular robot was that one of its fingers was broken. It was a pretty important finger that was permanently stuck pointing out towards the children playing with the robot. The parents snickered as they passed, watching their oblivious kids getting flipped off by an inanimate object.
I had been worried that we’d finish with the science center quickly and have nothing to do for the rest of the day. I completely underestimated the time it would take. Gabby and I were there for four hours and we didn’t even get to everything. When we realized how long we’d been there, we left and trudged back to Nowy Świat for food. I picked out a pricey looking place to try and get rid of our Polish money. Of course, pricey in Poland means seven dollar pizza. We have one more day in Poland before our night train to Germany, and we still have 435 zlotys. We may have to go to our first exchange office of the trip.
Other than having too much money (which isn’t really a problem), Warsaw is a great city. It’s big compared to Kraków, yet it still has that genuine Eastern European feeling I’ve come to love. An interesting thing about Warsaw is its architectural history, or lack thereof. I mentioned earlier that basically the entire city was destroyed after the Warsaw Uprising. The Old Town we went to wasn’t an exception. 90% of the buildings in it were destroyed with the rest of the city. Rebuilding and reconstruction started in the 1950s, making the Old Town new. It’s described as a Disneyland-esque place in the guidebook, but I honestly think Disneyland has more charm. Don’t get me wrong, the Old Town is beautiful, but it doesn’t feel real. Tourists and school groups crowd the empty-feeling streets lined with souvenir shops, taking away from any rustic charm the area would have. The buildings I like are the ones that are new and don’t try to look old. The city is filled with crazy architectural feats, like the Zlote shopping mall and the Zlota 44 skyscraper. It’s such an interesting, futuristic place, and a huge contrast to Kraków. We have one more day here, and we plan to make the most of it. That is, until our night train. We aren’t sure if we have couchettes (bunks) or seats. Hopefully it’s the former. See you next time!