On Germany

Munich

After weeks of traveling through places with absolutely no regard for the taste or quality of beer (I’m looking at you, Spain), it felt like a glorious homecoming to arrive in Munich, a Mecca for a beer-lover such as myself. After taking a tour of the city, I learned that just about everything of historical significance that has ever happened owes some part to beer (to be sure, these are largely myths and jokes that are made up to support the narrative, but I’m happy to support and believe in them).

 Since some ridiculous percentage of Munich was destroyed in the war (~80%), there are very few original buildings around the city. However, the reconstruction was largely done in the style of the buildings pre-bombing, which results in an incongruence of new, completely in tact buildings in the style of old, traditional buildings, which kind of makes it feel like MedIeval Times. But the star of Munich is the beer, and all over the city are stationed Biergartens, which remind me of the food courts of amusement parks – minus the whole amusement park part. In another win over Spain, the go-to sized beer is called a Mass and is 1 Liter (compared to 0.25L). I happily had a stereotype reinforced at Hirschgarten, “the largest beer garden in the World,” when I witnessed a grandma of ~70ish carrying a mass in one hand (these things are heavy) and a giant pretzel in the other. Who says noon on a Monday is “too early?”

The highlight of Munich was the Englischer Garten, a gigantic park full of nature, activities, and beer. Once again, surfers made an appearance in an unlikely place, surfing a permanent wave made by the river’s tumble out of a tunnel. Further up the river, people jump in and float along as other sunbathe, listen to music, and read. Of course, it wouldn’t be Munich if there weren’t multiple beer gardens within the park, my favorite of which, Seehaus was nestled next to a lake and had an unstoppable playlist of 70’s hits.

Berlin

It’s not difficult to imagine why Berlin’s culture is so unique – given the history of the city, it’s a completely appropriate response to be aggressively edgy, in-your-face, and without any societal limits on behavior as a way of saying “never again will we let someone tell us what to do.” It’s much more difficult to find someone in a suit than a man in a fishnet top, leather shorts, and strange hairdo. In fact, I first assumed that the extras from Waterworld retired here and never took off their wardrobe before realizing that most of these people probably weren’t born when Waterworld was released. What a shame.

I was extremely lucky to have a group of 4 locals to meet up with upon my arrival, thanks to a blog I read called Wait But Why, which had organized a global meetup day (forget that I’m meeting random internet strangers, and instead check out the above blog if you enjoy both learning and humor). My internet friends and I, aged 23-33, went to a large open-area beach-bar-esque area next to the river on the east side called Yaam. As we enjoyed some beers and Jamaican food, I asked a bit about the nightlife in Berlin, and was informed that there are two types of people who go out in Berlin: those who go out to the clubs at 2-3am and head home around 11am; and those who stay at the club for the entire weekend. Like multiple days. Without leaving. I was about as shocked to hear this as they were that bars close at 2am in California (but thankful as ever that that is the case). Walking down the streets, it’s normal to see young guys sitting on the sidewalk with three cups in front of them asking for money: 1 labeled “food,” 1 labeled “weed” and 1 labeled “LSD.” While the counter-culture lifestyle of Berlin is definitely not for me, being in a place where remnants of a wall which once kept people in still stands, and where all the atrocities we know of began, I was thankful for these people who are so utterly different from me. Along this journey I’ve seen my share of people who seem so foreign to what I know, but I’ve never once felt personally threatened or in danger, and almost everyone I’ve spoken to has been incredibly kind. So while our juvenile selves may judge others for leading radically different lives than what we may think is “productive” or “meaningful,” I can’t help but think that everybody is just trying to be happy, and we should be celebrating the fact that we live in a world (in some places, at least), where diversity is accepted and able to be out in the open.

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New-Old Buildings
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River Surfing
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Beer Garden / Amusement Park Food Court?
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Yaam – Berlin
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Internet friends I’d known for 2 hours

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On Prague

Prague

I had not heard a single negative thing about Prague before arriving – most of the travelers I had encountered prior had preached about how amazing of a city it is. This had my expectations sky-high for the Czech city, which I hereby declare the Interstellar Mistake (Christopher Nolan, Matthew McConaughey, Hans Zimmer, reality-based space sci-fi… how could it have not been the best film of all time?!) When I only get to visit a place for a few days, my entire perception of it is largely dependent on the weather while I’m there (Ireland is beautifully sunny and warm, in case you were unaware). Unfortunately for me, my visit to Prague was accompanied by clouds, rain, and cold weather.

That said, it still is architecturally a magnificent place, thanks partially to it not being blown up by war. After all the historically significant, gigantic, celebrated churches I’ve seen over the past three months, the Gothic churches of Prague are far and away my favorite. The charred-looking stone and ridiculously intricate gold and black ornamentation stand out prominently above the other buildings of the city. The largest of these, St. Vitus Cathedral, sits in the middle of the Prague castle on the top of a hill overlooking the Vltava river. The castle itself is a pretty well protected peek into the past, with the palace, churches, shops, and residencies that once inhabited the space within the castle walls.

Another thing Prague does do well is public / street art. This is also most definitely in response to Soviet rule of the city. One particular space called the “Lennon Wall” celebrates the freedom to write anything on a public wall without an authority covering it up. Every day, hundreds of people come by and paint their own drawings and words on the wall, which is now feet thicker due to so many coats of paint. Beyond this street art, there are many humorous statues with implied political meaning, such as giant bronze babies with barcodes instead of faces, and two men urinating in a pool shaped as the Czech Republic. I don’t exactly remember the point of that one, but it’s funny nonetheless. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to return to Prague under clearer weather and lower expectations, and be able to thoroughly enjoy the beauty of the place. 

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St. Vitus Cathedral
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Lennon Wall

On Austria

Vienna

“…Vienna waits for you” goes the 1977 Billy Joel song Vienna, a favorite of mine and my Dad’s to sing along to (which was not written for the film 13 Going on 30, believe it or not.) This was essentially the sole reason I was visiting, so that Vienna could stop waiting for me already (considerate, I know). I had been told by fellow travelers along the way that renting a bike was a must-do in Vienna, and I quickly became thankful for their advice. The city has one of the best infrastructures for bicycles that I’ve ever seen, with everything thing from independent and clearly marked lanes to bicycle stoplights.

This was one of the first cities where I opted out of the free walking tour, something I’ve done most everywhere else to become acquainted with the history and important landmarks. Instead, I chose to wander aimlessly and without direction via bicycle, and see what I could stumble upon. What I found was a beautiful urban area well-suited for summer weather. My first discovery was Naschmarkt, an open-air market dating from the 16th century, full of locals enjoying meals and each others’ company in between stalls of butchers, art, and souvenirs. Riding further east, I discovered something I had not expected to find in a landlocked country – surfing (albeit, artificial). In one of the city’s squares was a City Wave, a large platform with a bar and lounge chairs surrounding a machine-generated permanent surfing wave. It was mostly amateurs participating, whose big spills provided better entertainment than watching more seasoned surfers.

Continuing east towards the river, I discovered that Vienna was actually a hidden beach city. Along the canal are multiple beaches and parks, full of kids, teenagers, and adults – sunbathing, reading, and drinking (of course). The canal also held dozens of small sailboats, zipping around each other just off of the shore. Back along the river is a long, grassy island paved by a bike path, where people sit beside the water, grill out, and picnic. This being Europe, 1 in 8 women are required by law to be topless in any waterside setting, of course. In the river was the final straw for cool-water-things I didn’t know Vienna had: a towing machine course for waterskiing / boarding, which pulled people along the river over a course of ramps and turns. How has Vienna kept all of these summer secrets for so long?

Raab

I’ve known since I was young that my surname was of descent from the German / Austrian area, and that somewhere in the rural countryside, there was a mighty Raab River. Upon further investigation, I found that Raab was actually a small town in rural Austria and knew I had to stop by to hopefully be crowned mayor for the day and be awarded a key to the city. It was not, however, the easiest destination to arrive at – but I was determined to find my peoples and take pictures with as many Raab signs as possible. After taking three trains, I arrived at the nearest train station – 3 miles from the small town.

After about an hour hike through hilly farmland, I finally arrived in Raab and found… a ghost town. My plan was to eat lunch and have a beer in my town (in addition to the above ambitions), but as I walked around, the few shops and restaurants I found were closed – for the month of August – for summer break. All the Raabs were on vacation (given my position, I couldn’t blame them). Luckily, after taking all the Raab photos I could, I stumbled upon a small porch with 4 people – a young couple and 2 middle-aged men, and joined them on the porch. They got a laugh from my passport and broke out their best English to have a conversation. Since I couldn’t read the menu, I asked for their recommendation, and upon them repeating it to the owner, he laughed and said “Fat American!” My surprise lunch turned out to be a special, off the menu fried chicken, apparently prepared by a local Japanese man. My fellow Raabs asked me to stay for their big festival that night – Kellerfest, which only happens every 2 years. Unfortunately, I had a train to catch if I wanted somewhere to sleep that night, so I promised them I’d be back for the next festival. So, if anyone’s interested in Kellerfest 2018 in Raab, Austria, please let me know.

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Just seeing if you’re paying attention…
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A Beach in Vienna

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Fellow Raabs!
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The Mighty Raab River!(?)

On Budapest

Budapest

I found the best of the ‘pes(h)t to be the ruin bars and food. The city itself is a bit difficult to comprehend, comprised of buildings mostly built with a drab yellow-brownish stone, where one block’s buildings has broken windows and rubble visible inside; the next block has busy, well-kempt restaurants and bars. 

The “ruin bars” popped up about 15 years ago, and are simply makeshift bars housed in buildings damaged in World War II. After these buildings had gone unused for decades, people started to use them as a place to hang out and drink at night, which eventually evolved into fully operational bars. They have a real post-apocalyptic vibe: damaged buildings (some without roofs), decorated with mismatched, flea market furniture, surrounded by painted murals and colorful, hanging lights. I felt as though I was at an end of the world party (more specifically, that scene from the Matrix Reloaded in the underground Zion). If the unique setting isn’t enough, a beer will set you back less than $1 (or 300 Hungarian Forints).

Through most of my travels, I’ve been trying to stick to the local cuisine, foregoing the American-style options. This has been a bit difficult, as deep down, I’m a burger-and-fries guy. I soon discovered that Budapest was the place to feed my cravings of greasy, American goodness. Walking down the streets of District 7, you’re bombarded with restaurants and food trucks advertising bar-b-que, fried foods, burgers, and other familiar fare. I indulged a few times and had one of the best burgers and philly cheesesteak sandwiches I may have ever had.

There are some beautiful views in the city: along the river (especially at night), the hill on the Buda side, Margaret Island, and Varosliget Park. In the middle of the park is one of many Thermal Bath Houses of Budapest, which was packed with hundreds of people moving from one pool to the next of varying degrees. If you know where to go in Budapest, you’ll find delicious food, unique (and cheap) nightlife, and relaxing vantage points to waste away the day.

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Yes, those are car-shaped paddle boats
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Inside a Ruin Bar – no roof; colorful lights

On Greece

Athens

As an amateur philosopher, I looked forward to Athens as a place where great men had once had enlightening realizations about life, which are more valuable today than ever before in some respects. It’s difficult for me to fully comprehend how long ago 2,000 – 3,000 years ago actually is, and humans themselves have barely changed, if not for our beliefs and knowledge about the universe. However, these were some of the first people to ask the bigger questions about life and record their thoughts on the matters. I was intrigued to see the environment which provoked such introspection and exploration.

Upon arriving, I wondered how the ancient Athenians could have any complex thoughts besides “It’s really freakin’ hot and humid here.” Luckily I’ve learned that once you accept that you’re going to be sweaty and stinky, you’re free to stop worrying about it and enjoy yourself. Athens is all about the ruins, most importantly, the Acropolis. The gigantic pillars and enormous structures certainly leave an astonishment of what civilization was able to accomplish at a time when there were only 100 million people in the entire world. After seeing multiple sites of ruins, they began to become a bit repetitive. Even while learning the history of a place, I’ve still found it difficult to truly fathom that this person did this historic thing right here X thousand years ago. Although I appreciate the history of places I’ve seen, I’ve learned that I’m much more taken by the natural beauty of a place. For that, Athens had the perfect spot to watch the sunset up on Lykavitos, a hill in the northeast part of the city overlooking the entire city, mountains, and sea.

Santorini

I knew little to nothing about Santorini before arriving, other than it had the cheapest hostel I could find on the Greek Islands a month earlier. First impressions are rarely 100% accurate, and that definitely held true with this volcanic island. When the ferry arrived in the bay / crater of the island, the visible landscape was mostly brown and barren, with cliffs in lieu of any beach – more reminiscent of a desert than my idea of a typical island.

After a bus ride to the other side of the island, I found my paradise of black sand, beach bars, and Mediterranean Sea at Perissa Beach. The 3km stretch of beach is lined by a small road of restaurants and bars, which stay open until 7-8am in the morning. I thought this was crazy, until I experienced how long it takes a Greek waiter to bring a check. A few new Canadian friends and I managed to make it to sunrise sitting outside a Beach Bar creatively titled “Beach Bar,” and the night seemed to disappear without effort. The best advantage to being on any island is the starscape at night, and as we waited for the sun to rise, we were treated to an unbelievable view of the Milky Way.

Santorini’s main activity among tourists is renting ATV’s to ride around the island, and my new found(land) friends and I spent a day doing just that. It must be frustrating to be a local on the island, because these 4-wheelers are everywhere, slowing crawling up the many hills (and backing up traffic) and flying around cliff-side turns. Fira and Oia are the largest towns on the island, notable for their stark white buildings contrasting to the brown of the island and the blue of the sea. Just off the coast of Oia sits a large rock formation where my buddy Mike and I (something about that name just makes it easy to get along) decided to follow the crowd and give cliff-jumping a try; something that seems like a good idea at all times except the second after you’ve leapt.

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Ruins!
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The Acropolis from below
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Sunset from Lykavitos
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Oia on Santorini
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Good jumpin’ rock