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!(?)
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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

Musings 2

By pure number of workers, “selfie-stick salesman” is the most popular job in the world.

It takes about 2.5 rolls of toilet paper to clean up a shattered full bottle of red wine.

If you play your cards right with the tour guide, you can extend your 3 hour group tour into a 12 hour private tour.

Sometimes you know someone you met 2 days ago better than someone you’ve known for years.

When falling out of a plane in the Swiss Alps, you’re too amazed by where life has brought you to feel any fear.

It’s difficult to not smile when you spot a happy family.

Life is a comedy to those who can laugh at their misfortunes and a drama to those who can’t. Take your pick.

Change is inevitable, but you have the option to create it or simply react to it.

Italian trains run on a strict schedule: No earlier than at least 15 minutes late.

Sometimes you just have to stop asking other people for permission to do what you want to do.

When you haven’t seen family or friends from home in a few weeks, every new person you meet  looks like someone from your life.

Contrary to popular belief, you actually can see Rome in a day if it’s your last day of three in the city and you spent the first two in bed with strep throat.

Life is found in the unexpected moments in which you think “I never imagined I’d be here,” such as in the audience of a three-person Italian theater production which you can’t understand in a tiny theater in a Roman alley.

Travelers Advice: when traveling alone, always carry a cheap bottle of wine and some plastic cups in your backpack. It’s the quickest way to make friends in any situation.

Americans’ relationships with friends and family are severely harmed by open container laws.

On Italy: Part II (Rome, Florence, Naples, Amalfi Coast)

Rome

After 7 weeks of travel, I entered Rome feeling… sick. I had planned for three days in the ridiculously historic city, but thanks to a case of Strep Throat, found myself with one day (and a lot of drugs to take) left to explore ancient Rome. Who says you can’t see Rome in a day? At this point in my trip, I’m about museum-and-churched-out, so it was the ruins and remains of ancient Rome that I was most interested in seeing. It’s hard to imagine that the Colosseum is nearly 2,000 years old, as modern sporting venues are still so similar. There were gate numbers, “season ticket” seats, and of course vicious crowds rooting for blood.

Afterwards, I visited the Roman Forum, a vast expanse of ruins of the Roman city. All throughout Rome, there are small squares containing ruins of pillars and walls, easily accessible by pedestrians and yet just sitting there. It’s a bit strange to think that throughout the ages, someone was conscious enough of their importance and relevance to just leave them be.

The Vatican and Sistine Chapel was next on my list, and did not fail to disappoint. It’s a bit incomprehensible the amount of work that went into painting the chapel from floor to ceiling in dozens of bright, colorful scenes. I finished up my day in Rome walking to The Pantheon and Trevi Fountain, but had only accomplished seeing a very small portion of all there is to see in the expansive city.

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Florence

Florence was a return to the heat and humidity that I felt in Portugal, and walking around the smaller city was sure to get you sweating. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, the most noticeably unique characteristic of the city was the style of the Duomo and nearby clocktower – white, green, and red granite in a very particular geometric pattern. All around the city were impressive sculptures, statues, and fountains. The highlight of Florence for me was watching the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo across the river, with a view of the entire city below.

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Naples

I spent only a short time in Naples, but long enough to appreciate a few Neapolitan pizzas, identifiable by their leopard skin crust and soupy, olive-oil centers. One of my favorite strolls thus far has been a Sunday night walk along the bay in Naples. People lay out along the rocks and beach in the sun, children blow bubbles and play, and couples sit on the railing enjoying gelato. To me, it’s one of the best examples of a community of people living in the moment and enjoying life.

Amalfi Coast

The southern coast of Italy was where I had planned for the “relaxing” part of this journey, and it has served just that purpose. After an hour bus ride along a beautiful but small coastal road (no doubt, the most skilled bus drivers I’ve ever seen. I would have bet that it was impossible to fit two coach buses on this path, but they do it regularly), I arrived in Atrani. Atrani is a tiny town with a small black sand beach. Within a day of arrival, you already feel like a local. Beyond the beach is a small tunnel, which brings you to the town square with 4-5 restaurants, and that’s pretty much it. There are very few international tourists here, and most of the conversations on the small beach are in Italian. The magnificent coastline is made of jagged rock formations topped with small trees and bushes. The sun sets early in the town – around 5:30pm – due to it’s location in a narrow valley. Hours later across the sea, the moon rises and for reasons I’ve yet to look up, appears larger than I’ve ever seen it, shimmering in the Mediterranean and illuminating the coast. Atrani has been the perfect quiet get away to retreat within oneself while among the fascinating views of the Italian coast.

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Atrani, Italy

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On Italy: Part I (Venice, Cinque Terre)

Venice

I didn’t know what to expect before visiting Venice besides understanding the novelty of a city built with waterways instead of roads; with boats instead of cars. I found the beauty of Venice to be that it’s a small, self-contained, winding maze of walkways and waterways which is lined with colorful buildings on all sides. My favorite activity in Venice was to wander along the less-traveled walking paths trying to avoid dead-ends. Each bridge presented a priceless view – a slice of life in this unique city, with clothes hanging out to dry, boats full of groceries or goods floating below, and of course a gondola or 10 (€80 for a half-hour loop, FYI). Venice at sunset is Venice at it’s best, as the golden light reflects off of the red and yellow buildings and shimmers in the canal. The easy way to spot an uniformed tourist was to see someone with their feet in the canals, which 80% or so of buildings in Venice drain their sewage into. While there are very few rooftops available to the public, I spotted one on top of a hotel and decided to try my luck. I paced quickly past the reception and straight to the stairs, figuring that whatever rooftop bar existed was for customers only, and the elevator probably required a room key. At the top of the stairs I found my oasis – a quiet rooftop terrace with a bar and a view of the orange rooftops of Venice. I enjoyed a beverage up top pretending to the bartender that I was a guest of the hotel (I was having a drink while waiting for my fiancé to get ready, you see), before he told me that this bar was actually open to the public. So a word of advice: if you’re ever in Venice, have a drink on the rooftop of Hotel A La Commedia.

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My apparently not-so-secret rooftop bar at Hotel A La Commedia

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre consists of five small towns on the coast of the Tuscany region of Italy. The towns are known for their pastel colored buildings right on the hilly coast. I stayed in the middle town, Corniglia, which is the smallest of the five. For me, this region was about two things other than the views: focaccia and gelato. On my one full day in the area, I took it upon myself to hike from the northernmost town (Monterosso) to the southernmost (Rioggamore). As added incentive, I treated myself to focaccia in each town, along with an Italian beer at the later stops and gelato when overheated. It was a real health-hike. The paths wind along the coast and include steep paths and steps up and over the hills between each city. Total hiking time without stops was just about 4 hours, while my total journey was closer to 8 hours. The scenic coastline includes tiered farming, giant boulders, and the clear-blue Mediterranean waters.

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Just…
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Hiking along the five towns
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Vernazza from above
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Picturesque Manarola

On Switzerland

Interlacken

After 5 weeks of travel, I found myself in the least populous place I’d visited yet in Interlacken, Switzerland. Interlacken, somewhat in the middle of the country, is situated between two lakes: Thun and Brienz, and nestled in a valley between the Swiss Alps. My hostel was in even smaller town called Iseltwald, right on the shore of Lake Brienz. The color of the water is something you’d expect to find in the Caribbean or some other tropical paradise – a blueish turquoise that seems impossible. I spent my time in Interlacken outdoors – kayaking on the lake, jogging through the forest hiking trails and stumbling upon waterfalls (and apparently a Wes Anderson set – see below), hiking up the Swiss Alps, and jumping out of an airplane. This place is truly a nature lovers’ paradise, and I found myself swearing under my breath in disbelief of my view a multitude of times.

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Lake Brienze
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I can only assume a Wes Anderson film has been / is being / will be shot here

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Zurich

Zurich is not traditionally known as a tourist destination, and upon arrival I had two observations: it is very clean and very expensive. The city itself feels brand new and futuristic – the train station is immaculate marble and black tile and feels as though you accidentally wandered into a private mansion. A public tram ride will set you back €4.30, which meant I didn’t buy any tickets and spent each ride hoping I wouldn’t be busted by authorities checking for tickets. I arrived on July 4th and had a goal of finding some way of appropriately celebrating American Independence Day. My google searches for “American 4th of July Zurich,” yielded no promising results, so instead I took off to wander among the city. After walking along the river just north of the city center for a few minutes, I found it. Something in the river caught my attention – it was a body floating by. Thankfully, the body was that of a still-alive person, and I followed it down a little ways to an opening where hundreds of young people were laying out along the river in their swimsuits, listening to music, and drinking. There was a bar and grill right along the river, tables to eat at, and even a beach volleyball court. People were jumping into the river, floating down a ways, and getting out to return to their spot. I quickly grabbed a beer and dipped my feet in the river while sitting in the sun. This was freedom. I found it quite interesting that this was an average Monday for these people. While some of them were surely still in school, I could certainly spot people who had just come from work, took off their business attire and had a swimsuit on beneath. Not a bad way to spend a Monday. 

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