Friday, April 25, 2008

On the way to Amsterdam: Pit-stop for FLOWERS!

4/19/2008 Keukenhof: Lisse, Holland

My family planned a two week holiday to show my cousins some of Europe’s highlights, starting in Amsterdam. I hadn’t ever been to Amsterdam so decided to train up and meet them while they were there. I was apprehensive about going on my own so this was the perfect opportunity. On the train ride up Saturday morning I overheard two American boys talking about doing drugs, women, eating brownies on the plan ride over, and how they’d warned all of their friends they probably wouldn’t email/contact them until after 4/20. 4/20?!?! OMG, I pulled up my sleeve to check my watch and sure enough I was on my way to Amsterdam just in time to celebrate 4/20/2008. Nice. At this point I’m thinking the city would be extra crazy but turns out 4/20 is just an American ‘holiday’ if you can call it that! None the less I was in for a treat.

[Side note] I took a 7:40am train to arrive in Amsterdam at 1:25pm and you wouldn’t believe the amount of alcohol that was consumed on these trains as early as 9am…respectable looking everyday people just drink beer and wine here like it’s water.

We spent the first day at the Keukenhof, which is a flower ‘museum?’ outside Amsterdam. Not sure what it would be called- basically it is tourist central and full of amazing flowers which were blooming all around. There are acres and acres of tulips, daffodils and masses of other incredible flowers.
*Cousins- Tammy and Cora
*Plus Matt in this one...
*My family- Uncle Michael, Aunt Dianne, Cora & Matt
*OMG in heaven again! Just leave me here, actually don't TOO MANY TOURISTS!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Some say I’m brave for traveling the big bad world alone- I’d say sometimes TOO brave…oops

If you don’t have time to read the whole thing- skip to the real story at the end…

I’ve stayed in hostels all over Europe: London, Paris, Nice, Rome, Barcelona, Vienna, Munich….and the list goes on. But I have never had a night like I did in Amsterdam and hope to never experience anything like it again.

I had heard of the Flying Pig hostels before and when I saw a flyer for it in Munich I decided that’s where I’d stay my last (and only-thank God) night alone in Amsterdam. There are three locations, I picked downtown so I could easily walk everywhere including the train station. So far so good. I checked in Monday morning and deposited my belongings in the luggage room for safe keeping and spent the day lounging at the Vondelpark! It was awesome, lots of biking and walking trails, green areas to chill, and ponds/streams running throughout.

At the end of they day after I’d seen all the sights on my list I ventured back to the hostel. I grabbed my stuff and hiked up the steepest stairway to my room – 204 bed #4. As I was on my way up I realized I couldn’t recall it saying anything about female only? I have been staying in places where you can choose mixed or female only with 4-20 beds per room and I’ve been staying in the most expensive rooms with 4-female beds. This hostel was the most expensive yet and cost €34 per night for a bed in a 4-person room. I’d been paying around €21 per night in other cities so I expected this to be a pretty nice room. Ah, to the contrary- the nastiest room yet. Is it too late to go home today? I don’t know where to start –first of all I don’t enjoy being called ‘Piggy’ and there are signs everywhere in the hostel:

“Too loud to sleep Piggy? Buy earplugs for €1 at the front desk”
and by the breakfast room… “No smoking during breakfast, unless of course, you are on fire”

Back to my room, gross, there is stuff everywhere and the other three beds are occupied already. There are rolling papers and indication of what happened earlier on the table. I’m starting to question the female part more and more now…then I step into the bathroom. Yikes, it’s horrible.
There is literally a squeegee in the shower- I am suddenly transported back to when I was 17 and worked at the community pool where we’d use those to clean the bathroom showers. [Note to Self: Not showering in the morning.] I try to open my locker to put some of my stuff inside, but no luck, its jammed shut. I flop down on my lovely bottom bunk and ponder what to do next. I unload my gear and head downstairs in search of dinner and hopefully new friends. When I got back from dinner I met a nice Australian bloke- Peter. We had a beer at the hostel’s bar and around 11:30pm I turned in for the night.

The real story begins---

I enter my room to discover I am definitely in a co-ed room. There are three guys, two in bed (one practically passed out and the other reading); the third is standing by the window holding something he is getting ready to light. Looks like I’m in for a treat.

The guy at the window turns to me, “You the fourth?”
“Yep, lucky me.”
“Oh, right then, is this ok?” He holds up his joint. I am honestly a bit relieved at first because I hate cigarettes so much that I was going to be pissed if all my stuff got smelly.
“Sure – but it’s the only one, right?”

And they carry on smoking their joint, asking me questions: Where are you from, what is your name, etc. Turns out they are from Paris but I don’t care to ask much more. I’m not sure what to do. It’s too late to ask for a new room and they seem nice enough. I am in Amsterdam and there is no way I’m going out looking for a new place to stay at midnight (if this is what is taking place in my room- who knows what’s going on in the streets).

Now they are high and going to bed. Perfect. What if they later decide they want to get in my bed? I am never around people smoking pot and I don’t know what is going on in their heads. I dig out my cell (like it’s going to do me much good- but just incase), lay out clothes for the mornings so as soon as I wake I can make a mad dash outta here and I miraculously fall asleep. I admit I was a little scared, I felt uneasy about being in a locked room with three high strangers…20 something year old druggies, but I slept until 8am none the less. Thankfully everything turned out fine, I awoke unharmed and was gone before they even stirred the next morning. I am glad to say that was my last hostel for a while, PHEW! Thank God!!

Red Light District- it Lives Up to if Not Beyond Reputation…

After dinner we decided it was inevitable we had to take a stroll through the Red Light District (RLD). I was actually surprised to see that the street we ended up on, with clear glass doors marked by a red fluorescent light above and red curtains on the door and windows, was bursting with girls who were actually pretty hot. (Don’t get me wrong not all of them but the majority were pretty girls.) They dress scantily clad in tiny bras and panties. I saw it all in just one little alley, a guy being ushered in- curtain shut, a guy being ushered out, girls giving everyone who passes the come and get me stare…, girls lying on the bed chatting on their cell, you get the drift. These girls make great/quick money but I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon. Shoot, I just realized I don’t even have a job- well you know what I mean!!

The next night I was sent by someone at the hostel to the row of restaurants by the Waag (an old medieval building) which happens to be on the opposite side of the RLD. I was a little hesitant at first, but eventually I made my way to that area of town as dusk was settling in. This time I was on a different street and when I stopped to see the Oude Kerk (church that is now a museum) by the Waag I realized I was in the wrong part of town. These girls were not hot, AT ALL…they were much feistier and I’d compare one I saw to a bulldog pinned up in the yard. When they guys walking by didn’t want to play she growled and kicked her door with her trashy black boot.. yikes, I had to get out of there ASAP. So apparently the RLD has zone like NYC or any city for that matter, I was in the ghetto of the RLD and last night I had seen 5th Avenue high class shopping. And that’s the RLD in a nutshell!

AMSTERDAM: 4/20/2008

I started my day at the Anne Frank Huis (Museum) in Amsterdam. Pretty interesting, it had been about twelve years since I read Anne Frank’s Diary and forgot what it was all about. There isn’t any furniture left in their house and I wasn’t allowed to take pictures so you’ll have to check it out yourself, def worth a visit if you are in Amsterdam. As tragic as their lives were I’m glad that Anne at least got her wish of becoming a famous writer and now people around the world read her diary. After the museum, my family and I rode around Amsterdam on one of the canal-buses. These are a great way to see the city! Plus you’re on a boat- what could be better?! Our next stop the Van Gogh Museum! This was really fascinating too! I love art but never studied any of the greats and had no idea Van Gogh went crazy and killed himself, or that he didn’t even start painting until he was 27 years old. There’s still time for me! Ha, from what I’m learned at all these museums most of the great artists don’t have great lives…so I think I’ll keep art as a hobby. *Sint Nicolaaskerk Then it was back to the boat! I rode around the city a while longer, passing under all the bridges and through the old streets full of apartments before meandering the streets by foot getting lost in the alleys. There are tons of outdoor cafes, coffee shops, smart shops, clothing shops, and book stores everywhere you turn.

*The Amsterdam Central train station
*The spot on the canal where you can see under 7 bridges!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Munich by night...It's all I managed to see!

Munich (München) – Home of October Fest- but the Beer flows all Year!
I arrived late in Munich and checked into my hostel. I had a cute little Canadian roomie who was rushing around, getting ready to go out. Having not gone out in ages, not exactly true, but I’d been traveling alone four days now and really needed to get out, next thing you know we’re on the subway headed for the world famous Hofbräuhaus. It’s very well known but I only heard of it that night! When we got there it was full of rowdy groups drinking and toasting (Prost! -in German) with their 1 Liter (jugs) of beer.

We circled the room looking for seats and settled in with two German girls at a table in the middle of the main room. Later the German girls made friends with a group of British guys and our party kept growing…
I have to admit that I did not step foot in a single museum or tour any of the palaces in Munich. I took a tour one morning but it was so cold, the rain was actually more like sleet, and I had trouble concentrating on the facts (plus it was hard to see all the tall buildings from under my hat and hood!). After lunch and once I had thawed I spent the afternoon wandering the grounds of the Schloss Nymphenburg which was very picturesque. There were tons of locals out jogging and swans everywhere. It was a really nice park that you could walk around for hours taking different trails through the forest and around the ponds. On the way home I decided to stay on the tram around town to see the sights (cheap and warm!)

From the tram I saw a Mexican restaurant and just had to go there! I had already past so a few stops later I got off and transferred to take the tram back in the other direction. After I ordered the table next to me invited me to join them as they spoke English and two of the three spoke German. We quickly hit it off and I had a great dinner and drinks with my new friends! (P.S. by the end of dinner I rolled an RRR for the first time in my life! Ha, thanks guys!)

The next day I took a day trip to the Neuschwanstein Castle – 2 hours south of Munich. It was a great day and touring the castle was one of my favorite parts of the trip. King Ludwig II put so many ornate details into the castle that made it unlike anything you’d ever seen (unless of course you’ve seen the Disney castle which copied his design!) he wanted to live in a fairy tale and that is exactly what he achieved.

Back in the city I met up with my new friend Marco and his buddies for dinner and drinks at a sports bar that tourists would never find! I love hanging out with the locals, even if they try teaching me dirty Bavarian slang! Holydeviphe! (no idea how to spell it!)

Basically I used Munich as a home base to take day trips and enjoy the nightlife -it was perfect!

Salzburg, Austria lured me in with the snowcapped Mtns and Castle on the hill!

When I left Vienna today I was planning to go to Berchtesgaden, Germany but first I had to switch trains in Salzburg, Austria. As my train was pulling into the city I was taken back by the unbelievable view from my window. You could see the Alps in the not so far distance and it was a dreamlike city that kept drawing me in. I got off the train in a daze I had ten minutes until my next train but never even considered making it.

This is one of the many joys of traveling with a Eurail Pass (I strongly recommend getting one if you travel for more than a week and are going to numerous cities, I have saved a ton of money and it gives you a lot of freedom!) and one of the only joys to traveling alone. I headed straight over to the information desk and asked her how to get to the castle! She pulled out a city map and drew a little loopy path for me to follow through a park, the city center, then up the mountain to the castle. Yay!

It was really easy; I just threw my stuff in a locker at the station and started walking. I found the park she looped on the map first and couldn’t believe my eyes! I’m sorry but this city was like a fairy tale for me! I just loved every bit of it and kept thinking about how lucky I was to be there! This park- The Mirabellgarten had a perfect view of the castle above and ridiculously well maintained gardens below.

*The view- from the Mirabellgarten
* This statue was in the gardens…sometimes I feel the same way!
Next I made my way to the river and was so mesmerized that for the first time on the trip I sat down and sketched the city in front of me and the castle above. It reminded me of a painting I did during high school and these towers could very well be the ones I replicated. I finally crossed the bridge into the main part of the city and checked out the churches and shops before starting my hike up the mountain. (I just realized while consulting my map that I totally missed Mozart’s house and she had even circled it! Ha, you can’t see it all.)

*This is what I sketched :)On my way up the mountain there were signs in two different directions and since I wasn’t sure what it meant I started with the sign for the Richterhöhe. Other people kept coming down from that direction so why not, I’ve already made it this far. Turns out it was a spot where you had an amazing (free!) panoramic view of the city below and the mountains in the distance!
Time to see this castle…the Festung Hohensalzburg.

*View from the Richterhöhe

Inside the castle walls I took a tour of the interior (torture room, lots about the history, etc.). On the tour we were led up to a tower for a 360° view of the region. OMG! Again, thank God I stopped here! Haha, really it was that good. Here are a few pics so you’ll get what I’m raving about…
The city below-

The Alps behind-

After I stopped drooling I made my way back through town to catch a train to Munich!