Frankfurt and Home

Frankfurt – Last Stop(s)

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I was booked to spend my last two nights in Europe in Frankfurt. I didn’t have any great desire to see Frankfurt, but flying home from the Frankfurt airport was the cheapest option, so I arranged to round out my trip there.

I broke up my train ride from Munich to Frankfurt by stopping in Nuremberg for the day. Nuremberg is a cute little city, with gingerbread style houses and a bunch of churches. It rained while I was there, so after walking through the old town, I visited the documentation centre at the site of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds to get a final dose of WWII history.

I didn’t do much in Frankfurt except walk around, but I really enjoyed the one day I spent there. I found it very clean for such a big city, and liked watching all the people in business suits getting coffee in the financial sector. On the last night of my trip I went for a walk along the river and gazed up at the Frankfurt skyline.

It was hard to be sad that the adventure was over when I was so happy it happened. I got to see so many amazing, beautiful places. I visited the Harry Potter film studios, picnicked on the banks of the Seine river in Paris, cycled through Amsterdam, went to the opera in Vienna and climbed mountains in Germany. And after five and a half weeks, I was excited to go home to a big plate of vegetables, amazing friends and family, and an exciting job.

I loved travelling solo. I was able to spend hours just wandering through cities, walking as fast or as slow as I wanted. And keeping this blog was great because it gave me a purpose. My mission was to take hundreds of pictures, go on tours and learn the history of each city I visited so I could post about it here.

Anyone who says it’s unsafe for a girl to travel alone in Europe is misguided. It’s no less safe then walking around any city in Canada by yourself. Just like at home, you have to use common sense if you’re in an area that feels unsafe, and you’ll be fine.

I would encourage absolutely everyone, at any age, to take time to travel Europe. Whether you go for two weeks or two months, I’ve never met anyone who regrets going to Europe. Travelling is a great learning experience, which teaches you about yourself and the world around you.

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NEXT STOP: Home Sweet Home

Meandering through Munich

Munich – Prost! (Cheers)

(For more pictures from Munich, scroll through the slideshow at the bottom of this post)

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It took me a day (plus a stein or two) to warm up to Munich. After breathing in the fresh air of Austria’s alps for three days, it was disappointing to walk out of the Munich train station and find myself in a smelly, flat city. I wanted to hop the next train back to Austria, but I was booked in Munich for five nights, more time than I had allotted for any other city. On top of that, I was developing a case of end-of-trip blues. Munich was my last major stop. I had to find a way to make the most of it.

So I did what all good tourists do in Munich. I went to the beer hall. In my defense, I went on a historical walking tour, met a crowd of fellow backpackers, and then went to the beer hall.

Mini history lesson on Munich

  • Munich, or Munchen, translates to “by the monks” in old German
  • When the city was taken over by the Swedish army in the 1600s, it didn’t have enough gold to purchase its freedom. Instead, officials paid the Swedish army in beer
  • Modern day Oktoberfest began in the 1800s, as a celebration of prince Ludwig’s marriage to princess Theresa (Ironically, Ludwig was the guy no one liked because he taxed beer to build opera houses)

Our eight person beer hall crew (three Australians, two Canadians, an American, a Colombian and a girl from Taiwan) toured four different beer halls, including the famous Hofbrauhaus. Hofbrauhaus is a magical place where even locals wear lederhosen, waiters cart four steins of beer in each hand, and visitors belt German drinking songs and “prost!” (cheers) with complete strangers.

Beautiful Bavaria

Neuschwanstein Castle, my new place

Neuschwanstein Castle, my new place

At this point in my trip I had seen my share of old town squares and Gothic architecture, so after visiting Munich’s main sites such as Marienplatz, St. Peter’s Church and the English Garden, I spent my remaining time day-tripping to the Bavarian alps. My first day-trip was a no-brainer. I had been planning on visiting Neuschwanstein Castle in the outlying town of Fussen since I first decided to backpack Europe.

Ludwig II built Neuschwanstein in the 1800s but didn’t finish the inside of the castle before he died. The outside is impressive enough. Neuschwanstein was the inspiration behind the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland. Basically, it’s the ultimate princess castle. After seeing pictures of it on the Internet for so long, it was pretty spectacular to gaze up at its turrets in person.

I was really torn about what to do on my last day in Munich. I almost stayed in the city and went to the BMW museum, but I knew it was my last chance to see the alps. So following a suggestion on my hostel map, I hopped a train to the unpronounceable town of Garmisch Partenkirchen, alp central and site of the 1936 Winter Olympics.

Day-tripping to Bavaria is worth it just for the train rides. You basically spend an hour and a half with your face stuck up against the window, rolling through tiny German towns with wooden cottages and cows grazing out front. And then out of nowhere, the alps pop up in the background. The view is stunning.

The big attraction in Garmisch Partenkirchen is the Zugspite. At 2962 metres, it’s Germany’s highest mountain. I wasn’t quite equipped to scale it in my suede boots and pea coat, so I opted for the more touristy hike to the Partnach gorge, followed by a climb up the smaller Eckbauer mountain.

Hiking in Bavaria actually reminds me of hiking New Brunswick’s Fundy Trail. Except the hills are mountains and the water is aqua green because it’s rushing down stream from a glacier. So basically, it’s like the Fundy Trail on steroids. I definitely made the right decision to spend my last day in Munich in the alps. Cities are great, but I could stare at the snow-capped peaks of the alps forever.

Munich Favourites:

HOFBRAUHAUS: The best way to experience Oktoberfest culture outside of Oktoberfest. Beer is served by the litre. You’ll never want to leave.

THE BAVARIAN ALPS: Only one or two hours from Munich by train, depending on where you go. You can buy a Bavarian ticket for 22 euros that gets you unlimited travel in the region (including local buses) after 9am.

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NEXT STOP: Frankfurt, Germany

Singing for Salzburg

Salzburg – “The hills are alive…”

(For more pictures from Salzburg, scroll through the slide show at the bottom of this post)

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It’s official. I love being up high. You get the best pictures, and it’s the best place to make the rest of the world fall away. So when I got to Salzburg, an old Austrian city at the base of the alps, I headed for the hills.

Most people know Salzburg as Mozart’s birthplace, and as the backdrop for The Sound of Music, but the city’s history is actually based in salt mining. Salzburg translates to “salt castle.” Salt was shipped down the Salzach River on barges as early as the eighth century.

I confess I didn’t pay as much attention to the city’s history as I normally do. I did tour the iconic Hohensalzburg Fortress with an audio guide, but I was too pre-occupied with the view to take in anything else. Not only could you see the city and the river stretched across the rolling green hills of Austria’s country-side, but from the back of the fortress you could see the snow-capped alps. It was morning, and the tip of one mountain was still hidden behind a fluffy white cloud. That was all it took for me to want to run singing across the mountainside channeling Fraulein Maria.

So after forcing myself down the hill to visit Mozart’s birthplace and Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s famous shopping lane, I hiked back up just to gaze longingly at the alps. There are walking paths all over Salzburg. I hiked to a lookout area, sat on a bench and soaked in the scene.

What really got to me was the air. It was the most fresh, crisp fall air I have ever inhaled. I felt like an oxygen pump had been attached to my lungs. I just wanted to stay up there forever and breathe.

The art of the self-guided tour

The hostel I stayed at played The Sound of Music every night at 7PM. I may have watched it two nights in a row. And I was all set to board the tacky Sound of Music bus for the guided tour, until I read the brochure and realized I had already visited half the sites while walking around the city. For 40 euros, I figured I might as well visit something I hadn’t seen.

The problem is I’m a horrible decision maker. Should I visit the famous salt mines, the picturesque lake district, or Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest? I wanted to see everything, but the combination tours were 75 euros. Way out of my price range.

So I started researching, and through the holy grail that is Trip Advisor, I learned I could use public transit to get to the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden. From there, I could visit the salt mines and catch a bus to the Eagle’s Nest for half the price of a guided tour. Backpacking win.

Posing with the Eagle's Nest

Posing with the Eagle’s Nest

So that’s what I did. The salt mine was so-so. I was accidentally given a German audio guide and spent the first half of the tour completely clueless until they were able to switch it. But the Eagle’s Nest is a must-see because of the view. Hitler’s old headquarters (now a restaurant) is 1,834 metres above sea level. The bus ride up is a nail-biting, “oh-my-goodness-the-bus-is-about-to-roll-off-the-side-of-this-mountain-and-we’re-all-going-to-die” kind of ride. But it’s worth the panic attack once you’re at the top. There’s something about being up that high. It’s impossible to worry or stress about anything. It’s just you, the snow-capped mountain and the view.

Normally I try to include a range of photos in my blog posts, including pictures of buildings, city landmarks, food, etc. But in Salzburg that didn’t happen because all I did was climb mountains. So I apologize in advance for the landscape spam.

Salzburg Favourites:

THE HILLS: The city is great, but the real appeal of Salzburg lies in its stunning views. Pick a walking path and start climbing!

THE EAGLE’S NEST: No need for a guided tour, you can get there using public transit. But read about the history before you go, Hitler’s headquarters is now a restaurant catering to tourists, not a museum.

***Indicates landmark from The Sound of Music

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NEXT STOP: Munich, Germany

Czech out Prague

Prague – The Fairytale City

(For more photos from Prague, check out the slideshow at the bottom of this post)

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Prague looks different from any city I’ve visited so far. Walking around, I felt like I had stepped into the village from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The gingerbread-house style architecture and cobblestone streets make it feel like you’re in a fairytale.

It’s a colourful city. Buildings are varying shades of orange, peach, pink and blue, and the roofs are coppery red. I definitely went overboard on the number of landscape photos I took.

I had heard Prague was famous for its food so I splurged a whopping 200 koruna (about $10 Canadian) on a traditional Czech meal of beef goulash and dumplings. I guess they’re big on meat and starch here because Czechs often pair large chunks of pork and beef with potatoes or bread for dinner. Totally okay with me, I could have eaten a second helping of goulash. It was packed with flavour, like eating beef stew made in a slow-cooker.

I was really excited to visit the Royal Palace. I actually decided to stay in a hostel that was right beside it because I have an obsession with all things princess-y. But the Prague Castle was a bit of a let-down for me. It doesn’t really look like a castle. It’s more of a giant semi-circle of buildings at the top of a hill with an enormous cathedral in the centre.

And I goofed the day I decided to tour it. I cheaped out and didn’t pay extra for an audio guide. There are signs to read that tell you a bit about each building, but I found I didn’t learn as much as I normally do. I wanted to know more about which buildings were original and which ones were actually part of the palace. If I did it again I’d definitely want a guide.

View from the palace

View from the palace

Everyone says Prague is a great city for backpackers because it’s so cheap, but you have to be careful. In touristy areas food and drinks are still really overpriced. But if you venture outside the main streets, the prices are mind-blowing. I bought two 0.5L beers from a grocery store for 8 koruna each. Twenty koruna is equal to $1 Canadian, so that means those beers cost me about 80 cents. Beer is actually cheaper than water here. Amazing.

On a completely uncultural, unhistorical note, I went on an epic pub crawl in Prague with an Aussie and a group of Vancouver-ites staying at my hostel. First pub crawl I’ve done since the epic beer-hangover in Bruges. Happy to say I didn’t lose my bus pass or room key this time. Can’t say I didn’t have a hangover though.

Prague Favourites:

OLD TOWN HALL: Famous for its fancy astronomical clock from the 1400s. At the top of the hour, tourists gather to watch the twelve apostles circle through two little blue doors before a rooster pops out. Watch the show, but climb to the top of the tower afterward for a great view of the Old Town Square.

PETRIN HILL: The big green space to the left of the palace. I spent a lovely Sunday morning wandering through here. Stunning view of the city.

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NEXT STOP: Vienna, Austria

Ich bin in Berlin

Berlin – History Central

(For more photos from Berlin check out the slide show at the bottom of this post)

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The Halfway-Point

This is crazy to think about, but Berlin is the half-way point in my trip. The number one thing I miss after 22 days of travel (besides friends and family) is home cooked food. But putting aside my burning desire for a four course meal, I’m doing all right. I think I picked the perfect amount of time to travel. A month and a half gives you enough time to settle in to the backpacking life, without stretching it to the point where you can’t face another walking tour.

Travelling solo has actually been great. I love being on my own schedule and getting to do and see whatever I want. Solo travel is a very selfish practice when you stop to think about it. I do have moments, often in the evening if I’m bored, when a wave of loneliness will wash over me as I think about all the people I miss from home. But the loneliness never lasts long, before I remember where I am, and the beauty and history of the places I’m visiting overwhelms me.

The giant history lesson

Out of the places I’ve visited so far, Berlin’s history is the most interesting. The city played major roles in the Prussian empire, WWII and the Cold War, so stories literally swell from almost every building, monument and square. I did a walking tour on my first day that took us to a parking lot over the bunker where Adolph Hitler killed himself a week before WWII ended. I was standing there looking at this now unimpressive, grassy car-park, when a wave of realization came and punched me in the gut. All I could think was, history happened here.

And it’s a dark, horrific history. I visited the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It’s a field of more than 2000 concrete blocks of varying sizes. The farther you walk into the memorial, the higher the blocks become until there is hardly any light. The ground literally rolls underneath you. I was immediately filled with this ominous sense of dread and oppression.

I spent an afternoon in the free museum underneath the memorial. In a room called the Room of Names, you sit on a bench while the name of a Holocaust victim is projected onto all four walls. A voice reads a brief biography in German and English, and then another name comes up. It was equally hypnotizing and horrific to learn how so many people had died. The guide says you would have to sit in the Room of Names for six years, seven months and 27 days to listen to every biography in the database.

Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

On my last day in Berlin I toured Sachsenhausen, which is a concentration camp about 45 minutes outside of Berlin. I knew I wanted to visit a concentration camp at some point while I was in Europe, so I signed up for a guided tour. I don’t know how to describe the atrocities that occurred at Sachsenhausen without doing those who died there an injustice. It was bitterly cold the morning I visited. All I could think about was how thousands of people had frozen to death, starved or been murdered in the spot I was standing. It is not the happiest of day trips, but I would recommend visiting a concentration camp if you’re in Europe. Seeing first hand what you’ve only read about in textbooks is always worthwhile.

There is a less-somber side to Berlin. I saw tons of street art while touring around, and there was a giant beer garden just a short walk from my hostel. I happened to be in Berlin for Germany’s national holiday, which celebrates the country’s reunification in 1990. There was a big party and concert beside the Brandenburg Tor. It seemed similar to the celebrations we throw for Canada Day. I ate some German currywurst (a spicy sausage) and hung out until my toes froze.

Berlin Favourites:

REICHSTAG DOME: The top of Germany’s parliament building features a giant glass dome that you can walk around in and see the city. It’s free! But go early or  you will stand in line forever.

THE EAST SIDE GALLERY: The longest stretch of the Berlin Wall that is still standing. Unlike the stretch located near Checkpoint Charlie, this part of the wall has been decorated with street art. Makes a great morning stroll.

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NEXT STOP: Prague, Czech Republic

I Amsterdam

Amsterdam – Sex, drugs and bicycles

(For more photos from Amsterdam, scroll through the slideshow at the bottom of this post)

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I arrived in Amsterdam after only a slight hiccup. I took a train from Brussels with two brothers from Connecticut who were travelling through Amsterdam on their way to Prague. We had to transfer in Anvers, Belgium before heading on to Amsterdam. We got to the train station nice and early, found our platform, double checked with a local that we were in the right place, and boarded the train. And then we waited for them to call our stop…and waited….and waited… until I realized we should have definitely arrived in Anvers and we were slowly venturing further into the middle-of-no-where Belgium.

Aparently, Anvers is the name of the stop in French. But Antwerp is the name of the stop in Dutch, and that’s how it was called out once we were on board the train. So we didn’t get off because we had no idea Anvers and Antwerp were the same place. Yeah, okay, they both start with ‘a’, but they don’t even sound the same. One has a ‘v’and the other has a ‘tw.’ How would anyone know that?

We got lucky because the train we were on, once reaching the middle of no-where Belgium, turned around and headed back the way we came. In the end, the detour only added about an hour to the trip.

I love Amsterdam. When people think of Amsterdam they think of the nightlife, but I found Amsterdam most charming by day. I had four days of perfect weather, which locals say is unheard of. I ate dutch pancakes, visited the Anne Frank House, toured the old Heineken brewery, and wandered the sunlit canals.

Stirring some mash at the Heineken Experience

Stirring some mash at the Heineken Experience

I also did a tour of the Red Light District. It’s just the way it’s described, with girls hanging out in windows under red lights. I actually thought most of them looked incredibly bored. I saw one girl leaning against her window listening to her ipod. And the Red Light District is pretty pointless if you’re a girl, because none of the windows feature guys.

Bite-sized history lesson on Amsterdam:

  • The city is named Amsterdam after officials decided to dam the river Amstel, which ran through what is now the city’s centre.
  • Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam. Girls stand in windows and charge a base rate of €50 for 15 minutes. My tour guide said they can make €1,200 in eight hours.
  • The selling, buying and smoking Marijuana is NOT legal in Amsterdam, despite popular belief. But police haven’t arrested anybody for smoking it in 35 years.

The case of the shiny red, shock-absorbent bicycle:

The shiny red, shock-absorbent bicycle

The shiny red, shock-absorbent bicycle

I almost didn’t rent a bike in Amsterdam. It had nothing to do with my experience in Bruges and everything to do with the fact that I didn’t want to get killed. Amsterdam is ranked the number one cycling city in the world (Copenhagen is number two). The city has 400km of bike lanes and paths, and most locals choose two wheels over four, because parking in the city can cost upwards of €6 an hour.

But biking in Amsterdam is not your leisurely peddle through the park. These people are biking maniacs. They whip around corners, plow through red lights and try to hit as many tourists as possible. (My guide joked that hitting a tourist into a canal got you a lifetime membership to the Heineken Experience.) I was intimidated by them as a pedestrian, and I figured there was no way I could join them without getting run over. You can tell its a local on a bike based on whether they are biking while simultaneous doing one of the following activities:

  1. talking on their cellphone
  2. TEXTING on their cellphone
  3. carrying groceries in one arm and steering with the other
  4. READING A BOOK (I kid you not, I watched someone do this outside museum square and stared until they were out of sight)

So there was no way I was going to attempt cycling on my own. Instead, I signed up for a three hour guided tour which takes you around the outskirts of the city (cycling in the city-centre is a death wish). I was given a shiny red bicycle, with three gears, a bell and a shock system I’m now positive my bike in Bruges did not have. I spent a wonderful afternoon on my tour, and because there was a guide, I didn’t have to worry about being in the right lane or signaling, I could just follow the single file line of red bicycles. And my butt was not the least bit sore when it ended.

Amsterdam Favourites:

THE ANNE FRANK HOUSE: A very moving experience. I went at night, which was the perfect time to go because there were very few people there. I was able to take my time reading the guide and watching the video interviews with her father and old classmates. It’s very powerful to find yourself in the same space Anne was confined to for two years.

ALBERT CUYP MARKET: A large flea market just south of the city’s centre where locals go to buy cheese, fish, produce, clothes and toilettries. I walked the whole thing twice I liked it so much.

THE HEINEKEN EXPERIENCE: Site of the original brewery from 1864. There’s a great ride where you stand on a moving platform and they pretend to brew you. You get two beers with admission, plus a sample part-way through the tour. There’s even an optional cruise on the Heineken boat at the end. So worth it.

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NEXT STOP: Berlin, Germany

Brussels with a side of Ghent

Brussels – The capital of Europe

(For more photos from Brussels, scroll through the slideshow at the bottom of this post)

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Fellow backpackers told me more than once not to visit Brussels. “It’s just a big city,“ they said. “Pass through it, but you don’t need to spend the night.“ This worried me, as I was booked to stay not one night in Brussels, but three. I thought about changing my reservations, but figured it was easier to just stick with the plan.

Maybe their opinions got to me, but after visiting Paris and Bruges, Brussels just didn’t have the same umph. Brussels has a stunning square called Grand Place. It’s home to guild houses from the 1600s that are now UNESCO world heritage properties. Some people say Grand Place is the prettiest square in Europe. And I probably would have agreed with them, except they were setting up a concert stage right in front of city hall that blocked half the view.

This is terrible, but after being awestruck by architecture in Paris and Bruges, I found myself suffering from pretty-building-fatigue in Brussels. You can only take pictures of so many buildings before they start to blend together. I went on a walking tour in Brussels, but my guide was so-so and I didn’t learn as much as I normally do. So for whatever reason, I couldn’t get as excited about Europe’s capital.

I wouldn’t say don’t come to Brussels, it has some great sights and you can eat and drink all the delicious things Belgium is famous for. But one or two nights would definitely be fine. Visit Grand Place, take your picture with Manneken Pis, tour the European Parliament, eat some mussels for dinner and be on your way.

I didn’t find Brussels as pretty as other cities, but I have loved my time in Belgium as a whole. I met some great people in Bruges and Brussels and spent two great nights out drinking the finest Belgian beer. And what’s not to love about a place where drinking beer and eating are top priorities?

Other things Belgians are famous for besides beer and chocolate:

  • Cartoons: Belgian artists are the masterminds behind the Smurfs and Tintin
  • Fries: They cook them at two different temperatures and serve them with a side of mayonnaise. Very low-cal.
  • Waffles: The Brussels waffle is square-shaped with powdered sugar on top. The tourist waffle is square-shaped with ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce

***Travel alert: Do not come to Brussels if dieting***

Brussels Favourites:

MANNEKEN PIS: (Statue of a boy peeing.) This is a tourist classic, although it’s a much smaller statue than you expect it to be. This guy dates back to the 1600s, and is sometimes dressed up in one of 700 costumes. Wiki it.

EUROPEAN UNION PARLIAMENT: Brussels is home to one of the three headquarters of the EU, and there’s an incredibly interactive exhibit on its history and function called the Parlementarium. It’s also free.

Day Trip to Ghent

The old port in Ghent, Belgium

The old port in Ghent, Belgium

Because I had been told repeatedly that there wasn’t that much to do in Brussels, I decided I would day trip to nearby Ghent. Ghent is a small city located between Bruges and Brussels, so it was an easy stop on my route. I simply hoped off my train to Brussels in the morning, left my backpack in a locker, and hoped back on a train to Brussels at night.

Ghent, like Bruges, is a postcard city. It has a canal system and an old harbour that made it a hot spot in the 1100s for importing and exporting goods. Today its big draws are a giant bell tower and several pretty churches. I visited a medieval castle and did a walking tour. It was 25 degrees and sunny outside. A perfect day.

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NEXT STOP: Amsterdam, Netherlands