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

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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

Classy Vienna

Vienna – Opera and vineyards

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

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I can’t believe I almost didn’t go to Vienna. When I planned my trip, I was originally going to visit Salzburg and then continue on to Munich. When I realized I had an extra travel day on my rail pass, I added it to the itinerary. I’m so, so glad I did.

I didn’t think Vienna would be able to wow me after Prague, but I went for a walk on my first night in the city and was mesmerized by the way the buildings looked lit up. The architecture almost has a Grecian style to it. Buildings like the Hofburg Palace and the State Opera emanate a sense of wealth and prestige. It made me feel like I was in a different era.

I actually explored much of Vienna with a friend. I met a girl from Chicago back in Brussels whose been travelling Europe on a very similar schedule. We also met up in Amsterdam and Prague, but in Vienna we were actually staying in the same hostel. There’s no free walking tour in Vienna, so we set off on our own with a self guided map to take in some of the major sites, including Hofburg Palace, Parliament, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and the Sigmund Freud Museum.

The rain finally caught up with me in Vienna, but I can’t complain after all the sun I’ve had. I toured Schonbrunn Palace, the Habsburg’s summer residence, on a gray, drizzly morning. I still found the royal gardens to be charming because of the fall colours. I actually liked them better than the gardens at Versailles in Paris.

Normally, I leave a city in the morning because I hate arriving in a new place after dark, but I knew the sun was going to come out on my scheduled travel day from Vienna to Salzburg. There was a vineyard I had read about just outside the city, so I decided to store my mammoth backpack at the hostel after checking out and caught a tram to the old Viennese wine village of Nussdorf.

Nussdorf, Vienna

Nussdorf, Vienna

I had no idea what I would find when I got off the tram. The guide had said to get off at the last stop and walk up the hill. I didn’t have a map for this part of Vienna, so that’s what I did. At first I was just in a very pretty residential area, but then this massive hillside popped up and I knew I had to get to the top.

It was a landscape straight out of a movie: Row after row of grape vines, little farm houses scattered across the hillside, the autumn leaves changing colour, and stretching below it all, the Danube river and the city of Vienna. I stayed up there for hours just wandering around. It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments you get when you realize you’re getting to see something truly amazing.

A night at the Opera

I had a second ‘pinch me’ moment in Vienna. I was totally shocked when I arrived at my hostel and saw a sign explaining you could get standing room tickets to the Vienna State Opera for…brace yourself… four euros. FOUR EUROS. You can’t even buy sachertorte in Vienna for four euros!

I couldn’t have been more excited, which is surprising, as I had never even seen an opera from start to finish. But stepping into the Vienna State Opera for a Friday night performance of La Fanciulla Del West (The Girl of the West) was an experience in itself. Women wore glittering, floor length gowns with choker necklaces that sparkled from across the room. Men bought bottles of wine from the bar and dined on fancy, finger-sized sandwiches.

And what’s even more amazing is how good our spots were. My friend and I got dressed up in our backpacking best and stood in line two hours before the start of the show. We snagged tickets for the lower standing area, which is dead centre, at stage level. We were a little squished and sweaty for the first act, but some people left at intermission, giving us more elbow room.

And there are even little screens that provide subtitles! I had read the Wikipedia synopsis for La Fanciulla Del West before the show, but having the subtitles made it so much easier to follow the plot.

I know nothing about Opera, but we were told multiple times that the three leads, Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme and Tomasz Konieczny, are among the best in their field. After watching them perform, I can believe it.

The entire opera is done without microphones, but you can hear every lyric no matter where you are in the theatre. And then there are those notes that shouldn’t even be possible for a human to hit. The fact that I was able to see a show of that calibre, in one of the world’s most renowned opera houses was definitely a trip highlight for me.

Vienna Favourites:

THE VIENNA STATE OPERA: Arrive at the side entrance at least 90 minutes before the start of the show to purchase standing room tickets for that night’s performance. Bring a scarf to mark your spot once you get in, then explore the prestige of this stunning building.

NUSSDORF: Viennese suburb featuring half a dozen vineyards. Take Tram D all the way to the end (stop name Beethovengang). Then climb up and up!

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 NEXT STOP: Salzburg, Austria

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

À Paris

Paris: The City of Light

(For more photos from Paris, scroll through the gallery at the bottom of this post.)

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I arrived in Paris late at night, and I was immediately overwhelmed by how much I wanted to fit in to just four days. I couldn’t focus on anything until I saw the Eiffel Tower, so I decided I would go there first thing the next day. Being the indecisive person that I am, I debated whether I should pay to go up, or just take a picture of it. In the end, I said what the heck, and paid the full price to go to the very top.

It was 100 per cent worth it. The sun poked through the clouds right when I left the elevator and lit everything up. It was breathtaking.

So I was officially in love with Paris. But shortly after I experienced a tiny hiccup in my solo travel adventure. I went to the train station to validate my Eurail Pass (I would be using it for the first time when I traveled from Paris to Bruges) and found out the trains were already mostly booked on the day I planned to leave. I had hoped to give myself a fourth day in Paris by leaving at night, but my only option was to take a train at 7:45 AM. I was so upset. Now I would have to fit everything into three days. I stressed over whether I should change my hostel reservations, but decided I would just have to be smart with my time.

For three days, I went nonstop. I walked the Champs Elysées at night, took way too many photos of the Eiffel Tower, and spent more than five hours in the Louvre before my brain refused to absorb anymore information. I almost didn’t get to Versailles because I took the wrong train (stupidly got the direction wrong) and then couldn’t find my ticket when I got to the front of the line. It was hiding at the bottom of my bag, thank goodness. On my last night I bought a panini and a croissant and had a picnic on the banks of the Seine as the sun set. Nothing could beat that.

Eiffel Tower at night

Eiffel Tower at night

I understand why people get engaged in Paris. I went back to the Eiffel Tower at night and couples were picnicking in its glow and drinking wine straight from the bottle. London was a big city with iconic landmarks, but everywhere you look in Paris is architectural eye candy. Basically, every king and queen built a new palace to out-do the king or queen that came before them. The buildings are now used as museums, court houses or police headquarters, but the result is a city of palaces. I had to force myself to stop taking pictures because every building is a work of art.

I did manage to see everything I wanted to see, although I didn’t tour some places (I didn’t have time to go inside Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur or the Opera House). As a whole, I LOVED Paris, and going back someday is now on my bucket list.

Paris Favourites

THE LOUVRE: Pay the extra five euros for the audio guide. It points out key works and will keep you from getting overwhelmed. Head to the Mona Lisa first to beat the crowds. After that, the Near East Antiquities and Ancient Egyptian exhibits are must-sees if you want to take in some seriously old stuff (think 7000 B.C.)

THE EIFFEL TOWER: Up close, from afar, at sunrise, at sunset… I am slightly obsessed with this iron icon. Nothing makes you feel like you’re in Paris like the Eiffel Tower.

THE AVENUE DES CHAMPS-ÉLYSEES: Start at the Louvre at dusk and stroll all the way up the length of this posh stretch of shops to the Arc de Triomphe. Gawk at the incredibly wealthy people in fancy cars and clothes with the rest of the tourists.

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NEXT STOP: Bruges, Belgium