Summer of Europe 2010: Part III
// October 11th, 2010 // Travel
BY STAN BASHMASHNIKOV — SMB.COM.
Prague — July 14th – 18th
Paris was breathtakingly memorable. Amsterdam was an experience unlike nothing else. Prague was an unexpectedly, pleasant surprise of architectural, cultural, and historic beauty.
Upon mine, Chris, and James’ arrival to the city – we were part of a truly luxurious European train travel expedition. I’m exaggerating slightly – we rode second class. But this speed-demon was nothing like the one from Amsterdam to Berlin. The air was perfectly cool, drowning out the summer day. There were dozens of empty seats. No crying babies on board to disturb your rest. But the icing on the cake? The three-course Czech meal consisting of beef goulash, and other various edibles. The meal could’ve easily been on Top Chef – it was that good. Needless to say, this was starting off on the right foot.
Most people are unaware of the hidden treasure that is Prague, Czech Republic. Typically referred to as the most westernized city in Eastern Europe, it was practically unharmed during World War II. Because of this, most of the old architecture, dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries remains standing. This is remarkable considering that nearly every major city in Europe was bombarded during the war.
First things first – walk down to the Stare Mesto (Old Place) and take in the city’s town square. Out of all the town squares on my trip, I found this one to be one of my favorite. You will find the Orloj, or Astronomical Clock, at the forefront winning over the tourist masses. At the top of every hour, the “The Walk of the Apostles” occurs where puppets, figurines, and other moving sculptures signify the changing of the hour. Every tour guide said the same thing to us – “You will most likely be disappointed with it.” Sure enough, the build up, waiting among the crowd, camera in hand – was much more exciting than 30 seconds of watching toys move around. It’s worth to see – but just to say that you saw it.
Looming across the Vltava River, its hard to miss the city’s most noticeable landmark – the Pražský hrad, or Prague Castle. And what’s even better? You’ll be mesmerized by the quality, precision, and preservation of the statues lining the Charles Bridge (the bridge that connects the city to the Castle District). This was quite surreal for me. The words ageless and priceless are are an understatement. The golden-embroidery on every statue is something rarely found anywhere in the world. Whether it be philosophers, poets, and religious figures – the subtle gold lining entrenched within the stone is an instant crowd-pleaser.
We were sure to visit Karlovy Lazne, supposedly regarded to be the largest club in Eastern Europe. I hated this place. Remember high school dances? Remember how awkward and cheesy they were? This place had 5 floors of that. I can guarantee that the overwhelming majority of the people here were teenagers. Talk about a tourist trap. Don’t believe the hype. This place also charged a hefty cover – all for a major let down. Again – consider going here, but just to say that you went.
Don’t forget to eat. Two of my favorite meals of the trip were here. The country’s national dish is Roast Duck Neck (and other crazy variations of Duck). Now, depending on how big of a Duck fan you truly are – you still have to appreciate the delicious goodness the Czech prepare. One night – we ate this specialty dish in front of the Astronomical Clock. Again – a Top Chef nominated dish, in my opinion. On a completely different night, after the guys had left – an even better meal. Tucked away in a small, village-like street, me and my friend Donna found a Russian restaurant. Completely authentic; I felt like my mom was cooking. They even asked me what my last name was. We feasted with a traditional Russian lunch – complete with Bouillon Soup, Pelmeni, and Ribs.
Praha houses a very prominent Jewish district in the northwest part of town. Above all, the Jewish Cemetery immediately blew me away. In addition to the fact that it is literally hundreds, and hundreds of years old, all the graves are stacked atop one another. A designated path takes you on a walking tour through generation after generation of deceased souls. The headstones are breathtaking, leaning atop one another like spectators at a concert. They are surprisingly well preserved for something so old. It was truly an eerie feeling walking through there.
Budapest — July 19th – 21th
I wasn’t even supposed to go to Budapest. The initial plan was to visit Vienna. I couldn’t really associate Vienna with anything right off the top of my head. Don’t let this be your reason for visiting a place. It was just mine – at the time. Upon heavy contemplation, via Google Image search, in addition to a few intriguing conversations – I decided I was going to pull the proverbial travel-trigger and take an evening train to Buda. Here is the story.
It was the furthest East my journey had taken me. And for about an hour – I was questioning it. Let me elaborate. My train arrived around 23:00 (11:00pm). Now – I arrived late-night in both Paris and Brussels – and had no problem getting comfortably acquainted with the general surroundings. People were out and about. Lampposts illuminated narrow, dark streets. The shadiness factor was minimal. But for some reason – Budapest was slightly different. The Keleti train station gave off a deserted, Wild West aura. Honestly, the place felt completely deserted. Once the remaining passengers scattered, I swear I must’ve been alone with a handful of homeless people, who were asking for money in this extremely wide open terminal. The bus stop was right outside. I finally made my way to my hostel. Surprise, surprise! They overbooked me. The owner, an older, lanky man in his mid-50s with a thick Slavic accent, drove me to a sister hostel. The kind gesture was much appreciated – really couldn’t be picky at this point. I felt a little uncomfortable though – and he was driving a BMW 6 series. Really? Is the Hostel business really that good? He pulled up to an old, project style building and walked me in. No lights. No elevator. A putrid, dark staircase. We were going to the 6th floor. My guard was undeniably up at this point. He opened the door and I let out a huge sigh of relief – an American receptionist greeted me and I saw other, young travelers watching an episode of The Office in the background. The moral here? Not sure – but it definitely had me on edge.
Onto the history! The sheer size of Budapest amazed me right off that bat. The city is divided into two parts: Buda and Pest. Buda lies west of the Danube River, while Pest lies east. Geographically, the layout reminded me of Paris and London. An enormous river running through a massive area of land. While the city is united and sovereign – the general feel in both areas is vastly different. Buda sports a country-side, hilly vibe. Quaint villages and narrow hillside pathways sprawl across the mountainous region. Buda Castle is located here – and is definitely worth hiking up to for the incredible views. Expect nothing but peace and serenity from an area called Buda. Pest is more urban, city-dweller, business district-esque. Consider it the central area for everything finance, government, and economics. Noisy and urban.
Out of all the things to check off your “travel list” – spending a day at the Turkish baths unmistakeably takes precedent. Budapest is very well known for having exquisite baths. They don’t play around. An all day pass ranges anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five euro. With all the amenities and cool side sections (whirlpool, sauna, hot/cold jacuzzi, etc.) – it pays for itself. This was the perfect break for my trip. Backpacking, you are walking five miles every day – at the minimum. Assuming you go during the summer, you are sweating through your clothes for the majority of the time. This wears you down – mentally and physically. And personally, you can only see so many town halls, grand squares, churches, and bridges before it gets repetitive. Not to say that you won’t appreciate it – by god, you still will. But – it loses its novelty. Anything that will take you away from being an obvious tourist, do it! Thank me later.
Munich/Dachau– July 22nd – 24th
Bavaria is an experience in and of itself. Much like Budapest, my stay here was short but sweet. The southern German city is primarily known for one thing – Beer. Lots of it. I forget the exact statistic – but during Oktoberfest, they consume a lot of it. Enough to fill lakes, rivers, and oceans. Wormholes in space. If it were water, it would cure malnourished children in Africa and put out fires in Los Angeles. You get the picture. So it goes without saying that the vibe here, when compared to Berlin, is vastly different. It would be like comparing Apples to Antelopes. Conservatives to liberals. America to Europe. There is a huge difference.
A visit to the famous Hofbrahaus goes without saying. Hitler and the Third Reich frequented Munich’s most famous beer hall, complete with 3-floors and over 700 seating locations. Everything is still vintage – from the carvings on the tables to the Liederhosen worn by the staff. Although it has become very touristy, most visitors will still be in for a great time. Talk about instant friends. As soon as you sit down – you’re family. Like Olive Garden but it doesn’t absolutely suck. Sorry Olive Garden – you can’t turn grandma’s old
Italian recipes and mass produce them. Me and my new friends took a seat amongst hundreds. We feasted on delicious bratwursts, frankfurters, wiener schnitzels – you name it, we had it. And of course, the house brew in a liter mug was a home run. Try it all or you will regret it!
In terms of the nightlife, check out Osterpark Ost on Graffingerstrasse. That sounds confusing – I know. The cab drivers and locals know where it is. Essentially, it is a sectioned off street, weaving in and out of itself, consisting of an absurd number of Bavarian clubs, bar, and lounges. I’m talking 20+ here – all tightly knit into a relatively small space. The street runs rampant with debauchery, yet still feels very well controlled. Europe does a good job in figuring this out. I compare it to Bourbon St. with a clubby, Bavarian twist. Did I just coin Bavarian St? Maybe.
Now, I’ve probably overused the word “sobering” throughout my writings. I believe it justifies itself. The overall theme of the trip seemed to shift day-by-day. A day at the beer garden followed a night out can easily be overshadowed by one expierence of culture and history. Obviously – Dachau was this. This was my 2nd concentration camp of the journey, Sachenhausen (outside of Berlin) being the first. Officially opened in 1933, it was the first of its kind. Many of the forthcoming camps were modeled after this one. Needless to say – it made me feel the same way as Sachenhausen. For a lack of being wordy – it was, once again, appalling to see the grounds. And hear the stories being told by the guides. It rained too. Lot of very elderly people too. Made me wonder – a lot. Kind of brings you down to Earth, or just down in general. But that doesn’t matter much. What matters is the memory that will resonate with me for a long, long time. Dachau is a sobering place.
Stay Tuned for Part IV concluding my travels with Barcelona and Ibiza.
Stan Bashmashnikov runs stanmichaelbash.com, focusing on industries such as creative marketing, online media, and social networking. Please visit the Contact Me link at the bottom of the page for more info.