Thursday, May 28, 2009

Czech Me Out: Prague, Czech Republic.

Hola queridos,

The city of Prague was very highly recommended to me as one of the more beautiful cities in of course I had to make plans to go there! But first...

Travel during the first part of my Spring break was done primarily by plane & the second part (through Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy) were all done by train with the use of our Eurail passes. The Eurail pass entitled us to 5 days travel in any of the three bordering countries: Czech Republic, Austria, & Switzerland. This pass would eventually prove to be a great thing, but it didn't start off so grand.

To begin, when I finally received my package, it was missing the actual pass! So of course you're left to think that someone just walked off with my $300 + pass and I'm left with nothing. My host mom, who'd signed for the package (that appeared to have been tampered with), felt horrible and took me to the police station. Yes! I was in the police station in Spain to report my package missing. Fortunately, the company somehow managed to find the rest of my package and sent it to me. Phew.

Then, in order to use the pass you have to get it "verified." This proved to be an even greater challenge as we were trying to do this in Poland, where English was very minimal, and they had very little knowledge of what the Eurail pass is. So we boarded the train anyway, without it being verified, which may very well be illegal, but all the documentation was there so we did it. Once in some very random city in the Czech Republic, we waited in line forever and were then told that we had to go to the "Conductor's Office". So we walk around, this women greets me (and by greet I mean grunts and stares). Seriously, she looked at me like I was from another planet! Then she wakes her boss up, because, oh ya! it was 2 am. He speaks very little English but at least had patience to try and understand our situation, although, long story short, we got back on a later train and still didn't have verification.

So first order of business when our train arrived to Prague, was not to sightsee, but to find a place where we could be verified. Customer service wasn't any better in Czech & I was starting to get frustrated because it seemed that no one knew where or what these passes were. We then left the main train station for another (where we "needed" to go) but no surprise when the women (who didn't speak any English) said that we needed to go back to the main train station.


Not ready to just find our way back to the train station, I was using as many hand signals as possible to convey that we were already there, they told us to go here, blah blah blah. Finally, I pulled out the only German word that I knew (because she spoke German) and I said "YAH" and pointed in the other direction...and it worked! So she called the main station, then slid the phone underneath the glass window and I was able to talk to someone in English. Phew.

So after we found our way back to the same station, we got our stamps, and went off sightseeing, but not after a cup of Starbucks Coffee. Prague really is a pretty city, there's some good history here as well. We saw some churches and visited the castle as well. Although I didn't find it as beautiful as was previously described to me, I still had a very pleasant time.

At the end of the day, we boarded the train and headed off to Salzburg, Austria.


Tatra Mountains, Zakopane, Poland.

Hola Queridos,

My time in Zakopane, Poland was time very well spent! Of course, first I had to find a way to communicate with the train-ticket-seller, in POLISH. It was very, very entertaining, me waving my arms around & also not understanding anything that she was saying...Polish is really nothing like Spanish. However, we eventually came to an agreement & I had a ticket in my hand, although I still wasn't that confident that I'd actually arive in Zakopane (2 1/2 hours South of Krakow) more than arriving in Bangledesh. Fortuantely, I found the right train, and some people who were able to tell me that, "No, this isn't your stop." : )

Zakopane is the Winter capital of Poland. It's located around the Tatra Mountains and the Tatra National Park beautiful! It was my first encounter with the beautiful landmarks and the mountains left me wondering around the city until dark. In the hostel I stayed at, I met a fellow traveler from France & we decided to go hiking the next day.

So we got up early and headed was great! I ended up hiking a good 7 hours that day, sometimes on nicely marked trails, other times on steep inclines with snow still covering the ground. We also only got lost one or two times, so nothing major! I was really content with all the running streams and also the waterfall that we found : )

We then walked through a couple more villages to find the cable car up to the top of the mountain...coolest thing ever! Of course there was a rather big line, but after we were in the car, it was totally worth it! The sights of these overwhelming mountains just took my breath away (or perhaps that was my fear of plumenting when the cable car was rocking back 'n forth). We unboarded the car and were on top of mountain! But wait! it gets better! We then boarded another cable car to take us to the very, very top of the next mountains over 2634 meters in the sky!!!

I've never felt that close to the sun before, it was amazing....and really, really bright. I just wondered around in awe, I couldn't believe how brilliant my surroundings were. Then I spotted an area where you could climb farther and farther up, so of course, I did! It was all really fun, until a cloud came and make everything dark and my visibility not at a comfortable level. So I had to turn around and head into the restaurant as we waited for our turn to take the cable down.

I was on such a high, I still am...that was the coolest thing ever!


Krakow, Poland.

Hola queridos,

I loved Krakow, Poland. If you ever plan to travel to Poland, make sure to visit Krakow, & in my experience, I would recommend just staying in Krakow because there are so many interesting things that are only a bus/train ride away.

For example, the Auschwitz & Birkenau Concentration Camps. Physically being in the same place where thousands and thousands of innocent people were killed, heartlessly, for no more than their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, profession (i.e. gypsies), etc. is such a significant feeling that I really can't describe in words. I found myself walking around, trying to keep the knot in my throat from getting any larger and shaking my head in disbelief. Disbelief that I was there, disbelief that such occurrences actually happened, and that according to Hitler, Auschwitz (the first camp we visited) camp wasn't "efficient" enough, so they constructed Birkenau. Truly awful & very, very sick.

I walked away from Auschwitz & Birkenau feeling incredibly sad and frustrated as I fear that our world has (hopefully) learned a lot from this past history, but that hate crimes like this, genocides, etc. are still occurring today in different parts of the world. It's just sad.

After the Concentration Camp experience we headed back to Krakow (about an hour and some odd minutes bus ride). My travel partner took a nap & I headed off to the Wawel Castle. The Castle is beautifully located on the riverfront. Unfortunately I was a little pressed for time (before closing), & was pretty much running through the Castle to see it all. Overall, it was really pretty and appeared to be like the castles I'd seen in movies, elaborate chandeliers, marble, etc, compared to concrete (like those of Spain).

The next day I headed off to Wieliczka Salt Mine. The name may not sound exciting, but this is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's actually the only mining site in the world still functioning since the Middle Ages; it reaches depths of 327 meters! Then somewhere along in history, they decided to turn their still functioning mine into a tourist attraction, so they built a restaurant, a church, added sculptures among other spectaculars all made out of salt from the mine. It's really pretty neat & very, very unique.

I loved my time in Krakow...I did a lot of roaming around & saw tons of really cool things. I wish I could have captured it all on film or even in photos but the smells and sounds of the city are just something else. I loved it!


Friday, April 10, 2009

So much & not enough time to write!

Hola queridos,

So...where do I begin?! There's just so much going on each and evey day that if I don't write it all down I'll forget because I'm on my sixth day of vacation already and all the days are just flyin' by! Ahhh.

To top it off, I usually have to do a hit-and-run on the computer, ration my 15 minutes between checking & responding to emails, as well as messaging friends, and updating this blog! (On a side note, I currently do not have the capability to upload photos, but providing I have time in Spain, I will do so there).

Arriving to Krakow was so stressful! Mainly because our train didn't depart until an hour and a half before the scheduled flight departure and upon arrival we found long, long lines for both checking-in and the security check...yikes! I'm not going to lie, I was stressin'. Eventually, and shorter fingernails later, we made it through all the necessary checks. Of course our flight was then postponed for an hour due to lost luggage or something or other; got to love the hurry up and wait!

Once we landed in Krakow, however, all was good from there. Well, I should back up. Once we made it to the train station which only involved walking probably a total of a mile back and forth on the same stretch of road ... One intersting thing was though on the way I noticed a guy wearing a St. Norbert's Basketball t-shirt. I approached him and asked him where he got the shirt, luckily he spoke broken English & was able to reply that he got it, "in the States" and after further inquiry we discovered he got it in Chicago! Small world!! (We also met two guys from Wisconsin in the Madrid airport, one which is also studying at St. Norbert)

It's like a dream to be here in Krakow...I'm here for three days & it just gives me the feeling that I'm not going to want to leave. On the first day, we basically just meandered around the city. It's hard to describe Krakow but I will try.

The Market Square is a blast, it's full of first, plenty of items for Easter (decorative eggs, baskets, green grass things), delicious Polish food (I had their version of a cheesecurd...mmmMMMgood), clothing, music, plenty of jewelry (amber is big here), and more food. The Square is spacious, I've already spent some time just people watching because there are so many different nationalities here!

More later!


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Venice Venice

Hola queridos,

Each day I love Italy more and more! It's so hard to leave : ( (I for sure want to come back!)

Today we another early wake-up call, 2:30 am to be exact! After talking with some of the other folks in the hostel, I learned that we could take a shuttle from the station to the airport (since public transpotation isn't functioning at that unnaturally early time in the morning) so as to avoid paying Taxi fees (finally!). So we arrived at 3:20 AM, as we were told to do, and we waited, and waited, and waited, and finally left at 4:30 AM!

Not only is waiting a pain, but we needed to be at the airport with enough time to check in, security, etc.! So we were rushing through as fast as we could, but we made it & were off to Venice, Italy!

Venice is ... beautiful, amazing, peaceful, unique, calming, precious.....
I could just sit (as we did) for hours and just watch the people and boats go by. For those of you who aren't familiar with Venice (as I was before I learned about it), Venice has streets that are really water canals. This then includes that people have boats instead of cars (there are streets and cars, I don't want to give the wrong impression). Venice is where they have the famous bridges and gondolas with their singers (it's true!).

It was also in Venice that I tried my first gelato (ice cream)...and my second ... and true, Italian pizza! Hmmm mmm good ;)

We then had to train from Venice to Bergamo (Milan). Once we arrived, we returned to the same hostel we were at days prior (although it felt as though a lot more time had transpired, and settled in.


This ... is ... Sparta (Rome, Italy)

Hola Queridos,

I went to ROME! : )

We had another early wake-up time, 3 am early!

The day started off a little rough again as my roomate's luggage was supposed to be left at the hostel (since we're returning there) yet the reception desk wasn't open at 3 am & the receptionist forgot to mention such a detail. So we had to rush and think of who/where/if she should leave it ... all while the Taxi was waiting outside to take us to the airport...meter running.

We got to the airport and fortunately ran into little problems. Once in Rome we waited for a bus and found our hostel surprisingly easy (granted, the bar wasn't set too high). We set out stuff down quickly and set off to see as much of Rome as we could in one day!

To start we headed to The Vatican City! If you're only interested to hear if I saw the Pope, I didn't, although he was in the city, somewhere!

The Vatican was really interesting...we opted to pay for a guided tour which meant we were able to skip the lines, go through security, and then have a guided tour. Although it was a bit more costly than just doing it solo, skipping the typical 3 hour long wait (if not longer) was worth it. I was able to see St. Peter's Basicilica as well as The Sistine Chapel! What an experience!! Both of these places were just breathtaking, as it's still hard to believe that I was actually there!

We then headed for lunch from the grocery store...I fear I'm going to be really sick of sandwich meat by the end of this adventure...

Next we headed to the other 'main' mark, the Coloseum. Wow! Pretty impressive it was!! I kept thinking 300 ... we are Sparta .. from the movie 300.

Afterwards my friend decided to take a nap and I, in Rome, wandered around... taking all the pictures that I could! It was so interesting to see so much of Rome, still intact!

I have a very positive impression of the Italian people...they're very welcoming to foreigners and always trying to assist you either if you ask or sometimes, just looking lost, they would offer to help!

The other "exicting" news from Rome, which didn't really affect us at all, was the fact that an earthquake hit the day before our arrival. Although some street signs were down, I didn't personally notice too much distruction. So phew! I appreciate the concern though.. it means a lot to know people were thinking about me!!


It wasn't the greatest start...

Hola queridos,

So the beginning of my spring break wasn't going as smoothly as I hoped it would. Basically, I didn't have time to print off all of my confirmation emails/reservations/itineraries because the Internet Cafe I was at ran out of ink, then when we went to buy our bus tickets to Madrid, mine went through but within two seconds, the bus was sold out and my friend still needed her ticket! Never mind you that the bus was scheduled to leave in 15 minutes! Alas, we got her a ticket at the counter and I learned that the whole time I've been traveling here I could've been saving 2 Euro on each ticket with the student discount!

Once we finally arrived into Madrid we spent a good 2 hours walking around in circles trying to find our hostel! Ahhhh. Once we finally found it & checked it, the time was nearing midnight & we had to get up at 4 am!

Our flight, being scheduled to leave at 7:20 am, meant public transpotation wasn't up & running two hours before like we needed to which then meant that we had to pay for a taxi...ouch! Taxis are expensive...but we got there, checked in, and once we were in the air, it was smooth sailing...until we landed in Bergamo, Italy (right outside of Milan).

Once we arrived to Bergamo, we found a bus shuttle to the city center & got off where it told us we should in order to catch Bus #1. Well, about an hour later and after seeing the same 3 bus lines drive by we thought 'this probably isn't the right stop.' Turns out we needed to go around the corner to a different stop...blah blah blah. So...we're finally on the right bus, realizing that no one around us is speaking English, I know no Italian, & yet various Italian people were very patiently trying to help us find the hostel even though we don't understand a word they're saying! It was very impressive for me.

We find the hostel & instead of being greeted by a "Welcome" at the reception desk we find a sign saying: Closed 10-2pm. We arrived at 11am. Logically, you would say that we could've just walked around but my travel partner had a huge luggage and therefore was not about to lug it around the city, so we sat, more or less...made small chat with a cruise-sailor-man from Italy & I roamed a little as the location of the hostel was in a gorgeous spot!

Yah... pretty interesting, huh? At this point I was really having to force myself to think that backpacking through Europe for the next weeks was going to be worth it : )