Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Amsterdam – Let’s ride bikes!

Ten years ago, I had arrived in Amsterdam with a couple of travelers from New York. We stepped off the train and into a crush of Amsterdam traffic, which was unlike any other I’d ever seen. On the far right was a sidewalk. To the left of the sidewalk was a bike lane. Next came a lane for cars, followed by a tram lane in the middle. The New Yorkers got frustrated that they had to walk at the pace of the people in front of them, so decided to walk in the bike lane. This caused a bike to swerve into the car lane and a car to swerve into the tram lane. Stupid tourists.

I never got on a bike though. My hostel was downtown, and I stayed safely on the sidewalk.
Fast forward a decade, and Leslie and I were quite lost our first day in Amsterdam. We were staying outside downtown. The tram cost $3 each ride, so we decided to make the 20 minute walk into the downtown core for dinner.
We made downtown with no problems and had dinner at a place called Wok to Walk, which lets you pick noodles, fresh ingredients and a sauce, then it’s fried in a Wok in a matter of minutes.
The way back was a different matter. It was raining, and we were lost. We ended up on a main-road, watching bikers fly by with no problem. On top of that, when the cars got caught in traffic, the bikes would pass them all. Our feet were sore, our legs were tired and we were wet. The map I had was dangerously close to falling apart due to the rain. We eventually made it back, but were tired and miserable. The whole experience drove home a point.
Amsterdam is designed for bikes.
We began day two by renting bikes from Star Bike Rentals. I had a silver one with an unintelligible Dutch brand name. Leslie got one labeled “Granny”.
Dutch bikes are not like bikes we’re used to. First off, they’re fixed-gear bikes, so no shifting. They’re also back-brakes and do not have brakes on the handlebars. I hadn’t ridden a bike that had those sorts of breaks since I was ten or so. The handlebars were curved towards the rider and finally, the rider was supposed to sit upright. In the bike’s we’re used to, we usually have our weight over the handlebars, built to help drive momentum forward. The dutch bikes have you sit straight upright, which would make it easier to carry things, such as grocery bags.
I asked the guy behind the counter if there was anything I should know about the traffic laws. He gave me two pieces of advice, “the little triangles pointing towards you mean yield” and “don’t get hit by a tram.
My first foray into the world of Dutch bikes made me feel like a drunken lemur.
We pushed the bikes out of the store into a relatively empty parking lot to get some practice. I swung my leg over the seat, put my foot on the pedal and pushed forward. I expected the pedal to slide to the down position and to gain some forward momentum. Instead, I slammed on the brakes and jammed my mid-section into the handlebars. Ouch.
Leslie had completed a circle behind me and looked ready. This time I made sure the pedal was forward and pushed off with an awkward, running-ish motion. We were off.
I was a bit nervous because the bike-shop was right by the central train station and bus station, so we were going to be in the busiest section of traffic right at the start.
Fortunately, there was a bike path that separated the bikes from trams, trains and buses as we made it through central station. In less than a minute, we had reached a T in the road with a stop sign. The bikes in Amsterdam have their own traffic signals, which look just like the red-yellow-greens in the USA, except instead of circles, the lights are in the shape of bicycles. They also light both the yellow and red light when it’s about to turn green.
We came to the first stop sign and I slowed down. Unfortunately, my US-style bike instincts failed me again. I remembered to use the rear brakes, but as my speed reduced to where I was about to lose balance I put my feet down. I wasn’t all the way stopped though, so I put down my feet and immediately whacked myself in the Achilles tendon with the pedal. Ouch.
The goal of a quick ride across central station was a no-go as stop sign halted us to let the tram pass. We lined up with all the Dutch people. We were probably four bikes across and four bikes deep when the light turned green and everyone crossed the street tram path and headed down the street.
Our goal was a restaurant we found in The Lonely Planet called “Pancakes!” in the hip Jordaan district of Amsterdam. Once we left central station the bikes began to thin out. I took a left when it looked easy and we found ourselves riding along a canal. There was room for a car on the side of the canal, but the cars had to go slow to make sure they didn’t hit anything. Most of them stayed on the main street with the trams leaving the canal-side streets for the bikes. Nobody was in our way and we coasted down the canal. The bikes fit Amsterdam like an old pair of sneakers.
About five minutes later we had crossed a quarter of the city and found ourselves locking up the bikes outside Pancakes!
It was a bit expensive, but definitely worth it as we had one of the best breakfasts of the trip. Leslie ordered the Muesli pancakes, which came with yogurt and fruit on the side while I had the daily special. A Dutch pancake with chorizo and spring onions.
The Dutch usually serve a single pancake that’s about a quarter inch thick and about a foot in diameter. It was a BIG pancake. The onions were mixed into the batter and cooked along with the pancake. The chorizo was a sausage 2.5 inches in diameter that was sliced into quarter inch thick slices and placed into the top of the pancake. It looked almost like pepperoni on a pizza.
After breakfast we ended up biking around Vesterpool Park before heading towards Newendijk, which is the center of the downtown core. Pronounced NEW-in-dike
We ended up riding alongside a rather major street and I saw something that made me think it wasn’t only the New Yorkers making fools of themselves due to Amsterdam traffic. A group of six was riding right towards us, looking around, dodging oncoming traffic and making general chaos of the streets. I think they had just rented their bikes as they looked terrified. I pointed at the other side of the street.
A young women looked at me and asked, “Other side?” in a thick British accent.
“Right side,” I responded, remembering that the Brits usually drive on the left. A sheepish look came over her as she realized what they had done. She waved her hands and yelled in a self-mocking fashion, “look! I’m a tourist!” Stupid tourists.
One of my favorite parts of the bikes is that it makes the city so compact. I’m not sure exactly how many bikes you can park in a standard car parking space, but it’s a lot. As a result, the city is quite condensed. You can handle many more people with the same infrastructure. In fact, when you get closer to the city-center, the cars are forbidden and you can only ride bikes.
When you get to Newendijk, there’s no bikes and everybody walks.
Newendijk is unique. There’s probably room for a car and a half, but the streets are packed with people. The little windy roads are covered in cobblestone. Major brand-name stores intermingle with boutiques, cheese shops and of-course, coffee shops.
As many of you will probably know, coffee shops in Amsterdam are where one goes to buy marijuana and hash. I’m not exactly sure how it works, as technically, the drugs are illegal, but it’s available everywhere. In fact, we had a little difficulty when trying to find a place that was an actual coffee shop although Coffee@Company ended up being pretty cool.
Now I’m not going to tell anyone not to smoke weed in Amsterdam, but I will say that the drug-tourists in the hostel (probably about 1/2) were a bit annoying. Amsterdam is a beautiful, canal-ridden city with interesting cultural and culinary experiences so its frustrating when it gets reduced to a destination for drugs. Why would you want to sit stoned in the room all day?
You could go to the Red Light District! The seedier side of humanity comes out in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. We just had to see it, so we took the bikes and parked over in the Red Light around 5 o’clock.
At this point we learned that the Red Light doesn’t really come alive until later, so we decided to walk back to the Newendijk area for dinner. MAJOR mistake.
“It’s really close,” I said. “We’ll just walk and come back.” Well, we made it to Newendijk without any problems, but when it was time to come back, we got lost, and lost our bikes. “Wok to Walk” had never been more appropriate. Then it started to rain.
Once again, we found ourselves wandering the streets of Amsterdam in the rain, wishing we had bikes, and hoping the map we were carrying held together.
We found the bikes around 10 and made our way back to the hostel, no longer having the energy to see the Red Light District.
The next day, we slept in and relaxed for most of the morning before going to a “Brown Cafe” which is an old and stratospheric bar known as The Hoppe. It was quite famous and old, but frankly, I didn’t find it unique. It was a pub. Leslie had a tuna melt and I had a meatball sandwich. It was good, but I was a bit let down after it had been built up so much in the book.
We explored a bunch of the other areas of the city while we had the bikes, but they had to be returned that night. Our last ride took us right by central station again, at which point some person with a backpack started walking right down the bike path, so I dinged my bell at them. Stupid tourist.
We had turned in the bikes on our last night in Amsterdam, but we weren’t quite done.
The Red Light District was the largest collection of streets dedicated to debauchery that we’ve ever seen. Pornographic movies, coffee shops, bars and live sex-shows lined up and down the street, but the most shocking thing had to be the prostitutes.
The prostitutes were actually standing in windows up and down the Red Light in lingerie. They’d usually be combing their hair or talking on the phone, but the more enterprising of the bunch would be trying to solicit Johns. They’d scan the crowd, make eye-contact and try to entice people to come in. One woman would knock on the glass, which drew everyone’s attention. When a guy came up to the window, the door would open, and they’d have a conversation. The guy would then go it, or not.
We wanted to see someone go in, but never did. I saw a negotiation fall apart once, and we saw a couple guys come out, but we never actually saw anyone go in.
Some of the smaller streets off the side of the main red light streets had nothing but these prostitute windows. Late at night, one alley had a line of guys in front walking quietly and staring. We were done and done.
This time, we took the tram back to the hostel. We didn’t get lost.
Next stop, Copenhagen, Denmark.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on  by bryan

Monday, July 30, 2012

Geneva – This Mr. and Mrs. visit the Mr. and Mrs. Living with Swisses

In Munich, a doner kebab sandwich costs $3.50. In Geneva, it costs about $12. Welcome to Switzerland.

Thankfully, we had a great welcome to Switzerland thanks to our friends John and Danielle Dolin. They’re from the Seattle area, but live and work in Geneva for the moment. Danielle writes an excellent blog called A Mr. And Mrs. Trying to Live with the Swisses.
We arrived at the Geneva Airport train station on a Thursday afternoon. John met up with us and took us back to their place. It was great to see somebody that we had known for longer than a week.
Inside, their apartment was a little taste of home. We had enchiladas the first night, which was the first time we’ve had Mexican food since leaving the USA. All the movies and books sitting around the room were in English. And thanks to the magic of SlingBox, they had actual American television. It was not recorded, or on tape delay, it was actual American TV!
John’s another professional geek… er, software-guy, so we watched the entire Family Guy: Star Wars saga, fixed a hairy SELinux issue and took apart and repaired a broken external hard-drive. Good times, eh?
On Friday, Danielle took the day off and we took a boat across Lake Geneva to the little town of ___ in France. It was a neat little town, but we walked across the entire thing in about ten minutes. Fortunately, we found a crepe place and a restaurant called Le Pirate. My sister called that night, so we spent a good chunk of time talking on Skype.
Saturday really gave us a clue as to what it’s like to be a couple Americans living in Switzerland. Specifically, it means shopping in France.
The southwest part of Switzerland sticks out into France. It’s kind of like the Tennessee panhandle, except with much more chocolate. Combine this with the fact that everything is ridiculously expensive in Switzerland and you end up with people crossing the border to do grocery shopping.
So John, Danielle, Leslie and I were joined by another Dolin by the name of Carty. Carty is about the size of our backpacks, but on wheels and designed to hold groceries.
Our first stop was a nice little market, where we picked up a bunch of veggies for dinner and throughout the week for the Dolins. We were also going to do a meat, cheese and veggie lunch so we were looking to pick up items to flesh out the lunch. Sausages, olives and fruits were pretty simple, but when we tried some samples of bread, we just had to get some.
It had been baked that morning, was warm to the point of gooey-ness and full of thick, rich flavors. Personally, I liked the chocolate, but Leslie wanted orange. We ended up getting two slices of bread. Unfortunately, it was sold by weight and thick, gooey bread isn’t light.
We paid $16 for two slices of bread. Ouch.
Later that day the four of us went to check out downtown Geneva. (Carty decided to stay home).
Geneva was a beautiful city. We saw the UN and walked down the shopping district and around the point of the lake. It began to be apparent that something was happening when we were going over a bridge by the lake.
Throughout most of Europe, drinking in public is allowed. Picturesque bridges often end up being hang-out places for younger people to congregate and drink. This was true in Geneva as well, but it seemed early, and the bridge was packed.
Then we saw a couple people dressed exactly alike. Then some people dressed up like animals. Finally, we saw a stand selling mojitos for $15 and it looked like a festival.
We soon learned that it was “The Lake Festival”. It’s a parade of clubs on wheels. We found ourselves a pretty good viewing spot and watched a dozen or so of these clubs on wheels go by. They were sponsored by local companies (often a bar or dance-club) and usually had a DJ on board. The better ones had something to help them stick out. Some had all the people dressed in similar colors, one had a pirate theme and another a foam-machine. I got some pretty funny pics of the foam-machine party-bus with most people dancing and one girl desperately trying to get her head out of the foam.
That night, we headed back for some of my famous mac ‘n’ cheese.
Our last day with the Dolins was quite lazy, but it was great. Sitting around on a nice couch for an extended period of time is just something that doesn’t happen for us all that often. Throw in US TV and some illegal pulled pork and we told John and Dee we may be moving in. Lazy days like that aren’t easy for us to come by right now.
But alas, as Ben Franklin put it, houseguests are like fish, both stink after three days.
Monday morning we were on our way. We really wanted to see more of Switzerland, but it is so darn expensive that we decided to do it in a day. We started with a trip to Lucerne, which is a small town in the center of the country. It’s supposedly the most postcard-worthy town in Switzerland. After seeing all the covered bridges we could see why. We stayed all of two hours in Lucerne, carrying our packs the whole time. We got three pieces of reheated pizza to go for lunch. $15.
A few more hours on the train took us to Zurich, which is known for being a finance-center and is developing a following as a young persons clubbing area as well.
We walked through the high-rent shopping district, saw Europe’s biggest clock and walked around a park. For dinner, we just got things from the grocery store. We ended up finding a dock where one of the river taxis stopped and ate across the street from the “Felding” club (or something like that).
The felders were boaters. Their boats looked like rowboats that were about 4 times the length. Two felders would be in a boat at any given time, one in front, one in back, both standing. They had huge oars that they’d use to paddle. Bouys had been set up around the canal, so they’d race around the track. I assume they were going for speed. There was a group of 20-somethings and a group of 60-somethings. After they were done, they sat drinking beer in front of the felding club. It was fun to see people of different generations bonding over a common activity like that.
Alas, we had to leave. Zurich looked great and I would have liked to spend a couple days, but its really expensive, and there’s a ton of other places I want to see that aren’t.
So our final day in Switzerland ended at 9:00pm as we boarded the dreaded night-train.
Next stop, Amsterdam.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Like Bamberg, Freiburg is another quaint German town. The university town is nestled between vineyards and hills. Its cuteness factor was overwhelming but the city itself felt a tad bit bigger than Bamberg.

We arrived via train around 5pm and booked it to The Black Forest Hostel. Now, it would not be a Bryan and Leslie adventure without getting lost, so after that we finally found our hostel. The hostel had an industrial feel to it with cement floors and counter-tops. The kitchen at this hostel was one of my favorites so far as there was a dishwasher. First hostel we’ve come across that had this and it was pretty spectacular. The hostel was situated right below a vineyard.
After settling into our hostel we walked to the market to purchase our typical travelers lunch for dinner. As we were walking we noticed there were hardly any cars and most people were on bikes. Later I learned Freiburg is one of the most sustainable cities in the world after talking with an Australian guy who is traveling around the world in an effort to visit many sustainable cities.
We only had one full day in Freiburg, but we went to bed without a plan for the following day anyway. The comfortable bed, the clean duvet cover, and earplugs made for a good nights sleep, and I woke up refreshed from the previous travel day and ready to explore.
We ate my favorite breakfast, Muesli and fruit, and then made our way to the center of the city. There were tiny medieval canals throughout the entire city which added to the already established character. We people watched while drinking coffee across from the famous Munster Cathedral, purchased fresh raspberries from the daily market, bought me a new pair of sunglasses (I’ve already gone through five), and debated whether or not to ride the cable car to the top of Schauinsland Peak in the Black Forest Highlands, eventually deciding it was a good idea.
After arriving to the cable car via tram and bus, we finally made it. It was just like any old cable car with wonderful views of the city from afar. After a half hour, we made it to the top and found a cafe to sit and enjoy the views. Thankfully, while sitting at the cafe talking about our travels, we decided the 12 Euro ride into the Black Forest was worth it since we rarely pay entrance fees.
We read about a brewery in Freiburg that supposedly had great views of the city and headed in that direction after walking through several cute narrow alley ways that made Bryan want to pinch their cheeks.
The entrance to the brewery started with a cave at the bottom of the hill. You can either walk up the hill via the pathways or take the elevator. We took the lazy way and went up on the elevator and back down on the path.
The brewery held up to its standard of having great views, but not necessarily good food or beer. It was okay but nothing to write home about. The beer garden was massive with panoramic views. On one side we could see the big clock tower and the downtown area and on the other we had a view of a vineyard and our hostel below it. We stayed until after sunset and then headed “home” for the night.
Freiburg was wonderful, but the time had come to see the Dolins and hopefully get a little taste of home.
Next stop, Geneva, Switzerland.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on  by leslie

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bacon Beer in Bamberg

It’s really easy to spend all your time going from big city to big city. This is especially true in places where the cities are easily recognized, like Germany. Names like “Frankfurt”, “Berlin” and “Nuremburg” are hard to miss, but we can’t make it everywhere. The world is a very big place. Plus, smaller cities usually have friendlier people, are cheaper and let you get closer to the culture of a country.

In other words, we wanted to get into “small town Germany”.
We had a leisurely breakfast hanging around “The Tent” our last morning in Munich. A tram took us to the train station and we purchased some lunch for the train. For Leslie, that meant a pretzel. For me, a Doner Kebab. Doner Kebab is meat roasted on a rotating spit, then served in flatbread with tzatziki, lettuce, tomato, onion and optional spice. This one was chicken and cost €3.50, or about the same price as coffee on the train.
Three hours later, we found ourselves getting off in “small-town Germany”. There seemed to be a single main-street leading away from the train station, so we took it. Two minutes later we asked for directions and found Bamberg Backpackers Hostel right around the corner. It’s much easier to find your hostel when the town is the size of a postage stamp.
Apparently, Bamberg is a popular destination for Germans. As a result, it was almost completely empty. The Germans will book in advance for weekend trips, so everybody evacuates on Sunday evening. There were the two of us and two American girls when we arrived.
The hostel was nothing special, but wonderful for the two of us. We’d been hot, sweaty and bitten by bugs throughout Italy, and while “The Tent” in Munich was quite nice, it was still a tent. Here, we were inside, in a normal-temperature where we confident there were no mosquitoes. It was awesome.
Of course, there’s a ton of small towns in Germany, but Bamberg stuck out to us for two reasons. First, it hasn’t been destroyed in any of the wars. Of course, WWI and WWII pop into Americans minds when we think wars in Germany, but Napoleon, the 30 Years War and a plethora of other battles have meant that most of the older architecture in Germany has been lost to antiquity. Bamberg is the exception.
Plus, they have bacon beer. Yes, you read that right… bacon beer.
It’s not actually called bacon beer, but Rauchbier, which literally means “smoked beer”, but people come from far and wide to behold the bacon-y goodness. In fact, when we checked into our hostel, they gave us a map and marked down about a dozen breweries. We later learned that there’s about 50 in Bamberg.
So off we went, in search of food and the local delicacy.
Bamberg is quite small. So small that we spent no money on transportation for our entire time there. We could walk the entire thing.
First, we found ourselves walking through a quaint little shopping district. Cobble-stoned streets combined with kitch-y little shops mingled with large department stores as we walked through the city-center. It had a definitive German style to it, even if the shopping district was quite polished and new. There were a few churches and old buildings scattered throughout, but most of it was very modern.
It only took a couple minutes to walk through the shopping district to get the Old Town.
It was so cute I wanted to pinch it’s cheeks.
We took a little covered bridge across a river to get into Old Town. Streets didn’t go straight for more than a block and were usually at a gentle curve, with shops and restaurants all along the side, but we did have a mission. The man at the hotel had marked one specific brauhous as the one we had to go to.
When we got to the place he marked on the map I felt we had reached town center. There was an intersection of two cobble-stoned roads. Cars could come through but the bikers and walkers were more common. Each of the four corners had a different restaurant on it, with two of the four having large outdoor seating areas in the intersection. One of the others had people spilling out the front door onto the sidewalk. Eventually, we picked one and made our way to the biergarten (beer garden) in back.
One of the running difficulties we’ve had is with menus. We have a Rick Steeves language guide for Italian, French and German, which has a menu-decoder, but only about 1/3 of the words in the menu are in the book. It makes it quite difficult to know what we’re ordering. We have tended to order a lot of sausage in Germany because it’s one of the few things we understand on the menu, although we’ve learned 95% of German food is some combination of meat, potatoes, onions and dumplings.
Fortunately, the biergartens provide a solution. Everyone sits in picnic tables set up end-to-end so they’re almost one long table. We ended up sitting next to a German couple who offered to help us when it became apparent that we didn’t know what anything was.
As a result of that knowledge (and the fact we’d made few purchases that day), we ended up ordering a single item that was recommended for two people.
First, the waiter brought two bacon-beers and a round ceramic device that looked like a big ash-tray with wholes in the side. There was a candle in the middle. The beer was some of the darkest we’ve had since arriving in Europe, and actually tasted like bacon.
A few minutes later, the waiter brought an entire cast-iron pan filled with food and placed it on the ceramic candle, which is apparently for keeping the food warm.
Inside, on top of a bed of sauerkraut we had roasted pork shoulder, ox-tail, half a duck, knodel (German-style dumplings) and a zwiebel. The zwiebel ended up being Leslie’s favorite, which is an onion with most of the inside layers replaced with a meat-loaf like dish. Personally, I liked the pork shoulder, which still had the skin on it. The phrase “pork rind” finally made sense. We were stuffed. It was good, but a little too much meat for Leslie.
The next day we wandered the rest of the city. Our main destination was Kirche St. Michael, which is an old Baroque church, although we really wanted to get there because we heard it was the best spot to see the entire city from. I found it very German that there was a biergarten serving from the back of the church.
The walk down took us along the river and over another unique walking bridge before taking us through some of the more residential parts of the city.
We had dinner at another brauhous (brewery), this one having been opened in the 1400s. Leslie got another zwiebel that was even better than the night before. I think it was called Osterhaus, but I’m not sure.
Throughout the day, we had been discussing whether or not to remain for a third night as the food was good, the cost-of-traveling was relatively low and it was all-in-all a great little town. That said, we decided against day 3 because we had walked over the majority of the main sights in the course of two days.
We also had our friends John and Danielle Dolin that we were supposed to meet in Geneva, Switzerland after two more nights. I didn’t think we needed two more days and if we only stayed one than we wouldn’t be able to see our next place for more than a day. We generally consider two the minimum.
So that said, we made the decision to leave our quaint little German town and move onto another, close to the Swiss border.
We woke up on day three, made a quick stop by the post office, purchased a six-pack ofOsterhaus Rauchbier for the Dolins and got back on the train.
Next stop, The Black Forest. Frieburg, Germany.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Munchen our way through Munich

The train ride from Venice to Munich was a 7 hour journey and it was wonderful. Since we are over the age of 26, we had to purchase 1st class Eurail tickets. This means we always have air conditioning, nice seats, and the satisfaction of knowing we don’t have to be around loud college kids. I always look forward to the train rides, as long as it is not the overnight train.

Everything was wonderful except for one thing, we had no idea where we were going to stay. We waited until the last minute to start looking for a hostel in Munich, because we didn’t think it would be as expensive as Italy or France. We were wrong. Most of the hostels in Germany seemed to be pretty inexpensive, except for Munich. Munich was up there with Italy and France, except for one place. The Tent. The Tent was 10 Euro a night per bed on hostelworld. Supposedly, it was just a huge tent. Hostelworld described it as a “100 bed dorm room” in “campsite”. I was sick of bugs, but we put it in the back of our heads as a last resort if we couldn’t find anything once we were in Munich.
We walked up to a hostel, and they were completely booked, but they knew somewhere that had beds… The Tent. It was only about 20 minutes on the Tram outside of downtown Munich, and I’m very happy we decided to go there. There were three circus tents in the middle of a city park. One of the tents had 300 beds, the second about 100, and the third were just sleeping mats which was only 7 Euro. We decided we could scrape up the 10 Euro and purchased the beds.
The Tent had everything we needed. It had nice showers, outlets, a bonfire, a nice cafe with good food, 4 Euro 1 liter beers, good music, wireless, and good people. It was an awesome little piece of Bavaria.
Bavaria is in the southern region of Germany and is known for having a bit of Mediterranean flair. Take Germany’s industriousness, punctuality, and attention to detail then add in a dash of siesta.
The next morning we explored downtown Munich after purchasing necessities such as facewash, toothpaste, and deodorant in the underground metro shopping centers. Things like that had been a chore to track down in Italy. In Munich, we stumbled backwards and found what we were looking for.
Later we saw a cool fountain, went to an outdoor REI like store called “Globetrotter” and visited Frauenkirche (a huge cathedral).
Frauenkirche contains “The Devil’s Footprint”. The legend is the architect made a deal with the devil, agreeing to build a cathedral with no windows in return for enough funding to complete the project. When the cathedral was completed, the builder showed the devil his “window-less” cathedral and the devil accepted the deal as complete. But the builder was a crafty fellow, and there was only one spot in the cathedral where you can’t see windows, which is where the devil was shown. Realizing he was tricked, the devil stomped the floor, leaving “The Devil’s Footprint”, which is an actual footprint in the entrance-way of the cathedral.
But most importantly, we went to the Hofbrauhous House.
The Hofbrauhous used to be the Royal Bavarian Beer Hall and Hitler gave one of his earlier speeches here. Now, it’s just the ultimate cliche of Munich Beer Halls (as Lonely Planet puts it). It had long tables, a beer garden, 1 liter beers, bratwurst and sauerkraut, and pretzels of course. I absolutely loved their sauerkraut here. It was a lot more mild than what I’m used and was homemade, at least it tasted like it was.
We left the Hofbrauhous and headed for the store to find water. In Germany, you pay for the bottle in hopes that the person purchasing the container will recycle and get their money back. So, the water was 1 Euro but we paid 25 cents for the bottle. As a result, you find no containers on the streets and everyone recycles in Germany.
We went back to The Tent and had dinner there as it was much cheaper than going to a restaurant. Dinner at The Tent is different every night and they usually only have about 1 or 2 on the menu. I ordered rice with a creamy mushroom sauce and Bryan had dumplings with similar sauce. We were surprised at how good and “real” it was for a place called “The Tent.”
The next morning I woke up looking forward to breakfast as I always enjoy Muesli, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, and coffee. The Tent had these and much more, each with an individual cost. It was 40 cents for a slice of ham and 30 cents for a hard-boiled egg. We purchased the items at their individual prices, and filled our bellies for 6 Euro total.
After breakfast we were hoping to do a day trip with our Eurail passes to the Neuschwanstein castle, unfortunately this day turned into one of those where everything goes wrong. We arrived to the train station 20 minutes after leaving The Tent and realized we forgot the Eurail pass, so we went back 20 minutes to get it. An hour later we were back at the train station and were told the train leaves from platform 30. We arrived to platform 30 and the girl told us it was the wrong platfrom. By the time we asked someone else, our train had already left. Turned out it was platform 30 and the girl was wrong. So, we then decided we’ll check out one of the breweries instead as it was already 2pm.
Bryan had asked one of the guys at the hostel which was the best of the smaller breweries in Munich. The guys said “Giesinger”, looked it up online and marked it on our map. It took us about an hour to find the Giesinger brewery and when we finally arrived, it was nothing more than a brewery. There was no taproom and no beer garden, just six guys making beer. The master brewer came out with his apron and told us he could not let us have any there. Fail.
So, we went to another brewery recommended highly by one of The Tent employees, mostly because we knew there was food and it wasn’t a place many tourists go. Something finally went our way as the food was good, the beer was even better, and the ambiance was what we were looking for. The waiter did not speak very much English, so we deciphered what we could, and again, ordered sausages.
We took some pictures in front of the hops before making our way to a bookstore where we knew had a large English section. Bryan needed to find the fifth book of the series Games of Thrones, and I am finally reading Harry Potter, so I needed books 3 and 4. Success.
We headed back to The Tent and enjoyed some delicious barbecue. They were barbecuing sausages, steaks, corn, and more. I have never eaten so many sausages in my life before, but when in Germany I guess.
The next morning saw us making our way to the English Gardens. The English Gardens consisted of street musicians, several beer gardens, 5 girls on what Bryan and I named octobike (see picture), a couple naked people in the river, people floating down the river, and people surfing on the river. It was quite the spot for people watching and took up most of the day.
Bryan was saying that he tries to be cool and act nonchalant when there’s a bunch of naked people just hanging out in the park, but it’s still surprising. Outside, it’s easy to act cool, but inside you’re head’s saying, “there’s naked people over there! We’re in the park and they’re just hanging out naked!”
Later we tried to find a restaurant we wanted to eat at in the gay district and instead came upon a lesbian festival. Turned out the beer garden was being run by the Geisinger brewery we didn’t have the opportunity to try the day before. We’ll take it. The festival was okay, a couple stands and a blocked off street.
After leaving the festival we found the restaurant but decided it was too expensive, so we went back to The Tent for another barbecue. It was the perfect night to our last day in Munich, but it was time to get a bit off the beaten trail.
We decided we wanted to see small town Germany, next stop Bamberg.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on  by leslie

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Venice – The Last of Italy

Venice had the reputation of being the most expensive city in Italy so when we had the chance to stay at a campsite for €11 per bed we booked it for four nights. We made that decision a week and a half ago in Rome. The plan was that we’d be leaving a nice Italian villa in Tuscany, so we wouldd be ready for a few days in the woods. I had expected to splurge on a nice Italian feast our last night in Tuscany. As it turned out, the feast was for the mosquitoes, and we were the main course. Camping had sounded like a lot more fun a week before.

First we took a shuttle provided by the villa to the local train station, then a local train to Florence and finally a fast train to Venice.
We showed up around 2:00 in the afternoon and left our first-class, air-conditioned train to begin making our way to our hostel.
Venice was beauCtiful. Upon leaving the train station we immediately found ourselves alongside the Grand Canal. There are no cars or trucks in the old-town of Venice, but a combination of cobble-stoned streets and canals. There are no buses, but a local-boat that you can take to get yourself up and down the canal. That transportation vessel is joined by tourist boats, showing you all the basic sights, boats full of goods to take to the shops in town and of course, the gondolas.
All that said, there was no boat to take us to our campsite, so immediately upon arriving in Venice, we left. A couple minute walk along the Grand Canal saw us over the “new” glass bridge. It was beautiful, but the steps were “off”. Stairs in the USA are very uniform, so much so that walking up the stairs is almost exactly the same for every staircase. When the steps are long or extra high, we have a tendency to trip.
We took a “People Mover” off of the main Venetian Island and onto another where we found a shuttle to take us to the campsite, just hoping that the little “Air Conditioned” line on the website meant that somehow, we had an air-conditioned tent waiting for us.
The “Jolly PLUS” campsite was actually pretty nice. It was also huge. There was room for about fifty R.V.s, a couple dozen mobile homes and about 100 “tents”, which were canvass walls on top of a metal frame. A communal bathroom and laundry building was centrally located. They were not air-conditioned and featured holes in the side, also known as “mosquito doors”. We changed our four night reservation to two.
There were positives though. There was a restaurant, bar, market and swimming-pool on-site. It meant that we were in a nice little resort-like place, but it could have been anywhere in the world. We didn’t get out into Venice that night, but booked the shuttle for the next morning.
The next day, we purchased granola and yogurt from the little market for breakfast and took the 9:00 shuttle to Venice along with about 50 other tourists from the campsite.
We soon found ourselves back at the train station, except this time, heading into the meaty part of the city. We had purposefully avoided getting a “plan” for the day, as Venice really isn’t all that big and our main goal was to get lost.
Two minutes later, mission accomplished.
The streets of Venice are small, winding, crowded and hot. The Grand Canal is probably 75 meters wide, but most of the canals are much smaller, barely wide enough to have two ski-boats pass in opposite directions. We followed one of these, just to see where it went.
The first spot the street went was to a gelato shop.
It wasn’t long before our little walk-way bent. We found ourselves climbing up and over small bridges in order to get over the canals. They arched high enough for small boats to get underneath, but a man standing on a gondola only had about a foot of space between his head and the bridge.
We found a nice plaza right next to one of the canals, so we stopped for an espresso. While we were sitting, a shipping boat pulled up and stopped. It was low, but quite long and weighed down with boxes and baskets of goods. A man came up with a cart with three sets of wheels on it. Two were on the ground, and two stuck straight out in front, about a foot off the ground. There was no mules, horses or other beasts-of-burden that so often carry goods. These were 100% man-powered.
Once the boat had filled up the man’s cart, he took it immediately to the bridge we had come over. He pushed the six-wheeled cart up to the stairs until the “useless” wheels hit the stairs. He then used them for leverage and in a well-practiced, walking-like motion pushed his wheeled cart up the stairs, then down the other side.
One of the highlights had to be wandering into the shop of a traditional masquerade mask maker. A proper Venetian mask is made out of paper mache, then hand-painted. The cash register doubled as the man’s workbench and you could watch him paper-macheing and making the masks, with a plethora of partially completed masks sitting around him. He didn’t seem as concerned with whether or not we purchased his masks as much as he wanted to make sure we didn’t get any that had been made in China, like the touristy shops sold.
Soon after, we found a large square. There were restaurants where people purchased wine and sat outside, a fountain where a woman was watering her dog and a bunch of Germans throwing a frisbee. We purchased some fruit from a grocery store and ate under a tree. Soon after, we ate a couple pieces of pizza sitting next to a canal. A man who ran one of the gondolas sat nearby smoking cigarettes, hugging to the shade. We had wanted to do one of the gondola rides, but as they ran €120 or so we decided to pass. That’s more than our daily budget. I don’t think that gondola-man had any interest in pushing the boat through the hot sun either.
The sun, bug bites and the fact that I had been sweating for two weeks straight began to get to us. We made our way back to the other side of the Grand Canal, where everything became much more touristy in order to see what it was like and look for air-conditioning.
We walked back a bunch of shops selling gadgets and whatnot until we saw a restaurant adverting AC.
Stepping in was like stepping into a little slice of heaven. Air-conditioning had been rare ever since entering Italy. While there, we met Dr. Arun Sangal, who is a LASIK surgeoun in Dehli, India. Leslie had LASIK before we left, and will need a six-month eye checkup around the time we get to India, so we may be making an appointment.
I knew that Venice was one of the places that Leslie had really wanted to see, so I asked her if she wanted to stay a couple more days, but thankfully, the answer came back no.
The canals of Venice had been fun to see, and the city was gorgeous but we were done. I was dreading leaving the air-conditioned room and heading back into the sun.
We’d spent nights in Milan, Rome, Napoli, Tuscany and Venice and had not had a single one with air-conditioning or a fan. Napoli was the only place we slept where we weren’t worried about getting bit by mosquitoes. It had been a constant battle to remain cool and bug-free. Even the poorer countries of Southeast Asia provide you with a fan and a bug-net. On top of that, Leslie’s allergies had been acting up and we couldn’t get a refill of the albuterol inhaler she had.
Of course, I’m glad we got to see it, and we’ve had some great experiences, but the drive to see new and interesting things was waning, replaced by the desire to get somewhere where Leslie’s allergies weren’t so bad, we weren’t going to be bitten by bugs, and I would stop sweating.
It was time to go north.
A quick glance at my watch showed that if we hustled we could make it to the next shuttle, the campsite and the all-important swimming pool. I thought we had time to stop and see if a bookstore had the fifth installment of the Game of Thrones series I’d been reading as well. They did not have the book. We missed the shuttle.
After another hour of cooking in the hot sun we got the shuttle back to the campsite and a seat by the pool.
Next stop, Munich, Germany.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tuscany – Relaxing… and skeeters

I have never seen so many bites on Bryan in my life. Usually, I am his repellent and he never has to worry.

A couple days before the bites, I got off the train in Empoli wearing one my sandals and one of Bryan’s. People were giving me weird looks all the way from Naples to Empoli, but I didn’t care as my blister was incredibly painful. It was a blister on top of a mosquito bite and it would not tolerate any shoe except flip flops. Unfortunately, Bryan threw my “danger” flip flops away two weeks earlier, so I had to wear his. It was about two times larger than my shoe size and I could barely walk, but at least my blister was able to breathe.
We arrived in Empoli, a little city in the region of Tuscany, at around 4:30 pm. The hostel we were staying in was about a half hour up the road in wine country. We were supposed to be picked up from the station at 8:30 pm, so we needed to find a place to hang out for awhile. We made the mistake of sitting at a cafe in the train station because they had air conditioning but ended up paying way too much for a crappy sandwich and a bad tasting glass of wine.
I couldn’t walk very well with the flip flop, so Bryan hunted for a good place to buy new ones and another cafe with air conditioning and wireless. It was a successful hunt, and he came back with a look of pride on his face. The cafe he found was a garden with a greenhouse within. We were surrounded by tomato plants, flowers, and nice lady who saw me taking pictures and told me to follow her. She showed me another little garden area in back and then pointed to the bathroom and said “beautiful.” I couldn’t understand how a bathroom could be beautiful until I entered this one. As soon as I opened the door, it automatically started playing meditation type music. There was a ground level water feature that went from the “sink” to the toilets. The sink was cement with a pipe to wash hands and homemade soap that smelled like floral. It was pretty cool…I think I’ll have one like this in my future house.
The cafe closed at around 7, so we needed to find another place. About a block away from the station we found a place with cheap pasta and olive oil on the table. Actually, having olive oil on the table was not unique to this restaurant as it was in most restaurants we ate at in Italy, Spain, and Morocco. One of the best things about traveling through the Mediterranean, olive oil is cheap.
8:30 came quickly and we soon found our driver. Patrick was a New Yorker who had been traveling the world for the past five years and started working at the hostel 2 months ago. I didn’t care for him too much as he was just so intense and serious about everything and not really friendly.
The drive to the hostel was stunning. Windy roads, vineyards, and the typical Tuscan houses surrounded us. It was exactly what I had imagined Tuscany to look like.
We finally arrived to the “hostel” but it was more like a villa. We were high up in Tuscany and everywhere we looked there was a splendid view of hills and vineyards. The place was owned by nice man named Guido and his wife, a local Tuscan family. They didn’t speak a lot of English, but we still managed to communicate with them when needed. There was a lot of character to the villa, including vases filled with wine corks, unique decorations, and of course, mosquitoes.
After leaving Naples, we were desperately hoping for no mosquitoes and fan/air conditioning. Italy is hot in the summer and at that point none of the hostels we stayed at in Italy did not provide even a fan. We thought for sure they would have something. Nada…there was nothing expect one window.
We went to bed with the windows closed as we had seen about a thousand mosquitoes as soon as we arrived, and I never exaggerate. I woke up at about 3am feeling overwhelmed with heat and could barely breath due to stuffiness. It was either mosquitoes bites or window. We chose window. I woke up and saw close to 100 mosquitoes flying directly above me, and this time I’m really not exaggerating. I have never seen so many in my life. I calmly woke Bryan and told him to look up. He said something like “oh my.” Once again, I had all the bites and Bryan only had a couple.
We ate breakfast and then walked about a half hour up the windy road in an effort to find a grocery store. We were passed by several highly trained bicyclists. Originally, we were thinking about renting bikes for the day. I’m so glad we opted out as I would have died trying to ride up those hills. There were also no sidewalks, and we intelligently decided it would not be a good idea to walk those streets at night.
The views, Tuscan houses, and nice lady behind the counter at the deli made for a nice journey. She had us sample about a half dozen lunch meats and Bryan could not have been happier. We left with two bags filled with meats, veggies, fruits, yogurt, and then we quickly made our way back down to the villa.
We put our food in the fridge and immediately headed for the pool. The pool was probably the best part of the place as it was an infinity pool with a stellar view of Tuscany. It was also a nice break from mosquitoes because for some reason they did not like the pool area. Guido was very strict about making people with long hair wear caps, so as you can imagine, I looked fantastic in my pink shower cap.
Later that evening, we ate pasta with our new Australian friend, Andy. Andy is traveling solo for 4 months, but prior to leaving, she got engaged. As we were making conversation and getting to know each other a bit, Bryan asked if she ever felt home sick. She immediately started crying and said yes. She had recently been ill, which always makes me feel homesick, and she talked about wanting to share the same traveling experiences with her fiance. While traveling solo is empowering and a wonderful thing to do, I can’t imagine not having Bryan by my side. There’s just something wonderful about having the person you love by your side, even if that person is reading a book, the other is listening to music, and there is no conversation at all. With that said, we all feel homesick at times (I’ll write a blog about this later), but then there are times when you get to see the alps via train, or you get food like you have at home and the sickness slowly fades away.
By the way, Guido’s wife was a fantastic cook, and the two meals we ate there were by far my favorite meals in Italy. I’ve never had pasta that tasted so good. She definitely knew how to work with spices.
The following day was mostly spent by the pool, skyping with family, eating another great Italian meal at the Villa, and reading. Later in the evening we watched the Euro cup final (Italy vs. Spain) on Bryan’s laptop with our Californian roommates, Nathan and Jasmine. We talked about going to a bar in town but it would have been too expensive as there were no buses. The Italians lost 4-0, which was the largest margin for a European Cup final in history (Bryan informed me of this). We all agreed it was better we didn’t go to the bar.
After trying to sleep in the blistering heat the previous night, we all decided it was best to keep the window open all night. The bug spray we bought smelled too good for it to be effective, but we put it on anyway. I woke up feeling like I had a good nights rest, so did Bryan. A couple hours later, I realized I was bit about 20 times and then I looked at Bryan. I have never seen so many bites on him, ever. He was bit about 20 times each on his arms, legs, chest, and feet. He finally understood what it was like to be me. For the record, anytime I started itching my bites, Bryan grabbed my hand and tried to control me. Let it be known, Bryan is far worse at itching than me. Since he doesn’t have any nails, he was itching with his credit cards, backpack, keys, and found other odd items as well. The boy was uncontrollable! Although I felt bad for him, it was kind of nice not being his repellent for once.
We left the villa the morning of the bites, and we were really hoping for an air conditioner or a simple fan in our next hostel. We were not so lucky.
Next stop, beautiful Venice.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on  by leslie

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Rules to Combo Buster

So this has nothing to do with traveling.   This is a card game that I learned in college. It’s pretty easy once you get it, but it has a bunch of rules.   I’ve been asked about them a couple times, so I proudly present to you, the ULTIMATE RULES TO COMBOBUSTER!!

In the interest of accuracy, I’ll acknowledge that this game is also known as “The Bomb” and I’ve heard it called “Cambodian Poker”. The correct name is Combo Buster.


The game is played with a normal 52 card deck with four players. It will not work with five or three. The odds for the cards would be off. Deal out all cards. Each player should have 13 cards. To start, organize your hand low-to-high.


The goal of the game is to get rid of all your cards. The game does not end when the first player wins, but continues until all players except one have gotten rid of their cards. That player loses the round.


The game only has four players. Whoever loses the round needs to vacate their seat at the table and allow a new person to join.


Whoever won the last game goes first, unless there’s a new player. If there’s a new player, then whoever has the 3 of clubs goes first. They must play the 3 of clubs.


The first player to lay down cards sets trump. They can play either singles, pairs or runs (of at least 3). The player to the left goes next, and must follow trump, but higher.


  • If trump is pairs, only pairs can be played. No 3-of-a-kinds.
  • If trump is runs of 3, only runs of 3 can be played. No runs of 4.
If a player cannot play higher cards in trump (or chooses not to) they must knock. Once a player has knocked, they are out for the round. They cannot enter the trick later.
The trick is over when three players have knocked.


The player that wins the trick can “climb the ladder” if they choose. That means they can lay down as many cards as they want as long as they keep trump. For example, if they win the trick with a pair of 8s, they can play a pair of 10s, Jacks, etc.


    • Spades
    • Clubs
    • Diamonds
    • Hearts
Hearts are the highest. The highest card is the only one that matters.


  • In singles, the 8 of hearts beats the 8 of diamonds.
  • A run of three that is 7-8-9 ending with the 9 of diamonds beats a 7-8-9 ending with the 9 of clubs. The suit of the 7 and 8 are irrelevant.


Twos are high, but cannot be part of a run.


  • In singles, a 2 defeats an Ace.
  • A pair of twos defeats a pair of aces
  • You cannot play a run of King -> Ace -> Two


Aces are higher than a king, but lower than a two


There is one wild card, it is the 3 of Spades. It cannot be a two, but can be any other card. If played as a single, it beats the Ace of Hearts, but loses to all 2s. It will defeat all hearts in suit order.


  • A run is played: 5 -> 3 of spades -> 7
  • In pairs, the 3 of spades and an 8 will beat the 8 of diamonds and the 8 of hearts.
  • The Ace of Hearts is played as a single. The 3 of Spades is played as a single. The 2 of Spades is played as a single.


Combo Busters defeat all trump and can only be defeated by a higher combo buster. Combo Busters are:
  • Run of Three Pairs (6,6,7,7,8,8)
  • Run of 9 (not 8, nine)
  • Four of a Kind (set of 4)
  • A Combo Buster can be defeated by a larger ComboBuster. Measure by the highest card in the Combo Buster.


Super Combo Busters defeat a Combo Buster. Super Combo Busters are:
  • Run of three 3-of-a-Kinds (6,6,6,7,7,7,8,8,8)
  • Run of Four Pairs (6,6,7,7,8,8, 9,9)
  • Run of 10
  • Five of a Kind (four plus the wild card)


These defeat the super combo buster
  • Run of Five Pairs
  • Run of 11
  • Run of four 3-of-a-kinds(6,6,6,7,7,7,8,8,8,9,9,9)


I’ve never heard a name of this one actually, but it belongs here. It defeats the Super Duper Combo Buster is basically an automatic win as it will get rid of 12 cards and allow you to start the next trick.
  • Run of Six Pairs


The Dragon is legendary. I’ve been playing for years, have only seen 2. Theoretically, it can be defeated by a bigger dragon, but is basically an automatic win.
  • Run of 12


If you win 3 in a row, you get a Turkey! If you lose three in row, you get a Dunce.