Sunday, July 31, 2011

July 31 - Prague (written by Jenny)

Our second day in Prague and as soon as we get out of the hotel we know it will be a better day than yesterday. With the sky still grey but with less rain, we can walk without the use of umbrellas. I can appreciate this gorgeous city a whole lot more when I can look up and see things! And did I mention I love the night trains? Go to sleep and then wake up in a new place! And what a time saver! We have two full days in Prague with just one night because we didn’t have to use our days for travel. I love it!

We did so much today I don’t know where to begin. I guess I should start with the mundane; we got a new camera. It had to be done because there’s no way we could go the rest of this trip without it. But it seems like every two years we have to buy a new camera on a trip. I know we’ve done it at least three times. But it’s worth it so we can save our memories. Plus, it wasn’t that arduous. We researched a bit last night and then got a Canon PowerShot (the European version, at least). It seems to work just fine for what we need.

The fun stuff began with climbing the tower at the Old Town Hall in the square. This is the tower with the astronomical clock, and it has an amazing view of the city. You can see all the way to the castle and the Petrin Tower, with all those lovely red roofs speckled with towers and cathedrals along the way. While we were up there, the hour passed, and not only did the clocks go off below but a trumpeter came out and played the traditional tune that is played every hour. I grew to love that sound. I came to dread it too, as it meant another hour past. But it’s always a lot of fun to hear the trumpeter and see his red and yellow flag-like sleeve wave in the air when he’s done. There are lots of neat traditions that they carry on these days. Another one is the uniformed guards at the Charles Bridge towers and at the castle. It’s like going back in time.

We made our way to the Charles Bridge, always stopping along the way to look at shops or take pictures of whatever caught our fancy. We finally began to know our way through the streets that wind around closely packed buildings. But every street is charming, with cobblestones and beautiful old architecture, so even when we get lost, it’s OK because we enjoyed everything we saw around us. We found a spot just south of the bridge that juts out into the river, which allowed us a great shot of the bridge and castle: a great view for self-portraits.

On the other side of the bridge we found the John Lennon memorial wall. We’re not sure why there is a John Lennon memorial wall in Prague, but I suppose it’s because he did some cool things here or lived here at some point. Anyway, it is a living monument where people come along and paint or write whatever they want in remembrance of the beloved Beatle. Unfortunately, the message has degenerated over the years as other kinds of graffiti often obscure the original message. Who knows? Maybe that was the original intention and John Lennon wouldn’t have minded. It was a pretty neat thing to see, anyway.

A block or two away was another interesting cultural piece: an iron fence covered with locks. Again, we couldn’t figure out the purpose of this site, but we loved the idea of people adding to the artwork by donating locks. Throughout our trip we saw other similar collections. I think I overheard someone say that lovers lock their promises at these places. How romantic!

Our next wanderings led us through the “Lesser Town," up the steep hills toward the castle. The walk was a bit arduous, but we knew it would be worth it. We headed to the Strahov Monastery. I had seen some pictures of the chapel here, and it is gorgeous, so we thought we’d give it a try. It was a bit disappointing, though, because we paid about $3 for each of our tickets but didn’t find out until the end that we weren’t allowed to even go into the chapel. We saw several other beautiful rooms, some with paintings on the ceilings and ornate pulpits, even a funeral casket. Sorry, we often couldn’t read the descriptions, since they were in Czech. We did get to peer into the chapel from an outside door with windows, but we couldn’t really see much.

Afterward, on our way to the castle, we stopped for a quick lunch and encountered another stern waiter. This one just outright said that he had no tap water. Yeah, right. No matter, the castle was stunning! We started by seeing some gorgeous views of the whole city from the hilltop. The castle gate had two motionless guards in light-blue uniforms, one on each side. Once you walked through the gate, you were standing at the foot of a huge cathedral with ornate details. We could go into the cathedral, but we didn’t feel like paying for pricey tickets. Pictures from the back were fine with us. It was stunning enough from there. Stained-glass windows in mosaic styles showed the twelve apostles. Vaulted ceilings drew our eyes upward, and the pulpit was magnificent, even from a distance. We took our photos, but they wouldn’t allow Andy to use his tripod, which is typical for these places.

Outside we walked around the cathedral. We couldn’t learn much about the details, but it was lovely all the same. From one point, on our way out of the complex, we looked down again at the city. Not far from the castle, but at the bottom of the big hill, we saw a place that was all black and looked burned out. We decided that when we got down we’d look for that spot, and we’re glad we did.

We walked down the old castle stairs. There are also the newer castle stairs, but these seemed a better idea. We found our way to the building that was surrounded by a wall. Before too long we spotted a doorway. To our surprise, there was no entrance fee, so we just walked in to discover a beautiful garden. There was a lovely pool of water and hedges that formed pathways toward that burned-out area. On our walk through, we spotted a white peacock with her two chicks: a gorgeous bird with a crown of feathers on her head and the two chicks sticking close to her all the time. We got a bit sidetracked from our objective. We loved watching those peacocks.

Getting back on track, we meandered through the hedges to a back garden area in front of a large building marked “Senate.” Oh, so this was where the Senate meets, which kind of explains why the gardens were free. And just beyond the Senate building, we found the spot we’d been looking for. Only it wasn’t a burned-out building. It was actually part of the garden, and the black stuff we thought was charred remains was actually an artificial rock wall. It looked like it had been melted and dripped on. It had stalactites of dripping rock mingled with greenery and flowers. The placard said that it was meant to convey a blurring of artificial and natural elements. And that there were faces of monsters mixed into the rock to add a sense of mystery. We had to look hard, but we finally saw those creepy faces in the wall. What a creative addition to the garden! Nearby, owls kept a close eye on us from a large cage. And not far away, an alcove leading up to a building contained gorgeous paintings that hung form the ceiling. We were glad that we were led to this beautiful garden.

On our way back to the Charles Bridge, we found a spot by the river where we could photograph that romantic walkway from another angle. Not far from there was a real treat: a Franz Kafka museum. Though we didn’t go in, we were able to see the interesting sculpture in the courtyard of two naked men peeing. Yeah, it’s pretty much exactly what you expect, except the men were green with stripes, like they were created with layers. Andy, of course, was enthralled and made a video of it from several angles.

On the other end of the Bridge, just as we were about to come off of it, we heard music and saw people lined up looking over the edge. Well, of course we had to investigate! Though it was hard to see over the people, we caught a glimpse of two ballet dancers on a travelling boat stage who were practicing their art before a group of enthralled tourists. Andy found a good spot from which to see, so we stayed and watched for a few minutes. I love finding musical performances spontaneously, especially such beautiful ones. It’s these kinds of things that add the magic to each city.

We made our way back to the old town square to pick up our camera and get some dinner. We wanted to try the little stands selling ham on spits and sausage over the open fire. It just looked good and we thought it must be a bit cheaper than other places. Well it was tasty but not cheaper. Still, we got our fill of great food and then got some chocolate from a nearby shop. Really we were just waiting for the town hall clock to chime again. I wanted to get some good footage of the twelve apostles that circle two by two from tiny little doors every hour. This time was much better than yesterday because there wasn’t a bunch of umbrellas in the way. Andy got some great footage and, once more, we saw that wonderful trumpeter.

The last thing I wanted to do in Prague before getting on our night train was to get a good picture of the Charles Bridge and the castle at night, all lit up. So we took one more walk. While we waited for the darkness to come, we heard more music coming from the stage on the river. There was a lovely soprano opera singer performing a beautiful piece. Right afterward we saw another ballet couple performing something a bit more edgy (I could tell from the style of the woman’s red dress). I know these weren’t spontaneous shows, but I loved them anyway. We did capture some beautiful shots and then it was time to go. We knew we would miss this lovely city, and we wanted to preserve our memories.

From here, we took our first underground back to our hotel, grabbed our bags, and got right back on the metro. Our goal was the train station at the other side of town. Of course we were there a bit early so spent some time writing and editing photos. The train came right on time and we grabbed our sleeper cabin and got ready for bed. But the next thing we noticed was that we were stopping in the train station near our hotel. Shoot! That meant that we could have spent about another hour out in the city instead of going all over town and waiting at the first station. Well, there was nothing we could do about it, so we settled in for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we hit Budapest, Hungary. Another new city, another new undiscovered country!

Day 8 | Day 10

Saturday, July 30, 2011

July 30 - Prague (written by Andy)

We woke up an hour before pulling into the Prague station, with just enough time to organize our gear and freshen up. Splurging on a private compartment on a night train may be bad for our budget, but I surely loved the quiet and privacy of the trip. Best of all, we'd traveled plenty of miles without losing an opportunity to spend all day in a city about which I knew almost nothing. Our only disappointment was the drizzle that drifted down from grey skies. At least our hotel was near by, a block away from the station. And the manager let us have a room, though we arrived at around nine in the morning. Right away we opened our laptops to gloriously free wifi, looked up a few Czech phrases, and picked a path to the Old Town.

Now if you've read this far you'll note that we use that phrase to describe the premodern center of a town where stone walls and narrow alleys typically surround a square a cathedral and other religious sites. That's what I expected from Prague. And since Jenny and I had crossed a facsimile of Charles Bridge at the 2010 World's Fair, I added that item to our itinerary as well. Otherwise I had no clue what to expect. What we found: block after block of centuries-old buildings, winding cobblestone streets, and cheery outdoor cafes. We'd turn one corner and see something even more beautiful: marionettes on display, folk dancers in the central square, hidden walkways that formed interior passages, flag draped battlements marking garrison edges, and stone castles set atop distant hills.

Before long we joined a crowd waiting under the astronomical clock, all of us hoisting umbrellas in the light rain. For our patience we were rewarded with animatronic apostles that rotated above us. To mark the time, a trumpeter in medieval costume played triumphant notes that echoed across town. I felt sorry for patrons of a restaurant behind us, though. The advertisement for Great View of Astronomical Clock likely didn't forecast the presence of thronging tourists standing in front of the tables to snap photos.

We sat down for a tasty lunch at a nearby cafe. Our waiter took one look at our white socks and Jenny's preference for tap water and treated us with disdain. Jenny made no friends in the restaurant's WC, either, especially after asking why we should pay to pee after already committing to buy a pricey lunch there. We'd miscalculated the exchange rate between dollars and koruna, and we dreaded the final cost of our meal. Later on we'd find that the cost of sustenance in Prague is not quite as awful as we initially suspected. It's merely insane.

I'd seen signs for something called the Museum of Communism; the image of a sweet Russian nesting doll baring fangs caught my attention. Jenny agreed that any indoor activity would offer a nice diversion from the rain, so off we went in search of the place. As many other visitors have noted, there is a certain irony in the placement of a museum dedicated to the Czech Republic's communist era: near a casino and above a McDonalds. Nonetheless the site is worthwhile, featuring a mocked-up classroom where a red kerchief-wearing girl is reciting some koan of Marxist dogma, an industrial workplace where the New Socialist Man is reminded that "Timely Arrival to Work Deals the Decisive Strive Against the American Aggressors!" and a bleak interrogation office where a desk lamp shines into the eyes of anyone unlucky enough to be dragged within. After a film commemorating the violence, upheaval, and courage that led to the events of 1989 the museum concludes with a walk along an ersatz Berlin Wall.

Later on we made a pilgrimage to the "Ginger and Fred" building, also known as the Nationale-Nederlanden building. In classes where I introduce postmodern architecture to my students, this is a go-to image. At the same time I've always felt a bit strange discussing a place I'd never seen personally. It was therefore a special treat to make our way toward the river's edge and see it for real. From there we followed narrow streets in search of spray art (a guilty pleasure of mine) and a restaurant called the Iron Curtain. I heard the owner had fashioned a clever retro-Communist enclave there. The place could easily be called The Dungeon, because the restaurant is built in a dark, almost cave-like, underground set of rooms. The ambiance is somehow perfect, with paintings of Mikhail Gorbachev competing with Maggie Thatcher, and a collection of Soviet-era posters that calls to mind the creepy optimism of a future that is now abandoned on history's ash heap. The food was pretty terrific too, especially for the uncharacteristically reasonable cost.

The weather continued to coat the city with a depressing pallor, a feeling intensified by the growing realization that our travel camera had ceased emitting occasionally quirky noises when the lens was extended and had finally died. Here we are, I thought, in freaking Prague, and our camera has gone kaput. I remembered a similar crisis in the Australian outback when we had to settle for a cheap plastic film replacement after another camera bit the dust [literally - One sharp gust knocked our tripod to the ground and we were without a means to take pictures of the amazing places we were seeing]. Hell, we had to replace a much more expensive camera just two years ago after a similar bit of bad luck! Somehow we regularly manage to offend the travel gods. Fortunately Prague abounds with tourist conveniences, including two camera shops across the same road. The next day, we decided, we would pay the price and get a decent travel camera for the rest of our trip. And who cares about a little rain?

Day 7 | Day 9

Friday, July 29, 2011

July 29 - Frankfurt to Prague (written by Jenny)

Today was going to be an exciting day for me. As a brief background, if you’ve known me a while you know that in 2007 I travelled with my company, Seagate, to New Zealand for a team-building adventure race: four days of training on bikes, orienteering, repelling and rowing and then a day for our team to race against 20 or so other teams through the wilderness. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. But when it was over, I didn’t think I’d ever see some of my teammates again. They were four guys from around the world: one from Milpitas, California so I have seen him a couple of times at employee meetings, one from Colorado who we actually met up with once in Miami when we happened to be there at the same time, one from Singapore and one from Ireland, though he is actually a German now living in (drum roll please) Frankfurt! Yes I actually put Frankfurt on the itinerary so that I could see my old teammate, Torsten and I was quite giddy with anticipation. But he and his family were not available until the evening, so we spent the day exploring more of Frankfurt since we didn’t get to see much the night before.

Also because we’d been on the road for a week already it was time for some laundry. The nearest Laundromat was about one kilometer away, or about .62 miles to you and me. We took the U-bahn to keep things simple. The laundromat itself was an interesting adventure. Not only was it all in German but you’re expected to select your washer and dryer, and pay at a central station on the wall (not at the machine itself). So it took us a few minutes of studying, guessing, and putting the puzzle together to figure out how to make one of the machines run. But we conquered it and felt pretty good about ourselves afterward. Once the clothes were in and we verified that water was actually pouring into the machine we were free to roam the streets - well, for 40 minutes anyway, until the cycle was over.

We were in a shopping district on Zeil street, and as we walked we saw malls and markets along the way. In one stall of an open market, we saw some men cooking sausages, all laid out on a big round grill hanging by three chains. The men were swinging the grill across a fire pit, presumably to cook the sausages evenly. It was pretty neat. Once the wash was done and dry, we stopped back at the hotel to pack, shower, and check out. We still had all afternoon to explore.

Just a block or two away from our hotel was the old town square that had been destroyed in the war. Romerberg, as it’s called, has been restored and has amazing old architecture that looks like new. Andy’s main goal of the day was to get a good picture of the buildings in this square, which turned out to be no easy feat. For one, the sun was in and out of the clouds all day so sometimes we’d have good light and sometimes not. Usually not, actually. Secondly, there were quite a few more people in the square than during the previous night, so composing a shot that didn’t involve people dominating the picture was difficult. We returned to the square several times, each with varying results. Finally, later in the afternoon, the clouds cleared away enough that Andy had a good window of opportunity to get his shot.

One of our stops during the day was Paulskirche, a church located about a block from Romerberg with a long history as both a religious edifice and a political one, where parliament was actually held at one point. Many important decisions in Germany’s history were made there. Paulskirche was ravaged by wartime bombings and fire, but afterward the mayor rallied the city to restore it as a memorial. Now it has been redone, with displays and a video on its history, a circular mural right in the middle of the main floor, and a bright, airy upper room that contains a lovely pipe organ. It was an interesting history lesson for us.

After Paulskirche it began to rain - and it wasn’t the light California rain we’re used to. It was more like the heavy thundershower type we had in Florida growing up. We ducked under the umbrellas of one of the pubs in Romerberg and had lunch: sausage and sauerkraut for me, again! I love that stuff. But, here’s the other edge of the sword of the orderliness and rule-following that we love about Germany. I asked if I could have half sauerkraut and half potato salad (a request that is usually accommodated here in the states) and I got a stern “no, no.” OK, no changes to the menu. I get it. Luckily, the rain didn’t last long and we were on our way again after lunch.

We wandered around for a while longer, saw a giant Euro symbol, kept trying to take pictures of the Romerberg square, found some open markets and narrow alleyways to enjoy, and stopped for a quick refreshment. Here, I got another dose of that double-edged sword. Andy got a cappuccino type drink with a lovely cube of dark chocolate on a stick for stirring. The chocolate was very tasty, and since I don’t drink coffee I asked the waitress if I could get just the chocolate. “No, no, no” was her reply before she walked away. OK, I have to learn my lesson better, I guess. Oh, and the Germans hate it when you order tap water, even if you’re getting a big meal. They want to sell you a bottle are are delighted to charge a premium if you’re the slightest bit vague about your preferences. When I am clear that I merely want tap water, I get dismissive glances. Oh well, I want what I want.

Late in the afternoon we went to see the Dom, which is one of the few cathedrals around in this largely Protestant country. It was a real treat. The inside was quite ornate like most cathedrals, and it had the most interesting pipe organ. Some of the pipes stuck out and curved outward to look like a couple of waves next to the vertical ones. It was very cool looking. The organist played interesting music, though most of it didn’t sound religious (and sometimes it didn't sound like music at all). It was more dirge-like, a conglomeration of dark sounding chords. But his playing revealed another set of pipes away from the main set. This was a bit surprising and lent well to the coolness factor of the whole organ. How many of you get turned on by pipe organs? I’m betting a least a couple!

Finally it was time to go and meet Torsten and his family. We waited patiently at the end of the iron bridge called Eiserner Steg. Then I saw him bounding up in a green t-shirt to give me a big hug. What a thrill to see someone I never thought I would again. It’s kind of like magic in a way, but then in another way I felt like it was meant to be. Have you ever experienced that? His little girl, Maya, came running up behind him. She is two and a half, adorable and so full of energy! Torsten’s girlfriend (Maya’s mom), Layla, came up after with the stroller. It was wonderful to meet her and introduce them all to Andy. Pleasantries done, we walked across the bridge together and sat down at a nearby restaurant on a boat for a quick refreshment. While the adults chatted, Maya explored, ran away as much as Layla would let her and played with her tiny stuffed dogs. She had three of them. Though each wore different colored hats, they were otherwise indistinguishable; she’d named them all “Jasper” – so cute! Maya sat on my lap for a while and we played with her stuffies while I half-paid attention to the conversation. Years of multitasking at work pay off!

Torsten and Layla then took us to their neighborhood, a short walk along the river. We saw ducks, geese, and swans, and Layla showed us a nearby island that serves as a bird sanctuary. Maya insisted on feeding the birds, so we took a few minutes to throw bits of bread out to them. Torsten then carried her on his shoulders as we moved on. In their neighborhood, Torsten and Layla found us a great authentic German restaurant where everyone sits outside at long tables to enjoy sausages, cured pork, pig knuckles, and sauerkraut. It was a great place with wonderful food (I had the schnitzel). Torsten and Andy got along famously. Of course, I knew they would get along as great drinking buddies. Torsten recommended biers and Andy drank them. It was a winning combination. Maya was a constant bundle of energy. She had too much to do to sit still. A gentleman pointed out a playground across the street, so we took turns taking her over for a few minutes at a time. Otherwise, we talked and ate and drank and had a great time.

Later on, Torsten walked with us back to our hotel to get our bags and help us decipher our train ticket while Layla took Maya home. Once we discovered we didn’t need to be to the train station until 1:00 am, and since the train station was right next to their apartment, we had extra time to hit a pub for some more conversation. This time the boys ordered apfelwein, a cider for which Frankfurt is famous. Then Torsten mentioned his bottle of LaPhroaig back at the apartment. Great. That’s Andy’s new favorite spirit, since he discovered it in Scotland. Torsten insisted on taking us back to his place so Andy could enjoy one last small drink. So while I worried about getting to the station on time, Torsten and Andy got more and more relaxed. Torsten would look out off of his terrace to see if our train was on the track, reassuring me that since it wasn’t there, we had nothing to worry about. I trusted him - mostly.

Finally and unfortunately the night had to come to an end. Torsten walked us to the station and made sure we got to the right place, and then we said our goodbyes. I don’t know if I will get to see him again, but I’m so grateful for the wonderful opportunity I had to see him and meet his family. Plus, if they ever come out to California, he knows we have a place for them to stay. Andy and I got to the train just fine and into our sleeper cabin. Andy was, of course, out like a light in a couple of minutes. I lay awake a while longer, remembering the wonderful times we just had with our friends in Frankfurt. I absolutely love seeing friends and this is now my favorite part of the trip (sorry bagpiper). Tomorrow we will be in Prague, Czech Republic, starting a new day and a new adventure!

Day 6 | Day 8

Thursday, July 28, 2011

July 28 - Humburg to Frankfurt (written by Andy)

Sleeping in: such pleasure, such rarity! But today we splurged and allowed the morning to drift by for two hours. And why not? Aside from plans to visit Miniature Wonderland - the purpose for adding Hamburg to our itinerary - we had no specific agenda for this town. Nonetheless, Jenny and I agreed that we'd stumbled onto a lovely place. A working place, yes, with plenty of construction projects and a palpable sense that architecture must first be functional before it can be beautiful, but also an undeniably delightful place to walk. We bought a day pass for the U-Bahn, knowing that no one would check to see that we paid. What a difference from London, when every coming and going requires some queue to pass through a ticketing barrier. Jenny added to our reflections on the town by commenting how much she loves the German appreciation for punctuality.

I could therefore hardly be surprised to find at the Miniature Wonderland a long line to enter, counterbalanced by "fast pass" tickets for reserved times later in the afternoon. While I dreaded the prospect of shifting our visit so near our planned departure, I couldn't imagine an alternative. So we snapped up two early afternoon reservations and commenced to wandering the town some more. Aimlessly we crossed canal after canal and ambled as our instincts led us. Whatever caught our eyes - a sculpture, an outdoor market, or an interesting piece of architecture: that's where we'd direct our feet.

A couple hours later, though, we both were ready for a break. That's when I realized we'd paid for day passes and were hardly using them. I looked at the map and noticed a museum in a nearby suburb, Volksdorf, that appeared to showcase German rural life. Jenny was game and, about a half hour later, we were there. As much as we enjoy Hamburg, the difference between a relatively big city and this small village provided a calming respite. Figuring on the time it'd take to return, we estimated a window of only about 20 minutes to enjoy this place. Fortunately we had no difficulty finding the museum, which offers free admittance to folks who merely want to walk around the grounds. We loved our visit.

Our final stop was Miniature Wonderland, a fascinating collection of tiny worlds with blinking, moving, storytelling versions of places whose actual expanse exceeds the singular gaze. The place was packed with camera wielding folks jockeying for position to take snapshots - especially of the new airport with traffic-jammed departure roads, moving fuel trucks, and jets arriving and landing every few minutes. Best of all, like any great miniature attraction, lights dimmed and brightened to produce the effect of night and day. We stayed as long as we could, determined not to miss our train for Frankfurt, yet I am sure we could have wandered those cramped walkways all day and never discovered every little visual gag or clever depiction of everyday life, both simple and fantastic.

The minutes ticking away before our departure, we walked along the waterfront to a metro station. We'd grown comfortably accustomed to the efficiency and speed of the trains that whisked us through the city. After finding our hotel to grab our bags, we tramped back to the underground and then to the train station. There we snarfed down yet another meal of sausages and potato salad before boarding our train. Our bags were growing tighter as our collection of souvenirs continued to grow. At the same time we both felt more connected to each zipper pocket and hidden compartment, having spent so much time living out of our luggage. Traveling experts will tell you that "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium"-type tourism is a shoddy way to see the world. Heck, I'd agree. But Jenny and I love the newness of our experiences, where every day brims with fresh delight. Thus a little more than three hours later we found ourselves bumping along the cobblestones of Frankfurt's medieval center. Our hotel was merely a block away and we had a new place to discover.

Day 5 | Day 7

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 27 - London to Hamburg (written by Jenny)

Today started out pretty easy with just a flight from London to Hamburg, Germany on the docket. We slept in and got a late breakfast at the hotel, and then it was back to Gatwick to catch our flight. So far we’ve been flying EasyJet on these short legs, and we were skeptical because we’d never heard of them and because they have a strict one carry-on bag policy, which is lame since we never check bags. But we’ve actually been pleasantly surprised with their efficiency, attention to safety, and courteousness. So, today was an OK travel day.

Riding the underground (the U-bahn and S-bahn) was just as easy as in London, and it brought us within a five-minute walk of our hotel, which was within a block of a tall TV tower that is quite noticeable from most spots in the city. This hotel has a great location, but the architecture suffers from the lameness of the “International” style. It’s a big square glass box with lots of smaller boxes in alternating shades of light blue and white. If I were to see it in San Jose or Tampa, I would think it was really old and run down.

Thankfully when we got in it was clean, very neat and orderly - just how a German hotel should be. Speaking of which, we noticed the high German standards of efficiency and cleanliness right away and knew we would like this country. Andy said that this is what a country is like when people pay their taxes. Made sense to me, but I have also always heard of the German culture being this way, so I ascribe it to their history and way of life. I salute the Germans for that and for all their clocks (It’s nice to always know what time it is)! Anyway about the hotel: the room was more spacious than our London room and was comfortable and quiet.

We didn’t really expect to do much in Hamburg, but having arrived shortly before dinnertime we knew we had to get out and explore; and I had a hankering for some German sausage with sauerkraut. When we asked for a map from the nice lady at the front desk, she circled the city center for us and pointed out the correct underground to get out there. After another pretty easy U-bahn ride, we arrived in a beautiful downtown area with modern buildings alongside the old historic ones. There were a few spires of different cathedrals shooting up among the more modern buildings. And we were alongside a waterway.

It looked like a lake that connected to canals that crept through the city. As we walked, we came to several open-air tents, like a market. Sure enough, most of them were restaurants selling delicious looking food. I saw big vats of sauerkraut, as well as potato salad and some sort of mushroom concoction. And, yes there was sausage – lots of it. We were looking at each tent, trying to decide which one to patronize, when we heard an accordionist and guitarist playing German standards. Well, that one would be the one for us, so we found a seat. We each got their best sausage with kraut or potato salad on the side (Andy’s not a kraut man) and satisfied our cravings for that great German food.

For the next few hours we wandered the streets, taking pictures and seeing the sights. We came across the church of St. Nicolai, which had in its courtyard a memorial to those who were interred in the prison camps during WWII. The church itself had been bombed out and its walls are in ruins. Andy and I talked about a country that wrestles with many conflicting feelings about that war.

When the sun started going down, we went to a section of town I hesitate to tell you about. It is the St. Pauli Reeperbahn [Learn more]. This section of town, from what Andy researched later, is the most famous red-light district in the world. Because Hamburg is a major port town, sailors have traditionally come here in search of a good time, and they found it here. The Reeperbahn has since been gentrified, but there are still plenty of sex-shops, brothels and peep shows for any sailor.

Andy and I were just there for the neon, I assure you, and we saw plenty of it too. This section of town has also gained traction with the local punks, and we would see packs of them with spiky hair, chains, leather - and dogs, always dogs. In a way, we felt transported back to the ‘80s, but the punk movement remains a popular sub-culture in Germany. It was at least an interesting evening. But, don’t worry, we were quite safe; there were plenty of tourists our age and older folks photographing the décor and even taking tours. That was a bit surreal.

So, we really felt like we got to know Hamburg, and we liked it! I had never even heard of it before, but it is really a rich and wonderful town with lots of layers of culture. Tomorrow we would see even more. Andy has one thing he came here for: a “Miniature Wonderland.” If you’ve followed any of Andy’s writings, you’ll know that one of his major interests is “tiny towns.” We’re hoping this one fits the bill for him. Plus we’ll get to see more of Hamburg!

Day 4 | Day 6

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 26 - London (written by Andy)

Today began with proof that I've got the coolest spouse ever: We took the tube to University College London (South Cloisters building) to see Jeremy Bentham: founder of utilitarianism, theorist of the panopticon, social reformer, and corpse. I read this fellow first in grad school, following up on Michel Foucault's citation of Bentham's panopticon as a "humane penitentiary" whose design for anonymous control would provide a model for much of the discipline of contemporary life. And while yesterday I settled to photograph a statue of Thomas More, today I could see Bentham's actual body - though missing the head.

Bentham, you see, left instruction for his body to be placed in an upright box and dressed in one of his suits. He hoped for his head to be preserved enough to be mounted atop his body, but the postmortem procedure didn't work. A wax replica rests there instead. So, where's the head? In a vault maintained by the College, a safeguard against it being stolen by student pranksters (as they did in 1975). Happily, Bentham's head was not used as a soccer ball, though a myth to that effect endures even today. Gazing upon the box, which Bentham named an Auto-Icon ("A man who is his own image") hardly inspires reverence. The idea strikes me as quite silly, actually. Still, there I was, with Jenny waiting patiently, setting up my tripod to shoot photos. Students walking by have seen it before and hardly paid us any attention.

Later in Hyde Park, we spotted a troop of horses making their way toward Buckingham Palace. Jenny was smitten right away; we ditched our itinerary and joined the crowds. Amazingly we arrived a half-hour before the changing of the guards. However, the fence was already lined with hundreds of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever was going to happen. Well, it turns out that unless you arrive early enough to peer through the bars of the fence, there really isn't much to see. At least we could enjoy the band music and watch the horses clomp by. Finally when the guards had finished their ceremony a police officer informed us that the "next big thing" would occur in about 30 minutes. We'd had our fill of Buckingham Palace and began head back. Bobbies wagged their fingers and scolded jaywalkers with a "no, no, noooo," but they didn't care when we crossed anyway. What with all the fences to manage the crowds, there were few legal options.

For the next couple hours we strolled along Hyde Park, grabbing lunch at a cafe near the Serpentine, standing inside a cool, dark umbrella tree; sniffing roses on the Princess Diana Walkway; and gazing upon the Art Nouveau monument to Peter Pan. Then, after a brief stop at our hotel, we headed back to the Thames and its pedestrian walkway that leads from the recreated Globe Theatre to Tower Bridge. This was my favorite part of London. I love walking through narrow alleys and imagining myself a time traveler to an older version of the city, with each dripping pipe or pasted advertisement a sign of that alternate universe. Jenny, thank goodness, tolerates my passion for urban wandering. We also spent a bit of time bumming around the Tower of London, checking out a free movie near the information desk. Naturally I spent a few moments gazing upward to the room where Thomas More supposedly spent his final days before facing the executioner’s axe. We couldn’t abide the obnoxious pricing of the Tower, but we’ll surely add it to our plans when we return.

We wrapped our day up with a show at the West End’s Victoria Palace. While I'm not much for musicals, Jenny managed to find a performance that we both could enjoy: Billy Elliot. Weirdly enough, I think I enjoyed the show even more than her. The language and occasionally bleak themes, not to mention the melancholy conclusion (before the big dancing finish, of course) just don't gel with Jenny's sensibilities. As for me, I enjoyed the evocation of time and place found in the performance, especially in the hilariously over the top Act Two opener, "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." Once the show wrapped up, we strolled back to the tube and returned to our amazingly quiet and comfy room amidst the noise and spectacle of London. Tomorrow we depart for Germany, launching a new leg of our European adventure.

Day 3 | Day 5

Monday, July 25, 2011

July 25 - Scotland to London (written by Jenny)

It was our last morning in Scotland, and we wanted to make it memorable. So we got up at 5:15 a.m. and set out across the countryside for one last castle: the Castle Urquhart (pronounced “Erkhart”) on the bank of the famous Loch Ness. Just the thought of seeing that famous loch and perhaps catching a glimpse of the legendary monster, Nessie, was enough to justify the early morning. The drive was a couple of hours, and we saw more sheep and more cows (though no highland ones with the bushy hair in their eyes). We also saw more quaint towns. As we drove along the length of the loch, we kept our eyes open for Nessie – just in case.

The Castle Urquhart was, again, mostly ruins; the last inhabitants had blown it up. But being perched on the shore of the loch made it enchanting somehow. Andy and I wandered around the grounds, taking pictures and enjoying the view of the stone walls against the water. It was truly a Scottish dream. Only one thing was missing for me: a bagpiper. Can’t you just imagine what it would be like to have a real bagpiper dressed in his kilt, standing on a hill with the castle behind him, and producing that unique, beautiful music? I could, and that faint sound of bagpipes in my head seemed to grow louder and louder. But, wait! That sound was not in my head. I was sure I heard the bagpipe, so I went to investigate. Then it was gone. Just, a minute or so later, I heard it again. I ran through the castle entrance and saw him.

I called to Andy to come quick. I was mesmerized by the music. Andy came and took pictures and video, and several others stood up beside the piper to get their pictures taken. All I wanted to do was hear him play. It was like magic to me. I don’t know why but the sound of bagpipes playing is one of my favorite sounds. Later, he played again, inside the castle right next to the loch. We had spent a few minutes chatting with him and discovered that he is also a Fraser. That certainly got Andy’s attention, especially when our new friend corrected Andy’s pronunciation of the family name. We told him we were from California and exchanged a few stories. We had to keep an eye on the clock - our London-bound flight would be leaving soon - but we stayed long enough to hear him play a bit more. To my delight, he played my favorite bagpipe piece, “Amazing Grace.” He then played “Scotland the Brave,” a standard Scottish favorite, followed by Yankee Doodle (which made us Americans laugh). I swear, my eyes were tearing up, I was so happy. This was the best ending to our Scottish visit. As the piper belted out his last piece, Andy and I shook his hand and said our goodbyes. I was still on a high from that experience for a long time after.

The flight to London was uneventful – exactly what you want a flight to be. And then we were there: London! I had always wanted to come to this city, so this was quite exciting for me. We rode the Gatwick Express from the airport to the Victoria station. From there we hopped on the tube. A couple of quick stops delivered us just two blocks from our hotel. We stayed at the Byron, just north of Hyde Park. It is a quaint townhouse style hotel. The room was small but comfortable and even had a window you could actually open to let some cool, fresh air flood into the room. How often do you find that anymore? And it was quiet, which pleased Andy.

Right away we decided to take a walk. I wanted to really see London, so we set out across Hyde Park toward the Thames River. The park was lovely with lots of green, some statues, and people strolling about. It was a beautiful day. At the south side of the park we found the Prince Albert Memorial, all covered with gold leaf and intricate carvings. After the park, we made our way through the Chelsea area. When we got to the Thames we were surprised to find one of the things Andy wanted to see, a statue of Thomas More. Andy took a few photos and then we decided it was time to find something to eat. We came across a typical London pub wand enjoyed some fish and chips (this became a bit of a staple for Andy). We love the malt vinegar!

Then, it was time to really see something: Big Ben! For this we had to plot out the underground tube route, which turned out to be pretty easy. We love metros when we tour a big city. We set our sights on Westminster Station, and when we finally arrived and found the exit, we saw Big Ben towering above us. It was quite stunning, offering much more intricate detail than I expected. We wandered around for a while, walking past Westminster Abbey, crossing a bridge across the river, and studying the London Eye on the other side. Along the way, Andy noticed one of those shell game swindlers and wanted to watch for a while. There were also merchants selling trinkets and crunchy caramel covered peanuts. With all our stopping and looking, it took us probably a half hour to cross that bridge.

When we got to the other side we thought we’d just see what was up with the London eye. The lines didn’t look too long but we’d heard it was just an overpriced Ferris wheel. But the price didn’t shock us (15 pounds each) so we grabbed some of the last tickets they were selling for the day joined the late evening queue. They loaded us into a large plexiglass capsule with about 15 other people. It was big enough for us all to walk around and see the view from all sides. Up we rode, surveying a grand view of the city. Not only can you see Big Ben, the Parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey, you can also see Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral too. Since we rode it at night, we saw the city all alight under a black sky. Disembarking, we were tired, so we took the tube back to our hotel. The room was quiet and comfortable, and we left the window open all night.

Day 2 | Day 4

Sunday, July 24, 2011

July 24 - Scotland (written by Andy)

Sleeping in downtown Aberdeen is a risky proposition. The good news is that you can assure easy access to plenty of nightlife. The bad news: pretty much the same thing. We stayed at the Carmelite, a three story inn wedged among a couple of loud bars and karaoke joints (the "Hen Hoose" looked like an especially jumping joint). Fun, right? Only, closing time brought streams of lurching drunks cheering as if they'd stumbled into a football game. Various romantic entanglements and tough-guy staring contests rustled up enough shrieking, screaming, and crying jags to keep us up past 3 a.m. And when the inebriants finally slouched off, the seagulls picked up the slack, piercing the silence with shrill calls throughout the night. Aberdeen is, after all, a shore town. As a result, we slept in until one in the afternoon.

When we finally stumbled out of bed (well, technically Jenny woke earlier, but she succumbed to jet lag after writing out some postcards, figuring I'd certainly wake up soon) we confronted a dreary sky and sour moods. We couldn't find the car park, we couldn't find the proper way out of town, and we weren't sure if we had enough time to see Castle Fraser this late in the day. Nonetheless we plowed ahead, getting lost every three turns as bad luck seemed only to get worse. While, yesterday, cheery blue skies lit up the fields dotted with sheep and cast long shadows along the stone walls that march toward the hills, this afternoon seemed to bring only sullen prairies marred by lame suburban housing projects.

Jenny and I decided, though, that we'd best cheer up anyway, no matter what we'd find. And not too long afterward we made the final turn to the castle I'd so longed to see. As I've written elsewhere, I trace my lineage back through the Frazier line on my mother's side. Thus I was naturally keen on visiting a place associated with the family from which my people are an offshoot. Originally we hail from France, coming over with the Norman invasion in 1066. Later, my line traveled to Northern Ireland and then across the Atlantic, becoming Fraziers along the way. While I hardly expected a (distant) family discount upon visiting Castle Fraser, I was delighted that docents took a special interest in me, offering a personalized tour of some of the rooms and pointing out some of the castle's secret peepholes and escape hatches.

On the walls are hung portraits of famous Frasers, including Andrew Fraser, 1st Lord of the Castle. Again, though I have no direct lineage to this family - my line is most likely cast from a "cadet" branch - I still felt some pride and the sense that this place is, in a small way, part of me. Of course, the real experience of my Frazier-ness was to follow. Jenny and I enjoyed our tour (especially due to the endlessly engaging patter of one docent who was determined to interpret the meaning of every nook and cranny) learning to read a bit of my family's story from the icons carved into the stone walls. After the tour we had no other specific plans. At last we were freed from the pressure of having to get somewhere "on time," and we agreed that it'd be fun to drive north a bit, to cruise along the coast.

My mom once explained that any effort to understand myself as a Frazier must start by seeing the rocky shores of northern Scotland, a place swept by rains and marked by such isolation that one must learn independence early. And as the weather was suitably grim, with a hint of rain in the air, it seemed like a good time to follow mom's advice. Better yet, Jenny pointed out the fact that we were merely an hour or so away from a dot at the top edge of Aberdeenshire: Fraserburgh (with a suffix I'd learned at last to pronounce "bur-ah"). We were both up for some adventure, so we hit the road…

…And almost immediately pulled over to the Cock and Bull in Balmedie. Given our rush out the door this afternoon, neither of us had eaten. Fortunately this country inn was serving a swell three course meal with plentiful family style sides and tasty deserts (sticky toffee pudding for Jenny; fresh fruit and mango sorbet for me). Best of all, the proprietor offered me a snifter of Laphroaig, a single malt from the Isle of Islay. This is an especially "peaty" scotch, tasting of earth and firewood while being remarkably smooth. I ordered a dram and committed to finding a bottle or two for my return Stateside. Thereafter we found our way to Fraserburgh, and I stared out at crashing waves punishing the shore.

Fraserborough is quiet, gritty, windy, and cold. Maybe it's the romantic in me, but the place seemed just right. We cruised the streets, stopping now and again, once to take a snapshot of a statue commemorating crews lost in lifeboat disasters. We also took a moment to study the names of family members who died in World War II. Watching the seagulls beat their wings against the wind of that rocky beach, I thought about my mother's assurance that coming to Scotland would explain something about me. I'm so glad I came.

Day 1 | Day 3

Saturday, July 23, 2011

July 22 and 23 - Scotland (written by Jenny)

We landed in Edinburgh (pronounced “Edinbur-ah”) on Saturday morning around 8:40 a.m. But we met our first Scot while crossing the Atlantic. I sat next to Alistair on the plane and we talked for a good few hours of the trip from Newark. He talked about some Scottish history, his work as a platform designer for Chevron, and some places he recommended we see during our visit. His Scottish accent and gruff mannerisms were captivating. As we got off the plane he reminded us not to miss the Highland cows - he called them “ginger” with lots of hair hanging over their faces. We took a mental note to look for them on our travels. His conversation, and the fact that our flight from SFO began in the morning, meant that we got very little sleep on the flight. I got about got two hours or so; Andy got even less. So, it would have been quite understandable for us to grab a hotel right away and sleep. But not us! We had just landed in Scotland, where neither one of us had ever been, and we were ready for adventure, fatigue be darned.

We picked up a rental car and were ready for our first adventure – which, to our dismay, turned out to be Andy re-learning how to drive on the left-hand side of the road. We had done this in Australia, but it’s not as much like riding a bike as you’d like. Plus, this car was a manual, so Andy had the pleasure of learning how to drive with the stick in his left hand, something he’d never had to do before. That was probably the most challenging part, as first gear and reverse were right next to each other and were almost indistinguishable. Andy had his work cut out for him, but he managed well, except for maybe a few brushes with the curb. Another tricky part with driving on the left is that you tend to drift toward the curb without noticing. The passenger’s responsibility is to warn the driver when he’s getting too close. I did my best but wasn’t perfect by any means.

Our first stop (and official adventure) was about a half-hour away: Doune Castle. Not only did we start with an authentic Scottish castle, we visited the film location for many of the scenes of one of our all-time favorite movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Andy found it on the web and had the brilliant idea to visit. The managers of the castle play up this part of the history, selling Holy Grail beer and even giving you coconut halves to clap together as you playfully gallop around the courtyard. The audio tour that they gave us featured Terry Gilliam, one of the cast members of Holy Grail, narrating both the long-ago history of the castle, tales about Earl Robert Stewart and his family’s lifestyle, but also the more recent history of the Monty Python scenes that were played out in each room.

The servery and kitchen set the stage for Castle Anthrax and the many virgins tempting Sir Galahad. The upper room held the scene of the Swamp Castle played out between the King and his son who didn’t want any of what his dad had to give him, he just wanted to sing… ["Stop that, stop that!"]. The Great Hall was the scene of Camelot and the silliness that dissuaded King Arthur from taking his knights there. And the courtyard was where John Cleese fought off guards and guests to the Swamp Castle’s star-crossed wedding celebration. As Andy and I listened and took lots of pictures, we laughed and quoted favorite lines from the movie. Outside we walked the grounds, looking up to pinpoint the exact place where the Frenchman taunted King Arthur. It was a perfect first stop for the Wood Family.

By the time we left Castle Doune, we were famished; it was lunch time, and our last meal was a mediocre meal of airplane food served hours ago. The kind folks in the gift shop recommended a pub in the village, the Red Lion Inn. It sounded like just the place to grab some authentic Scottish pub food, and we were right. It was a great spot to join locals visiting to share a pint and some conversation. We had a lovely lunch of beef and ale pie, along with some fish and chips. Once we were done eating, the fatigue began to set in. But that was no deterrent. We had all afternoon to enjoy Scotland and we weren’t going to waste it! Besides it was only a two to three hour drive to Aberdeen where we had a room waiting, and we might as well enjoy the ride. But first we strolled around the village of Doune, taking in the local flavor and grabbing pics of the architecture.

From Doune we decided to take one of Alistair’s recommendations and drive the coastal road up to Aberdeen, as opposed to the inland road that Google Maps gave us. It would be a bit longer but a lot nicer. Plus, he said we should definitely stop in Arbroath to see the Abbey and the Declaration of Arbroath that was housed there. Apparently Scots believe that our own U.S. Declaration of Independence was patterned after this document. Well, of course a challenge like that has to be investigated, so we made sure to stop and see this document. The Abbey fortunately was also quite lovely and a joy to see, so it was well worth the stop. Built centuries ago, it is now mostly rubble, like a lot of these old historic places; Doune Castle was similar. But what is left is beautiful: stone walls and some rooms and a large old cemetery with tall headstones – not like the small flush-to-the-ground ones you see in so many cemeteries these days. These were tall headstones covered with carvings and scriptures.

Seagulls are now the current residents of the Abbey at Arbroath. There were quite a number of them perched atop an old stone wall, flying around and even wandering through the gravestones in an almost reverent way. One of the rooms we found was the sacristy. The person in the gift shop told us this room possessed great acoustics, and if you felt like singing that would be the right place. Sure enough when we got in there, though we really had no intention of singing, we could tell right away that there was an enchanting sound reverberation. Neither one of us could resist a few bars of “Amazing Grace.” Even our weak voices sounded heavenly there.

After some hunting we found the declaration. It’s a copy, but it still gives the impression of being centuries old. It has lots of strips of its cloth hanging from the bottom (much like a flyer you’d see hanging at the grocery store with phone numbers on strips cut into the bottom), each with a wax seal from one of the people who codified it, representing regions of Scotland at the time. Unfortunately, it was written in another language so I couldn’t read it or verify its role as a basis for our Declaration of Independence. Of course, the shopkeeper confirmed what I’d heard and assured me that if I read the translation next to our document, they would be strikingly similar. In the shop, I was able to find a portion of the translation, and the one similarity I could see was list of complaints the Scots had against the King at the time. I remember from my history that ours has a list of complaints against the King as well. But otherwise I saw nothing all that similar; more investigation is needed.

Continuing our journey up the coast, we decided to stop at a castle we had scheduled for tomorrow: the Castle Dunnottar. Unfortunately we got there a bit late to see the tour. This castle – or the ruins thereof – are set out on a cliff that’s separated from the mainland and mostly inaccessible accept for a small strip of land that joins it. It is high above the rocky shoals of Scotland, a gorgeous site to see. We came at the right time to photograph it in late afternoon light, just before the fog came rolling in. There was a bit of hiking needed to get out to it and to get to a nearby cliff that was perfect for photography, but it was well worth it. We said we’d try to return tomorrow to see it in its entirety.

By this point in the day I was falling asleep anytime I sat still for more than two minutes, but I had to navigate our way into Aberdeen – no small task. After getting lost a bit in that big city we found our hotel, the Carmelite in the center of town. We were quite hungry, so we had to head out again for a quick bite of dinner. Then, finally, we returned one last time to crash in our hotel. It had been an exhausting two days but entirely worth every effort. It was a great start to what promises to be an amazing three weeks.

Day 2